A visitor’s guide to the city’s best bites
Guggenheim Museum. Alejandra Garrido/©ICEX
Author: Jon Warren/©ICEX
Publication Date: 21 Feb 2011
You would be forgiven for thinking that a pintxo, the Basque name for tapas like snack, is simply a tasty morsel to stave off hunger before lunch or dinner. Indeed, this is how they originally started life many years ago. However, today they fill an important social function and past-time enjoyed by Basques. This will become quickly evident for visitors who spend time in Bilbao, the cosmopolitan capital of Vizcaya on Spain’s northern shores.
From trendy to traditional, pintxo bars line Bilbao's avenues, streets and squares. They are dotted between designer shops, crammed into corners of the old town and nestled along the river Nervión. In fact, wherever you happen to be in Bilbao, a pintxo bar is within sight or sound. Here are three routes to help you navigate the thousands of options available.
Let's start with the city centre. Located in the centre of Bilbao amongst tinted, glass-fronted designer shops and face-lifted office buildings, we begin the city centre route at Bar Lekeitio on Diputación Street. A winner for the food-minded visitor, this route will also be bliss for the shopaholic who appreciates a reviving pit stop. Lekeitio offers a great house specialty of tortilla paisana, a spinach and chorizo Spanish omelete which goes perfectly with a morning café cortado (espresso cut with hot milk). Just a short walk across the street is perhaps Bilbao's best-kept secret: La Viña del Ensanche.
La Viña has all the ingredients for the perfect pintxo bar; great atmosphere, high quality ingredients and fantastic value for money. Plates of Joselito Ibérico ham sparkle on the bar with an underbelly of bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes. Choose anything from the chalkboard and it promises to be truly memorable such as the beautifully presented plato de cuchara (literally, a dish to be eaten with spoon) served in its own mini red Le Creuset pot for just 3 ½ €. Or sarteneko, a deep white bowl of fried peppers and crispy pancetta topped with a perfectly runny egg and liberal sprinkling of potato crisps.
Crossing over Federico Moyúa square and along Ercilla street, we reach another hot spot for Bilbao's best pintxos. Outside Nº 7, Asador Indusi and Zamakolako Errota, on Garcia Rivero street, have an infectious buzz with people from Bilbao spilling from bars onto pavements. Indusi has delicious cod omelete, the latter bar is famous for the seared sirloin pintxo and t-bone steak sold by the kilo. Other good bars include Desberdin and Larragan on Lope de Vega street.
Now we head down Licenciado street and turn right on Elcano to reach the top of Hurtado de Amézaga street. At Nº 48, opposite the train station, Rimbombin is an old-fashioned seafood bar first opened in 1931. Maestro Santi, otherwise known as el niño de la gamba (the child of the prawn) makes this bar everything it is; charming, fun and highly memorable.
Sitting on wooden stools at the bar, enjoy fresh seafood from Galicia with a local Txakoli wine (a white and sparkling wine from the Basque Country). For those with a sweet tooth, the grand Café Iruña is a great stop off for coffee and cakes. Its comfortable leather buttoned chairs provide a welcome rest for weary legs.
El Casco Viejo (old town)
We start the Casco Viejo route at the three-tiered El Mercado de la Ribera. Originally constructed in 1929, the market's ship-like structure has fish on the ground floor, meat on the middle deck and fruit and vegetables above. It is great fun to wander the fish aisles and Pescados Pili y Luis happily explained the difference between sepia, calamari and txipirones (cuttlefish, squid and baby squid) to a confused seafood lover. Equally impressive are the range of seasonal bounty sold by local producers on the top floor.
Exiting the market, we stroll down Belostikale street reaching the neo-gothic Cathedral dating back to 1374. Circumventing the Cathedral and continuing north, we follow Correo street to Plaza Nueva. Completed in 1851, the Plaza hides a host of pintxo bars beneath its 64 arches and Doric columns. Our route takes us to Gure Toki, run by Iban and tucked in the north corner since 1983.
Carrillera de Ibérico (pork cheek) on a cream of cauliflower topped with the thinnest slices of French potatoes is exceptionally good. Viera (scallop) is a popular pintxo and Gure Toki's pan-fried scallop is the queen, sitting on a puree of potato, framed against a white bowl with vibrant parsley salsa and curried migas (breadcrumbs). It is topped with crispy baby squid and brightly coloured wild pansies. At just under 6 €; (2.95 € each), they represent pintxos at their very best.
Still in the Plaza, Café Bilbao is the epitome of the traditional bar where you will often see a 'cuadrilla de txikiteros'. Cuadrilla is the term for a group of loyal and life long friends whose popular past-time is the txikiteo, a sort of ritual bar crawl. They visit their favourite pintxo bars before breaking into song in their last stop, a tradition which is rewarded with drinks on the house.
Café Bilbao is a good spot for a refreshing caña or zurito; the respective names for large or mini-sized beers. Winding our way out of the narrow streets, Bar Irrintzi on Santa María street is recommended for a modern take on pintxos.
Riverside Route & Deusto
Traversing the Arenal bridge to the east, we start the riverside route along the restored riverside Nervión or ría as it is locally known. Heading northwards, we reach the titanium structure of the world famous Guggenheim Museum. Guggenheim is the museum's bar and restaurant run by Josean Martínez Alija offering innovative pintxos in a modern setting.
Continuing along paseo Urbitarte we cross the Zubizuri bridge and arrive in Deusto, a neighbourhood with a local feel. Walking along paseo Campo Volantin, we take the 3rd left onto Heliodoro de la Torre street and immediate right arriving at La Taberna Del Sur. Andalusian in style, it is owned and run by four sisters who have created a bar with a big local following. Offering larger 'raciones' rather than typical pintxos, perhaps indulge in a bottle of wine and a plate of succulent prawns from Huelva or plate of hand-sliced Ibérico cured ham.
Onwards, we climb up Heliodoro street, taking the first left onto Blas de Otero. At Nº 4 we find Txindoki. Patitas de Calamar, literally translated "baby squid feet" are delicious and a steady stream is ordered from Autxane and José, the husband and wife team who run the bar. Another fifty yards on the right and we reach Oriotarra and a famous bars in Deusto having won many local prizes for it's inventive pintxos. Back along towards the old town, we cross over the Ayuntamiento bridge.
Finally, for those that would like to take a slice of Bilbao back home, some of the best cured hams are available a short walk away at Charcuterias Mohan. With a lifetime of experience, the charismatic owner Mohan explains pintxo culture in a few short sentences: "People like their traditions here and locals eat and drink in the bars they grew up going to. They visit three, may be four bars they know and like. Nothing will ever change that," he says with a smile.
With Mohan's thoughts in mind, you may have visited more pintxo bars than many locals and on your next visit you might even be able to plan your very own 'txikiteo', just like a local Bilbaíno.
Jon Warren lives in San Sebastián. He is the founder of San Sebastián Food, a food and wine travel company in the Basque Country.