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On the Road

On The Road: Basque Country Cooking—in California

Though it might seem out of place, Basque food is as comfortable in California as any other cuisine.
By Published Jan. 1, 2022

It's a relentless, searingly sunny 103 degrees in Bakersfield, California, so when I enter the Pyrenees Cafe through its heavy, red door, my eyes need a moment to adjust. When they do, I turn left, where a long bar carries the length of the room. On the right, black leather booths sit beneath windows stubbornly shuttered to keep out the heat. Deeper in, the dining room opens up to reveal the first good clue that this is a gathering place for the city's Basque community: long communal tables where patrons sit elbow to elbow.

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Though it might seem out of place, Basque food is as comfortable in California as any other cuisine. Immigrants from the Basque lands—primarily the Pyrenees Mountains separating Spain and France—flooded California during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century; when gold proved elusive, they turned to agriculture and shepherding in and around Bakersfield, which boasts one of the largest Basque populations in the United States.

A generous handful of Basque restaurants clusters around the Old Town Kern area, each offering takes on the garlicky, peppery, sharp, and soothing flavors of Basque cooking. The deep, earthy, vibrant fare, particularly that created by Pyrenees Cafe chef Gilbert Hernandez, stands firmly against the city's ever-present heat, which strikes like an uppercut from the wide, dusty streets.

After I finish off plates of garlic fried chicken, Basque-style green beans, cabbage and bean soup dotted with spicy salsa, thin slices of pickled veal tongue, and a glass or two of the chilled house wine, Pyrenees Cafe owners Rod and Julie Crawford invite me to share in the customary Basque dessert: vanilla ice cream doused with red wine.

Unusual, yes, but I can think of worse ways to end a meal.