15 July, 2011

Pick your Pintxos in Old Town San Sebastian

"Choices, choices...", I sighed, as I surveyed the numerous plates laid neatly side-by-side on the bar at Tamboril, a restaurant just off the main square in old town San Sebastian. "So many pintxos to try", referring to the elaborately-prepared, colorful bite-sized creations that rested on each plate, "and only three meals a day".

Tamboril was the second stop on my lunch hour, preceded by a drink of txakoli (a cloudy white wine) and a taste of two dishes at another bar. Known as tapas in all of Spain, these appetizers were referred to as pintxos in San Sebastian, a charming seaside city located in the Basque country, a region in the northern part of Spain where the eponymous language rules.

In Basque country, there is a unique way of presenting and ordering pintxos. Instead of the dishes being enclosed inside a glass case, tradition dictates that they be laid out on the bar. Patrons are handed a plate and go from one end of the bar to the other to pick whatever pintxos appeal to their eyes and stomach, socializing along the way with other customers.

Once they have finalized their choices, depending on the bar, the attendant either adds up the bill based on the price of each dish (if prices are not the same), or waits until after the patron finishes eating and simply counts the number of pintxos consumed. The latter was more prevalent in the past, but since it wasn't quite fool proof (i.e. toothpicks stuffed inside pockets were not uncommon), thus I experienced it only once.

With all these dishes begging to be tasted, I decided that instead of eating sit-down meals at restaurants, a more ideal strategy would be to go on a pintxo crawl for every lunch and dinner during my visit to San Sebastian.

In addition to variety, the pick 'n choose method eliminated the guesswork involved in choosing food from a foreign language menu, and made for quicker meals - in just half an hour you're done and off to the next joint. For lunch and dinner I'd hit three different places, ordering a couple of pintxos in each one, along with a drink which was either the above-mentioned txakoli or low-alcohol cider.

Ah, the selecting part - that's where I was gripped by moments of indecision, especially if they all looked delectable. One personal guideline is to opt for the more elaborate creations (as the pics hopefully illustrate) instead of the more typical croquettes, Spanish omelet or jamon iberico straddling a piece of bread. Or sometimes I'd chose based on how colorful a particular pintxo looked, and hope for the best.

Newbies to the Basque pintxo culture could be forgiven for being squeamish at the thought of other people's errant fingers brushing against adjacent pieces of food, or wonder exactly how many hours the pintxos have been sitting around, but unlike other regions of Spain, tradition has overcome efforts to eliminate the practice here.

Another surprising part is that waste (napkins, toothpicks) are simply disposed of by chucking them on the floor. However, it is said that the quality of an establishment could be measured by how much detritus adorned its floors.

With the concentration of establishments in old town San Sebastian, It's quite hard to chose among them. There are a couple of ways around this - one can take a somewhat pricey two hour pintxo tasting tour with like-minded foodies that goes to five or six different bars and samples two or three dishes at each one.

A cheaper alternative would be to spend significant time, as I did,  in between meals consulting the website Todopintxos which suggests various routes for pintxo discovery, and where voters rate individual dishes and places. The effort is very much worth it, this I can personally attest to, as I smile at the memories of the delicious pintxos and pat my stomach contentedly.

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Wallace said...

Oh man, looks at what you eat. American food sucks!

Anonymous said...

looks like dim sum! i think i saw shrimps in there...

Jenna said...


Jeremy said...

For more in-depth information about the Basque Country, check out Eusko Guide: