In Bakersfield’s Old Town Kern neighborhood—also known as the Basque Block—you’ll find the largest concentration of Basque restaurants in the United States. Each dining hall has its specialties, but one fact unites them: Basque food is served in hearty, prodigious quantities.
Anywhere 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 lamb leg, 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 traveled 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, usually mixed with a bitter orange liqueur or sometimes maraschino cherry juice, and typically garnished with a 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 dinner house is one of Bakersfield’s most popular eateries, serving specialties like oxtail soup and perfectly crispy French fries. The bright-lit dining room with long trestle tables is boisterous and friendly, a contrast to the film-noir vibe at the Pyrenees Café on Sumner Street, two blocks 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 dining room walls are lined with black-and-white photos of Basque pioneers. The Pyrenees’ breakfast menu offers pleasant surprises: 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 setup, the Chalet serves a garlicky escargot you won’t find elsewhere. And far across town at Benji’s French-Basque Restaurant, patrons try to manage their calorie intake during the setup so they save room for dessert. Benji’s is more French than Spanish (frog’s legs are popular), but the big ticket is a dessert soufflé—chocolate, lemon, Grand Marnier, or raspberry. Order one when you choose your entrée so the wait 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.