San Sebastián has pretty much been done to death by food writers and bloggers, but with good reason. There is really nowhere comparable, and I have eaten my way around a lot of great European, North American and Australian food cities over the last decade. I have never found anywhere where every restaurant could provide at least one outstanding dish, as well as many excellent ones, for under a fiver. While eating at a bar counter with a stranger’s elbow lodged in your rib as you spill dish after dish down your front may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, even people on a budget can get to try cooking from incredibly talented chefs. Pintxos start at around two euro, and a glass of txacoli is in the same range.
So with that in mind, here are my favourite dishes or pintxos bars from five days and nights of eating everything humanly possible in San Sebastián. We tried to hit most of the best known places, but missed out on trying the cheesecake in La Vina and the tortilla in Bar Nestor. We tried the anchovies in Txeptxa but since I really just don’t like anchovies, it didn’t make the cut but if you do like them, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Ganbara – Grilled mushrooms with egg yolk
Ganbara is the grand dame of San Sebastián pinchos. It is pricier than the rest, with luxurious ingredients and a strong focus on pastry. Possibly the most Instagrammed dish in San Sebastián is the wild mushrooms grilled with egg yolk (hongos a la plancha). At close to €20 for a small racion, this is by far the most expensive dish that we tried, but it was utterly perfect. The mushrooms were delicate with a rich meaty texture, and the raw egg yolk brought the dish together. I am completely phobic about eggs but somehow I managed to both eat and adore this dish. Ganbara is always a popular spot with tourists and with foodie tours, but we managed to snag a rare corner bit of counter on a Wednesday lunchtime to try this.
Anything meaty at La Cuchara de San Telmo
La Cuchara de San Telmo is legendary for its rich meaty dishes like foie gras and beef cheek. On our two visits, we managed to try both of these, plus the duck ravioli with mushrooms and jus (pictured above), the crispy pigs ear with romesco, and a racion of morcilla. With the exception of the morcilla racion, all of these were priced at around €4.00. La Cuchara de San Telmo is a sweaty and tense experience. Two men on either end of the counter take orders sporadically and you try to carve out a bit of space to wait. Food tends to come in waves, so you’ll see portions of foie gras fly out, followed a few minutes later by beef cheeks and so on. If you’re unlucky, you can be waiting ten minutes for each dish. It’s one of the few places that doesn’t have pintxos on the bar, and it’s full of other foodie tourists elbowing each other for counter space. The best move is to bring food onto the little square outside, away from the fray.
Braised Veal Cheek with Red Wine and Orzo Risotto with Idiazabal at Bora Berri
I didn’t manage to get a picture of these dishes, but being totally honest, they were not the most photogenic. Borda Berri has a similar vibe to La Cuchara de San Telmo, which makes sense since its chef came from there, with a list of small hot pintxos at about €3-4 euro a go and no pintxos on the counter. The creamy orzo risotto (risotto de puntalete) with local sheep’s milk cheese was a standout dish, as well as the veal cheek braised in red wine (carrilera de tenera al vino tinto) were standouts. I think these dishes are pretty similar to the ones at La Cuchara, but the space is slightly less hectic and sweaty, and I thought the veal cheeks were better seasoned here.
Spicy tomato mussels, patatas bravas and squid bravas at La Mejillonera
La Mejillonera is essentially a Spanish version of a chip shop. It serves a few fried dishes instantly at a counter, and has a constant turnover of mainly local customers. There are photos displayed above the counter of the five mussel dishes, patatas bravas, and different squid dishes available. Uniformed men take your order, shout it down the counter with a dramatic emphasis and a minute later you are presented with your food. Mussels in a spicy tomato sauce (mejillones al tigre), deep fried squid with aioli and bravas sauce (calamares bravas), and fried potatoes with the same aioli and bravas sauce (patatas bravas) are essential to try here, and can be seen dotted up and down the counter. You can get a double portion of the bravas for €3.50, mussels for €3.80 and a half racion of calamares for around €5. This is the perfect place for a quick lunch break from the Concha beach, which is just a few minutes away.
Chorizo Croquetas at Bar Gure Txoco
Over the river in Gros, things are a little quieter. Bar Gure Txoco has a huge selection of croquetas to choose from, but our favourites were the chorizo ones, which managed to combine spiciness and sweetness with the creamy bechamel perfectly. They’re a little pricier than most croquetas in San Sebastián, at €2.50 for two, but totally worth it. This is a good spot if you want a break from the slightly relentless Old Town atmosphere.
Kokotxas, and really anything at Zeruko
Zeruko is a modern, award-winning pintxo place with efficient staff, and often a bit more space than the others. The counter is groaning with excellent pintxos, and they also have a long list of hot pintxos to order from the kitchen. The standout dish was the kokotxas (part of a hake’s throat, I think) which come on a little skewer over a hot grill with some bread and a green sauce. You turn the kokotxas skewer yourself, ten seconds on each side, place it on the bread, and douse it in a sauce from a test tube. I was too busy timing and grilling to get an actual photo. We actually didn’t find this dish on the menu, so I’m not sure what its proper name is, but you will see it at every table so just point and ask for it. It costs €5.50, but is very much worth it, particularly as they have trimmed away a lot of the fat you normally get with kokotxas, leaving a lean and sweet skewer of fish without the weird gelatinous mouthfeel that other kokotxas dishes had. I also loved the goats cheese with foie gras and honey pintxo on the bar, and the sea urchin with avocado.
Octopus with potato soup and bacon at Casa Urola
Like Ganbara and Borda Berri, Casa Urola is a stalwart of San Sebastián food tours, and we saw loads of groups during our evening there. With a decor that looks like a living room on Desperate Housewives, it does not look anything like what I’d expect from a cutting-edge pintxos bar, but everything we tried was glorious. It is one of the few places with proper tables and chairs in the bar (there is also a dining room upstairs offering similar food at a huge mark-up). If you hang around long enough, you can snag a seat and work your way through the whole tapas menu. The hot dishes are worth the wait, and the staff are great at wrestling through the crowds to give them to you. The food is elegantly presented like an amuse bouche in a Michelin restaurant, but at the same San Sebastian prices of less than €5 a pop.
Mackobe with Txips at A Fuego Negro
A Fuego Negro is a more recent arrival on the San Sebastián pintxos scene, with an interior like a Nu-Metal band’s fast food franchise. The menu is displayed through a series of illustrated placards on the wall above the bar. The staff here are extremely efficient and manage to stay in a good mood despite the constant pressure. There are different small dishes at between €3 and €6, as well as larger portions of things like fried wild chicken for around €15 to €18. It may seem a bit unadventurous for San Sebastián, but there is a reason everyone around you is ordering the Mackobe, a miniature Kobe beef burger with banana chips.