Interstate 80 isn’t exactly a backroad, but if you’ve ever been on it, you know you’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It seems to be a vast nothingness– sort of like outerspace– but occasionally you’ll bump into a star, or in my case the Star Hotel.
By this point in the trip, I was pretty much ready to get home, but my day brightened considerably when the Nevada tourist information book said that our evening’s destination, Elko, was a center of Basque culture and had several Basque restaurants. We chose the Star, which was highly recommended by the clerk at our motel (which had a Basque restaurant right next door, but didn’t get her resounding endorsement).
I had no idea what to expect when I got to the Star– I’ve never had any Basque cuisine nor have I read much about it (except one chapter in Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour), but once I saw the crowded dining room, I figured this place must be doing something right.
The Star Hotel was originally a boarding house for sheepherders (and still is, apparently; the waitress told us they ring the dinner bell for the boarders at 6:15 every night) and the tables are still communal and the meals are served family style.
A word to the wise: come hungry. Another word to the wise: if there are just two of you, split an entree because the amount of food they give you could feed an army. If you do this, the restaurant charges the entree price for one person and then a charge for just the side dishes for the other person.
The minute we sat down, our waitress presented us with a loaf of bread and a giant bowl of cabbage soup with orzo in a broth that had a faint hint of saffron.
We gobbled up our soup while we checked out the menu. We decided to share a one pound ribeye and a bottle of wine. The menu featured several bottles from Spain and we picked out the Sangre de Toro– blood of the bull– a natural choice to go with our steak.
Next, the waitress delivered a bowl of salad which was a crispy iceberg lettuce lightly coated with a creamy, garlicy dressing that was so good I could have picked up the bowl and licked all the dressing out of it.
Then came the ribeye (which looked to be much bigger than one pound) topped with slivered garlic and a jaw-dropping array of side dishes: french fries, green beans, pinto beans, and spaghetti.
According to our waitress, the pintos and the spaghetti were dishes commonly served at the hotel– my guess is that they provided good stick to your ribs food for the cowboys who were probably pretty hungry after a hard day of herding cattle. The french fries were excellent– crisp and hot. The spaghetti and green beans were okay, but the pintos were nice– perhaps a bit skimpy on seasoning, but they were properly cooked instead of being mushy blobs. You can always add salt, but you can’t do much about overcooked legumes. The ribeye, by the way, was great. Cooked exactly the way we ordered it (medium), and the garlic scattered on top was a welcome condiment. When we finally pushed back from the table, I felt liked I’d gained 10 pounds, but I was totally content and thrilled that I’d discovered a new American regional cuisine that I didn’t even know existed.
If you’ve been to Spain and have tried traditional Basque cooking and come here expecting more of the same, you’re probably going to be disappointed. This isn’t totally traditional Basque cooking. It’s Basque-American and reflects how Basque immigrants adapted their culinary tradtions to a new continent with different ingredients, which in my opinion is more “authentic” that trying to precisely mimic dishes being cooked 6000 miles away with an entirely different larder of ingredients. For instance, many traditional Basque dishes use seafood because the region is bordered by the sea, but in the mountains of Nevada, seafood doesn’t make sense. Lamb and beef does.
Of course, I’m sure they get some seafood in for Paella night, which is Tuesday night at the Star Hotel. I was sorry that it was only Friday and that we couldn’t stick around to try it, but if I ever find myself back in Elko, I’ll make sure I’m there on a Tuesday.