In preparation for our trip to Spain, I spent a lot of time looking for information on the pinchos crawl that takes place on a tiny street called Calle Laurel in the town of Logroño. Of all the things we were planning to do in the Rioja, in the Basque region of Spain, I was most looking forward to the pinchos crawl, because it marries all the things I love best about traveling — cultural immersion, trying local foods and drinking great beer and wine. It fit perfectly into our schedule as a mid-day refueling from visiting Rioja’s bodegas.
What I found while looking up information was, well… not much. I wasn’t sure exactly what this adventure would entail. Would we be able to order properly with our limited Spanish? Would we be able to tell what the menu said? How much money should we take a long? Is tipping expected? I had so many questions, and I never quite found the answers I was looking for. I had it in my mind that the best way to experience this was with a local guide who could help us find the best food and make us look less like clueless tourists.
Now that we’ve been on the pinchos crawl in Logrono, I know that my worries were unfounded. A tourist can easily pull off this experience without much Spanish and without feeling lost. So I’m going to give you all the information that I couldn’t find before my trip.
What exactly is a pincho?
To keep it simple, pinchos are the Basque version of tapas, though in most places, like San Sabastian, where pinchos are elevated to an art form, they are called pinxtos. The word originates from the Spanish verb pinchar, which means to pierce. Thus, pinchos are small bites that are often held together with a toothpick. They look like this:
They are unlike tapas in that tapas are a small portion of food that usually need to be served on a plate. You’ll find tapas in other parts of Spain (see my post An Adventurous Tapas Crawl in Madrid).
In Logroño, the pinchos “crawl” is jokingly referred to as “The Trail of Elephants” by locals because that’s how some people have emerged from the experience — on all fours, bellowing like an elephant from having drank and ate too much. (Note: You’ll soon see why.)
On Calle del Laurel, which is the main pinchos street, there are upwards of 50 closet-like bars packed into what amounts to about 150 feet worth of dining pleasure. Can you imagine the choices you’re going to be faced with? There are a few additional streets (Travesia de Laurel, Calle San Agustín, Calle Laurel, Calle San Juan and Calle Albornoz) that also contain pinchos bars — everyone wants in on the excitement.
What is a Pinchos Crawl?
A pinchos crawl is very similar to a typical bar crawl, only while hopping from bar to bar, you order a pincho with your drink of choice — a glass of Rioja (Crianza is a popular choice), a caña (draft beer), or a Sidra (Spanish cider). There are also no tables. Everyone stands either around the bar or around the wine barrels that are placed outside as a gathering place.
The hours for the crawl usually span from 1-3pm and from 9-11pm. Remember, Spaniards eat dinner very late. Rarely do you see just one or two people together, as this is typically a group activity. Large groups go together, and they send in one person to do the ordering for everyone. But don’t worry, you won’t feel out of place if it’s just you.
In these tiny restaurants, there’s room for about 15 people at the bar, and elbow space in the interior. Each place offers something different — either their house specialty or a small list of pintxos they do best, and it’s very easy to tell which ones are the most popular. We skipped some of the most popular ones just because the crowds were so intense. Be prepared to elbow your way to the bar and have your order and money ready when you get there.
If you don’t know much or any Spanish, you can still order very easily, because each item on the menu has a name, so just state the name of the item you want and hand over the money. From the research I did before I left, I was under the impression that you ordered and then returned to the bar at the end of your stay to pay for your purchases. That wasn’t the case anywhere we went. We ordered and paid at the same time.
I also thought there would be no menu and you’d just have to surmise what the specialty was, but that also wasn’t the case. Almost every bar had a colorful menu posted outside their door and near the bar with a picture of each item. So if you were really desperate, you could just point to the menu and you wouldn’t have to speak a lick of Spanish.
A few final notes to help you have a fun and delicious pincho crawl. You’ll notice right away that if the place is packed, you have to assert yourself to get attention. If you don’t, you’ll be waiting there a long time. You’ll may also notice the mess. It’s completely acceptable in most places to throw your toothpicks and napkins on the floor. It serves as a sign of popularity. There’s no need to bus your own plates and glasses.
Our Favorite Pinchos
There are so many choices and so little time. You really have to be choosy and try a little bit of everything, if possible. We looked up a list of popular pinchos beforehand so we knew what to look for. Below are a couple of ideas to get your started.
This bar is famous for their patatas bravas, and this is definitely a dish you want to try. It’s a Spanish specialty and can be found pretty much everywhere. It’s chunks of perfectly fried potatoes topped with a creamy aioli sauce and a slightly sweet tomato sauce. It’s pretty amazing. And you’ll see that everyone in Logrono agrees because this place gets really packed.
What I liked most about this place was the atmosphere and the variety of interesting pinchos. The lighting is dark inside, packed with people of course, and there are samples of the pinchos sitting out so you can see what they look like and begin to drool over them. There are also plenty of places to stand along the outer wall, where you can set your drink and food. If you’re judging how good it is by the amount of trash on the food, then it’s definitely a winner. We had two pinchos here. One was octopus skewered with pickles and drizzled in olive oil. The other was two pieces of fried artichoke with a slice of jamon Iberico.
One of the most famous pinchos on Calle Laurel is the stacked grilled mushrooms. There are two places that serve this, which is unusual because usually there isn’t much competition between bars. Bar Soriano was absolutely packed and was one of the only places where we had to wait for about 5 minutes to be served. We elbowed our way up to the bar and watched them make the mushrooms on the flat top grill, which was incredibly entertaining. These mushrooms are doused with olive oil, fried up and skewered with a small shrimp on top a piece of bread which catches all the juices as they flow off. The other place to get these is at Bar Angel, which is only a few steps away.
At Bar Torrecilla, we would have been happy eating just about anything on their menu. They had mini-hamburgers, a really delicious piece of toast with crispy foie gras on top, and one of their specialties was a piece of bread with brie cheese, a slice of tomato and a caramelized piece of jamon Iberico. To drink, I had a cider, and Nick had beer. There were dozens of choice of things to drink and the menu on the wall behind the bar suggested specials and various wines to pair.
No matter what you have to eat, the pinchos crawl in Logrono will be one of the best parts of your trip to this area. We would love to have something similar to this concept in the US. It’s pretty much the best way to try a bunch of the food in a city without eating a bunch of large plates of food. We loved it and will definitely go back to Spain for more pinchos and tapas crawls in the future.
Have you been on a pinchos crawl? Tell us about it in the comments. We want to hear what you loved about it the most.