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Pintxo Guide to San Sebastián, Spain

I'm working with a wonderful new client and her family for summer adventures through Spain from Barcelona to the Pyrenees, San Sebastián, Pamplona, Seville, and Valencia. It's a delightful itinerary to develop with them, and certainly one of the tastiest days we're planning is their pintxo tasting tour in San Sebastián. Their insider host will even help them order off-menu dishes available only to those “in-the-know” and will share the secrets of what makes each plate special. They'll sample tasty pintxos and wine while chatting away, living the San Sebastián lifestyle, exchanging views in a relaxed environment, just as the locals do. I'd love to help you plan a day of foodie fun on your next holiday too! 


Excerpt below from 6/12/2023 Virtuoso article by Ingrid K. Williams can found here. 

 

The Basque city takes its bite-sized cuisine seriously. It was nearly 8 p.m. as I hurried along the wide seaside promenade in San Sebastián, zigzagging past strolling couples and surfboard-toting twenty-somethings still dripping from the North Atlantic. On that spring evening, I was late to meet friends for a pintxo, which would invariably lead to a second and then a third, in the natural way that evenings typically unfold in this easygoing town.

 

Donostia, as the city is called in Basque, is part of the autonomous community of Basque Country, with its own distinct language and deeply rooted cultural traditions. Situated on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, the city is surrounded by lush hills and an idyllic, crescent-shaped bay. But what sets it apart is the food.

 

San Sebastián’s culinary scene first rose to prominence on the strength of its haute cuisine. Despite its size – only about 180,000 residents – the city and its outskirts are home to eight Michelin-starred restaurants, three of which have earned the highest rating of three stars. But a reservation at its venerated fine-dining rooms is not required to eat well in this food-obsessed city. Just ask Elena Arzak, the Basque chef who, together with her father, heads their three-Michelin-starred family restaurant, Arzak.

 

“The Basque people, from the time we can walk, we go to the pintxo bars,” Arzak says. Often described as Basque tapas, pintxos are small snacks typically eaten while standing at a bar. This cultural mainstay began as simple bites to accompany a drink – think a piece of toast topped with jamón and Manchego or a skewer of grilled mushrooms – but slowly evolved as ideas and techniques trickled down from the fine-dining scene. Today, many bars serve culinary masterpieces in miniature.

“It’s really incredible the imagination these chefs have and the quality that they can do in these small bars,” Arzak says.

 

Basque people go out for pintxos as a family on Sunday afternoons, with friends after work, or anytime the opportunity arises to get some food and a drink at one bar before continuing to the next. Everyone partakes in the tradition, from grandmas out with their well-groomed terriers to boisterous groups of friends and young families with toddlers in tow.

 

On a hop between bars, you’ll notice that many offer the same types of pintxos: ham croquettes, grilled octopus, glistening links of chorizo on toast. But most bars have a particular specialty, so knowing what to order where is key. From the Parte Vieja’s quintessential bars to lesser-known gems in the trendy Gros neighborhood and local favorites in Centro, consider this your primer on where to find some of the best pintxos across the city.

 

Old-Town Hop

 

Begin a pintxo crawl in central Parte Vieja, the lively historic quarter where pintxo bars line narrow pedestrian lanes. Paco Bueno was named after a famous boxer who founded the bar in 1950, which also explains the decor: black-and-white boxing photos on the walls and trophies interspersed between bottles of wine. At this longtime local favorite, everyone orders the same thing: gambas a la gabardina, battered and fried shrimp skewered on a toothpick and served fresh (and mouth-searingly hot) from the fryer. These gambas are considered the superlative version of this popular pintxo and pair well with a zurito, a half pour of draft beer.

 

Another traditional bar with a standout house specialty is Txepetxa, a wood-beamed tavern famous for its anchoas (anchovies). Even the anchovy-averse might see the light after tasting the plump boquerones, vinegar-cured white anchovies from the Bay of Biscay. Don’t bother asking how they’re prepared; the marinade recipe is a closely guarded family secret. But do order the jardinera, a made-to-order pintxo with a house-cured anchovy fillet on lightly toasted bread topped with a salsa of diced bell peppers, chili peppers, and onion.

 

Next stop: Borda Berri, a standing-room-only bar around the corner with pistachio-colored walls and a chalkboard menu listing a dozen or so contemporary pintxos – miniature versions of traditional Basque dishes, with modern twists. Among the tastiest are carrilleras al vino tinto, meltingly tender veal cheeks slow-cooked in broth and red wine, and risotto con Idiazábal, a creamy “risotto” made with orzo and Basque sheep’s-milk cheese.

 

Make the night’s last stop timeless La Viña, one of several long-standing haunts on Calle 31 de Agosto, with a sweet, rather than savory, signature dish: tarta de queso (cheesecake). A distant cousin of the dense, graham-cracker-crusted American cheesecake, the Basque version served here is notably lighter, with a scorched – some call it burnt – exterior and a creamy, soufflélike center.

 

Across The River

 

Another pintxo-hop destination is the eastern side of the Urumea, the river that flows through the center of the city. Here, the residential neighborhood of Gros backs Zurriola beach, a wide stretch of golden sand popular with surfers. Few visitors find their way to this laid-back area, where the tree-lined avenues and historic plazas are dotted with small boutiques, art galleries, surf shops, and excellent pintxo bars, such as Bodega Donostiarra. This bustling spot has been around since 1928 and remains a favorite for its superb completo, a small sandwich on a fresh baguette filled with the region’s finest products: flaky white tuna in oil, Cantabrian anchovies, and guindilla peppers.

 

One pintxo on the counter of nearly every bar in the city is tortilla de patatas, a round omelet of egg and fried potatoes served in thick wedges. Every local has an opinion about which bar prepares the best one, but a top contender is always Bar Zabaleta. Take a seat at a metal sidewalk table outside this casual, no-frills corner bar and order a glass of txakoli, a lightly effervescent local white wine poured from a height that’s perfect for pairing with a still-warm slice of creamy, eggy tortilla.

 

Nearby, Bar Bergara, a neighborhood landmark open since the 1950s, recently got an update with a modern, bright-white interior. Its long list of creative, high-quality pintxos can make ordering challenging, but one must-try is the txalupa (it means “small boat” in Basque), a puff-pastry shell filled with a mushroom-and-langoustine gratin. Another option is the pintxo tasting menu, which includes several innovative varieties that have earned Bergara awards at regional competitions.

 

Central Stops

 

A neighborhood often overlooked when mapping out a pintxo crawl is Centro, San Sebastián’s central business district. A neat grid of wide avenues south of the Parte Vieja, this area is filled with designer shops and international brands, but it’s also home to one of the city’s best pintxo bars. Bar Antonio may not look like much – a tiny space crowded with patrons leaning against the counter inside or lingering on the sidewalk, passing plates and drinks through an open window – but there’s a reason it’s always packed. Devoted regulars return day after day because, unlike most bars, which have a single must-order item, the menu here has nothing but hits from top to bottom. The house-cured salmon on freshly toasted bread? Fantastic. The tortilla flecked with bell pepper? One of the city’s finest. The langoustine ravioli smothered in cream sauce? Sublime. The larger-than-a-pintxo ración of seared mushrooms mixed with egg yolk and foie gras? Perfection. Order whatever you see that looks good.

 

Centro is also home to a couple of classic spots worth a stop. Mosey over to Mesón Martín, a cavernous bar with wood-barrel tables where locals go for a zurito and the surf-and-turf trainera, a piece of toast topped with shrimp, grilled baby squid, and a slice of jamón. Then sidle up to the bar at Casa Vallés, a local institution dating to 1942 that claims to be the birthplace of one of the most well-known pintxos: the Gilda.

 

“Somebody was drinking wine in our bar and started playing with a toothpick and the olives, anchovies, and pickled peppers,” says co-owner Nagore Vallés. “So they created the Gilda.” This simple pintxo, just a skewered Manzanilla olive, Cantabrian anchovy, and guindilla pepper, was named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the movie of the same name. Paired with a glass of vermouth at a table on the car-free street outside, where weekend shoppers and afternoon strollers saunter past, it’s the ideal salty bite to conclude a pintxo hop.

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