Pintxos (said pinchos) are the Basque style tapas that’s everywhere in San Sebastian. As a style of eating it’s somewhere between a buffet and a canapé party.
At most times of the day in any bar you walk into there will be platters of food on display. Most of them will be bits and bobs on thin sliced baguette, though some come in itty bitty croissants and some are just on sticks. In the morning you can have a coffee that is acceptable to the Hungry One ( though he wishes they would just tamp the grind a little more) and something sweet. From lunch time on there might be someother bits of protein skerwered together waiting to go on a grill or an acre of jamon and cheese rolls.
When you first walk in you’ll feel like this is a party that you’re gatecrashing. Possibly a wake, because if you’re there in the middle of the day there’ll be quite a few nicely dressed older men and the last time I saw this much smoked fish and ham on sliced baguette it was directly following a funeral.
Order a glass of Txakoli (chakoli) the local slightly spritzed white wine or a cresta rosada- a delightfully silly sparkling rose. Stand around for a minute looking cool and comfortable, or drink until you do, then ask the man behind the bar for a “plateau”. He’ll give you a plate and then you pick a couple of things off the counter. Most of the time you’ll eat standing up, desperately trying not to spill anything and wishing you weren’t wearing a white scarf around so many capsicums. Most pintxos can be eaten in one or two bites. Sometimes you’ll get a knife and fork.
What’s good depends on your tastes and the bar. Usually any of the small sheep cheese and jamon rolls will be great, but then it’s pretty hard to make a ham and cheese sandwich of any variety bad.
The grilled prawn skewers (gambas brochettas) and anything with squid will be fun. Sometimes they come with smoky salsas of garlic and pepper sprinkled over the top. You’ll probably eat two or three pintxos in each bar. It’ll cost you around eight euro for two drinks and three pintxos. By some amazing feat of eyes in the back of their head the bartenders will be able to know exactly how much you ate and drank. Sometimes they’ll count how many toothpicks are on your plate and make a deduction from that. You’ll see toothpicks all over the floor among a range of other refuse. Don’t try and drop the toothpicks and trick the bartenders. There are a couple of words for that that startwith s.
The first day or two that you go to pintxos you’ll probably drink too much. Like all great new things, from slap bands to slinkies the novelty might wear off.
The trick is picking the pintxos of quality.
This can sometimes be hard, because wandering around the old town of San Sebastian after a couple of Cresta Rosadas you start to feel a bit like a dazed mouse in a maze. The buildings are tall, the streets are narrow. There are small internet and dubious underwear places peppered around and about and most of the pintxos bars have the same lurid green or yellow signage and a name you’ll probably misspell.
Finding your way back to somewhere good can be tricky and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the cobblestones isn’t that practical.
The Hungry One and I eventually whittled down a shortlist so we could make a quick judgement on whether it was a somewhere we’d be returning to.
How people are smoking inside? Not just because the bars get stuffy, but also because to me food that hasn’t been ashed on for the last four hours tends to taste better.
What was the ratio of mayonnaise to protein to bread? That might change for others, but for me it’s about more protein and less starch and glue.
Is the bread sliced thin, so the pintxos are crunchy?
Is there a pinball machine? Usually this brought with it a hoard of US study abroad or Australian backpackers hanging out for when it was late enough to put Khe Sanh on the jukebox and get misty. I can do without that.
Are there a silly number of jamons hanging from the ceiling? It’s an interesting point for additional novelty value and when you can’t count all the jamons anymore, you know it’s time to go home.
Some of our favourites were
Bide Bide on Calle de 31 de Agosto on the far side of the old town. It’s a modern shiny bar where the Cresta rosada was dry and there was a rotation of incredibly good looking young dark haired men behind the bar. They had a fantastic crispy brik pastry construction with sheep cheese, quince paste and jamon in it.
Goiz Bargi- on Calle de Fermin Calbeton had fantastic grilled prawns and squid which taste of smoke and fire and sweet garlic marinades.
Bar La Cepa- on Calle de 31 de Agosto has the jamon’s hanging from the ceiling. The calamari frita is great and their apricot flan can be dessert- if you’re not tempted by the banana split and rum and raisin gelato on the fringe of the old town.
Other San Sebastian hints and tips
Our hotel, Hotel Niza was right on the beach, a delightful wander with an icecream away from the pintxos bars. It had a balcony where you could look down on the surf and have the sound of the waves rock you to sleep. It was gorgeous and the staff couldn’t have been more delightful- but Friday and Saturday nights get noisy.