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Bergara skewed more traditional than Hidalgo 56. To be honest, I was a little more interested in the décor than the food because even sharing two small pintxos per stop, the third restaurant is where you’re likely to start busting a gut. But the main reason my attention was divided was because the room was a charming grandma/old sea captain mishmash of nuts.

Bergara lightbox photo

Ceramic tea kettles in the shape of cats wearing dresses shared shelf space with steins painted with men’s faces. My spot on a picnic bench put me in direct view of the backlit elephant in the room. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the glowing tableau of pintxos interspersed with more bearded mugs and prancing cherubs. Luckily, I managed a quick photo before the staff turned off the light and started sweeping.

Bergara facade

Do you see a pattern forming? 10:30 pm really is the weeknight dining tail-end in San Sebastián.

Bergara txalupa & croquetas

There is that txalupa, a fritter of wild mushrooms, langoustine, cream and cava, next to two massive béchamel-and-ham filled croquetas. I told you, third meal is the dangerous meal. I didn’t know any better–croquetas in NYC are often tiny little things.

Bar Bergara * Calle General Artetxe 8, San Sebastián, Spain


Hidalgo 56

Bar-hopping isn’t all about la Parte Vieja, a.k.a. San Sebastian’s old town that quite possibly contains the densest concentration of pintxos bars on earth. Gros, the neighborhood across the Urumea River that’s accessible by numerous bridges (it’s not an undertaking like crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot) is a little lower key.


The Kursaal, a glowing auditorium, was on the Gros side, directly across the river from our apartment. I’d wanted to eat at the restaurant inside, Ni Neu, but it was closed the nights I had free eating time available (that sounds so creepy and regimented).

Hidalgo 56 volcán de morcilla

Nearly all newcomers (and likely, regulars too) order the volcán de morcilla. Yes, that would a blood sausage volcano. Instead of molten lava, the dark mountain of meat cut with rice, raisins and peppers is spouting a raw egg yolk sprinkled with salt. Add a swipe of apple puree and you have one complex, fun-to-eat pintxo.

Hidalgo 56 steak & torta de casar fondue

Here, four rare slices of steak covered in potato crisps are served with “fondue” of naturally ripe and runny Torta del Casar. Earlier, we had been discussing how you might eat a plate of charcuterie or cheese, but you rarely see meat and dairy combined in a dish. This was as close as we would get to our dream Spanish cheesesteak.

Hidalgo 56 facade

Hidalgo 56 * Paseo Colon, 15, San Sebastián, Spain


Borda Berri

1/2 Borda Berri, where I managed to squeak in just before the gate was pulled down for the evening, had a different vibe (dare I pull out the H-word?) than many other pintxos bars. For one, no one dining or behind the counter appeared to be over 30. They also had a penchant for American classic rock a la Sweet Home Alabama interspersed with Spanish-language metal.

Borda berri facade

On Saturday night, the crowds spilling onto the street–generally speaking, not just at Borda Berri–felt more off-puttingly Lower East Side, though. Screaming, glass-breaking (though San Sebastián was suspiciously free of zombie-texters, and smartphones, period). Is there such a concept as bridge-and-tunnel or fratty in Spain?

Borda berri taco de bacalao

No matter, I had time to enjoy the first “taco” of vacation. This particular taco was tempura’d bacalao with multiple sauces that I’ve already forgotten. Sauces and drizzles are to pintxos what flowers are to alta cocina.

Borda berri foie gras, plum & mustard

And a sorry photo of bread slices (if the pintxo isn’t served atop bread, you’re usually given bread on the side, which makes the three-to-four-bite concoctions feel like a real meal—plus, you don’t want to waste any of those aforementioned sauces) blocking the chunk of foie gras. The mustard was flavored with mysterious fruity ingredient that I didn’t recognize when reading the chalkboard.

 “Qué es una cireula?” I asked. “Inglés?” the gentleman behind the counter correctly assumed while pulling a menu from behind the bar. After a bit of scanning, I was told “plum” in an equally heavy accent as I imagine my “cireula” sounded to him. Ah, plum instead of apple with this foie gras.

How many of these pintxos bars have foreign language menus hidden away, I’m not sure, but the only two languages I ever saw advertised explicitly on doors—which I took as a signal to stay far away—were English and French. All other tourists are out of luck—and from what I could hear, seemed to speak pretty good English anyway.

Borda Berri * Fermín Calbetón, 12, San Sebastián, Spain

New New Media, Same As Old Media

“I've had this amazing experience, for me, of getting two or three e-mails a day from chefs, from friends in the media, saying that their children, their college roommate's children, are dying to come work at Gilt Taste. They are passionate about Gilt and they're passionate about food, and this is going to be the perfect place for them to work.”

–Ruth Reichl, on the amazing experience of giving her friends’ kids jobs.

A Near-Random Selection of Spanish Groceries

On the  drive back from Etxebarri, the one-hour-from-San Sebastián source of possibly the best leisurely multi-course meal on vacation (smoked goat’s milk butter!) and the reason why we needed a rental car for the day, I insisted on stopping at the Eroski I spied in a village we’d passed through on the way.

Mountains etxebarri

Natural beauty must be tempered by commercialism. Seeing another country’s groceries is always important on my vacations. There was a Lidl, like Aldi in the US, a block from our apartment but I craved a full-blown supermarket.

Despite sounding vaguely Russian, Eroski, is a Basque word, and the name of a sprawling shopping center selling groceries, clothing, camping gear, everything, like Fred Meyer, the one-stop store I’ve missed for close to 13 years.

Eroski jamón aisle

The ham aisle is always the most impressive aspect of a Spanish grocery store. The unbelievably large rows of canned seafood (tuna, sardines, anchovies, mussels, razor clams, cockles, octopus and more) are also trademarks.

Eroski tortilla

Ready-to-warm tortillas filled a refrigerated case. This was perfect for preparing in the morning since I rarely go out for breakfast, home or abroad.

Eroski pizzas

The tortillas shared a space with pizzas. This brand not only created unusual flavors like kebab, they each include a packet of sauce to be baked in. Chimichurri? Barbacoa a.k.a. barbecue? Why not? Not a single ham and pineapple (the favorite in Oaxaca) was to be seen. Clearly, the Spanish aren’t averse to pairing fruit with meat: jamón and melon is classic and as I’ve mentioned before foie gras almost always was served with something apple-y. Maybe they just a need a nudge in the right direction.

Eroski basque birthday cakes

Happy birthday cakes in Basque.

Eroski filipinos

Um, Filipinos.

Eroski fantasinis

Apparently, they have a fondness for chips that look like ghosts. Fantasinis must be closely related to Fantasmas I saw in Madrid.

Spanish lays & ruffles

Chorizo and jamon play a prominent role in the chip department. The Ruffles truly tasted like ham while the Lay’s mostly of salt.

Eroski friends

Man’s best friend gets the English language treatment. Miao, the feline version, does not.

Spanish hello kitty snacks

Hello Kitty is everywhere, from Cheeto’s to Phoskitos snack cakes with a font that bears a striking resemblance to Snickers.

Pantera rosa duo

Another cat, The Pink Panther, lends his name to waxy, strawberry-iced Twinkie-like treats.

Eroski klak

Klak is a blatant Kit Kat clone.

Denny’s: Crimes Against Nature

Denny's maple bacon sundae top

Denny’s—where I spent many a high school evening drinking coffee, eating Super Birds and smoking in the back room because there was nothing better to do at night—are scarce around NYC. The nearest location, 20 miles away, just happens to be in my favorite part of New Jersey; the region that’s also home to Bud’s Hut and the Linfield Inn. I took this as a sign.

Avenel new jersey denny's

But before heading out to Avenel to finally experience Baconalia (I don’t only wait for hotspots to have a month-long cool-down period) I was warned about restaurants defaulting to imitation bacon. No way, not at Denny’s.

denny's maple bacon sundae

The Maple Bacon Sundae was not a purist affair, however. The bacon crumbles, more fatty than crisp, as I like them, were real all right, but the scourge of diners everywhere: maple-flavored syrup, a.k.a. corn syrup followed by high fructose corn syrup on the ingredient list, was the amber imposter drizzled atop and pooled at the base of the vanilla ice cream tower.

Despite the unnatural sweetener, this was not a bad sundae. The spoonfuls of melting ice cream striped with syrup and smoky nubs of pork were welcome sweet-salty blasts; the only thing that could’ve upped the ante would have been a sprinkling of chopped hickory-smoked almonds.

I still had to admire Denny’s moxie. Sure, bacon desserts are old hat to food trend followers (though it’s a faster trickle-down than craft beers now appearing at T.G.I. Friday’s) but that doesn’t mean the average customer is necessarily ready for the meeting of sweet and salty in soda fountain classics.

What we did with bacon

The disgust and outrage overheard at a nearby table might’ve been initially mistaken for the matrimonial union between two men.

30-something dad: “I love bacon…but on a sundae? This has got to be a joke, right?!”

Son: “Gross!”

After grandma hobbled back to the table, dad proceeded to fill her in on the maple-bacon atrocity. “Can you believe it?”

I did not hear her response. Perhaps, she’ll now finally be able to say that she’s seen it all. I hope she’s already watched Nannerpuss.


Goiz-Argi was a good place to start. On a Wednesday night, our first night and still getting our bearings, this compact bar had enough breathing room to survey the small selection of fairly traditional pintxos on the counter and listed on the wall.

Goiz-argi facade

A hit of fizzy txakoli in a tumbler (I later began ordering vino tinto or cañas, small beers which seemed to be synonymous with zurritos, which I originally thought were even smaller, because that seemed more standard with locals—there are also a lot of rosado drinkers—than the white Basque wine) a brocheta de gambas, one of their specialties, and a wildcard, simple morcilla accompanied only by charred green pimientos, no fruity purees or hidden foie gras, set my foundation for the week of eating and drinking.

Goiz-argi brocheta de gambas

In much of Spain, at least in Barcelona and Madrid, there is the truth that only tourists go out to eat before 9pm. You look like a rube otherwise. So yes, you may not dine until 10pm but I learned the hard way that that doesn’t mean the entire evening has been extended. Most restaurants close by midnight so the opportunity for dining is short. After that, you may find yourself eating at Vips, the Denny’s of Spain.

Goiz-argi morcilla

San Sebastián turned out to be shifted even earlier. On this first night out we didn’t leave the apartment and make the two-block-stroll to Goiz-Argi until 9:30pm. By 10:30pm, many pintxos bars were already sweeping up and stacking stools. Weekend nights are the exception. Patrons spill onto the streets until midnight (though not much later) making it impossible to even consider entering. On a Saturday night attempt to return to Goiz-Argi, we were shooed out by owner as we tried to squeeze in past the hordes and had the grate pulled down behind us. No nonsense.

Goiz-Argi * 4 Fermín Calbetón, San Sebastián, Spain


Bar Zeruko

Zeruko, where foie gras hides in every crevice and otherwise responsible adults leave sleeping infants unattended in strollers out front, turned out to be one of my favorite places to eat in San Sebastián. (In the late ‘90s a Danish mother got into serious trouble for employing this carefree parenting style in NYC—at a Dallas BBQ, no less.)

Zeruko facade

You see, pintxos bars are tiny, often narrow places, many standing room only and even though they are now safe for forming lungs (smoking was finally banned indoors in Spain at the start of 2011, much to the dismay of my loving-to-smoke-on-vacation self) parents haven’t taken this as the signal to start maneuvering strollers inside. Clue number one that I wasn’t in Brooklyn anymore.

Zeruko more pintxos

Clue number two was the pricing. I’ve thought about why pintxos bars don’t/couldn’t thrive here (Txikito being the only example I can think of). We have plenty of small storefronts and a love of creative food, but the ingredients would demand higher prices, as too the rent, and a small $12 plate of food—what I could see being charged in NYC—would make the whole thing overly precious.

Zeruko pintxos

In San Sebastián you may only have a little glass of wine (beer, cider are also acceptable) for the equivalent of $2 and one dish, maybe $4, and consume it in less than ten minutes. Time to move on to the next spot. Your 5 euro meal—something to savor, but not to fetishize—has earned you a brief spot at the bar or a ledge.

Zeruko pintxos more

Now, allow me to fetizishe the food. Zeruko differed from standard approach where cold dishes are displayed on the counter and warm ones are listed on a chalkboard menu to be ordered sight unseen on description alone. Here, everything available was piled onto the counter and there was a menu, some of the two matched up and most items if pointed at or asked for would be whisked to a back kitchen and gussied up in some manner.

Zeruko alcachofa y foie

Like the artichoke I saw being consumed by many. I mangled the word alcachofa with anchoa (anchovy) and had to point to sort things out. I wanted something light and vegetable-based. Ha, but what I was eventually served was deep-fried, stuffed with foie gras, painted in gold leaf and surrounded by a swirl of caramel sauce; a rich wallop consumable in a few bites. So, this is how it’s done at Zeruko.

Zeruko bacalao
A simpler package of something fishy, likely bacalao, swaddled in thin zucchini slices served straight from the counter.

Zeruko langostino glass

Langostino glass (I know this is the official name, even though I don’t understand the glass part, because on our second visit we ordered from the menu rather than picking by sight) turned out to also contain foie gras, possibly the most popular ingredient after mayonnaise in the region, along with a fruity compote. Foie gras was almost always paired with fruit and 95% of the time, apples. In this case, though, berries.

Zeruko cochinillo

Taco de cochinillo lechal confitado con mostaza dulce y Grany Smith. Once again, the taco that wasn’t. This time it turned out to be a square of suckling pig.

Zeruko morcilla y foie rebozado con pistacho
Morcilla y foie rebozado con pistachio
. Yep, more foie gras, blended with blood sausage, encrusted in pistachios and drizzled with raspberry sauce. Our drizzle was more of a dried-on speck because I asked for this dish just as they were about to toss out three that had been ordered and not wanted. Would I be ok with one of these? Yeah, I ate someone’s reject.

I did not try their famous “la hoguera,” featured on the cover of the one book I bought, Pintxos de Vanguardia a la Donostiarra. It’s likely you’ll see at least one person (usually whole groups) with the diy charcoal smoked cod atop a mini grill. It draws attention—just like a sleeping baby left alone in a buggy.

Bar Zeruko * Calle Pescadería 10, San Sebastián, Spain

That’s So Cheesy

So close…yet so far away. IHOP goes as far as setting up a marriage proposal in the ad for the new Double Cheese Scrambles, and then they don’t even use food as a ring presenter. What else is Stuffed French Toast good for?

Yes, and soon it will be available in the freezer case at Walmart.

Ordering Tacos and Chalupas in Spain

Caribean company

First it was Berlin getting real tacos, now it’s Paris. Soon, all of the European capitals will be rife with corn tortillas and salsa (and carrying on the fine tradition of websites that don’t do anything).

The Caribean Company, serving “ensaladas exoticas” and peculiar spelling, was in the mini mall only one block from my apartment in San Sebastián. I couldn’t justify a visit when only staying in town for one week. A few more days, though, and I would’ve caved– if only to see if they called tacos tacos.

Most of us know that tortillas are eggy potato omelets in Spain. I can deal with that. Tacos, it turns out, mean something very different, though.


Cross-sectioned slices of octopus tentacles are called tacos.

Borda berri taco de bacalao

This, a bacalao-based pintxo, is called a taco.

Best I can gather is that taco in Spain’s Spanish is akin to a plug.

Bergara txalupa & croquetas

Wait till Taco Bell finds out that the mushroom and langoustine fritter on the left is a txalupa, a.k.a. chalupa.

Naval museum

I also saw a chalupa in San Sebastián’s Naval Museum (my attempt at squeezing in culture–cheap, senior citizen culture–on the last day). It’s just Spanish for a small wooden boat, which isn't what's pictured on the ticket above.