Pintxos

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.

The Bill

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)

Seek out Calle 31 de Agosto, which probably has the biggest concentration of popular pintxos bars. I suggest you start at the bottom.
  • 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.

11 thoughts on “Pintxos

  1. Perfectamente informativa, gracias. Si vamos todos allí pronto, o se puede lograr los mismos resultados a nosotros mismos aquí, en Inglaterra? De cualquier manera, yo soy muy celoso.

  2. Great piece. I was only there for one evening so alas, we didn’t get to try as much as you did; gutting as we didn’t get any hot food, only the stuff on the bar. Warrants a return trip!

  3. Lizzie – Thanks. There’s definitely a return trip or two in the town, each trip tagged on to a visit to one of the big name restaurants (see next post…).

  4. You got it right – 70% (or more) are pretty lame. The beauty of having pintxos lies on experiencing the best of each bar. Ideally, one pintxo/bar + a zurito (1/4 pint) or a cider (some prefer a glass of txakoli). Some people say they are expensive, some others can’t stop repeating. The new wave of modern / kitsch / trendy bars that opened in the last 2-4 years have incorporated something that wasn’t tangible for the tourist. The touristy-appeal I suppose made all those bars translate the menus and issue expensive books. For us, the donostiarras, the places that will define the authenticity of the old quarter (parte vieja) are the old bars, exactly as you describe them. We welcome all of them but we are specially tied up to the dirtiness, the atmosphere, the chats, that sense of liberty and the nostalgia all those places have.

    El txepetxa, the bar at El Martinez, La Cepa and the ham. The answer to why we like them is very simple. Our grandparents went there, our parents went there and we will always keep going there. It’s like an Englishmen discovering a new club in the East End. Yes, he will indeed go East to have a cocktail but he will go back home at stop by the old pub next to his place.

    I miss two of my favourite places in this list and the Gros neighborhood which has the one of the temples of good food and basque traditional cuisine (El Bergara). As for my favourites, Borda-Berri and the Nestor bar which only has tomato-salad, peppers and two tortillas per day. His speciality, the steak.

    Great list overall, specially the Txepetxa, Borda Berri and El Tamboril. I am also missing the Ganbara and the tartaleta de txangurro.

    Hope you enjoyed it!

  5. Javier – thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, Borda Berri was closed every time I went past, similarly Ganbara (though some friends went the next day at my suggestion and enjoyed-amazing pics of mushrooms at the bar). Super place. Suspect the old places will outlive the newer ones.

  6. Txepetxa is the only one on your list I love without stipulation…A Fuego Negro spotty service, Gandarias great meat, pintxos on the bar not so great, Goiz Argi no longer the same….agree with Javier on the Gros comment. Love the blog and the writing, though! Did you post on Mugaritz?

  7. Marti – hi and thanks. Think you’re right: feels like there’s a caveat to each bar, but I like that you can go in, select the best bits, and then move in. Mugaritz will be my next post.

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