Small plates have long played a huge role in the food culture of northern Spain’s Basque region. A tour of some of San Sebastián’s best pintxos bars helps explain why.
It’s close to midnight on a weekday, and San Sebastián’s Parte Vieja—or Old Town—is heaving. Crowds spill out onto the streets, some gathered around communal benches and tables, others sitting on the steps of the baroque Santa María church. It could well be a post-football gathering, except that everyone here tonight is eating, drinking, and being entirely sociable. Snappy waiters deliver small plates and pour wine; there’s friendly jostling to get to the bar; and live music and loud banter in Basque—the preferred language in this northern Spanish city—fill the air.
Eli Susperregui is our host for this evening’s txikiteo, a tradition of bar-hopping with a drink and a bite to eat at each venue. At Atari Gastroteka, our penultimate stop on this tastebud-awakening tour of San Sebastián’s best pintxos places, Susperregui advises us to order gin and tonics to go with the foie gras in front of us. “Spread it on the raisin bread like butter,” she commands, motioning to the rich plate of duck liver.
“Most people automatically think San Sebastián is just about Michelin stars,” Susperregui says as I move on to deliciously briny fillets of white anchovy. A guide with locally based Mimo Food, the thirtysomething culinary student makes a fair point. Before visiting this city on the Bay of Biscay, I imagined the culinary scene to be dominated by high-end establishments such as Arzak, Akelarre, Martín Berasategui, and Mugaritz—places that consistently top “world’s best” lists and that require diligent planning and deep pockets to get into. But at the other end of the spectrum are these humble holes-in-the-wall where dining is informal, service is brisk, and flavors are off the charts.
“San Sebastián is the birthplace of pintxos,” explains Susperregui, describing the bite-size treats she’s been ordering all night as being similar to tapas, featuring whatever is fresh and in season.
“Traditionally, pintxos were served on a piece of bread and skewered with a toothpick—that’s how they were different from tapas. But things have evolved, and many pintxos bars are now quite experimental.”
We’ve visited close to a dozen places over the course of the evening, and many have presented us with the innovative plates that Susperregui talks about. Pushing the boundaries is Borda Berri, where proceedings begin with a txikito (small glass of wine) and a dish of grilled cuttlefish topped with a mound of chestnut puree dyed squid-ink black. It’s polarizing—at once earthy and sweet, chewy and unctuous, black and white. While many pintxos bars display premade plates of food, everything here is prepared to order, from the risotto of mushrooms and idiazabal (a Basque sheep’s cheese) to the braised veal cheeks in wine and the bacalao (salt cod) taco.
Even more forward-thinking is A Fuego Negro, where black walls and low designer lamps create a theatrical penumbra. There’s ’70s funk on the sound system and Catalonian-inspired (rather than Basque) dishes on the menu. We try makcobe with txips, which turns out to be a Kobe beef slider on a ketchup-flavored bun with handmade crisps and house pickles; and dreamy tigretón—a glass of tomato puree and mussels topped with béchamel foam and pork scratchings. It would be easy to linger over the tasting menu here, but Susperregui convinces us to move on to Bar Txepetxa to sample what she calls the first-ever pintxo. Gildas are incredibly simple: a cocktail skewer of anchovies, Guindilla peppers, and stuffed green olives. But they’re the perfect union of salt and heat, and a delicious accompaniment to dry vermouth—in San Sebastián, this fortified wine is consumed on the rocks with a citrus twist, rather than being relegated to the role of a mixer in martinis.
Perennially packed Goiz Argi (34-943/425-204) also plates up traditional crowd-pleasers, including enormous prawns that are salted before being grilled over an open flame. Colorful plates lining the counter feature a pintxo called mari juli, a combination of smoked salmon, roasted green peppers, and anchovies that is like San Sebastián in a mouthful. “Every bite is made to go with a different drink,” says Susperregui, explaining why our accompanying zurito (small beer) is just a sip or two rather than a full glass. A few doors along at Casa Urola, the drink of choice is txakoli, a lightly sparkling dry white wine native to this region. To go with it, Susperregui orders tender white asparagus spears with Ibérico ham “dust” and saucer-size scallops dressed with a warm almond-milk soup known as salsa de ajoblanco.
It’s standing room only at Gandarias, where the ceiling is strung with legs of jamón and the bar heaves under the weight of plates of solomillo, a small piece of fillet steak topped with green pepper on a chunk of bread sprinkled with sea salt. It’s even busier at Ganbara, where a husband-and-wife team pan-fry wild mushrooms in a buttery sauce with a silky soft-boiled egg. They hand us blistered Padrón peppers, spider-crab tartlets, and sausage wrapped in pastry. We drink a dry rosé from the neighboring Navarra region and debate our next mouthful: thin slices of tuna carpaccio, grilled langoustines, or cañaillas (sea snails)? The latter win, and we pluck them from their shells with tiny pins.
It may not be a pintxo per se, but Basque burnt cheesecake is the only way to end a food crawl through San Sebastián. At La Vina, the crustless baked dessert features an ingre-dient we’re all familiar with: Philly cream cheese.
But it’s prepared in a way that makes the cake at once wobbly and rich, creamy yet bitter, and perfectly caramelized all over. The midnight queues here hint at the popularity of this treat—it’s regularly voted among the best of its ilk in the world. I only need one bite to understand why.
You could spend hours strolling around the old streets of the Parte Vieja, stopping at small bars that specialize in different pintxos. But if you want to order like the locals do, book a day or night walking tour with Mimo Food. You’ll visit popular as well as lesser-visited haunts and sample one or two pintxos with a drink at each. Standard tours are 2.5 hours and take in around five establishments, but private experiences can last all night, tailored to your tastes and budget.
Mimo Food also has an artisanal produce store and cooking school attached to Hotel Maria Cristina (doubles from US$240), which is arguably the best place to stay in town. The grand Belle Époque property—now part of Marriott’s The Luxury Collection—is just five minutes’ walk from the Parte Vieja, making it a great base for any foodie exploration.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Pintxos Perfection”).