Eat: Pintxos 101 in San Sebastian

Friday, February 17, 2012

This is Part 2 to my Destination: San Sebastian series. Other posts in this series includes: Eat: A Fuego Negro,  Michelin Star: ArzakSee: Guggenheim Museum, and Eat: Bistro at the Guggenheim.

San Sebastian is in Basque County of Northern Spain and is the heart of Basque cuisine. You'll notice when you go to San Sebastian that all the signs are reminesent of Spanish. However, Spanish is not the native language of the land, it is Euskara. Ahhh, this explains why the word pintxos, pronounced "pinchos", is spelled with an x. That just makes pintxos so much more badass and ups its street cred.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again a million times, San Sebastian is truly foodie heaven and is the epitomy of basque cuisine. 

But enough about what I think about it, how about some picture proof?


Gandarias

A piece of perfectly Seared Foie Gras served on top of a baby baguette covered in apple compote and raspberry gastrique for $3. Do I have your attention yet? Good!

If you get nothing else out of Pintxos 101 today, I hope you know that if you ever go to San Sebastian - no, make that - WHEN you go to San Sebastian, you have to visit Gandarias to have this amazing pintxo.

Surprisingly, I didn't actually do too much research prior to going to San Sebastian, and most of the pintxos hunting came about by chance. As we were crawling through the different bars, we came upon Gandarias and saw another couple being handed this delicacy over the counter and knew we had to have it right away. What came more unexpectedly after was the bill, which showed that each one only costed us €2.35. Shocker! You can't even get a taco from the Kogi Truck for that cheap.

Couple the foie with a glass or two of wine for €1-2 and you have both a happy stomach and wallet.



We spent a total of three and a half days in San Sebastian with enough time to fit in seven solid meals (no breakfast). Since our time here was planned around meals, here's how it played out:

Day 1: Lunch near hotel & Pintxos crawl
Day 2: Lunch at Bistro in Bilbao/Guggenheim (Best Lunch Prix Fixe of my life) & Pintxos crawl around Old Town
Day 3: Pintxos in Old Town & Dinner at 3 Michelin Star Arzak
Day 4: Last meal: Pintxos in Old Town

Notice a pattern? Pintxos crawling in Old Town was clearly a favorite San Sebastian pasttime, and by Day 4 our stomachs grew natural GPSs leading us to our favorite pintxos.

Pintxos 101

You can find pintxos carefully placed on countertops on most bars located in Old Town. Some bars open up as early as 11 in the morning with food set up and close at around midnight. There's a very trusting system with the restaurant owners, you can walk in, ask for a plate, and pick pintxos directly off the counter and at the end of the meal, you can tell them how many you've had. Most pintxos are held together with a toothpick, so often times you can tell how many you've had simply by counting your toothpicks.

Some pintxos are better served hot, and you can ask those working behind the bar to heat it up for you. Also, there are hidden pintxos that are made to order, such as the foie gras at Gandarias. So, keep your eyes peeled to see what other people are ordering. You never know when you'll spot something unexpected to try.

In addition, you can usually find menus which are both in English and Euskara that lists out hot pintxo and portions, which is a bit larger than a pintxo, but not quite an entree. With that said, most of our pintxo crawling was done with our eyes peeled and noses bringing us to eat whatever looked and smelled most delicious. 






You'll notice that there's quite a few seafood pintxos available, so pescatarians, you'll be just fine hopping around. Since Basque is a coastal county, it only makes sense that there'd be so much seafood in the cuisine.

Some of the most popular toppings include shrimp, squid, and anchovy topped with either mayo, egg or olive oil and vegetable. You'll also find that a lot of olives and peppers are used in these pintxos. This tastes great with Txakoli, which is a sparkling dry white wine. When you see bartenders pouring wine from a distance above the glass, you'll know what they're up to.

You'll also see a ton of squid that's marniated in olive oil along with other herbs. Usually served with bread on the side, it is easily the most tender squid I've had served this way to me. 

Another favorite is easily jamón ibérico which can be found in almost every bar. This is a cured ham that is found all throughout Spain, but the best is found here in San Sebastian. You can see leg upon leg hung up in rows from the bar's ceiling.

In addition to the pintxos, you can find tubs of stewed dishes on the counters. Find braised pig snout, meatballs, or mushrooms in small orders. 



The jamón ibérico here was so good, that we actually went to a grocery store to have some freshly cut for us on our last day before we headed off to Barcelona. 

I know I must have talked pintxos to death now, so to those who are looking for a change of pace, I can tell you that any restaurant you stumble into here will probably serve you good food that's fresh . 

Prime example? Take La Vida, a restaurant (also pintxos bar) near our hotel. After travelling from Paris to San Sebastian, all we wanted to do was to put some food in our stomachs. We walked two blocks down to find this cute outdoors area to eat at. 



Coming from Paris, the €8 sticker price on food plus a glass of wine was a pleasant surprise. We ordered a simple seafood salad and a lamb burger. Both of these items exceed expectations as the seafood in the salad was fresh and abundant and the bun on the burger was freshly baked and the texture of the lamb burger was just delicious.



The pintxos that I've discussed here in this post are the more traditional types of pintxos you'll fine in the Basque cuisine, however, there is a particular trendy and modern pintxo bar, A Fuego Negro, that I'll have to talk about in its own blog post. That's coming up soon! We loved this one bar so much that we went there 3 out of 4 pintxo crawls - and only 3 because we didn't visit it first on our first night in town. 

Once again, here's a map to help you find your way around (but Old Town is really so small that it's not hard to just wander and eat happily).

View San Sebastian in a larger map

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