Gastronomical experiences are an integral part of any trip to Spain. If you happen to explore northern Spain, bar hopping to eat pintxos (or pinchos) are an absolute must. These delicious snacks accompanied by drinks are a perfect way to enjoy an evening out with your friends or family. Trying out the several varieties of pinchos at the bar counters gave me an opportunity to experiment with interesting food choices and different recipes on my visit here. It is also a great way to understand the food culture and local life in the north of Spain.
My first pintxos experience in Spain yielded nine toothpicks, though throughout my bucket list travels I have racked up quite a few dozen more.
A Guide to Spanish Pinchos (Pintxos) + Traditional Recipes
What are Pinchos (Pintxos)?
If you have eaten tapas, you will realize that Spanish pinchos or pintxos are similar. Pintxos are snacks from northern Spain notably the Basque country that are usually eaten as appetizers before dinner or even as dinner. Pintxo means ‘spike’ or ‘skewer’, so essentially the food is spiked with a cocktail stick or skewer to hold it in place differentiating it from tapas. Often, the ingredients are placed on top of a small piece of bread with a stick pierced through to the base but it is also common to see pinchos without the base of bread. Generally, pinchos are served with a stick to hold the ingredients together but sometimes these appetizers are served without sticks too.
There is an abundance of bars in the Basque region (and even around Barcelona) that serve pinchos for folks looking to savor food paired with wine or beer. Their popularity can be seen from the crowds of locals and tourists that hang out at these bars. As I tried out the pintxos (pinchos) in different bars, these appetizers surprised me with their wonderful flavors. Some of the common ingredients used for pintxos are different kinds of fish/seafood, meat, cheese and vegetables in all kinds of combinations.
What is the Difference Between Pinchos & Pintxos?
There is basically no difference in meaning between the two terms and they can be used interchangeably. The word ‘pintxo’ originates from Basque country and initially only ingredients from the region were used to make pintxos. Now, ingredients from other places in Spain too are used in the preparation along with local ingredients. In the Basque language of the region, the word is spelled as ‘pintxo’ while in Spanish it is spelled as ‘pincho’. So, if you are in Basque country, you are more likely to come across the term ‘pintxos’ but ‘pinchos’ too is used. The region is known for its fabulous cuisine and pintxos are an intrinsic part of the food culture here.
Best Places to Find Pinchos (Pintxos)
If you wish to find the finest pintxos in Spain, your search ends in Basque country. More specifically, the city of San Sebastian is home to some of the best Pintxo bars. You can go from bar to bar in San Sebastian’s old town for an evening out. Don’t miss Atari Gastroteka or Gandarias Jatetxea! Other places for great pintxos in Basque country are Hondarribia, Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Lekeitio and Bermeo. Besides the Basque region, there are other northern regions which also have their own share of amazing pincho bars. Some of these places include the Cantabria region especially the city of Santander, the Asturias region notably Oviedo city and Navarre region’s Pamplona city. But, you can also find plenty of these delicious snacks in and around Barcelona (like at La Tasqueta de Blai and Maitea Taberna Sl).
How to Order Pinchos (Pintxos)
One of the most interesting aspects of eating pinchos is to understand how to order them. It is different from the way one typically orders in a bar or restaurant. During my initial bar visit, I decided to observe the locals and regulars to learn about ordering pinchos. You can also ask the locals/guides or bartenders how to go about doing it. Usually, you can order a drink and choose from the vast variety of pinchos kept in trays on bar counters. These are called ‘cold pinchos’ and can be eaten at room temperature. You can take an empty plate from the bar counter or ask for one and serve yourself. Sometimes, you can point out your choice and the bartender places it on your plate.
The other way is to order pinchos from a menu that may be written on a board or otherwise. These are typically the ‘warm pinchos’ that are cooked as you order them and served on the spot. Savor your pinchos with wine, beer or cider.
You can choose to remain in one bar and try their range of pinchos. Or follow the local tradition and go bar hopping as bars are located in close proximity to each other especially in places like San Sebastian. If you intend to do that like I did, try only one or two pinchos and a drink from a bar before going to the next one, and then repeat the process. Either way, you can taste an assortment of pinchos using various ingredients. An explosion of flavors is guaranteed!
How to Pay for Pinchos
Since ordering pinchos or pintxos usually involves self-service from the counter without having to place an order except for warm pinchos, the payment system is also unique. In many places, I was amazed by the memory of the bartenders/waiters who knew exactly what each customer had ordered and asked them to pay accordingly. In other places, you go by the honor system and tell the bartender what you had ordered and pay the tab.
As there are many people who frequent these bars, another way to pay your bill is by keeping the sticks/skewers from the pinchos in your plate so that the waiter can add up and prepare your bill.
Best Traditional Pincho Recipes
While some pinchos are simple, others can be more elaborate. Either way, they are delicious! You can try these traditional pintxo recipes at home for a taste of Spain.
- Classic Gilda – (Anchovy with Pickled Green Peppers) – Recipe
One of the prettiest pintxos is the picturesque Anchoas and Guindillas. This is also said to be the original Basque tapas.
- Pintxos with Spanish Ham and Salami – Recipe
- Pinchos de Torilla (Spanish Omelette) – Recipe
In my Italian heritage we would call this a frittata bruschetta, but in Spain it is a Pincho de Tortilla, an omelet made with tortillas.
- Pintxo of Chiabatta with Cooked Ham, Cheese and Pickle – Recipe
- Chistorra y Padron (Sausage and Peppers) – Recipe
Chistorra is a fast-cured sausage made of minced pork, a Spanish style chorizo. Padron peppers are typically mild and best served charred.
- Yellowfin Tuna Salad with Anchovies – Recipe
- Morcilla Cocida Pinchos – Blood Pudding – Recipe
Blood pudding is a popular pintxos ingredient made with pork blood, fat, rice and onions. And the fried quail egg on top is an added bonus.
- Corquetas de Papas – Potato Crouquettes – Recipe
These deep fried balls are made with a mashed style potatoes on the inside and bread crumbs on the outside. Much better than a tater tot!
- Salmon with Egg, Shrimp & Anchovies – Recipe
- Angulas (Young Eels) – Recipe
Angulas are 2-3 year old eels and about three inches long. They are served here with smoked salmon (ahumado salmón), but come in dozens of different variations. I am not going to say you will love them, but it should be on your unique eats bucket list.
- Pinchos Morunos (Spanish Pork Skewers) – Recipe
- Pulpo Pinchose (Octopus) – Recipe
When cooked properly, octopus should be ever-so tender, not rubbery. Though, it does tend to have a slightly fishiness to it. Many of the Spanish style octopus tapas are topped with a smoked paprika.
Going bar hopping for pinchos and drinks are a fun way to enjoy a scrumptious food experience and understand the local culture. If you are planning a trip to Spain, don’t forget to include Basque country in your itinerary especially if you are a foodie.
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