With a fond, foggy-yet-also-vivid memory of the Before Times, my mind and notebook were recently taking me back to a trip I took in January of 2019. I ventured off to the unfairly maligned city of Bakersfield, on assignment to interview famed jazz vocalist Gregory Porter, but also with at least two other goals in mind: to help buck stereotypes and to pay homage to Buck … Owens, that is. The late country music star’s adopted hometown was dubbed “Nashville West” thanks to his legacy, which is memorialized in his Crystal Palace venue.
You can still dip into “Bakersfield sound” through displays at the Kern County Museum, where you learn that Buck actually followed his ex-wife Bonnie Campbell out west, where she later married Merle Haggard. The sprawling museum property even features the original “Haggard House,” a retooled and domesticated train car where that country star grew up.
But my biggest surprise was learning that Bakersfield is an unparalleled haven for Basque food and culture. Thanks to the influx of Basque immigrants to the area starting in the 19th century and the rise of sheepherding, it’s the largest Basque community beyond Basque country.
Memories of my enchanting visit to the Basque country of Northern Spain re-tickled my brain, where I snacked on elaborate small plate fancies known as pintxos, the Basque variation on Spanish tapas. I couldn’t find any pintxos in Bakersfield, but suddenly I was eating a “Lamb Philly” at the large, warming eatery and watering hole of the Basque restaurant/bar/hangout Pyrenees Café.
My plan to lunch at the well-known Basque cuisine destination of Noriega’s (founded 1893) — a shining jewel in a fairly desolate area down by the tracks and next to the Druids clubhouse — was foiled; one has to show up right at noon, for a group, family-style seating. Alas, Noriega’s goes back on the bucket list, but now in a new format: The Elizande family, which ran the storied place for 89 years, closed up shop during COVID times, and a new owner has taken over, but without a new location or opening date yet.
In these eateries, the concept of a full meal goes the extra mile. Dining at Wool Growers — aptly named for a restaurant not at all sheep-ish about its lamb offerings — became an adventure in serial eating. I ordered breaded veal as a main dish, but pre-entree plates kept coming: beans, soup, two salads (tomato and green), bread and salsa, pasta, a large bowl of corn, French fries, and the indigenous coup de grâce: a small plate of pickled tongue. My waitress suggested blending the tongue with other flavors, or as salad adornment, but I chose to allow its personal glory to emerge as a standalone delicacy.
Oh, and red wine flows in the house, according to Basque eating rules of order.
Apart from the Basque elements, there is more to life here than white-bread, transplanted-American Southern culture. Turning on local radio, you can soak in old (classic) and new (today’s) country music airwaves on KCWR, next to an Indian-Pakistani station, KWRU.
My whirlwind Bakersfield trip included gastronomic Americana at PorkChop & Bubba’s BBQ and stops at the impressively renovated Padre Hotel (built in 1928 and extensively revamped in 2010), and over to Eye Street to down a cool one at the inviting dive bar Guthrie’s Alley Cat (the city’s oldest bar), with dazzling neon signage and an interior mural by Al Hirschfeld.
I headed to the country-music-friendly Ethel’s Old Corral, which features a big, sentinel-like Native American statue out front waving howdy. On this slow Monday night, the featured event on the calendar was an arm-wrestling practice session outdoors on the patio.
Although deprived of much actual country music, I caught the Tuesday Night Jazz workshop at Temblor Brewing Co. (site of the 1920 vintage Bakersfield Brewing Co.). Next stop: checking out raw, salty-tongued comics and rappers on “open mic night” at Jerry’s Pizza & Pub, once a gigging site for the city’s own Korn.
Suffice to say, there are many fine reasons to consider stopping by or even staying over in this overlooked spot along the Interstate 5. All you gotta do is act naturally, and yes, go Basque.