What: Akin to Spanish tapas, pintxos (“peen-shos”) are little culinary treats, generally either bite-size morsels or small plates of food. They are found all across Spanish Basque country, proudly displayed on the tops of bars—particularly during midday and for the happy-hour, bar-hopping ritual of txikiteo—or made to order. Pintxos can consist of any number of things, making good use of the region’s abundant local produce, meats, and fresh seafood. They can range from surprisingly simple to superbly innovative: perfectly sautéed pulpo (octopus); grilled apple-glazed foie gras; anchovy-derived sorbet; grilled baby squid with chestnut puree; a hunk of crusty bread topped with sublime jamón Ibérico, mushrooms, and Idiazábal cheese; a hunk of crusty bread topped with a crispy-fried pepper stuffed with bacalao (salt-cured cod)…and a hundred other things. The cost to sample a bite or two of lovingly prepared greatness? About one to three euros, generally.
Good to know: During txikiteo, the idea is to head out with a small group of friends a few hours before dinner—the Basques eat late, so this means around 7pm—and hit up a handful of bars, spending about 10 minutes in each one. You stand at the bar, indulge in one or two pintxos, down a short glass of beer (a zurito) or wine (often txakoli, a tangy, fizzy native white typically poured from above to maximize effervescence), throw your napkin on the floor, tell the bartender what you ordered so you can pay, then move on to the next place. Repeat for four or five bars, and good luck saving room for dinner.
Where: There are countless pintxos bars in San Sebastián, particularly along the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets of the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter). You really can’t go wrong with any of them. But here are a few of our favorites in that area:
Bar Txepetxa (Calle Pescadería 5, map): We never knew how transcendent anchovies could be until eating here, where the marinated fishies—the house specialty—sing via a variety of preparations, including atop toasted bread with a creamy txangurro (spider crab) sauce. One very traditional pintxo found here is the Gilda, consisting of anchovies, pickled peppers, and olives skewered on a toothpick.
Borda Berri (Calle Fermín Calbetón 12, map): Try the excellent foie gras toast, stuffed peppers with tuna, mushroom risotto, and delicately crispy bacalao tempura at this popular bar.
Bar Ganbara (Calle San Jeronimo 21, map): The sautéed wild mushrooms here are pricey (about 17€) for a plate, but don’t even think twice: They’re one of the best things we’ve put in our mouths—ever. You might also try the mini-croissants filled with jamón and rich spider crab tarts.
La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto 28, at end of alley, map): This place does excellent made-to-order small plates. Selections can vary, but you might see creamy risotto with gorgonzola cheese, grilled apple jelly-topped foie gras, and/or txipiron relleno (stuffed squid) among the blackboard scrawl. Bonus: There is a sweet little terrace on the sidewalk—a nice break from elbowing at the bar.
Casa Gandarias (Calle 31 de Agosto 23, map): Under the hanging legs of ham, nosh on the beloved solomillo (perfectly grilled steak and green pepper atop crusty bread), lamb brochettes, bacalao crepes, moist tortillas de patata (potato omelets), and more.
Alternatively: Go anywhere! Just have an open mind and palate and try whatever looks interesting. And, as always, look to the locals—especially those genteel-looking old Basque men and women—to find the best spots of the moment.