How Idaho Became the Best Place to Eat Basque Food in America
Christine Ansotegui stands at the glass door of the converted house that is now home to Epi's Basque Restaurant, the 19-year-old establishment in Meridian, Idaho she co-owns with her sister. The scent of garlic and pimentos fills the air. As guests approach, Christine welcomes each person with a warm smile, a bellowing "Hello!" and the occasional embrace.
Hugs are pretty much mandatory on the way the out.
The warm reception is one of the reasons that, nearly two decades in, the place she owns with her sister Gina Ansotegui Urquidi is still packed every night.
It's also a cultural landmark.
Idaho's culinary contributions may be most frequently associated with its eponymous potato, but Boise, its capital city, is actually a hub for Basque culture with restaurants, the only Basque museum in North America, a Basque preschool that teaches Euskara (the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe) and regular festivals that draw prominent Basques from all around the world.
"Basques are pretty relentless to keep their culture alive even when they leave," says Boise Mayor David Bieter, a Basque descendant whose father, Dr. John Patrick Bieter, helped launch the Basque study abroad program with Boise State University.
Boise has recently evolved into a fully rounded city with downtown lofts, artist studios and all the cultural cachet of a solid food scene complete with boutique wineries boasting their own American Viticulture Area designation, craft breweries and New American restaurants serving razor clams and smoked meats. As the area around them has grown, the city's Basque descendents have been rising to the challenge of maintaining — and growing — their pastoral, sheep-herding heritage.
The Ansotegui sisters highlight their ancestry in their home-style restaurant. They wanted to develop a place that reminded them of their childhood, when their mother made every meal from scratch and the whole family gathered around the long table to talk about their days — like the real-life Basque version of Leave it to Beaver, sans pearls.
Those customs are evident in the congenial relationship between customers and staff, as well as dishes like the lamb stew, a hearty brew seasoned with a rustic blend of garlic, olive oil, pimentos and paprika. The popular dish is unique to Idaho, developed by Basques, who were coastal in their homeland, seeking economic stability (and later refuge from civil war) in the landlocked American west. "Once [Basques] came here they had to learn recipes with lamb and beef, everything that was available," says Christine. "They did not have the fresh wild fish they had in the Bay of Biscay."
Epi's pork chop is another American-Basque hybrid, a meal the Ansotegui kids grew up eating. It's grilled and marinated with the same straightforward ingredients found throughout the menu and the region: pimentos, olive oil, garlic, salt. That's it.
However, the restaurant's chef, Alberto Bereziartua, who was born and raised in the Basque Country's Gipuzkoa Province, married into the Ansotegui clan and eventually moved to Boise, also offers authentic Old World preparations of Basque fare. He cooks dishes like jamon serrano-stuffed croquetas, multiple preparations of codfish, simple calamari steaks and lemon and custard-filled gateau Basque cake.
Stuffed squid swimming in an onion- and leek-infused ebony sauce made from its ink is a bit too esoteric for many locals. The subtle dish has a rich briny undertone that could be off putting for meat and potatoes types. When customers ask about the "ink fish," Christine feels the need to manage expectations on what she calls a "gentle dish." "It's not very popular," she says. "I adore it."
In its own way Epi's is an evolution of the area's once ubiquitous Basque boarding houses, where newly arrived Basque immigrant sheepherders would live during the winter months or until they could afford a home. Proprietors served meals family-style on long tables for their agrarian patrons. In other Western towns and cities with large Basque populations, those boarding houses transitioned into restaurants, but they basically died off around Boise.
Both sets of Ansotegui grandparents landed in boarding homes when they arrived in the US in the 1920s. Both patriarchs expected to arrive stateside and return to Euskadi (Basque Country) for their wives and children within six months. According to Christine, it took both men about three years to save enough cash to make the trip back across the United States, then the Atlantic to fetch their families.
When their mother's mother, Epifania Inchausti, finally settled in Hailey, Idaho, she opened her own boarding house. About once a month, Domingo and Dorothy Inchausti Ansotegui and their five kids would drive east to Grandma Epi's, about 30 minutes south of Sun Valley, where they'd spend the day preparing for the big Basque spread of things like red beans, garbanzo beans or white beans and ham with a main dish, most likely lamb, and a dessert.
The food Epi served was similar to what one would find in other Basque dinner houses across the West. "It's that ranch-style you would never see that back home in Basque Country restaurants," says Dan Ansotegui, former owner of Bar Gernika and The Basque Market in Downtown Boise. "Basque food in boarding houses is much different from the Basque food there."
While Christine and Gina have somewhat emulated the style of dining developed by Basque-Americans, their brother, Dan, has been focused on offering a more European sensibility to Boisians for nearly three decades.
On his first of many trips to the Basque Country during his sophomore year of college in 1978 (fours years after Dr. Bieter started the study abroad program), Dan fell hard for the native cuisine and way of eating, especially those casual family-friendly Basque bars serving beer, wine, coffee and bocaditos. He wanted to bring that convivial type of hangout — at the time nonexistent in Boise — back to the United States.
Dan started working in restaurants while continuing his teaching studies.
It was during another long visit to the Basque Country, in 1990, that Dan's plan for a family-style pub started coming together. He was crashing with his younger sister Toni in the little town, Azpeitia, where she was teaching English. An accomplished Basque txistu, drum and accordion player, Dan often traveled to his buddy's town to study music.
It just so happened, when he came back, that this little hole-in-the-wall space on Downtown Boise's Basque Block had become available. In 1991, Dan signed a lease with the landlord, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center.
"It was a pile of dirt and cement," says Christine. "We were like, 'Oh my god, honey, we're going to get you in the nut farm.'"
Turns out, Dan's idea wasn't as foolish as it seemed: His scheme helped breathe new life into the nascent cultural district.
Set just one block south of the all-night crowds on Boise's Main Street, Bar Gernika started pulling crowds over to the Basque Block. Long before craft beer became standard, Dan was serving microbrews, wine and Kalimotxos (wine and cola), along with croquetas and bocaditos like traditional chorizo solomo, thick slices of semi-cured pork loin marinated in pimento and garlic sauce, grilled to order, sandwiched between a fresh-baked French roll.
That pork, Bar Gernika's first specialty, was inspired by their infamous grandmother Epi. "She'd go down to the cellar and take about six inches off a two-foot loin," says Dan. "We'd have it with fried eggs for breakfast."
Dan later added a lamb dip as a nod to American-Basques' connection to sheep, as well as beef tongue on Saturdays. Initially made by his mom, the appendage is slow-cooked, sliced, then pan-fried with flour and egg-wash, coated with a onion, tomato and choricero pepper gravy with a side of garlic bread. "We still get big crowds," says Jeff May, Dan's former employee who bought Bar Gernika a while back. "We usually sell out by 1 or 2 p.m."
Nearly a decade after debuting Bar Gernika, Dan took another step to galvanize the quaint strip with the Basque Market, an import shop, catering business and cafe housed in a former warehouse across the street from his original post. Like a smaller Basque version of Eataly, the market sells items ranging from cured meats, cheese and pickles to wine, house baked breads and pintxos (tapas).
The cluster of historic buildings, restaurants and heritage sites on the Basque block is now one of the most visited sections of Boise's buzzing downtown. "It wasn't foreseeable 30 years ago that would be going on now," says Mayor Bieter.
Dan sold both of the businesses to refocus on teaching, playing music and his kids, but he's about to modernize the city's Basque dining scene again this spring when he opens Txikiteo near trendy The Modern Hotel & Bar. The formerly run-down Guest Lodge is nationally acclaimed for its on point cocktails and updated Northwest cuisine by James Beard Award semifinalist chef Nate Whitley.
In conjunction with the Modern's owner, hotelier Elizabeth Tullis, another Basque descendent of the boarding house tradition, the chic new tapas and wine bar will offer an array of Western European fare, about half of which will be Basque influenced, including some old Ansotegui family recipes like Epi's chorizo.
Like the city itself, this upcoming steel, concrete and reclaimed wood-filled spot will cater to Boise's consistently growing fashionable millennial crowd.
Dan and Tullis hope to open the doors in March before artists like Princess Nokia, Pussy Riot and Galactic descend on the city for Treefort Music Festival, so they can expand their annual Indie music show and Basque-style roast lamb party that's earned the moniker "Burning Lamb."