Photos compliments of Lindsay Keys
Tapas have garnered plenty of acclaim across the five boroughs thanks to their bar-friendly appeal and wide range of flavors. But less is known about their counterpart, the curiously named pintxos. So, what the heck are they?
We talked with Jonah Miller to find out. He’s the chef and owner of East Village newcomer Huertas and a pintxos aficionado of sorts. We’ll let Jonah describe them best: “Pintxos are one or two bite items, toasts or skewers usually, that have been thoughtfully composed.” In a grander sense, they’re a fun food to eat amongst friends and free-flowing after-work drinks.
They’re also a hallmark of authentic Basque cuisine, which he says, shares many aspects of cooking with other areas throughout the rest of Spain, but has a distinctly French influence, and generally a more urban, cosmopolitan flare. “That allows me to take a few more liberties,” he says. “To be a bit more creative and diverse in what I cook.”
Across the pond, the Basque Country extends from the Pyrenees mountains to the Bay of Biscay, including portions of northern central Spain and southwestern France. “Basque cuisine, particularly modern Basque cooking is fairly broad, but most importantly, like most great cuisines, is ingredient driven,” Jonah says. “That generally means eating what's local.”
He also points out that the Basques were historically the first great fishermen, which explains why Salt Cod (a North Atlantic fish) developed to be a staple in the Basque Country. “Former whalers transitioned to catching and salting cod when the whaling trade dried up,” Jonah says. “Seafood is king, but [the Basques] of course enjoy cured meats like all of Spain, and Europe generally.”
Jonah’s favorites on the menu tend toward savory seafood. “Hard to argue with a Gilda – White Anchovy, Pickled Guindilla Pepper, Manzanilla Olive,” he says. “That is perhaps the only pintxo that will never come off our menu and also is the bite that everyone begins our menu del dia with. Couldn't be more classic. Just wakes your palate up.” He also suggests having a taste of their current rendition of Charred Octopus wrapped up nicely in New York’s favorite seasonal plant, ramps.
According to Jonah, making a truly great pintxo means keeping your balance.
“It's got to be interesting, but restraint is important,” he says. “As a young chef, it is easy to get carried away, to try too hard, that is something I am always mindful of.” He begins polishing a new recipe off by asking himself whether each component is truly necessary for the finished product. “Less if often more. I rarely have more than three components to a pintxo. I want the guest to see and taste everything, there shouldn't be any decoding for the guest. Come to our pintxo bar to relax, have fun — not to think.” Yes, over plate of that charred octopus, we indeed blissfully tune out of our workday.
When he decided to open Huertas, Jonah says the reward was two-fold, both fulfilling a dream he'd had since he was 10 years old, and giving him the ability to cook whatever he wanted. Every single day. “In opening Huertas, I was not only attempting to build a restaurant that our guests would enjoy, but a place that I would enjoy working in, that would challenge and stimulate me,” he explains. “Our format allows for constant change and improvement. It allows me to grow and evolve everyday.”
Jonah also gives us some pretty practical tips — like, ya know, saving a ton on airfare and just skipping over to the Village to get an authentic Basque experience. “If you've been to Spain, or just always wanted to go, check us out,” he says. “Certainly, we are a restaurant in the East Village, first and foremost, but in many ways we're pushing towards Spain further than anyone else in town (our pintxo format particularly) and my favorite comment to hear from guests is that this brings them back to their honeymoon in San Sebastian or trip to Barcelona! That's what we want!”
Huertas Pintxo Bar opens at 5:30 p.m. for walk-in guests who are seated on a first come first serve basis. They also accept a limited number of reservations, (by phone only) for parties of 5 or more.