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THE DISH: New Noriega's aims to feed traditions

There's a classic recipe that goes into making an exceptional restaurant.  You start with great food, throw in atmosphere, sprinkle in good service and a dash of passion.

When the Noriega Hotel, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant that set the bar for Kern's tradition of Basque dining, closed last year, many diners were despondent. Losing a piece of culinary history will do that to people. 

Out of the struggle of a pandemic year, a new hope emerged. Restaurateurs Bill and Koie Osathanukhro, who also own Glitz Cafe, Happy Wings and KK's Cafe, purchased the Noriega Hotel name and liquor license, along with the tables, chairs, plates and much of the memorabilia, to carry on the tradition, albeit in a different location, that started in 1893.

Now open at 4809 Stockdale Highway (in the former home of Cafe Med), Noriega's is busy serving three meals a day six days a week with all the Basque favorites that diners had come to love, courtesy of chef Gilbert, who came from the original restaurant (and, like other celebrities, prefers to only go by his first name).

"I want people to experience Noriega's," Koie Osathanukhro said. "I don't want people to try to compare but to have fun and experience it."

There is a definite familiarity, starting with the dining room with the long tables set up for family-style dining.

Robert Wallace, a longtime customer of the Old Town Kern establishment, was excited by what he saw coming in for breakfast on Tuesday. A retired carpenter who now drives a bus for the Bakersfield City School District, Wallace was continuing a tradition of his own. Just as his boss had brought him to Noriega Hotel for lunch starting in the 1970s, he brought his BCSD coworker and friend Brian Machuca to the new restaurant to enjoy a Basque-style meal.

"I brought him here to experience this, experience the food," Wallace said. 

"I have no idea what to expect," Machuca said. "He just brought me here."

Luckily for Machuca, the meal followed the traditional breakfast lineup of Basque sausage, house-cured bacon, Pyrenees Bakery bread, apricot jam, salsa, slices of Jack cheese and wine on the table. (The duo opted for tall glasses of iced tea.) The meal also included a pork chop, one of the lunch specials that day, and a choice of fried eggs or an omelet.

"Did you get an omelet?" Wallace asked his friend, who ordered after him. "That's a good choice."

The gregarious retiree enjoyed joking with server Jillian Ashbaugh, who helped explain the setup to Machuca.

(Those wondering about lunch and dinner entrees should be assured that favorites like garlic fried chicken, oxtail stew, leg of lamb and prime rib are on the menu along with occasional specials including lamb shank, chile verde and paella, which was served on Father's Day.)

Wallace said the Basque dining experience relies on the food and the staff.

"The employees there made the atmosphere much more than a restaurant," he said of the original restaurant.

The team behind the new Noriega's aims to make guests feel welcome. Osathanukhro said family-style dining is an important tradition to continue.

"You don't know each other but get to sit together and talk," she said recalling a special birthday dinner at the Noriega Hotel. She said when they went to pay, they learned their tablemates, who they had just met, had paid for their meal.

Open less than a month, the restaurant has already had a lot of pay-it-forward diners who have covered meals and drinks, Osathanukhro said. That generosity and human connection is something the restaurateur is happy to foster.

"And after COVID, don't we all need that?" said general manager Krystal Allison.

Many of those with fond memories of the Noriega Hotel have come in and shared stories and expressed their excitement in the new endeavor, Osathanukhro said, noting one customer pointed out her great-grandmother in an old photo on display. 

The restaurant is filled with memorabilia from the original location. The cash register, along with cards and poker chips, an original menu and liquor bottles are on display near the entrance. Reprints of old photographs of the Noriega Hotel, including when it was the Iberia Hotel, are framed throughout the building as well as a worn leather apron, framed alongside a photo of where it once hung next to a sink. (The original bar and neon sign are on display at the Kern County Museum.)

Allison said work continues on creating the right atmosphere.

"I don't know that Koie will ever be done," she joked. "Last weekend was spent refinishing the fountain out front."

In the quieter early hours, Allison said she has a makeshift office in the bar area, which she enjoys being out on the floor.

Coming from 1933, she said she was excited to help build on an existing brand.

"I was definitely interested in the challenge. It's honoring the old heritage while helping the new owners grow into their own."

If Wallace and Machuca, who left satisfied after a big breakfast, are any indication, Bakersfield will welcome this new Basque variation.

"I hope they're successful," Wallace said. "It doesn't have the building, but it's in an area with easier access."

Customers who remember the location's days as Cafe Med and are happy to have a thriving neighborhood spot again, and others are excited that Noriega's lives on, Allison said.

"When they come in, they're excited that the food tastes just as they remember. They're giving us a fair shot. Change is hard ... but we can feel the connection between Noriega's and the customer."

Noriega's is open Tuesday through Sunday, serving breakfast from 7 to 10 a.m. and lunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner seatings are at 6 and 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. only the rest of the week.

Dinner reservations are strongly encouraged; call 885-8515 to book. For more information, visit its Facebook page (facebook.com/noriegasbasque).

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.