San Sebastián (or Donostia) is located in the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast of Spain, about 20 km from the border with France. It’s one of the major cities of Basque Country, an autonomous community similar to Catalunya in the sense that it has its own language and distinct cultural heritage that’s different from the rest of the country. Like Catalunya, there are many people here who fervently believe Basque Country should be independent from Spain.
I’d been looking forward to visiting San Sebastián since I arrived in Spain. The history, the politics, and the language of the region all fascinated me. Despite its proximity to both France and Spain, the Basque language Euskera developed in complete isolation and is unrelated to all known living languages today. Linguists have no idea where it came from! I’d also seen photos of the picturesque beaches, the mountains rising straight up out of the ocean, and the greenery of northern Spain and knew I needed to see it for myself.
There was one other selling point as well: the food.
It’s impossible to talk about San Sebastián without talking about the food scene. When I told my Spanish coworkers about this trip, their eyes would roll back in their heads and they’d say “you’re going to love the food.” The city was rated the #1 food destination in the entire world in 2017, beating Tokyo and New York City. It has the most Michelin stars per capita in the world and two restaurants in the top 20 of the 50 best restaurants in the world. By all standards, the small city of San Sebastián has made a big splash in the culinary world, and its reputation alone was enough to make me salivate.
Luckily for me (and any traveller on a budget), San Sebastián isn’t just a cluster of expensive Michelin stars. The city is best known for high quality and skillfully prepared bar snacks, called pintxos. Pintxos (pinchos in Spanish), which originated in Basque country, are small bites of carefully crafted and incredibly flavorful food, normally served on a slice of bread and skewered with a toothpick. They are all over the place here. Every bar has its own take on traditional pintxos and many throw caution to the wind and serve some of the most perplexing and stylized combinations of flavors you can imagine. Traditional or unconventional, each pintxo is thoughtfully and artfully made.
Another feature of San Sebastián that appeals to the traveling foodie is that many of the most highly-regarded pintxo bars are within a few blocks of each other. Known as La Parte Vieja, or the Old Town, this neighborhood sits in the shadow of the small mountain Urgell on the eastern end of a sandy beach called Playa de la Concha. It’s a grid of cobblestone pedestrian streets lined with bars and stuffed to the gills at all hours of the day with locals and tourists eating and drinking the day away. Here’s a list of some of my favorite bites!
This was our first stop after arriving in San Sebastián on Saturday night in the pouring rain after walking an hour from the train station to our hostel (thanks, Google Maps). I had read online that Bar Txepetxa (Che-peh-tcha) was one of the best places to get Gilda (pronounced heel-da), which is a toothpick of folded anchovies, pickled peppers, and olives that you’re supposed to eat all in one bite. I failed in that respect, but the Internet turned out to be right: this was the best Gilda I had in San Sebastian. It was tart and crisp and a little bit fishy but not too bitter.
Txepetxa is most famous for its anchovy pintxos, and there was one in particular on my bucket list: anchovies with blueberry jam. To anyone who can’t imagine anchovies ever being a desirable thing to ingest, smothering them with sticky blueberry goop and eating them on a slice of toast is probably even more unfathomable. Though at first I approached Spanish anchovies with hesitation, they quickly became one of my favorite treats. Typically served as boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar) in Madrid, these little guys are cut thinly, bathed in salt, and soaked in vinegar to cook. The result is an oily, tart, and only slightly fishy strip of meat. Add the sweetness of the blueberries to the tartness of the vinegar on a perfectly crisp slice of baguette and you’ll never look at anchovies the same again.
Alas, this was one of my favorite bites during the whole trip (I ate it too fast to take a picture, if that tells you anything). We also tried the anchovy pintxo that came with a thick, black olive spread and another covered with fish eggs. These were wonderful as well, but I’d go back just for the blueberry pintxo if I could.
Just a short walk away from Txepetxa we found Borda Berri, another local favorite with pintxos cooked to order and served warm, as opposed to most bars which set them out on the counter of the bar for guests to ogle. We ordered the carrillera, or braised beef cheek, which was incredibly tender and flavorful. Thus began our ongoing tendency to order the meatiest meat dishes bar after bar, despite the fact that I hardly ever eat meat when I cook for myself.
Prior to arriving in San Sebastián, I had prepared a long list with bars and dishes to try at each one, but with these types of experiences I always try to follow the crowd. More often than not, they know something I don’t. So if all of the locals at Borda Berri jumped off a cliff at that moment, I probably would’ve followed… which is essentially what happened with the next order. I kept hearing people calling out orejas de cerdo, or pig ears. I figured I’d never have the guts to try them again and if I was going to eat something so genuinely alien to my typical diet, this was the place to do it.
It took me a moment to get used to the idea, but I realized that these masterfully prepared pig ears were a great example of how Spaniards make a point to cook with the whole animal. Feet, snout, ears, stomach. Nothing gets wasted here, which is a philosophy I can get behind. The pig ears were flat, crispy layers of flaky meat and fat. They were bursting with flavor and surprisingly pleasant textures. I eventually ditched the fork and knife and began breaking off the pieces with my fingers in perhaps the least tactful approach to eating a sophisticated new dish. Luckily, the restaurant was so crowded and the bartenders so preoccupied that no one seemed to notice or care.
I also ordered a small plate of cheesy risotto and washed down the rest of dinner with a glass of txakoli. At one point, a Basque woman had come up behind me and asked for the drink by shouting over my shoulder in an effort to be heard in the cramped and noisy bar. As I watched the bartender pour the drink, a lightbulb went off. I had read about this.
Txakoli is the name of the light, dry, and slightly sparkling white wine produced almost exclusively in Basque Country. It’s low in alcohol content, which makes it a popular choice during a long night of bar hopping. Txakoli almost disappeared in the mid-20th century but the tradition has been revitalized and now represents an important piece of culinary history in the region. While the wine has steadily grown in popularity since then, 80% of it is still consumed in San Sebastián’s old port and the pintxo bars of nearby Bilbao. The glass of txakoli perfectly complemented the creamy and fattiness of the pintxos at Borda Berri and became a reliable refreshment for the rest of the trip.
Walking into Bar Zeruko felt a lot like walking into an art exhibition at a small and exclusive venue. The decor was simple and white with splashes if colorful paintings on the wall. The bar was lined with pintxos of every conceivable shape, size, and color and there was a growing number of eager and curious guests crowding around to get a closer look. Balls of cheese rolled in almonds on toast. Cones of what looks like creamy dulce de leche. Shot-sized glasses of reddish purple soup. Whole crabs skewered with sticks and standing upright. Tostas with strips of raw fish decorated with flowers and circles of black and lime green sauce. Grilled artichokes sprayed with metallic purple edible paint.
Zeruko is known for its inventive, “modernist” pintxos, taking the concept of small and intricate dishes and running with it into new and known territory. While most of the pintxos I saw here were unlike any others in San Sebastián, I did notice the occasional nod towards more traditional Spanish culinary traditions, like the morcilla (blood sausage) topped with a fried Cornish hen egg. In terms of serving style, Zeruko displayed the pintxos on the bar like an art showing but would take the chosen pintxos into the kitchen to finish preparing them, often adding heat or sauce or ornamentation of some kind so that the final dish was a beautiful and perfectly cooked miniature masterpiece.
The best part? Each dish was only 2-3 Euros, which is the standard price at any run-of-the-mill pintxo bar. Given the craft that goes into these specialty pintxos, and the fact that they’re individually prepared for you upon ordering, the prices were a little hard to believe. I came back for a second round on my last night in San Sebastián to find that the offerings were almost completely new and different, and I spent about 8 Euros on 3 pintxos and a txakoli. It’s like this place as designed with me in mind.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
La Cuchara (or spoon) de San Telmo was on every “can’t-miss” list I read. I anticipated that it would be too busy during the dinner hours so we arrived at mid-day to give it a try. It was challenging to find the place, tucked into a corner off a main street in the Old Town, and even more difficult to find space inside. We eventually secured some room at the bar and order drinks and a half ration of the foie gras, which was served with apple compote and slices of bread (this was before I learned about how foie gras is made, the following day…). We followed up with the plate we heard called out most frequently while we munched: cochinillo, or suckling pig.
Cochinillo is a popular dish in the city of Segovia near Madrid and can sometimes be ordered whole (the scene from Hunger Games where Katniss shoots an arrow through the apple in a pig’s mouth comes to mind). Before it reached us, a British woman came up to the bar and asked the bartender what was in the sauce that accompanied the suckling pig. After some back and forth and rough translation and progressively more accurate pronunciation, the bartenders and the woman and everyone near the bar (including us) reached the conclusion that the sauce was made from quince! When our cochinillo finally arrived, it was almost too beautiful to eat. The meat was tender and juicy and the sauce was thick and sweet. It was so perfectly prepared and the combination of flavors was so satisfying, we left in a daze and I continued to rave about the dishes for the rest of the afternoon.
A Fuego Negro
A Fuego Negro had made my short list of restaurants to try, but in the end we decided to spend an hour or two there only because they were serving drinks and we needed a place to wait until some of the other restaurants opened their kitchens. The decorations inside felt like the set of a punk rock film, all black and red with posters and a neon sign in the back. There were stuffed puppets hanging on the walls, some of which looked as though they’d been caught in the middle of a horribly gory act (the one above our table was holding a ladle dripping with blood). There was a goat-like puppet mounted over the doors to the bathroom, its genitals hanging nonchalantly below.
One drink became two, and when their kitchen opened at 8:30 we figured we might as well try a few pintxos. The group I was with ordered raciones of chicken, cheese, and veggie tempura, and I ordered mussels and a soup called “baño de consomé,” or bathtub broth. With a name like that, I had no choice.
Mussels are a common dish in San Sebastián; there’s even a restaurant called La Mejillonera that specializes in mussels. When I ordered them from A Fuego Negro, I expected a plate of mussels in their shells, covered in the bright orange tomato sauce I’d seen in pictures. Instead, I got this:
A parfait. It looked like breakfast but smelled fishy and tomatoey and slightly cheesy. Everyone at the table exchanged looks of confusion then continued eating, occasionally glancing apologetically in my direction. I took a bite of the parfait, unsure of what to expect. I got some of the tomato sauce and the frothy cream and didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t bad, but certainly not the best flavor combination I’d had so far. I let it sit for a few minutes while I sipped my vermouth, then committed to the parfait again. I mixed all the ingredients together and took a second bite.
Delicious. With all of the different elements mixed together, the dish finally made sense. The breadcrumbs on top were salty and crunchy. The cream mixed perfectly with the thick tomato paste at the bottom. Combining all of these flavors and textures with a bite of meaty mussel was magical.
Next came the bathtub broth… in a literal bathtub.
I think (hope?) we can all agree there’s nothing appetizing about the thought of consuming dirty bath water. And yet, here I was, with a bathtub full of brownish liquid and chunks of miscellaneous meat and I couldn’t wait to try it. Again, the first bite was underwhelming so I stirred the mixture together, which started a little whirlpool and made me feel like a little kid playing in the tub. The second bite was salty and savory with more of a stew-like texture. It reminded me of homemade chicken soup with layers of flavors I couldn’t quite identify. And there were bubbles everywhere.
To pair with my dinner of mussel parfait and bathtub soup, I ordered kalimotxo, which is said to have originated in the Basque region of Spain. The drink is just red wine mixed with Coca-Cola. It’s sometimes referred to as “Poor man’s sangria” because it was created as a cheaper alternative by young Spaniards looking to make a little money go a long way. So they’d add the cheapest wine (namely Don Simón, which comes in a plastic jug) to a liter or so of Coke, and presto! Instant buzz. I’ll try anything once and kalimotxo seemed like an appropriate way of rounding out the strangest meal I’d ever had. The wine and Coke actually worked well together, and I didn’t dread every minute of it!
I arrived at A Fuego Negro with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into and left with the exhilaration of a little kid after a day at the amusement park. Eating there felt like I was the victim of a series of practical jokes. In addition to being delicious, the food was playful and surprising and exciting. A Fuego Negro is the perfect manifestation of how much fun food can be.