San Sebastián’s 10 Essential Pintxos
Sue us: The best tasting menus in San Sebastián aren't served in its Michelin-starred dining rooms but rather in the street, cobbled together pintxo by pintxo. Pintxos are the Basques' answer to tapas, and in San Sebastián, every hole-in-the-wall has its specialty, be it as simple as an anchovy on a baguette slice or as fussy as a hand-filled oxtail raviolo.
The only hitch is it can be hard to know what to order where, since locals are notoriously tight-lipped about their favorite spots and something-for-everyone menus can span classroom-size chalkboards. But fear not: We visited scores of pintxo bars, from neighborhood dives to cheffy hot spots, to track down the city's most memorable morsels. These are the non-negotiables—the dishes you'll crave long after you fly home.
① Gilda at Casa Vallés
The Gilda is a skewer stacked with anchovies, olives and pickled Ibarra chiles whose punch of salt and vinegar will jump-start your salivary glands and have you reaching for the txakoli, a zippy local white. Savor it (according to local tradition, it must be done in one bite) at its birthplace, Casa Vallés, whose erstwhile owners named the dish after the Rita Hayworth character for her "green, salty and spicy" personality.
② Grilled Octopus at Atari
Juicy, tender and snappy like a kosher hot dog, the chargrilled octopus at Atari, a Basque fusion spot in the heart of the old town, is a burst of summer and sea. Halved baby potatoes, roast red peppers and a swoosh of aioli make this pintxo a fine sit-down main if your feet need a rest.
③ Spanish Omelet at Bar Nestor
Lines snake around the block for this bar's butter-soft rib eyes, but locals in the know flock here for a different dish: tortilla española, or Spanish potato omelet. Custardy in the middle and flecked with caramelized onions, it's famous not only for its deliciousness but its paucity—only a few are made each day, and you have to line up at noon sharp to reserve a slice.
④ Anchovy Sampler at Txepetxa
Hauled in by the boatload from the Cantabrian Sea, anchovies make for affordable and delectable pintxos, whether they're flash-fried, canned or pickled. Achieve anchovy nirvana at Txepetxa, a cozy old bar whose fat, salty anchovies are so coveted that the family recipe sits under lock and key at a local bank. Spring for the sampler of griddled anchovy toasts topped with optional accompaniments like crab mousse, fresh sea urchin and cooked-down blueberries—an absolute revelation. "It's the one anchovy that will change anybody's mind about anchovies," longtime San Sebastián resident and food expert Marti Buckley says.
⑤ Platillo at Ciaboga
If you're a fan of patatas bravas (the classic tapa of fried potatoes blanketed in a chile-vinegar sauce), Ciaboga's platillo, or "little dish," is a must. It's a straightforward recipe: Potato chunks are simmered until soft and subsequently fried in an ungodly amount of fragrant Spanish olive oil until crisp and golden. A final flurry of minced garlic and parsley, and the dish flies out through the swinging door. Pepper shakers filled with cayenne let the diner determine the final heat level.
⑥ Oxtail Raviolo at Bar Zazpi
Twenty-nine-year-old Paul Arrillaga is San Sebastián's culinary golden boy—one bite of his wine-braised oxtail raviolo, and you'll see why. Paper-thin pasta dough swaddles a savory, rich filling, whose cool counterpoint comes in the form of a queso fresco and a roast garlic sauce. Black sesame seeds, sprinkled on last minute, add a welcome crunch.
⑦ Cheesecake at La Viña
Dessert—if it's offered at all—is an afterthought at most San Sebastián pintxo bars, but not at La Viña, whose unapologetically blotchy, burnt cheesecakes draw cultlike devotion from around the world. Though the cakes require only basic pantry ingredients (cream cheese, sugar, cream, flour and eggs), they defy categorization into any of the usual cheesecake camps with their crustless bases, singed edges and gooey centers.
"Like all Basque dishes worth knowing, it's the perfect marriage of rustic and elegant," Alex Raij, chef and author of The Basque Book, says. "Peel back the crinkly parchment paper around the edges as if it were a Chinatown sponge cake and dig in."
⑧ Txalupa at Bar Bergara
Whoever decreed that seafood and dairy don't mix ought to be dragged by the ear to Bar Bergara for its star pintxo, the txalupa. The 30-year-old recipe calls for a béchamel sauce-bound mixture of sautéed onions, oyster mushrooms and king prawns that gets dolloped into canoe-shaped pastry shells (chalupa means "small boat" in Spanish), blanketed in cheese and broiled until brown and bubbly. The pintxo is such a hit that the bar churns out some 200 orders a day.
⑨ Wild Mushrooms at Ganbara
Traditional Basque cuisine is all about minimalist preparations of top-quality ingredients, and the pintxo of griddled wild mushrooms at Ganbara, a handsome third-generation tavern, embodies that philosophy. Husband-and-wife team José Ignacio Martínez and Amaia Ortuzar source freshly foraged mushrooms, like saffron milk caps, horns of plenty, St. George's mushrooms or ceps, depending on the season, and arrange them around a perky red-orange yolk—the only sauce required.
⑩ Veal Cheeks at La Cuchara de San Telmo
This timelessly stylish nueva cocina joint eschews the ubiquitous platters of canapés and brochettes in favor of an uncluttered bar and a chalked menu of dishes prepared al momento. It's worth standing shoulder to shoulder at the bar if only to try the carrillera de ternera, a pillow-soft veal cheek braised in red wine you could eat with a spoon.
Benjamin Kemper followed the siren song of Ibérico ham from New York to Madrid, where he writes about the places that make him hungriest. Follow him on Instagram at @benjaminkemper
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