This post has been a long time coming. It’s more than five years since I first visited San Sebastian, but only in the past two, as a tour guide, have I become obsessed by its food; specifically, its pintxos.
The first time I visited San Sebastian, I had only one meal out. I was on a ridiculously tight budget and stuck mainly to supermarkets, always staying in guesthouses and hostels that toted kitchens. To give you an idea of how much I knew of Basque cuisine back then; my only meal out consisted of paella, a dish that is as Basque as chop suey.
It wasn’t only my budget that kept me away from pintxos. I knew nothing about such things, and I was way too intimidated to give it all a try.
My loss. I came back to San Sebastian as a tour guide last year, and haven’t looked back. My dozen or so visits have included just as many pintxos crawls, lovingly created by yours truly and no two have ever been the same.
For the uninitiated, pintxos is the Basque version of tapas. It’s easy to therefore dismiss pintxos as simply northern patatas bravas and the like, but that’s not pintxos at all. Pintxos can come in the form of yum cha or an aperitif; they’re not particularly Spanish per se. The only things they have in common are their size (they’re meant to be small, not racion sized) and their deliciousness.
Pintxos bars rule in San Sebastian, and it is the third most expensive city in the world in which to open a restaurant, just behind New York and Paris. But don’t expect to have to pay a bucketload for such amazing food; a decent pintxos crawl with drinks usually sets me back about €25. Not bad for the best food in the world.
Last week, my friend Cam asked for some pintxos bar recommendations for an upcoming trip. I went a bit crazy (I think I was hungry at the time) and here’s what I came up with. Enjoy drooling (and apologies in advance for the bad photos). Without further ado, here’s my version of the best pintxos in San Sebastian.
1. Astelena - Plaza de la Constitución
This is my favourite pintxos bar and can be absolutely packed, but my favourite time to go is about five in the afternoon; you can have the place to yourself.
What’s different about Astelena is that everything (except for a few cold pintxos on the far right hand side) is raw on the bar and they cook it for you. Of the raw pintxos, I recommend the ones called crepes, they deep fry them like spring rolls and the seafood ones are the best.
Another good one is the skewer of prawns wrapped in crunchy noodles (I’ve been calling the noodles angel hair pasta, but I just made that up). Of the hot pintxos, I recommend the risotto (cheese) and the two types of solomillo (tiny steak) – the top one on the board is beef with little vegetables and gazpacho and the bottom one is tuna steak (with salad and gazpacho) – I’ve had them both and give them both the thumb’s up.
2. Borda Berri – Fermin Calbeton, 12
Another place where the risotto is amazing is the much lauded Borda Berri. The one I have tried is the one with mushrooms (hongos), and it is the best mushroom risotto I’ve ever had. You couldn’t even see the mushrooms in it, but the flavour made me close my eyes and almost hum.
Another good thing to get is the cow’s cheek (carrillera) which is a speciality in San Sebastian and the most tender beef you can ever try! There are no pintxos on the bar in Borda Berri, all of it is hot and you need to order over the bar. Dangerously, they also have a dessert pintxos menu.
3. A Fuego Negro – Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 31
When I first visited A Fuego Negro, I thought I wasn’t cool enough to enter. It’s dark, sleek and you can even write a message on the toilet walls as they’re chalkboards. A Fuego Negro looks expensive and snobbish, but isn’t at all.
The menu is quite legendary for being hard to understand, but the place is known for a few dishes which can be easy to pick out. There’s the Mackobe; a mini Kobe beef burger in a pumpkin bun served with banana chips.
Also worth a try is the ‘arroz’; rice served in an edible tomato cylinder with an egg on top. Sound weird? Well, what about the ‘kebab’? I think I can leave that to you to figure out.
4. Dakara – Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 27
I’ve only just discovered Dakara and I wish I’d been introduced to this place sooner. My favourite dish here is the solomillo a la foie, a great little invention of beef steak topped with a piece of foie, with it all coated in raspberry gravy.
I also got one off the bar that was served in a big shell, and was filled with a scallop gratin.
Perhaps the best part of Dakara, however, is its cold pintxos you can order off the bar. On one occasion I just filled myself up with these; at €1,50 a pop I reckon they’re the best help yourself pintxos in town.
5. La Mejillonera – Calle del Puerto 15
If you’ve found A Fuego Negro a bit too classy-looking, then La Mejillonera may be a better bet. This place is totally unpretentious and is a mess. It’s basically a mussels specialty house and as throw your mussel shells on the floor, you’ve got to be careful where you walk. Everyone shouts and it can be as packed as a rush-hour train. If mussels aren’t really your thing, they also do delicious calamari and patatas bravas.
6. Casa Gandarias - Calle 31 de Agosto, 23
Touted as having the best solomillo in town, I’m not usually a steak person but I usually can’t wait to grab myself one of these. I’ve also had a few other dishes here; their prawn skewers and mushroom stack are definite winners (both on the hot pintxos menu).
7. Rojo y Negro – San Marcial, 52
The only one on my list outside the Old Town, Rojo y Negro is instead in the New Town, only a block back from San Sebastian’s city beach, Playa de Concha. It’s a bit more local and quiet, especially if you visit mid-afternoon. The tempura skewer is their house speciality (prawns and Emmenthal cheese).
8. Atari Gastroteka – Nagusia Kalea, 18
Opposite the Old Town’s peek-a-boo church, Atari is a good one to head to if you’re thinking of staying a while. There’s plenty of seating which is a welcome change from standing at a bar, and is a little more chilled than most.
Atari’s hot pintxos are a little more expensive than most, but the portions are closer to racion-size. At €4, the cow’s cheek is my pick and can feed two; it’s served on mashed potato which can be mighty hard to find in continental Europe.
9. Bar Aralar – Calle Puerto, 10
I’d never had foie before I came to San Sebastian. To be be even more honest, I’d never had foie before I’d tried Aralar’s foie a la plancha.
This dish is seriously melt in your mouth; I order it each and every time I come here and I still have one of my little humming moments. Just don’t remind yourself that you’re eating duck liver.
10. Casa Alcade – Calle Mayor, 19
Some people go ‘ho hum’ over Casa Alcade but it’s often where I start my pintxos crawls. The staff are friendly, the pintxos are cheap (€1,75 per pintxo) and there’s plenty of room to sit down. My favourite cold pintxo here is a main staple; a simple piece of bread topped with minced prawn and mayonnaise.
So there you have it, folks. And what are you supposed to wash it down with? Well, there’s my favourite, kalimotxos (red wine mixed with Coke); txakoli (a slightly carbonated white wine); cidre (a local cider which is less carbonated than most) or of course good old sangria. Combine three or four of these places, and you’ve got yourself one delicious pintxos crawl. Salute!