Despite being the largest city in the Rioja wine region of Spain, Logroño receives little love in my Rick Steves guide book. On page 312, Steves writes dismissively, “Just before the skippable big city of Logroño, you’ll cross the Ebro River.”
What did Steves not like? The relaxed big/little city vibe ? The charming shops and markets in the city center? The narrow streets populated by incredible pintxo bars? My god, did he miss the pintxo bars??
This wall art says it all. The wording translates to, “El Camino de Santiago (the pilgrimage route to Santiago) is made by stages.” Only, the “E” is crossed out. “Is made by tapas” is right!
Carlos lives in Logroño, and he introduced us to his home city by promising us the best tortilla we’d have during our time together. Tortilla is a staple in Spain, a cross between an omelet and a frittata, with potatoes and onions, and sometimes peppers.
He was right. This was the best tortilla we would eat the entire trip. The fluffiness and creaminess, combined with a dollop of spicy red pepper sauce, took the tortilla to another level. I spent the rest of the trip searching out tortilla, but none compared to this one.
This mercado was right near our hotel. Meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, canned goods, and did I mention meats?
A sight that I would never tire of — hanging jamón. I wondered if I could cram one into my travel bag.
Carlos took us to the market so that he could load up on food items. We were going on a picnic!
Not far outside of Logroño is the walled village of Laguardia (not to be confused with NYC’s disgusting airport). It sits majestically high up on a hill, overlooking the Rioja vineyards.
On this Monday, the village was practically devoid of tourists. We had the view all to ourselves, and what a view it was.
We couldn’t stop oohing and aahing, and I distinctly remember Clive remarking that he would remember this view on the dark, cold winter days back in England.
Meanwhile, Carlos was setting up our picnic at a nearby table.
That’s jamón and assorted meats, olives, marinated artichokes, roasted red peppers, hunks of manchego cheeses and crusty bread. Out of frame are multiple bottles of red wine.
I fixed myself a plate.
One of the best food experiences of my life. Sitting up on that sunny hill with a great group of people, eating this food, drinking wine and admiring the stunning view… it just doesn’t get much better for me than that.
The car-free streets of Laguardia are made for strolling.
Saw these a few times — sets of bright red dried chile peppers hanging on walls.
Another jaw-dropping view, from the clock tower.
Pastries in a shop window.
Laguardia, what a beautiful, beautiful place.
Back in Logroño, we geared up for an authentic Logroño pintxo crawl, or as I think of it, where food lovers die and go to heaven.
Check out the narrow streets lined with pintxo bars. Eating is done standing up. A bite here, a bite there, and then on to the next place.
This is perhaps the most popular pinxto bar in Logroño.
The bar has a singular focus; they cook mushrooms.
Seriously, that’s it. Not several varieties either — basic button mushroom tops.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Sounds like a horrible business model, but when you can do one thing extraordinarily well, that can lead to huge success.
A two-man operation. One guy took the orders; the cook manned the mushrooms, grilling them a la plancha.
He tended to the mushrooms with impressive intensity, flipping them when they were perfectly browned. He gave them a healthy dowsing of olive oil, flipped them again, and dowsed with more oil. Somewhere in there, garlic and tiny prawns made their way into the mushrooms cavities.
The oil was scaldingly hot; these mushrooms were a hazard to eat right off the plancha, and yet we couldn’t wolf them down them fast enough.
Carlos said the line never stops at the mushroom bar, and I believe him.
From there it was on to the next stop.
The specialty here was pulpo a la Gallega.
This is how the octopus looked before it was cooked.
And after — octopus sliced into small chunks, with olive oil, smoked paprika and crunchy rock salt.
The soft texture was unlike any chewy octopus I’d ever eaten. Delicate, and really, rather remarkable.
For a change of pace, we went for grilled meats on a stick at Tío Agus.
You wouldn’t believe how great this place smelled. And our grilled pork skewers didn’t disappoint.
“How uncivilized!” I thought. “Why are there dirty napkins and toothpicks all over the floor?”
Then I learned an essential component of pintxo culture: Everything gets tossed on the floor! I guess the restaurants would rather not handle a mess of soiled napkins and toothpicks on the counter, finding it easier to sweep everything up in one swoop.
When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. And boy is it liberating. Took me a while to feel comfortable throwing my garbage onto the floor like a spoiled child, but I adapted. By the end of the trip, I was chucking toothpicks with the best of them.
Here we were at our next pintxo bar.
For delectable kebobs of grilled shrimp and pineapple.
Grilled fruit is criminally underrated. Who knew pineapple paired so well with shrimp?
Piping hot patatas bravas in a spicy sauce and garlic aioli.
We finished the crawl lounging outside at a restaurant table late into the night, with a proper Spanish digestif and complimentary potato chips.
The next day we headed to the outskirts of Logroño for a collective highlight of the trip, a private tour at the Ontañon winery.
The winery was amazing, a mixture of great wine, history and beautiful art in a striking setting.
Jesús, the tour guide, was ideally suited for his job. A handsome guy with tremendous flair when he spoke (damn could the dude roll an “R”), and palpable passion for Ontañon’s winery, Jesús had charisma up the wazoo.
We were all at rapt attention as he told us about the history of the winery and took us on a tour of the facility.
A whole lot of bottles of wine right there, ready to be labeled.
I forget the exact story, but the owners of Ontañon had been friends with a well respected local artist, and he provided them with the artwork and sculpture which were displayed throughout the winery.
I liked this one of Bacchus appearing just a tad tipsy.
Jesús set us up with a wine tasting, paired with cheese and quince paste.
Penny got friendly with this oversized bottle.
Jesús poured wine on the counter to show us the different color intensities. Doesn’t the splotch on the right look like the United States?
Thank you Jesús for an unforgettable experience! And you better believe I’ll be keeping a lookout for Ontañon wine in the U.S.
Carlos told us that while people think paella when they think of Spain, it’s really a dish more common in southern Spain than northern. But, he did find us a restaurant in Logroño that made a proper seafood paella.
With a cheesecake dessert, and more wine. Did I mention we had just come from a winery?
For round two of our pintxo crawl, I started with the tuna belly with peppers and onions, and marinated beans and anchovies.
Oh my lord, the pork cheek.
So tender, it practically flaked away with one touch of the fork. It was so good, I distinctly remember making Clive order one of them.
I may have also made an embarrassing fuss about the seared hunk of primo tuna.
Another mushroom spot! With a different style — shiitakes sliced thin and grilled with generous amounts of olive oil and garlic.
I couldn’t resist going back to Tío Agus for a grilled chorizo.
Have I written yet how inexpensive all this food and drink was? Just a couple euros per pintxo. And glasses of wine for about $1.30 euros — that’s around $1.60 U.S. dollars! It actually made me sad that I could never have a food experience like this in the States.
The “happy ending.”
A glass of cava.
And chocolate-covered fruit.
Then back to sitting outside, chatting and laughing the night away with another round of digestifs.
Rick Steves, I believe you missed the boat on Logroño.
Next: San Sebastián