What did I know of the Basques?
I met one when I was 15 and won a speech and essay contest from the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows United Nations Educational Pilgrimage for Youth, Inc. for a three-week cross-country bus trip from Oregon to the East Coast. From him, I learned about the Basque population in Eastern Oregon who came to work as sheepherders and that the Basque language, Euskera, was unlike any other.
In drawings that I've seen of the Indo-European language tree, where similar languages such as Spanish, Italian, and French would be shown as branching off from the main one such as Latin, Basque comes in as a random bird flying in from the horizon, unrelated to anything else.
And then there was the hunky Basque Nick, who won Delaney's heart in "Truly Madly Yours" by Rachel Gibson.
But, you probably want something a little more academic? In which case, I would defer to "The Basque History of the World" by Mark Kurlansky, but I'm only on page 62. So instead of trying to condense way too much history into too small of a space, I defer to Wikipedia's entry on the history of the Basque people and their entry on Basque-Americans.
I'm rather stuck on page 16. That's where Kurlansky discusses the Gateau Basque, a cake filled with cherry jam and/or pastry cream that originated in the Nivelle River valley, which includes the town of Itxassou, famous for its black cherries. Gateau Basque, I vow to make it one of these days.
Kurlansky also discusses the high numbers of Basques with O Rh negative blood, which can fatally poison a fetus who has positive blood, and may be a reason why the Basque population is not as high as it could be. According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 18 million Basques world-wide, 57,793 Basque Americans, and 20,868 Basques in California.
Which brings us back to Centro Basco Restaurant in Chino, which opened in 1940 as a boarding house to serve the Basque sheepherders in the Chino Valley. Since 1970, the restaurant has been operated by the Berterretche family, whose hometown is St. Jean Pied de Port, France.
Certainly you could visit the restaurant at any time and sit in their normal dining room to try the French Basque dishes. But how much more fun is to sit at one of the communal tables and dine with others? Thanks to my advertiser, Foodbuzz's 24, 24, 24, I was able to treat Gourmet Pigs and Starchy Marie to the most charming dining experience we've had in a while.
We entered the restaurant through the bar area. Regular patrons said a dinner bell was usually rung when it was time to move into the family-style dinner room. How quaint!
The room had long communal tables and house wines already set out.
One elderly gentleman was already seated and slurping a bowl of soup when we entered the room. I wondered about the etiquette in a dining situation such as this. He motioned for us to sit next to him, and so we did. We were later joined by a couple and three other men.
Quickly enough, the waitress brought out bowls of a simple iceberg lettuce salad, which was perfectly complemented with the best bleu cheese ever.
The soup was a positively gigantic tureen of pureed lentils, carrots, and potatoes.
The nice old man motioned for me to serve myself and then began pouring us glasses of wine.
Rose for me, red wine for Gourmet Pigs and Starchy Marie. Specially made locally for Centro Basco from Galleano Winery in Mira Loma.
Beef tongue and tomato salad. The tongue was fall-apart tender and sooo good.
"Psst! Do you know what you're eating?" he asked me.
Yes, tongue and it's yummy. :)
He chuckled and said some people get scared when they realize it's tongue.
I like tongue, I said and helped myself to more.
Then came the main course, French chicken chasseur. I was pretty full by this point and took a small portion of breast meat.
"Psst! Get the leg," he said. "It's juicier. And get some more sauce." :)
Potatoes au gratin.
The elderly gentlemen took turns keeping our wine glasses filled and refilled.
I was content to just sit there and listen to the conversations going on both ends of the table. Alternating between English and Euskera, with smatterings of French and Spanish too, the men talked about coming to America in the 1960s, serving in the military, a recent Basque club gathering in Chino, how a local rancher inseminated his cows all at once so they all gave birth around the same time but instead of keeping them penned in one area he let them roam all 80 acres and how crazy it was when birthing season came because the cows were everywhere. I swear, I've never heard so much cow talk in my life. :P
One of the men wondered what three Asian women were doing in their midst and whether we were sisters. Nope. Three different ethnicities. We were simply curious and wanted to try Basque food. Welcome! And then we clinked glasses and poured more wine.
Occasionally, I'd see a gentleman wearing a beret leaving from the other rooms.
"Hey Basco!" the men shouted to one so he would come over and we could see a real Basque wearing a beret. Ha! :P
We ordered flan for dessert and the nice old gentleman tried to pay for our flans. How sweet was he? But I couldn't let him do that and a small tugging of the check ensued.
I asked the gentlemen how to say "Thank you" in Basque.
"Eskerrik asko," they said.
Oooh, I don't think I can do that.
"Merci beaucoup," they said in French.
French I could do, I said. But Euskera? I swear, it didn't even sound like the way it was written.
On our way out, as we said our goodbyes, one of the lovely old gentlemen kissed our hands, then both of our cheeks.
Seriously. The most charming dinner I've had in a long time.
Check the restaurant's website for times for the family-style lunch and dinners. The menu changes each day but includes salad, soup, appetizer, side dish, entree, and all the wine you can drink for $21. Dessert is not included in the meal but the flan was only $3.75.
A hearty Eskerrik asko to the lovely Basques who welcomed us into their midst and to Foodbuzz for sponsoring the dinner.
Centro Basco Restaurant
13432 Central Ave.
Chino, CA 91710-5103
Dining room lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Family-style dining lunch Tuesday to Friday at noon, and Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m., and dinner Friday to Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
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