I’ve been away for a bit because we were in Spain for 10 days. And it was UNBELIEVABLE. Josh had a work conference in Barcelona and after that we took extra time to travel around. We were able to add on San Sebastián to our trip. In other words, I told Josh there was absolutely no way we were going to Spain WITHOUT going to San Sebastián. He loved it, so win win!
Aside from being a beautiful beach town on the Northern coast of Spain, San Sebastián is a food lover’s paradise. It is part of the Basque country, so while they speak Spanish, they also speak Basque and many menus are in both languages. The Old Town has streets upon streets of pintxo (the Basque version of tapas) bars. There is a trick to this madness: do not fill up in one place! You will walk by and see the bars loaded with food and the temptation to stay will start to take over your brain: “Give me all the pintxos…” Don’t listen! Each bar has dishes they are known for – some are on the bar with the other pintxos and, others you can order off of their menu.
Pro tip: order off the menu. The dishes are made to order so they are typically hot dishes.
As for the cost? We were shocked at how inexpensive it was. Each pintxo averaged around €3 and the same went for the wine. If you want to drink like a local, have the Txakoli. It’s a local, light sparkling white wine and you will see this is a common drink among the San Sebastián crowd. It goes well with any of the food and no joke, I had this for €1,90 per glass in one of the bars. On average, our bill was about €15 each place depending on how much we ordered. But you could make it much more or less.
I will now take you through a journed of my top pintxos and the bars where you can find them:
1. Ensaladilla Rusa or Russian Potato Salad at Ganbara
Ganbara was our first stop. It’s actually a favorite pintxo bar of Anthony Bourdain’s, so I knew I wanted to visit. We saw this mound of a salad as soon as we walked in and had no idea what it was. We happened to be standing at the bar near where one of the staff was making a fresh version. She was chopping a bunch of different things and spreading each one as a layer on the mound that had already developed. She then finished it off spreading a mayonnaise-like dressing across the top and garnishing it with peas, shrimp and whatever else is on there!
I was skeptical. A) I’m a potato salad fan but not a huge mayo fan so I was worried about that. B) I had absolutely NO idea what ingredients were in this thing. But, adventurous eaters we are so we decided to order and Oh.My.God. This became one of our most favorite things so much so that we made it our last stop of our final night to have one last serving of the salad.
So what’s in it? Potatoes, Spanish olives, pickles, peppers (not spicy), peas, tuna, and I have no idea what else but it was not mayo-like at all. In fact before serving you a portion, they drizzle olive oil and vinegar on the top. So it had much more of that flavor and less of the heavy mayo potato salad we’re used to in America. The tuna/olive/pickle combination was gold. And I know there was a ton of other stuff in there. All of it good!
We also ordered their famous mushroom with egg yolk dish which we definitely liked, but the salad was a showstopper for us.
2. Carrillera de Ternera al vino tinto at La Cuchara de San Telmo
Translation: Beef cheek with red wine. It was served over a chickpea purée. This beef was so tender, you could eat it with a spoon. Seriously. It fell apart. So much amazing flavor. La Cuchara de San Telmo serves all of these items in pintxo, media (half) portion or full portion. This was the pintxo portion!
This little bar was great and by little I mean LITTLE. This wasn’t one of the bigger places with pintxos covering the counters. This place was down a side street, had a few tables outside and very small inside space. Everyone was as friendly as could be and the majority of the staff spoke excellent English. We really enjoyed this place.
3. All the Anchovies at Bar Txepetxa
Bar Txepetxa does one thing extremely well: anchovies. They use incredibly good bread, put an anchovy on top and then use a variety of toppings. I don’t know how many varieties they had but we were told these were two of the best-sellers. Basically I cut these in half and Josh ate his portion without the bread to keep it gluten-free. The first had an anchovy with chopped peppers on top. The second was an anchovy with a cream spider crab sauce.
There are a few other pintxos available but when a place specializes in something, why steer in another direction? Bread, anchovy, spread. Done.
4. Octopus at Casa Urola
Think of your most favorite potato soup: creamy and not too thin, maybe with the addition of a little bacon and leek? I would have never expected to find potato soup at Casa Urola. But there it was. This dish is basically the best potato soup you have ever had topped with delicate, tender grilled octopus. I know – the combination sounds strange, but it works. The creaminess of the soup, the saltiness of the bacon (and we all know how well bacon works with seafood – hello scallops and shrimp!) then that delicious grilled flavor from the octopus. We both took a spoonful and immediately looked at each other with a “Wow.” It was a quiet meal.
5. Scallop at Casa Urola
I know, I know. Two Casa Urola dishes in a row? But their seafood is on point! This scallop was huge and was cooked perfectly. Surrounded by a creamy garlic sauce –- perfection.
6. Pork Cheek at Gandarias
Gandarias is a bustling place. As we walked up the street, there were many people crowded outside at the tables, drinking their beers and carrying food out from inside. As we walked in, we saw the standard bar full of pintxos for the taking, as well as a chalkboard menu with specialties.
After making our way up to the bar, I threw out a few things to order and then looked back at the menu and saw “Pork Cheek” toward the bottom. Like the beef cheek I listed earlier, it was fall-apart tender. The sauce and bed of potatoes were excellent as well. After our trip to Spain, I am convinced the cheek of any animal is the best part! (I ate fish cheek elsewhere that was insane).
The staff here were incredibly friendly and like much of Spain, they noted which items were gluten-free. We found Spain to be incredibly gluten-friendly.
7. Pintxos Gilda at Ganbara
I am book-ending my top pintxos with a return to our favorite: Ganbara. Pintxos Gilda is a simple dish: Spanish olive, pepper, anchovy all on a toothpick. It was supposedly invented at a bar in San Sebastián and named after Rita Hayworth’s character in Gilda which had opened that same year. Simple but powerful, this dish has so many delicious things going for it. We actually had them at a few other bars but thought Ganbara’s had the best flavor.