Taken to Basque
Built in 1870s Virginia City, J.T. Basque Bar & Dining Room was moved to Gardnerville in 1896 and has been a family-operated business ever since. The place oozes authentic Old West charm and history, with walls covered in hats and a ceiling papered in dollar bills. The story goes that, upon heading home, a regular took to leaving his hat on the bar to provide an excuse for “just one more drink.” The proprietor eventually nailed it to the wall, leading to a tradition of a wall festooned with hats. The overhead cache of cash is said to have begun with a single patron’s bar trick—somehow sticking a greenback to the ceiling—and is now a lucky tradition. Each year, the money is collected and donated to charity.
American Basque meals are usually served “family style,” with side dishes passed around the table and each diner selecting his or her choice of entree. We chose top sirloin steak, chicken, lamb chops, sweetbreads and roast rabbit (a Friday/Saturday special). The dinners were $25.95, save for the $26.95 lamb chops. The service was professional and attentive.
Our most Basque-experienced dining companion ordered a kalimotxo ($4)—a blend of red wine and Coca-Cola poured over ice. It’s pronounced “cal-ee-MO-cho.” I sampled J.T.’s take on picon punch ($4). The former is what I’d call a fizzy sweet nightmare. Picon punch is usually too sweet—this one not so much.
A bottle of chilled red house wine appeared, along with thick-sliced crusty bread and a very nice vegetable soup. The soup was quickly followed by a salad of chopped lettuce, tossed in a light vinaigrette, along with a dish of ranch-style beans. Though I’d never heard of this “Basque dining pro-tip,” our cola/wine enthusiast noted a tradition of placing hot beans on top of cold salad. I liked the salad and the beans just fine on their own, but grudgingly admitted they were pretty good taken together.
Next up was a big plate of shoestring-fried potatoes and a bowl of beef tongue stew. The fries were above average and well received, but the stew was beyond expectations. Beef tongue in any guise isn’t my wife’s first, second or third choice, but she was totally down with a couple of helpings of this. The meat was thin-sliced and insanely tender, well supported by a hearty gravy and down-home veggies.
Our entrees were all excellent. The rabbit was served on the bone and very tender. Both sirloin and lamb were cooked to a perfect medium and topped with plenty of sautéed garlic cloves. The butterflied-and-grilled breast of chicken was moist and smothered with sautéed peppers and onions. And the sweetbreads—made from beef thymus glands—were cooked stir fried with herbs and vegetables. I’d say this was one of the best ways to prepare a dish that is decidedly not for the squeamish palate.
One of my favorite things about a Basque meal is a cheese plate for dessert. Some include grapes or other fruit, but J.T.’s was a simple serving of thin-sliced slivers of semi-hard Monterey Jack and very good bleu cheese crumbles.