Pintxos heaven in San Sebastian
How do you not fall head-over-heels in love with San Sebastian? With one of Europe’s best city beaches on its doorstep… rolling jade-green hills in the backdrop… more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else in the world… and the quaintness of the Parte Vieja’s (Old Town) narrow streets which seem to blend seamlessly into the more modern neighbouring districts…. I could rave on and on and on. For me, this little Barcelona-esque-cum-French Riviera gem on Spain’s North coast has gone straight to the top of my list of favourite destinations in the world.
I’ll cover our meal at the legendary 3-Michelin* Arzak in another post, but first up on the foodie catwalk has to be our culinary tour of the Old Town’s best Pintxo bars. The Basque country’s version of Tapas, the people of San Sebastian take their Pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) very seriously indeed. Chefs here have elevated these little 2-bite snacks into an art form. The sight of the amazing spread of food laid out on top of bar counters alone is enough to set the salivary glands into overdrive.
You will find both traditional bars serving simpler classics as well as more modern, cutting-edge places pushing the boundaries of fusion and molecular gastronomy. Etiquette varies slightly from bar to bar. At some, it’s all about honesty – simply pick what you want from the counter and keep track of what you have eaten to settle the bill later. At others, especially those where the dishes are freshly cooked to order, bar-tenders will formally keep a tab of your orders. As a rough guide, most Pintxos are typically priced at €2-€3, and its customary to bar-hop through a lunch or dinner session across multiple places, having 2 to 3 snacks per bar. Wash all the goodness down with a glass of chilled, red Tempranillo from the nearby Rioja region or the local, lightly sparkling white wine (Txakoli) which bar-tenders pour from a height to aerate the wine further.
So here it is – my hitlist of Parte Vieja‘s best Pintxos bars and their respective speciality dishes. There’s a map at the end of this post for reference and I will continue to keep this list updated as I revisit this city that’s fast becoming my 3rd home after KL & London. I’ve included captions with translations should you want to order the same things we had. Pointing at whatever you fancy or looking at what everyone else is enjoying will work just fine as well – chefs, barkeepers and staff are generally super friendly in this town!
Bar Zeruko (Calle Pescaderia, 10)
First up, my favourite Pintxos bar of them all. One of San Sebastian’s more modern bars, Zeruko’s counter-top is a sight to behold. Amongst their hot specialities, ‘smoking’ salt cod (Hoguera de Bacalao) and Grilled Sirloin with Foie Gras (Solomillo con Foie) are a must. There’s also plenty of interesting choices laid out on the bar which you can point at. Lookout for the sea urchin custard and the baby eels (Angulas) when in season too – both are fantastic!
Bar Txepetxa (Calle Pescaderia, 5)
It’s all about their marinaded anchovies (Antxoas) here. Bar Txepetxa boasts 14 different varieties of Pintxos all using the freshest, plumpest anchovies I have ever tasted. My favourite combinations are with Papaya (trust me, it works!) & their Jardiniera topped with pickled bell peppers. My favourite of San Sebastian’s traditional spots.
Bar Nestor (Calle Pescaderia, 11)
There’s no menu here at this old school Pintxos bar. Only 4 dishes are on offer – Tortilla, Tomato Salad, Grilled Padron Peppers & Grilled Beef Rib Chop (Txuleton). Simple, traditional favourites, but boy has Senor Nestor perfected his craft. Nestor’s Tortilla is hands down the best I have ever come across in Spain and anywhere in the world. He makes just 2 wheel-sized tortillas a day – one for lunch at 1pm, another for dinner at 8pm – each unveiled exactly on the hour. Once it’s gone, it’s gone so make sure to pop in a bit earlier and put your name down for his €2 slice of utter perfection. The Txuleton here – huge rib chops cut from old Galician Blonde dairy cows – is one of the finest in town too. The minimum size though is often upwards of 800g so either go when you are starving, or make sure you have a group to take it down!
La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 23)
Mind the strong tourist following at La Cuchara, but this little, hidden-away bar just off the main street puts a modern spin on classic Pintxos and other Basque-favourites. Everything is cooked fresh to order and you will hear repeated shouts from the bar-keeper for more of the house speciality, Braised Veal Cheeks in Red Wine (Carrilera) to be cooked. Slow-cooked, meaty goodness that just melts away in the mouth. Also excellent are the Pressed Pig’s Ear (Oreja de Cerdo Pensada) and their Roasted Foie Gras with Apple Compote (Foie Gras con Compota de Manzana).
La Vina (Calle 31 de Agosto, 3)
There’s decent savoury options here aplenty, but La Vina’s piece de resistance is their Tarte de Queso – the best Basque-style cheesecake in town! Baked till caramelised on the outside… still soft and creamy on the inside, dee-licious.
La Cepa (Calle 31 de Agosto, 7)
La Cepa serves up a wide variety of traditional Pintxos – both hot specialities cooked to order as well as cold options spread over their bar-top counter. The produce here is top notch. Lookout for their Grilled Ceps (Hongos a la Plancha). The meaty abalone-like texture and earthy flavour of these grilled mushrooms are just superb. We also had excellent acord fed ham (Jamon Iberico de Bellota) here. The meat had the most gorgeous depth of flavour.
A Fuego Negro (Calle 31 de Agosto, 31)
The food here at Fuego Negro is modern, cutting-edge, almost Heston Blumenthal-esque. Expect playful dishes galore from their Mini Kobe Beef Burgers with Banana Chips (Makobe) to their Salt cod ‘carbonated’ in squid ink powder (Bakaloo enkarbonao). But if there is one dish you have here, make it their Txitxarro – this creation of Mackerel sashimi & oneja cheese on a melt-in-the-mouth Cherry Meringue base is just marvellous.
Bar Goiz Argi (Calle Fermin Calbeton, 4)
A bustling little bar at the top of Calle Fermin Calbeton, the house speciality here is Prawn skewers (Brocheta de Gambas). Cooked fresh to order on the hotplate and topped off with a sweet, red pepper sauce, it’s simple, but oh so perfect. Lookout also for the smoked salmon & anchovy Pintxo (Mari Juli), named after the bar’s owner I’m told.
Bar Haizea (Calle Aldamar, 8)
Featured on Anthony Boudain’s No Reservations show back in 2008, this was the Pintxos bar which the legendary Juan Mari Arzak takes Bourdain to. In many ways, this was my first introduction to San Sebastian and Pintxos culture. And having revisited this bar over the years, it’s good to see it still going strong. I love their Brick de Bacalao here – a crispy, scrumptious salt cod fritter. Also delicious is the Langostino con crema de mariscos – freshly grilled langoustines, smothered in a rich, creamy seafood sauce.
Ganbara (Calle San Jeronimo Kalea, 19)
Walk into Ganbara and what greets you is some of the most phenomenal produce in town. Wild mushrooms galore… langoustines still alive and kicking… even the prized Goose Barnacles (Percebes) are available here. The cooking style here is traditional, with the prized ingredients shown the utmost respect. My favourite of their dishes is the Surtidos de Setas – an assorted wild mushroom medley including Ceps (Hongos), Chanterelles (Zizahori), & black trompettes. There’s some superb wines available by the glass here too.