The Basque region of Northeastern Spain (extending across the border into France) has acquired a reputation as a culinary mecca. Long a destination for their unique approach to Tapas, in the 1980’s and 90’s, molecular gastronomy got its start in this coastal region centered in the town of San Sebastian where seafood is king.
But the Basque diaspora in the U.S occupies a much different niche in the food chain. Basque immigrants to the U.S. in the mid-18th century traveled West seeking gold but soon gravitated toward their traditional occupation of sheepherding. A Basque cuisine designed to feed hungry shepherds in crowded boarding houses developed in places like Boise, Reno, and Bakersfield CA. Descendants of these shepherds still serve their food to a local population that craves these splendid rustic feasts that feature wave upon wave of home-style dishes often served family style at long tables and washed down with simple table wine or Picon Punch.
Like any diaspora in the U.S, it has had to adapt to American ingredients and tastes. You won’t find anything resembling pinxos or bacalao. It’s all about large quantities and low prices—how American. But it is a unique and worthy experience nevertheless when you take if for what it is—grub that poor working men far from home would crave on a payday.
Bakersfield is a natural stopping place between Southern and Northern California so on my recent trek to the North I sampled two Basque restaurants in this city of oil fields and country music legends—Benji’s and Woolgrowers, both with roots in the French Basque region. The meal begins with a “set-up”, a vegetable soup featuring cabbage, served with pink beans, a spicy tomato salsa and plenty of dense French bread. By themselves, these dishes are unremarkable but mix the beans and salsa with the soup and you have a dish with texture and flavor. Next comes lettuce and a plate of cut up tomatoes, both in a vinaigrette, accompanied by one of the signature dishes of this cuisine—pickled tongue, thin slices of cold tongue dressed with oil, vinegar and herbs. Fans of cold, French, tripe-based sausages such as Andouille will enjoy this. They throw in an ordinary dish of desultory spaghetti just to make sure you’re properly stuffed before the entrée arrives.
The entrée is the only part of the meal one orders. Selections include fried or grilled chicken, steak or roast beef, sliced leg of lamb, chops, or fish each served with a flavorful sauce or copious amounts of garlic. Many dishes feature the Basque tomato sauce (piperade), a stew of tomatoes, onions, and green pepper. I ordered more exotic dishes—frog legs in a lemon/garlic sauce and oxtail stew. The waitstaff will then slap down plates of forgettable green beans (canned as far as I could tell), rice, and irresistible French fries permeated with the slightly sweet flavor of lard for the table to share.
There were a few desserts on the menu—mostly cheese—but I doubt that many indulge.
You will not come away impressed by the subtlety, elegance or innovation of this cuisine but you get a meal with hearty flavors, lots of it, a better understanding of diasporic cooking, and the convivial atmosphere of a large family gathering, for $20-$30.
So who wins the battle of the Basques—Benji’s or Woolgrowers? They have similar menus, cooking styles, and service. I enjoyed my frog legs at Benji’s and the salad was lighter and less saturated with dressing, but in general Woolgrowers does a better job of execution—sauces have more flavor, fried foods are crisper, and steaks and chicken were done to perfection.
Make reservations. These restaurants are popular.