>> Centro Basco | Eat the World Los Angeles

Friday, 7 January 2022

Centro Basco

BASQUE COUNTRY 🏴󠁥󠁳󠁰󠁶󠁿
Central Avenue facade

COVID-19 UPDATE: The full dining room and bar are completely open and mask usage is not widely in place here, including staff. Unlike some Basque eateries, you can get a private table here, and the traditional Boarder's Table seems to still be on hold.


Opening the doors of Centro Basco can be somewhat of a shock if you come unprepared to leave the mentality of the current day. In winter, with the snow-capped Mt. Baldy and friends of the San Gabriel Mountains looming nearby and the crisp, clear blue skies above, your eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness of the dining room you walk into from the parking lot.

When they do, you notice a group of Basque beret-wearing seniors having glasses of chilled house red wine or Picon punch while discussing the day's news, and the tables are full of families and groups of friends digging into multiple courses of the daily menu. It seems that everyone knows one another, and often times when passing by tables to say hello conversations alter between English, Spanish, and Basque (called Euskara in Basque).

The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains overlook the sign at Centro Basco

Centro Basco opened in 1940 when the surrounding area was full of dairy farms and Basque people settled for work. It was first and foremost a boarding house, a place for these laborers to rest their heads and take their meals. (It still has one resident). Since the 1970s it has been owned by one family and run just about the same way ever since.
 
Even as the farmlands have been paved over and the need for boarding has dwindled, the restaurant has remained a very important communal hub for many generations of Basque-descended peoples. They come with their families from all over Southern California, especially since the Noriega Hotel in Bakersfield closed shortly after mandatory COVID lockdowns started in 2020. (For much more Centro Basco history, read this great Gab Chabrán Los Angenleno article).

The Centro Basco bar is always populated by Basque folks that seem fresh from the fields

If you visited the 75th anniversary of Centro Basco back in 2015 you would have found the handball courts alive with children playing pilota while their parents filled the interior and the temporary tent set up for the occasion. Nowadays even before COVID the courts are usually quiet as time continues to crawl forward, but the restaurant and the many people who come here regularly hope 2022 sees much more fortune than the past two years.

There are multiple rooms (and bars), but even the main dining room can comfortably host small and big groups within its wood wainscoted walls. Old photographs and paintings set the mood of culture and tradition, but within minutes of sitting down even those with no familiarity into Basque food or people cannot hide from the warm, contagious vibe.

Picon punch
The picon punch cocktail.

Usually it would be recommended that a first-timer sit down with complete strangers at the Boarder's Table, the more traditional way that those staying would take their meals communally. Soups, salads, beans, and any other starters would be set down in large amounts and diners would serve themselves, invited to eat as much as they could.

Traditional Basque communal meals are of course not in line with stopping a pandemic, so for now individual tables are the norm but those that order the family meal can still take as much or as little of each course as they like as the restaurant tries to keep as much intact as possible.

Tongue and tomatoes

Centro Basco is not shy about letting you know they have the "Best Tongue In Town," so even when you plan on ordering the family meal or other entrées, take a side of tongue and tomato ($3.95, above). The beef tongue is sliced thinner than the tomatoes and the whole thing is drenched in olive oil and lemon.

It is not a wow-factor dish, but the simplicity and the tongue's marinade are enough to pack a pleasant punch when equal portions of both pieces are taken. If this modest amount is not enough, a family size platter of ten pieces of both can be ordered for $19.95.

Poulet Basquaise

The restaurant always adds the descriptor "French" in front of its Basque cuisine labels, so it is no surprise that one of their most popular dishes, poulet Basquaise ($18.95, above) is written in that language. The half chicken is smothered in a classic Basque piperade sauce consisting mostly of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and plenty of garlic.

Despite not having access to the Boarder's Table, it makes a lot of sense to enjoy a family meal if you are coming for your first time or your hundredth. For $27.95, the courses before the entrée are unlimited and at least one glass of the chilled house red is included. On this last visit, the following dishes were all part of the menu:

House soup
Beef fideo soup.

House beans and cheese
House beans and blue cheese.

House salad
Salad.

Lukinka and garbanzo beans
Lukinka and garbanzo beans.

If not part of the family meal, make sure to try the homemade lukinka, pork sausages that somehow taste like the earth and the farm they come from. There are no throwaway meats used in these, the dense links are full of prime cuts and flavor. They can be enjoyed on buttery noodles or as a sandwich on any given day.

The family meal serving of lukinka came with garbanzo beans and a sauce that seemed simmered altogether with the beans and sausage for ages. It is full of many spices, but once again brimming with garlic and outstanding.

Steak and fries, the family meal entree on this day

On this occasion the entrée was a piece of top sirloin, also blanketed with chopped up sautéed garlic. After the beauty and flavor of all the Basque dishes that came before it, the steak seemed plain and was the only weak link. Fortunately the fries it was served with were crisp and just right, and some of the other items were still around to make for more interesting bites.

If the circumstances in the world allow it, plan to join Chino's Basque community for Easter, when the Centro Basco always puts on a celebration of food and community worth experiencing. And if you leave and still have not had enough Basque flavor in your day, head around the corner to Hottinger Family Meats, a market that has served the Basque community since 1941.

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