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.
Sagatoki, Calle del Prado, 18, Vitoria, Spain, +34 945 28 86 76
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.
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.
El Huevo Frito, García Rivero Maisuaren Kalea, 1, Bilbao, Spain, +34 944 41 22 49
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.
Gure Toki, Nueva Plaza, 12, Bilbao, Spain, +34 944 15 80 37
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.
A Fuego Negro, Calle 31 de Agosto 31, San Sebastian, Spain, +34 650 13 53 73