Bakersfield, you say? A Culinary Mecca? What the Hell?
That's right, Bakersfield... Sitting right at the bottom of Hwy. 99 in California's Central Valley. There it sits, calling out to the gourmands and carnivorous creatures from far and wide.
Although Bakersfield is known mostly as the Nashville of the West, being the home of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and countless other Country and Western Music stars, I cherish any trip to Bakersfield for one main reason...
THE FOOD! FAMILY STYLE BASQUE FOOD!
Family Style Basque Food is a cultural event, even more than a style of cuisine. It all started with the formation of Basque Social Clubs, dating back to early 20th Century. There was a huge migration of Basque people from Spain, into the Southwestern States. California had more than any other state and the Central Valley was where the majority ended up settling. The Basque-American's established these Clubs, to have connections with other Basques around the world and to unite and consolidate a sense of identity in the global Basque diaspora.
These Social Clubs were the beginning of the hundreds of Family Style Basque Restaurants, that began popping up around the the Western United States. It just so happens that several of the best in the state, are smack dab in the middle of Old Bakersfield.
My wife's family is from Bakersfield and it was shortly after we met, that I was first exposed to the area and the food. Her Grandfather, lovingly known as Papa, was the patriarch of the family and a huge fan of these Basque Restaurants. We would always end at one of his favorites at around 4:00 in the afternoon for cocktails. After a few $3.00 highball drinks, the pilgrimage to the Family Style Dinning Room from the bar, would begin.
OK, here it is... The Family Style Basque-American Menu is almost always the same, very little variation. Again, this is a very casual dining experience and one that is almost always shared with Family and close Friends. Everything is served Family Style, on shared plates.
-First Plates-The first thing to arrive is the Pickled Cows Tongue.. I know, it sounds horrible right? Wrong.. The thinly sliced pieces of this briny, pungent meat will blow your mind. Sometimes they will offer a variation of Braised Ox Tails as well, but I can never seem to look past the tongue.
- The "Set Up"- After the appetizers comes what the locals refer to as "The Set-Up".. This always includes fresh baked French Bread, a large bowl of Savory Cabbage Soup, a piping hot tureen of Pinto Beans and a House Made Salsa Puree'.
note: Papa always taught that you need to take a slice of the French Bread, smear it with the blue cheese offered in the bread basket, place it in the bottom of your bowl. Then add the Cabbage Soup, Beans and Salsa... Really Tasty!
-The Meat-The Basque are well known for their excellent use of meats, especially Lamb. There is no shortage here. You usually have a choice of Beef Brochette, Roast Leg of Lamb, Tri-Tip, etc. Another specialty often served is the Breast of Chicken à la Mayie in a (mushroom or Basque tomato sauce). It's pretty difficult to go wrong anywhere on these menus, but common.. When in Bakersfield, eat like the Basque... Lamb, Lamb, Lamb...
Residents of Bakersfield will argue to no end, on which of the Basque Eating Establishments in the area are "The Best". I've eaten at most of them and will tell you that there are more than five or six that are world class.
Do yourself a favor and take the trip to Bakersfield soon.. If you do you'll Basque yourself, "why didn't I come sooner".
The Noriega Hotel Restaurant
Benji's French Basque Restaurant