Pintxos are small appetizers pierced with a toothpick and served from large plates on bar tops. You take what you’d like, order some drinks, take a few more goodies if you have a hankering to do so and pay before you leave. The bartender simply counts up your toothpicks, remembers what you drank and charges you accordingly. Everything is on the honour system. Everything – drinks and food – is priced from one to a few euros. The atmosphere is chilled, relaxed; easy.
This post isn’t about naming names of places you “must try” for pintxos when you go to San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque Country. It’s more about priming your palette and your mind to maximally enjoy the experience. The ritual of enjoying pintxos is a bit about food and a lot about visiting and relaxing.
Read on to see how my family got along on our recent trip to Basque country’s culinary capital.
Pintxos and Produce
Local context always makes for better decisions when making food choices.
San Sebastian lies on the upper most North East part of the Spanish coast. It’s cooler, rainier, and more verdant than other areas of the country. Things grow well and the ocean delivers a bounty. Because of the setting there are certain things you are going to see in every pintxos bar. Jamón ibérico – or Iberian ham is omnipresent even though these black Iberian pigs that are fed a diet of acorns typically come from the south of Spain. Bacalao or salt cod is also popular and much to my delight, is most frequently served in a fried fritter format. The small city of San Sebastian has two fresh produce markets overflowing with inspiration for the local chefs (there are 30 Michelin starred restaurants in the city).
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to think about the who, what, when, where, why and how of pintxos.
Prime pintxos time
Once the sun starts to sink into the Atlantic, the tangle of streets that is old town starts to fill with people wondering from bar to pintxos bar. Look for bars with line ups and people spilling out onto the street. There will be high top tables and ledges for resting food and drinks on outer walls of establishments. If a place is just impossible to get into – move on. You’ll find one where you’ll meld eventually. There are lots of choices. Relax and go with the flow.
Once you can squeeze your way close to the food in a place, have a look and see if there are things that will tempt you to wait your turn to get close to a bartender. There will be several working the room and the crowd and all of them have eagle eyes and elephant-size memories. Once they point at you, yell your drink order over the din, (uno, dos, cerveza, rioja tinto reserva, verdejo, txakoli, sidra, sangria – these words and por favour and gracias are all you need to know) grab a plate and load up. The barkeeper will wave off an initial offer of payment. Enjoy your first drink and food. They’re hoping you’ll stay longer and order more. They only want to add your tab once.
By ten o’clock crowds thin as people move onto dinner.
Picking your pintxos
The first few nights we were out for pintxos we noticed that some people were eating sizzling hot dishes that came from the back kitchen instead of the food presented on the bar top. With a little more observation we started noticing black boards with “del dias fresca”. Aaaaah… Fresh daily specials. We had fun piecing together what they all might be and out of all the things we ordered from these boards there was only one that was rather dubious. We thought we were ordering calamari but instead ended up with the black squid ink ball you see below.
Lessons from locals
One evening we had the chance to go out for pintxos with some locals who became our dear friends. They went nowhere near old town.
First they took us to a chic place near the main music conservatory. Then we went down a back alley to a place they loved for octopus. Next it was on to an art gallery that had an amazing wine bar and that was where we found a long table and settled in for awhile.
Our friends make a fun game out of an evening of pintxos. They appoint one person accountant. Everyone hands over ten euros and they see how many places they can go for one drink and one pintxos before the accountant/captain tells them they’re out of funds. We did pretty well to get to that third place. When we decided the wine was good enough to keep us there awhile we started over again.
It seems like all great food cultures stick to a basic rule: what grows together goes together.
The local wines, beers, sidra or hard apple cider and sangria all pair well with the regional food. Txakoli (pronounced cha-koh-lee) is a white wine cum entertainment form. The bartenders make a real show out of pouring it from high above the glass to supposedly aerate it. It’s very fun to watch but if you like white wine just ask for a verdejo or rioja blanca and you’ll probably get better quality wine. The La Rioja region is less than two hours drive away and many of the reds were tinto reservas and quite delicious. Sidra is a local phenomenon and hugely popular. Our son enjoyed a daily sangria as a treat and teenage bragging rights.
Top pick for Pintxos in San Sebastian
I’m breaking my own rule. I am going to name one place that really stood out from the pintxos pack. If you get the chance – do give La Cuchara de San Telmo a try. We tried three times before we a) found them open b) could get in and c) they had any food left.
It was worth the wait. San Telmo is all about “experimental pintxos”. Everything is made to order and served as its ready. The pictures above do not do it justice. It was a truly drool worthy experience. I’d probably take a sleeping bag and camp out till opening next time.
We loved our daily pintxos possibilities in San Sebastian and really missed it when we moved on. We also had the chance for a little Michelin three star dining which I’ll write about another time and of course our best dining experience of all was making paella with our friend Jesus.
I hope you’ll get to go to San Sebastian one day. It’s truly a great place to savour it all.