Pintxos in Paradise: Summertime in San Sebastián

Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain – June 2018

In the summer of last year, I went on a road trip with some friends from Paris to Barcelona. We drove down after a few nights in Bordeaux, stopped over in the French sea resort town of Biarritz, then crossed the border into Spain, arriving in San Sebastián.

This seaside town may be one of my favourite places in all of Spain, perhaps even all of Europe. Located in in the Basque Country along the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián is known for its beaches, namely Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta. A splendid beachside promenade runs along between the beach and the town. It’s jam-packed during the summer months with vacationers.

The week we were there, the weather was balmy and the tourists were out in full force, getting their tan on. But we had other priorities in mind, topmost of which was food. Some of my friends had been to San Sebastián before and already had pintxos on the brain. After hearing about it for so long, I was salivating in anticipation.

Stomachs empty and growling, we headed to the cobblestoned Old Town (Parte Vieja) to partake. I was hungry. I was ready.

Eating in the Basque country is a joy and an experience to remember (with wistful longing forevermore, until the next visit). You may have already heard that it has the most Michelin stars per capita in the world (although I’m not sure if this is true, or if it is second behind Kyoto, Japan). The late Anthony Bourdain of TV chef fame once declared, “outside of Asia, Spain is the single greatest place for culinary achievement in the world,” and singled out San Sebastián as a bucket-list destination for food. It’s been described as the food equivalent of a theme park. A gastronomic Disneyland. There is high-end fine dining here that tops food critics’ lists year in and year out, places that have maxed out their Michelin stars like Arzak and Mugaritz. But the streets of San Sebastián are also abundantly filled with face-meltingly good pintxos bars, where some of the best Spanish food can be found if you know where to go.

The trouble is that there are just so many establishments, it’s a little hard to know where to start. The tragedy is that you will never be able to try everything, and knowing you can’t eat it all does tinge the delight with a trace of the bittersweet. The trick is to order one or maybe two things at any particular place: the specialty dish, the one they’re known for, or if you haven’t done your research, the thing everyone else is ordering.

So that’s the general rule of pintxos crawling: order the best thing on the menu, have a drink, and move on. The aim is to visit at least five bars. Of course, this is a good concept in theory. However, it is surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) difficult to stick to this strategy. In fact, at many bars, we ended up ordering a lot more. A lot.

The tradition of pintxos was born when bodegas began serving small bites as an accompaniment to a glass of beer or wine before lunch or dinner. Pintxos is the Basque version of the Spanish pinchos, which comes from the verb pinchar meaning to skewer or to spike. Over the decades, Basque pintxos have become so elaborate and sophisticated that you’d have a hard time skewering most of them to pieces of bread. They’re all called pintxos here whether served pinchado to a piece of bread or not. If you order a seafood risotto or half a pig’s hindleg, it’s still called pintxos. The cold pintxos are laid out on the bars and you can take your pick of them. But mostly, the goods you want to get are those freshly made to order – the hot pintxos.

This pintxos culture is a cornerstone of Basque living and plays an important role in socialising. Around these parts, hanging out with your friends and family in a bar is the most natural thing to do – snacking on pintxos paired with a glass of local wine while you shoot the breeze.

Which brings me to drinks. You will definitely want something to wet your whistle while bar-hopping on a warm summer’s day. Txakoli, a lightly sparkling dry white wine produced in the Basque region, goes down superbly with the local seafood and freshly caught fish. It’s poured into the glass from a bottle held high above the bartender’s head for extra bubbles. If you prefer beer, some places serve shallow glasses with a quarter pint of beer splashed in the bottom called zuritos, which could save you from getting far too sloshed at one place to get to the next. Or there’s always Basque sidra (cider), also poured from a great height to give it fizz.

Anyway, I’m hardly the first person to go to San Sebastián and eat there, but I will add my rundown of some of our pintxos highlights, to the five hundred other blogposts on this topic. Here is a sample of our pintxos adventure.

Atari – Pulpo (grilled octopus) and Huevo a Baja Temperatura (sous-vide egg)

The crowd here spills onto the streets facing the steps of the old town’s beautiful baroque Santa Maria Basilica. Right off the bat, you can see that pintxos in San Sebastián are more than just jamón on bread (not that there is anything wrong with this, or anything less delicious – you will never hear me say no to some good jamón iberico).

The grilled octopus was served with potatoes, onions, and spiced aioli. The sous-vide egg was simple, but somehow, exactly the paragon of what a poached egg should be. It doesn’t hurt that the food also looks absolutely beautiful. The colour! Food made for glossy magazines. This bar has a nice repertoire of cocktails and apparently does one of the best G&Ts in town.

Bar Zeruko – La Hoguera de Bacalao (The Bonfire)

Anyone who comes here, comes for this pintxo. Smoked salted cod (bacalao) served on its own individual mini charcoal grill with avocado aioli on toasted bread and a tube of something cold and green (liquid salad of some kind – pureed asparagus? parsley? mint?), washed down with a glass of txakoli. Yes, please. The cod was brilliant, fleshy and flavoursome. And anyway, who wouldn’t want to order something called the bonfire? This is the kind of theatrical avant-garde stuff that can make a bar hop so fun. And also wins awards, it seems.

Borda Berri – Veal cheeks braised in red wine and crispy pig’s ear

Carrillera de Ternera al Vino Tinto. A vegetarian’s nightmare. Everything is described as melt-in-your-mouth these days but these veal cheeks, slow-cooked for six hours, were truly worthy of the description. You know how beef cheeks are generally tender? Well, imagine that, but taken to an extreme. “Aquí, Se Guisa” is the motto at Borda Berri, meaning “here, we braise”. Indeed, nearly every dish has braised-something as its star ingredient.

The pig’s ear (Oreja de Cerdo con Romescu) might be off-putting to some, but it was perfectly cooked – crispy fried on the outside, soft and gelatinous inside, served with a romesco sauce made from roasted red peppers and almonds.

This super popular, very famous bar was a favourite of mine (and I think all of us) and one of the reasons I will be returning to San Sebastián. It’s crazy busy and for good reason. The menu changes throughout the year, but I suspect you can’t really go wrong whatever you order. We also tried the risotto de “Puntalete” con Queso Idiazabal (a pressed cheese made from unpasteurized sheep milk), which was delicious as well. I do occasionally dream of those veal cheeks though.

A Fuego Nero – Gilda

The popular Gilda pintxo is an ageless classic, made with salted Cantabrian anchovies, pickled guindilla peppers, fat green olives and plenty of olive oil on a stick. Sometimes it is served on bread like the original definition of the word pintxos.

Despite this one very traditional pintxo, A Fuego Nero was actually one of the most experimental pintxos places we stopped at. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually take any photos of the other things we ate. Even though we actually came here twice (on consecutive nights). One of their signature pintxos is a spin on fast food called Makcobe con txips (juicy mini Kobe beef burgers on an artisan tomato bun, served with thin-cut fried banana chips).

This is the kind of food found in fancy molecular gastronomy restaurants. Indeed, the siblings who started it wanted to bring haute cuisine from fine diners to the bars. They’ve been something of a success, winning awards for best pintxo and best bar on multiple occasions. The new-wave creative direction of the menu is reflected in the cosmopolitan decor: black furniture, poster-covered walls, low-hanging designer light fixtures. Moody and delicious.

Gandarias – Solomillo and other assorted pintxos

The mouthwatering solomillo is simply a small seared piece of tenderloin steak topped with green pepper and dropped onto a chunk of bread with a sprinkle of sea salt. Majestic. The photo doesn’t even do it justice, but I want to eat the picture anyway.

As you can see, the bartops are covered with artfully arranged plates of cold pintxos. This place caters well to the dietarily restricted, with vegetarian and gluten-free options. But if you’re not a vegetarian/vegan, order the solomillo. You’re welcome.

La Mejillonera – Steamed mussels and calamari with Padron peppers

This place had the feel of a fishmonger, with painted tiles depicting sea-faring vignettes. Adding to the fish-market vibe was the continual throng pressing towards the bar. It was packed to the gills, and definitely standing room only (there are no seats). To have any hope of getting served, it is necessary to elbow one’s way to the front and yell one’s order at anyone behind the bar you can lock eyes with, speaking loudly to make oneself heard over the general din (the floor-to-ceiling ceramic tiling probably doesn’t help with the noise).

The calamares and patatas bravas are nice, but the stars of the show here are the mussels, and my Lord are they good. Served in tomato sauce, or vinaigrette, or a white wine sauce, or simply al vapor (steamed). Smash down a plate or two, toss the shells on the ground at the base of the bar like everyone else (there’s something weirdly liberating about chucking refuse straight onto the floor), and then squeeze your way out.

La Cuchara de San Telmo – Veal cheeks in red wine and suckling pig

This place was buzzing like Borda Berri, and we had to wait to get any countertop real estate. Unlike Borda Berri though, they had tables outside, but they were all taken. The people behind Borda Berri started off here at La Cuchara de San Telmo, which probably explains some of the similarities (by that I mean the delicious, delicious similarities). We could not go past the slow-cooked veal cheeks. We also tried the slow-roasted suckling pig. As you would expect and hope with suckling pig, the skin was perfectly crisp and the meat was moist and tender. Of course, there are non-meat pintxos here, like fish, octopus, scallops, king prawns, and all are delicious. But if you want to compare two versions of veal cheeks, for say, scientific reasons, this place and Borda Berri are where you might want to start off such important research.

Zazpi – Red tuna, foie gras with oxtail, and huevo, jamón, patata y trufa

Some way out from the Old Town and close to where we were staying, the pintxos menu at Zazpi was a classy affair with some incredible plating of top-notch ingredients. The rabo (oxtail) was fantastic. And who knew the foursome of egg, jamón, potato and truffle would work so well? (Well, the chefs at Zazpi.)

La Viña – Basque burnt cheesecake

This place was unpretentiously traditional, like an old-school bodega, with legs of jamón dangling above the counter, and all the classics on offer like eggy tortillas. The reason everyone puts this on their itinerary, however, is the cheesecake. Scorched black on top, delicate and smooth inside with a gooey centre that oozes like a molten lava cake. This cheesecake is now well and truly famous beyond the Basque country, and there are dozens of recipes to be found online should you wish to replicate it at home. But if you want to try the original, come here. The recipe was invented three decades ago by Santiago Rivera, the owner of La Viña, and has since escalated into a full-fledged craze. They churn out around twenty cakes a day now. Apparently, Rivera regularly receives offers from potential investors wanting to take the La Viña recipe global.

Now, this wasn’t a complete list of all the places we went to. For your pintxos planning pleasure, here is a map of the Old Town with some recommended highlights:

Of course, we didn’t only eat in San Sebastián. (We also napped, for that full cultural immersion.) But given the focus (and the bulk of my emotional energy) was directed at experiencing the food scene here, I will only sparsely comment on some of the other attractions around town.

The Old Town is nice to walk around, although it should ideally be seen while walking from one pintxos bar to another. In the middle of the Old Town you will come across the lovely Plaza de la Constitución. I wouldn’t make the touristic mistake of eating here though.

From the Old Town, you can walk to the summit of Monte Urgull for some panoramic views of the beach and the city. This hill (it’s more of a hill than a mount) has been important as a defensive point since the city’s foundation, and military structures can be found along the paths across the hillside. At the top, Monte Urgull is crowned with the city’s fortress, Castillo de la Mota, flanked by cannons once relied upon to defend the city from attack. Some of the ramparts date back to the 12th century. There is a giant statue of Christ at the summit called El Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart) which is visible from miles away at sea.

A stroll across the Playa de la Concha promenade will take you to the rocks at the foot of Mount Igueldo on the western end of the beach, and a contemporary sculpture called Peine Del Viento (Comb of the Wind). Or rather, a collection of three sculptures. Don’t ask me what it all means. Something about the sea.

Continuing up the hill of Monte Igueldo will take you to another panoramic viewpoint, and also an amusement park, complete with a rickety wooden rollercoaster and old-school bumper cars. Take the hundred-year old funicular railway if you need to rest your feet. The views are wonderful up here.

While staying in San Sebastián, we also had an amazing degustation dinner at Akelarre, with a view so superlative I won’t even bother trying to describe it. I could also double the length of this post by listing pictorially all the dishes we had, but I won’t. If it’s within your budget, I would definitely recommend trying one of the several haute cuisine restaurants in the area. Book far in advance though.

The couple of days we had here only made me wish we had more. Aski ez duena, deusik ez duena – not having enough is like not having anything. There are pintxos places at home, inspired by this Basque food mecca. But it’s not the same as being in the Parte Vieja, giddily going from bar to bar, from pintxo to pintxo. The way to my heart is definitely through my stomach, and San Sebastián got right in there and stole it.

I cannot wait to go back.

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