My first bite of beef tongue was a revelation. Thick yet tender, awash in a peppery, tomato-and-garlic-rich Bizkaian sauce, it almost melted in my mouth. Although I sat in a tiny Basque café in Boise, Idaho, I was mentally transported to Europe — me, and my glass of Rioja tempranillo.
With an estimated 15,000 residents of Basque heritage, Boise is North America’s largest Basque community. It comes as no surprise that several excellent restaurants serve the population in the heart of the city, barely three blocks from the State Capitol.
There’s the intimate Bar Gernika, for instance. There’s Tony Eiguren’s Basque Market, and José Mari Artiach’s Leku Ona. Among them all, in the heart of Boise’s Basque Block, across the lane from the Basque Museum, is Bardenay, which lays claim to being the nation’s first restaurant-distillery.
Pioneers from the Basque Country first immigrated to the Great Basin region in the late 1800s. Few spoke English. Many found work as sheepherders, which didn’t require any particular expertise other than the ability to work alone and in serious isolation. With a reputation for being hardworking, stubborn and frugal, the Basques fit right in.
Most of the herders stayed in boardinghouses in communities across the Great Basin — in southwestern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, Nevada and eastern California. For a few weeks or winter months each year, these were places where Basque culture was reborn in language and friendships. Feast days, good wine and pelota (handball) filled the days far from their homeland.
The Basque Country is not a country at all, even though many would like it to be. Overlapping the borders of Spain and France on the Bay of Biscay, from Bilbão to Biarritz, this land of fishermen and mountain dwellers is home to one of Europe’s most unique cultures, that of the Euskaldunak.
About the size of the state of Maryland, the Euskal Herria (Land of the Basque) extends along 115 miles of North Atlantic coast. The slightly larger, mineral-rich Spanish side of the province has prospered with industry, while the French side relies on tourism and agriculture.
The 3 million Basques are a people without a nation, even though they have lived here since long before the Spanish-French border was established in 1512. Ancient Greeks knew them as “fierce tribes speaking a very strange language.” Through history, they have lived as fishermen, merchants, shipbuilders and explorers in the littoral of the Pyrenees range.
Their desire for autonomy nearly led to their demise during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Led by General Francisco Franco and supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the rebel army launched a series of land and air attacks on key Basque cities. On April 26, 1937, the small lowland town of Gernika (Guernica) was strafed by an air attack that continued unabated for 3½ hours. A few days later, a land assault destroyed what remained.
About 150,000 Basques, including 30,000 orphans, were forced into exile. Franco, who ruled as dictator until his death in 1975, insisted the Basques had deliberately burned their own town. But much of the world believes the image of terror presented by Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece mural, “Guernica.”
Gernika was the cultural heart of the Basque people. Its Tree of Gernika, “Gernikako Arbola,” originally planted in the 14th century, is a symbol of Basque freedom. Miraculously, the great oak survived the 1937 bombings. A direct descendant stands in its place today, as do several offspring in the United States — including one beside Boise’s Basque Museum and Cultural Center.
I sought to recapture some of the Basque boardinghouse spirit on a recent visit to Boise, a city of nearly a quarter million. Leku Ona carries some of that flavor. It was opened in 2005 by Artiach, who was born and raised in the Basque Country but came to Idaho as a sheepherder in 1968, at the age of 23. He started his own hay-truck company in 1975, married and raised a family.
The hotel is not a “boutique” hotel in most senses of the word, but the price is right, at $65 to $85 a night. Rooms are carpeted, private bathrooms are spacious, beds are sufficiently large, and there’s TV and Wi-Fi, albeit spotty. I recommend, should you choose to stay, that you request a room on the back side of the building, away from the street. It can get mighty noisy in the wee hours of weekends when the nearby bars close.
The best thing about Leku Ona (Basque for “good place”) is its restaurant. I enjoyed a superb lamb stew (what else, from a sheepherder?) with tender diced meat, vegetables and potatoes. Lamb was also available as shank and chops. One of the servers recommended the prawns, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and red chilies. I was tempted by the stuffed squid, stewed with peppers and onions in its own ink. In typical boardinghouse fashion, meals may be served family-style and in a private dining area for large parties.
Food and drink
Nearby, more than 200 Basque wines are on the shelves at Tony and Tara Eiguren’s Basque Market.
There are white txakolis and viuras, red garnachas and tempranillos, both crianza and reserve. Tastings are available on request. The shop also sells imported meats and seafood, olives and olive oils, Spanish peppers, sauces and a variety of gifts.
And several evenings a week, chef Jake Arredondo prepares paella or pintxos (tapas) dinners. I loved every bite of my three-course Friday night meal, including cod-stuffed piquillo peppers, meatballs in a chorizo-pepper sauce, and rice pudding for dessert.
Pop into Bardenay if you want something not quite Basque. I visited for a weekend brunch, but I didn’t try the vodka or rum. Instead, I went after Phil’s Ranchero Omelet. If it’s not a Basque recipe, it should be adopted: an eggy crêpe layered with chipotle chicken, artichoke hearts, green chilies, Roma tomatoes, sour cream, mozzarella, cheddar cheese and fresh pico de gallo.
And then there’s Bar Gernika, which almost looks like a survivor of its namesake town. Dan Ansotegui launched the business in 1991, and 27 years later it’s still got the same low ceiling and cracked plaster walls. Dan retired some years back — I can still remember him behind the bar in the mid-‘90s — but the mood of separatist secrecy persists.
I already told you about the tongue. If it’s sold out (which happens early), try the solomo or chorizo with croquetas. You can’t go wrong.