Cover image credit: Spain Tourism Board

Pintxos (pronounced pint-chos), the lesser-known northern cousin of the Spanish tapas — and many would contend, gastronomically far more superior — have in the last several years grown in popularity and reach.

As Lourdes Erquicia, guide team manager at San Sebastián Food, put it, pintxos have over the years become more elaborate miniature dishes. “Pintxo chefs are competing to get a name, something unthinkable a few years ago.

“We are (also) finding now pintxo desserts, which did not exist before,” she pointed out.

Three things to note about pintxos
1. Tapas started out as a snack given free upon the purchase of wine. Pintxos were never a free product.
2. Pintxos in tourist areas cost about 3 euros each, but it is also not uncommon to pay double. Prices are increasing all the time.
3. Common ingredients in pintxos are anchovies, ham, prawns, squid, cod, salmon, crab, peppers, mushrooms, egg, cheese and foie gras. Rarer ones include scallop, duck, veal cheeks, pig trotter, eggplant and zucchini.
Source: San Sebastián Turismo and Todopintxos

In addition, the haute cuisine phenomenon is wafting beyond the defacto pintxo capital, San Sebastián, to the entire Basque Country, noted Alfonso Aguirre, founder of website about pintxos Todopintxos and San Sebastián Pintxos Tours.

“More and more, we can find excellent pintxos outside of most tourist areas in San Sebastián and in other towns,” he shared.

For a superlative pintxo experience, it may be wise to pay attention to what produce is in season, added Aguirre. “Although almost all of the pintxos can be eaten all over the year, the trick is to choose those pintxos whose main ingredient is at its peak,” he explained. For example, that would mean focusing on tomatoes from spring to summer, Boletus mushroom in spring or autumn and shellfish in the colder months from September to February.

With inputs from Erquicia, Aguirre and Ane Urquia, head concierge at Hotel Maria Cristina and a member Of Les Clefs D’Or Spain, Quotient dishes up some must-try pintxos while you are in the Basque Country of Spain!

The Gilda is the grandmother of all pintxos. Image credit: Todopintxos

1. Gilda
Don’t you dare leave the Basque region without trying, or least attempting to visually appreciate, the Gilda. This was the one that started the pintxos gastronomic revolution and it is said to have been created by a bored or inspired customer who began to pierce together the limited bar snacks — specifically anchovies, guindilla peppers and olives. The Gilda, named after the 1946 film starring Rita Hayworth, was the unanimous choice of the experts we interviewed.

And if these ingredients are not pleasing to your palate, don’t say we didn’t tell you there are many other anchovy-based pintxos that will make your mouth water, unless of course you’re an anchovy-hater. Txepetxa is the go-to bar for anchovy pintxos.

This cod chop on shellfish cream is a bacalao pintxo. Image credit: Todopintxos

2. Bacalao
Bacalao is, technically, not the name of the pintxo but the ingredient — salted cod — that makes any bacalao pintxo so immensely satisfying. The dried salted cod is apparently very tender when moist again, and it is not as salty as its name makes it out to be. Erquicia of San Sebastián Food recommends the tortilla de bacalao or salted cod omelette with onions and green peppers; there are also bacalao pintxos that look like a tiny version of the Catch of the Day — complete with crispy skin and drizzled sauce; La Cuchara de San Telmo across the Museo San Telmo has a cod confit served with potatos. Did we say the skin is crisp?!

Foie gras with apple compote pintxo

Foie gras is a popular pintxo ingredient and this dish’s specialty is the apple jelly accompaniment. Image credit: Todopintxos

3. Pintxos de foie con compota de manzana (foie gras with apple compote)
Controversial the main ingredient may be, and not very Spanish to begin with — but well, the Basque is indeed the closest to France — the foie pintxo is one of the most revered small plates in the Basque Country. The foie with apple compote at La Cuchara de San Telmo has been consistently ranked among the top 10 by users on the Todopintxos website and also singled out by Hotel Maria Cristina’s Urquia as one of the must-trys in San Sebastián.

Braised veal cheek with red wine pintxo

The slow-cooked veal cheek in red wine sauce is popular for its melt-in-the-mouth goodness. Image credit: Todopintxos

4. Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto (veal cheeks in red wine sauce)
Veal is one of the less common ingredients in pintxos, which makes this particular dish at the Borda Berri bar even more precious. It is currently voted No. 2 on the Todopintxos website. The veal cheeks are braised to perfection, and that melt-in-your-mouth feeling will surely put a smile — no, a ear-to-ear grin — on your face. If carrillera is your pintxo pot of gold, the veal cheek slow-cooked in red wine with hummus (Carillera de ternera al vino tinto y hummus de garbanzo) at La Cuchara de San Telmo is the rainbow to chase.

5. Rosa de Bogavante (lobster rose)
Bar Zeruko’s signature pintxo, the lobster rose, is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing pintxos, so we don’t blame you for wanting to take hundreds of pictures instead of tucking in. The lobster rose, described Hotel Maria Cristina’s Urquia, is a dehydrated strawberry — the rose — encasing succulent lobster meat sautéed in butter and garlic and mixed with mayonnaise. It comes with a crispy green cracker resembling a leaf and a rose-scented liquid in a shot glass (the vase). The pink liquid, however, is not meant to be consumed.