November 3, 2012
BASQUING IN NEVADA
We arrived in Winnemucca from Virgin Valley at dinnertime. As we filled up with gas, I searched my phone for a good place to eat, reading Yelp and other sites. I discovered a piece of history that was new to me. Many Basques, in the 19th century, moved to Nevada to raise sheep and feed the miners and prospectors. Some of their descendants operate restaurants today. Winnemucca has three Basque eateries. The Martin Hotel received the highest accolades online so we headed there.
It was Saturday night and we waited about 20 minutes to be seated. Later I found out that people often wait a couple hours to get in. The waiting area is also a saloon-style bar and a lively group crowded the counter. The most striking customers were the cowboys.
The cowboys were all decked out in their dress clothes for a special night on the town. The outfit invariably included: 1) a large, full mustache with the outside ends twirled into long upturned points, 2) a cowboy hat, light or dark, curved brim or flat, 3) a long-sleeved, button-down shirt, usually plaid, occasionally a solid color, 4) jeans, 5) cowboy boots, 6) and my favorite accessory, a silk or cotton scarf wrapped around the neck and tied in a knot to the side. The only other men I remember regularly wearing scarves as adornment were the French tourists I saw in Southeast Asia.
The national rodeo finals were in Winnemucca that weekend and some of the men were contestants. Their identification number were still safety pinned to their backs. The lethal looking spurs were still attached to their boots. The women at the restaurant looked like women anywhere.
Meals were served family-style and we were seated at a table for nine. The couple to my left live in southern Idaho but had originally been from the Reno area. They raise natural beef and were on their biannual trip delivering frozen meat to their regular customers in northern Nevada. They always eat at The Martin on these trips. The other five were a family who turned out, by chance, to be acquaintances with the Idaho couple. The patriarch of that group was dressed as described above. I kept wondering how he got those firm, sharp points on his mustache. Gel? Spit? Brylcreem?
A series of courses were delivered to our table in large bowls or on platters. Carafes of red wine were also included – my first alcohol of the trip. You pay a set fee for your chosen entree and then eat as much or as little of the rest as you want. Warning! This meal description is not for vegetarians. Basques are big meat eaters.
Course 1: Minestrone-style soup and bread. Delicious.
Course 2: Salad and beans. The beans looked like Boston baked beans but had different flavoring. The Basque style is to pile the beans on top of the lettuce salad and we obliged and enjoyed it. Later I bought some of The Martin Hotel salad dressing at a local store.
Course 3: Green beans, smashed garlic potatoes, a chicken and tomato dish. Yum.
Course 4: The entree! Yes, after all the above, your specific entree choice was served. Plus platters of french fries. My entree was the famed lamb shank (touted in the New York Times!) and Chris had a steak. Both were liberally piled with chopped raw garlic.
Course 5: Bread pudding. I passed on this because I’m not eating gluten but I had no room left anyway. I did take a small taste of Chris’ and it was quite good.
They also served a few less common dishes. The man from Idaho got sweetbreads (brain) and apparently often a tongue dish is included (but not this night.) I thought of the evening as practice for Thanksgiving. We took leftovers with us and had an additional meal the next day.
It was late and we went to a rest stop off I-80 for a free night’s lodging. As we set up the camper for sleep, I felt in between two worlds. On one side was the continuous rumble of tractor-trailer traffic from the cross-continental freeway, on the other side, coyotes howled their goodnight.