4 Essential Pintxos — Basque Tapas — Bars In San Sebastián

It feels like the secret is out on San Sebastián. It was once a quaint town in the north of Spain, but now the crowds are hip to the incredible beach, artistic Parte Vieja, or old town, and incredible food at affordable prices. What else does one really need?

The fun with San Sebastián is wandering through old town in the evenings, hopping from pintxo bar to pintxo bar — pintxo are Basque tapas, usually skewered on toothpicks, often with a small piece of bread as a base — having a bite, and moving on. There are a lot of options to choose from, but don't fret if the array seems overwhelming. We've eaten our way through the streets and have highlighted the essential stops here. These are the must-eat pintxos in San Sebastián, complete with wine pairings.

Bar Goiz-Argi

Bar Goiz-Argi looks like a very ordinary spot from the outside. It's easy to pass by, but you'd be making a mistake. The interior is barren and the display of pintxos is basic, but look past all of that and zero in on the prawns, their specialty. Ask for the brocheta de gambas off the menu — a skewer of prawns freshly grilled and topped with red pepper salsa. Served on a slice of baguette, the prawns are so fresh they still have a snap to them.

Also recommended off the menu: the Mari Juli, which is named after the bar's owner. It's smoked salmon, Italian pepper, and smoked anchovy, and offers layers of smoke and salt that will make lovers of savory flavors salivate for more. And try a basket of piparras, which are guindilla peppers, fried. Some are hot and some are mild, which makes for a dangerously delicious game of Russian roulette.

To drink: Tío Pepe Dry Sherry. Sherry is underrated. This one has some notes of citrus and is creamy, making it food-friendly – especially with the salty, juicy, spicy flavors in the pintxos mentioned here.   

Bar Zeruko

Bar Zeruko is the talk of the town when it comes to pintxos. It's a lively place, usually packed. What attracts the hungry crowds is the endless array of sexy pintxos along the bar. A lot of places have dull, simple snacks on display, but Bar Zeruko's are particularly appetizing in appearance.

You can get started with a bite from the bar, but what you'll want to do is find a table so that you can order off the menu. Start with "La Hoguera de Bacalao" (the salt cod bonfire), which is really unique. A piece of salt cod is served on a mini-grill with a piece of smoldering charcoal underneath. The result is smoky, salty ecstasy. Another one-of-a-kind option is the hamburguesa detxipi, which is a "hamburger" made with cuttlefish — a fleshier relative of squid — with a black ink sponge cake as the bun.

To drink: Txacoli. You can't do pintxos without trying txakoli at least once. A lot of people mistake it for cider, but it is in fact a wine that's produced in the Basque Country, as well as neighboring Cantabria and parts of Burgos. It is effervescent, not quite sparkling, and has high levels of acid and low levels of alcohol. It is almost always white (though rosé and red varieties do exist). It's not meant to be aged, so it's very young and fresh. With the big flavors of the cod bonfire and the cuttlefish burger, txakoli works perfectly.

Bar La Cepa

For over seven decades, Bar La Cepa has specialized in ibérico ham. That point is highlighted when you enter and see the infinite ham legs hanging above the bar. You can't go wrong with any menu item that includes the ham, but there are other fantastic pintxos that are less obvious. This is a great place to order queso manchego con membrillo (manchego cheese with quince paste) if you haven't had it before. It's a local classic.

Another recommendation is the ensalada de tomate con tonito (tomato, pickled pipparas, local anchovies, and local tuna). It's San Sebastián on a plate: nothing fancy but the individual ingredients shine – especially the tomatoes and the tuna. If your vision of tomatoes is the watered-down version we so often find in North America, this will open your eyes to what they're supposed to taste like.

To drink: Beronia Crianza Rioja. You'll get a lot of saltiness from the ham, the manchego cheese, and the anchovies, so a wine with a "sweet" palate is perfect to give your tongue a break. I opted for the Beronia Crianza, which has notes of cherry and other red fruit. It's a well-balanced wine and is ideal in between those bites of ibérico.

Gandarias Jatetxea

Gandarias – like Bar Zeruko – is one of the more popular pintxo places in San Sebastián. It offers a large array of pintxos at friendly prices, ranging from four to seven euros (about $4.75 to $8.25) a serving. While there are no wrong turns to make here, this is a place that specializes in meat. Solomillo (beef tenderloin), served with a sprinkling of salt, is simple and succulent.

I also opted for my sweet ending of the night at Gandaria, with the torrijas, very similar to French toast — day-old bread revived with eggs, milk, and cinnamon. This is a classic Basque dessert, but, truth be told, a lot of places do a poor job of it. They know what they're doing at Gandarias, though, as the torrijas come out with a nice sear, adding texture to the soft inside.

To drink: González Byass Nectar Pedro Ximénez Sherry. For the red meat, I'd return to the Beronia Crianza, but for the dessert, I'd opt to go sweet-sweet. The Nectar is a different type of sweet than the dessert, rich with raisin and fig notes. It lingers in your mouth like melted chocolate. I'd be happy to have this drizzled over ice cream, but it worked very well with the moist, fatty torrijas.