When in Spain, one usually thinks of paella, right? Earthy, creamy, saffron-infused rice that's speckled with all sorts of ocean creatures. Yeah, I think of it too. A few of us were hungry for a little more substantial meal (pintxos aren't always very filling), so we went in search of a good paella joint. Apparently, San Sebastian is not known for it's paella, but we were determined to find a decent one. I mean, it has to be more authentic than the paella in Paris.
Three of us set out on this paella adventure. Walking through the parte vieja (old city), we took a turn down a small alley-way and stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall that had a menu out front with paella for 10 Euros. Not too bad, we agreed. Plus, the place looked like one of those family run establishments... mother running the register and daughter waiting tables while dad hacks away at huge slabs of beef with a meat cleaver.
We went inside and sat down in the corner of the restaurant, chatting to each other about just how hardcore the man with the meat cleaver was... and how excited we were about this paella. The daughter-waitress brings us the menus, and before we even open them, lets us ever-so-kindly know that they are out of paella. Of course. Glancing at each another with a look that only says, "Do you think we should leave?" our friend Tim suggests we stay. We were all starving. We can get paella another time.
The rest of the menu was quite expensive compared to the reasonably priced paella. Both Quentin and Tim ordered appetizers... I think to try and save money, but I went all out and ordered the prawns at 20 Euros a plate. Eeeek. I figured for 20 Euros, I'd definitely get enough food to fill me. I was picturing grilled prawns on a bed of something with a side of something... and after waiting what seemed like forever, our plates started to come out. First came Tim's cured meat. Yes, that's how I'm going to describe it, because he actually thought he was ordering fish... but to his surprise was handed a plate of about 12 thin slices of meat. That's it. Ok, it was an appetizer... so then Quentin's blood sausage came out. A plate of about 8 slices of blood sausage. That's it.
I was starting to worry about my own plate, not because of the quantity of the food, but because what I had ordered was about three times as expensive as what the guys ordered. I held my breath as the plate made it's way to the table.
Let me just preface this by saying that I would like to go back to this restaurant again. As my plate hit the table I looked down to see about 10 medium-sized prawns in a neatly grilled row on a clean, white plate. Yep. That was it. No veg, no starch... just 2 Euro a piece prawns staring right back at me. Oh, there was a basket of bread on the table, but we later figured out that we had to pay for that as well. We all looked at each other in utter shock. Did we do something wrong? Is there more food coming that we don't know about? We took our sweet time nibbling on our measly plates and grabbed the bill and got out of there.
Later we were told by Sara, the girl running the hostel, that we went to one of the best restaurants in San Sebastian. That old man with the cleaver? Apparently he's the master of the grill. All we could do was laugh.
Paella count: Zero.
Still starving (what, 10 prawns fill you up?), we figured we would give paella another go. Earlier that night we walked past a place that was advertising about 10 different variations of paella. We hesitated going, as it seemed like more of a chain-restaurant. The back-lit plastic "picture menu" on the wall reminded me of those fast food Chinese joints... and I wasn't very optimistic. But after the ridiculous "meal" we just spent a fortune on, we just wanted a little bite of paella, no matter how bad it was going to be.
I can't even remember the name of this place, that's how much it left an impression on me. The three of us split one order of paella, and ordered some much needed beers. I can't tell you if it was good or not; in crazy starvation-mode I burned my entire mouth on the first bite. I couldn't even taste the rest of my meal. Fail #2.
Still craving paella.
The next day we did what we should have done in the first place. We asked Sara, the girl working at Urban House, for a paella recommendation. Of course, she knew a really good place that wasn't too expensive. We took another friend along to join in the paella-ness. As we got down near the marina, we found the restaurant, Txoko (pronounced "choco") and grabbed a table inside. Being very optimistic, we did it up big... and ordered two plates of fried calamari, paella for four, and a bottle of cider.
The paella came out, and so did our cameras.
This thing was beautiful. Steaming, golden-yellow rice with mussels, langoustines, and prawns peeking through... we were so happy.
This time, I made sure to let my food cool down before shoveling it into my gullet. It was delicious. Lusciously rich with bright, fresh crustaceans. Yum. It might not be the best paella in all of Spain, but it was by far the best paella I've had to date.
So fellow travelers, take my advice. It never hurts to ask a local.