Take a chance and Basque in the rewards

Robert Mullen, Reporter

One of the best things about Bakersfield is our food. There aren’t many places in America where you get such a huge mix of cuisine. American dinners, taco shacks and Mexican restaurants of course; but there’s also all manner of Asian restaurants, even Mediterranean and quite a few fantastic Italian joints.

However, what sets us apart from most places is something that is very uniquely ours, and that is Basque food.

Benji’s, Noriega’s, Narduccis, Wool Growers, the Pyrenees Café, Sandrini’s, very few cities can boast this number of fantastic restaurants, and all are a part of the cultural history of Bakersfield.

Problem is, a lot of people here in town and the surrounding satellites don’t actually know about these places, or else they’ve never had the chance to eat at one. If you live in Kern County and you haven’t tried Basque, then you really aren’t living.

Whether it’s a more formal and traditional sit-down evening at Benji’s, or the crowded banquet hall feel of Noriega’s or Wool Grower’s, one thing no good Basque restaurant can do without is atmosphere.

If you’re looking for a quiet and romantic evening you won’t find it at these places. They’re designed to be vibrant, bustling, energetic, and welcoming. Servers are constantly going to and fro with baskets, bowls, and plates of food, and because it’s almost always family style, depending on where you sit, you’ll be passing over food just as often as you’ll eat it. Instead of feeling overwhelmed you’ll be drawn in to the atmosphere; heck, you might just strike up a conversation with the strangers sitting around you.

Of course you can’t forget about the food. Almost all Basque places serve the same set up, and usually this is all you’ll need to stuff yourself silly. Fresh French bread (apply butter), a delicious vegetable soup (which you must mix with the beans and salsa), a salad in a vinaigrette dressing, tomatoes and onions, green beans in butter, French fries, spaghetti, and of course the pickled tongue (try it at least once, I’ve always felt it tastes a little like roast beef). If that doesn’t seem enough to fill you, then grab one of the entrees and feast till Thanksgiving gets jealous. I recommend any lamb dishes, as the Basque are one of the few to perfect the art of cooking it, but beef and pasta won’t be lacking either.

Most of these restaurants have a bar, and it’s usually worth it to get there early to have a drink or two in the waiting area. These places are usually family owned, and it’s interesting to watch old timers (of which there are plenty) strike up conversations about old Bakersfield with each other, the owners, or the bartenders.

As far as recommendations go, to truly enjoy this unique experience I’d say go in a group of at least four, preferably with something to celebrate like a birthday, a promotion, an award, or even just finally getting out that stubborn piece of corn wedged in the molars. Make sure you sit in the banquet rooms if you can, and even if you’re stuffed, a rainbow sherbet pallet cleanser helps.

While not all of these restaurants are still owned by Basque families, the history, atmosphere, and of course food, make this a critical part of the unique Bakersfield experience.