“Astonishing” is to Bilbao architecture as “Damn good” is to the food. The Basque region has long been heralded as a gastronomic destination, and for good reason. The Basque region sits in an optimal position, with the ocean next door, rich soil for both wine and livestock, and an ingrained culinary tradition. With almost 40 Michelin star restaurants in this tiny region, the highest per capita in the world, it´s clear the world is noticing. Basque people treat their pintxos – small snacks served on bread – the way a Japanese chef treats sushi. Carefully crafted, perfectly balanced, and composed of only the best ingredients. We sampled them with vigor on our own personal food tour of Bilbao.
First, here is a list of must-try and very common Pintxos. You will find each one in nearly every bar, and all it takes is pointing at the right one and smiling at the bartender 🙂
- Gilda: a skewer of pickle, olive, hot pepper, and anchovy, perfect if you like sour and salty.
- Tortilla de Papas: Spanish tortilla of eggs, potatoes, and good olive oil
- Brocheta de gambas: BBQ shrimp skewer
- Piquillo Peppers: stuffed with cheese
- Blood sausage: always my favorite, ingredients better left unsaid.
- Croquettes: all varieties including ham, cheese, and even squid ink.
- Young eel: resembling thin grey worms on toast. Yum.
- Pulpo: octopus, often served as a salad or grilled with chorizo.
- Jamon: you cannot visit Spain without sampling the prized and high-quality ham!
- Bacalao: salt cod, a long-standing preservation method for fish in the region.
For the seafood lover: Serantes in New Town has all varieties of ocean dwellers – crab, fresh prawns, octopus, crispy calamari, and the prized gooseneck barnacles. Extremely difficult to harvest and thus extremely expensive (up to $500/lb.!) these gnarly looking guys don´t please the eye but the taste is pure ocean, in a good way. The bar also makes a mean sautéed mushroom, dripping in olive oil with crispy garlic and bacon on top.
Everyone loves a good tapa.
For the adventurer: Irrintzi is known for “modern” pintxos, a little avant-garde compared to the traditional offers. We started our food tour in Bilbao here, strong red wine along with ceviche in avocado cream, battered shrimp with granny smith apple aioli, and grilled octopus with Iberian ham and béarnaise sauce. A generous glass of wine sets you back 1.70 while the tapas average 2-2.5 euro.
Fried shrimp with granny smith apple aioli.
For the Party Cat: Head to Somera street for an onslaught of street drinking and local chatter. It´s here you should try the wildly popular Spanish aperitif – Vermouth. Gaining strides with the younger generation in recent years, “craft” vermouths are popping up all over, and it´s common for locals to start with a bracing glass of it at 11:00 AM. Served with lots of ice and a slice of orange (don´t substitute lemon), you can order it as a medianita (half) or full pour. The bitter-sweet taste is perfect with the oily salty pintxos. Perucchi, a brand of vermouth, was our favourite of the trip.
Stop in at Bar Motrikas, specializing in curiously shaped beer glasses and spicy grilled mushrooms.
Weeknight party on Somera street.
Vermouth, beer spouts, and mushrooms at Bar Motrikes.
For the Early Bird: all the bars in town have something on offer for breakfast – usually Spanish tortilla, crusty buns with jamon, and half sandwiches stuffed with runny eggs and cheese. A strong espresso goes surprisingly well with Spanish tortilla. For the sweet tooth, Torrijas are available – a syrupy soggier version of French toast. Or, head to any of the numerous bakeries in town for a croissant stuffed with cream.
Once you need a detox: Three days of vermouth and croquettes might get to you. For your fill of fiber and vegetables, Suasan near the Guggenheim might be the only place in town with a proper salad – offering choose-your-own ingredients like spinach, arugula, tomatoes, chickpeas, and so on. Koli near the river is the perfect place for a freshly pressed fruit and veggie juices, albeit expensive. The decor alone is worth the price.
As I mentioned in my last post about the city architecture, Bilbao may not be well-known but this is a sorely tragic mistake on all our parts. The Guggenheim is certainly helping to rocket it to fame, and the food of the city will not disappoint either. We regretfully left our Guernica themed-hotel room at Basque Boutique and headed onward by train. Our train was unfortunately on Spanish time, but the beauty of late trains is, you can always have a vermouth at the station. When in doubt, drink Vermouth!