SAN SEBASTIAN, a small seaside city in northern Spain’s Basque Country, is currently the world’s most exciting culinary destination, with more Michelin stars per capita (currently 16) than anywhere else. San Sebastian is also famous for its outstanding pintxos – pronounced “pinchos” – Basque-style tapas. These small, savory canapés are presented in a myriad of colors, forms and flavor combinations, laid out on giant platters and spread along every counter in town. Twice a day, hundreds of people pour into the streets for a traditional “pintxos crawl,” moving from bar to bar: tasting, drinking and socializing. In San Sebastian, pintxos are more than delicious snacks, they are ingrained in the city’s culinary history, they are a way of life.
San Sebastian has topped my bucket list for years. This Basque town has established itself as the soul of the culinary world, the greatest influencer of contemporary Western cuisine, in other words: Foodie Mecca. The mere idea of a pintxos crawl – thousands upon thousands of haute cuisine small bites (anchovies! foie gras! beef cheeks!) at my fingertips – leaves me breathless and dizzy. When I find myself in the center of San Sebastian’s Old Town at prime pintxos time, I just about lose my mind.
Warning: Your first pintxos encounter may induce a full-on foodie freakout.
There are hundreds of choices in front of me. The mouthwatering spread reminds me of a wedding, a really, really great Basque wedding. The bar is crowded, I hesitate before diving into the feeding frenzy. Thoughts flood my brain.Where do I stand? What do I order? I point at a single silvery anchovy on toast, and the bartender hands me a plate. I realize I have no idea what I’m doing. I learn on the fly as I eat my way through San Sebastian’s Old Town, one pintxos bar after another. I feel like I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole into my ultimate foodie fantasy.
Fellow foodies, TAKE NOTE. A pintxos crawl through San Sebastian is one of those necessary, unforgettable, culinary experiences of a lifetime. Just do it.
How to Order and Eat Pintxos
Ask for a plate. Most pintxos bars are self service. Select your own tapas by hand and show the bartender your plate; you will be charged accordingly. I found the majority of bar-top pintxos to cost between €1.00 and €3.00 a piece.
Order a drink. Traditionally, pintxos and txakoli (pronounced Chak-o-LEE) – a slightly sparkling Basque white wine – go hand in hand. When txakoli is poured, it’s a dramatic event. I like to call it “foodie dinner theater.” The bottle is held from a height, creating an impressive two foot stream into a tall glass. This helps to aerate the wine, creating more bubbles. Txakoli is bright and dry. Other wine options are red, white and rosé. There’s no right or wrong pairing with pintxos. You’ll find that wine servings are on the small side. Because a pintxos crawl involves more than one bar, modest portions ensure you won’t literally be “crawling.”
Taste the very best. Each pintxos bar has a signature dish. Chances are it’s not already on display. Make sure to ask the bartender about any specialty pintxos, usually prepared to order. This will often end up being your most delicious option at the bar.
Pintxos etiquette: To avoid playing the bewildered tourist, watch the locals eat their pintxos. You’re permitted to pick up pintxos with your hands. Even if there’s little space on the bar, feel free to squeeze your plate between the serving platters. The same goes for your wine glass. If you want more, help yourself. If you’re even considering a third helping, move onto the next bar for goodness’ sake!
Learn to litter. Notice the pile of crumpled paper napkins on the floor. They’re supposed to be there. Drop your own napkin when you’re finished and hand your empty plate and glass to the bartender.
Where to Eat Pintxos in San Sebastian
In la Parte Vieja (the Old Town), Calle 31 de Agosto is a great place to begin. Some of the town’s best pintxos bars line this street, scattered between traditional Bar La Viña (C/31 de Agosto 3) and avant-garde A Fuego Nero (C/31 de Agosto 31). Take a deliciously indulgent stroll from one end to the other. Other notable stops along the way: Bar Martínez (C/31 de Agosto 9) for a sleek spread of cold pintxos, La Cuchara de San Telmo (C/31 de Agosto 28 – set back from the street next to the church) for made-to-order haute pintxos. My favorite pintxos bar on the strip is Casa Gandarias (C/31 de Agosto 23) serving up an array of classic and creative pintxos. Even a simple jamon and queso mini baguette made me weak at the knees, the bread was absolutely perfect.
Another stand-out pintxos strip is Calle Pescadería, a short and somewhat difficult to find street, running between Plaza de la Constitucíon and Calle San Juan. Here you’ll find my top pintxos bar in San Sebastian, the breathtakingly creative Zeruko (C/Pescadería 10) and noteworthy neighbors Txepetxa (C/Pescadería 5) famous for their elaborate menu of marinated anchovies and Bar Tamboril (C/Pescadería 2) for tasty battered shrimp.
Some pintxos bars are traditional, serving up classic Basque pintxos: marinated anchovies served with green olives and pickled guindilla peppers, tiny toasts piled with a variety of toppings from tuna salad to Iberico ham, platters of squid, fried shrimp, quail’s egg omelets and more. The flavor combinations seem endless. It’s impossible to try everything. I’m a huge fan of mild, white anchovies so I sampled as many antxoas as I could.
San Sebastian is world famous for spearheading a progressive culinary revolution. This new Basque cuisine – art-meets-food bordering on molecular gastronomy – is taking pintxos to the next level. Two bars famous for creative pintxos are A Fuego Negro and Zeruko. Though I sampled an array of pintxos at A Fuego Negro (a kobe beef slider, playboy bunny rabbit, tomato-bechamel shot) I found the darkened red environment hip and cool to the point of sterile. The reason Zeruko captured my heart is that the bar is buzzing, the staff is friendly and the pintxos are accessible high art. From a savory blood sausage-stuffed puff pastry to a creamy sea urchin mousse served in the spiny shell, Zeruko encourages its customers to play with their food in a bright, multisensory environment.
My oddest pintxos experience was in Bar Ganbara (C/San Jerónimo 21) where I initially headed for their sublime version of txangurro, a Basque-style stuffed European spider crab. In an experimental, txakoli-fueled moment, I tried goose barnacles, a Spanish delicacy. After a step-by-step lesson from the bartender I pried open a barnacle and chowed down on its fishy, clam-like flesh. The taste is completely unique – sweet and salty with heavy ocean overtones.
Foodie Tip: A Few Must-Order “Special” Pintxos
Bar Zeruko – La Hoguera (bonfire) de Bacalao is a do-it-yourself charcoal smoked cod. Use the wooden tweezers to smoke the glistening white cod over a charcoal nugget, then place it over an herb-creamed chip. Follow with a test tube chaser of “green juice.”
Bar Ganbara – Txangurro, carmelized onions and spider crab, minced to a savory paste and served in a buttery tart shell.
Bar La Viña – A cream cheese and anchovy-stuffed cone and their signature cheesecake, a giant golden cake, light and fluffy without being too sweet.
Casa Gandarias – Tender sirloin strips on toast.
It took me three tries over three days to complete my ultimate pintxos crawl. I had to learn the art of restraint, no matter how many irresistible pintxos appeared within arm’s reach. I quickly learned which bars were the best bars, and what to order from the kitchen even when I couldn’t read the menu. I raised my glass with the locals and took everyone’s earnest suggestions. I was swept down one bar by a helpful elderly woman and coerced into ordering second helpings from another. I had to walk off one plate of pintxos just to regain enough appetite to withstand the next bite. San Sebastian’s pintxos crawl is like a foodie’s marathon sport -if you train for it, you’ll get it right.
For additional mouth-watering pintxos photos, access the complete album here.