The city’s innovative restaurateurs have turned the Basque version of tapas into an art form which gives San Sebastián a serious run for its money.
It’s safe to say that the Basque city of Donostia, better known to you and me as San Sebastián gets all the plaudits when it comes to its pintxos. And while Pamplona is known throughout the world for its Festival of San Fermín, largely due to the exploits of a certain Ernest Hemingway, where raging bulls are let loose to run riot through its narrow streets, its pavement-appealing pintxos bars are much more on the down-low.
Within earshot of Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros, an old haunt of Ernest Hemingway whose image is immortalised in a bust outside the bullring, Txirrintxa – try saying that after a skinful – is technically the taproom of the Navarran Vasconia microbrewery that’s on-site. Boasting three large 1,000-litre tanks full of Munich Helles blonde, toasty dark German Dunkel and golden wheat beer, there’s never any fear of them running dry any time soon. But the pintxos, which line the counter waiting to be devoured, are not to be sniffed at either. Standouts are the Mar de verduras en su nido (scallop shell filled with pesto vegetable cream, on a nest of crispy onion and pickled salsa); Frito de pimiento (generously sized, deep-fried pepper balls); Huevo poché con cremoso de hongos, cebolla caramelizada y jamón (poached egg with creamy mushrooms, caramelised onion and ham) all washed down with copious frothy-headed copitas of Vasconia.
C. de la Estafeta, 87, 31001 Pamplona, Navarra; +34 948 77 42 44
Alicia, Pruden, Roberto and Mary have presided over Café Bar Gaucho on Plaza del Castillo for over 30 years, practising, what they describe as ‘the cuisine of our land of Navarre, whilst applying little avant-garde nuances along the way’. Locals come here to devour Gaucho’s irresistible foie pintxo, but it’s just one of a host of small plated masterpieces which include Kokotxas de Bacalao, Huevo escalfado y huevas de trucha (cod kokotxas, poached egg and trout roe, which may resemble a rather bulbous looking eyeball but don’t be perturbed, a taste explosion awaits), crispy and sweet spinach and prawns, smoked eel toast, and cream of erizo encased in spiky sea urchin shells with sturgeon and minced pickle, to name but a few – all laid out like an artist’s palette on the bar.
C. Espoz y Mina, 7, 31002 Pamplona; +34 948 22 50 73
Founded in 1888 by Mariano Iruña and his wife, María Larraga, the café quickly became famous as a meeting place for artists and other influential figures. It underwent an art nouveau-style makeover in the early part of the 20th century, overseen by architect Luis Aladrén. Not a pintxos bar, per se, due to its café credentials, its jaw-droppingly good tortilla de patatas, a true Navarran speciality, is nevertheless worthy of note. Iruña, with its iconic white awning façade, is the grande dame that presides over Plaza del Castillo, and was the meeting point for the main characters in The Sun Also Rises (or Fiesta), the novel that not only set Ernest Hemingway on the road to worldwide fame but put Pamplona (and in particular its festival of San Fermín) firmly on the world literature and tourist map. The great man is remembered in Rincón de Hemingway – Hemingway’s corner – which, rather strangely, is not immediately obvious unless a member of staff directs you to it, as it’s a separate and rather unassuming bar on the side of the main dining hall.
Pl. del Castillo, 44, 31001 Pamplona; +34 948 22 20 64
La Mandarra de La Ramos
In just a few short years, La Mandarra, the realm of hospitality magnate Jorge Goicoechea Lizarbe, has become one of the busiest bars in Pamplona. La Mandarra is a contemporary spin on the traditional Iberico-ham-bedecked tapas bar done in a galley-style with a swish black counter and walls festooned with modern art; guests propped up on stools devouring delectable pintxos crafted by chef Manu Palma and his team – staunch advocates of quality ingredients and what’s referred to as ‘0 Km products’ (produced, sold and consumed locally). Its pepper pintxo is legendary, sampled in between glugs of velvety Navarre red or ice-cold Ambar lager, but equally tasty are the creamy mushroom truffle skewers with poached eggs and caramelised onions; chorizo sautéed in cider with Iberian ham; and Ragués (cod loin on a bed of baked vegetables and potatoes). It’s almost impossible to decide between them, so order them all. Also be sure to indulge in an after-dinner Vermúlamandarra – Navarre’s take on vermouth.
C. San Nicolás, 9, 31001 Pamplona; +34948212654
A very popular spot on San Nicolás for tasty pintxos at the bar, where staff stoop their heads beneath a canopy of suspended Jamon Iberico to take your order – it has a similar aesthetic to La Mandarra de La Ramos, just across the street. You can book a table for more substantial meals like hearty grilled and skewered meats in surroundings where exposed-brick walls, white tablecloths and traditional wooden chairs set the scene. Particularly good for its steak Txuleta (rib eye) derived from fattened-up former dairy cows who see out their days grazing in the verdant Basque countryside, accompanied by a divine bottle of Remelluri Reserva from the stable of leading winemaker Telmo Rodriguez in neighbouring Rioja.
C. San Nicolás, 34, 36, 31001 Pamplona; +34 948 22 46 34
They don’t come much more charming and authentic than Roch. The place looks like it hasn’t changed in over a century (the truth is, it probably hasn’t) and stands proudly as one of the last remaining bastions of bohemia in Pamplona, opened in 1898 by Eugenio Roch, who started out selling coffee and rum. Its rather spartan interior is dominated by a colourful stained-glass wall behind the bar. It’s the setting for a pintxos-induced food coma, especially once you’ve sampled their fritos pamploneses – a dish not dissimilar to croquettes but with a more tempura-like batter – which come in triangular-shaped iterations of roquefort, pepper, spinach and mushroom. Much like canapés, the trick is to devour them in a single bite in order to savour the explosion of ensuing flavours. Señor Hemingway, never far from conversation in the city, was reportedly a fan.
C. Comedias, 31001 Pamplona, +34 948 22 23 90
A word to the wise: unlike many other parts of Spain, where hostelries are renowned for staying open late – most people in Madrid don’t eat dinner until 10pm for example – pintxos bars in the San Nicolás neighbourhood pull their shutters down promptly on the stroke of midnight.
Lee Osborne is creative director of Secret Trips and an experienced traveller on the Iberian Peninsula.
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