Forget what you think you know. That should be the first rule of travel. I always believed that it wasn’t worth stopping for food while driving along Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, outside of the occasional Buttonwillow pupusa or Kettleman City In-N-Out burger. However, on my most recent trip north, I couldn’t help but wonder and scoured out-of-date Chowhound message boards, Yelp, and forums with names rarely uttered aloud. What I learned is that Los Baños, a town that isn’t far from the turnoff to Route 152, houses a Basque restaurant called Wool Growers that’s endured for decades.
A red white and blue sign befitting France, which helps frame Basque country with Spain, sports a bota bag and a neon martini glass.
The main room features red and white checked tablecloths, a stuffed pheasant on one wall, jai alai canasta on the other, and a cacophony of clacking silverware and talking in between.
Nicole was our server. Her parents Gabriel and Colette Iturbide run the kitchen. Uncle Michel Iturbide runs the bar with wife Jeanine. Nicole’s family bought the building in 1974, and they eventually shut down the upstairs boarding house, focusing strictly on food and drink.
A sign in front shared some history: “Built in the 1890’s, this establishment has served the community continuously for over 100 years. Early on, it was a way station for immigrants and travelers alike. Having a restaurant and rooms upstairs, it was a welcome sight for passengers from the nearby train depot. It was also a “safe haven” for people emigrating from Europe, looking for a hot meal and a warm bed. They all found this and more at the Woolgrowers.”
Lunch at Wool Growers costs $16 per person and includes bread and butter, sides, cool red wine, and depending on the day, a combination of either lamb chops, pork chops, tri-tip or chicken.
Crisp iceberg lettuce salad touted an Italian/1000 Island dressing hybrid.
Wool Growers gave me hope that other freeway-friendly dining options do exist in California’s San Joaquin Valley. From now on, I’ll be searching the region’s back-roads for more scores.