When I arrived in Bilbao, I was somewhat bemused to discover that pintxos (pinchos) bars are not the flashy trendy cafe style establishments I imagined. They can be – especially around plazas, but generally pintxos are found at most bars and some cafes in Bilbao and San Sebastian.
Pintxos are like a small open-faced sandwich – consisting of a flavoursome egg, vegetable, fish or meat offering served on a small slice of baguette with a toothpick holding everything together so you can eat without needing cutlery. The name pintxo comes from the Spanish verb “pinchar” meaning to poke or stab, and this is where pintxos differs from tapas, the latter generally having no bread and no toothpicks.
Pintxos bars are generally clustered in the oldest part of town, and may be slightly dingy, have pokie machines in the corner, football playing on widescreen tvs, park bench seating, wine barrel tables, formica tables, tiled counters and chrome accessories or mirror-tiles stuck diagonally to the wall.
What matters is that locals have been going to the same ones their whole lives to hang out with their friends, and each bar has fantastic pintxos or it just doesn’t last – especially when there are so many competing options.
Pintxos are ordered separately from drinks, and some bars will offer a lunch deal eg 3 pintxos and a drink for 8 euro. You just get given a plate, and from there you help yourself from the dishes on the bar until you are full. Some places will count the toothpicks so they can tell how much you have eaten, but generally they just remember.
If you get pintxos for breakfast you will typically get coffee and a choice of spanish tortilla, pastry, or tostada (toast) for about 2,5 euros.
I don’t have enough Spanish to understand what is actually in each of the pintxos when I go to order, so it’s really just pot luck and fingers crossed. I haven’t gone wrong yet, and its a pretty good scheme as I think I wouldn’t be nearly as adventurous if I knew the combinations beforehand.