Next time you’re planning a trip to San Sebastian on the northwest coast of Spain, I recommend timing your arrival to coincide with Pintxo Week.
Pintxo Week began a day or two before we got to San Sebastian on June 9. As I recall, the week actually lasted more like 10 days or so. We didn’t know it was Pintxo Week until we asked the hotel desk man for a map of the city. He opened up a brightly colored number and proudly announced that it was Pintxo Week in San Sebastian. You could have knocked me over with a tapa. The city map was replete with the usual streets and boulevards, museums and bus stations. On the back, however there were photos of the most delectable looking appetizers and a listing of the 31 bars that were participating in Pintxo (sounds like Peencho) Week. They were listed by general proximity to each other beginning in the old part of the city. Thus numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 were within a few blocks of where we were staying and the higher numbers were likewise clustered together in groups of five or six in separate neighborhoods around the city.
Pintxos, by the way, is the Basque word for tapas, which is Spanish for a snack, hot or cold, sold or given gratis in bars and tavernas throughout Spain. According to Spanish tradition, the tapas are consumed with beer or wine at what we might call cocktail time, typically several hours before they actually eat dinner. Every establishment has its own method of delivery. Some serve a row of platters piled high on top of a counter, and patrons mosey down the line choosing as many and as varied as they want. The bartender rings it up later in many cases. I think there’s a pretty agreeable honor system going on, but I didn’t test it. Other places you can sit down and order what you want.
Pintxo Week is sponsored by the Keler beer company, and at each place you get four different pintxos and two 12-ounce Keler beers for 10 Euros. Last month, the Euro was worth about $1.35 USD, so you can do the math to figure out if you were getting a pretty good deal or not. We reckoned that was very reasonable considering you might easily pay 10 Euros just for two beers at many watering holes. We paid more for two 10-ounce bottles of water on the sidewalk at one cafe in Barcelona, but that’s another story — one of a power outage and maybe some chicanery on the part of the server.
Pintxo Week is kind of a contest. Most participating bars had survey forms to fill out after your pintxo experience. You’re asked to write in the name of the place, rate the quality of the pintxo, the service and ambience and I forget what else. Some servers and bartenders took it pretty seriously while others didn’t even hand out the surveys. According to the information on the map, a few weeks after the contest, the results would be announced and the winner would win a dinner for two at a really fancy, expensive restaurant. It wasn’t exactly clear to us how the winner would be selected, although the survey did ask for name and place of residence. They might just pull one out of a hat and announce it on the radio.
The venues that took Pintxo Week seriously seemed to put out their signature pintxos to make the best impression. Some were really good. Some were pretty good. Some were really unusual and others were pretty mundane. Spain is justly proud of its meats such as ham and specialty cured beef. Most places featured some variation on those themes. Others focused on different seafoods. Salmon (saumon) was common as were sardines or more often anchovies. One day, I ordered a lunch of grilled “white sardines,” which turned out to be what we would call anchovies. Most pintxos were served on fresh bread, sometimes hard and sometimes soft, with a special sauce or rendering of the main ingredient. Egg, ground tuna, squid or octopus showed up from time to time. The most unusual one I had was served in a wine glass. It was the traditional gazpacho made of blended tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, oil and maybe red pepper and served cold as an appetizer. At the Cafe Lagunak, the gazpacho contained peach which made for a really interesting crisp, sweet flavor. I gave it highest marks on the survey, which they did take seriously.
Looking for the Lagunak, which was clearly marked on the map, which seemed not to correspond to reality, we encountered a local. A woman of a certain age who said she had been in the neighborhood for nigh on 50 years or more. I pronounced the name as best I could in Spanish. It’s probably a Basque word, and I showed her the map. She shook her head and said, roughly translated, “I’ve never heard of that.” We all hemmed and hawed for a minute or two and then she insisted that we follow her. We wound around through narrow streets and even narrower streets. She said something about being close to the Fronton practice complex. For some reason, maybe my long summers in Florida, I remembered that Fronton is the native term for Jai Alai. “Ah, it’s close to the Jai Alai place,” I understood.
She took us through more narrow streets and alleys to a little plaza at the intersection of a couple of small streets. Opposite the plaza was the Lagunak Kafetegia (Basque for Cafe Lagunak, I surmised). We thanked her profusely, shook hands and she went on her way. What a treat. That’s what travel is really all about.
In my extensive journaling of Pintxo Week, the second day we were there, I noted the pintxos at the Iombi Bar were “better than last night” at the Kalaberri Restaurant and Bar. Those at the “Amazonas” were “good, not great.” The Red and Black Bar’s were “OK,” while those at the Ur Gain Bar were “good — all fish.” My notes following this entry read, “Next to siesta; we’re across from the hotel.” I can only guess that we went back and took a siesta, though I don’t remember it. The Cerveceria Duit featured shrimp and Iberian meat. It was “good” and I gave it high marks as well.
One day about midweek, we actually went to three Pintxo Week bars. One for an early lunch, one late in the afternoon and another around eight in the evening. We were so sated on pintxos that we didn’t have any more for a couple of days. They are very rich and can be surprisingly filling. And two beers in the hot afternoon can sap your interest in doing much else other than sitting under a big shade tree — which, come to think of it, ain’t all bad on a vacation day in some exotic locale like San Sebastian in the middle of Pintxo Week.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.