The Beauty of Bakersfield's Basque Cuisine

Traditional Basque family-style dining is a way of life for some, a special treat for others and a regular indulgence for those in and around Bakersfield, California. The city is an enclave of this unique culinary experience. We visited Wool Growers and The Noriega Hotel, widely regarded as two of the best examples of this regional specialty, to discover how hard-working shepherds (or wannabes) dine.

Even in the most urbane eateries today, it's still pretty easy to eat like a ravenous farmhand. Angeleno restaurant-goers are routinely served bowls of ramen deep enough to feed a family of four, burgers so big they border on obscene, and burritos so huge they could qualify for their own zip code. But to go legitimately old-school and consume food like a famished sheep herder there's really only one place to go -- a dining location that promises to sate even the most sturdy of appetites. Hop in a car (or grab the Amtrak and a Greyhound bus for a truly old-timey adventure) and head north on the 5 to Bakersfield.

Described in a 2004 New York Times article as "the land that time and tourists forgot," Bakersfield is roughly a 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, which doesn't seem far at all, particularly for a trip that does indeed feel like a journey back in time. A day trip to Bakersfield is undeniably nostalgia-laden, even for those unfamiliar with the history of the area -- namely the story of the Spanish shepherd community that sprung up here in the late 1800s.

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It was California's Gold Rush that provided the initial spark of interest for people trying their luck on the west coast of America. Often though, it was California's fertile soil that enabled them to fill their wallets, not the elusive gold nuggets. Young, able-bodied men (wide-eyed at the prospect of "gold in them there hills") set off to southern California from the Pyrenees region of Spain. The golden glimmer of these particular hills was more the sun-drenched variety, which they found could support stable industries such as grain and sheep farming. So they settled, as it were. Hence, Bakersfield has the second-largest expat Basque community in the U.S., second only to Boise, Idaho.

The walls of local restaurants are lined with memorabilia documenting this history, and proprietors often share colorful stories as they mix up a fresh batch of drinks or deliver a bowl of piping hot cabbage soup.

Even before we start chit-chatting with the bartender and the friendly hostess at Wool Growers, I am already pretty well-versed in the history of this farming community -- primarily because my boyfriend's mother grew up here. Her parents still live on the farm where she spent her childhood, and next door to the farmhouse is a barn that resembles something out of a John Steinbeck novel. Surrounding the farmhouse's lovely gardens are grapevines, vegetables, and cotton crops as far as the eye can see. Between lunch at Wool Growers and dinner at Noriega's, we decided to work up an appetite, braving 99-degree heat to pluck ripe, warm heirloom tomatoes fresh from the vine.

There's probably a similar tomato bush a few miles up the road that provides the key ingredient for the tomato salad served at Wool Growers and The Noriega Hotel. Both venues are still staffed by descendants of some of the original Basque immigrant settlers. These establishments seem comfortable with -- even proud of -- the fact that they have served the same style of food for many decades. There's no reason to change a thing: this is solid, old-fashioned, boarding house fare that has always nourished the community, and continues to comfort all those who find themselves seated at these well-trafficked tables.

Photo: Flick user chotda
On our recent trip we chose to dine at Wool Growers for lunch, then The Noriega Hotel for dinner. Take note -- this is dining that requires a sturdy, if not ravenous, appetite.

WOOL GROWERS
Heritage: As with The Noriega Hotel, Wool Growers can be found down by the railway tracks of Bakersfield. Owner Mayie met J.B. Maitia, a bartender, and the pair were married in 1947. They had two children, Jenny and Daniel, then opened up their own Basque-style restaurant, the Wool Growers Cafe, in 1954. After five decades, Mayie, along with her children, still runs the popular restaurant, and is a much-loved matriarch of the Basque community.

On the Table: Ordering the family-style lunch at Wool Growers is a great introduction to traditional Basque shepherd fare. An initial spread that is dubbed the "set-up" includes a cabbage-based soup, hearty baked beans, and a spicy tomato sauce that is great for adding a dash of heat to the soup and the beans. Plus, there are baskets of fresh-baked bread, little gold pillows of creamy of butter, green salad, and a fresh tomato salad with red onion and balsamic vinegar. Everything is delivered to the table on wide platters.

On Saturdays, the main lunch dish is American roast lamb, which arrives smothered with hearty gravy and accompanied by perfectly-cooked french fries (fluffy inside, crispy outside). Each day the lunch spread features a different dish: Fridays is roast tri-tip with spaghetti, Thursday boasts a garlicky chicken (again with those crispy fluffy french fries), and Wednesday is roast pork loin with mashed potatoes.

Of Note -- Behind the Bar: A standout at Wool Growers is the history-soaked bar that adjoins the main dining room. (The dining room -- described by one of my lunch companions as like "walking into someone's house and instantly being transported several decades into the past" -- feels like the lovechild of a 1950s diner and someone's aunt's living room.) The bar is perhaps akin to the den where men once retreated to smoke cigars and drink whiskey. The friendly bartender chats contentedly with regulars while serving up ice cold beers and tumblers of the popular local cocktail, Picon Punch. It's fun to watch as he almost gleefully pours the herbaceous Picon liqueur over ice cubes, adds a dash of Grenadine, a splash of soda, then tops off the entire concoction with a flourish of brandy.

Photo: Flick user Nogwater
THE NORIEGA HOTEL Heritage: The Noriega Hotel (known to its friends as "Noriega's") was founded in 1893 by Bakersfield pioneers and Basque expats Faustino Noriega and Fernando Etcheverry. In 1931, Juan and Gracianna Elizalde took over ownership of the property, and the venue has been proudly run by members of the Elizalde family ever since. Over the years, Noriega's has housed the restaurant, the bar, a boarding house (inexpensive lodgings for young men just arriving from Spain), and even a Jai alai court (in the the Basque region the sport has been dubbed Pelota) which some locals still use. It is said that many of the early arrivals here found a job, a bed, good food, and even a wife at Noriega's (the lodgings were only available to young men -- but the servers at Noriega's were mostly young women).

On the Table: Everyone is treated like family at the Noriega Hotel, where dinner is served nightly at 7 p.m. on long communal tables that are bigger than a barn door. Most people gather earlier, filling out the spacious bar, catching up on local gossip and taking note of which parties are first invited to take their place at the table in the communal dining hall (there's clearly a pecking order, but as a second-time visitor I was out of the loop on the process).

Regardless, the people here -- staff and regulars alike -- are affable, warm, and welcoming. Servers file into the room and start loading up the red-checked tablecloths with gigantic platters of food which are then passed around by fellow diners. Like Wool Growers, a meal at Noriega's includes the traditional Basque "set-up" spread of soup, salads, beans, salsa, bread rolls with butter, and dishes of cottage cheese. Here they also include a specialty locals rave about -- pickled tongue, which is sliced delectably thin. Even the most squeamish eaters are tempted to try it, and even take seconds! The regulars tend to share their wisdom on what goes well with what -- the cottage cheese with the aforementioned tongue dish is a winning pairing -- and the seemingly bottomless jugs of red wine ensure the banter with strangers is free-flowing. On Saturdays, the signature entrees are the restaurant's rich, flavorful oxtail stew, as well as juicy, aromatic fried chicken that comes served with freshly chopped garlic atop the piping hot exterior. The oxtail stew is deservedly popular, with at least one person at our table dubbing it "transcendent,"

And just when you think the flood of food is coming to a close, dessert arrives: plain vanilla ice cream for the kids and incredibly creamy (and locally-sourced) blue cheese for the grown-ups.

If this sounds like a lot of food, that's because it sure is! But it doesn't go to waste. I suspect it's the group dynamic -- and the lighthearted atmosphere created as diners help themselves to seconds, and then thirds. Everyone gets caught up in the moment, continuing to empty their plates long after hunger deems it necessary.

Of Note -- In the Kitchen: The Noriega Hotel's impressive reputation extends far beyond the borders of Bakersfield. Owner Linda McCoy and her sister Rochelle Ladd were flown to the Big Apple in 2011, where they were invited to rub shoulders with the culinary elite (including celebrated Spanish chef and restaurateur José Andrés) when The Noriega Hotel received the prestigious James Beard Foundation's America's Classics Award. Locally, prominent food writer Jonathan Gold has long written about the alluring culinary offerings of the Bakersfield Basque culture. He's also a big fan of iconic local ice cream parlor Dewar's (as are we), where sundaes and house-made nougat can reignite appetites of even the most satisfied diners.

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