Straightforward, honest dishes in cities and small towns alike. But, why Basque influence there?
Basque sheepherder in northern Nevada (ca.1964). © Basque Library University of Nevada-Reno Library.
Author: Christopher Hall/©ICEX.
Old-time, family-style Basque restaurants dot the American West, a fact that confounds many first-time visitors to the region. Why Basque restaurants? Why here, near the western edge of the United States, thousands of miles from the Basque homeland in Spain and France? The answer is immigration.
People of Basque parentage have come to the American West at least since the 1770s, when Juan Bautista de Anza, a military officer and the son of a Basque Country-born father, established the overland route from colonial Mexico into what would become the state of California. But it was long after de Anza when thousands of Basques would immigrate here. Some came during the 1849 California Gold Rush, which drew fortune-seekers from around the world, but the great majority arrived in two later waves. The first, in the 1890s, were mostly people in search of economic opportunity; the second, in the 1930s, were those uprooted by the violence and terror of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), World War II (1939-1945), and their aftermaths.
With a strong work ethic but little English at their command, many Basque immigrants worked as sheepherders in remote parts of California, Nevada, Idaho, and a few other states. Basque boarding houses and their affiliated dining halls sprang up in population centers in or near sheep-ranching country. As a major immigration port, San Francisco once had many establishments specializing in a Basque clientele.
"The boarding houses were often run by married Basque couples who spoke some English," says Dr. Sandra Ott, Co-Director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. "The shepherds would live there off-season or when they were briefly in town, and the boarding houses served as homes away from home. They were places of conviviality where you might even meet a future spouse, and eating and drinking together was extremely important there, just as it always has been in the Basque country."
The Old Ways Continue
With the waves of Basque immigrants having been absorbed into the American mainstream and the boarding houses a thing of the past, some of the dining halls remain and now function as public restaurants and social centers for Basque-Americans. Among the surviving old-timers are the Star Hotel in Elko, Nevada (established 1910); the Noriega Hotel in Bakersfield, California (established 1893); and the Martin Hotel in Winnemucca, Nevada (established 1898). In Reno, Nevada, Louis's Basque Corner opened in 1967 in the ground floor of a Basque hotel, and in Bakersfield, California, Wool Growers Restaurant dates from 1954, though it was never part of a boarding house. A more recent arrival is Leku Ona in Boise, Idaho, which opened in a former Basque hotel in 2005.
A family-style meal at a Basque restaurant in the western United States has far less to do with modern Basque cuisine than with old-time comfort foods served in large portions. Prix-fixe meals often include wine, bread, beans, a soup, a selection of main courses that changes with the day of the week, and dessert. Main courses range from fried chicken, roasted lamb, beef tongue, or pigs feet and tripe, to oxtail stew, sweetbreads, rabbit, or steaks. For those establishments with a liquor license, a popular offering is picon punch, made with Amer Picon liqueur, grenadine syrup, brandy and soda water.
According to Dr. Gloria Totoricagüena, a scholar and Executive Director of the Boise-based Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture, the menus and style of cooking found at old-style Basque restaurants in the American West reflect the foods that were readily available to the immigrants. "Though a good part of the cuisine in their homeland might have been focused on seafood," she says, "Basque immigrants in remote, inland areas of the United States had no access to the ocean and its bounty." Instead, things like beef and dried beans were readily available and became dietary staples, and immigrants brought seeds and planted favored ingredients such as mild choricero peppers. And while the boarding house style of cooking was not typical of the homeland, the fast and efficient preparation of large quantities of filling, simple food was required at establishments in the American West catering mostly to numbers of hardworking shepherds living under one roof.
Conviviality remains part of the dining experience at many Basque restaurants in the West. There is often a single seating at communal tables, with large serving bowls of soup and other pre-main-course dishes passed from diner to diner. You find yourself chatting with strangers, who may well be descendants of Basque immigrants with stories to tell about their ancestors and how they dealt with their new lives in America.
Recognition of a Cultural Treasure
The importance of the Basque boarding house-style restaurant to the culinary and cultural landscape of the American West has been recognized by no less an authority than the James Beard Foundation, the arbiter of excellence in food-related affairs in the United States.
Each year, the foundation bestows its American Classics Award on a select group of beloved regional restaurants distinguished by timeless appeal and by quality food that reflects the character of their community. In May 2011, the award was given to the Noriega Hotel, in Bakersfield, California. In his nomination of Noriega's, award jury member and Los Angeles Magazine restaurant critic Patric Kuh described how the experience of dining there includes "a generosity marked by great care" and "the simmered note of home cooking." In a conclusion that could apply as well to many other family-style Basque restaurants in the western United States, Kuh wrote that dining at the Noriega Hotel gives you "a glimpse into a community that has played an important role in this agricultural region for over a century, and a sense, through seasoning and ingredients, of how a people adapted to a new culture while being true to its own."
Christopher Hall is a San Francisco-based writer and journalist.