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Last summer we had the time of our lives eating our way through Spain until we reached our final destination: San Sebastián. I don’t know if you’re asking why we elected this city as our focal point—but you’ll find out.
San Sebastián (Donostia) is set in the Basque Autonomous Community (also known as Basque Country), in northern Spain. Aside from being located in one of the most beautiful bays, surrounded by dazzling turquoise waters, filled with rich culture and traditions, it’s one of the best places to eat in Europe, and probably in the whole world. Don’t believe us? San Sebastián has the highest concentration of bars in the world. San Sebastián also has one of the highest numbers of Michelin stars per square meter in the world… Arzak, Akelaré, Mugaritz, Martin Berasategui, and so forth. Let me tell you this: this city breathes food.
While most of Spain is mostly worried about tapas*, the bars in the Basque Country focus on pintxos: small portions of food (not always) placed on bread (* you’ll also find pinchos in other parts of Spain). The casual food culture in San Sebastián involves the ritual of pintxo-crawling: going from one bar to the next and picking out the house specialty, sided by a few glasses of txakoli (local white wine), beer or cider, and a loud chat with friends and family. At certain days of the week, some bars endorse the pintxo-pote, where a small drink and a pintxo are combined at an attractive price (1-2€).
We fell upon a utopian environment: good food everywhere. As we were settled in Parte Vieja (old town), we focused much of our appetite in this vicinity. However, sometimes life got hard. Eating in the so-called “rush hour” could feel a bit hell-bent. The best spots were insanely crowded, bursting with diners, queues and general frenzy. Waiting wasn’t always an option, sometimes we quit and moved on. Sometimes we’d wander around for too long and curse our bad timing. But it made us discover other places, and it made us smarter (it took a while, though).
This applies to one of our most memorable meals, at Bar Néstor. Why was it memorable? First of all, because we stalked the place for two or three days before being able to set foot in it. And when we did (see, we did get smarter), we were the first ones in. Second, because of tomato. And third, because of txuleton.
Let me explain. Bar Néstor is ultra-specialized: they’re experts in the only four things they serve. Padrón peppers, tomato salad, tortilla, and txuleton. The motto of the house is: keep it simple, make it perfect. You’d never guess how special a place can be, especially if the only giveaway is a bleak wood panel proclaiming “Bar Néstor”.
Mind you, you’ll eat standing at the counter as there is only one table. Did we forget to mention that in San Sebastián, eating while standing seems to be more than chance, and almost a ritual? You’ll soon come to realize that, as we did and ended up embracing.
When the door opens and you step inside to find freshly sawdusted floor and a prepping staff of two, you’re brimming with anticipation. Then you wait a while. That’s because the tortilla is still getting ready. And the eggy specialty really is an issue: people hawk around several hours before opening to reserve a slice. There’s only one tortilla for lunch (and one for dinner), so that’ll be a dozen slices for a dozen lucky early birds. If you miss the tortilla call when it is ready, then your slice will be passed on to the next guy: tough luck. Unfortunately, we weren’t that knowledgeable, so we weren’t on the tortilla shortlist. And mind you, Bar Néstor’s tortilla has reached the status of mythical creature, unreachable, unfathomable, the horn of a unicorn against the night sky. It was beautiful… oh well.
We followed the next dream: tomato salad. Maybe we shouldn’t have ordered a double dose of tomato salad—but of course, we had to. Ripe, juicy corazón de buey tomatoes simply seasoned with extra virgin olive oil and rock salt. It’s insane how perfect something can be if you stick to two things: keep it seasonal and don’t mess with it. Leave it be. Make it a soul-quenching tomato salad: we all deserve it.
At some point, it was our turn to choose our steak. The kind Sir presented us with two beautiful steaks from old Galician cows. Yellow fat, deep-red and decently marbled meat, you get the drift? You really couldn’t pick one or the other based on anything but the weight. And the slabs of meat were weighed and priced at 39€ per kilogram. Not a bad deal at all, you’ll see why. And then it’s a waiting game. You get served the freshest baguette (and the to-ma-to) and you wait for the magic to happen. It may take a while, but when the lava-hot black plate is settled in front of you, you can’t help but feel astonished. A well rested, expertly sliced, rare and heavily salted steak shows-off in front of you. T’was a behemoth, but we made it. Everyone did. When biting down, you can feel the intense caramelized coating, the smoky hints of coal, and the silky rendered fat against proper, well-fed, well-raised beef.
I can’t think of how else to describe this meal other than calling it a lesson. When less is more, there’s more thought and dedication behind it than you’d guess. All in all, this was an unforgettable meal.
Full meals aren’t usually the goal when you’re simply pintxo-crawling. You wander and step into a bar, order a pintxo or two, plus a drink and be done with it, next stop. But sometimes you get stuck in a place, and you can’t seem to have enough of it, because it is open until later, and because it’s simply satisfying. That happened with us and Bar Sport, another eatery from Parte Vieja. I can’t really tell how many times we anchored our stomach there. But that comes for three reasons: variety, quality, and price. Below a Basque rowing team wall painting, the counter is filled with a few dozen pintxos of all shapes and colors. From our visits, we amassed quite a lot of them.
We usually started with a classic: Gilda, a guindilla, an anchovy and an olive, entwined in a wooden pick. You can find this in almost every bar, and it’s a fresh savory snack with a kick to start your meal. That, and the usual croqueta de jámon, a bite into an inconspicuous croquette bursting with béchamel and smoky tidbits of cured ham. Some, like the unspeakable foie a la plancha (grilled foie gras), blessed our tastebuds with rich, rendered slivers of sinful liver with exemplary caramelization.
The crema de erizo (sea urchin) garnished with salmon caviar fooled the senses like a dip into the ocean, but albeit much creamier and buttery. Another choice was a crepe de hongos, a thin crepe bursting with wild mushroom cream: good, but mild. But then again, why not go for a comfort food on a small scale and get a carrillera de ternera, a slowly braised veal’s cheek with purée. The cheek revealed itself fork-tender and gravy infused, sparking a sense of winter in mid-summer. Another large warm pintxo was the txangurro al horno (baked brown crab), served with a piece of baguette, brought some comforting marine notes. Otherwise, we sampled a myriad of other (big) bite-sized pintxos, like crab paté, smoked salmon and cream cheese, jámon and brie, boquerones… all fresh, and solidly recommendable. And we also casually stopped by to eat some creamy tortilla every now and then. Overall, Bar Sport was a reliable venue for frequent stops in our crawl.
La Viña was another one of our crawling options in Parte Vieja. This bar has a lot of food to offer, but we focused on what we’d heard about: their award-wining canutillo de queso y anchoa, a cone-shaped wafer with cream cheese and a top-notch anchovy, and their tarta de queso (cheesecake). The buzz for the tarta de queso was quite obvious: there was a massive pile (over 20) sitting on the counter and shelves, still hot from the oven. The canutillo was a crisp experience of dairy softness and intense saltiness from the anchovy, as delicious as we’d imagined. The tarta de queso was a pleasant surprise as we weren’t seeing many desserts. The first bite revealed a soft, creamy texture with a mild, comforting flavor that can only arise from premium dairy, in a perfect balance between savory and sweet. However, the slice was of gut-busting caliber, so we shared one amongst ourselves. It was undoubtedly the best dessert of the trip, and we understand why many call it the best tarta de queso in Spain.
We had no shame in succumbing to a guilty pleasure and ordering a few platefuls of mussels at the very popular and very chaotic La Mejillonera: it’s almost like a fast-food joint for eating mussels (mejillones), calamares and sauce-smothered patatas bravas. Highlight in the mussels section goes to the tigres (slightly spicy tomato sauce) and the al vapor (plain), but you’ll find other styles too. Another wildly popular option is the 80-year-old Juantxo Taberna, which specializes in tortilla, either in the form of pintxo or bocadillo (sandwich). Locals form a line for takeout, or simply to snack at almost every hour of the day. We ordered a couple of bocadillos de tortilla and two beers. The creamy, runny tortilla and the fresh beer hit the spot. The bocadillo itself was quite a monster and kept our mind off food for a few hours.
Let’s be fair: Parte Vieja is great but it’s only a small part of the city. We spent most of our time there because it was close to our hotel. There are plenty of other neighborhoods, like Antiguo or Gros, into which we adventured a few times. When mingling into the lively streets of Gros we found what we would expect: a heck of a lot of restaurants and pubs. Pintxo-crawling in Gros is easier than in Parte Vieja, as there is less turmoil, and more space to fit in. But don’t worry: everyone is out eating, so it can also get crowded. In Gros, we gobbled some artsy pintxos at the trendy Bergara, of the likes of minced fresh tuna, smoked salmon or Cantabrian anchovy (anchoa).
Our first stop was actually Bodega Donostiarra, where we drank a good, traditionally poured cider, and ate a “completo” (a tuna and guindilla sandwich), morcilla (blood sausage), and an octopus salad. At first glance the completo would seem like a silly choice, but we kept hearing the locals call “Completo, completo!”… And it actually turned out to be the best one in the lot: crispy baguette stuffed with flaky, moist canned tuna, seasoned with its own olive oil and some vinegar and spice from the guindillas. The morcilla was good, but we still had the freakishly amazing morcilla from La Bicha in Léon in our minds, but that’s a whole other story.
This was a small rendition of some of our highlights while eating in San Sebastián, however, we hope to come back and try much, much more. Who knows what we’ll find in other neighborhoods. So many iconic places were left untasted. Our incursion helped us scrape the surface of a far-reaching food culture based on traditions. And the foremost lesson is: search for the freshest local ingredients and treat them with respect.
We would also like to thank Vasco Coelho Santos from Euskalduna Studio for his kind suggestions on places to eat in San Sebastián—they couldn’t have been any better.
Want to know more about San Sebastián? Stay tuned for Part I! **
** I know Part II came first, but writing happens in mysterious ways and I’m my own editor.
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