Basque in order
When the venerable Santa Fe Hotel closed a couple of years ago, many long-time Renoites lamented the potential loss of a local landmark, myself included. Thankfully, the new owner recently reopened the restaurant with a fresh-yet-classic look and updated amenities. My friends and I wandered in on a busy weeknight to check it out.
I’m not a huge fan of picon punch ($5.50), but when at a Basque-American dining hall I feel compelled to order at least one. As they go, this iteration of the syrup-sweet cocktail wasn’t bad, if not the most complex. Meals are served “family style,” with your choice of an entree alongside bottomless servings of French bread, soup, salad, beans and fries. A carafe of house wine is shared, and a choice of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, or dry jack cheese are included for dessert. You can upgrade the sweet course to bread pudding, cheesecake or flan for $7.
Entrees such as steaks, beef tongue stew, braised oxtail and pork loin milanesa sounded good, with daily specials including seafood paella on Friday and Saturday. Since it was Wednesday, I chose the special lamb shank ($32), while my friends played it safe with an eight-ounce Atlantic salmon filet ($29), Mary’s roasted chicken ($28) and the day’s special fried chicken ($27). One friend skipped the entree, enjoying unlimited sides for $19. Either way you go, you’re not going home hungry.
The red wine was tart and dry, served chilled. Bread rounds were the natural complement to a hearty chickpea and potato soup, good enough I would have been satisfied with just that. The salad vinaigrette had more flavor than some, but I stuck with tradition and ladled on the hot beans. Yeah, it’s weird, but it’s good. The beans were swimming in a terrific gravy and loaded with plenty of Basque chorizo. Here again, a side dish I would have been happy with as my sole dinner item. The peel-on, hand-cut shoestring fries were exactly what I’m looking for—crispy, right amount of salt and downright dangerous.
Oddly, the fried chicken basket was three pieces of meat, surrounded by yet another dose of fries. I’m a bit confused as to why you’d include fries when they’re already part of the broader meal, but the chicken itself was moist, crispy and tasted like it might have been garlic brined. Too bad there wasn’t more of it. The roasted chicken was more impressive, a shockingly moist and flavorful half-bird, attractively presented with stewed veggies and fresh herbs.
The salmon was a simple piece of fish, served with herbs and lemon. But it was sublime, with a golden crust and flaky, moist flesh. Really, it was just about the best piece of grilled fish you could hope for. I feel fortunate my friend shared a couple of bites with me. Yet, my own entree was definitely the best of the bunch. The bone-in lamb shank was huge, fall-off-the-bone tender and loaded with flavor—dressed with fresh rosemary, garlic cloves, braised carrots and whole a tomato in a richly savory sauce. Being I’d already enjoyed the sides a bit too much, most of that beautiful meat came home to be a ridiculously decadent next-day lunch.
My friends tucked into ice cream, while I enjoyed dry jack cheese with the last of the wine, musing about the rebirth of this Reno institution. Some things can be old and new again at the same time.