Though Bakersfield has a reputation as a Basque food mecca, one interesting thing about that restaurant niche is how hard it is to break into. I can remember the passionate controversy created by Frankie Maitia in the '80s when he opened a huge restaurant on the north end of Union Avenue. People insisted anything that big, shiny and new was too commercial -- and Maitia wasn't even a newcomer to Basque food, having been the proprietor of a smaller restaurant before his move. Authenticity is everything in Basque food, a trait that seems required for survival.
Yet the Arduain brothers -- Rene and Benji -- were able to branch out and make an enduring success of it with their restaurant, Benji's French Basque on Rosedale Highway, without controversy. Though the building they moved to was newish, in a growing part of town rather than the Basque stronghold of east Bakersfield, they didn't encounter resistance. And the brothers created what is, year in and year out, one of the best restaurants in Bakersfield. Which is why the recent death of Jean Rene Arduain from cancer is a notable loss for the local restaurant scene.