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Saturday, Sep 29 2012 10:18 AM

The Food Issue: Basque country

By Allie Castro

If you’re from the area or visit often, you’ve probably enjoyed some delicious, authentic Basque food at one of the local restaurants. Or you may have become a regular, as that often happens at these places, where generations upon generations keep coming back to their favorite spot. But, perhaps you’re not as familiar with the stories of how these favorites came to be, and how they’ve weathered prohibition, new owners and even a ghost or two in their storied histories.

Here’s a brief history of some of Bakersfield’s beloved Basque restaurants:

Related Photos

Built in 1893, Noriega’s was orignally a boarding house.

The traditional set up at Noriega’s, with oxtail stew.

Wool Growers opened in 1954 and has become a local icon.

Pyrenees Cafe & Saloon opened in 1887 and is thought to be the oldest running saloon in Kern County.

Rack of lamb is a favorite at Benji’s.

Chalet Basque moved from Wasco to its present location on Oak Street in 1971.

The spacious banquet room at Chalet Basque.

Narducci’s Café has a colorful past.

Noriega’s
525 Sumner St.
Built in 1893, by Faustino Noriega and Fernando Etcheverry, this popular French Basque restaurant didn’t start out serving food; instead, it functioned as a boarding house. That didn’t last long, and the famed restaurant was soon opened. In 1931, French immigrants, Juan and Gracianna Elizalde, purchased the property and decided to leave the name as Noreiga’s.
Other than the addition of the credit card machine, and what is now the bar and dining room that were built around 1940, the restaurant prides itself on having remained exactly the same — still housing boarders, still serving delicious Basque food and still owned by the Elizalde family, with granddaughters Rochelle Ladd and Linda McCoy now at the helm. 
During the 1950s and 1960s, Noriega’s played host to the annual Basque dance, held after the Basque picnic. During the dance’s heyday, Wool Growers, Narducci’s, Pyrenees and Noriega’s were all within three blocks of each other, with revelers dancing in the street from one bar to the next.
Ladd recommends a traditional Basque Moscow mule made with vodka, ginger beer and lime juice, and the Saturday night oxtail stew, which is slow cooked for the finest quality.

Wool Growers Restaurant
620 E. 19th St.
J.B. and Mayie Maitia, who came here from the French Basque country, opened Wool Growers Restaurant in 1954. Prior to their successful establishment, both had worked at Noriega Hotel when they recognized there was a need for a Basque restaurant with longer hours since Noriega Hotel and other local Basque eateries only served one family-style meal at 6:30 p.m. For those who couldn’t make dinnertime, their Basque craving would have to wait another day. So Wool Growers, whose name honors the sheepherders who used to frequent the restaurant, first opened its doors during the hours that Noriega’s didn’t serve meals. The Basque restaurants with only one mealtime sent the stragglers to Wool Growers. 
Today, the restaurant is still family-owned and operated by Mayie with the help of her daughter, Jenny, and granddaughter, Christiane.
Mayie recommends the Picon punch — a Basque staple made of Picon liqueur, brandy, soda water and a lemon twist as an aperitif. For food, she suggests their oxtail stew or famous lamb.

Pyrenees Cafe & Saloon
601 Sumner St.
Pyrenees Cafe & Saloon used to be a one-stop shop. These days, the bakery is in a building around the corner (and is now a separate company), and what used to be an upstairs hotel for sheepherders is now rented out. However, from its opening in 1887 until 1935, this Spanish and French Basque standard had a bakery, saloon and hotel all under one roof before transitioning into the cafe-saloon it is now. The bar has been a continuous presence, and Pyrenees is considered the oldest running saloon in Kern County. It doesn’t take much to picture what the place looked like in its early years — stop in to see the original bar, barstools and foot railings.
Although Pyrenees is a family-friendly establishment now, current owner Randy Moore, said it has a surprisingly seedy past — it once hosted a brothel. And to this day, there are old cork barrels in the basement from the days of prohibition when Pyrenees made its own alcohol. There have also been spooky encounters reported by employees and patrons alike, including hearing a woman’s voice in the wee hours of the morning, to sightings of a woman in a red dress walking the dining room.
Try Pyrenees’ version of the traditional Picon punch and Chef Leo’s top-secret recipe: garlic fried chicken.

Benji’s French Basque Restaurant
4001 Rosedale Highway
One of the newer additions to the Bakersfield Basque scene, Benji’s French Basque is no less authentic and no less beloved than its older counterparts. After working in other restaurants in Bakersfield and San Francisco, Basque immigrants and brothers Benji and Rene Arduain decided to open their own restaurant here. So on Jan. 26, 1986, Benji’s opened the doors to its first location on Union Avenue, where they built up their following for six years before moving to Rosedale Highway in 1992. Rene has since died, but Benji continues to run the restaurant with five other family members.
While the rack of lamb with potatoes is legendary, make sure to save room for its renowned souffle. Benji’s also serves frog legs and has become famous for its outstanding sauces.

Chalet Basque Restaurant
200 Oak St.
Bakersfield landmark Chalet Basque opened in 1969, but not in Bakersfield. Original owners and immigrants from the French Basque country, J.B. and Marie Curutchague, first opened the restaurant in Wasco before moving to Oak Street in Bakersfield in 1971. While the restaurant first functioned out of a 50-by-50 foot building, its devoted following called for an expansion into the 6,500 feet it now occupies.
After retiring in 2006, the restaurant changed ownership and is now owned and operated by “Just Lisa,” as she prefers to be known, along with the loyal staff she inherited from the previous owners. That includes Chef Mario Perez, who has been with Chalet for more than three decades. The restaurant remains the same — other than remodels to the bathroom, patio, bar and banquet room — as when J.B. and Marie first opened up shop.
Try the blackberry filet mignon, a 12- to 14-ounce steak with a sauce comprised of blackberries sauteed with brandy and cream sauce. Top it off with a Chalet specialty drink — the Hurricane — made of three kinds of rum, pineapple and cranberry juices.

Narducci’s Café
622 E. 21st St.
Though exact dates are unknown, the establishment got its start around the turn of the century as the Cesmat Hotel, built by French immigrant Marius Cesmat. The building was eventually bought by Francisco Amestoy, who renamed it the Amestoy Hotel, and began serving French and Basque food there. While the building was still known as the Amestoy Hotel, President William McKinley is said to have spoken from the balcony of his room. Eventually, the hotel and restaurant were purchased by Marino Narducci in 1967, and has remained in Narducci’s hands ever since, with son Jimmy taking over in 1977, and co-owner Julie Shine joining the team in 2005.
Like Pyrenees, Narducci’s has an interesting past. Though it was complicit during prohibition (the hotel even went so far as to remove the original bar, replacing it when prohibition was repealed), Narducci’s was rumored to host prostitutes. Another legend has it that former owner Cesmat was shot on Baker Street.
Try Thursday night’s popular $10 steak, or pickled tongue made with a special Italian dressing-style marinade.

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