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A classic pintxos bar in San Sebastian
During a recent trip to Spain, my evenings in San Sebastian all began with a stroll along the promenade of La Concha Bay toward the narrow streets of Parte Viejo, the old quarter. Parte Viejo is ground zero for the fantastic Basque bar cuisine of pintxos (pronounced PEEN-chōs), so I elbowed my way into the orgy and moved with the crowd from bar to bar. When it comes to pintxos, almost anything goes. The only official criteria: Unlike their more familiar close cousin tapas, pintxos have to be eaten standing up and in two bites or fewer. Needless to say, I ate a lot, from traditional nibbles of grilled anchovies and fried gernika peppers to stunning nueva cocina vasca creations incorporating foams, aromas, and gels. Back home, I became infatuated with finding authentic pintxos in Chicago—and three glossy Spanish restaurants beckoned.
This past March, River North’s popular Café Iberico opened a restaurant upstairs devoted almost entirely to pintxos. So far, Pintxos Tortilleria & Pintxos Bar is as empty as Iberico is slammed. It has its own kitchen and bar, and the big, handsome space is decked with colorful pintxos-themed place mats, TVs playing Spanish music videos—basically everything but customers. The problem could stem from the choice to open on only Friday and Saturday nights. On a recent Saturday, even with a serious wait for a table at Iberico and near-pleading from hostesses to try Pintxos, it wasn’t until the throng spilled onto LaSalle that some brave souls agreed to go upstairs.
Seafood combo with white beans and spinach at Pintxos
Thirty pintxos here, which sounds like a lot, but they are all little skewers (called bandilleras in Spain), which the menu implies is the universe of pintxos. Not true. The endless varieties of Basque tapas also include croquettes, montaditos (mayonnaise-bound salads on rounds of bread), stuffed peppers, and even some high-tech creations that would be at home at Alinea. Oh, well. A good way to approach Iberico’s Pintxos 101 is to order a few of the six combo platters of four pintxos, served in compartments on top of red pepper and green vegetable sauces, with a side of Spanish-style beans, potatoes, or other vegetables. Not like any presentation in Spain, but good stuff.
The platter of Spanish pork sausages is my favorite, a skewered array of chorizo, txistorra (a thin Basque sausage), butifarra (“white” Catalan sausage), and little cocktail-sized sausages called cantimpalitos. The combo of grilled and skewered octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, and scallops with a bowl of good white beans and spinach captures the Basque love of seafood. I was not enthused, however, by the vegetable combo—a mundane array of button mushrooms, stringy artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, and eggplant that could have been smuggled in from a so-so trattoria antipasto table. The meat combo of skewered beef, lamb, pork, and veal was equally depressing: It’s never a good sign when the meats are distinguishable more by color than taste. Much better was the poultry platter of grilled quail, duck, chicken, and Cornish hen with a side of creamy roasted leeks every bit as good as the birds. Treat yourself to a bottle of crisp, white Basque txakoli wine that’s a favorite in San Sebastian’s pintxos bars; very little is exported, but here you can get the 2007 Xarmant Txakoli for just $20.
The best non-pintxo option upstairs: tortillas, the classic egg and potato omelet ubiquitous in Basque pintxos bars and tapas bars all over Spain. The buck-fifty desserts served in little red clay cazuelas are also a treat, ranging from the usual flans to delicate crêpes with caramel. A glass of the sloe gin–like Basque liqueur called pacharan is an excellent way to end the meal. But I think I understand why Iberico gets so much attention while its new baby sister goes home alone: No tapas, no paella, the sangría is nothing special, and service varies wildly from informative and prompt to clueless and MIA. People like me who are looking to recapture memories of San Sebastian would do better to go home and look at photos.
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Photography: (Pintxo Bar) Jens Schwartz/Laif, (seafood combo) Anna Knott