Food / Spain / Travel

Bilbao’s Pintxos: Proving the Sociologists Right

One of Spain’s culinary gifts to the world is tapas, and no trip would be complete without a night out wandering from bar to bar sampling these tasty tidbits.

But if your travel takes you to the northeast coast you won’t find tapas. What you’ll find instead are the Basque version of tapas which are called pintxos (peen-chos).

Basques are an independent lot, and as you might expect, pintxos are similar to tapas, but slightly different. Like tapas, pintxos can be meat, fish, or fowl combined with veggies, peppers, cheese, eggs, and whatever else the chef can imagine. But the major difference up Bilbao way is that the ingredients are stacked up and skewered to a piece of crusty bread. Socializing barhoppers love this tidy, one-handed, 2-3 bite package; the very definition of convenience and taste.

Do pinxtos sound like little more than mini-sandwiches? Think again. Most of the gourmet combinations we tried were mini-feasts. We still dream of the Iberico ham, poached egg, peach preserves, sesame seeds, walnuts and raisins on a slice of roasted baguette … true bliss.

Meeting for Pinxtos is a time-honored part of the culture in this part of Spain. And just as important as the food and drink is socializing. Viewed through tourist eyes, a crowed bar scene looks like a cozy, warm, relaxed gathering of family and friends. But of course, there’s a protocol.

As always, we do our best to fit in, and our usual approach is to just do what the locals do. But still, there were a few of the finer points we didn’t understand. So to avoid looking like total Neanderthals, we sought professional help from the pinxtos experts in northern Spain. Their website is a  foodie compendium that provided all the details we needed to understand the pinxtos culture: what to do, and just as important, what not to do in a pinxtos bar.

We did our “pintxos crawl” at Bilboa’s famous Plaza Nueva, which, in addition to being a beautiful historic square on the tourist track, was also lined with 15-20 pinxtos bars.

Most of the bars on the plaza are moderately priced, but there were a few high-end places like the attractive and famous Restaurante Victor Montes, which happens to be the expense-account eatery where the agreement to build Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum was signed .

Another fun and interesting place to sample pinxtos is the La Riberia Market. This historic market dates back to the 14th Century and on weekends it hums with locals buying fresh meats, cheeses, fish and vegetables. The food hall on the opposite end of the building is lined with stall after stall selling all types of local delicacies. And for folks that don’t want to stand, it has the added benefit of tables and communal benches for sitting. So the trick is to wander the stalls, peruse the food options, snag a table, sample a few treats, and return again and again.

It’s no surprise that the pinxtos tradition is so popular. They’re a great way to sample regional specialities for a few Euros, and enjoy the company of people special to you. The barhoppers probably don’t realize it, but sociologists would say its the age-old human story of bonding over food. There’s no doubt that these Bilbaínos have the right idea.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

53 thoughts on “Bilbao’s Pintxos: Proving the Sociologists Right

  1. Ooh how interesting. A Northern Basque version of tapas! Looks pretty yummy although after 2-3 you have probably eaten a lot of bread. The ones that caught my eye were the egg, salmon and the grilled cheese at the bottom of the lower picture. Mmm you made me hungry.
    Peta

    • Peta, we’re always on the lookout for unnecessary carbs, and frequently bread fits in that category. We joke that it’s important to recognize when bread is just a delivery device vs. actually makes a contribution to the flavor of the food. And we used this measure for the pinxtos as well. That way, we could have another pinxto. 🙂 ~James

    • Pam, these folks know how to make the food look as good as it tastes, and that’s a big part of the appeal. It’s fun being a couple so we could share and experiment with more options. ~James

  2. We love the tapas bars here on the Costa Blanca, most serve pintxos as well. The one we enjoy counts the skewers on your plate and charges you accordingly. They also bring the hot food around on platters fresh from the oven. You have to be quick if there is something you really like as they disappear rapidly! As soon as I have had my fill, they bring around my favourite. Always fun!

    • Darlene, we read about the counting skewers deal, which apparently some bars do and some don’t. So we thought the safest route to avoid an international incident was to just ask for a plate, point, choose and pay. Most of our pinxtos were room temp, so I’m sure hot ones would be delicious. ~James

  3. Very nice post because of the pictures and all the information that is interesting . a very minor point I would point out to you to correct is that in the third paragraph you use the word foul instead of fowl

    • David, thanks so much for the heads up on the typo. Given the subject of the post, it’s a pretty funny one. I have a few words that my brain tells my fingers to type and then my fingers make another decision. One of these is there vs. their. Thanks again. ~James

  4. From your pictures, it seems that presentation is just as important as taste. Wow! What a great bar. And I’d definitely have to do some research on pinxtos, too. You’ve introduced me to a whole new phase of eating, and, if it’s like the other phases I’ve been through, this one could be addictive, too!

    • Rusha, these folks have the presentation down. It was wonderful to have so many delicious looking choices, and in every case, there was never any doubt of which ones I wanted to try. And I found it interesting that all the pinxtos were sitting uncovered on a bar or counter; as opposed to behind or under a piece of glass as happens in the US. I understand the sanitary reasons, but honestly, the pinxtos looked so much more appetizing. ~James

  5. Each one of those sound and look devilishly scrumptious! I’ve had a taste from that pintxo smorgasbord too; not in Bilbao, but elsewhere along the Camino. As you so rightly pointed out: quite the feast!

    • Amit, walking the Camino would be a great excuse to gorge on pinxtos. I’m bet you needed the carbs and protein. I’m not sure if you went through San Sebastian, but apparently it’s also a big pinxtos destination. ~James

      • You’re right, James.. walking and the need for protein was/is a great excuse for scarfing down those pintxos – as well as all the vino and cafe con leches that I could rack up 😉 (no pass-through S Seb.. maybe another time!)

  6. Mouthwatering post and pictures, James! They sure know how to do bar food in Spain, don’t they? It is heavenly how the Basques have turned a little snack served with your cerveza or vino tinto into a scrumptious culinary masterpiece. Buen provecho!

    • You’re so right Joe. What we loved about pinxtos was that eating was easy and casual – almost like street food, but the quality and choices were super. Also, we could have as much or as little as we wanted without the expense and hassle of a sit-down restaurant. There’s a lesson here for US restaurants. ~James

    • Carol, as you may have noticed, a few of these pinxtos included fried eggs. If you haven’t had breakfast, it may be a good time to check your fridge for interesting ingredients. I’m sure you have the eggs to start. ~James

    • Anita most of these pinxtos looked wonderful. But one of our photos with a draped egg is what I believe to be baby eels – not totally sure- but that’s what I think it is. And just in case, I passed that one by and moved on. BTW, I don’t remember, is there a Portuguese equivalent of tapas/pinxtos? ~James

  7. Quite interesting, James and Terri, and scrumptious looking. Is it lunch time yet? I’m feeling hunger pangs! I admit I was a bit curious about “what not to do in a pinxtos bar,” however? I get the eating, drinking and socializing part. 🙂 –Curt

    • Curt, we read that in some bars you just walk up, grab a plate and start eating. In other places, you absolutely do NOT do this. In this case, you tell the bartender what you want and he/she gets it for you. Our confusion was how the hell were we supposed to know which was which. But again, we just sat back, watched the locals and followed suit. ~James

  8. James, we did a Pintxos/tappa tour when we visited San Sebastian a few years back. We had so much fun & our guide was fabulous in explaining proper etiquette along the way, although admittedly we got laughing so hard at our last stop, we may have been shushed! Must have been the cider!

    • Lynn, you do yourself proud getting shushed in a bar. Obviously, a good time was had by all. Don’t you just love northern Spain? We visited San Sebastian years ago as part of a trip to visit the Cave Paintings of Santander. Much of this part of Spain isn’t on the tourist radar, which is too bad. BTW, I won’t ask what got you so tickled. ~James

      • It is a stunning area in Spain. We began that trip in Barcelona, took the train up to France, then drove from the Bordeaux area of France, across the northern tip of Spain and then into Portugal. SO MUCH FUN! Honestly, I can’t even remember what we were laughing so hard about. I was traveling with 3 girlfriends & I must admit, side splitting laughter seems to follow us on our adventures together! First time we had been shushed in a bar though😂

  9. As others have noted, this post induced some major hunger pangs. I love small bites everywhere, and Spain has taken them to the highest level, whether they be tapas or pintxos. As a student there, my modus operandi was to find the bars that had free bites during happy hour and make them my meal for that day! These days I might use a little more restraint and try to follow the rules!

    • Lexie, I remember those poverty-stricken university days as well. I can relate to nursing a cheap drink and plowing through the free food as well. But I’m certain that over the years you’ve more than made up for the freebies. And I’m with you on small bites, especially when there’s variety in the food and it’s a casual and friendly atmosphere. ~James

    • Thanks Kelly. Like us, I’m sure you sampled a few tasties on your recent trip to Spain, and isn’t this a marvelous tradition? We wish you all the best in the coming year and lots of fun time on the road. ~James

  10. They all look so yummy! We had contemplated a trip to Portugal and Spain this year but changed our minds when Catelonia was front and center in the news. We are a bit sorry that we did that but there is always next year.

    • LuAnn, Spain and Portugal will definitely still be there, and just as pleasant and interesting as always. All of Spain is wonderful, but I’m partial to the south. And even though there may be problems in Barcelona, don’t forget, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, and all the great, little coastal villages. ~James

    • Thanks Alison. I’ve always been amazed at how really good pastry shops can make their pastries look so appealing. Well, the pinxtos bars and their kitchen staff are right up there with them. ~James

  11. Mouth-watering photos and commentary! Most of these look like little gourmet delights. I’d love to try them, but, do I really have to go all the way to Spain for them? 🙂

    • Liesbet, I’m sure there are a few tapas bars in San Diego where you can sample the American/Left Coast version of pinxtos. But, if that doesn’t appeal, with a bit of creativity and experimentation, I’m sure you can whip up some pretty tasty pinxtos at home. ~James

  12. Sometimes, things just work out. If I hadn’t read this today, I wouldn’t have learned about this alternative to tapas, and I wouldn’t have gone searching to see if there might be a place serving pintxos in Houston.

    If I hadn’t gone searching, I wouldn’t have found that there’s a three day celebration of Basque cider season that begins tomorrow! There’s a short article here, with information about the events, the cider and wines, and of course the pintxos. I’m going to try and get there — thanks to your wonderful post!

    • Thanks so much for your comment Linda – it brought smiles to our faces. We’ve never had lofty goals for our blog, and have always been satisfied taking a fun, entertaining look at travel and passing some of the fun along. But if one of our posts inspires someone to venture out (in the middle of winter no less) for good food and drink, then all the better. Enjoy the vino and pintxos and your temporary trip to Northern Spain. ~James

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