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Bakersfield’s Basque Food Culture
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Bakersfield’s Basque Food Culture

California's Central Valley
Bakersfield’s Basque Food Culture
Where to find—and how to eat—the unique European cuisine in Bakersfield

The 1893 Noriega Hotel is the oldest and most famous of the Central Valley’s Basque eateries, but it has plenty of friendly competition in Bakersfield’s Old Town Kern neighbourhood—also known as the Basque Block. Here, in the largest concentration of Basque restaurants in the United States, each dining hall has its specialities, but one fact unites them: Basque food is served in hearty, prodigious quantities.

Wherever you go, you’ll be served a similar 'setup', as it’s called—sourdough bread, cabbage soup, beans, salsa, boiled vegetables, pickled tongue and spaghetti. It all needs to be consumed before the main course, which might be roasted leg of lamb, beef or oxtail stew, or fried chicken. It’s a monumental task for even the biggest eaters, but Central Valley Basque food has been served this way since the mid-1800s, when many Basque people travelled from their homeland between Spain and France to seek their fortunes in California’s Gold Rush.

If you’re not that hungry, just sit at the bar and order a Picon Punch—the customary Basque brandy-and-grenadine highball, which is usually mixed with a bitter orange liqueur or sometimes maraschino cherry juice, and is typically garnished with lemon peel. The cocktail miraculously straddles the narrow line between tart and sweet.

Start your exploration of Basque food culture at the Wool Growers Restaurant on 19th Street, clearly marked by a neon sheep sign. The no-frills 1950s' eatery is one of Bakersfield’s most popular restaurants, serving specialities such as oxtail soup and perfectly crispy French fries. The brightly lit dining room with long trestle tables is boisterous and friendly, a complete contrast to the film-noir vibe at the Pyrenees Café on Sumner Street, two streets away. The Pyrenees’ dark wood bar, vinyl booths, throbbing jukebox and neon Budweiser sign attract motorcycle clubs, indie bands and Basque old-timers alike. Its walls are lined with black-and-white photos of Basque pioneers. ThePyrenees’ breakfast menu offers pleasant surprises though: nab a seat at one of the outdoor patio tables and order the bacon-stuffed pancakes.  

Right next to the 99 freeway, and surrounded by graceful queen palms, the Chalet Basque Restaurant has small tables and booths in lieu of family-style trestle tables—more appropriate for date night—but everything else is traditional Basque. In addition to the multi-course set-up, the Chalet serves a garlicky escargot dish that you won’t find elsewhere. And on the other side of town, at Benji’s French-Basque Restaurant, patrons try to manage their calorie intake during the set-up so that they can save room for dessert. Benji’s is more French than Spanish (frog’s legs are popular), but the big attraction is the dessert soufflés—chocolate, lemon, Grand Marnier or raspberry. Order one when you order your main course so that the waiting staff can time its delivery. Due to its delicate architecture, your soufflé must be served at the precise moment it comes out of the oven. 

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The rapidly growing city of Bakersfield, in California’s southern Central Valley, is full of pleasant surprises. Once known only for oil and agriculture, Bakersfield—or Bako, as the locals affectionately call it—has become a Central Valley hub for arts and culture while still retaining the richness of the region’s past. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants, including the 125-year-old Noriega Hotel, upholds the area’s Basque heritage with boarding-house-style meals of oxtail soup and a myriad side dishes (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees herded sheep and planted orchards here in the late 1800s).

Fast-forward to Bakersfield’s citified attractions, including the gallery-filled Arts District, home to the 1930 Fox Theater, where performances range from pop music to film noir, and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the place to hear the Bakersfield Sound, a gritty style of country western music. Find out more about hardscrabble musical pioneers like Owens and Merle Haggard with a visit to the Kern County Museum, a collection of 56 historic buildings spread out among grassy lawns. You’ll also get a lesson in California’s oil industry: Kern County’s wells pump 70 percent of the state’s “black gold.” Afterward, shop for vintage finds at Bakersfield’s Antique Row, then pop over to the swanky Padre Hotel for a cocktail on the rooftop lounge.

There’s plenty of nature to be had around Bakersfield, too. Wildflowers blanket the local grasslands and nearby Tehachapi Range in spring. See them in March and April at the 93,000-acre Wind Wolves Preserve, the West Coast’s largest nonprofit nature preserve. At any time of year, these vast grasslands are a haven for wildlife and an inspiring place to take a hike or pedal your mountain bike.