Pintxos are a type of tapas prevalent in the Basque region of Northern Spain. They are typically bread based – either tiny baguettes known as bocadillos, or slices of French style bread sliced for bruschetta – and are filled or topped with any number of ingredients, but commonly things like jamon, anchovies, grilled peppers and prawns. Hot pintxos are available on request; the cold ones sit in platters on bar tops for you to take, whilst the barman keeps a tab of what you’ve had.
In the ‘old town’ in San Sebastian, a coastal city thronging with food geeks, surfers and Spaniards, there are almost as many pintxos bars as there are Australians. Which is saying something. They are very endearing (the bars, not the Australians) and the vast majority tiny. Some have modern décor, which matches their food, but, generally, bars and their offerings look as they must have done for 30 or 40 years. Locals and tourists pack into them, choosing a few bites and having a drink or two before moving onto another place one, two, maybe three doors down, or another favourite in the next street.
Hopping between busy bars, having a glass of the local cider (sidra) here, a glass of vino there, is a very enjoyable way of spending a luxurious lunchtime or sociable evening.
However, by my reckoning, approximately seventy per cent of pintxos served in those bustling little bars are bad.
Yes. You read that right. Bad.
Bad like the worst best buy special discounted budget supermarket canapés served up during the drinks party from hell.
Unimaginative toppings on cheap white bread, which sweat and then crust over as they sit for one or two hours at 27C. Crab sticks mixed sparingly with fluorescent mayonnaise and piled into stale vol-u-vents. Cold mushrooms on sticks. Once crisp and hot deep-fried calamari or prawns, now soggy and tepid rings of rubber. Mmmmm. Way to fill yourself up, mate.
Do not despair, dear reader. Calm down, San Sebastian devotees. I only said 70 per cent were bad. There are so many bars that the remaining 30 per cent covers significant ground; if you avoid filling your plate with the first 7 things you see, you can still eat very well.
Of course, some of the cold pintxos are really good. At the bars where the ingredients or toppings are better, there’s a quicker and fresher turnaround of items; and quality fresh or salted anchovies, gildas and jamon iberica are among the Western world’s most enjoyable things.
For me, though, things really improve when you make the effort to order the unseen. Most bars serve hot pintxos in addition to the cold ones laid out across their bar. Asking whether there is a house special, or a particular thing that the barman likes the most pays dividends.
I tried this tactic during my very recent trip to the town and it served me well.
A few of the more modern places suggested their ambitious, sometimes innovative, hot dishes: like sous vide eggs with porcini mushrooms rich in umami, jamon and chip sticks; tender, dark and rich braised beef cheek with creamy potato puree; and strange concoctions of mussels, stewed tomatoes, savoury foams and pig skin. Some of those were impressive. Others were not totally successful. But for around €3-4 each, they were all worth a punt.
However, I marginally preferred the older-style places. The rooms, the barmen and regulars in them had real character and authenticity. Their food was simple, and the best of it was also strikingly effective: like fresh skewers of gambas a la plancha (prawns) topped with sweet pepper and onion salsa; cubes of solomillo (sirloin steak) cooked medium rare and heavily salted; a plate of deep fried guindilla (mini padron peppers); and a langoustine bruschetta, piled high with gulus (baby eels), my new favourite ingredient.
The clear favourite of the barman in one uncompromisingly old school and tiny room was a bowl of stewed mushroom in an oily stock. I couldn’t fault his judgment. In another, the only choice to make was what weird and wonderful topping you wanted on your anchovies (“nuestra especialidad es la anchoa, sólo anchoas”). Sea urchin roe and spider crab worked well for me.
It really is easy to eat surprisingly poorly in San Sebastian, particularly if you constrain yourself to the most touristy bars and choose only the food most easily accessed. But, by asking for recommendations and for taking a punt, there are some great rewards to be had. If you don’t speak Spanish well (I don’t) it is not always an easy thing to do, whether you’re in a busy or a deserted bar. But if you go, please try. It’s worth it.
Some pictures and also a suggestion of 10 places to go are set out below.
Pintxos in San Sebastian in 3 words
Ask for recommendations.
Individual items range between €1 and €5, though they’re mostly at the lower end of that scale. Wine and cider are particularly well priced. You could graze and be merry and satisfied for anywhere between €20 and €50.
It’s all Monopoly money anyway.
Potential San Sebastian ‘old town’ pintxos tour
There are so many places it’s worth having a go at finding your own gems. I mixed going to random bars with recommendations collected from various helpful sources. But if you don’t feel you have the time to experiment, the places listed below would make a decent bar crawl. Either do it in one go (they’re in a useful geographical order), probably having one or two pintxos in each. Or you could split the tour into two occasions and try a few more in each.
Lunch is as good a time to do this as in the evening, but be aware that a few of these bars are closed on Mondays, and a few on Tuesdays too. The local cider (sidra) is an excellent and cheap accompaniment (often under €1 a glass).
Calle Fermin de Calbeton
Start at the La Bretxa market end of Calle Fermin de Calbeton (maybe after wondering around the various meat and fish counters in the basement).
- Bar Goiz Argi - Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 4 – small, old school, €3 for a sidra and the house special, gambas a la plancha. Offal kebabs looked good too.
- Munto - Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 17 – some decent cold stuff, but this place also did my favourite pintxo, gambas under a huge heap of gulus. Baby eels. Stuffed shrimp, hot foie gras etc etc. Enjoyed this one.
Calle de Pescadería
After Munto, take a right and try and stumble onto calle de Pescadería. It comes off the square, if that helps.
- Bar Tamboril – Calle de Pescadería, 2 - 3 barmen in a space that can take about 10 punters. The stewed mushrooms were simple and delicious.
- Txeptxa - Calle de Pescadería, 5 – This is the anchovy one. Pictures of Gandalf after too many sidras adorn the wall. I liked the sea urchin roe and spider crab adorned anchovies.
Calle 31 de Agosto (more or less)
- La Cepa - Calle 31 de Agosto, 7 – no frills here. I recommend it as a place to get a media porcion (1/2 portion) of jamon iberica and a good traditional slice of tortilla (Spanish omelette). Free wifi if you’re having internet withdrawal symptoms …
- Bar Martinez – Calle 31 de Agosto, 13 – walk in, have a plate of Guindillas (deep fried mini padron peppers) and walk out before you order another one; otherwise you’ll be there all evening and have consumed your salt allowance for the year.
- Gandarias - Calle de San Jerónimo, 25 – not really on San Jerónimo, this is halfway up 31 de Agosto and is permanently busy. Ask for the gambas hot prawns and solomillo steak. Cod on padron pepper also good.
- Dakara Taberna – Calle 31 de Agosto, 27 – small modern bar, generally quiet but actually good selection of cold food, and interesting hot: morcilla and peppers, solomillo taco, foie grois cooked a la plancha with a splash of sherry.
- A Fuego Negro – Calle 31 de Agosto, 31 – the most modern and try hard of all the bars. I was recommended a steak slider, a warm cream foam pot with tomato and mussels at the bottom and pork scratchings on top, a what may have been sous vide cod with a tomatoey grain. I kind of liked them.
- Atari – Calle Mayor, 18 – not a computer, and more on 31 Agosto than Calle Mayor. For me the best mix of modern food, without being too try hard. Plenty of good food and more good cold stuff than most. But their hot food – sous vide egg, beef cheeks, solomillo – and a killer tomato salad were among the highlights of my pintxos search.