We had a reservation for the 7 PM seating at Noriega Hotel, Bakersfield’s most famous Basque restaurant, and were warned not to arrive late, since they wouldn’t seat us. We left Los Angeles at 4:30 PM, seemingly leaving plenty of time to make the 100-mile drive. Unfortunately, since it was the Friday before Memorial Day, get-out-of-town day, the 5 North was a parking lot. Thankfully, traffic shook loose near Valencia and we reached Noriega Hotel at 6:56 PM. Phew.
According to the menu, The Noriega Hotel was founded in 1893 by Faustino Noriega. Juan and Gracianna Elizalde took over in 1931 and it’s been in the family ever since. In 1940, the hotel expanded to include the present bar and dining room. In Basque, the establishment is known as Eskualdunen Etchea (The Basque People’s House).
There’s breakfast at Noriega Hotel from 7 AM – 9 AM, which features the agonizing decision: wine or coffee? Most people turn out for the noon lunch or the 7 PM dinner seatings. Reservations are a good idea. People congregated in the bar, waiting for their names to be called. Oddly, a handball court was attached to the bar. The owner informed us that Europeans have been known to visit and put on jai alai exhibitions in the court. No, “jai alai” isn’t just a word used in crossword puzzles, as evidenced by the cestas (basket-gloves) mounted on the bar walls.
To fill the four minute gap between our arrival and seating, I ordered a famous Basque beverage: picon punch ($3.25). The bartender described the drink as “Basque people’s martini,” meant as a pre-dinner drink. Picon punch contains Torani brand Amer, grenadine “for sweetness,” and brandy on top.
At Noriega Hotel, dining is family style, creating opportunities to meet interesting locals like Errol, who’s been eating at Noriega Hotel for forty years, and fellow gastronauts like Cameron, Patrick and Chet, buddies from L.A. who were on their way to Kings Canyon.
For a flat fee of $19, including tax, we received a ridiculous amount of food. When we arrived at our seats, we were already faced with a big basket of crusty bread, a bottle of house red wine, and a bowl of salad dressed with vinaigrette…
Noriega Hotel offers different twin dinner entrees each day of the week. On Tuesday: chicken cacciatore and steak. Wednesday: lamb stew and prime rib. Thursday: beef stew and spare ribs. Saturday: oxtail stew and fried chicken. Sunday: beef stew and beef chicken. Our first entree: juicy beef stew.
Dessert consisted of a single scoop of chocolate chip ice cream. Our waitress admitted it wasn’t made in house, but it still tasted good, with shards of chocolate instead of whole chips. Errol predicted that the ice cream was produced at Dewar’s Candy Shop, our next stop.
I haven’t eaten much Basque food, but after Noriega Hotel, I can see the appeal of the cuisine of the mountainous region that straddles the borders of Spain and France. Since there’s a relatively large Basque population in Bakersfield, I look forward to sampling some of the other Basque restaurants in the city. If I can keep myself from Noriega Hotel.