Spain’s País Vasco (Basque Country) is the birthplace of the diminutive yet delicious pintxo; a tapas variant now beloved across the country. As the largest city in the Basque region, Bilbao is home to some of the best pintxos bars in Europe. Generally, a pintxo will consist of a slice of bread topped with any number of ingredients, be it goat’s cheese dotted with jam or croquettes and crispy bacon. The beauty of pintxos is their small size, meaning you can sample several at any one time.
Bilbao’s Plaza Nueva contains very little besides pintxos bars, so the competition is stiff and by late afternoon the atmosphere is particularly vibrant. Gure Toki takes what is already a creative food art and goes a step further: tempura-style whole crab and foie with apple, covered in a sauce made with sweet cherry, are both house highlights. There’s a distinct gourmet sensibility about the preparation and presentation of these dishes, making Gure Toku a cut above the competition.
If you’re looking to try pintxos that pair unexpected ingredients, El Globo is a good place to start. Take, for example, the morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) covered in crushed peanuts, the goat’s cheese with onion confit, or the anchovy, mussels and seaweed option. This spot also has translations in English above the pintxos to help guide your selection. Bilbao is certainly not short on exceptional pintxos bars, but El Globo is among the favourites with local workers and residents.
La Viña de Ensanche
Across the road from El Globo is this area’s best pintxos rival, La Viña de Ensanche. The vibe is much more upmarket, with the traditional hams hanging on the wall, wooden wainscoting and ornate, airy interiors all pointing to this bar’s storied history. Since opening in 1927, the gilda here have been held in particularly highly esteem, whilst the acorn-fed Iberian ham is a highlight too. The deli, a newer addition, is a good alternative when the bar is too crowded.
Although the Moors never made it as far as present-day Bilbao, barely even scratching the Basque Country, the Mudéjar art spawned by the union of North African and Spanish cultures is keenly felt at Café Iruña. From the wooden arabesques on the ceiling to the tiled walls, a meal here is served aside a distinct sense of yesteryear. Going strong since 1903, pintxos are served all day, including the pintxos morunos (Moorish pintxos), which usually consist of seasoned lamb kebabs cooked to order.
Another well-respected bar on Plaza Nueva – and one that’s steeped in traditional charm – Victor Montes has walls replaced by floor-to-ceiling glass cases of spirits, from single malt whiskies to sherries from across the Iberian Peninsula. Squid-ink croquettes fried in breadcrumbs and beef cheek with foie are among the highlights here. Both hot and cold pintxos are available and there are even a few decent vegetarian options, a rarity in Spain.
El Huevo Frito
At El Huevo Frito (the fried egg), in the Indautxu district of central Bilbao, “fried” is the operative word. This local joint serves up a variety of homemade pintxos, including Iberian ham, or morcilla, each topped with a fried egg. Other, eggless, pintxos include fried brie topped with leeks and carrots and fried calamari in a squid ink sauce. These pintxos pair especially well with a cold jarra (glass) of beer.
Gourmet presentation and fine ingredients couple with a down-home, bric-a-brac approach to interior decoration that can seem incongruous at first – but it really works. Sure, there’s a hefty dose of up-cycled furniture and some of the pintxos may arrive in a kilner jar (or old jam jar); that’s all part of the fun of the dining experience here. The best pintxos are part of a set menu, although some light bites (gilda, jamón, tortilla etc.) are available, too.
It might seem prim and modern within, but El Eme has been around since 1950. While there are hot and cold pintxos available, along with Spanish staples like patatas bravas, the El Eme regulars come for the sandwiches. Known as triángulos, these messy, sauce-laden sandwiches are – according to many local people – the best in Spain, if not the world. Hubris aside, the triángulo Eme appears to be a simple ham sandwich, but the mayonnaise, secret sauce and homemade bread tip the balance.
This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Esme Fox.
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