Pinxto Paradise: 5 Pinxto Bars in San Sebastian

San Sebastian nighttime eating scene

I love San Sebastian. I fell for it hard on our first trip there in 2012 and I’m still enamored. I legitimately want to buy an apartment there. I’m not exactly in a position to do so just yet but a girl sure can dream.

So what do I love about San Sebastian? Oh, just the culture, the architecture, the shopping, the people, the vibe, and the food. Especially the food. But first, a little background: This coastal city (known in Basque as Donostia) is a cross between Paris and Barcelona. With a gorgeous beach thrown in for good measure. It’s really just all too much of a good thing.

Which brings me to the food: San Sebastian is a serious foodie town with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world, second only to Kyoto, Japan. But when it comes to those mini works of culinary art known as pinxtos, I would argue that San Sebastian is home to the best.

Here are some of our favorites from this last visit:

Bar Txpetxa
Calle Pescaderia 5
If you want old school, this place is it. Txpetxa is a very traditional pinxto place featuring a fish-shaped menu hanging up behind the lacquered wooden bar. It’s primarily known for its antxoas or anchovies. The menu includes about 14 different types of pinxtos featuring its oceanic star, including one with blueberry jam which just sounds vile. I don’t know what would compel someone to put those things together. We skipped that one and ordered a couple of other anchovy-based pintxos. I, however, can’t stand anchovies, so to me, it tasted like cat food on bread. XFE has more refined tastes and he seemed to choke them down just fine. It’s tradition and I gave it a try.

Zeruko
Calle Pescaderia 10

Once we were done with our catfood and ready to give traditional pinxtos a swift kick in the scallops, we crossed the street over to Zeruko. This place is all about cool, modern molecular pinxtos. The mile-long bar display is a sensory overload as you try to make out just what ingredients are in each pinxto. Befuddled and overwhelmed, we settled on a few from the display (versus ordering off the kitchen board), including this gilded and grilled artichoke stuffed with a creamy filling topped with grilled scallops. We did not get Zeruka’s most famous dish, bacalao la hoguera, a piece of cod served up on a little grill that cooks in front of you.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
Continuing on the experimental pinxto vein, we made sure to go nice and early to the much-hyped A Fuego Negro. We had tried to go the last time we were in the Parte Viejo, but the place was packed and we just couldn’t be bothered. On this visit, we had the Makobe with txips- a Kobe slider served in a tomato sauce bun with banana chips, and pajarito fritos, which was sort of their spin on chicken wings featuring some small—not chicken—bird. Pretty yummy and American-taste-bud friendly.

Sirimiri
Mayor Kalea, 18 (right next to—and affiliated with–our old favorite Atari Gastroleku)
The definition of Sirimiri is “a very light rain; stronger than mist but less than a shower.” What a great word! Sirimiri features a good mix of playful pinxtos with traditional. We had their version of “natxos” and some really wonderful roasted goat topped with pickled cabbage. They also, like their sister bar, make an unbelievably good gin and tonic, which Spain, and San Sebastian in particular, has elevated to an art form. Very small interior but wonderful, buzzy vibe.

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La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
Saving the best for last: our favorite pinxto place in the whole wide world (so far). We love La Cuchara and every time we go (which can sometimes mean twice a day), we are constantly blown away by this place. How, oh how, does it not have a Michelin star? But don’t take my word for it: On our second night there, we struck up a conversation with a girl standing next to us at the bar. She told us she had been an apprentice chef at two-Michelin star Mugaritz and this was her last night in San Sebastian and she just had to eat at La Cuchara one last time.

We ate pretty much everything on the menu, revisiting some of our favorites from our last visit:  veal cheeks slow cooked in wine till they fall apart, bacon-wrapped scallop, cochinillo or suckling pig with an apple puree and topped with crispy skin. We discovered a couple of new favorites: grilled goat cheese with peppers, and roasted salt cod (bacalao) with tzatziki. And one dish that I did not care for: pig trotters. I am just not a fan of gelatinous proteins.

On our final night in San Sebastian, we reluctantly said goodbye to our bartender friend at La Cuchara and stumbled out onto the cobblestone streets with full bellies, trying to wrap our minds around all the new flavor combinations and textures we had had this trip. It’s impossible to pick a favorite pinxto, but I do know this: we will be back, San Sebastian. As soon as I win the lottery and can plunk down a down payment that apartment overlooking La Concha beach.

Running of the Bars: 5 Pintxo Bars in Pamplona

In Pamplona, we had a plan.

Well, not so much a “plan,” really. More like, a “vague, sort-of idea on some things that might be interesting to see and do.”

Pamplona store front
Apparently, a little Pamplona humor. This blue guy with the, ahem, huevos, was everywhere.

Unlike Bilboa and San Sebastian, where we’d actually been before and where I had made long lists of pinxto places we absolutely had to go to, we did not research Pamplona and it’s bar scene before we arrived. We didn’t even have a map.

But we did make up for that oversight, and in a big way.

Pamplona, like apparently all Basque towns, is a charming little city steeped in history. Honestly, you can stop in any town in Northern Spain and, after a few hours basking in their friendly glow and excellent wine, decide definitively that THIS is the place where you will someday retire and live out your days as mysterious and glamorous expats.

We didn’t even book a room until the night before we arrived. We were very lucky in that respect, getting a fairly comfortable room inside the city’s medieval walls at the Pamplona Catedral Hotel. After parking our rental car (a big selling point for the hotel), we got a map from the front desk and began exploring.

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We had chosen to visit Pamplona for the same reason that I’m sure most Americans stop in: The Running of the Bulls.

I’ve been to a bullfight, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I consider myself a pretty big animal lover, and I have a hard time even watching animals fight each other on National Geographic documentaries without squealing and covering my eyes when the kill comes.

On the other hand, I am from Texas, so I’ve seen plenty of animals being killed. And, when it comes to most indigenous cultural activities, even those I don’t necessarily embrace wholeheartedly, I tend to err on the side of, “Whelp, to each his own, I reckon.”

But, after watching the Esquire Network’s Running of the Bulls live coverage featuring the Men in Blazers the last couple of years, I came to a couple of realizations:

1) There are a bunch of lunatics in this world;

2) Lunatics tend to drink (for courage beforehand, and to celebrate cheating death after);

3) Ergo, Pamplona must be a pretty dang good place to get a drink.

Pamplona - Running of the Bulls sign
Hmmm, this picture appears to be missing the necessary wineglass.

So, on a cold evening in December, we bundled up and embarked on our own Running of the Bars, pledging to stop at every bar and pinxto place along Mercaderes and Calle Estafeta, part of the slippery 0.5 mile route that the bulls and their would-be victims barrel down on their way to the bullring. The rules were simple: we’d have one drink and share a pinxto before moving on to the next place.

It was a long, long night, with many, many stops. We even skipped a few places (especially towards the end), but according to my fairly consistent photographic evidence, we stopped in at around 12 or so bars. Who knew that such a small stretch of road could have so many bars??

Here is a list of a few of our favorites, and believe me: if they were stellar enough to stand out in our memories after that long blur of a night, they were really, really good.

Cafeteria El Mentidero
Calle Mercaderes, 13

This place was our jam. Our regular stopping spot, for coffee and a snack in the morning, for a late pinxto lunch and, of course, on our Running of the Bars. We had some decent bocadillow and papas bravas there, but my favorite pinxto was a piece of bread topped with chopped ham topped with grilled goat cheese and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. It was sweet and salty and savory and very, very good. One of my favorites on the whole trip, for sure. This place was badly lit and not exactly modern, but totally reliable and always open when we walked past it.

Irunazarra
Calle Mercaderes, 15

Right next door to our Cafeteria was this place: the exact opposite, design wise. A very inviting exterior gives way to a narrow space with huge copper barrels suspended over the main bar area and a long standing bar against the opposite wall. It’s also a restaurant and does a good job of separating the two areas. We had a pinxto with a sliver of jamon Serrano and some fried eggplant on a slice of bread. It was good, not particularly earth shattering.

Bar Guria
Travesía de Espoz y Mina

What I remember most about this place was the cool and modern décor (stainless steel bar) and the beautiful black and white tiles on the walls. The pinxtos were ok—I think we had a couple of fried things (including rabas. I definitely remember rabas) and a couple of fishy things on bread (probably bacalao). I know I’m being really informative here. They’re known for their txalupa, a piece of bread with a marinated sardine skewed to it and some sort of reduction on top, probably balsamic vinegar or something. It was a finalist in Navarre’s Pinxto Week 2012, a region-wide competition for the best pinxtos.

Bodegon Sarria
Calle de la Estafeta, 50

This place was primarily memorable for all the salted cured hams hanging over the bar. So, try the ham. The overall vibe was very warm and cozy with a wooden interior, a roomy bar and plenty of stools or standing space and tables and benches for those who wanted to linger or eat something more substantial, like, a whole ham, I suppose.

Cocotte Taberna
Calle de la Estafeta, 81

I’m not 100% sure this is the place where we had the most amazing pinxto in Pamplona. But when I go to the website, I see that they specialize in servings plated in Le Creuset mini cocotte, and well, that makes sense to me. This was one of our final stops of the night and by far, the best pinxto of the evening – a risotto with foie gras, mushrooms and a side of parmesan. I wanted to lick that mini cocotte after we scarfed it down.

A few other places we visited:

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GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: La Liga in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here and Part 2: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian is here.  

Our third and final game of our trip to northern Spain would take us back to Bilbao and a La Liga game between Athletic Bilbao and Levante.

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One would think a game scheduled for an early Sunday evening in the top league in Spain would not be expected to be heavily attended, especially as the opponents are one of the country’s smaller football clubs.

But, surprisingly, navigating the process of acquiring tickets proved to be harder than usual. In the end, the concierge at our hotel in San Sebastian was able to arrange for us to have VIP tickets in Bilboa, which as explained to us, “included a welcome reception, refreshments and free WI-FI.”

Neither Poe nor I were particularly excited by this description of the “VIP experience,” or the uptick in ticket prices, but in the end we consoled ourselves with the fact that we definitely had tickets and we were excited for the game. We did do a little additional Internet research to understand that the “VIP experience” was something that the club had added as part of the new stadium the team moved into in 2014.

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San Mames Stadium

As usual, football Sunday arrived and we headed out to the pintxos bars with the masses for snacks and cocktails in the streets before heading for the stadium. This process always requires a delicate balance as a few too many drinks during pregame may result in having to sit through a 90-minute match buzzed and without more drinks available, as most European stadiums do not serve alcohol inside during the game. So we did our best, with Poe testing the limits of her tolerance, and we eventually headed to the stadium well-lubricated to cheer on our adopted Spanish team.

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After a trek to the Will Call window and VIP entrance, an elevator dropped us on the level of our “VIP” experience. Here we were met with a large room lined by a bar, soft comfortable seating and high top tables for mingling and snacking. We quickly approached the bar to find complimentary beer/wine and even gin and tonics, and made ourselves at home at a high top table. The room was enclosed by glass on one side and looked into the stadium over six rows of seats separated from the other sections of the stadium.

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What we learned during our visit was that the team built a section/level of six rows of seats around the entire perimeter of the stadium–all backed with the VIP areas, including bars, restrooms and catering facilities. It was like a group private box where you could sit in the seats outside or stand behind the glass and enjoy the game from general warmth and comfort. The VIP tickets also entitled you to an assigned outdoor seat, and refreshments and drinks before, during and after the game.

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As we sat enjoying our VIP beverages, it became clear that Poe was in need of a snack to soak up her wine from the pre-game pub crawl. A steady stream of servers carrying trays of food towards various areas of the VIP section kept walking by, but none of them were near us.

But when in a foreign country, the next embarrassing cultural incident is just around the corner, so we waited patiently for some snacks to be dropped off near us. As time passed, trips to the bathroom were made, a small bowl of mix nuts was discreetly devoured, and I started in on another cocktail.

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After what seemed like ages, a server carrying a nice tray of meats, cheeses and other snacks appeared and was walking toward us.  As she approached with a friendly smile, she raised the tray towards Poe–who delirious from hunger and too much wine–reached out her hands to take the entire tray of snacks from the server, only to be met with a disapproving head shake and a vanishing smile. Poe quickly changed course, swiping three or four of the snacks to a napkin as she turned away from the server and what she thought was her loot of snacks for the taking. After a few sheepish minutes of snacking, a new strategy was devised–move tables in hopes that a new server could be lured into the trap being laid by Poe.

While no entire trays were captured, a few more satisfying snacks were had and we moved outside to our seats for the first half. Despite several chances to score, neither team was able to convert in the first half and time expired with the score tied at zero.

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During halftime, we again headed inside to warm up a little and grab another cocktail and snack. While neither Poe nor I were particularly excited about the VIP experience initially, it really turned out to be quite nice. Plenty of food and drink was available, no lines to the bathroom, and overall, it added a pleasant little way to pass the half.

I will acknowledge that, right now at least, it seems like only a few people have begun to embrace the idea of the VIP experience. I would suspect that at a sold out game or as popularity grows that the experience may become a little more hurried and not seem quite as exclusive.

Before long the second half kicked off and we returned to our seats. Athletic Bilbao started the second half strong and it was not long until the team scored their first goal and really looked to be cruising towards a victory. A second goal late in the second half sealed the deal and Athletic Club went on to win 2-to-0.

La Liga

As we left our seats and headed back into the inside VIP area, racks of chocolate treats and small deserts had been set up and the bar was again open for patrons to sit and enjoy one last drink before leaving the stadium. While our ticket entitled us to stay for up to an hour, we decided to head back into the city center and grab one last cocktail among the fans.

Quite honestly, leaving San Mames stadium is a great experience as roughly 40,000 people all depart on foot into the streets of the city. Celebrating the win, the crowd is happy and boisterous, chants still emanating as families quickly stop to pose for pictures, and the diehard fans head back to the bars for more pintxos and vino.

Poe and I made our way to a local waterhole focused on gin, where we sat trying new gins among the local fans as they enjoyed the rest of their evening.

Bilbao - Alternatif

After our drinks, Poe and I made one more stop before the hotel for donner kebab. Yep, that’s right kebab–the trusted food of the partier everywhere. Greasy mystery meat, ranch dressing and spicy sauce all on a flat bread. Yes, there are better things to eat in Spain and most of the world, but sometimes a kebab is just what the doctor ordered. I would be lying if I claimed the doctor had prescribed me donner kebabs only once on this trip, but hey, I love them.

As I wiped sauce from my chin, I smiled and reflected on having just enjoyed another great night of the world’s sport in Spain. And just in case Poe somehow decided to keep the party going, I grabbed a couple of extra Radlers to take back with us on the walk back to the hotel.

In the end, three more European football games seen in person and a multitude of new experiences had. Poe and I had an amazing soccer experience the first time we saw a game in Bilbao. We were always worried that that experience could never be recreated, and while great experiences are hard to duplicate, our games in Spain this trip were all equally great and created a new set of memories that we will be talking about in the future. So next time you are on the road, pick a new experience, cheer yourself on with a “gumbate,”  and enjoy.

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GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain Part II: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here.  

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The next game on our agenda was in San Sebastian, and was a contest scheduled as part of the Copa del Rey. The Copa is a tournament that allows teams from across Spain to compete for a title. The teams not only include those in the top tier of the league (La Liga), but other teams from lower divisions who are selected based on both competition and a lottery. The tournament starts in September with 83 teams and will work down to a single winner by the following May.

The game we attended was one in the round of 32 where teams play a home/away format to determine the winner. This means that each pair of teams plays twice to determine who will move on to the next round. Each team plays one game at home and one game away and the aggregate score of the two matches determines the winner.

The match we attended was the second leg between the home team Real Sociedad and Las Palmas, which is the team from the city with the same name that is the capital of Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off northwestern Africa. Real Sociedad had lost the previous match 2-to-1 so they needed to score at least two goals in order to win the aggregate and move on to the next round.

Unlike our previous experience in Bilbao, we did not run into any traveling fans from Las Palmas, at least that we know of, and since the stadium is removed from the central city, it was tougher to identify fans that were out for pintxos before heading to the game.

Poe and I absolutely love the old part of San Sebastian and were perfectly happy grabbing vino and pintxos in the city center before grabbing a taxi for the 10 minute ride to the stadium.

Once on the stadium grounds, we saw fans streaming in from the neighborhood as well as what seemed like 50 different public buses that were convening near the front entrance. As is our custom, we quickly purchased a scarf with the colors of the home team and headed to our seats.

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The Anoeta Stadium opened in 1993, but appears to have used a 1970s design and left much to be desired aesthetically, especially after Bilbao’s shiny new San Mames stadium. But it was holding a good crowd that night as we took our seats in the second level at about midfield. The tickets, which our hotel concierge had helped us get, were really good and among some of the best in the stadium. It was clear that we were seated among several of the city’s diehard season ticket holders.

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As kickoff time neared, we did seem to notice some angst amongst the small group of locals next to us. They were particularly bothered by the heavy cigar smoke wafting up from a few rows in front of us. Poe and I also found the smoke to be annoying and on some level nauseating, but the woman next to us was frantically waiving her program to disperse the smoke, all while glaring at the group of smokers two rows ahead.

So as glaring continued and smoke rose through the stands, the game finally kicked off. It was clear almost immediately that these two Spanish teams were not quite on par with some of the other popular Spanish clubs or even the teams we had just watched five nights prior. The game took on a ragged sense and the fans sense of disappointment was clearly evident as each missed pass or bad shot was met with loud groans or halfhearted sighs of disappointment. The crowd became further disappointed when midway through the first half, Las Palmas scored meaning that on an aggregate basis, the home team was now trailing 2-0.

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Halftime was Poe’s favorite part because immediately every single person around us broke out their own bocadillos – sandwiches – to eat during the break.

Halftime became welcome relief for the fans as their hope for making it to the next round of tournament play seemed all but lost in the current score. So as the second half started and a fresh round of cigars were lit, Poe and I moved to some open seats at the end of our row for fresh air and the second half.

Things were underway and it was not long before Real Sociedad had their first goal of the match, which instantly injected the fans with a fresh dose of hope for a victory. The goal was almost a cruel treat for the fans surrounding us as it did not represent hope for a team struggling to come back against a perceived weaker opponent.

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One of the offending cigar smokers.

As the half continued, the cheers grew louder, the jeering at mistakes grew more vile, and the hand talking became more dangerous to those sitting nearby. Somewhere in this stretch of fans, Poe and I were able to pick out most of the foul Spanish language we learned as kids growing up in El Paso and southern California, respectively. It was around this time when the woman down the row from us pointed out that one of the player’s mothers was a woman of questionable morals, perhaps even accepting money in return for affection. Several more chances for the tying goal were missed until the crowd threw in the towel as the final whistle blew.

In the end, Real Sociedad was not able to overcome the deficit and the fans quickly filed out of the stadium to return and fight (ok cheer) another day.

Copa

Check back later this week for my final post on a La Liga game in Bilboa.

GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: UEFA in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain, and we’ll be posting them throughout the week.  

While this installment of ThePoeLog may not be geared to the usual audience searching for cat stories or reality TV updates, it may let you in on a little secret about maximizing experiences during travel.

The key here is to understand that ThePoeLog coach-for-life XFE, loves a little soccer or “football” as it is known to the rest of the world. This does not just mean the occasional game, but a true following of our adopted team–the Tottenham Hotspurs in the English Premier League (EPL)–and a general desire to witness soccer festivities around the world. To date, we have seen games in Ireland, Italy (3 games), Sweden and Spain (4 games). An upcoming trip to London will take us to two EPL games, both for our beloved Spurs.

tottenham hotspur logo

What is great about a football match–or any sporting event truly loved by the home country–is the people and the passion. There is no single more fundamental and direct way to appreciate the people, passion and culture of a city or country than sport.

Take for example, our trip to see sumo wrestling in Japan. Seven very out-of-place Americans had box seats for the second day of the Winter Sumo tournament in Osaka. We arrived early to the festivities, learned that we should have brought our own food and drink, and relied heavily on a printout from Wikipedia to understand the spectacle we were witnessing.

However, despite clearly being out of place, the small Japanese grandfather in the box next to us was quick to lean over and offer us his sake as an introduction to his culture and the sport of sumo. As the afternoon wore on, we smiled, drank sake and yelled “gambate,” the traditional sumo cheer, which roughly translates to “try your best.” An experience and memory that resonates with me today despite having been almost eight years ago.

So as our trip to the Basque region in northern Spain developed, the opportunity to search out football games began. While it originally looked like our schedule had us just missing games in our planned destination cities, the stars aligned and it turned out that not only would we be able to get to one game, but three, all in different “competitions” or “tournaments” over the course of our 10 day trip.

First up was the UEFA Europa League match between the home team Athletic Bilbao and AZ Alkmaar from the Netherlands. Scheduled for a 9:00 pm start on our day of arrival in Bilbao, we both knew it would be a great way to stay up and fight the jet lag to get set on the new time zone.

While accurate thinking in theory, the execution is always a little more challenging and Poe may have grabbed a quick cat nap sometime during the first half, but our first game of the trip was an experience not to be missed. Soccer in Bilbao is special. We have been before and having the opportunity to go again was amazing.

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Poe took the pictures, which might account for their blurriness.

We headed out from our hotel after a quick siesta in search of some of the same great bars and tapas places we had visited almost three years prior. We walked through the park towards downtown streets which became more familiar as the red and white striped colors of the home team hung from doorways and on scarves around the necks of our fellow fans. We visited a couple of familiar spots and found a few new ones, sipping on glasses of wine and enjoying fresh pintxos as we went.

Bilbao bar scene on soccer night

One great thing about a Europa League match, which we had not experienced previously, is that fans from the away teams actually travel to see their team play. What better excuse for a group of friends to take a 90-minute flight to a far off city for a couple of days then a soccer match. New country, new experience, and an excuse for a quick vacation.

So it was at one bar where we ended up seated across from a Spanish-speaking barman next to a group of non-Spanish speaking soccer fans from the Netherlands. What ensued was why I love going to soccer in Europe.

Our new friends from the Netherlands were enjoying Spanish culture by the plate–but more importantly wine bottle full–and it was clear that the significant others that may be waiting back at home were not high on the priority list during this “boys” trip. So when the buys decided to try to ask the bartender where the local “strip” club was for after the game, it was Poe and her broken Spanish that were called into action. Translating poor English from the Netherlands into broken Spanish required not only words, but sign language, whereby Poe pretended to be lifting her shirt and dancing for the barman all to the howl of our friends form the Netherlands.

And guess what? It worked! The bartender knew exactly what the guys were looking for and drew them a map for after the game. While not exactly an international peace treaty, at the time, this was the most important issue being addressed by the representatives of these three countries.

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Bilboa’s new stadium, San Mames.

Major international issue completed, the crowd continued growing in the streets as locals prepared for the game. Glass after glass of wine was ordered and passed to revelers as they filled the streets in front of bars on the way to the stadium. Then, finally, about 20 minutes before kickoff, the crowd seemed to move as a single unit towards the gates and seats of the stadium. As we took our seats in the stadium we were surrounded by fellow fans and enjoyed 90 minutes of sport while cheering and chanting for today’s home team, who went on to tie 2-2 after conceding a late own goal.

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A far less jet-lagged group of supporters, no doubt.

After traveling overnight the evening before, partying into the night was not on the agenda and we quickly returned to our room for some well-deserved sleep.

Check back later this week for my post on the Copa del Rey cup in San Sebastian.

Mini Meals: 5 Pinxto Bars in Bilbao

I might have mentioned that on our recent trip to northern Spain we ate all the pinxtos.

You might have thought that was an exaggeration. I assure you. It was not.

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Let the carnage commence.

We really did eat pinxtos from morning till night. There’s just something about those little appetizer-sized wonders that I just adore. Maybe it’s all the bar snacks I grew up eating as a kid waiting for my mom to either finish her waitressing shift, or run through her tips while hanging out at said bar, a place of both employment and entertainment. Although, to be fair, those bar snacks were mostly bowels of stale Corn-Nuts or some chicharones.

Whatever it is, I’m like Cher’s Rachel Flax in “Mermaids:” I could exist on a diet of just hors d’oeuvres.

Plus there’s the fact that, in Spain at least, it’s all but mandatory that you accompany your plate of pinxtos with a 2-3 euro glass of better-than-average vino tinto or vino blanco.

And, I love the history of them: They came about as a way to save your place at the bar while you went to the bathroom, or stepped aside to call your homies on your phone, or, more likely since we are in Spain, dashed outside to have a cigarette. The bartenders would give guests little pieces of bread to put over their wine glass to show they were coming right back.

There is a protocol to ordering and eating pinxtos. You slide up to a spot at the bar, point at a couple of delicious looking ones, or order some heated ones off the board. In many places, you can just help yourself to the cold ones that are literally out in the open. Or, you can point and grunt and have them served on a plate. The bartender will keep your tab open till you’re done. Most folks just get a couple and then move on. We sometimes broke this rule, eating many, many options from the same place just, you know, for quality control.

Oh, also, a lot of the old Spanish men throw their paper napkins on the ground when they are finished. No idea what that’s about but thought it worth mentioning. I totally wanted to do this, but didn’t dare.

On that note, here’s some of our favorite pinxto places in Bilbao. There will also be separate posts on pinxtos in San Sebastian and Pamplona, where we conducting our own “Running of the Bars.” That would be a pinxto crawl of all the bars along the route of the Running of the Bulls. I have photos from around 12 or so locations before everything turned heartburn-y and blurry and I completely lost track/the will to eat/photograph anything else.

Do not let it be said that our research was not comprehensive or exhaustive, dear reader.

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Calle Licenciado Poza 50

A wonderful, if extremely narrow, bar near the soccer stadium, San Mames. We came by here more than once before and after Athletic Bilbao games. The crowds were festive, the bartender was friendly, and he made a great gin and tonic. This one is a bit of a cheat because while they did have pinxtos, we actually just had a bowl of peanuts encrusted in salt. You would pop one in your mouth, swirl it around to get some salt off and then crack it open and eat the peanut inside. I cannot find them on the Internet anywhere, so I’m not sure what their proper name is, but they were perfect.

Gozatu
Maestro García Rivero, 6

This is actually a bar that we went to the last time we were in Bilbao. We had gone before a weekend soccer match, and it was full of families and fans and had a great atmosphere. Naturally, we headed right there when we got to Bilbao this time. We found the street it was on fairly easily (there are a bunch of pinxto bars on this particular street), but we couldn’t remember the name or exact location. So we stood on the sidewalk and looked it up on the blog (there was a photo with the bar’s name on a napkin) and realized we were standing right in front of it.

I must say, it was a lot less lively and inviting than last time, so we kept our visit pretty short. And, we stuck with a classic, pan con tomate y jamon – nice crusty bread smeared with tomato guts and topped with some nice salty Iberico.

La Fugitiva
Maestro Garcia Rivero 5

Just across the street from Gozatu was the new and very sleek La Fugitiva. I’ll admit, I was drawn in by their excellent awning and cool type font. Since it was new, so was our bartendress, who was friendly but a bit clueless about the pinxtos on offer. We settled on a special, which included six pinxtos. They were all pretty meh, including the potato and cheese coquetas pictured here. We ended up wishing we’d skipped the hard-sale special and just had one or two pinxtos. Cool atmosphere though.

Zintzoa
Gregorio de la Revilla 13

This became our new favorite pinxtos bar in Bilbao after the disappointment at Gozatu. Wonderful food and drinks, great atmosphere. It’s on a busy street corner and had outdoor seating so the people watching was fantastic.

We definitely had a few of what on the receipt appear as “muselina de bonito con piparra,” but which I believe were the tuna sandwiches/rolls with green peppers. Or maybe those were the “bonito del cantabrico con alegri,” which the INCREDIBLY unhelpful Google Translate said is “bonito del cantabrico with joy.”

Whatever they’re called, they were awesome. Tuna in Spain is dense, and briny, and doesn’t even need any garnishment, although the peppers are so, so good with it. It is completely different. It’s like comparing “Real Housewives of Potomac” to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” They may sound similar and they may swim in the same Bravo waters, but one is very much of lesser quality.

Speaking of, I really want to watch “Mermaids” right now. (ALL FISH-HORS D’OEUVRE-RELATED PUNS INTENDED.)

Saint Jean de Luz: ‘Silence of the Ducks’

I now know where ducks go to die and give up their livers.*

Well, ostensibly die. You (or a duck, for that matter) can’t live without a liver. BUT you (or a duck, presumably) can get by with as little as 25 percent of a liver. Oh, and? It regenerates, growing back to its full size eventually. Freaking science, man.

I digress.

Saint Jean de Luz

Saint Jean de Luz is an adorable little Basque beach resort in the very South of France, about three miles from the Spanish border. It’s got a lovely old church that hosted a royal wedding back in 1660, a quaint little lighthouse, and a little cobblestoned pedestrian area lined with shops selling espadrilles and bakeries brimming with delicious gateau basque.

It’s also apparently populated by duck organ snatchers.

I have never seen so much foie gras in my entire life. Notice I didn’t say, “I’ve never seen so much foie gras in one place.” That’s significant because in no way do I want to downplay or minimize the complete foie gras orgy we were privy to during our visit. I mean to say “I’ve never seen so much foie gras in my CUMULATIVE life of 43 years.”

And Saint Jean de Luz is not even the foie gras capital of the world. That distinct honor belongs to Perigord, in the southwest part of France.

In store after store, we saw it. We saw it in sweaty, whitish-yellow lobes and in beautifully packaged tins. We saw it vacuum packed, layered in terrines, crammed into jars, whipped into mousses, and ground into pates. We saw it served in every iteration and as a topping on any bastardized pseudo-American delicacy, be it a hamburger or a pizza (this place has both and delivers).

magret-royal
It’s called a “margret royal” and is has mushrooms, foie gras and duck breast. Because I was wondering what they did with the rest of the bird after performing a liver resection. 

When it comes to foie gras, I feel the same way about the controversial delicacy as I feel about Maroon 5 or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians:” a guilty pleasure that I can only take in small doses. It’s too gamey and meaty for me. I tend to like just a smidge, maybe pan seared and spread on some sort of bread, then topped with some type of sickening sweet fruit, like fig or apple.

However, when one is vacationing in a veritable Wounded Knee for ducks, you do as the killers/imbibers/natives do.

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Sidenote: My favorite duck fact is that male ducks are called “drakes.” Really give new meaning to “Hotline Bling.” “You used to call me on my cell phone. Late night when you need my liver.” 

We had it two ways (pressed and poached) during a very fancy lunch at this place. We had it in a pigeon entrée (and possible in an amuse bouche) during an unforgettable dinner at this wonderful place. We even had it melted into a risotto, but that was in Pamplona, not Saint Jean de Luz. I’m fairly sure it was snuck into some innocent-looking French fries somewhere as well, but I can’t say definitively.

Foie gras

What I can say is if you even think you might like foie gras, visit Saint Jean de Luz. Just don’t expect to see or hear any ducks singing “Hotline Bling” while you’re walking along the beach or port.

*This joke was completely ripped off from my schmoopies, XFE. He came up with it and I laugh like a liver-less mallard every time he repeats it.

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

Poe at soccer
Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

La Cuchara san Telmo
A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

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This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

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It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

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Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

Friday Links: Don’t Clip Your Nails at Home Depot

Little bit late on the links this morning. But there’s some pretty good one’s in this week’s edition, so pull up a chair, put on a fancy dress, grab some foreign cheese and get your dubstep on.

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  • I am quite unfortunate to have not one, but by my count, at least two co-workers who think it is appropriate to engage in clipping their nails at the office. The metallic “ting” of each clip wafts over the walls of our cubicle farm and puts my teeth on edge. I think I’ll print this fake subway sign and post it in a few common areas.
  • True story: I worked at a 24-hour Home Depot for a summer in college, and I was always disturbed by the fact that we sold machetes at a 24-hour Home Depot. I thought that was just asking for late-night trouble. I also noticed during that summer, that Home Depot was a place where a lot of couples went to argue. But apparently, not this couple. Blech.
  • I just finished Michael Paterniti’s “The Telling Room,” a book about love, betrayal, perception, storytelling, Castilian culture, and, most importantly, the creation of a beautiful Spanish cheese. This CNNMoney story about an Italian bank that takes cheese as collateral on loans fits in quite nicely.
  • I could see XFE doing this. This guy has gifted his wife 55,000 dresses over the course of their 56-year marriage. Now, I wonder: do they fight over which dresses she packs when they go on vacation?
  • I know that by now everyone in the world has seen this, but I don’t care. I love Dubstep cat. Plus, the cat is dancing to one of mine and XFE’s favorite parody songs: “Cinnabon.” OK, it’s not, but that’s what we’ve turned it into — an ode to a warm, yeasty treat found in airports and malls.

San Sebastian Revisited (Six Months Later)

I have a weird blogging habit – I hate to put up my last post from a particular vacation.

I guess subconsciously I feel like it’s the last time I’ll savor a place. That writing that last post means that vacation is truly ended and in the books and only to be relived on the computer screen. It’s no longer a memory selfishly locked away in my heart. And it makes me very sad.

But one of the main purposes of this blog is to put down all the great things we saw, and did, and ate, so that I could remember them and share them.

Wait, what was this again and where did we eat it? (lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz)
Wait, what was this again and where did we eat it? (lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz)

And still, I dilly dally.

This post about San Sebastian is the perfect example. It’s been sitting, partially written in my inbox since December 13.

Opening the email this morning sent a wave of yearning over me. I absolutely, unequivocally and totally fell in love with San Sebastian. Especially, the food. And the architecture. And the shopping. And the beaches. But mostly, the food.

The view from our hotel in San Sebastian.
The view from our hotel in San Sebastian.

This elegant, seaside gem of the Basque Country was also the scene of the most awkward dinner I’ve ever sat through.

But let me back up. Waaaay, back. Like, to 2012. November to be exact.

We reluctantly left the Rioja region and headed up north, to the coast of Spain. Weaving our way up and over the mountains, we drove through at least a dozen tunnels. Apparently, the Spanish never choose to go around a mountain, they instead choose to go through them. Below us, small industrial towns dotted  the bottom of the valleys.

We followed a semi-coastal road, stopping in small seaside towns of Zumaia, Zarautz, and Gettaria.

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Finally, we drove into San Sebastian and were immediately charmed. Just 20 km from the French border, San Sebastian looks like Paris with gorgeous Belle Epoque architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues, beautiful bridges crossing the river Urumea, and two stunning beaches, right in the middle of town.

We stayed at the newly renovated Hotel Maria Cristina, another Starwood Luxury Property. The hotel, which originally opened in 1912, has 136 rooms and suites, all done in soothing, cool grays, silvers, lavenders, and creams. It was plush and ornate and just majestic.

Hotel lobby
Hotel lobby
Our room
Our room
Our living room
Our living room

We had a large suite with a separate living room and small Juliet balconies overlooking the public square below and the Victoria Eugenia Theater where the annual San Sebastian Film Festival is held.

Our balcony. Yes. A balcony.
Our balcony. Yes. A balcony.

Reluctantly, we left the amazing room to go out and explore. First stop, Zurriola surf beach to watch brave surfers battle the cold water. It was definitely warm for November (around the low 70s), but there’s no way that water wasn’t a tiny bit chilly. We sat at a bar on the boardwalk with outdoor seating and watched numerous people brave the water, only to running back to the beach a few minutes later.

champagne on the beach

After walking around a bit and getting our bearings, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at Michelin-star Miramon Arbelaitz. XFE had asked our hotel for dinner suggestions and they sent us a list of suggestions. After much research of websites, XFE choose Arbelaitz, which seemed quite innovative. Our hotel concierge made the reservation for us.

Unbeknownst to us, Arbelaitz was a bit off the beaten path. In fact, it was in a technology industrial park.

We had a 9 or 9:30 reservation, which we thought was late enough for the Spanish. However, we arrived to an empty restaurant. Could it be that even 9 pm was too early for dinner in Spain??

We were greeted by a lovely small Spanish woman, who led us to our table in the romantically lit and tastefully modern dining room and ordered the very affordable tasting menu, starting with fresh oysters. Show tunes played in the background (Cabaret, Gypsy, etc.) Next was a grilled artichoke dish, followed by a wonderful lobster royal accompanied by the sound of pot and pans in the nearby kitchen.

Grilled artichokes, chard stems in batter, porcini mushrooms and jus of ham.
Grilled artichokes, chard stems in batter, porcini mushrooms and jus of ham.

After the next course of marinated tuna, I’d finally had enough wine to broach the subject that had us burning with curiosity: where were the other guests? I gently asked the lovely Spanish lady if they were very busy this time of year. She explained that they were very busy during lunch with workers from the nearby technology companies. Then she went and got our next course, a divine lacquered monkfish with eggplant.

We were the only customers that night. The chef, Jose Mari Arbelaitz came out and greeted us, not once, but twice. We tried to convey how honored we were that he and (we presumed) his wife had opened up their restaurant just for us. I have no idea why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t open or that they weren’t taking reservations for dinner, or something.

As we silently ate our way through our saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes, we tried to not feel conspicuous. The meal was great, but the overall experience was very, very awkward.

Saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes.
Saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes.

The next day, we wandered around the Parte Vieja (Old Town) section of San Sebastian, just enjoying the tiny, winding cobblestone streets. We had no plan, except a lunch reservation at Kokotxa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the neighborhood, and the one of the very few to be open this slow time of the year (our first choices, Arzak and Akelarre were both closed during non-touristy November).

Koktxa restaurant

But the problem with our well-laid plans is that all the streets were lined with pincho bars. We resisted the lure of the beckoning doorways with dark, patron-packed bars and rows of plates teetering with jewel-toned small bites. They looked like works of stained glass – red and green chiles, pink strips of Serrano ham, silvery anchovies, bright yellow mousses.

pinchos

Our reserve was further tested when we did a walk-by of our chosen lunch spot. Unlike all of the pincho bars we had just passed, it looked dead. Really, really dead. We walked along the waterfront of the old fortress city and dithered back and forth, “Should we call and cancel? It’s kind of last minute. Yeah, but did you see it? There was nobody there. It’s supposed to be really good. I do not want a repeat of last night’s meal where we’re the only people in the place.” (Although the meal was, as I said, very, very good.)

We eventually capitulated to the lure of the pinchos. Our first stop, Atari Gastroteka, was located right in front of the pretty yellow Iglesia Santa Maria del Coro.

Nice church. Sure, I'll eat in the shadow of that plaza.
Nice church. Sure, I’ll eat in the shadow of that cathedral.

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It attracted us because it was pretty full, including a large group (dogs and children included) of Spanish-speaking friends leisurely holding court at a picnic table out front. The amount of plates and glasses and overflowing ashtrays gave testament to the fact that they’d been there for quite a while. That was enough of an endorsement for us.

We were quite unlike our delicate Spanish friends, who generally wash down one or two small bites with lots of conversation before eventually, slowly moving to the next place. Our American appetites and curious bellies demanded we try one of everything. Slabs of potato-stuffed tortillas, papas bravas, seafood salads on crostinis, crab-stuffed chiles, goat cheese with asparagus, and countless others were consumed alongside our new favorite Baigorri wine.

Papas bravas

We went to a blur of places, washing down the little works of pincho art with amazing crisp white wines. We stopped in at the highly recommended A Fuego Negro, but it was too crowded for us to get close to the bar. Considering the huge array of choices we had anywhere along the street, we took our spoiled taste buds elsewhere and kept wandering.

But it was around 3 pm when we found our pincho heaven – La Cuchara de San Telmo. It was a bit off the beaten path, hidden down a side street, but it was by far the best place we ate, maybe even the entire trip. Since it was close to the end of lunch service (they close at 3:30 and reopen at 7:30), we were able to grab a spot at the bar and had a long meaningful relationship with the menu.

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Aided by a wonderful barman from Nicaragua who happened to know more about U.S. politics than either of us DC residents, we worked out way through San Sebastian’s most popular and innovative pinchos – one perfectly cooked bacon-wrapped scallop, braised calf cheeks in red wine, grilled octopus. The special of the day, the pigs ear on a chickpea puree was, unfortunately sold out.

scallop

braised beef
braised beef

Never one to pass up a chance at pork, we asked them to save us one and swore we’d be back in the evening to try it. It was totally worth it. It was crispy and soft and salty and just perfect. We also added foie gras with apple compote and queso cabra topped with grilled vegetables to the pincho carnage tally. And, we might have revisited a few of our favorite dishes from lunchtime again (What? Being a tourist is very hungry work! And the portions are really small!)

Blurry pigs ear.
Blurry pigs ear.

We ended the evening chatting with a very cool young American couple from Denver who also ordered everything on the La Cuchara menu. After one last ginormous gin and tonic (served in large wine goblets with real juniper berries, naturally), we bid farewell to our friends, stumbled our big bellies back to our hotel and collapsed, dreaming of soft, succulent pig’s ears. It had been a big foodie day for us.

gin and tonic 2

Unbelievable food, great wine and new friends.  It was the perfect end to our time in San Sebastian, and Spain. I truly cannot wait to go back.