There are few places on earth where you will eat better than in Northern Spain.
Of course, Spain’s closest culinary competitors, Italy and France, also have excellent and world-renowned cuisine. But the approach toward food and eating in Spain, particularly the Basque country, is distinctive and I think what is responsible for its standing in the food world. The food of Spain is uniquely playful, the eating experience uncommonly social. And amazingly, both things hold true whether spending 2 euros or 200 euros.
To get acquainted with the soul of Basque cuisine, start with the pintxo. Pixtos (pronounced peen-cho,) are a close relative of tapas, which come from Southern Spain. In their most traditional form, pintxos consist of a piece of bread with a topping held together by a toothpick. Pincho is the Spanish word for spike, and pintxo is the Euskaran (Basque) spelling of the word.
Pintxos can be found almost any time of day, and the selection changes from breakfast to lunch to dinner. But the high time for pintxos is Saturday night. Gaggles of old ladies, young families, and groups of friends make their way to the pintxo hot spots starting around 6pm. The din of diners grows until reaching a crescendo around 10pm, the older clientele still going strong. The best, and most crowded, bars are a jovial, chaotic frenzy. Most often, the pinxtos are eaten while standing; there simply isn’t enough room to sit. You are elbow to elbow with your neighbors, the many platters of pintxos, and the hustling staff. The boundaries of standard restaurants don’t exist here.
I wasn’t expecting the infectious energy of these pinxto bars, any more than I was expecting the sheer variety of pinxtos. Many bars specialize in a type of pinxto, but even these bars run the gamut in terms of selection.
We were puzzled at first by what to order – analysis paralysis in the extreme. If you find yourself at a pinxto bar in Spain, first look to see what people are ordering the most. And then ask someone who works there what is good. Last, go slow. Everything will look amazing, but if you pace yourself you will figure out what is excellent versus good, and what you like the most. The pintxos on the bar are typically cold, but I found that many of my favorite pinxtos are served hot. Menus are not always available so this is where the recommendations above become critical.
Though many pintxos are faithfully created from recipes that are dozens, if not hundreds, of years old, others are playfully original. Though traditional pintxo bars exist throughout northern Spain, San Sebasitan is widely regard as el rey de los pintxos. San Sebastian is also where the most creative pintxos can be found. La hoguera (bonfire) at Bar Zeruko in San Sebastian was one of the best experimental pintxos. The center of the dish is cod, a common ingredient in the area. But in this version the diner smokes the cod over some hot, tiny coals to their liking, and finishes off the fish with shot of herbaceous juice.
But if you overlook the classics, you will have missed out on a critical part of the Basque experience. Various kinds of seafood are plentiful San Sebastian, a city of 200,000 people on the Bay of Biscay. The most typical pintxos involve anchoas, anchovies cured in salt and olive oil, or boquerones, fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar. Other ingredients that seem unusual to the uninitiated, such as sea urchin, cod roe, and cod intestine, are commonly found on many pintxo platters.
Though most of the seafood dishes are served cold, I urge again to follow the recommendations above when seeking out pintxos for some of the best. That’s what I did at bar Martinez and ended up with one of the best pieces of tuna, which was fatty, smoky, and a touch sweet, I’ve ever had.
San Sebastian would not be the king of pintxos if it couldn’t handle meat as well as it does seafood. One of the foods most associated with the Basque region is the txuleta, which is essentially a beef chop. A txuleta is a far cry from a pintxo, as they typically weigh between 1-2 kilos (2-4 lbs). However, many pintxo bars will serve txuletitas, small pieces of grilled beef from a similar cut, which are in fact able to be served on a large toothpick.
Another magnificent dish that stretches the definition of pintxo is the hunk of foie gras served at La Cuchara de San Telmo. The foie is almost as a big as a fist, perfectly seared, and lovingly accompanied by an applesauce and glaze. La Cuchara probably serves hundreds of foies each day in a bar as cramped and chaotic as anything I’ve seen (I’m including 3rd class train cars in Southeast Asia in this analysis). But each plate comes out looking and tasting as if it were made just for us, the crowd melting away with the first bite. Almost as amazing as the food, the bill for this dish comes to 3.50 euros.
Of critical importance to the pintxo experience is not only the food, but the wine. A lot of the red wine comes from Rioja, a region just to the south. Typically, pintxo bars will have all the four qualities of rioja wine available – joven, crianza, reserva, and gran reserva (ordered from lowest to highest quality). Most people order the joven or the crianza at casual places, and even these “lower” quality wines are often outstanding, and that’s before factoring in that they cost between 1-2 euros.
But the most common pairing for seafood pintxos is a glass of local txakoli. This wine in made throughout the Basque country and has a slight effervescence and refreshing minerality, making it a perfect match for those salty anchoas. It always served with a flare – the barkeep raises the bottle to about the level of his head and pours into the wine glass below. Not merely a theatrical gesture, this helps release some of the tiny bubbles and livens the flavor.
The thing with pintxos is that they’re small enough it’s easy to convince yourself that there is always room for one more. The friendly cacophony spills from inside to the streets, and the assurance of interesting and good food draws you back in, bar after bar. I ate for hours and stopped long after the point of reasonability, leaving in a state of punch-drunk bliss.
Recommendations and restaurants mentioned
San Sebastian, all located in the old part of town (parte vieja)
La Cuchara de San Telmo – Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
For grilled octopus (pulpo) and foie gras, but anything is good
Borda Berri – Fermin Calbeton 12
For braised tongue (lengua)
Bar Martinez – Calle 31 de Agosto, 13
For red tuna (atun rojo)
Goiz Argi – Calle Fermin Calbeton 4
For marijuli, prawns (gambas), and cod roe (huevos de bacalao)
Bar Zeruko – Calle Pescaderia 10 (right across from Txepetxa)
For la hoguera (the bonfire)
Bar Gandarias – Calle 31 de Agosto
For marinated anchovies (boquerones)
Bar Txepetxa – Calle Pescaderia 5
For any anchovy related pintxo
Bilbao, all located in the plaza nueva
Gure Toke – Nueva Plaza, 1
For braised short rib (costilla de vaca)
Victor Montes – Nueva Plaza, 1
standard pintxo fare. I gravitated toward the blood sausage (morcilla)
La Olla – Plaza Nueva 2
standard pintxo fare. I gravitated toward the duck (pato) and foie. Also, has a very cool bathroom.