San Sebastian is nowadays widely recognised as a food destination or mecca for any foodie out there, not only because the city holds one of the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre in the world but also because of the wide selection of Pintxo Bars offering refined strip down Michelin food at affordable prices.
Pintxos are the Basque version of Spanish tapas, small bite-size foods served hot or cold, displayed in impeccable ways and using an infinite selection of ingredients and cooking methods that make any visitor to San Sebastian never to forget them. They have made the old quarter (casco Viejo) of the city an incredibly busy place with thousands of visitors each day, wandering from bar to bar, drinking txakoli, the local white wine and enjoying these lovely foodie bites.
It is a fact that pintxo eating has become in the last 20 years a new style of casual dining in the Basque Country, due to its socialising involvement, the creativity element that businesses and chefs have developed, making them a more attractive product to both locals and tourists alike and the commodity, choice and affordability that these small bites offer anyone hungry.
Originally, pintxos were the support fuel of the txikiteo, a bar to bar crawl done by groups of friends before lunch or in the evening before dinner commonly seen across the Basque area. The word txikiteo comes from the original wine glass called ‘txikito’, a thick bottom glass, very heavy in weight with a reduced rim, traditionally designed as a lamp to decorate the streets of Bilbao in order to welcome the Spanish Queen but then used as a wine glass to serve txikitos which are small portions of wine. These small portions of wine were traditionally served with a small piece of food in order for the mind not to go blurry and bars began to use a slice of bread to serve these foods, held together by a wooden cocktail stick called pincho or pintxo in Basque which is where the name comes from.
So if you are planning to go to San Sebastian then head to el casco viejo of the city and get lost in its food labyrinth of interconnecting streets where you will be able sample some of the best pintxos bars the city can offer. Here are my top pintxo bars:
Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton, 12)
Busy small bar with no pintxos on display but cooked to order from a very small kitchen. The wine choices are limited but they display their pintxo menu on a large blackboard where they cross items off, once sold out. I went for 2 glasses of Jose Pariente Verdejo, an elegant white wine made by a big name in Rueda. Food wise we tried the braised beef cheek with a tomato sauce and parsley oil which melted in the mouth, shame that the portion size was only a pintxo! We followed with pan fried octopus leg with quince and alioli and I got to say that was delicious, the sweet quince worked with the fried octopus and the garlic alioli provided creaminess and depth to the dish. One of the house signature pintxos is their pork rib kebab, a slow roasted milky pork rib, spiced up with Moroccan flavours of turmeric and cumin, the rib was very meaty and the portion size was excellent for a greedy person like me.
Zeruko (Pescaderia, 10)
Zeruko is the place to go if you are into modern style pintxos. The bar is always busy and their pintxo display is very impressive. These guys work with gels, froths and weird concoctions. We tried some of their hot pintxos displayed on the board with two glasses of iconic rioja Marques de Murrieta Reserva. We started with one of their signature pintxos called La Hoguera (The Bonfire), a piece of salted cod which comes out on a bed of smoke produced by a hot coal, served with a small test tube filled with cold liquid salad and some delicious avocado alioli on toasted bread. The presentation of the dish is pure theatre and the piece of cod is fleshy and meaty. I followed with a hot pintxo of baby squid and mango, the squid was very fresh and really well cooked and the combination with the mango worked really well. We finished with smoked eel fillet on toasted bread which came in a wooden board with a large glass bell filled with smoke. The eel was very creamy and oily and the smoke worked well although I thought it was a bit overpowering over the food.
La Cuchara de San Telmo (31 de Agosto, 31)
This iconic bar opposite the San Telmo church in the busiest street of the old part and has an open kitchen and seating outside. Prepare to queue but it is worth the wait. We started with an old school rioja wine called Glorioso and followed with a seared red tuna from Cadiz, the fish had a lot of depth and flavour and it was served rare in the middle which is how I like it. We followed with an old school dish of pig’s trotter with romesco sauce. The meat flavour was delicious but the trotter had not been boned out so it was a bit tricky to pull all the meat off without any small bits of bone. We finished with a large gamba prawn cooked in salt and served with lime perfume and coconut pil pil. The prawn was succulent and sweet, the zesty lime lifted the dish, whilst the coconut sauce mellowed the flavour and provided an Asian twist.
Fuego Negro (31 de Agosto, 31)
These guys also offer experimental pintxos and host live DJs on Sundays. Ask for a Marianito, a traditional Basque cocktail served on Sunday mornings which is a variation on a negroni with a double measure of sweet vermouth, a dash of gin and Campari. The menu is divided between ‘pikoteos’ which are snack type foods, they always have a choice of salads and their pintxo choices called ‘Kositas’ tend to be either twists on classic pintxos or wacky experimental options. Their dessert choices are always good. Try their ‘black rabak’ which are a twist on the classic ‘rabas’, which are fresh squid pieces battered and deep fried. Their version is made with squid ink. I like their idiazabal risotto with squid ice cream, yes you heard. They have a mini burger full time on the menu, the Makcobe with txips, which is made from kobe beef and served in a wooden basket.
Ganbara (San Jeronimo 21)
This place is one of my favourite bars in San Sebastian. It is all about quality produce with these guys but be prepared to pay for it. Their chistorra puff pastry rolls are incredibly addictive and their mini croissants freshly baked in front of you and served with slices of rich nutty iberico ham are pure heaven. During the season they always have a selection of wild mushrooms such as ceps and girolles available to order. We went for a plate of fresh pan fried anchovies in garlic and chilli, the quality of the anchovies was inmense, shame that the chef slightly overcooked them. The fried fresh guindillas chillies were also very good. Similar to Padron peppers, fresh guindillas are long and thin green chillies, grown outside San Sebastian, normally served fried with a sprinkle of sea salt. They are widely available around the Basque Country during their season. The star dish was the pan fried ceps and girolles with a running egg yolk. A simple dish that sums Ganbara up: quality produce.
La Cepa (31 de Agosto, 7)
This place serves the best iberico ham in San Sebastian. The ham comes from Jabugo, a small village located in the province of Huelva. The word jabugo is often misused by Spaniards who call any Iberico ham ‘Jabugo’, even though the ham comes from elsewhere. Eating Jabugo ham is not an everyday occasion, so if you are in San Sebastian make the point to show your face at La Cepa and pair this incredible ham with a glass or two of delicious Ribera del Duero.
La Viña (31 de Agosto, 3)
Anyone that visits San Sebastian gets told to try the famous cheesecake made by La Viña. This bar is always full of locals and tourists eating this chunky baked cheesecake, in serious large amounts. I must have seen 50 portions of cheesecake being served in a space of 10 minutes. I cannot imagine how many portions they sell a week! It has certainly become the first widely known sweet pintxo in Basque cuisine and in my opinion a classic.