Food and wine
San Sebastián – A local guide to the very best pintxos bars
Few, if any, things are more peculiar to the Basque Country than true pintxos. We joined guide Sandra on a pinxto crawl from door to door in the food mecca of San Sebastian.
"I hope you're hungry," says Sandra says.
We are in San Sebastián, in the north of Spain. The coastal city of around 200,000 inhabitants has rapidly emerged as the number one destination for foodies from all over the world. Besides Kyoto in Japan, it has the most Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometre in the world.
But despite all the stars and accolades, there is one thing many people come to San Sebastián for: Pintxos.
200 pintxos bars in the old town alone
While Spain is generally more famous for its tapas, the Basques have their own version. The name pintxos comes from the Basque verb "to stab" and are easily recognizable by the toothpick stabbed through the dish. Unlike tapas, where you are often served several small dishes at the same time, pintxos is about eating the dish quickly before moving on to the next pintxos bar and trying a new snack.
Considering that there are as many as 200 pintxos bars in San Sebastián's old town alone, it's a good idea to get a little expert help.
Sandra is our local food guide for the evening. Our tour starts just a short walk from our hotel, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra San Sebastian.
We have been invited on a tour by Mimo – Bite the Experience, one of several companies offering guided food tours of the city. In addition to a knowledgeable guide who gives you the history, culture of pintxos, and the do's and don'ts of pintxos etiquette, five stops for food and drink are included in the price.
Five authentic pintxos bars
In addition to us (a photographer and a journalist), a married couple and two friends from the United States are participating in tonight's round. We all nod gently as Sandra asks if we are ready before quickly clapping her hands, shouting dale! and heading for the old town at a furious pace. We're about to visit five bars.
1. Bar Sport - Fermin Calbeton Kalea 10
The first stop of our circuit is Bar Sport. Despite the name, this is no sports bar. In fact, there is barely any seating in the small room. The space is crowded, and tourists mingle with locals looking for their first pintxos of the evening.
Sandra disappears to the bar and orders on behalf of the group. While we wait for the food, the guide explains the concept.
"Many people think that you should eat your fill of pintxos at one bar, so they order many different dishes. That's completely wrong," says Sandra, shaking her head.
"You order a dish or two, eat, and move on. What many tourists don't know is that although most pintxos bars have an incredible number of dishes on the menu, they are usually known for one or two specialties. It is these specialties that we will try out at the different bars we will visit."
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At Bar Sport, grilled baby octopus and fried fresh sausage on bread with peppers are recommended. The dishes come quickly. The sausage is spicy and oily, without the powerful flavours taking up too much space.
For one who has a bad experience with rubbery octopus, tasting the local specialty was a revelation. The baby octopus is tender, delicate, and marinated in a light garlic and parsley marinade. It is all topped off with a glass of the regional, semi-sparkling dry white wine, Txakoli. Delightful.
2. Kapadokia Bar - Arrandegi Kalea 10
The group follows Sandra's advice, and as soon as the food is consumed and the wine is drunk, we head for the next stop. We were supposed to visit one of the most legendary pinxtos bars, Casa Urolea, but it was too full (even for a Basque), so we move on.
Booking a table is not an option when eating pinxtos. You just have to squeeze in wherever there is some space available. If there is no room, you move on to the next bar. Optionally, you can make some space with a few simple tricks.
Sandra quickly illustrates what good pinxtos etiquette is like: an elbow leaning on the bar counter, while positioning your body sideways against the bar. This opens up so others can fit next door.
"It's annoying to see people block off an entire bar counter and not let others in," Sandra says with a thinly veiled directive in the direction of the visiting tourists.
Since Casa Urolea was full, our next stop will be Kapadokia Bar, a hip and trendy pinxtos bar in the old town. Kapadokia does not its pinxtos displayed in glass cases on the bar counter. All of today's dishes are written up on a chalkboard on the wall. This gives Sandra the opportunity to explain a little about how to order in a pinxtos bar.
– Go for hot pinxtos
"Traditionally, the dishes on display at the bar are cold dishes, while a pinxto bar's hot dishes are written up on a chalkboard. So, if you fancy something hot, look around the venue to see what's on offer.
"But a rule of thumb is to go for the hot dishes. They are usually freshly cooked. In many places, cold dishes are reserved for tourists who don't know any better – and they've been out for a long time," says Sandra says in an exasperated voice.
The menu is usually written in Spanish or Basque, but there's nothing wrong with asking. As Kapadokia Bar is a new addition to the Pinxtos scene in the old town, Sandra isn't sure what its speciality is.
She gets recommendations from the man behind the counter and the group orders a little differently. I myself end up with a monkfish in a traditional sauce called "American sauce".
Unlike the first stop, this dish is not entirely to my liking. The monkfish was fried a little too long and the sauce or soup tasted very salty and briny. Not for my palate, but Sandra was very excited.
"Ah, this was absolutely gorgeous and a very typical Basque dish. This sauce is just as if you were having dinner at a Basque grandmother's house," she says with a smile.
The others in the group are served pinxto classics with a twist: spaghetti with squid and parmesan, king prawns with leeks and cheese, and poached eggs with fried potato, mushrooms and ham.
3. Casa Urola - Fermin Calbeton Kalea 20
After an unplanned stop at a cheese shop where we get to taste some local specialties, we head back to Casa Urola.
Scholars dispute the origins of pinxtos, but the culture of meeting family and friends out on the town for a drink and a simple snack has been strong in San Sebastián for many decades. According to an article in the Independent, this culture evolved into a daily bar-to-bar round called txikiteo, where people enjoyed a stroll around with a group of good friends, called cuadrilla, eating and drinking cheaply.
Typical bar snacks at that time were olives, simple seafood, hams, and bread in various shapes and flavours. But it was only when brothers Blas and Antxon Vallés, owners of Casa Vallés, decided to combine salty, acidic and strong flavours on one stick, that today's pinxtos were born.
The year was 1947, and the dish is called Gilda. It consists of olives, anchovies, and pickled Guindilla chili (local chili peppers). The name is a tribute to Rita Hayworth's character from the 1946 film noir classic Gilda.
The brothers believed the combination of "green colours and strong and salty flavours reflected the actor's character in the film" (verde, green, is slang for cheeky in Spanish). A classic was born.
A gastronomic institution
Now, nearly 80 years after Gilda was first served, we are about to try it for ourselves. The group nabs a table on the street and Sandra disappears inside and orders some specialties.
Gilda is of course on the menu as is grilled scallops in ajo blanco sauce. Since ajo blanco is made with almonds, and yours truly is allergic, I had the grilled entrecôte with potato puree and piquillo peppers.
Opinions are probably divided on whether Gilda looks appetizing. The fact that you also have to consume the whole dish in one fell swoop means that you don't always look very elegant. Rita Hayworth would hardly be impressed.
But in San Sebastián it's all about flavour, and the Vallés brothers were right: The combination of salt, acidity and strong flavours is delicious – and still holds up, even after 80 years . No wonder it has become a gastronomic institution.
As for the meat, it has barely touched the grill, and is perfectly rare. There is no sauce here, and the focus is instead on the meat's natural flavour accompanied by a good dose of salt - both before and after it hits the flames. Like the vast majority of ingredients used in pinxtos, the meat is also local. It is so tender that it melts on your tongue.
"Good, right?" asks Sandra with a smile.
I nod approvingly. The whole feast is washed down with a dry and fruity white wine from the Rueda district. Perhaps a non-traditional choice for meat, but it is great with both the food and the hot weather. The photographer and the rest of the group nod approvingly when they sample the scallops.
But we don't have time to enjoy the historical surroundings for long and rush off again.
4. Gandarias - Calle 31 de Agosto
Stop number four on our pintxos tour is Gandarias, one of the more famous and popular stops. Gandarias has also done what many of the other pintxos bars in the city do: In addition to selling traditional pintxos in the bar, they have a restaurant section where you can reserve tables.
There is controlled chaos in the dining room when we arrive (as in all the previous places), but we are again lucky and manage to get a table outside. Sandra says that meat is the big draw at Gandarias – more specifically, skewers. We procure three different types: beef, duck, and lamb.
Again, simple and natural flavours are in focus. Sauce is superfluous. The meat is tender and juicy. The meat has been embraced by its fat during its preparation and is delicious. Our accompanying wine is Crianza from the nearby Navarra area.
Although the whole party is starting to become full, one final stop remains on our tour. After all, what would a good stroll be without something a little sweet? Dessert is on the agenda, and we move on.
5. Mendaur Berria - Fermín Calbetón Kalea 8
Our last stop with Sandra and Mimo – Bite the Experience, is Mendaur. According to the guide, its known for its desserts. We have several options but end up choosing two: Homenaje – a kind of cream cheese served with quince, cheese and nuts, and torrija – a traditional bread pudding with custard, reminiscent of french toast. The latter is often served at Easter and is a Spanish dessert classic.
Both are rich, but Sandra has a solution: a small glass of chilled patxaran — a local berry liqueur.
It may be an unpopular opinion, but I feel that coffee or a cold cider would be preferable.
All in all, a pintxos tour is recommended to anyone planning to visit San Sebastián. The city is so much more than just Michelin stars and fine dining. Behind every delicious pintxos and every drop of Txakoli wine there is a story of dedicated chefs, family-owned restaurants, and Basque culinary traditions that have been preserved for generations.
I recommend everyone to lift some toothpicks and raise a few glasses in San Sebastián.
Editorial note: Norwegian has covered air travel in connection with this article. Picolo has made all editorial choices, freely and independently.
Avoid these pintxos mistakes:
No one can be best at everything. That's how it is in the pintxos world, too. You should therefore feel free to ask what the specialty is at the place you are visiting.
Full? Move on and find another spot! There are over 200 pintxos bars in the old town alone.
Check what's on the board in the dining room. This is often where the specialities are listed. Ask if you have any questions.
Pintxos are not tapas. That means you shouldn't eat your fill in one place. Try a dish or two and move on.
Remember to wear good shoes! Almost none of the bars have seating, and you're lucky if you get a table.
Here are Sandra's three signs that you're at a bad pintxos bar: an empty venue, exclusively tourists, and too many dishes on display at the bar.
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