Reno is a rather unlikely place to find one of the few remaining Basque restaurants in the western United States. The Santa Fe Hotel is located in beautiful downtown Reno, directly behind Harrah’s at 235 Lake Street. I once took a group of clients here for dinner as part of a user group meeting. Very few of them knew what to expect, and even fewer enjoyed the experience. I think most clients expect a big steak and lots of expensive Cabernet. Not this time!
Most people do not know much about the Basque people or their heritage in America. Let me provide some background. The Basque region is located in the Pyrenees Mountains, between Spain and France. Even the rather boring and pedantic Rick Steves likes the Basque region. In Spanish, it is called Pais Vasco. It stretches a mere 100 miles between Bilboa, Spain, and north to Bayonne, France, on the Atlantic coast.
The autonomous Basque community consists of three regions, Alava, Biscay, and Gipuzkoa. Under Spain’s present constitution, present day Basque is called Navarre. There over 2 million people living in the traditional Basque region. The official languages are Basque and Spanish. As the Basque have migrated, they have spread world-wide. In the US, the main Basque regions are Boise, Idaho, Reno, Elko, and the three San Joaquin Valley communities of Bakersfield, Fresno, and Stockton. Most people are familiar with the Wool Grower’s Inns, located in these three Valley towns.
The typical Basque cuisine consists of lamb, beef, and fish grilled over hot coals. Add to that, bean dishes, pasta, salad, cheeses, and some tapas. The meals are often served with apple cider, and sparkling win. The table serving are almost always family style, with large bowls of each course or dish. Txakoli is a sparkling dry white wine, also grown in Chile. A typical aperitif is Pecon Punch, made from grenadine, Amer picon orange bitters, soda, brandy and ice. A few of those can pack a wallop!
But this is not a fancy cuisine, rather it is a very hearty and filling meal. Often times, the remaining Basque farmers arrive in the dining halls to have their big meal of the day. Large portions, and lots of cheap house wine are the order of the day. On a Friday or Saturday night, some dancing or Basque music will rear its head. We often had lunch or dinner at the old Wool Grower’s Inn in Stockton when I was going to school. For the volume of food, it was a great bargain for voracious, though poor university students.
According to the 2000 census, there are about 60,000 people of Basque origin in the US, with most living in California. Most of the sheepherders in California during the Gold Rush days were Basque. Basque clubs are also commonplace in the US with over fifty spread across the country.
Famous Basque people:
David Archuleta (American Idol fame)
John Garamendi (past Lt. Governor of California)
Jimmy Huega (Olympic skier)
Ted Williams (Former Red Sox hitting great and Hall of Famer)
Jedediah Smith (early Western US explorer)
Paul Laxalt (former Governor and US Senator)
John Arrillaga (Silicon Valley businessman and philanthropist)