Bakersfield, California has a robust scene of old Basque restaurants. Unlike what you’ll eat in Bilbao, this Basque food is the American version, preserved over the last century in Bakersfield, Northern Nevada, and a handful of Basque dining halls through the West. Noriega’s is the oldest in town.
Basque-American meals boast a plethora of dishes. At Noriega’s, dinner comes with about a dozen. Every day of the week brings new meat centerpieces. Plates are passed around, and you take as much as you can eat. Unlimited, unlabeled mystery red wine is left in bottles on the tables to wash it down.
When your party’s name is called for the dinner seating, you will be placed somewhere on a long table, perhaps next to strangers. Learn their name, as you will be asking them to pass a dish your way. Many diners have eaten here before, some will be once-a-week regulars. There are a couple of Spanish fellows that still live in the boarding house and eat all of their meals here. If you really want the scoop, ask someone at the table about their favorite parts of the meal.
I learned from a neighbor who had been eating here since childhood that the light cabbage-based soup tasted good with a tablespoon of earthy pinto beans and a teaspoon of spicy table salsa mixed in. Another trick she taught me was to make a canapé with fluffy french bread topped with pungent bleu cheese, salsa, and everyone’s favorite part of the meal, pickled tongue. All of the area’s Basque restaurants serve tongue, but it’s pickled only at Noriega’s. It is very thinly sliced, spoon tender, tasting of punchy vinegar and the lingering flavor of pickling spices: a delicate appetizer that prepares you for the feast to come.
First, fried potatoes and a red sauce spaghetti. Regulars covet the fries. They get snatched up quickly, but, like anything else, more can be requested from the kitchen. The spaghetti is is a weak link: cafeteria-grade stuff. Main dishes change every night. We went on a Thursday, which is fried chicken and spareribs night. Both are good, but we prefer the garlic fried chicken, which is tasty enough to turn us into “Thursday people.”
Some like Tuesdays and Wednesdays, because that’s when steak is the entree. The hostess, who grew up around the hotel, recommended Saturday for its raucous weekend energy and oxtail stew. Regulars agree that breakfast is tasty, an excellent value, and a perfect excuse to drink half a bottle of red wine before 9AM.