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Basque in Bakersfield 

Communal dining at the Noriega Hotel

Thursday, Feb 17 2011
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I have been accused of overpraising Bakersfield, and perhaps it is true. Dewar's, across the street from Bakersfield High School, is still the best old soda fountain in the state, and even if it didn't make the world's best nut chews — little Tootsie Rolls of taffy stuffed with crunchy, salty almonds — I would still go there for the thrill of seeing the counterwomen tamping the ice cream into sundae goblets in a way that makes the marshmallow crème spurt out the sides. Luigi's may not be the oldest surviving Italian restaurant in the western United States, but it feels as if it is, and the platters of pasta and beans, the Saturday-only burgers on toast and the homemade spumoni are straight out of 1906. The Arizona Café features a style of California-Mexican cooking that feels a century old.

You have to get a loaf of old-fashioned French bread at the Pyrenees Bakery, not because it's better than what you find at Maison du Pain or Eagle Rock Italian Bakery, but because you're going to need some of it to feed the ducks by the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

You're going to stop by the bar at the Pyrenees for a Picon punch, a kind of swizzle flavored with a replica of French burnt-orange bitters, and you won't complain when the bartender gets a little heavy-handed with the soda gun.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - You don't have to be a shepherd to enjoy a traditional communal Basque shepherd's meal at Bakersfield's Noriega Hotel.
  • PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN
  • You don't have to be a shepherd to enjoy a traditional communal Basque shepherd's meal at Bakersfield's Noriega Hotel.

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You might stop at the Great American Antiques mall, which isn't cheap exactly, but may be the only place to go if you need a dozen chromed toasters from the 1930s or a really big Victorian stained-glass window.

You'll swing by Dewar's again because you've eaten all the nut chews, and you contemplate trying to buy the Bakersfield Drillers shirt off the guy standing next to you in line.

When I worked at the L.A. Times in the 1990s, my fondest desire was to get Bakersfield on the cover of the travel section, for just one week to replace the Rhine castles and Parisian cityscapes with a picture of the Bakersfield sign that then arched over Union Avenue, and it was a proud day when I succeeded, although I think the editors at the Bakersfield Californian thought I was making fun of them. (The unfortunate headline was "Achy Breaky Bakersfield.") I wasn't.

Bakersfield, a scant two hours away, offers the not-inconsiderable pleasure of being in a place that is neither Los Angeles nor part of greater Los Angeles, a town that is thoroughly Californian but can also feel a lot like the good parts of Oklahoma. It's the home of the Bakersfield Sound, the Merle Haggard/Buck Owen/Rose Maddox thing that brought a bit of grit back to country music, and without it the radio now would probably sound even more like Taylor Swift.

But mostly, at least for me, there is the old-fashioned cooking at one of the city's Basque dining halls, huge, multicourse feasts originally intended for the Basque shepherds staying at the local boardinghouses. They have become so popular that the few sheep men who show up are treated like local celebrities.

If you are sitting down at a long, oilcloth-covered table and there is a tin bowl of beans in front of you, a tureen of thin vegetable soup and a bowl of mild tomato salsa, you know you're at a Basque restaurant even without looking at the maps, the paintings of sheep-protecting dogs and the reservation books in which Echeverria is a more common name than Smith.

You may have heard of the exquisite cookery of the Basque country, the elaborate seafood tapas in San Sebastián bars, the delicate shellfish, the men-only dining clubs, the elegant restaurants to which Michelin cannot dole out stars quickly enough. This isn't that: It's the plain, long-cooked, garlicky cooking of the American Basque diaspora, a cuisine whose other capital, oddly enough, may be Winnemucca.

If you have remembered to reserve, and it is noon or 7 o'clock exactly, you may be finishing your Picon punch and filing into the long dining room of the Noriega Hotel, a former boardinghouse in a dusty section of town out by the train tracks. It is best to arrive hungry. And they are speaking Basque at the bar.

The meals, set-price affairs, are communal, which means you are going to be passing the pepper to the dude next to you, and you are going to eat the same thing as everybody else. There is that cabbage soup, the beans with which you thicken it, salsa and bread; a bottle of cool, utility-grade red wine is included. If it is dinnertime, you will be offered slices of marinated tongue and maybe a spoonful of cottage cheese lightened with mayonnaise, which may be sort of an acquired taste; if lunch, a slab of blue cheese. There will be a lettuce salad, nothing fancy.

The menu up to this point is called the "set-up," and some restaurants, although not Noriega, will let you stop here, the point at which the meal (except for the tongue) is still vegetarian. The rest of the meal depends on the day at Noriega: If you come on a Saturday night, there will be oxtail stew, spaghetti in tomato sauce and, finally, a platter of fried chicken with french fries. (Unless you are 7, you probably won't be offered dessert.) I'm fond of Thursdays, which substitute beef stew and garlicky, impossibly crisp baked spare ribs. At lunch last Saturday, the mountain of beef stew was supplemented by an Alp of lamb stew. At Wednesday lunch, featuring liver and brisket, children are rarely in attendance.

Then a scoop of ice cream, unless you're planning on making a third visit to Dewar's. And you're ready for the long drive home

NORIEGA HOTEL | 525 Sumner Ave., Bakersfield | (661) 322-8419, noriegahotel.com | Lunch Tues.-Sun., noon sharp, dinner Tues.-Sun., 7 p.m. sharp | All major credit cards accepted | Full bar | Plentiful street parking | Lunch $14, dinner $20, including wine or coffee.

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