With the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, Spain’s Basque country is a foodie paradise. But you don’t have to visit fancy restaurants for great cuisine: some of the best dishes here are pintxos, eaten standing up with a glass of txakoli. We list 10 top spots for Basque tapas.
Huevo Frito at Sagartoki Courtesy of Sagartoki
Anchoas at Bar Txepetxa | Donostia-San Sebastián
Bar, Spanish, $$$
Courtesy Bar Txepetxa
Txepetxa is the place to come in the Basque country, and arguably all of Spain, for anchovies. Serving the salty fish for over 100 years, the family-owned bar has perfected the art the of the perfect anchovy pintxo and distilled their offerings down to 16 different options. Try the clean and crisp anchoas jardineras for an unbeatable first round before branching out to the more exotic anchovies with tropical fruit. With celebrities such as actor Ian McEwan, chef Ferran Adrià and footballer Xabi Alonso among the famous faces in the photos that line the walls, Txepetxa is far from being an undiscovered spot, but it’s still an absolute must for pintxo lovers.
Bacalao, or salt cod, is one of the emblematic flavors of Spain, eaten as part of thousands of distinct regional specialities across the country. With its history of whaling and industrial fishing, the Basque Country has a particular affinity for bacalao and Sagatoki produces a very fine version. Lightly fried in gossamer tempura, topped with trout caviar and peppery parsley drizzle, the skewer is a sophisticated take on a classic flavor combination. For such innovation Sagatoki has won numerous awards, including the 2006 Best Tapas and Pintxos Bar in Spain.
Like many of the best pintxos, simplicity is the key to a stellar brocheta de gambas, or prawn brochette, and San Sebastián’s Goiz Argi knows how to keep it simple. Skewers of lightly grilled prawns served on a round of crusty bread and drizzled in the secret house sauce make for a crispy yet succulent mouthful, often taken with a side of pimientos del padrón, green peppers with sea salt. The quality of their pintxos has earned Goiz Argi an international reputation but you’ll still find it packed with San Sebastián locals in the evening, crowding round the tiny, brightly lit bar and spilling out onto the street.
With its heavy burgundy walls abutting the neighboring Romanesque church, dusty chalkboard menu and extremely harassed staff, who constantly shout orders from bar to kitchen across the heads of diners, La Cuchara de San Telmo bombards the senses from all angles. Having been featured in the New York Times it’s a popular place with younger foodies, who come here with one thing on their mind; carrilleras de ternera, or veal cheek. Doused in red wine sauce, the velvety veal cheeks go perfectly with a glass of gran reserva, both taken standing at the bar while being jostled by the crowds.
Vegetarians can sit this round out, as foie is most definitely one of the meatier pintxos around. A whole goose liver soaked in brandy, flash-fried and then placed on the obligatory slice of bread, perfect for mopping up the overspill of brandy juices. Bar Sport, a traditional hang out right next to Bar Txepetxa, is a local favourite with foie afficionados thanks to the high quality of the soft, yielding livers, as well as the fact you can take a seat to eat, an unusual luxury in the city’s bars. Pull up a chair among the locals who pile in here with their dogs and children in tow and try foie combined with a glass of cosecha from nearby La Rioja, a young red wine that goes perfectly with the goose liver.
Not all pintxos have to be savory and as Basque gastronomy has gone from strength to strength, there has been a growing trend to convert popular desserts into perfect pintxo-sized rations. The mini magnum at Saburdi, an adventurous bar in the regional capital Vitoria-Gasteiz, is one of the best you’ll find. A combination of local Idiazabal sheeps’ cheese and white chocolate, the sweet and delicate pintxo is no more than a mouthful but is tasty enough to have won Saburdi third prize in Spain’s nationwide best tapas competition, Semana de Pintxos de Alava.
Spaniards have never been squeamish about ‘nose-to-tail’ eating and the Basque country is no exception; don’t be surprised if your delicious pintxo, complete with head, can eyeball you as you eat it. Pigs’ trotters might be a little overwhelming for sensitive diners, as you’re sometimes expected to grip the clammy trotter in both hands and gnaw on it in a somewhat rustic fashion. It’s well worth getting stuck in to the experience however, particularly if you find yourself in Bilbao’s El Huevo Frito, renowned for its Biscay-style trotters, manitas de ministro con salsa bizkaína. Served diced and deboned, the meat is well-textured and given an extra kick thanks to the garlicky, peppery flavor.
If there’s one phrase that you’re guaranteed to hear repeatedly in modern Spain, it’s ‘por la crisis’, or ‘because of the (economic) crisis’. While the whole country has been hit hard by the global financial meltdown, occasional and surprising positives have arisen from the crisis; one such is pintxo pote, an initiative born in an attempt to coax cash-strapped Spaniards back into even more cash-strapped bars and restaurants. By serving a pintxo and a pote, the San Sebastian slang for a beverage, at incredible prices (think one or two euros) bars are staying afloat. San Sebastian’s liveliest pintxo pote night is on Thursday in the surfer district of Gros, when hundreds of students and young professionals roam from bar to bar with beer, wine and filling morsels like mini burgers, cod fritters and patatas bravas. It’s not sophisticated, but it’s certainly fun.
The recipient of numerous local gastronomic accolades, Gure Toki has a loyal fanbase, who flock to the picturesque bar in Bilbao’s old quarter to eat one pintxo above all; rabas, or deep-fried squid. The pillowy squid rings, dipped in light and fluffy batter and served steaming, are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of cold txakoli. Try to save room for the croquetas de rabo de toro, potato dumplings made with bulls’ tail. Although bullfighting is now largely banned in the Basque country, the tastes of the bullring are still popular in the region’s bars and are well worth seeking out.
The unassuming gilda is perhaps the most famous of all pintxos and an unmissable experience for serious foodies. The gilda was named in honor of Rita Hayworth’s most famous film role because it’s green, salty and a little spicy, or in Spanish ‘verde, picante y salado’. The gilda seems simple, a chunky olive, anchovy and pickled pepper skewered on a stick, but the resulting flavor combination is famed for its complexity. Make your way to A Fuego Negro, one of San Sebastián’s more adventurous pintxo bars, for an early afternoon vermouth and a couple of gildas for the perfect start to a pintxo-filled evening.