Beyond the Five Boroughs – Basque Country Part 2: Pintxos in San Sebastian

A stunning array of pintxos at a bar in San Sebastian

This is the third installment of our Beyond the Five Boroughs series on Northern Spain and the second of three on the Basque Country. The first post was on the foods of Barcelona. The second was on the Basque towns of Hondarribia, Saint Jean-de-Luz and Espelette.

San Sebastian is essentially my version of paradise. There isn’t exactly anything to “do” there. Days are spent lounging on the long crescent-shaped beach and wading in the crystal clear water that is shielded from waves by a small island in the center of the inlet. Meal times are spent enjoying pintxos in the old town, traditional and modern alike, set out in overwhelming arrays of color and flavor.

The key word here is txikiteo. Txikiteo (pronounced “chee-kee-TAY-oh”) is the art of hopping from bar to bar, stopping at each for a carefully selected pintxo and a drink. Txikiteo is both easier and harder than it sounds. It is easier because the old town is packed full of pintxos bars, often with multiple attractive locations on a single block (see map below), and everyone is joining in the fun. It is harder because choosing only a single pintxo at each stop, or even only a few, takes an awful lot of willpower.

Lunch: Traditional Pintxos

Colorful pintxos on the bar

Pintxos (pronounced “PEEN-chohs”), as I mentioned before, are small plates or finger foods that are traditionally served on toasts and speared through with a toothpick. Traditional pintxos bars are self-service; you grab a plate and go to town, grabbing whatever looks good to you in the moment. Payment is on the honor system and is based either on the number of toothpicks left on your plate or on what you report to the bartender before you leave. Used napkins belong on the floor.

The scene at the bar

I can’t even remember the name of the first pintxos bar I walked into in San Sebastian. All I remember was the convivial scene at the bar, the casual atmosphere and the food — the glorious food, which practically exploded off the bar in a dazzling array of color. Smoked cod and salmon were draped over little toasts and topped with cured anchovies and a green minced salsa. Spanish ham was piled up with rounds of grilled octopus or with morcilla, brie and figs. Little glasses of fish soup were topped with peppers. Creamy crab salad was piled on slices of bread and topped with jumbo shrimp or smoked salmon. There were beautiful cheeses, cubes of traditional tortilla, little sandwiches, slabs of bacon and bright green peppers paired with olives and drizzled with a creamy white sauce. My prospects of following the one-pintxo-per-bar rule were rapidly dimming.

Crab salad, mushroom omelet and brie with a glass of Txakoli

We compromised and selected three pintxos for the two of us: crab salad with smoked salmon, an earthy omelet filled with wild mushrooms, and brie with balsamic drizzle and a light dusting of dill. The crab salad was remarkable: the fresh and creamy crab topped with smokey salmon, the texture balanced by crusty bread. We washed it all down with a glass of txakoli (“chah-koh-LEE”), the lightly sparkling white wine served all over Basque country, poured from a height so that the wine aerates as it falls and splashes against the glass below. It was a great start to a meal that only got better, later featuring treats like grilled shrimp skewer with orange chutney and a simple toast of creamy blue cheese with walnuts at another bar down the street.

Dinner:  Modern Pintxos

Lobster Toast with Aioli and Herb Oil at Bar Zeruko

That evening, we set out to try some of San Sebastian’s more modern pintxos. Basques are passionate about food and talented chefs have innovated on the pintxos theme, developing creative offerings while maintaining the small plates approach and casual pintxos bar feel. Every place has its specialty, which you can research in advance or simply ask at the bar for the most popular dishes.

Beef Cheeks at Bar Borda-Berri

Our first stop was Bar Borda Berri, where we chose their renowned beef cheeks and their mushroom risotto. The beef cheeks were fall-apart tender, served with a chunky red tomato sauce and a smooth green basil sauce with a drizzle of herb oil. It was juicy and flavorful, one of the best pintxos of the night. The mushroom risotto was creamy and earthy, with a strong mushroom flavor perhaps from some truffle oil. The rice was wide and tender, almost like orzo. We downed our first glass of txakoli.

Stuffed Piquillo Peppers at Bar Goiz Argi

Just up the block was Bar Goiz Argi, with its L-shaped bar, open kitchen and laid-back feel. The pintxos were prepared most of the way and set out at the bar, but the staff insisted on finishing them for you to order and serving them hot. We ordered a shrimp skewer and were rewarded with shrimp hot off the grill, topped with an orange chutney that melted over the shrimp for a delicate combination of savory and sweet. But the highlight were decadent sweet piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod brandade and baked with a creamy pink tomato sauce reminiscent of vodka sauce from back home. We almost ordered seconds, especially because the bar was so comfortable. Instead we summoned our willpower, tossed our napkins on the floor and downed the second glass of txakoli.

Smoked Cod at Bar Zeruko

Things were not so comfortable when we arrived at Bar Zeruko, which was absolutely mobbed, presumably because it offers some of the most interesting modern pintxos around. Comfortable-looking tables in the back were reserved for customers ordering their tasting menu, which was tempting but would have violated our interpretation of txikiteo. My attempts to elbow my way to the bar were in vain.

Ultimately we found a little table by the bar where a waitress was willing to bring us pintxos. At her suggestion, we ordered a luxurious pintxo of tender, juicy lobster with aioli and herbs on a toast. We were pleased. Then she brought us a miniature smoker with fresh cod sitting on top. As we enjoyed the third glass of txakoli, we smoked the cod to our liking and draped it over the circular toast provided with creamy herb aioli on top. We wondered why there is not more smoked cod in the U.S.

Anchovy Tempura at Bar Tamboril

Our last stop was Bar Tamboril, a traditional spot famous for “txampis”, a basque play on the Spanish word champiñon, for mushrooms. It was near closing time and the floor was littered with paper napkins, each one a tribute to a happy customer enjoying the txampis of txikiteos past. The txampis were tender and garlicky, sitting on toasts that admittedly were a little soggy from the mushrooms. More effective, we thought, was a simple anchovy tempura, a fresh and crispy treat combining the traditional anchovy with the modern Basque’s love for tempura. We left at closing time, wandering home full and happy, regretting only that we had forgotten to order the fourth glass of txakoli.

Lunch:  A Fuego Negro

The “Makcobe” Burger with a Ketchup-Infused Bun at A Fuego Negro

The next day, txikiteo went out the window. We decided to start our lunch at A Fuego Negro, and we lucked out, snagging a prime spot on the short side of the shallow U-shaped bar. The place was modern chic, the pintxos written out whimsically on a black chalk board behind the bar. The menu was purportedly written in Castillian Spanish, but it all look Basque to me. I needed some guidance.

Our spot by the bar at A Fuego Negro (after giving it up)

The master of ceremonies was an energetic middle-aged gentleman who seemed to work the entire bar by himself. Once you had his attention, you had about four seconds to blurt out your order before he was on to someone else. Since the menu was virtually impenetrable to us, we asked him for the specialties of the house, and he rewarded us accordingly.

He started us with gazpacho helado, frozen gazpacho stuffed into a plastic tube and eaten like an ice pop. It was a surprising combination of textures and flavors, with the mouthfeel of ices and the garlicky, vegetable flavor of gazpacho (see our recipe). Next arrived the Makcobe (pronounced “mah-KOH-bay”), presented to us as their most popular item, a kobe beef slider wedged inside a bright red ketchup-infused bun and served with “txips” (i.e., homemade potato chips). It was a whymsical, juicy, excellent burger and I wondered why nobody in burger-crazed New York City has thought to bake the ketchup into the bun. The name, I suppose, was a playful tribute to McDonald’s.

Vegetable Tempura at A Fuego Negro

The parade of delicious continued, with delicate cod served over creamy “pepper seeds” and a tomato-based fish soup in a glass. We were wowed by a giant cone of vegetable tempura, served with two sauces, a spiced red homemade ketchup and a creamy white potato aioli. The vegetables were brilliantly chosen, with whole carrots, thick slices of zucchini and long green shishitso peppers. The Basque love for tempura was on full display. By the end we realized that our will had been overborne and we had spent the whole meal at A Fuego Negro.

It was bittersweet reaching the end of our tour of San Sebastian’s pintxos, but we were excited for what lay ahead. That evening we had a date to meet the legendary chef Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena at their world-class restaurant, Arzak.

Continue to Restaurante Arzak Part 1: A Personal Tour.

View San Sebastian Pintxos in a larger map

Bar Borda Berri:  Fermin Calbeton 12, 20003 San Sebastian. +34 94 343 03 42.

Bar Goiz Argi:  Calle Fermin Calbeton 4, 20003 San Sebastian. +34 94 342 52 04.

Bar Zeruko:  Calle Pescaderia 10, 20003 San Sebastian. +34 94 342 34 51.

Bar Tamboril:  Calle de Pescadería, 2, 20003 San Sebastián. +34 94 342 35 07.

A Fuego Negro:  Abuztuaren Hogei ta Hamaikako Kalea, 31, 20003 San Sebastián.
+34 65 013 53 73.

Visit Spain and Make Pintxos:

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