“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Irish Proverb
San Sebastian is one of the best eating cities in the world, it has more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else. If you are a foodie, San Sebastián is utter food paradise. The quaint, narrow streets of its Old Town (Parte Vieja) are home to a countless number of bars serving pinxtos.
Luckily we have Imanol from Cultural Xplorers to organize our first night of pinxtos and recommend other bars. Imanol grew up in San Sebastian. There are over fifty pinxto bars in the Old City and trying to narrow them down and find them can be daunting.
The fare at traditional pintxos bars is pretty straightforward, and heavy on meat, cheese and seafood.
Items like: gildas (a spanish chili pepper wrapped around an anchovy and olive, speared with a toothpick), tortilla (Spanish-style frittata), jamon (Spanish cured ham), fried croquettes stuffed with salt cod, anchovies (in many forms), and grilled shrimp with ham, can be found in almost every pintxos bar.
It is tempting to just grab a seat or a place standing at the bar and feast away, but you should fight the temptation. Pintxos culture encourages people to bounce around to different establishments all night, sampling just a few bites from each. Since most of the best pintxos are found within the compact Old Town section of San Sebastian, you never have to walk more than a few minutes to your next destination.
Our first pinxto lesson came at Astelehena. It quickly seemed to me that the best pinxtos were made to order in the kitchen. We ate Duck Magret with corn and pineapple sauce, octopus with a cream of avocados & potatoes and ‘Gilda’ composed of tuna, olives, anchovies and guindillas (local green peppers).
We drink Ribera de Duero which is a red wine from the neighboring region. I don’t really like anchovies but after having this dish a few times, my life is not the same.
Our next stop was Haizea for codfish (Brick de Bacalao) with leak and carrot and scallop and shrimp brochette. Bacalao is a word you should learn when traveling to Northern Spain and Portugal. There is always bacalao. Haizea is the bar that Chef Arzak (of the three star Michelin restaurant) takes Anthony Bourdain to on No Reservations in 2008. We had our first glass of Txakoli (pronounced chock a lee) -the light local white wine. Yes it is another Anthony Bourdain day.
Mendaur was our third stop. We had boiled egg with truffles and parmesan cheese, mushrooms and crispy Iberian Ham.
But my most favorite pinxto was the European squids with caramelized onions and three sauces (mustard and honey, chimichurri of Txakoli and black garlic). I have no words for how good this was.
We were full and I thought I couldn’t eat any more but I was wrong. We went to Urola where I was about to have what turned out to be one of the best desserts of my life. It is called ‘Torrija’, and is similar but not to bread pudding, served with coffee ice cream and caramel.
We did a few nights on our own of pinxtos as well but since I told the chef in my bad Spanish to give us his favorites and they were crazy busy, I don’t know what they were called. It involved shrimp, meat, fois gras and risotto -all were delicious.
We also found our way back to Astelehena for duck breast and anchovies. (which involved a lot of walking in circles).
If you are looking for a romantic, relaxing night out, pintxos bars are not for you. They are all about socializing, eating, and drinking in small, confined spaces. The more cramped, the more frenzied, the more you have to fight your way to the bar, the better.