Dining Out—Spanish Steps: Best places to get pintxos in Chicago

In Basque Country, everyone has a handle on the latest bar-food trend, pintxos—tapas-like tidbits. Here, not so much

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Spanish cheeses, meats, and other assorted goodies
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s artisanal Spanish cheeses, meats, and other assorted goodies

As if smelling the trend floating in from Europe, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! has also ventured into pintxos territory. Although the choices are few, they cover more of the styles of a real Basque joint than any other place in Chicago; the Lincoln Park tapas veteran offers half a dozen pintxos at the bar for $1 each, and a similar small selection along with specials in the dining room for 50 cents more.

At a table, you get a platter of all six pintxos from the tapas menu for $8.95, saving a whopping nickel from the individual price. Mine came very fast and disappeared as quickly. A crisp croqueta, oozing with goat cheese, and shrimp-and-egg salad on toast tasted like classics, as did a red piquillo pepper stuffed with rich braised short-rib meat, while the serrano ham boquillo skewered with caramelized pineapple captured the spirit of modern pintxos. Also, I loved our terrific waitress’s description of the sangría: “the cheapest red wine, a cup of brandy, chopped fruit, and a splash of soda.” Bravo Ba-Ba-Reeba!

Pay attention to the pintxos on the special menu. We lucked into toasts variously topped with roasted apples and cured duck, julienned red and yellow piperade peppers under a chunk of poached tuna, and puréed zucchini with aged manchego cheese. I wish Ba-Ba-Reeba! had used the great Basque sheep milk Idiazabal cheese on this, but maybe that’s a tall order for a $1.50 dish in Chicago.

* * *

Eivissa made a splash when it opened this summer, but business is fading fast. After a few visits, I can see why. Dudley Nieto, who has been at ten restaurants in the past 16 years—most of them Mexican, the last two Zocalo and Xel-Ha—now is trying pintxos and tapas at his new Old Town spot. He should have stuck with Mexican. No matter how much he fiddles with the menu, Nieto insists on using bland toasted bread for all eight of his pintxos offerings, stuff that would be tossed out of any respectable pintxos bar in San Sebastian. Why? On one visit we put it to a manager strolling by, who answered by saying they are lazy in the Basque country so they put everything on bread. Wrong. Insulting. And indicative of the clueless approach by Nieto and the Eivissa team.

Most of the pintxos came piled so high with chopped ingredients that they looked like ratatouille explosions. I needed a knife and fork because if I picked them up with my fingers, they fell apart—despite the fact that each one came on toast and was stuck through with a little bamboo-stick skewer. (The skewers held half a manzanilla olive, a couple of raisins, and pimiento squares. Did these take a wrong turn at a dusty cocktail party?)

OK, the house-smoked citrus salmon, serrano ham, and ricotta cheese combo was pleasant enough, and the grilled asparagus, marcona almonds, and aïoli tasted vaguely like something Basque. I would call the unfamiliar slice of grilled rib eye with cabrales (blue cheese) and aïoli a winner. But, from elsewhere on the menu, the pork and chorizo paella was so bad—gummy rice, jerky-hard sausage, pork tougher than a tire—that I threw up my hands in defeat. This is not a paella; it’s an abomination. (Guess I should consider myself lucky: On another visit, I spotted nearby diners sending back a seafood paella that I had the misfortune to whiff as it passed by.)

I wonder whether anybody at Eivissa has ever been in a Basque pintxos bar or tasted real Spanish paella. If for some reason you find yourself at Dudley Nieto’s misguided restaurant, soak up the smart décor and the sangría—you’ll have time, since service is slow, and the view and drinks are better than the food. At least Ba-Ba-Reeba! and Pintxos have their hearts in the right place, but nobody in Chicago yet has a good handle on pintxos.

 

THE SKINNY

CAFE BA-BA-REEBA!
2024 N. Halsted St.; 773-935-5000

MODEL MEAL Platter of six pintxos, plus pintxo specials

TIP $1 pintxos and $3 tapas in the bar daily from 4 to 6 p.m., weekends 10 p.m. to midnight

HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Saturday and Sunday

TAB Six-pintxos platter $8.95

 

EIVISSA
1531 N. Wells St.; 312-654-9500

MODEL MEAL Two combos of three pintxos with a glass of sangría

TIP There’s a new management team on board; hope things improve.

HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Saturday and Sunday

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Three-pintxo combos $6.75

 

PINTXOS TORTILLERIA & PINTXOS BAR
737 N. LaSalle St., 2nd floor; 312-664-4800 (inside Café Iberico)

MODEL MEAL Sausage combo, seafood combo, and poultry combo

TIP Entrance is confusing; check in with the Café Iberico host station.

HOURS Friday, Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Pintxo combos $6 to $7.40, tortillas $5.95 and up, desserts $1.50

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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