I won’t say I base my travel choices entirely around food, but food — specifically cheap, delicious food and alcohol — generally accounts for at least 85% of the decision. I recently returned from a romantic trip to northern Spain, to Barcelona on the Mediterranean, and San Sebastián across the way on the Atlantic side in the Basque region. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they say the food in Spain is very good.
The stories were true, even the bad food was good. Or at least, showing up in a new city knowing nothing but what my eyes could tell me and a few recommendations from friends, we managed to not have a single bad meal. I live in San Francisco, which is also known as a food destination, but if you spent a week here sightseeing without getting stuck in at least one overpriced tourist trap, it would be a miracle. I have a few basic rules of thumb for avoiding them, sure, like not eating any place with pictures of the food outside, or at any place that employs a “barker” to drag in passersby, strip club style — the operating theory being that a place with good food wouldn’t need that (I guess I sort of need my food to neg me) — but even those probably would’ve been fine.
[Do other people have the constant, existential fear that you’re not eating the best meal you could be eating? This is a problem for me.]
I should be clear that this is not a list of recommendations. I would’ve had to spend at least another month in both places before I could feel even minimally comfortable saying that some place I went is a “must-eat” (note to Uproxx: I would gladly take on this task).
In any case, this is more just a travel diary, a flip book, a photo essay of some of food sampled. I ain’t tellin’ you what to do, but if you get some ideas out of it, wonderful. And anyway, I probably missed the really good places. It’s just this feeling I have.
Canelones de Butifarra Blanca, Tapeo, Carrer De Montcada, Barcelona
Catalonians have this amazing sausage, butifarra, and the best way I can describe it is that it’s spiced simply and tastes intensely porky but with a hint of funk, like a paté. It’s… really f*cking good. This was my first experience of it, served inside a canneloni, covered in bechemel and meat reduction from Tapeo, our first stop on a food tour (shout out to Jo from The Barcelona Taste).
Can you say rich? It tasted like Thanksgiving.
Pan Con Tomate, El Chigre, Barcelona
In other classic Spanish dishes you’ve probably heard of, pan con tomate. All it is is bread, rubbed with garlic, spread with grated tomato, drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with salt. Essentially the world’s laziest bruschetta. And yet it’s really good, in a way that defies all logic (you know, provided you have access to stupidly delicious bread and sun ripened tomatoes). El Chigre’s was my first experience of it, and so will probably always be the best in my mind (pretty sure they lightly toasted the bread over charcoal, which is probably blasphemously fancy for this dish, but it was real nice). I can’t wait to attempt this at home and be thoroughly disappointed. (Yes, that’s more butifarra in the background).
Cone of meat and cheese, somewhere inside the Santa Caterina market, Barcelona.
CONE OF MEAT! CONE OF MEAT! Another thing you’ve probably heard about Spain, the sheer variety of cured meats (let alone the taste) is overwhelming. There are about a million different types and grades of Jamón Iberico (you can read Simon Majumdar’s poncily written but admirably thorough guide to them here) including the stuff from the pigs fed only acorns and cured for 1000 days. It’s a lot like prosciutto, except the fat actually turns to oil when it hits your tongue (…something something your mom).
At the market you can get a little paper cone of it that you can walk around and eat, while chanting CONE OF MEAT! CONE OF MEAT! until security tells you to stop. Recommended.
“Aunt Rosa’s Mushrooms,” Taverna Can Margarít, Barcelona
It’s not a good Spanish (or Catalán, as it were) dish if it’s not delicious and headslappingly simple. These were just little mushrooms (they may have come from a can, they have bizarrely good canned foods in Spain) marinated in some kind of olive oil/vinegar mixture served cold, sprinkled with some kind of herbs du Provence-type stuff (likely herbs du Provence).
That Aunt Rosa, she seems like a sweet lady.
Octopus, La Paradeta Born, Barcelona
La Paradeta was this salty seafood joint where you order from a counter clerk standing behind a giant platter of fresh seafood on ice, priced by the kilo like at a grocery store (see below). We went there on a recommendation from the aforementioned Jo and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I walked tentatively up to the counter and asked “Uh… so how does this work?” in my best bad Spanish. The girl behind the fish rolled her eyes at me like I was the stupidest, most tedious man on Earth, and I knew then that I was about to eat some truly good seafood (as I said, I need to be negged before I can truly enjoy it, like some kind of food masochist or culinary power bottom).
She explained that you just pick your seafood and preferred method of cooking. I chose octopus and a few other things and let her choose the cooking method (steamed, in this case). This was just octopus, steam, butter, and paprika (pimentón), and was easily one of the top five things I ate there. I think tentacled seafood might be my favorite. Which makes me feel guilty, because octopi are smart.
Shrimp and razor clams, ibid.
These were about as good as they looked. But can I still sit at the cool kid’s table if I’m not entirely sold on head-on shrimp? I try to do the twist-off-the-head-and-suck-out-the-juice thing, but I don’t really get much out of it (literally and figuratively). Seems like it makes more sense if the shrimp come from a shrimp boil and are full of broth than if they’re grilled. Also I don’t understand how the foodie establishment can be both fanatical about de-veining shrimp and pro-head-on, unpeeled shrimp, which come un-deveined.
Is the extra work worth it for the head suck and eating the crunchy little antenna? I dunno, maybe. It feels more primal, which I do appreciate.
Marinated mackerel (caballa), Tapeo, Carrer De Montcada, Barcelona
I don’t know that I’m fully aboard the sardine/anchovy/mackerel train yet or if I ever will be (yet another reason I can’t sit at the foodie cool kids table) but drenched in olive oil and eaten with Spanish peppers and tomato is just about the best version of them, and I would happily eat it every day. They still have the fishy flavor I don’t love, but they really crank up the brininess to 11, which I do.
Foie Gras Pinxto, Casa Senra, San Sebastián
On our side trip to San Sebastián, over in Basque country (which is honestly so stupid beautiful and full of amazing food that I might’ve skipped Barcelona if I had it to do all over again, even as great as Barcelona was), we ate a lot of foie gras, usually in the form of pinxtos, which, though I’m sure there’s a more involved explanation, are for all intents and purposes Basque tapas (slightly smaller than tapas, allegedly). This version had salt flakes, a quince sauce, and a balsamic reduction made into some Nike swooshes on the plate. That’s stylization, homes.
Foie Gras, Ramunxto Berri, San Sebastián
This was probably the second best foie gras I had, served with balsamic reduction and a little mango purée. The best was probably at Baztán, which was recommended specifically for the foie gras, where it was served underneath a little cube of quince paste. I don’t have a great picture because we ate it too fast. Such is life.
Honestly the foie gras was god damned life changing. Should I feel as bad for eating foie gras as I do for eating octopus? Perhaps. But I know geese, and geese are assholes. I have a hard time feeling sad for geese. With octopi, I can at least entertain the possibility of a heart of gold underneath all that ink and slime. One animal I’d never eat though, elephants. Elephants seem like real salt-of-the-Earth animals. I mean, unless I was starving or something.
Gilda, Somewhere in Pasai San Juan/Donibane
We took a walking tour up the mountains outside San Sebastián (mostly as a way to justify more food and wine/beer/cider) and our tour guide took us to a place on the harbor in Pasaia and ordered what she said was her favorite traditional basque pinxto, the gilda. It’s a skewer with olives, guindilla (pickled green chilis), and anchovies. It has all those briny/pickly/tangy flavors that go great with fish and especially wine and beer. Spanish olives also seem to have a meatier, less tangy flavor than what we’re used to (even than my favorites, Castelvetrano, the king of olives). Anyway, we ate lots after this. Sometimes they come on bread. Seems like it makes a great, easy, party hors d’ouvre.
Sardine Tape, Bar Del Pla, Barcelona
A lot of my favorite Spanish/Catalán/Basque dishes were idiotically simple, and then there was this sardine thing from Bar Del Pla which had sardines, mango jam, tapenade, pine nuts, microgreens, and some kind of balsamic reduction, which seemed like seven too many ingredients but somehow made perfect sense in your mouth (…something something your mom).
Not every delicious thing is especially photogenic. Black food certainly doesn’t photograph well. There’s also something sadistic about cooking an animal in its own escape mechanism. “This is how you thought you would get away? That’s delicious.”
This dish should be called “f*ck you, squid.”
Txipiron a la plancha con vinagreta de verduritas, Ramunxto Berri, San Sebastián
This might’ve been my favorite thing I had the entire trip. In Spain they tend to differentiate between squid (calamar) and baby squid or cuttlefish (chipirone/txipirone). This was the latter, charred on a plancha, drenched in olive oil and a vinaigrette of minced vegetables. Yeah, dude. Nothing better than a squid that gets a little char on the outside and stays creamy on the inside (…something something your mom).
Cigala con frutas y verduras de temporada, perlas de yuzu y caramelo de whisky (Norway lobster with fruits and seasonal vegetables, yuzu pearls, and whisky candy), Mirador De Ulía, San Sebastián
San Sebastián allegedly has the second highest density of Michelin stars in the world behind Kyoto Japan, so we figured we’d better go to at least one. After trying and failing to get a reservation at a few of the places Anthony Bourdain visited during his Basque country episode, we got one at Mirador De Ulía, a restaurant up on a hill with an insane view of the city, and ordered the tasting menu. Every dish was a work of art like this and the majority pretty delicious, but honestly, I’ll take pinxtos and Tia Rosa’s mushrooms any day.
I’m also fascinated with the economics of Spanish restaurants. This meal took, no exaggeration here, three hours and 45 minutes. There were nine courses listed on the menu and we ended up being served 12 or 13. By the last few, we were laughing every time they brought a new one out. Another one? Seriously? Oh well, I guess we live here now.
We were the second table to arrive for dinner and the first table was still in the restaurant when we left. It was expensive relative to other restaurants in the area (our walking tour guide called it “a once-in-a-lifetime kind of place”), but cost a fraction of what a comparable restaurant in San Francisco would have. And they couldn’t have done more than 50 covers the night I was there, with a giant staff and multiple servers for each course. I have no idea how that math works out for the restaurant owner, but that’s his problem I guess.
Patátas Arrugadas (“wrinkled potatoes”), Bar/Restaurant Belmonte, Gothic Quarter, Barcelona
I’d heard of patátas bravas before, which are basically fried potatoes with aioli and tomato sauce, before I got to Spain, but never this dish, which the internet tells me originated in the Canary Islands. As served here, it consisted of baby potatoes cut in half, and supposedly cooked in sea water (or probably just salty water), then either packed in salt or left on the stove with the water drained off (sources differ) until the skins start to wrinkle, hence the name. Here they were served with romesco sauce.
Honestly, it was kind of a revelation, not least because it’s pretty healthy. The first thing I did when I got home (once I’d unpacked the $100 worth of fancy hams I’d bought) was start experimenting with romesco sauce and potatoes. Yes, of course traveling allows you to “see the world” and “expand your horizons” and “experience other people and cultures” and all that stuff, but if you ask me, there aren’t too many selling points greater than “a new way to eat vegetables.”