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Taste of Travel: California

Life in the Feast Lane : Pigging out along Highway 99 means slicing through the state's many cultures and cuisines

October 09, 1994|KITTY MORSE | Morse is a free-lance writer based in Vista

BAKERSFIELD — When I plan a trip up north to Sacramento or the Bay Area, I try to allow an extra day for travel. That way I can abandon the gray infinity of Interstate 5 in favor of the more leisurely drive up my favorite highway: California 99.

But my real reason for choosing 99 over I-5 is connected with my interest in food, for the historic road links a string of ethnic groups, each steeped in the flavors of its country of origin. With a little advance preparation and a few extra hours, the trip along the four-lane highway turns into a wonderful eating experience.

By the time my husband and I reached our final destination in Lodi, our gastronomic adventure included an authentic Basque lunch, a Swedish smorgasbord, a superb grilled lamb kebab sandwich, a towering ice cream sundae, spicy Portuguese-style linguica sausage and a taste of fragrant olive oils topped off with French country-style sausages and pates.

Thus it was that on a hazy morning last January we left the interstate behind and headed off on California 99 north toward Bakersfield. To the right and left of us, fields of cotton extended as far as the eye could see, interrupted here and there by emerald fields of alfalfa. Dozens of oil pumps bobbed up and down hypnotically, permanent reminders of Bakersfield's economic origins in the discovery of oil. On several occasions, however, strategically placed signs facing the freeway announced: "Farm plus water equals jobs" or, "1 in 10 jobs in the state are derived from agriculture"--facts urban dwellers tend to forget.

In addition to petroleum and agriculture, the Bakersfield area is also a leader in California's sheep industry. This is thanks to the first Basque sheepherders who saw in the rolling hills stretching toward the snow-covered Sierras a New World version of their native Pyrenees. To this day, Basques of French and Spanish extraction make up a thriving community that perpetuates its culinary traditions by operating several family-run restaurants. Led by the recommendation of a local expert, we made our way to the somewhat seedy industrial area of town for an authentic Basque lunch at the Wool Growers Restaurant. The small neon sign bearing a sheep hanging over the front door was the only way to distinguish the restaurant from its drab surroundings.

Inside, however, an entirely different scene unfolded. When we arrived at about 11:30 a.m., hardly a space was left in the restaurant's front section. We were invited to sit facing each other on either side of narrow tables set end-to-end across the room. From our central vantage point, we could take in the crowded booths and the quaint flowered wallpaper, as well as the front door that opened and closed incessantly on groups of patrons, many of whom greeted the staff by name. By noon, it was standing room only at the Wool Grower's impressive bar, and the huge banquet hall at the back was quickly filling up.

Our waitress, Jovita, immediately presented us with a basket of freshly baked bread and a steaming bowl of soup, all served family-style. When we asked if it was homemade, she assured us, in the softest of Castillan accents, that everything served was made in the restaurant. One spoonful of the hearty vegetable soup was enough to win us over. She then placed before us a bowl of Basque-style beans with a side of picante fresh salsa.

By the time the main course arrived we had turned into fans of Basque cuisine. While I savored two succulent, inch-thick lamb chops ($9) slathered in fresh garlic and some of the tastiest French fries this side of the Atlantic, my husband relished every bite of his red wine-flavored oxtail stew ($6.50). A bowl of crisp iceberg lettuce tossed in vinaigrette rounded off the meal.

What better way to follow a Basque luncheon than with a visit to a Basque bakery? That was our plan as we dropped by the Pyrenees French Bakery--open 50 years and still going strong. The small storefront, fragrant with the scent of baking bread, represents merely a fraction of the extensive on-site operation that supplies most area grocers and restaurants with plump loaves of French sourdough ($1.89).

Munching on the crusty heel of a warm baguette, we looked in on the Noriega Hotel, a local landmark since 1893. The long, dark bar at the front of the family-run restaurant seemed lifted straight out of Basque country, complete with small groups of Spanish-speaking men in black berets whiling away the time drinking picon, a local punch made of brandy, grenadine and a few secret ingredients. The hotel also boasts its own private jai alai court. In the early afternoon, the tables in its refectory-like dining room were being covered with red and white checkered tablecloths in preparation for the evening meal. At Noriega's, meals are served family-style at a single seating at noon ($8) and again at 7 p.m. ($15). Since on this occasion our schedule precluded another Basque feast, we hit the road in search of dessert.

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