Trust Issues and Pintxos in San Sebastian, Spain

Most decisions made in the wee morning hours after a few glasses of wine aren’t usually very good ones. Whether it’s attempting to lure and capture a probably rabid wild possum; striking up a conversation with an off-his-rocker homeless man because he kind of looks like Uncle Jesse from Full House sans the glorious mullet, token vest, and home; or to call anyone ever for any reason whatsoever, I’ve had my fair share of unique Chardonnay-inspired adventures. Deciding to buy tickets for a next day 9AM bus ride to San Sebastian at 4AM while mooching Internet from center city Madrid and eating 23-and-a-half-hours-old pizza from the 24 hour pizza place is absolutely one of my better ones.

San Sebastian, Bay of Biscay

I’ll admit I had no original intent on traveling to Basque country, but after having been told unanimously by many unrelated parties that I absolutely, undoubtedly, indisputably needed to go, it felt impudent to not acquiesce. Just the night prior I’d accepted an invitation for a homemade, traditional Spanish dinner from the girl who owns the apartment I’m renting. In between bites of gaspacho and various tapas we got to talking about obligatory day trips before I leave Spain next week. When I brought up the possibility of heading up north, she locked eyes with me and said in a tone that was upsettingly serious, “you must go to San Sebastian.”

I told her I’d think about it, but didn’t tell her when or if I was going because I was more than certain she’d let herself into my apartment to try on my clothes, or whatever landladies do when their renters vacate the property for any stretch of time.  I’m aware this gives clear insight to my baseless trust issues, but I’ve seen too many minutes of nanny cam footage to ever trust anyone again. I’m still not unconvinced there’s a hidden camera in the shower, which is why I shower with the lights off. But she probably thought about that possibility and installed one with night vision, which is why I now also shower fully clothed.

San Sebastian, Bay of Biscay, Wind Combs

San Sebastian, Bay of Biscay, Wind Combs

San Sebastian, Spain, Bay of Biscay

But the point I’m working toward is after so many undivided positive recommendations, I went to San Sebastian and now understand the fanatical praise it’s received. San Sebastian, set on the idyllic, pristine Bay of Biscay at the northernmost part of Spain in Basque country, has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants of any city in Spain and is regarded the hallmark of cuisine in the country.  Oh, and the pintxos. Did I not mention the pintxos?

San Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, Pintxos

Pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) are finger foods such as meats, cheeses, vegetables, seafood or any combination thereof served atop sliced bread to accompany a glass of wine or beer. Most bars are bursting at the seams with patrons offering only standing room and a small amount of personal space. Becoming friendly with your pintxos eating, cava drinking stranger-neighbors is an inevitability. Patrons travel from bar to bar eating from a veritable buffet of perfectly portioned bite-sized foods and shamelessly drinking on any given afternoon or night. These are clearly my people.

San Sebastian, Spain, PintxosSan Sebastian, Spain, PintxosSan Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, PintxosSan Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, Pintxos

If pintxos sounds suspiciously like tapas, it’s because pintxos are suspiciously like tapas. It’s said that pintxos came to be called as such since “pintxo” means “spike,” representing the toothpick that fastens together the food and the bread on which they sit. Some people will claim that tapas and pintxos are dissimilar, but the terms have to a greater extent become interchangeable. During my time here in Spain I’ve been in bars serving “tapas” over baguette slices with toothpicks skewered through them, and conversely have been served “pintxos” sans bread and toothpick. Whatever term the dealer chooses to prescribe his or her drug is of little consequence, because when my mouth is full and my stomach is happy I’ve learned to not ruminate on semantics.

San Sebastian is very well known for their highly embellished pintxos, mixing unassuming finger foods and haute cuisine with impressive finesse. Of all the bars I’d teetered out of, Zeruko, a long and narrow bar that dabbles in molecular gastronomy, was my favorite. Amongst the pintxos constructed in an archetypal mix of chorizo, tortilla de patatas, blood sausage, anchovies and others of such ilk, Zeruko stood out by serving unique pintxos comprised of compound creams dotted with roe, layers of beef hash and quail egg, cinnamon raisin crostini with sweet almond crème fraiche and adorned with edible flowers, and a myriad of various other colorful additions. The list continues on and is only as finite as the chefs’ creativity.

San Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, Pintxos

San Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, Pintxos

San Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, Pintxos

San Sebastian, Spain, Zeruko, Pintxos

My favorite of the night was a delicately prepared sea urchin served in situ, swimming in a thick and heady cream sauce that I’m 97.2% sure was a béchamel substructure. I couldn’t be sure as my attempts to find out were thwarted given my lacking knowledge in the Basque language and the staffs’ in English, so it remains for now a delicious mystery.

Sea Urchin - Zeruko, San Sebastian, Spain

When I got back to my hotel that night, contented, full, and buzzing from the frenetic atmosphere of each bar (and possibly the few glasses of wine), I unfastened and swung open the double door balcony attached to my room. Below, at 2AM on a Thursday, the streets were still abound with inebriates darting in and out of bars, laughing and conversing jovially. I settled into my hotel bed and soon after drifted off into a deep, secure sleep. Except I didn’t, because a large fissure sprawled across the ceiling sent me reeling me into panic-stricken anxiety thinking about how many tiny hidden cameras were stashed up there, waiting to film me sleeping.

Nanny cams, you’ve ruined me.

San Sebastian, Spain, Bay of Biscay

San Sebastian, Spain, Bay of Biscay


6 thoughts on “Trust Issues and Pintxos in San Sebastian, Spain

  1. I am loving this journey, thank you so much for sharing it with us all. Your writing is as vivid as your photographs!

  2. Amazing photos, especially inside of Zeruko. I found San Sebastian an amazing place despite only spending two nights there, I was blown away by each mouthful and couldn’t get over the prices. Some pretty high-end food groups like foie and unusual seafood are sold for a fraction of what you’d pay in a restaurant plus the culture of going from bar-to-bar in search of the next tasty morsel is unparalleled compared to the rest of Spain. For example Granada has a fantastic culture of moving from bar-to-bar, buying a drink and receiving a free tapas, but normally a potato or bread based one, a far cry the gastronomic treats found in the Basque country. But you’re right, I don’t think anyone can agree on a difference between tapas or pintxos in Spain I have noticed that some places where I’m based in Valencia and Barcelona pride themselves on being high-end pintxos joints and the way the food is presented on the bar is always much more appealing than tapas,

    Also spot on about the bechamel sea urchins – Erizo de mar al txakoli zeruko

    • Thank you – for the photo compliment and for confirming my suspicion regarding the urchins’ sauce! I was so impressed with the food culture in San Sebastian, and as you pointed out, the price point of the higher-end ingredients. It made haute cuisine accessible to the average diner, which is something I can always stand behind.

  3. Oh…I missed Zeruko on my recent trip to San Sebastian….their Pintxos look like works of art! Clearly, I will need to go back and try again! Clearly, this Chardy inspired trip was well worth it! I came across the same comments from many a Spaniard on my recent travels – “you must go to San Sebastian” was uttered over many a bottle of red! I lucked out on a visit during restaurant week – should you find yourself in the area….totally worth another visit! The food was amazing and so affordable! I agree completely with your above comment – the pricing structure makes haute cuisine available to the average diner! Bon appetit!

    • Hi Anita! Even though you didn’t go to Zeruko, you no doubt had some amazing pintxos since it’s pretty much impossible to find a bad pinxto in San Sebastian! It was one of my favorite cities during my travels, and I cannot wait to go back — preferably during a time when it’s not so crazy hot (even though it’s a perfect excuse to drink more sangria). If I can make it during restaurant week I will go, and then get advice from you on what I should check out. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Onde comer os melhores pintxos de San Sebastián | Alma de Viajante

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s