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WHERE WE LIVE: History and great food abound in Baker Street corridor


Graphic artist Richard Rodriguez touches up the lettering on the Baker Street-side window of the Arizona Cafe, a popular Mexican restaurant that opened in Old Town Kern in 1953. Owner Jose Ramirez, who started working at the cafe in 1973, as a 16-year-old dishwasher, bought the restaurant in 1998; he now runs it with son Oscar, 28.

The late, great food critic Jonathan Gold was known to have visited Old Town Kern even when he had no intention of writing anything about the trip.

He once explained his Bakersfield dining experience like this:

"If you are sitting down at a long, oilcloth-covered table and there is a tin bowl of beans in front of you, a tureen of thin vegetable soup and a bowl of mild tomato salsa, you know you're at a Basque restaurant even without looking at the maps, the paintings of sheep-protecting dogs and the reservation books in which Echeverria is a more common name than Smith," Gold wrote for L.A. Weekly in 2011.

Gold, who died in July 2018, referred to all of Bakersfield's Basque restaurants, including two that are outside the Baker Street area, Benji's and Chalet Basque, but he was particularly fond of these:

NORIEGA HOTEL, 525 Sumner St.

The area's oldest Basque restaurant — and, so it is said, the world's last surviving Basque restaurant/boardinghouse — was founded by Faustino Noriega and Fernando Etcheverry in 1893. Juan and Gracianna Elizalde took over the restaurant in 1931 and their family continues to run it.

Noriega's, which specializes in French Basque “sub-cuisine," started out as a long-stay hotel that just happened to serve food. That didn’t last long; the secondary mission soon became the primary.

What is now the bar and dining room was built around 1940, and it looks very much the same now as it did then. It still houses boarders, and still serves food family style (or, more accurately, boarder style) on long tables with bench seating. The Elizaldes' granddaughters, Rochelle Ladd and Linda McCoy, are running things now.

Try the slow-cooked oxtail stew, but since you must first walk through the spartan, frozen-in-the-'40s wood-paneled bar to get to the dining room, stop long enough to have yourself a Basque Moscow mule (vodka, ginger beer and lime juice).

WOOL GROWERS, 620 E. 19th St.

J.B. and Mayie Maitia, who came here from the French Basque country, opened Wool Growers in 1954, having first honed their skills as cooks and front-of-the-house servers at the Noriega Hotel. The Noriega, along with other local Basque eateries, offered only one en masse group seating per night, with a limited, set menu, and promptly at 6:30 p.m. Miss that and you might go hungry. So the Maitias stepped in to fill that need: Wool Growers would serve at hours the others didn’t — and the others helpfully sent late-comers their way.

Today, Mayie and daughter Jenny still own and operate Wool Growers, assisted by Mayie's granddaughter, Christiane. 

Wool Growers' fame has spread. The late travel documentarian Huell Howser was a fan. The singer Fergie, of the Black-Eyed Peas, and Chuck Connors, who starred as "The Rifleman," have dined there. Just not with each other. Then, of course, there are Mr. and Mrs. Streisand.

Visiting soon? Try the lamb; it's a specialty. If you find yourself in the bar, try a Picon punch, a traditional Basque cocktail (Picon liqueur — a bitter, citrus-forward spirit — brandy, soda water and a lemon twist).

PYRENEES CAFE, 601 Sumner St.

Pyrenees, a half-block east of the Noriega Hotel, is actually even older than its neighbor, although it didn't serve full meals in the early years. From 1887 until 1935, the Pyrenees was a bakery, saloon and hotel for Basque sheepherders.

It evolved into the cafe-saloon it is now two years after the end of Prohibition, making it the oldest continuously operating saloon in Kern County. The original bar, barstools and foot railings are all still there.

Co-owners Rod and Julie Crawford gave Pyrenees a makeover that honored its refined old bones and broadened its appeal. Those white Ford, Dodge and Chevy work trucks are still parked against the curb every day at 5:05 p.m., but white-collar millennials feel at home here, too. They're all joined on occasion by out-of-town foodies who've seen the episode of Fieri's Food Network program that featured Pyrenees and decided to make the trip. 

Like Narducci's, its now-shuttered neighbor 100 yards to south, Pyrenees once operated as a brothel and speakeasy: The old cork barrels in the basement are evidence of an alcohol-manufacturing enterprise. And, oh yes, the place is haunted: If you spot a woman in a red dress floating through the dining room, say hello.

Hungry? The garlic fried chicken gets rave reviews. And please note that the Pyrenees has its own, distinct Picon punch recipe.

Then there are the non-Basque restaurants of Old Town Kern:

LUIGI’S, 725 E. 19th St.

Luigi's traces its history to 1905, when the Lemucchi family patriarch, Joe “Curley” Lemucchi, arrived in America from the medieval town of Lucca, Italy. He and wife Emelia opened a small grocery store that included a diner they called Curley’s Café. Five years later, Curley moved the business to a slightly larger building, its present location, where East 19th Street, King Street and East Truxtun Avenue meet in a triangular intersection.

Curley's son, Luigi Lemucchi, was a football star. In the 1931 Bakersfield-Taft game, Luigi stepped in for the Drillers' injured quarterback and scored all five of his team's touchdowns, leading the Drillers to their fifth straight Kern County title. Luigi never played college ball, though — after his brother died, he chose to stay home to help his father run the family business. 

After Curley Lemucchi died in 1952, Luigi took over and the restaurant-deli was renamed. Luigi's love of sports never died: The hundreds of team photos, action shots and framed newspaper sports pages that cover almost every inch of wall space in the main dining room are as much as part of Luigi's as the red checkered tablecloths or the "half-and-half" (half pasta with meat sauce, half "Luigi" beans). The restaurant — open only for lunch — still serves many dishes made from Emelia’s recipes, including her Bolognese sauce.

Luigi's daughter, Antonia (Tonya) Valpredo, ran the place for years — she's still there, in fact. But today, the day-to-day manager is Luigi's grandson, Gino Valpredo, who achieved something his grandfather, who died in 1989, almost surely would have achieved had fate not had other plans: He played college football, starring at running back.

If it's a Thursday, try the Italian dip sandwich with provolone on grilled sourdough. And since you have to go back to work — lunches only, remember? — finish with a bowl of Gino's gelato. Oh, you're not going back to work? Well, in that case ...

ARIZONA CAFE, 809 Baker St.

Jose Ramirez, a native of Michoacan, Mexico, was 16 when he was hired in 1973 to wash dishes at Baker Street's best-known Mexican restaurant. Twenty-five years later, he purchased the Arizona Cafe, whose original owner, an Arizona native, had opened it in 1953 in a spot where a failed predecessor had gone bust. Today, Ramirez runs the business with his son Oscar, 28.

Customers rave about the cafe's chili verde, served as bone-in pork riblets. The recipe is a secret, but I squeezed this much out of him: He doesn't use green chiles, which is the standard practice. He uses red — which technically makes it chili rojo.

Warning: Do not overindulge on the basket of fresh, hot, crispy corn tortilla chips — which your waitress may refill without being asked — before you receive your Saturday morning huevos rancheros. Or you'll be taking home an entire to-go container of huevos rancheros.

Generations of families have dined at the Arizona Cafe, which is a compliment in itself. But, as Oscar points out, the owners of neighboring restaurants sometimes eat here, too. 

"Gino was just here," Oscar told me last week. "Yes, we see some of the others in here sometimes."

Since you're there, too, try the chilaquiles, a tortilla, egg and cheese scramble that's perfect for Lenten diets. If you're not observing Lent, or not observing it well, pair it with a michelada, a Mexican cerveza preparada made with beer, lime juice, spices, peppers and tomato juice.

Other good restaurants are around here, too, of course: Los Reyes, 813 Baker St., serves up a fine carne asada; La Costa del Sol, 615 E. 18th St., specializes in camarones and ceviche, Salvadoran style. And I'll go ahead and say it: I still love Super Taco, 520 E. Truxtun Ave., even if they do serve their food on paper plates. Three or four good bakeries are in the area as well, starting, most definitely, with Pyrenees French Bakery, which opened in 1887 as the Kern City French Bakery. The Laxague family and their partners, who had purchased the competing Parisian Bakery in 1944, bought the Kern City French Bakery in 1947. They moved the merged operation into the Kern City building and renamed the business Pyrenees French Bakery. It has been owned by the Laxague family ever since.

I'd be remiss not to mention what's missing here: Narducci's Café, 622 E. 21st St., which has closed its doors after more than a century. It was built around 1900 by French immigrant Marius Cesmat, who opened it as the Cesmat Hotel. Under its second owner, Francisco Amestoy, it was the Amestoy Hotel, serving French and Basque food. President William McKinley is said to have spoken from the balcony of his Amestoy Hotel room. Marino Narducci bought it in 1967 and assigned it its present name. It has been closed at least two years.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. “Where We Live,” a look at a unique Bakersfield-area neighborhood, enclave or community, appears monthly.

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