We started our three-week adventure in Barcelona and subsequently hopped a train to Basque Country (San Sebastian, Lekeitio, Elantxobe) where, after several days of exceptional eating (and a bit of drinking), we rented a car and undertook a leisurely drive along Spain’s verdant northern and western coasts. Along the way, we stopped in Cantabria (Santillaña del Mar, Comillas), Asturias (Cudillero, Luarca), and Galicia (Cariño, Pontedueme, Muxia, Canduas, Combarro, Combados, Ribeira Sacra, Ourense, Lugo, Santiago de Compostela) before catching a flight back to Barcelona.

Knowing where to eat when traveling is sometimes difficult.  Guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet, tend to have good recommendations, though, owing to space constraints, the reviews are understandably brief and the number of restaurants profiled limited. Internet research yields a seemingly never-ending list of recommendations, but synthesizing it all can take time. Chatting with the locals is always helpful and typically results in good recommendations.

However, if you are traveling and only have a few days in each location, you really want to sample the best neighborhood spots, as well as those places off the beaten path, given that it may be a while before you are back in town.  There needs to be some kind of travel guide devoted solely to restaurants and specialty food shops.  Anybody know of one?

The following is a list of some of the restaurants and a few specialty food shops that stood out along my journey through Spain (in addition to my posts on pintxos and paella). If you ever find yourself in Spain, I hope you find this post helpful when deciding on a place to eat.  If you have no plans to travel anytime soon, then I hope this inspires you to take a trip to Spain or somewhere else in the world and to explore its cuisine. As well, I hope you enjoy the photos, as Patrick patiently waited before digging in to each dish until I had snapped the [“perfect”] photo, though it was not difficult to snap a great shot, given that the food looked (and more importantly, tasted) so good!

Bar Mut, Barcelona

It’s not difficult to find great seafood in Espana. You can pull off the road just about anywhere and find a plate of navajas (razor clams), zamburiñas (scallops), pulpo (octopus), etc. (unlike in the States, where, typically, your only option is fast food or national chains, both of which are forgettable). However, if you are looking for a place that offers impeccable mariscos and a creative spin on traditional Spanish cookery, Bar Mut is a great destination. The place is rather small, seating only about 25, so make a reservation or get their early (doors open at 8:00 pm for dinner). We ordered the carpaccio huevos (eggs carpaccio with prawns), almejas (clams), nekros (small box crab), and the suquet de peix (fish stew).

Carpaccio huevos fritas

Nekros (small box crab)

The susquet de peix was not on the menu. We noticed the waiter bringing it out to the table next to us, so we inquired about it. It had black cod with muscles, clams, and prawn and was the highlight of the evening, along with the carpaccio huevos.

Cal Pep, Barcelona  

Cal Pep has odd dining hours, no menu, an artistic chef, and takes limited reservations. Get there early or be prepared to wait (and salivate) a while, at least an hour, before being seated. You line up against the wall, perhaps ordering a glass of wine or two as you soak in the atmosphere, and wait eagerly to snag a seat at the bar. Is it worth the wait? Cal Pep is a fun, lively dining experience. If you are looking for a place that takes in pride in the quality of their ingredients to create really good, traditional food, then Cal Pep is worth your time.

Setas (wild mushrooms), peppers, and prawns

La Paradeta El Born, Barcelona

La Paradeta, recommended by a local shoemaker/ leather artisan that we met in Barcelona, is essentially a micro-fish market where you can get fish and shellfish cooked to order. It is served cafeteria style and they call out your number when your order is ready. It gets very busy and you get the sense that this is a place where locals go for a leisurely and inexpensive lunch. The fish and shellfish are incredibly fresh. We ordered ostras (oysters), buey del mar (crab), cigalas (crayfish), a bottle of cava rosado, and a side of romesco and aioli, and our bill topped out at a very reasonable 50 euros.

El Bitxo, Barcelona

El Bixto is a very small, lively tapas/wine bar that specializes in cheese and charcuterie. It was also conveniently located around the corner from the hotel we were staying at, in the Born neighborhood of Barcelona.  On a side note, it’s also right near the Palau de la Musica Catalan, where we were fortunate to see Opera y Flamenco.

Anyway, getting back to the food, El Bitxo is not much larger than a studio apartment. In fact it doesn’t even have a true kitchen. We popped in after the performance for a glass of wine, coffee-marinated salmon (really good), and a salad (with smoked salmon, candied walnuts, caramelized onions, sprouts, cheese, tomatoes). Ended up being a perfect midnight snack.

There are not printed menus, rather the entire menu is posted on the wall.

Cacao Sampaka, Barcelona

If you are looking for a ridiculously thick, dark, and creamy mug of hot chocolate, look no further than Cacao Sampaka. In addition to spicy hot chocolate, they stock a wide variety of chocolate.

It’s so thick you have to eat it with a spoon.

 

Casa Gispert, Barcelona

Just about the cutest specialty food shop I’ve ever been to, with a great selection of nuts, dried fruit, olive oil, vinegar, coffee, chocolate, jams, preserves, etc.

 

 

They’ve been roasting nuts in their wood-fire oven since 1851.

Lekeitio, Basque Country, North Coast of Spain

On the first leg of our drive, after leaving San Sebastian (refer to post: Pintxos Crawl, for memorable meals in San Sebastian) we followed the coastal road as we headed west. Driving through Basque country, we made a stop for a leisurely lunch in the coastal fishing village of Lekeitio.

A simple meal of grilled octopus, grilled squid, and a bottle of rose coupled with a magnificent view was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon before hitting the road and heading towards Cantabria. I wish everyday could be like that.

Elantxobe:

Another cute, little fishing village we passed along the way.

Welcome to Ireland, I mean Cantabria

So incredibly green.

Happy Grass-Fed Cantabrian Cow

Santillana del Mar

Santiallana del Mar is a picturesque town in Cantabria. Its cobbled streets and stone buildings make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. There is an old saying that Santillana del Mar is the Town of Three Lies, since it is not holy (santi), flat (llana), nor on the sea (del mar), as implied by the town’s name.  Lies or not, Santillana del Mar is worth a day or two of your time.

Cocido montañes, a typical Cantabrian stew of white beans with black pudding, sausage, and pork, was a nice break from all the wonderful seafood we had been eating. To accompany this dish, we ordered caracholes de montañes (mountain snails) and a bottle of rioja.

Caracholes de Montañes 

Cocido Montañes

Welcome to Asturias

We got sidetracked when we spotted a farmers’ market in the town of Ribadesella. We picked up a link of handmade, spicy chorizo from Embutidos Pellico. It had a rich, deep flavor and was by far the best chorizo I had every tasted (Wonder if he ships to Chicago?).

Cudillero, Austurias

El Remo, Cudillero

Another extremely fresh, simple seafood meal in the cute fishing village of Cudillero. We ordered anchoas de Santoña (Santoña, another small fishing village, is renowned for its anchovies), followed by calamares tinta, navajas, and pimientos de Padron.

Galicia

Welcome to Galicia, the northwest corner of Spain (and home to some of the best seafood in the world)

Playa Nemina, Muxia

Casa Saburil, Muxia

Should you find yourself in the northwest corner of Spain, in the coastal town of Muxia, in the province of Coruna in Galicia, you will not be disappointed if you stop for dinner at Casa Saburil. Casa Saburil is a small, family-run restaurant just steps away from the beach (Playa Nemina). You won’t find this place in any travel guidebook since Muxia is not a common travel destination. We lucked into this hidden gem when the owner of a casa rural (i.e., bed and breakfast) that we wanted to spend the night (it was full) directed us to a nearby casa rural and implored us to have dinner at Casa Saburil. He proclaimed  that the arroz con bogavente at Casa Saburil was “obligatory.” We were famished and showed up to dinner around 8:30 pm. Not surprising, they didn’t open for dinner until 9:00 pm (we were in Spain after all), but they were nice enough to seat us around 8:45 pm (the next table did not show up until around 10:00 pm).
The arroz con bogavante (rice with lobster) may have been one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. There were two whole lobsters in a rich, seafood stock, and the rice was cooked perfectly, slightly al dente.


Mar de Ardora, Canduas

Luckily the owners had just returned from holiday in Portugal such that we were able to land a lunch reservation for the following day at Mar de Ardora. We backtracked about an hour to eat lunch here. Mar de Ardora, a small, family-owned restaurant with spectacular views of the estuary and Laxe Corme was well worth the drive. We ordered the octopus in a red pepper sauce, risotto with grelos (turnip greens) and red prawns, almejas (baby clams) in red sauce, and a good bottle of albariño.

Cambarro

These rather strange looking stone buildings are scattered all over Combarro. I soon learned that they are called “horreos”, and are/were used mainly to store corn, potatoes, and sometimes even ham or fish.

El Caracol, Combarro

As I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post on paella, El Caracol was hands down my favorite paella during this visit. As an added bonus, they also serve vegetables at their restaurant. A word or two on vegetables in Spanish restaurants: there are rarely any fresh vegetables on menus in Spain, save for iceberg salad, canned asparagus (which ironically is labeled “natural esparragos”) and pimientos de padron (ate a ton). What I’ve heard is that most people in Spain eat a lot of vegetables at home such that when they dine out they do not order vegetables. Accordingly, the majority of restaurants keep their vegetable offerings to a minimum.  As well, I was also told that chefs do not find vegetables interesting and thus they do not appear on menus. So, I was quite pleased when I found out that El Caracol served grilled vegetables and also grelos (boiled turnip greens).  I had been going through veggie withdrawal for weeks and was happy to order two big plates of vegetables. We were so full, we had to take some of the paella to go, which made for a nice breakfast the following morning.

Meson de Alberto, Lugo

The entire city of Lugo is surrounded by an intact Roman wall. There is a walkway atop the wall where you can take a stroll around the city. Within the walls, there are cute little squares and no shortage of places to grab a bite to eat.
We stopped at Meson de Alberto for a light lunch of grelos with mariscos, vieira (giant sea scallop) in an onion tomato sauce, and a side of grelos (on the house).
Grelos con mariscos

More grelos

Vieira (giant sea scallop)

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago is the capital of Galicia and also the termination point for the Camino de Santiago, otherwise known as the Way of St. James. The Camino pilgrimage route traditionally begins in St. Jean Pied de Port (northeast corner of Spain) and ends 780 km later in Santiago (northwest corner of Spain). We passed countless people making the journey to Santiago, on foot and by bike, as we made our own pilgrimage (culinary, rather than spiritual) towards Santiago.
Trafalgar, Santiago de Compostela
Trafalgar — another tiny, packed, standing room only bar in Santiago. We came to Trafalgar specifically for the tiger mussels in spicy sauce, and returned several more times during our stay in Santiago for more of these addictive, spicy mussels.
O Gato Negro, Santiago de Compostela

We made a quick stop at O Gato Negro, another tiny, crowded bar for a plate of percebes (goose barnacles).

O Celmedo Caracol, Santiago de Compostela
Traditionally, octopus in Galicia is served boiled and sprinkled with paprika, rock salt, and olive oil (referred to as Pulpo a la Gallego). While Pulpo a la Gallego is quite tasty, nothing beats octopus a la plancha (grilled). This particular presentation at O Celmedo was served a la plancha and was delicious, very tender on the inside and slightly crispy and caramelized on the outside, drizzled with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Of course, it would not be a meal without a plate of pimientos de Padron, a staple in Spain.

Abastos 2.0, Santiago de Compostela
Abastos 2.0, located right outside the farmers’ market, has a small menu that changes daily. We tried just about everything on the menu that day.  I especially enjoyed the xurel “After Eight” — bluefish sashimi marinated in soy and olive for 8 hours, the polbo grella (grilled octopus), and the berberchos with wakame (clams and seaweed).

Ensalada de atun, Xurel “After Eight”, Polbo grella, Berberechos with wakame, and Salmonete + Fideos Neghros
Empanadas from the Farmer’s Market, Santiago de Compostela

There is no shortage of empanadas to be found in Spain. However, you can find a stellar variety of empanadas at the Santiago farmer’s market (along with an incredible selection of seafood, cheese, poultry, meat, produce, etc.). One particular stand, run by a family of bakers, sells a unique assortment of empanadas (along with many other baked goods and breads ) — bacaloa (salt cod), pulpo (octopus), berberechos (clams), zamburinas (scallops) — along with the more traditional varieties — bonito/atun (tuna), pollo (chicken), carne (meat) — great for breakfast or an afternoon snack.

You’ll also find big copper pots filled with octopus boiling away…

And no shortage of pimientos de Padron…
Last but not least, there are no shortage of vineyards to visit and wines in which to partake, mencia and albariño to name a few, in and around Galicia.

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy travels!

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2 comments

Reply

What a fantastic post!

It brings back fond memories of my camino journey last year:)

Reply

Wow, that must have been an amazing journey. It's on my wish list of things to do. Would love to hear more about your experience.

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