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Pinching Pintxos in San Sebastian

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The typical Spanish culture involves tapas, small dishes usually consumed in one or two bites along with a small glass of beer or wine. The Basque has it's own dialect and the tapas is known as pintxos here; the "tx" is pronounced like "ch" so "pintxos" sounds like "pinchos". This is because pintxos means "spike" and traditionally the kittle snacks consist of an ingredient nailed onto a piece of bread with a toothpick equivalent. Some people regard pintxos as being the best form of tapas and that San Sebastian has the best pintxos.

Most of the recommended places that serve pintxos are congregated in the old town, Parte Vieja, in the northern part, next to the beach. Most of them are bars and taverns (taverna, taberna) and locals usually order from the bar, grab their goodies and eat it at the bar or on a counter nearby; not all places have a sitting area and some charge higher prices for using them. Lots of people tend to do a bar crawl or “txikiteo” in Basque, ordering only one or two items per location, imbibing a bit of a drink, then moving on to the next spot. This worked out quite well for us as we could try out each bar's speciality.


You’ll be pleased to know that the following is pretty much a gallery of food porn. Because there are just too many things to go through, I won’t be doing a review of them per se. Instead, you can rest assured that all the items below are stuff we ordered, tried and thoroughly enjoyed, most of them being recommendations we sourced from other food blogs and fellow bloggers’ recommendatins in particular the pleasure monger, the critical couple, gas•tron•o•my and todo pintxos. This list isn’t all-encompassing by any means and the general rules of going-to-places-with-lots-of-happy-eating-people-inside, ordering-what-other-people-are-eating-and-enjoying and point-at-whatever-you-fancy will work well too.

The pictures are labelled in the Basque name taken straight from the menu or blackboard, if any (so you can find it on the menu if you’re there too) and explained in English (so you can understand them!). If there isn’t a Basque name, it’s a random item we chose off the counter which we thought looked great to try. Since we speak very little/ no Spanish, we tried our very best to identify what we ate. Most of the dishes are pretty straightforward, but knowing the names of a few ingredients and names will work wonders, especially as most places don’t have English speaking staff. The only exceptions to this are food from Bar Zeruko and A Fuego Negro, the two trendy, very modern pintxo bars.

  • Kalimotxo – red wine + Coca Cola; a bit like a simple sangria, really refreshing to drink actually.
  • Txakoli – slightly sparkling, dry and crisp white wine, speciality of the region. Usually poured from a distance above the glass to create a little fizz.
  • Zurrito – a 6 ounce pull of draft.

drinks, San Sebastian
From left: guy pouring txakoli; zurrito (left) and txakoli (right); kalimotxo (front) and zurrito (back).

Key words to look out for:
  • Antxoas – anchovy; varies in size depending on the place, but somehow feels less pungent and fishy here. A must-try.
  • Angulas – baby eels. These are extremely expensive, so imitation “gulas”, which are made from pollock, are usually used as substitute.
  • Bacalao – salted cod; found virtually everywhere.
  • Hongos – wild mushroom; can get pricey.
  • Jamón Jabugo - or jamón Ibérico. A type of Spanish cured ham made with Iberian pig from Jabugo town. A must-try in Spain.
  • Kokotxa – lower jaw meat; a speciality favourite here.
  • Morcilla – black pudding, made with pig's blood and usually with rice, onions and other spices added; tends to have more rice and less offal taste than the UK version.
  • Pimiento – peppers; usually not spicy.
  • Txipiron/txipis – squid; most of the squid we tried were really tender, not rubbery or chewy in the slightest.
  • Txangurro – Basque-style baked crab. Something like dressed crab. Either served in ramekins or crab shells.
  • Txampi – mushroom.

  • Plancha – grilled.
  • Revuelto - scrambled.
  • Relleno – stuffed; so pimiento relleno morcilla would be peppers stuffed with black pudding in my very poor Spanish. 
Bars below are arranged geographically by streets and in no order of preference. All pintxos are priced around €3 and €1 for drinks on average.

Ganbara - Calle de San Jerónimo, 21

Known for its mushrooms. 

ganbara, San Sebastian
  • Revuelto hongos y gambas - scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms and prawns. Tasty stuff but the most expensive plate of pintxo (or maybe racione) we had, €17.
  • Mini-croissant stuffed with jamon. Buttery goodness.

Bar Goiz Argi - Calle Fermin Calbeton, 4

goiz argi, San Sebastian
  • Highly recommended for its brocheta de gambas - prawn bruschetta with their famous house sauce made with peppers, vinegar, olive oil and other unknown ingredients. Simply delicious. I was expecting a very sharp and tart salsa sauce topping, but the special sauce was quite mild and tasty with just the right amount of tartness.
  • Txangurro para calendar - cream of crab. Very strong shellfish flavour, tasty stuff. You will see this on the counter, they will heat this up/ bake before serving.

Borda Berri - Calle de Fermin Calbeton, 12

Style and menu similar to La Cuchara de San Telmo (see later).

borda berri, San Sebastian
  • Risotto negro con txipiron - actually made with orzo instead of risotto rice. Cooked to perfection - firm "al dente" texture, delicious.
  • Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto - Tender beef cheek in rich and flavourful red wine sauce. Better than La Cuchara’s IMO. The mild pepper sauce (I think) adds a nice fresh flavour contrast.

Munto - Calle de Fermin Calbeton, 17

munto, San Sebastian
  • Txipiron a la plancha - bread topped with grilled squid and caramelised onions. Simply delicious.
  • Txipi relleno (setas, gambas y jamon iberico) - Squid stuffed with cheese, prawn and jamon paste. The jamon was a bit muted in the filling.
  • Tartaleta de txangurro al horno - baked tart with creamy crab filling. Tasty stuff.

Tamboril - Calle Pescaderia 2

Cheapest pintxos we had, prices ranging from €1.60 to €2.80. 

tamboril, San Sebastian
  • Txampis Tamboril - mushrooms and bread on a stick drowned in a very tasty sauce.
  • Pimientos de morcilla - battered pepper stuffed with black pudding.

Txepetxa - Calle Pescaderia, 5

Known for its big fat antxoas (anchovies) topped with various ingredients.

txepetxa, San Sebastian
  • Antxoas con crema de centollo - anchovy with cream of spider crab.
  • Antxoas con erizos de mar - anchovy with sea urchin. Don’t taste much of the sea urchin IMO.

Bar Zeruko - Calle Pescaderia, 10

A MUST-visit. From the sights to the tastes, everything is one of a kind. This was our first pintxo bar stop upon our arrival in San Sebastian. It was one of the very few bars that was open around quarter to 4. The kitchen was closed, so we just picked whatever was left on the counter. We went back again just before we left to try out the specials on the board.

bar zeruko 1, San Sebastian
  • Morcilla and foie coated with ground pistachio.
  • Smoked salmon stuffed with cream cheese on a crouton base, served with pickled onions. 
  • Cream of sea urchin. Deliciously creamy.
  • Grilled artichoke stuffed with a creamy filling topped with grilled scallops.
  • Bread topped with jamon, grilled squid and pepper. The jamon was a nice surprise.
zeruko, San Sebastian
  • Hamburguesa de chipiron - minced squid on a crunchy crouton base topped with an airy black savoury “cloud”. This was served with wasabi salsa, which added a nice kick. A must-try.
  • Elvers (baby eels) on a crispy deep-fried potato shell served with a sunny-side-up quail egg. The texture of the elvers was…interesting, bouncy like noodles. Maybe it's all in the head but it felt like the little things were wriggling in your mouth, a rather weird feeling, not much flavour too.
  • Cococha de bacalao - crouton base, foie, cod’s “chin” meat and a thin film of tart and sweet sherry jelly. The flavour of the foie here is not that strong, so it doesn’t overpower the cod.
  • Bacalao (La Hoguera) - translates into cod (the “bonfire”). The barman will ask you to self-smoke and grill the bacalao for a minute each side, top it onto the crouton with caramelised onions topped with herb and garlic mayonnaise, put the whole thing into your mouth then down the slightly fizzy “liquefied salad” in the test tube. Awe-mazing.

Aralar - Puerto, 10

We were given a plate and asked to picked anything we wanted from the counter. This is probably our least favourite bar, the food just didn’t seem to match the rest of the other places we ate. Tasty but rather "plain" as compared to the others.

aralar, San Sebastian
  • Foie a la plancha - generous amount of grilled foie with apple on bread. 
  • Jamon with tomato and mayonnaise on bread. The wild boar loved this.
  • Grilled octopus. A tad chewy, had better.
  • A classic gilda (means lollipop), made of guindilla (Spanish chile pepper), an anchovy and an olive. The guindilla is pickled in vinegar - too tart for us.

La Cepa - Calle 31 de Agosto, 7

Known for its jamon.

la cepa, San Sebastian
  • Jamon de Jabugo, media - a medium sized plate of the famous Jabugo ham for €10.50, slightly less sharp on the tongue than previous versions we had, but still excellent.
  • Hongos a la plancha - grilled wild mushrooms, in olive oil served with egg yolk.

Casa Gandarias - Calle 31 de Agosto, 23

gandarias, San Sebastian
  • Foie a la plancha- pieces are considerably smaller than the ones we had at other bars. This may not be a bad thing as it has more charred crusty bits as compared to fatty creamy interior.
  • Solomillo - little steaks with pepper paste on bread. The wild boar loved it so much we went back the next day for more.
  • Bacalao and pepper on bread.

A Fuego Negro - Calle 31 de Agosto, 31

Another modern and innovative place.

A fuego negro, San Sebastian
  • Ajoblancos con maruca & mauz verde - “garlics” with bits of tuna and apple. The garlic-like shells (not sure what they are made of) are filled with a mild garlicky liquid. Interesting.
  • Paloma, tiro, pum! - translates into “Dove, shot, pum!”. Perfectly piece of cooked pigeon breast served with beet blood splatter. The dish is suppose to illustrate the death of a pigeon after bring shot. If you look closely, you'll see the silver "bullet" on the pigeon.
  • Txitxarro-queso-oveja-menta-cereza - horse mackerel in vinegar, little blocks of sheep cheese and chopped mint served on a cherry meringue. A must-try. I will go back just for this.
  • Bakailu enkarbonao con pepitas de pimiento - perfectly cooked piece of cod  served with pepper pips. 
  • Café de jamon & molleja cookies - ham and almond coffee with battered sweetbread (thymus). I was expecting sweet almond coffee actually for some weird reason but it turned out salty. Extremely rich and flavourful and the sweetbread was surprisingly quite light and palatable. Remember to mix the coffee around before eating, as the salt seemed to be concentrated on top.
  • Makobe with txips - Kobe beef patty served in a tomato sauce bun with banana chips. Need I say more?

La Cuchara de San Telmo - Trasera, 28 (off Calle de Agosto, on a small dead-end street that is perpendicular to Agosto, near Bar Martinez)

Highly recommended place on various websites. Don’t let the number of tourists spoil your opinion because the food is genuinely good here.

la cuchara de san telmo, San Sebastian
  • Foie con jalea de manzana - lightly seared foie with sweet and tart apple puree. We were shocked that we could buy such a delicious plate of foie for only €3.
  • Pulpo “boca” a la plantxa berza asada - grilled octopus with cabbage. Done brilliantly as the octopus was tender and the cabbage complimented it really well.
  • Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto - braised beef cheek, so tender even a baby can eat it, served with potato puree and red wine sauce. Very rich and flavourful, just needs a bit more salt.

Hidalgo 56 - Paseo colón 15, Gros

The only pintxo bar we went to in the Gros district. 

hidalgo 56, San Sebastian
  • Volcan de morcilla con yema, pasas y manzana - black pudding with egg yolk “volcano” with raisins and apples. Insanely rich and delicious.
  • Lasana de hongos crema de foie-gras - pasta with mushrooms and cream of foie-gras sauce, balsamic glaze. The foie sauce was a bit muted here.
  • Antxoas rellenos de piquillo, emmental - battered anchovies stuffed with piquillo pepper and emmental cheese. Would be perfect if the batter is crispy.

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