Idaho’s Basque Tables
A distinct Old World culture brought culinary treasures to the Gem State.
(page 3 of 3)
A Basque community picnic at the Boise Municipal Park, Boise, 1950.
Ansotegui imports choricero, or red pepper seeds, from the Basque Country and has them locally planted and grown. Her chief cook, Alberto Bereziartua, frequently returns to the Basque Country to collect important ingredients like the ink sauce used in preparing squid.
Dan Ansotegui, Chri’s brother, opened Bar Gernika in 1991 and patterned it after the Basque pubs he had “fallen in love with” during his travels to the Basque Country. “Basque pubs are all about family and friends, where people just go to meet with others. They bring their kids, and food is very important. I wanted Bar Gernika to be about that.”
Gernika serves casual meals of lamb sandwiches, chorizo, solomo (pork), and its famous croquetas, a deep-fried-bread-crumb-coated ball of butter, onion and chicken that first crunches, then melts in a hungry mouth. Another Gernika specialty is beef tongue in red sauce, which is only served on Saturdays and usually runs out in less than two hours.
In addition to the menu, those delicate coffee cups that hang above the bar are indication of the pub’s cultural focus. “Basque coffee was always in the bars,” he said. “Lots of the bars had their logos on the coffee cups.” Ansotegui said he brought the first cups back from the Old Country, and patrons have continued to bring them back from their travels and contribute to the collection. Ansotegui sold Gernika in 2008 to Jeff May, a former employee who has kept the original menu, atmosphere and vision.
-Alberto Santana Ezkerra, Professor of Basque Studies, Boise State University
The newcomer in Boise is Leku Ona Basque Restaurant and Hotel, founded in 2005 by Jose Artiach, a Basque immigrant who arrived in Boise in 1967 to herd sheep. Leku Ona, Basque for “good place,” occupies a historic brick building—formerly a boardinghouse—on the Basque block. The menu offers native-language tongue twisters—Txangurro Kroketak, Makailao Bilbainera, Txarri Txuletak—and authentic recipes passed through the Artiach family and prepared by a chef whose family operated a restaurant in the Basque Country.
“The Basques here have a strong will to preserve our culture,” Artiach said. “This is especially true for many people who came from oppression in the Basque Country.” He said that both his grandmothers had been jailed by Spain for speaking their native Basque language during Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain.
From the Bay of Biscay to the Idaho mountains, the Basque culture has continued to evolve and adapt, but one thing it has never lost is its traditional meaning.
“What I think of with the Basque culture is the old-fashioned, sitting-down sharing what happened to you that day—visiting and not hurrying,” said Chris Ansotegui at Epi’s in Meridian. “It’s about the friendship and love that centers around meals. It’s not a time to talk business. It’s a precious time to set aside. What we eat and the way we eat is part of the Basque identity.
Ezkerra put it this way: “We have a saying, ‘It’s not a real meal if you can see each other’s legs,’ meaning there must be a table in between us, and we must be sitting and enjoying the meal together.” He continued, “The Basque culture has survived well in Idaho, really, through our leisure activities. Food, drink, dance, sport. It’s not a political identity. It is about the joys of life.”
If the vitality of Basque culture in Idaho is any indication, those joys are alive and well.