Juanito Kojua : The Parte Vieja Classic
Do you ever just have that feeling where you are like, 'I need a break from all these pintxos, and honestly, I just want some emulsified fish fat and a value bottle of Rioja' ?
Oh, that's not normal? Oops.
Well, if that feeling should ever strike you, then Juanito Kojua is a great place to head. This is an Old Town classic in San Sebastián, the kind of place that always comes up in discussions about where to sit down and dine in the old part. From the decor of the dining room, the kind of stuff hipster garage sale dreams are made of, to the honest, parsley-driven sauces on each dish, this place is authentic. I give you example A, our off-the-menu and off-the-chain dish of hongos.
I had never been to Juanito Kojua, a gaping hole in my culinary knowledge of San Sebastián, until my brother (look for his upcoming memoir, How To Live in a Van) came for a visit. We were wandering the streets of the Old Part, during this unseasonably warm fall, looking for a dinner place.
On a Tuesday. And unless you are a drrrty rapper with a BFF named Drake, nothing much gets cooked on a Tuesday. We were stuck between Juanito and Gandarias, another standard, albeit one I knew too well. Juanito it was.
The beauty of this place is, essentially, that it follows the rules. I love light, molecular, or Frenchified touches as much as the next person. Give me a well-made vinaigrette with thyme and shallots, give me foam, give me spices. But if you are in town to find out how the real game of Basque cuisine is played, the name of the game is Juanito.
The cook at the helm, Juan Iturralde, is an examplary Donostiarra who took over the restaurant in the 1950s and made it a lunch spot focusing on fresh, seasonal produce and honest cooking. And, may I point out perhaps the most glaringly real fact here? You don't stay open for 70 years in San Sebastián, through winters and summers, if locals don't frequent your restaurant.
We ordered the cogote de merluza, or fish head, and it was incredibly moist and perfect, served in its sofrito of garlic. Our waitress dutifully reminded us, eyeing her two foreign diners with suspicion, that this was a HEAD of a FISH. Yep, we know, bring it on.
We finished the meal of with some lamb chops, checking the box off for a spot that I had heard so much about. You pay for quality, and the best way to go is with some idea of what the specialties are. In this case, I would keep my eye out for anything off-the-menu, as well as the kokotxas and the cogote. At which point, I would sit back and revel in the sheer Basque-ness.