I travel a lot and eat alone by myself too often. When you get to a certain point of time on the road, you start looking for what you know. All too often, this devolves into some chain restaurant that’s at least predictable (Chili’s, Applebees, whatever). It’s pretty boring after awhile. So I try to eat local. The problem with local is, unless you get a great recommendation, it can be pretty uneven.
But it’s still worth the effort. I was reminded of this last week when I was in Gardnerville, Nevada, driving around at supper time, looking at a full array of national chains. I didn’t want one more Oriental chicken salad. There was a Thai restaurant – usually a pretty good choice. But it was a choice I’d made a half dozen times in the last two weeks. Thai is local, I guess, but I wanted something else.
Driving through the town, the sky darkening, my stomach grumbling, I saw a Basque restaurant – J.T. Basque Bar and Grille. Definitely local (a national chain of Basque restaurants? – not this time around on the planet) You can find them in small towns throughout the mountain West – those Basque shepherds showed up and stayed and are a pretty crusty lot. And they brought their food and culture with them. Hoping for the best, afraid of the worst, I pulled into the parking lot. When I peeked in the window, I saw people at a dozen tables. That’s a good sign for a small town – especially on a Monday night. Once you walk into a restaurant, it’s hard to walk out, but I needed to eat and was committed. I didn’t have a cowboy hat to pull down over my eyes (reminding me of a Gary Snyder poem), but I hitched up my pants and walked in.
If you don’t know about Basque restaurants, here’s the deal – it’s working people’s food, and there’s a lot of it. You pay a fixed price and they start to bring you plates of stuff. It’s all served family style, which means they put one big platter of food on the table after another and everyone serves themselves. If you need more, they’ll bring you some. Up until last week, I’d only eaten at Basque restaurants with large groups of people, and midway through the meal, there were about thirty plates of food on the table with no end in sight. Now it was just my lonesome.
It’s peasant food. Bean soup. Potatoes (lotsa potatoes). More beans. Some salad. Some rice dish with some kind of meat – like paella, I guess. And then, meat. Lamb. Or mutton (when was the last time you had mutton?) Or cowboy steaks. Or pork chops. I think maybe some kind of tripe or something unidentifiable. Some more potatoes, probably more beans and dessert, too.
Wine is included in the meal. It comes in an opened beer bottle. Hmm. Drawn from some cask in the basement. Cheap red wine and more where it came from, if you need it. I was reminded of a time when I was in Italy and bought wine from a corner store – the store owner filled a recycled two liter plastic Coke bottle from a cask with a nozzle from a gas pump. Shut the pump off at 10,000 lira, willya? We’re not talking Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild.
There at the Basque restaurant, I wanted to just sit at the bar so I could watch the football game, but if I was going to eat, I was directed to the dining room.
I was wondering if I was going to get the same family style service since it was just me. Maybe there would be small plates of everything.
Nope. The whole enchilada, so to speak.
Once I ordered the main course (sirloin steak – I skipped the lamb and mutton, and apologized to the vegetarian side of me that was offered the main course of vegetables) the plates started arriving. A whole tureen of bean soup. Really good bean soup, by the way. I stopped at two bowls. A platter of house salad. The recycled beer bottle of mountain wine. I looked around to see if there was anyone to share the food with, but they were all busy with their own cornucopia. The paella (or whatever Basques call it) was spicy and good – comfort food from the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula. I tried to save room for the steak, but I wouldn’t have eaten it all even if that was all I ordered. It was a big piece.
This isn’t me, but it sure looks like my table.
The music on the house system was Basque. Accordions and guitars and clear, impassioned, untrained, unprocessed voices. I had no idea what they were saying, and I loved it. Something about sheep, maybe?
I was somewhere else. This is Nevada? This is the good ol’ USA? I was at home somewhere else.
I say this because my favorite local restaurants are a couple of Portuguese places in East Providence, Rhode Island, close to home. It’s peasant food (a little more fish on the menu) with no pretense. Cheap Iberian wine. Open on Monday nights with fado music (Portuguese music of unrequited love) – when I go on those nights (or almost anytime) I’m the only one that doesn’t speak Portuguese. The waitress smiles and yells at me. I feel lucky to be there.
That’s what the Basque restaurant felt like to me. I asked the manager about the music playing, and he wrote down the names of the musicians – there were a lot of “x”’s in it. He said it’s usually busier, and someone often brings an accordion in – a customer – and wanders around the room singing. We talked for a while and he told me about the family that owned the place, and where he came from (LA – wouldn’t you know?).
I left full. And not so lonely.
Better than Applebee’s for sure.
Here’s to the Basques and local food. And wine in beer bottles.
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