On a recent visit to Europe, my friends and I went to three popular Spanish cities: Donostia/San Sebastián, Barcelona, and Madrid. And in all honesty, from the five countries we traveled to, it was in Spain where we had our best eats. The familiarity of flavor profiles, the deliciousness of all the dishes we tried, and perhaps most notably, the warmth and friendliness of the Spaniards made our gastro-adventures in Spain the most memorable.
Foodie haven: Donostia/San Sebastián, Basque Country
After flying in conveniently from Paris to Bilbao, and a few gulps of cold San Miguel cerveza at the airport, we made our way to the considered “Capital of Gastronomy,” Donostia to the Basques, but better known as San Sebastián. From Bilbao Airport, it was an easy hour and a half bus ride to the coastal city.
With mountains serving as backdrop, the Urumea River plying through the city, and lined with picturesque beaches such as La Concha, Donostia exudes an air of elegance with its Belle Époque aesthetic, a legacy of its former glory as a favorite summer getaway of the Spanish royal family and aristocracy. Its graceful boulevards and avenues, Gothic churches, dynamic landscape and not to mention, warm and approachable people made us exclaim, “We want to live here!”
Indeed, there’s more to San Sebastián than the awesome food.
Don’t get me wrong though. Food remains a serious aspect of Donostia life, and it’s not because it is one of the cities in the world with the highest number of Michelin stars per square meter. It’s because gastronomy is the city’s pride. The variety of dining options, the freshness of the ingredients, and the affordability of food makes it perhaps the world’s best city for food.
At Casa Urola, we indulged in cold servings of txakoli, a dry white wine served in the Basque country, as well as Cinco Jotas jamón ibérico de bellota, truly at the apex of all jamones for its high quality, plus pulpo or octopus served with mashed potatoes and pepper oil.
An evening in San Sebastián, however, is not spent in just one restaurant. Like the locals, we hopped from one bar/restaurant to the next, sampling an assortment of pintxos, from bizarre-looking (but addicting) gulas to hearty servings of different kinds of seafood.
At Casa Alcalde, located across the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, we had our fill of txuleton, the Basque country’s famous take on steak. Although not as tender as other kinds of steak, the txuleton featured a raw beefy taste and is charred perfectly, giving a crisp but tender texture.
Catalan flair: Barcelona
From chill Donostia, our next stop was gregarious Barcelona. Bursting with life, it is a city beloved by residents and foreigners alike. After seeing the architectural wonder that is Sagrada Familia, we refueled at El Quim de la Boquería located inside Barcelona’s most famous market, La Boquería, at Las Ramblas.
Excellently situated at the heart of the market, El Quim exudes a young, almost tenacious vibe as its handsome staff whip up a kitchen that is no-frills, efficient, and always busy. We took up our place even before they opened for lunch service because we were told that it’s a crowd favorite.
The food was superb. We had their house specialties of fried artichokes with truffle salt, huevos fritos con chipironcitos or fried eggs topped with baby squids, salteado de setas variadas con foie gras caramelizado or sautéed mushrooms with foie gras, rabo de toro (ox tail)—Quim style—all washed down with cold cava.
The hip, bar-stools-only, no-fuss affair at El Quim was a fitting image of the Catalan city: progressive, modern, and spunky. Walking around Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) and along Passeig de Gràcia gave us some time to savor the city’s historical side.
In fact, Barcelona is also charming, relaxed, and sophisticated just as how we experienced some of the most glorious Spanish food in Restaurante Palermo.
Located in a quiet corner of the Eixample area, Palermo is known for serving classic Catalan and Spanish dishes. We began with customary pan con tomate as well as savory morcilla or blood sausage from Burgos and spicy chistorra.
But it got more exciting when we had orejas a la plancha, grilled, crunchy pig’s ears which had a good combination of melt-in-your-mouth fat and crispy cartilage. Almost reminiscent of our grilled pig’s ears (tenga), what made this different was the bigger cuts and crispier texture.
For our mains, we had bacalao and shellfish in green sauce, an emulsion of olive oil, lemon, garlic, and chopped parsley that went well with the salted codfish. It was followed by superb seafood fideua, with generous portions of shrimps and fish, and a smoky flavor.
The house speciality, arroz caldoso de bogavente or soupy rice with lobster, was a sinful rice dish that had lobster, prawns, fish, and mussels. It was new to all of us and slurping its saffron-infused broth with chunks of seafood was truly a delight.
We ended our perfect meal at Palermo with crema catalana, a flan with a paper-thin caramel topping that can be likened to crème brûlée, and chocolate profiteroles with ice cream.
A “taste of heaven”: Madrid
There is something about Madrid that captures my heart every time I visit. Unlike the grandiosity of Paris that can be overwhelming, Madrid has an air of subtle elegance and a gentle refinement lived out by its residents. The famous saying “de Madrid al cielo” or “from Madrid to the heavens” suggests that Madrid is a foretaste of heaven.
The fact that our apartment was beside (yes, beside!) Chocolatería San Ginés and a stone’s throw away from Pasteleria La Mallorquina, we really were figuratively next to heaven.
It was a daily ritual to get our servings of piping hot chocolate with crisp churros from San Ginés or napolitanos, ensaimadas with jamon, and other sweet confections from La Mallorquina. Heavenly.
For heftier meals, we opted to try cochinillo at Restaurante El Senador and cocido madrileño at Taberna La Cruzada.
El Senador offers an old-world approach to restaurant service: crisp white linens, warm bread, and snappy waiters who made us feel at home. Mentioning that we looked forward to the cutting of the cochinillo with a plate and referring to it as a “show,” I was corrected and told that it was not a show but a traditional ritual meant to showcase the expert technique of roasting the baby pig.
With crispy skin almost as thin as paper and with meat that tasted like milk, the cochinillo at El Senador was sheer perfection. According to them, they are the only restaurant in Madrid whose suckling pig has a guarantee certification similar to the appellation of origin for wines. Apart from the cochinillo, their roast lamb and homemade apple pie and ice creams are bestsellers.
Taberna La Cruzada, on the other hand, opened its doors in 1827, and is proud of its heritage as the restaurant of choice of Madrid’s upper crust. Catering to discerning Madrileños, the restaurant prepared its multi-awarded cocido madrileño using high quality meats, chickpeas, vegetables, and a hearty broth that tasted of the richness of the boiled meats.
Madrid, however, isn’t uptight. It is a relaxed city and we felt at home walking its winding streets radiating from the busy Puerta del Sol. It was here where we really enjoyed tapas, while at Casa Toni, we relished the savory treats of deep-fried and fragrant calamares sandwich, mussels in romesco sauce, crispy anchovies, and their house specialty of grilled pig’s ears.
Finally, we experienced this relaxed but sophisticated vibe in full swing at Mercado de San Miguel. Derided by some as terribly touristy, it still manages to offer a semblance of a “legit” market while providing the convenience of a well-curated, straightforward variety of food both locals and tourists might crave for. From an array of bacalao dishes to paellas, tapas, and other hearty viands, San Miguel allowed us to save time by bringing all the dishes we craved for all under one roof.
Any visit to Spain feels like a cultural homecoming, a European country where we hear familiar words, flavors we’re accustomed to, and meet people who share some of the characteristics we admire most: cariñoso and simpatico.
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We found our spot in busy Mercado de San Miguel where we enjoyed a wide variety of Spanish dishes.
An anchovy pintxo on top of crusty bread and pickles.
A plateful of pintxos.
A killer combo: anchovy, jamon, tomato, and semi-curado Manchego pintxo.
The entrance to the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria.
Salteado de setas variadas con foie gras caramelizado or sautéed mushrooms with foie gras.
Rabo de toro (ox tail)—Quim style.
Some of the leaded stained glass windows from Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.
Restaurante Palermo located at Carrer de Mallorca in the Eixample district.
The house specialty: soupy rice with lobster and prawns.
Madrileños enjoying an outdoor Sunday lunch near the Plaza de Oriente.
The chef masterfully cutting up the pork using a plate.
A poetic profile of Taberna La Cruzada’s clientele reads: “While nations discuss great questions that create labyrinths, the only question that diners here ask is: ‘white or red?’”
Pimientos de Padrón were not too hot but had a slight sweetness that make them perfect to munch on.
Casa Urola, Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 20, Donostia Casa Alcalde, Mayor Kalea, 19, Donostia El Quim de la Boquería, Mercado de La Boquería, La Rambla, 91, Barcelona Restaurant Palermo, Carrer de Mallorca, 280, Barcelona Chocolatería San Ginés, Pasadizo de San Ginés, 5, Madrid Pasteleria La Mallorquina, Calle Mayor, 2, Madrid Restaurante El Senador, Plaza de la Marina Española, Madrid La Cruzada, taberna madrileña, Calle de la Amnistia, 8, Madrid
Photos by Joaquín Carlos U. de Jesús