Monday, June 16, 2014

Eating BIG in Spain: San Sebastián

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

-The Best Food Destination in Europe? Maybe

Stop three of four on our two week Spain excursion was San Sebastian. This one was a no-brainer for me because it's considered by many to be the best dining destination in Europe and thus one of the best places to eat in the world. I certainly ate as well as I ever have. I also enjoyed the small town feeling as this felt most like a vacation of all the stops we made on the trip. Between the amazing beach and the food I cant wait to get back. We spent five days and I was able to do major damage but still didn't do enough justice. That said, I doubt many have done more on one trip.



If you're traveling to San Sebastian for the first time then you're going to need to know about Pinxtos (pronounced like Pinchos). These are the little treats you'll see sitting on the bar at almost every eating and drinking establishment in town. The ones on display are ready to eat but if you look around you'll see places also have a menu with hot small plates made to order and some spots have raciones or small and large portions. Each place is known for an item or two and the best thing you can do is book a Pinxto tour with San Sebastian Food. I'd advise you to book the tour for the night of your arrival. This will give you the perfect introduction to the cuisine here. While it is true that San Sebastian has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than any other place on earth, these little taverns are where the people that cook at the award winning restaurants eat at. 

Some Pinxtos from around town 

Upon our arrival we had a couple hours to kill before taking the food tour with Eli (pronounced like Elly). My parents took this same one with her and insisted we go so my mom was on it and purchased tickets for us before we left. Again I want to stress how much this is worth it. On top of all the amazing food and booze thats included you're going to get the low-down from a lady who's as connected as anyone in town. Eli knew every last person that passed us by and what to get at every tavern we passed too. It was also great getting to meet people from all over who took the tour with us. Our group had another American from the East Coast, a four pack of middle 40's men from Hungary, a couple from Australia and also a couple from England who we'd meet later in the trip for more food and drink. What's up to Kevin and Keiko, hope to visit y'all out there in London soon! The whole group was fantastic and we learned all we needed to know for our stay. Eli was the most well versed tour guide I've ever been led by.

The Godmother of San Sebastian and it's restaurants (Eli)

Goiz Argi

I'm going to share a few of the stops from the tour because they were amazing and also it switches up as far as where it goes. There's so many options you could be there for a week and not visit the same place twice. However you'll have a hard time saying no to some spots. One of ours was this amazing little bar which was the first stop on the tour. We came back here at least six different times to get their signature pinxto which will be shown in the next post listing the Top Ten. Great service and really good stuff from top to bottom. Eli got us a plate of the 'Mari Juli' Pinxtos seen below (3rd pic) and we also sipped on Txakoli which is the local white wine of the region. Must stop.

One of our favorite stops in town

Bar Ganbarra

Wonderful Stop for a first time Pinxto Crawler. You'll learn to fight the crowd.

Bar Zeruko

Our third stop was this gastronomic pinxtos bar that absolutely took my breath away upon entry. I've never seen so many beautiful looking plates of food. The selection process was insanely overwhelming. They had literally 100's of selections that extended from one end of the bar to the other. This is another example of why you need to get on the tour and not only enjoy the selections they serve you but also ask them what else is good at each of the spots you visit. In the case of Zeruko it's all good as long as you like most foods. From fresh Sea Urchin to prawns wrapped in pasta this place was flipping fantastic.

Beautiful, almost stunning display of Pinxtos

Fancy Gilda's (The Original Pinxto)

Squid Stuffed with Confit with a Fried Pimenton Padron Pepper on top

Prawn wrapped in Pasta, fried and topped with a berry sauce

Bar Borda Berri

By this stop I was actually getting full, we went to seven spots total and ate multiple items and drank multiple drinks on each visit. All of these places are located in Olde Town which is where the major concentration of restaurants is at. Its not at all uncommon to eat dinner by going to a few of them and having a nibble and drink from each. Borda Berri is known for their veal cheeks, pork ribs (called kebab), pig ear and ravioli of sweet breads. I could go on and on with adjectives to describe these spots but all you need to know is pretty much each and everyone of them is worth a stop. All Pinxtos range from $1 Euro to $4 or $5 max. It's amazing.

Getting Carnivorous with some Vino is a favorite way for locals to spend a night out


Need another example of why this tour is so crucial? I've always loved mushrooms but now have a whole new lust for them thats even bigger than before. When the tour stopped in here we were gifted with a plate of the finest jamon in Spain as well as some local chorizo and the best plate of mushrooms which all of us on the tour agreed were the best we ever ate. These were steak-like in texture and taste. Knowing the Spaniards they were probably cooked these in beef juice. Sensational.

World Class Eats

La Vina

Final stop of the tour was for the specialty of the house cheesecake from this Olde Towne favorite. Rich and great like Lionel Messi. They're also said to have some great steaks.

Famous Cheesecake

Some sights around town

San Sebastian is a pretty small city thats easy to get around. We didn't have the best luck with weather but when it's nice out it's also one of the best beach towns in Europe. It's a gorgeous place to walk around. As mentioned most of the action takes place in Olde Towne which is near the harbor extending outward all the way to the river. Public transportation was easy but so was walking around.



We stopped into this gastroteka a few times on our visit. They make pinxtos and also have small and large portion plates and a selection of about 6 different gin and tonics. It's a really popular place with the young locals and I enjoyed everything we got from here. Service was also really good which was pretty much the case for all these spots. Despite being packed most of the time they're open (they close mid-day) they were good about being attentive.

Sardines with Tuna and Peppers and Olives, Calamari, House Cured Salmon with Creme Fraiche

Daytrip to Getaria

Getaria, Spain

When doing some research on where to eat out I came across a little article about this fishing village where many people say the best seafood restaurants in the world are located. San Sebastian is and was a fishing community at heart but with it's growth some fisherman have moved elsewhere along the coast. One of these spots is the pretty little town of Getaria. It's only about a 40 minute bus-ride from town and the only reason it's over 20 minutes is because of all the stops in the other towns it makes on the way up. It's also got a couple different beaches open to the public and a big surfing community as well as a nice business strip in the center of town right where the bus drops you off at.

Beautiful Waterfront Community

When you start trekking down the street where all the action is taking place you notice that all the restaurants have charcoal grills with fish on them. There must be 10+ spots doing this and at first it looked as though our luck wasnt going to be good because most of the spots were telling us they were "Completo" aka booked.

Wonderful Smells from all over

Taberna Politena

I managed to speak in broken Spanish to the bartender at this place which caught our eye due to the fact it was packed and the grillman was busy. I explained we wanted some pescado asado and we were sitting outside at the free for all tables. They were extra helpful and happy to have us in.

Locals Spot in Getaria

I started off with a couple pinxtos from the bar upon ordering our drinks. I asked for this fish sliver one I saw as well as their "especialidad de la casa" and was given one with a mushroom wrapped in jamon that was deep fried. Fantastic.

Pinxtos to Start

The friendly waitress who knew decent English helped us order by explaining if we got the menu of the day we'd save a few dollars. It was your choice of grilled fish along with an appetizer, we chose grilled prawns, and also a desert choice and even a glass of wine. Cheap as most things made in China this was also one of the best meals of the trip. The gambas (shrimp) were so good we had to order more. We also had to have more bread to soak up all the juices they were releasing. I'll remember that piece of fish for a long time.

Grilled Prawns

Whole Grilled Fish


Casa Urola

Another one of my favorite stops we made it into multiple times

Casa Urola is a must in my book. It doubles as a sit-down restaurant and we were tempted to go upstairs but the items on offer downstairs were just to damn good to pass up. They have a selection of ready to eat options as well as some hot ones and specials for the day. The cooked to order scallop pinxto that came recommended by Eli was out of this world yet still not the best thing I ate from this place.More to come on them.

Ready to eat pinxtos

Special of the Day - Northern Spain Peas with Jamon Iberico Juice - WOW

Mushrooms with Egg in the Middle

The Scallop Pinxto aka Vieira is a must get next time I'm in town


Here they do nothing but anchovies so you know they're good. Most come served on toast with a topping of your choice. Though I was told by Eli to try the blueberry jam version, I had to go with the giardinera mix when I saw it. Nothing spicy as most things in Spain arent but still really fresh and again fantastic.

All Sorts of Anchovies on Toast

La Mejillonera

We stopped into here one night with Kevin and Keiko who we'd met on the food tour. We enjoyed alot of eats and a few drinks that evening but agreed the mussels here were just ok which was a letdown because thats what they specialize in. They weren't bad but came already made. I think the steamed option would of been a better try but the garlic and spicy plates we got were still ate. The fried peppers you see all over Spain aka pimentos de padron are always a good snack.

Popular Stop with the younger 30's crowd

Bar Restaurante Munto

While on the same gathering with our newfound friends from London we went into this place for their signature stuffed squid. As you can see from the picture below all eyes were on the TV which had inner city rivals Athletico vs Real Madrid playing for the Euro Club Futbol Cup on its screen. It's getting redundant at this point as I'm sure you can guess, the pinxto was phenomenal.

All Eyes on Futbol


We made it into a number of places that focused on drinks, particularly cocktails. The Gin and Tonic is taking all of Spain by storm.We saw them all over our excursion thru the country but there was one that was by far better than the rest. In fact it's the best gin and tonic I ever had and it'd better be at the $14 Euro pricetag. Where can you find it? At the bar of the beautiful Hotel Maria Cristina on the river. This is also where we met with the rest of the people and our guide Eli on the San Sebastian Food Tour. A few of us went back here after the tour to indulge in a drink or two. They had too many combinations to count as far as ways they were made. Different gins, different tonics and different flavor profiles but they were all served ICE COLD and tasted really great. One was enough to give me a nice buzz so the pricetag wasn't all that bad.

G&T's for the Soul

We walked over the river one night into a younger more locally vibrant neighborhood and stopped into this place called Bar Garbola after seeing their mojito selection in the window. They had large fresh mint plants at each end of the bar and the mojitos were muddled with fresh fruit to order. Very well made and I got to get Cuban rum because it's allowed in these parts. 

Mojitos in Spain

On our last night we finally made it into an American owned cocktail lounge called La Madame. Located away from Olde Town near the beachwalk this place would fit right in here in Chicago. Well made cocktails, particularity this take they had on sangria using bourbon and some tasty pork stuffed potstickers to go with it.

Bourbon Sangria and a Pork Dumpling Night Capper

Doner Kebap Turco

My Late Night Food Stop located down the block from our apartment rental

More Sights From Town

Beautiful Buildings Abound

Bar Iturrioz

Stopped into this place amongst the shopping district for breakfast, good pinxtos from the bar and an amazing made to order one soon to come

Bar Alex

The lady found this locally loved spot the opposite way of Olde Town. Amazing sesame seeded anchovy atop tuna tartar pinxto and a calamari (chipiron) dish. More on them soon too.

Bar Bergara

Stopped into this bar when we were exploring local neighborhoods, it was rocking but I didn't know what hot dishes to order so I settled on these cold ones which still hit the spot with my cerveza

Nikkei Bar

Also the opposite way of Olde Towne is this Peruvian-Japanese bar. The menu wasn't as intriguing as I'd hoped but we still enjoyed the chicken skewer. The dumplings were just so-so.

Bar Martinez

Some nice bites from a popular place in Olde Towne. Octopus salad was on point as was the pinxto pictured with mushrooms and jamon

Txondorra Restaurante

Fried Codfish on a Stick. Kind of dry, maybe the only damn thing I wouldnt order again

Paco Bueno

I think this bar is/was owned by an old Spanish boxer as there were pics of him with others all over. They're known for their "scampi" pinxto which is two fried prawns served together on a toothpick

La Cuchara De San Telmo

My Favorite Bar in San Sebastian

Last stop up for this post was what I can now say was my favorite spot to eat in San Sebastian and maybe my favorite place we ate in all of Spain. Located in Olde Towne off the busy grid of streets this is where locals go for hot plates and also where tourists who do their work end up. The chalkboard menu switches now and then and when they run out, thats all they got so the item gets erased. It doesnt matter, just order away like I did. Its all good.

Days Menu

I came in once with her and then again by myself when she didn't feel like going out. I found this site I'm sure many have used to navigate their way around these bars and La Cuchara De San Telmo had two items on it's top ten pinxtos in town. One of them was this mushroom risotto which you can see described in Spanish in the pic of the menu. I thought it was the best risotto I've ever ate. Not that I eat it alot but I'll start eating more and I doubt it will ever get this good.

Mushroom Risotto

Next up was another mushroom dish that could pass as steak. It's hard remembering what all these plates were made with and no one was paying me for this so I wasn't inclined to jot down every last note that hit my head so just go ahead and order the mushrooms if they have them on the menu. They'll be rock solid. So will everything else you order as you'll see in the pic collage below.

Sauteed Mushrooms

Grilled Octopus with Chickpeas

Pig Trotter (foot)

Veal Cheek

Grilled Steak 

At the time of my visit on the site I mention the number one ranked pinxto in town was the Foie Gras with Apple Compote. Just outstanding I thought this could of been the best thing I ate all trip but it didn't even make the list which will be released Friday this week. Only reason is I didn't choose two things from the same spot and this was actually my second favorite plate from this place.

Foie Gras with Apple Compote Butter

That's it for this part of the trip!

Tune in Friday for the Ten Best Pinxtos in San Sebastian...yep thats right, I haven't even shared my ten favorite bites. This town is amazing.

Note: I'm choosing not to include addresses because they're easy enough to find online. However if you're headed this way, feel free to email me and I'll forward my list of all the spots I deemed worthy of a stop, many of which I never made it too. That said Spain as a whole was worthy of a second visit so I'll have another crack at them someday soon. See ya next time @chibbqking.

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