San Sebastian is known for Pinxtos. I learned this while researching towns that might be good for us to spend time in while we looked around Spain. People go to San Sebastian to surf and eat. There are a lot of other attractions of course, but at first glance you may think that the best thing in the area is a night spent eating pintxos. I am all for eating and I love tapas, the pintxo version with which I am acquainted; little plates of good snacks that are shared with your dining companion. Scott and I love to enjoy a long tapas dinner, it’s fun to eat little bits of food and the best part is that you keep ordering things. It makes us take our time and is usually a fun and relaxing date, so I was really looking forward to eating in San Sebastian. I envisioned delicious tapas on every corner, one fulfilling, relaxing and enjoyable eating event after another. Scott would probably stop cooking altogether during our time in pintxo paradise and every moment spent not eating would be spent hiking off our dinners. Like all good dreams, reality tends to warp them a little bit.
A pintxo (Basque) or pincho (Spanish and pronounced peen-cho either way) is a small snack typically served in bars in northern Spain. The Spanish verb “pichar” means “to pierce” and pintxos are usually pierced with a toothpick or some type of wooden stake (I found this our the hard way because you can’t always see the non edible part of the food). All kinds of things are attached to a piece of bread with the tooth-pick, even frog as I found out, also the hard way, and herein lies the reality of a txikiteo (bar crawl including food, drink and socializing). It is a bit of a sport.
The first thing to know is that pintxos can be had all over San Sebastian, but if you want to wander in and out of bars, your location is Parte Vieja or Old Town. The first time Scott and I went on a txikiteo, we went alone and it was a quiet, rainy night in the middle of the week, perfect for us newbie pintxo eaters. It was still challenging and hard to know what the protocol demands. We chose quiet bars at first, but there were some that required elbowing your way into the eating establishment, which was intimidating. We worked our way up to those busy places and tried them just for fun, but it only took a few to realize that they weren’t our style.
There are many better pictures on-line of the platters of food to be explored in San Sebastian’s Pintxo scene, but this will give you an idea.
I just found a blogger who gave really helpful pintxo information and advice which I find very interesting now that I have experienced this sport without any preparation. There is a whole pintxo world that we missed, but we did our best at the time, watching and learning. You walk in, the staff behind the bar usually greets you and you ask for a plate and a drink. Before you, displayed on the bar for all to see and sneeze on, are plates and plates of hor d’oeuvres, usually with no indication as to the ingredients, but even when there were little signs, they were in Basque or Spanish. You carry your plate along the bar and pick up, with your hands (this part was hard for me, it seemed so germy, and I am not a germophobe) the snacks you want to eat. The bartender looks at your plate and then you find a place to sit or you can eat at the bar leaning over the plates of food (which seemed unsanitary too). You finish your snack and pay the bartender before moving on to the next place.
We took the kids to experience pintxos on Thanksgiving. It was fun and added even another level of food challenge. It was a much busier night in Old Town and add the kid’s bewilderment of food choices and ordering protocols to our own pintxo ineptitude and the evening became circus-like, fitting of traditional Thanksgiving meal preparation. I don’t know if the kids liked it all that much. Scott and I enjoyed it but I think it’s more fun if you go for the experience and not to assuage your hunger pains. One of the issues that I had with the pintxo experience is I always went hungry and then had to not only navigate my way around other more experienced pintxo eaters who were comfortable elbowing their way up to the bar and had that whole non verbal communication thing going with the bartender and the other sport eaters, but also spoke the language. By the time I had food in front of me, my mood was slipping to say the least and there was the time that I bit into a fried looking yumminess that turned our to be a cold and rubbery piece of frog. For me to lose my appetite when I am hungry is not an easy feat. The kids thought it was hilarious and it made Scott’s evening.
If you go to San Sebastian, you have to try pintxos at least once. My best suggestion, especially if you like to figure things out on the fly, is that you do not begin your adventure “hangry” the first time and go for the “experience” rather than focusing just on food. This blog could have been very helpful for me (http://www.waegook-tom.com/foodporn-friday/san-sebastian-pintxos/). Our wonderful apartment manager, Ane, also recommended a pintxo spot that is her parent’s favorite, which was just our speed called Nagusia 4. The pintxos were fresh and delicious, there were places to sit and the staff was nice and didn’t seem to be offended by our pintxo ignorance. We ate there three times!