Sunday, December 18, 2011

Basque In Bakersfield

Noriega's might be the most unlikely James Beard award winner ever. Deemed an "American Classic" by the esteemed New York organization, the Bakersfield, CA dining hall has been serving three meals a day (except Monday) since the late 1800's.
Before lunch is served at noon or dinner at 7pm, diners (and a few boarders who still call the Noriega hotel home) gather in the bar drinking house-made wine, cocktails and the Basque classic Picon punch (a combination of brandy, grenadine and bitter orange liquor) waiting to be called to one of 3 long, long tables. More than a dining hall, and not quite a restaurant Noriega's is essentially an elaborate dinner party orchestrated by co-owner Linda McCoy. Greeting friends and strangers with the same warm manner the proprietor sized up the crowd and seated her guests where she thought everyone would most enjoy the meal. "I'm going to put you next to someone interesting," she assured me and scooted me along to a table beside people she determined to be interesting conversationalists. She was right.
When you arrive at the table it's already laid with an assortment of sides; family style to be passed around and shared. You get to know you dining companions while passing bread and serving each other the light cabbage and pasta soup. For the first course the table was already groaning with pickled tongue, marinated carrots, beans (good in the soup), salad, Basque-style cottage cheese, and tangy blue cheese.
Noriega's make one menu a meal. Sunday evening brings hearty beef stew (more of a pot au feu or pot roast than anything I recognize as beef stew) and baked chicken with glistening, crispy skin.
Dishes just keep coming out: spaghetti with a Basque-syle, slightly sweet tomato sauce, cauliflower drenched in tangy mayonnaisey dressing, and delicious dark golden brown crisp french fries. I'm sure no one has ever left Noriega's hungry.
To be honest the food is good but maybe not great. But from the cheerful bar to the dark skinned thick eye-browed fellows speaking Basque at the end of the table the Bakersfield institution is by far the most fun and the most food you can have for $20.

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