It’s a Wednesday afternoon and early, yet already the streets of San Sebastián are teaming with hungry bar-hoppers, avid pintxo-poppers looking to wash down two-bite snacks with a beer or frosty cool caña of clara. Locals and tourists and local tourists alike frequent the “pintxerias” that line the streets of Parte Vieja. At first glance these spots all look kind of similar. But they’re not. Hams hang seductively above bars whose tenders pour txacoli [Basque sparkling white wine] from a bottle dramatically lifted a meter above the glass. This is generally true for all of them. But the spread at each pintxo bar is slightly different. Some are known for hams, some for seafood, some for the fried stuff, some for the pickled. Upon my arrival to San Sebastián I wandered without a clue into the first place that looked popular, idled awkwardly in front of the counter and finally worked up the confidence to ask for a plate after about 10 minutes of staring blankly at the options. By the end of the trip I was marching in with a local, surrendering to him the responsibility to choose, a task I kind of just gave up on along the way.
That first place was Casa Alcalde, across the street from Santa Maria Church whose steps provide overflow seating for the pint-sized bar. There’s hams a’hangin’ and txacoli a’flowin’ and the options seem endlessly endlessly endless. There’s things on bread and things off bread. There are veggies and cheeses gratinated onto toast, simple jamón sandwiches, txistorra [Basque chorizo], blood sausage and tortillas in multiple sizes. There are eggplants and peppers stuffed with purees of this and that. There’s a lot of fried stuff, good looking fried stuff, with a variety of fillings. There are also seafood creams made with crab or shrimp or octopus, not to mention that single ingredient so crucial to Basque cuisine, salted cod.
Some sort of strategy is needed at a good pintxo bar on a warm night in August. Places are packed for dinner and it seems like every day is a holiday. Fortunately, Casa Alcalde was not too crazy for lunch and I could choose what I wanted in peace. My companions and I order 3 glasses of clara, a 50/50 blend of beer and lemon soda that I ended up not enjoying very much. I would get beer alone next time. We secured a small standing area outside and devoured our first round of pintxos. I hand’t eaten anything since boarding my night bus in Barcelona some 20 hours before. The first few bites brought me back to life.
A bright red patch of roasted pepper caught my eye first. A generous quantity of the spread was spooned onto a piece of crunchy bread and topped with a dollop of mayonnaise. Vegetal sweet and delicate, with a tiny bit of vinegar and a feint hint of char or smoke. The moist tapenade of escalivada-style pepper was slippery smooth but not too oily. The perfect two-bite pintxo to get me hungry for a long afternoon of eating.
Next came a pintxo of pulpo a la gallega, a tender tentacle of octopus dotted with springy suction cups mounted onto a thin slice of boiled potato and a slice of bread underneath. I loved this but, like with every pintxo that doesn’t involve a creamy spread, I prefered it without bread. The octopus was soft, the paprika nice and smoky and the potato slick from oil without being too greasy. This little guy is a recurring character at pintxo bars around San Sebastián. I’m glad I found such a well prepared version of a dish I was inevitably going to have to order at some point.
Another prevalently pinched item on the bar list is the croquetas de bacalao or salt cod croquettes. I loved that this version was not too creamy or greasy in the least. The cod filling was flaky and velvet-soft, enhanced in flavor with spring onion and garlic. The crunchy coat was a perfect golden brown, thin and brittle enough to crack easily. The sandy texture of the breadcrumb crust was the perfect complement to the creamy fish within.
In the following two days I visited a total of 5 pintxo bars in and around Donostia. Casa Alcalde seemed by far the most versatile. A great lead into this world of small bites.