Chef Tom Herndon – San Sebastian, Part Two: Pintxos Crawl

(This is a long one, but worth the read.  Grab a cup of tea and enjoy.)

September 2017

Some background. This culinary adventure has been in the making for nearly two years. When I first heard about San Sebastian, Spain, I had no idea this sleepy little former fishing village had such an esteemed culinary reputation: more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city. For such a small corner of the culinary universe, San Sebastian has some highly-talented, world-celebrated chefs with truly inspirational relationships to food; a passionately gastronomical culture.

“The culinary tradition is big in France, but in the Basque Country it’s renowned. Here it’s the land of plenty, surely the best of Europe—the sea, the beach, the food. It’s like a dream of life.” — Sylvain Foucaud, owner of one of the best producers of Iberico ham in Spain, Zapore Jai

When I was putting Bordeaux to Barcelona together (what would have been my fourth culinary adventure), my personal focus was on San Sebastian, which, for me, I referred to as the heart of the tour. I was more interested in going there than to Bordeaux of Barcelona.

I found a local company, called, oddly enough, San Sebastian Food. They offer all kinds of programs for the food enthusiast. The staff put together a package for me that featured three significant food events: a pintxos crawl (peen-chos – lately I have been using the term ‘crawl’ instead of tour, because I think crawl is more accurate, especially after the 5th tavern); a visit to a local sidrería (cider house); and a cooking class with a local txoco (choko – male gastronomy society). Each of these can take up a few blog posts, but for today we’ll focus on pintxos.

Arriving in San Sebastian was a dream come true, so I had to meet Narea, the kind woman who, for most of those two years, was my email contact at San Sebastian Food. Their office is in one of the most beautiful hotels in town, The Maria Christina.

The Maria Christina

Narea was happy to see me, too. She showed me their new teaching kitchen which made my heart skip a beat, or three. It was very close to the bricks and mortar place I wanted Hipp Kitchen to be. So inspiring.

Honey, can we move to San Sebastian????

Pintxos, small bites eaten primarily in bars, usually with a toothpick sticking out of the top, comes from the Basque word pinchar which means “to spear.”  The “tx” is pronounced like a hard “ch” as in choose, or cheese. Pintxos come from the Spanish tradition of tapas also served in many Spanish bars along with the drinks. Tapas are most often small portions of food, as well, but they have been dished out from a bigger portion. Pintxos evolved from tapas as ‘miniature cuisine’ that could be eaten in a bite or two but are complete unto themselves. Pintxos traditionally sit on a small slice of baguette. You can walk the streets of Parte Vieja, the Old Town section, and pass a hundred small taverns, their bars covered with platters full of all manner of pintxos – a forest of toothpicks!

I opted for the pintxos tour (crawl!) from San Sebastian Food. A four-hour eating fest, going from tavern to tavern in Old Town. We lucked out in that our guide, Lourdes, was a local girl; a Basque woman who grew up in Old Town and knew a lot of the chefs and tavern owners personally. She let us know the specialties of each of the different chefs, advising us to pay attention to the chalkboards, not the painted menus, because those were the daily specials and the most fresh.

Lourdes definitely had the inside scoop.  Cheerful, informative, and funny, she told the best stories, such as:

“A secret to finding a tavern with the best pintxos is to look on the floor. If it is covered in rolled up, used napkins, you’ve struck gold. It’s a tradition of locals (more so than tourists) to toss used napkins on the floor. Lots of napkins means lots of locals, which means it’s a place loved and frequented by many.”

“San Sebastian’s Plaza Mayor (every old town section has a main plaza) is called Plaza Constitución, a large square surrounded by tall apartment buildings that was once a bull fighting arena. Tall grandstands would be erected for the locals to sit and watch, but the aristocracy would be assigned to various apartments to watch from what were in essence box seats. Each apartment was numbered on the outside, like box seats. You can still see the numbers from the square today.

At that time, the apartment residents were “strongly encouraged” by the city government to host these VIP’s (locals were pretty much forced into hospitality). In order to make something bad into something good, many residents decided to play up their new roles as hosts and started cooking for their temporary guests. Soon certain resident cooks developed a reputation for having the best roasted lamb or the most flavorful garlic soup. Their apartment numbers became famous amongst the aristocracy and were highly coveted.”

On to the food

btw – I was able to stop myself a few times, before diving in, so I came off with some nice shots. Other times the food was half or all the way gone before I remembered my camera.  Sorry.  I was excited.

NOTE: In Spain the honor system is highly valued.  Especially in San Sebastian. In the male-run gastronomy societies called Txoco’s (choh-kohs) the men develop a larder, a pantry and a wine cellar and members can take what they need, keeping track and replenishing as they go.  In the pinxtos taverns, most often you are given a plate and can fill it with however many you’d like.  Some places count the picks after, others rely on you to tell them what you had.  Often you can get your food and drink and just take it to your table without paying.  Then when you’re done, you just let them know what you had.  It all seems to work out just fine. 


Sport Bar

 – Txipis a la Plancha (grilled squid with parsley, garlic, olive oil and balsamic)
– Gilda (the most famous of pintxo with small green chilies called guindillas, green olives and salted anchovies – named after Rita Hayworth’s famous role – the original chef was, in Lourdes’ words “besotted” with Ms. Hayworth – sweet, earthy and a bit spicy – just like his heartthrob)
– Txakoli wine (this is poured from a “high reach” into the glass, thus “breaking” the wine and adding some fizz)

The squid were tender to the tooth and the marriage of the sweet balsamic and the garlicky olive oil got my juices flowing.

In order to have the full experience of the piquant peppers, the briny olive and the umami anchovy, the Gilda is designed to be eaten in one bite. The peppers had the slightest heat to them. I liked how the Gilda was a bright interruption to the rich pintxos.


 – Brocheta de rape (monkfish skewer – I returned twice for this one)
– Queso de Idiazbal (sheep´s milk local cheese)
– Anchoas al ajillo (fresh anchovies fried with garlic and chilly)
– Pimientos de Padrón (fried green peppers, just like home, with olive oil and salt)
– Bornos Rueda wine with Verdejo grape

This wonderful little brochette found its way onto my plate three times during my stay. Luscious chunks of monkfish, slices of bacon and small shrimp, grilled on the plancha until nicely crisped, then slathered with olive oil and chopped garlic. Now I know what addicting means.

One of my favorite summer treats is charred padrón peppers, softened on the grill in good olive oil, then showered with sea salt. When it’s later in the season, the peppers tend to have more of a bite. These were not overly spicy, though they did, as my dad was fond of saying, have some authority.


These little guys were amazing. Lourdes demonstrated a way-easy method to filet them in one motion. Simple dressing of fragrant olive oil and parsley. Bursts of flavor came from toasted chips of garlic and slices of dried chili. So good.

Zeruko (this place loves to ‘play’ with technique)

 – Rosa de Bogavante (lobster rose – see the film clip)
– Falso tomate (false tomato)
– Txistorra (local fresh chorizo sausage)
– Enate Chardonnay from Somontano

This might take a little explaining. The ‘rose’ on the top is made of petals fashioned from lobster meat and surrounded by light pastry. A pick holds it together, running through the leaves of spinach. You are NOT to drink the liquid which is water flavored with rose and a piece of dry ice. The rosy smoke is just for fragrance. You eat it very specifically by lifting the entire rose out of the glass, grabbing a napkin, then removing the pick and popping the whole thing in your mouth. The lobster was sweet, the pastry mildly crunchy, the whole thing was a mouthful of tender  lobster salad. My first one ended up in my lap, courtesy of our tour guide, Lourdes. She apologized all over herself, but I thought it was exciting because I happened to catch it on film.

( Video: )


This was a ‘tomato’ made from gelatinized tomato juice covering a dense ball of savory tuna salad, the green stems made from slivered green pepper, on a bed of oniony chopped salad with celery and herbs – tasted like the best of summer.


 – Rabo de buey (Oxtail cake and frites)
– Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (acorn fed iberian ham)
– Valserrano Crianza from Rioja Alavesa

This little gem was crazy good. Literally carnitas made from beef stew. They slowly braised the oxtails, removed the bones, shredded the meat, formed the meat into a disk, then fried the meat again to a crispy edge, drenching it in a rich beefy reduction and then sprinkled with sea salt. Intensely savory, rich beefy flavor. The crisp fries were perfect.

Delicious slices of acorn- and fig-fed Iberico ham, with toasted walnuts.  Those are not chopsticks, they are grissini (thin breadsticks). Imagine a mouthful of rich prosciutto where the more you chew, the deeper and more complex the taste of ham.

La Cueva

– Chuletillas (suckling lamb cutlets – I returned for these as well)
– Caracoles (snails in salsa tomate and ham)
– Pimientos de Piquillo (roasted red peppers)
– Beronia Crianza from Rioja Alta.

La Cueva is housed in the oldest building in San Sebastian. The name means The Cave. If you look closely you can see the original wooden slats on the side.

Ok, these were killer. Baby lamb blade chops, called Chuletillas.  Nicely browned on the plancha (flat grill) with just a little salt. Gorgeous. The idea of snails was a little off-putting at first, but these little guys were soft and moist and floating in a rich tomato-garlic-chili sauce, perfect for mopping up with good bread. Again, nicely crisped potatoes and a few slices of roasted red peppers.

The interior of La Cuvea

La Viña

 – Tarta de queso (unbelievably yummy cheese cake)
– Pedro Ximénez sweet sherry


I returned another three times for this cheesecake. One time they were closed, so I only got to have it two more times. Beautifully creamy interior of a slightly sweet ricotta-like cake, but it was the charred exterior that lifted the experience into a whole other place. Caramelized, yes, but the burnt parts added a smoky depth that gave a wicked edge to the rich cream. Talk about guilty pleasure. This I have to make at home. Looks like I will be able to because Lourdes included the recipe!

Sorry, didn’t get a pic of the sherry. It was lovely, though a bit like gilding the lily.

The Tartas Quesos in their pans with burnt parchment paper

Yes, there is a San Sebastian 3. I know, this might just be for die-hard foodies only. Well, that’s my tribe. My last and final San Sebastian post will be about the Supper Club at San Sebastian Foods, and how I treated myself to a $300 two-star Michelin lunch!


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

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