In France and Spain, which split the mountainous Basque country between them, the Basques are known as craftsmen, sheep ranchers and fine cooks. The Basque culinary tradition lives here in California, too, in farm communities such as Bakersfield and Los Banos.
You won't find famous Basque dishes such as clams and chorizo or the pepper omelet piperade in our Basque restaurants, though. They specialize in multi-course meals of American food with a few old-country touches, always served family-style, at shared tables.
You can experience this at the Noriega Hotel, a venerable Bakersfield institution, founded in 1893, which has belonged to the Elizalde family for the last 70 years. Until recently, it functioned as a boarding house for immigrant Basque shepherds.
It's located in a dusty section of East Bakersfield, next to an abandoned jai alai court. You enter the dining room through a faded old bar that still serves as a center of the local Basque community.
On a recent Sunday, the bar was elbow-to-elbow with about 80 people waiting, aperitifs in hand, for the dinner seating, which is at 7 p.m. sharp. Parties are called into the dining room one by one and led to their assigned places at three long tables. We sat next to a woman who appeared to know everybody at our table (except us), all the way to the end.
The tablecloths are red-and-black-checked oilcloth, set with loaves of crusty white bread, wine in recycled bottles, a piquant tomato and red onion salad, mixed greens in vinaigrette dressing, noodle soup ( sopa de fideos ), lightly herbed cottage cheese, beans, salsa and pickled tongue, sliced gloriously thin. There never seems to be enough of that tongue.
Dinner, which changes nightly, always consists of two entrees and several side dishes. On Wednesdays, which locals say is one of the best nights to come, there is roast leg of lamb and prime rib. On Fridays, it's leg of lamb and either beef stew or a Basque omelet laden with homemade sausage. Saturday is the night for oxtail stew and fried chicken. On Sunday, it's beef stew and baked chicken.
Soon our waitress, Bernadette, gave the signal to begin and we dived in. The soup was a ruddy, beefy broth thick with wispy egg noodles, and I ended up eating it the way the regulars were doing, by adding some of the beans and salsa that are on the table. I scooped up slices of tongue and ate them with the bread. Then I tried the greens, tomatoes and cottage cheese--all terrific--and washed everything down with thimbles of the unpretentious but quite palatable house wine.
Then came a platter of pasta with red sauce, topped with melted cheese. That was followed by gargantuan chunks of extremely tender braised beef stew, mingling with halved potatoes and big chunks of carrot.
As you can see, this isn't the sort of short-order food restaurants prefer to serve, but the kind of dinner that would be served in many a rural home on Sunday. It tastes as if it has been cooking all day.
The next course was simply a plate of crisp French fries, followed by a platter of utterly tender baked chicken, fragrant with herbs. Most people at the table were sated by now, but the meal continued.
Then there's a cheese course. The hotel is famous, around Bakersfield at least, for its homemade bleu cheese, which is about the creamiest I've ever tasted. There's a dessert course, which on Sunday turned out to be an especially rich flan and plates of peppermint chocolate chip ice cream. Only the die-hards still had appetites for the ice cream.
Noriega Hotel serves three meals a day. The hearty breakfast is omelets, potatoes, Basque sausage, salsa, bread, Jack cheese and either wine or coffee. Lunch is sort of an abbreviated version of dinner: a couple of entrees--say, liver and onions plus a veal cutlet on Wednesdays, or clam chowder and red snapper on Fridays--plus about half of the starters and side dishes served at dinner.
But whenever you dine here, you'll see the old boys in the bar speaking their unique tongue, unrelated to any language in the world, being served an inexpensive, filling meal in the dining hall, and you'll leave with the sense of what an amazing treasure trove of cultures our state is.
Noriega Hotel, 525 Sumner St., Bakersfield. (661) 322-8419, (661) 322-8420. Breakfast, Tuesday-Sunday, 7-9 a.m.; lunch, Tuesday-Sunday, noon; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday, 7 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Breakfast for one, $8; lunch, $9; dinner, $15.