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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Where Life Is Sheep

December 13, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

Some people stop in Bakersfield for a burger and a tank of gas on the way to Fresno. Others go on purpose, to hear the country and western music, which can be among the best in the world, or to throw back a bourbon-and-water in one of its many bars. Antique collectors like to rummage through the city's junk stores, finding plaster cats, rusted Lucky Strike marquees and complete sets of uranium-red Bauer soup tureens that are invariably as expensive as they would be on Melrose but seem fantastically attractive when set off by the clean, desert light and storekeepers who accept American Express. The entire downtown looks as if it took its blueprint from the pages of one of the better David Goodis novels; the place is a wonderland for aficionados of noir.

But for me the real attraction of Bakersfield is the hearty cowboy cooking at its Basque-American restaurants, all garlic and cholesterol and all-you-can-eat, and when I drove the hundred-odd miles over the Tehachapis and through Pumpkin Center last week, old crockery and Rose Maddox were the furthest thing from my mind.

The first thing to do in Bakersfield is to situate yourself in the best Basque-restaurant neighborhood, near the old railroad station a few miles east of downtown. To an outsider, this restaurant row looks a lot like skid row, a gray neighborhood of taverns and machine shops and sizzling neon, of Hopperesque poolhalls and the odd grizzled man wandering around. Even on a Saturday night, the area seems empty and drained of life. Walk into one of the bars on a weekend afternoon, though--Noriega's, Wool Growers or the Pyrenees--and you'll find it smoky and teeming, filled with people talking to each other in Spanish, French and Basque. Grab a stool.

The drink of choice is something called Picon punch, a bittersweet cocktail made with brandy, soda, grenadine and a bitter Basque liqueur. I thought it was a tourist affectation until I saw a burly farmer thrust his gut toward a barkeep and snarl, "Gimme Pi- cahhhn ." A Picon goes down smoothly but gnaws at your brain for hours, and costs little more than a beer. What more could you ask from a beverage?

The motif of choice is the lamb (the Basques are traditionally great shepherds), reproduced on ashtrays, inspirational paintings, kitschy photographs and T-shirts that read "Bakersfield: Where the Men Are Men . . . and the Sheep Know It."

Hop from bar to bar, have a Picon punch or three, but get to Noriega's by 7 o'clock sharp, because the food is just a little better, the family crowd just a little friendlier. There's just one seating for dinner. You sit at long communal tables side-by-side with ranchers and shephers and real cowboys, which is more than you can say for Black Angus. Last week I sat next to a local sheepman who commented on the abilities of every shepherd at the table. "That blond guy down at the end, he's the best," he said. "Knows a lamb is sick before she knows it herself. He likes his wine, though. Had to fire him myself once."

The routine of a Basque-American meal is well-established. Most of the restaurants in the area adhere to the pattern, which seems most appropriate for those customers who come to dinner straight from two back-breaking weeks of manual labor in the fields. You serve yourself boardinghouse style, from communal platters brought to the table, and wash everything down with juice-glasses-full of cold red wine. Bread is sliced from simple French loaves, fresh and chewy. At Noriega's, where there's no menu, you get what they serve you.

First there are tureens of vegetable soup, heavy on the cabbage, which you enrich to taste with a couple of spoonfuls of spicy Basque tomato salsa--Noriega's is fiery--and a dose of boiled pinto beans. The salsa is served steaming hot; the beans taste like a great minestrone all by themselves. Then you are passed a platter of thinly sliced pickled beef tongue, cool, rich and slick with garlic, and a big bowl of very fresh lettuce dressed with a simple garlic vinaigrette, and possibly a bowl of cottage cheese flavored with garlic and chopped herbs. (If you're in one of the full-service restaurants on the outskirts of town, the dinner so far is called a "set-up," and you can sometimes order it alone, without an entree.) Though the tongue can be more succulent elsewhere in town, Noriega's beans are nonpareil, its salad crisp-crisp and delicious.

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