Your Guide to Basquing in the Old West | Travel | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Louis Basque Corner is one of the rare restaurants in Nevada that serves Basque cuisine (Louis Basque Corner)

Your Guide to Basquing in the Old West

What are the best restaurants for authentic Basque cuisine?

smithsonian.com

Central California

The California gold rush brought the first Basque immigrants to the United States in the 1840s. After the gold dried up, many of their descendants stayed in the Central Valley region, turning to the more stable professions of ranching and sheepherding.  The modern community is tight-knit and proud of their heritage; the Kern County Basque Club throws one of California’s largest Basque festivals every year in an exhibition of traditional dances, pelota (Basque handball) matches and music by bands who travel from the home country.

But, as you might expect, the most powerful cultural marker of the community is the cuisine. Bakersfield is the capital of American Basque, touting one of the largest cluster of Basque restaurants in the country. Ever since the oldest, Noriega Hotel, opened its doors in 1893, generations of exhausted sheepherders have flocked to the worn, pioneer-chic warehouse for a hearty family-style dinner, crammed side-by-side at the long communal tables. There may be a few non-native culinary tourists in the mix, drawn by Noriega’s 2011 James Beard Classic Award. If it’s not too busy, Wool Growers is another bright spot, literally and figuratively: watch for the attention-grabbing neon sign out front, walk in, and be instantly greeted by one of the members of the Maitia family—“the royalty of Bakersfield’s restaurant dynasty families,” according to Bakersfield Magazine—who have been running the restaurant since J.B. and Mayie Maitia launched it in 1954.

Wool Growers Restaurant
620 E 19th St
Bakersfield, CA 93305
(661) 327-9584

Noriega Hotel
525 Sumner St
Bakersfield, CA 93305
(661) 322-8419

Pyrenees Café
601 Sumner St
Bakersfield, CA 93305
(661) 323-0053

Benji’s French Basque Restaurant
4001 Rosedale Hwy
Bakersfield, CA 93308
(661) 328-0400

The Landmark
644 E Olive Ave
Fresno, CA 93728
(559) 233-6505

Pacific Northwest

One in ten Boise residents have some Basque blood in them, which explains how very Basque Idahoan culture is. The Columbia River Basin, which includes eastern Oregon and Idaho, became a popular destination for shepherds and ranchers migrating from California in the late 19th century. Much of the community sprawled out over secluded ranches and farms, but Boise offers a concentrated dose of Basque culture for locals and enthusiasts alike. It’s worth a trip to stroll through the downtown “Basque Block,” a single block lined with three Basque restaurants, the Biotzetik Basque Choir, cultural centers, a Basque market, two dance companies and a music school. And since 1992, Boise can also boast a sister city relationship with Gernika, a city in the Spanish Biskaia (Biscay) province (from where almost all Idahoan Basque originate).

The standout restaurant of the region, Epi’s, is a bit of a trek from downtown Boise’s trendier eateries. The quaint remodeled bungalow in nearby Meridian is known for its intimacy and its almost excessively warm staff; as Boise Weekly describes it, “It was like having dinner at mom's.” Unlike some of the more traditional Basque eateries, Epi’s allows guests to order individual dishes from a menu—highlights include the calamari, ham croquetas and the baked cod.

Leku Ona
117 S. 6th Street
Boise, ID 83702
208-345-6665

Epi’s Basque Restaurant
1115 N Main St
Meridian, ID 83642
(208) 884-0142

Old Basque Inn
306 Wroten Street

Jordan Valley, OR 97910
(541) 586-2800

Nevada

Around 1920, a flood of young Basque men looking for new adventures inundated northern Nevada. As shepherds, life ended up being duller than expected; they spent months alone in the scrubby mountains, punctuated by visits to railroad towns to sell their sheep. Many of the signature Basque boardinghouses that housed them on these visits, like the Martin Hotel in Winnemucca and Santa Fe Hotel in Reno, are still standing. And they’re still dishing up the pioneer-style comfort food meant to buffer the long stretches in the wilderness. Following the tradition, these seasoned dining rooms churn out endless courses of lamb stews, steaks, washed down with plenty of wine and Picon Punch.

Nevada was also a major site for Basque culture rehab; in 1959 the first national Basque Basque festival was held in Sparks, Nevada, drawing more than 6,000 Basque Americans and highlighting the need for Basque cultural outlets around the country. Soon after, similar ethnic clubs and festivals started popping up in all the major Basque hubs of California, Idaho and Oregon. Elko still hosts the state’s largest Basque festival (which, appropriately, includes an event called the “Running of the Sheep”), though the town’s ethnic population has dwindled in the past century.

Santa Fe Hotel
235 N Lake St
Reno, NV 89501
(775) 323-1891

The Martin Hotel
94 West Railroad Street
Winnemucca, NV 89445
(775) 623-3197

JT Basque Bar and Dining Room
1426 Highway 395
Gardnerville, NV 89410
(775) 782-2074

The Star Hotel
246 Silver Street
Elko, NV 89801
(775) 753-8696

Louis’ Basque Corner
301 E 4th St
Reno, NV 89501
775-323-7203

New York

An entirely different breed from the railroad lodges out west, New York’s Basque scene takes its cues from modern Basque Country cooking instead of the American Basque tradition. Catering to an East Coast crowd more or less untouched by Basque immigration, haute Basque-inspired eateries aim to educate rather than preserve a community. The difference is stark. Bar Basque, described by the New York Times’ Sam Sifton as “a strange, glass-walled and tube-shaped spaceship,” is as far from tradition as you can get, and the more intimate Txikito has an ambitious mission to create New York’s “glorious Spanish-food future”, updating traditional fare (salt cod, tripe, squid) with contemporary fusion flavors. Sure, it’s not Basque cooking by purist standards, but their roots are shared by those sturdy family boardinghouses 3000 miles away.

Bar Basque (http://www.eventihotel.com/chelsea-restaurant/bar-basque.html)
839 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10001
(646) 600-7150

Txikito (http://www.txikitonyc.com)
240 9th Avenue  
New York, NY 10001
(212) 242-4730

Tags
About Aviva Shen
Aviva Shen

Aviva Shen is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining CAP, Aviva interned and wrote for Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and New York.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus