San Sebastián: Pintxo Heaven

Ankita, Lauren and I arrived in San Sebastian on a rainy weekend. We were kind of bummed about the weather, but the city was beautiful nonetheless! We were anticipating the food to be the highlight of our trip anyway.

San Sebastian is in the Basque region of Spain, way up in the northwest of the peninsula, right on the water. It took us about 5 hours by bus to get there.

The city is best known for its gastronomic society. It is known as one of the food capitals in the world, with 3 Michelin rated three-star restaurants out of the only 81 in the world. People here live to eat, never eat to live. It is an art that is truly appreciated and runs in the blood of all the locals.

As soon as we got there, we were starving, and headed straight to the Old Quarter to bar hop for some pintxos. Pintxos are similar to tapas, but smaller. They’re bite sized portions of Basque goodness, and the majority are made with seafood. And although they’re small, they’re surprisingly filling! Many of the bars are lined up with plates upon plates of pintxos, and you go around with a plate picking and choosing which ones you’d like. Normally each pintxo costs around 1,5€ to 3€ each.

These are the first pintxos I had in San Sebastian. Left to right: 1) a shrimp on top of a tuna + mayo mixture, all in a small tart with some lettuce. 2) bread topped with provolone cheese, jamón, bleu cheese, and an anchovy. 3) bread topped with crab + sweet mayo mixture, topped with a thin slice of salmon. Next, we headed out to the bars!

The first was a dive bar with a lot of good music and interesting beers. The second was a really trendy bar that we stumbled upon, right next to the Iglesia de Santa María. Here we ordered three of our first ever Kalimotxos, which is a mixture of half parts red wine and half Coca-Cola. It originated from the Basque region and is a popular mixed drink all throughout Spain.

We were having a nice time at this bar, when a very drunken and zoned out looking man came up to us, asking where we were from. He just kept staring at us inbetween sentences, which made for very awkward moments. He asked if Ankita was of South American origin (LOL, no she is actually Indian). And after we kind of looked at each other and laughed..It was then that he coined the motto for the rest of the trip as he said (out of nowhere) in his drunken stupor: “Don’t panic. Don’t lose control.”

Our first stop the next morning was Catedral del Buen Pastor de San Sebastián. The stained glass windows were so beautiful!

And then we just wandered an got lost in the beautiful city from there!
By the time we got to the bay, we stopped by a bakery for a light snack before we went on our tapas/pintxos bar hop.

Afterwards, we commenced our search for Haizea Bar, a pintxos landmark that Anthony Bourdain featured on his show on his trip to San Sebastian. After a long walk and getting lost for a while, we finally found it! But it was closed.. we figured that it was because it wasn’t lunchtime yet, but the hours weren’t posted either. Luckily, I spotted an open crack in one of the side doors, and peeked in (so creepy I know). I realized there were people in the kitchen! We got one of the cooks’ attention, and sadly, she told us that they were closed throughout the weekend for a long vacation. So we said goodbye to Haizea and headed back to the Old Quarter to begin our bar hop. Our first stop? Bar Txalupa!

All bar countertops are covered with plates piled high with pintxos. You grab a plate, pick and choose which ones you prefer, and choose a glass of wine.
San Sebastian, and the Basque region as a whole, is known for its special sidra, or cider. It’s a mildly alcoholic apple cider, and in my opinion, it’s a perfect pairing for pintxos because it has a sharp, bittersweet taste that completely clears your palate after each pinxto, so you can taste all the flavors that are packed into each bite. The cider is normally poured with the arm extended upwards and the glass held downwards, so that air bubbles can get into the drink, giving it a bubbly, carbonated texture.

my plate: (clockwise) stuffed scallop; baguette topped with mixture of crab, boiled egg, and jamón; baguette topped with marinated red pepper, sauteed veggies, and boiled quail eggs; and baguette topped with mayo and crab mixture, wrapped in smoked salmon.

Our next stop was Gandarías. We were too full to eat too much here, but they had an amazing selection of pintxos. I had a pintxo that consisted of a baguette topped with lettuce, a slice of boiled egg, a piece of salmon, and a pinch of caviar–it was divine. I can’t stop thinking about the caviar. Each tiny morsel melted in my mouth like butter.

We headed back to our favorite bar from the night before. (Name is still a mystery. None of us remember, and I tried Google-ing for an hour, but no luck!) They served some awesome gin + tonics and other mixed drinks, but we decided to go for another round of sidras, since they had a really wide collection that covered an entire wall.

photo cred: Lauren

An emerald green wall of sidra.

By this point, we were stuffed and haunted by food comas. So we decided to digest by doing some more walking throughout the city. We stopped by the beautiful Plaza Mayor, and then explored the beachfront. The views were beautiful, and we even discovered a carousel by the water. Though I have to admit, sometimes we were feeling pwned by the crazy wind that kept flipping our umbrellas inside-out!

Afterwards, we headed back to our hostel for a much needed siesta before dinnertime. As soon as we woke up, we searched online for places to go for dinner. We decided to splurge for our last meal in the city, and we found the perfect place recommended by the NYTimes: Urepel, owned by the highly acclaimed chef Tero Almandoz. All of the dishes were seafood based, and absolutely delicious.

We began the meal with buñuelos de bacalao, on the house.

Crema de Bogavante; Lobster Bisque

My entree: baked stuffed snowcrab

Ankita & Lauren’s dishes: merluza con almejas; hake with clams

And the grand finale…

Words of Lauren: “It tastes like an entire botanical garden in my mouth!”

One of the most beautifully presented desserts I have ever seen in my life!
A closer look…

Mint foam, jam/cream surrounding apple sorbet on top of a tower of fresh strawberries and crystal violet.

View of the cathedral on the cab ride back to the hostel..

We planned another final pintxos bar hop for the next afternoon, but the weather took a turn for the worst. The wind & rain was insane!! It felt like we were in a mild hurricane. Some of the roads were flooding, and they literally looked like small rivers, current and all! I was so happy that I decided to bring my rainboots. In the end, we decided to go straight to the bus terminal, and waited in a small restaurant of a hotel nearby. We warmed up with sopa de gallina, albóndigas, and coffee, and told ghost stories from our childhoods until the bus finally came and whisked us back to Madrid.