Even after 10 years of living in Southern California, Kevin is still shocked that we keep finding unique places to explore. Our latest adventure is a perfect example — just 90 minutes north of Los Angeles to experience culture in Bakersfield (words that would likely produce some SERIOUS eye rolls among some of our friends in LA!).
While many LA natives we know would rather die than be caught in Bakersfield, they’re missing out. A few years back, I read an article about the Basque community making their home in Bakersfield. In fact, it is the largest Basque community in the United States (just behind Boise, Idaho).
But who are the Basque and how did they come to Bakersfield? Basque country is an autonomous community in northern Spain and southern France, near the Pyrenees. The story goes the Basque were drawn to California in the 1800s searching for fortune in the California gold rush. The only problem? Like most gold miners, they never struck the motherlode. Many left California gold country for the farmlands of Bakersfield.
The Basque found cheap land and went back to their shepherding roots and set up winter boarding houses. Today, the boarding houses are gone but you’ll still find annual Basque festivals and delicious (and cheap!) cuisine. We’ll take you inside one of the city’s most authentic Basque restaurants. Just make sure you come hungry!
Wool Grower’s Restaurant
There are a half dozen Basque restaurants that each offer their own twist on the Basque dining experience. LA superstar food critic Jonathan Gold has sung the praises of Bakersfield’s Basque restaurants. It seemed like a no-brainer to make a stop along our journey.
I picked Wool Growers out of the batch of food options given its extensive menu options. The Noriega Hotel, which we hope to hit up on our next visit, is located just a short drive away and serves meals family-style at shared tables from a set menu. Sounds intense!
Wool Growers is operated by third-generation owner Christiane Camou, with help from her mother Jenny. It was Jenny’s mother and father, Mayie and J.B. Maitia, who first opened Wool Growers in 1954, and both the restaurant and the Maitia family have become famous for helping to preserve Basque culture in the region. Christiane was working the day we visited and was more than happy to give advice on what to order for a newbie — their oxtail soup and beef dip sandwich.
Meals are typically served with what’s called a “set-up”: unlimited quantities of cabbage soup, traditional bread, beans, salsa, green salad, tomato and a cooked vegetable dish. Clearly, you could fill up on just the set up alone!
I nearly forgot about the entrees after sharing the “set up” courses that Kevin ordered with his oxtail. I laughed so hard when the main lunch was delivered since there literally was no space for any other dish!
Like any good SoCal restaurant, Wool Growers has it’s celebrity fans. My favorite? According to the website, among its celebrity fans include Fergie of Black Eye Peas, Barbara Streisand, Judge Wapner and Ronald Reagan even made a few visits for the tasty french fries.
Wool Growers offers dessert, but we decided to pick up some items to go at nearby Smith’s Bakery.
Our original plan was to just grab a few items from the bakery to eat on the drive. But somehow the plan changed once we opened the box. The shop keeper told us that people actually drive from LA just to buy the bakery’s signature dessert of the champagne cupcakes. After one bite, we could understand why!
Now you are ready for your own Bakersfield adventure! And yes, get ready for some serious eye rolls and judgement from your LA friends. But they’ll be the ones missing out – and who knows, maybe you’ll have a Barbara Streisand sighting!
THE LOW DOWN:
– Wool Growers is located just 90 minutes north of LA
– Order the “set up” with one of the meals, which includes cabbage soup, beans, tomato salad and fresh bread. We recommend sharing it if you come as a group (as it’s a ton of food!)
– Most lunch items run $11-$20. You won’t leave hungry!