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Meat and Greet
IN NEVADA'S BASQUE COUNTRY,
DINNER COMES WITH A CROWD.
By Christine Muhlke
The J. T. Basque Bar & Dining Room, in Gardnerville, Nev., was
hopping at lunch, with the bar and slot machines in action and ‘‘Got
Picon?’’ T-shirts ready for sale. The long tables were filled with
locals who satisfied my main road-food rule: always choose the
restaurant with the greatest number of pickup trucks in the parking
lot. The drink of the day was Picon punch, spiked with grenadine,
soda, a twist of lemon and a brandy float — an acquired taste, to be
sure. On the menu were sweetbreads by the cup and a crumbly
house-made Basco Burger, but I had come for the full Basque dinner:
garlic-topped lamb shoulder steak, thinly sliced and pleasantly
greasy, accompanied by an unlabeled bottle of sweet-tart house wine.
The complete set-up at J.T. Basque
Restaurant (Gardnerville, NV)
the 1840s, when Basque immigrants arrived in the American West, they
came for the gold. But in the end, they stayed for the sheep. Having
found steadier work as shepherds — the Basque have a long tradition
of agrarianism in their tiny homeland in northern Spain and
southwest France — they spread out from California, mostly into
Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. They spent months alone in the scrubby
mountains and sagebrush plains, taking their sheep to towns like
Winnemucca and Elko, in Nevada, to sell them along the railroad
lines. Basque-run boardinghouses sprang up to accommodate the
shepherds, with rooms upstairs and a bar and dining room downstairs.
Some 300 dotted the western landscape at their height, says Pedro
Oiarzabal, a Basque scholar at the University of Nevada, Reno. But
over the years most Basques earned enough money to return home, and
today only a handful of the boardinghouses remain.
The real work of preserving Basque culture is now the domain of
clubs and festivals organized by the original shepherds’
descendants. And while the roadhouses no longer let rooms (‘‘but
there might be an upstairs,’’ Oiarzabal says), they still run
restaurants. These down-home joints in and around Reno — heading
east on Highway 80 — provide the last, best place to taste one of
the country’s singular culinary hybrids, the legacy of more than 150
years of shepherd-meets-cowboy rural cooking.
||The Santa Fe Hotel Basque
Restaurant in Reno, NV. Names like Santa Fe (per the
railroad) are common because many early Basque boarding houses
were situated alongside the railroad making it easier for new
Basque arrivals to find their new "home away from home."
I arrived in Reno, I headed to the Santa Fe Hotel, which sits on a
relatively neon-free block downtown. Rebuilt after a fire in 1948,
it’s an un-self-conscious time capsule: the bartender still uses the
old rotary telephone and cash register when not mixing the Picon
punches that are ordered by the round as soon as the doors open at 5
p.m. Family-style dining is a Basque boardinghouse tradition — ‘‘How
else to feed 200 hungry men at a time?’’ Oiarzabal says — so I was
seated between a trio of environmental workers and a
father-son-friend group. The initial awkwardness was cut by the fact
that the environmentalists were already on their second bottle of
wine. Soon enough, out came a big bowl of pasta soup in peppery beef
stock; red beans with thyme; garlicky iceberg salad; tender,
tomatoey oxtail stew; seafood paella; and French bread and butter,
all served on mismatched cafeteria ware. And those were the
||Dr. Pedro Oiarzabal.
When not opining on Basque cuisine, you can find him at work
exploring Basque identity at
EIKE (Euskalidentity Kultur Elkartea)
Basque restaurant, the only thing you order is your entree — usually
lamb or steak — and even then, there’s so much to go around.
Lomo (breaded pork cutlets with red peppers) and steak were plunked
down on the table, along with a pile of six double-cut lamb chops
that two of us had ordered. They were rare, meltingly fatty slabs
garnished with crispy garlic — by far the best lamb of the trip and,
at $22, the second most expensive thing on the all-inclusive menu
(after the 14-ounce rib-eye, for $24).
There are a handful of Basque restaurants on the shabby outskirts of
Winnemucca, one of the most significant Basque sheepherding
settlements in the 1870s because of its intersecting railroad lines.
In the 1950s, Interstate 80 went through downtown, bringing
tourists; but in the ’70s the Interstate was rerouted to bypass the
town, by then a ranching, mining and minor gambling depot, and
business withered. The Winnemucca Hotel, established in 1863, looked
to me as if it hadn’t been touched in more than a century: a
gorgeous carved-wood bar from the 1850s, sun-faded beer signs and
photos, a beautiful old-fashioned kitchen.
established in 1863
mood was party in the front, business in the rear — the bar seemed
like a great place to have a chorizo sandwich and get into trouble
with ranchers, while the dining room had a church-basement appeal,
with brown wainscoting, droopy ceiling tiles and mismatched chairs.
I befriended a road-tripping family over beefy onion soup, highly
satisfying paella, beans with cheese and tomato, and a platter
meat (half of us thought it was pork, half beef; we drew straws to
see who got to ask the combat-boot-wearing cook). It wasn’t the best
meal I had in Nevada, but like the too-sweet wine in the unmarked
bottle, it was a triumph of atmosphere.
It’s up for debate just how much America has eclipsed Basque Country
in these kitchens. Rebecca Moyle, who teaches history at the
University of California, Berkeley, and has eaten this food since
childhood, says, ‘‘Old-fashioned Basque places often serve you the
whole animal over the course of the meal — tripe and organs in the
soup, tallow and bacon in the beans, sometimes liver or even tongue.
But I’ve noticed over the last decade that fewer restaurants are
doing soups with the tripe or showing liver on the menu. And I
haven’t seen tongue for donkey’s years.’’ It’s true that for many
diners at Basque restaurants, culinary authenticity isn’t an issue.
These are as much local hangouts as tourist curiosities, and what
makes them uniquely popular are the few remaining elements of Basque
boardinghouse culture: huge platters, low prices and plenty of
The Star in Elko, NV
My last stop was Elko, a
cowboy town with a strong Basque community that is home to the
state’s largest annual Basque festival as well as the National
Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Only a few Basque restaurants remain, the
best of which is the Star Hotel, next to a house of ill repute.
Fridays are crowded with ranchers in their best hats and families
celebrating over lobster tail and Rioja. Not all of the seating is
families celebrating over lobster tail and Rioja. Not all of the
seating is family style, and the menu is more varied than in other
towns: chicken that’s been grilled and fried, mountain trout, pork
tenderloin and spaghetti with fries on the side. There’s also, of
course, lamb, garlic and Picon punch all around. The clientele may
not be Basque, but the spirit undoubtedly is. As Oiarzabal says of
his countrymen, ‘‘We always end up at the table.’’