When Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, he might as well have been talking about paella. Everyone wants this Spanish specialty to be great when they place that hopeful order, but it so rarely is. Ask anyone the last time they had a great paella and they’ll probably say, “Well, a friend of mine said she had a great one last year in Spain.” Fine, but let’s talk local: U.S. restaurants are not often making mind-blowing paellas. In its purest form - in Spain, in an outdoor socarrat cooked by someone’s abuela - paella is a great dish. But in most American restaurants, what you get is a plate full of mushy, fishy rice and a big hit of saffron.
So why is it so often disappointing? It’s a difficult dish to execute in the restaurant setting due to the nature of its preparation. It requires a rich, expertly made seafood stock, a special socarrat pan (thin, wide and shallow), and it's dangerously easy to overcook the seafood. Can you find a passably good paella in a restaurant? Sure. But great? Good luck with that.