Similar to tapas, pintxos are Spanish bar snacks, popular in Basque cities and the Navarra region, and taken to high culinary art in food-forward cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian. In addition to the platters of pintxo eye candy piled on counters, most bars also have hot pintxos they make to order listed on a blackboard, and many have a specialty or two of the house. Think: small, spirited plates of braised oxtails, grilled conger eel, wild mushrooms, marinated octopus and broiled pig’s ears in addition to classic ham, anchovy, stuffed pepper and salt cod-based bites on rounds of bread, pinned in place with toothpicks. Some of the best kitchens don’t put pintxos out on their counters at all, preparing everything to order.
Bartenders are your friends: ask for their recommendations about what’s good, and solicit their help before you start helping yourself to the treats on the bar. Focus on the hot menu, order a pintxos or two, have a drink then move on to the next spot. Here are three more pointers we picked up by trail and error eating pintxos in northern Spain:
1. The smaller the better. There are probably exceptions to this rule, but all the best pintxos we ate on this trip were consumed standing up in small bars with room for no more than a small table or two, if any. Fancy counter displays, spotlighting and table seating at bigger places may judge well by their covers, but assume that more of your money will go to foot these extra costs and less will go into the quality of the food.
2. The early bird gets the tortilla. Pintxos and tapas bars have a nightlife reputation but, here in the North of Spain, many pintxo-focused establishments double as cafés in the morning, serve food at midday, close for a few hours and then open back up in the evening. You don’t have to be a night owl to sample amazing pintxos. Some of our best Spanish breakfasts of the trip came from pintxos bars specializing in tortillas, Spanish egg and potato omelets. 11am seems to be the unspoken time when it’s perfectly respectable to trade your orange juice for a glass of wine.
3. When it comes to foie gras, know where you stand. When you ask your bartender which hot pintxo he recommends, don’t be surprised if he raves about the foie gras. This controversial ingredient, made from the specially fattened livers of ducks or geese is, well, not controversial here. Whichever side of the debate you stand on, be prepared to have foie gras-based pintxos offered to you as house specialties and, if you’d prefer to avoid it, just give your bartender a heads up.
Heading out for one more round of mussels before we leave San Sebastian for France,