I was going to start this post by saying "we found ourselves in San Sebastian in the middle of our Spain roadtrip..." but that would be inaccurate. Actually, like a well-planned crescendo, San Sebastian was to be the highlight of this
Our two dinners were going to be casual pintxos crawls (an event the locals call a "txikiteo"--chiki-te-o), and then we were going to splurge for lunch at the 3-Michelin-starred Arzak.
Pintxos (pinchos) are the Basque equivalent of tapas--small dishes served in a bar setting. In San Sebastian though, they have reached a different level of gastronomy. Many of the dishes are similar, if not superior, to the courses served as part of a very expensive degustation meal. There are the basic appetizer-looking pintxos like croquetas and deviled eggs, home-cooked type pintxos like a small serving of fish with mashed potatoes, and then those that are prepared like petite haute cuisine--like foie gras with apples and those pictured in this post.
A coffee table book displayed at our hotel's reception desk
This trip was off-season so the Parte Vieja ("old town", where most pinxtos bars are) was a ghost town with only a few groups of people hopping from bar to bar. Unlike the locals who limit themselves to a couple of pinxtos and a txikito (a small glass of wine) in each bar before moving on to the next bar, our "turo-turo" training was our downfall. At the first bar, we were so excited we pointed and reached for everything that looked good, not even aware that we could also have pintxos made to order.
At La Cepa
When we moved to the next place, we did the same thing. We filled ourselves with all these delicious pintxos, guessing wildly which ones were good based on their appearance. After the second place, we couldn't even think of going to a third bar. So much for our txikiteo. We decided to call it a night, our stomachs full and the men scared they would get bangungot.
The next morning, we had a scheduled walking tour with a private guide. One of the more valuable things Agustin shared with us that morning was a list of his favorite "of-the-moment" pinxtos bars along with the names of the dishes we were to order.
Our guy, Agustin (bottom left)
Another pintxos resource is todopintxos, a website dedicated to rating different pintxos-- a very useful site for planning a txikiteo. Unfortunately we had been on the road a few days now, and no one in the group had done extensive research on what to order in each bar. Our first night out was an experiment.
Agustin had a chuckle when he heard we only visited two bars the night before. "No, no, just order one or two things--the specialty--and then move on to the next place." He explained that in Donostia (San Sebastian's Basque name), a txikiteo is a ritual focused mostly on socializing. We had been doing a lot of socializing within our traveling group for the past week, so our goal was more about the food!
Some members of the cast of characters on this trip
Armed with Agustin's list on the second evening, we set off again for the Parte Vieja, a short walk from our hotel. But did we follow it? Again the turo-turo syndrome was hard to control, with people wanting to taste different things. We had a good start. Ordering a couple of pintxos in the first bar, we focused on the made-to-order dishes and not those on display.
I think this is Borda Berri
We were suitably primed, and at the second bar, we ordered the recommended vegetable tempura. Then B regressed and ordered an ordinary-looking ham and cheese panini because all the locals around us were chomping on it. After one bite, I realized why. We were, after all, in Spain--land of Iberico ham.
At this point in the evening I knew we weren't going to make it through our list.
At the third bar that night, we had another promising start with a hot made-to-order pintxo. And then... one of the guys lost it and ordered a steak! A couple of the other guys caved in and said they wanted a steak too. So much for all our little dishes--this was definitely the end of our txikiteo. At least we reached three bars.
La Vina's fabulous cheesecake
But we remembered that one of the more insistent suggestions of Agustin was the award-winning cheesecake of La Viña (Yes, individual dishes are given awards every year). With much effort, we dragged our stuffed bodies over. While savoring every bite of this wonderful cheesecake, we were regretting having to leave the next day. I was sure that by the third time, we would've completed the perfect pintxos crawl.