My dad was not a fussy man.
He probably never gave a minute’s thought to whether anyone would remember him once he was gone.
I’m pretty sure he lived mostly in the moment … he didn’t sit around reminiscing about growing up or growing old, or wonder or worry about what was going to happen next.
Not out loud, anyway. Not with me, anyway.
(Did I have a mohawk?)
One of the only things my dad would reminisce about – and he talked about it often – was a Basque restaurant he would stop and eat at in Fresno from the days when we lived in California and he would work the Sacramento-Stockton-Fresno circuit.
It must have been one helluva restaurant because my dad had a good long life and many meals with which to compare. He must have had plenty of other more interesting things to remember. He must have had other good meals. Better meals.
He must have.
And, it is not lost on me that the most memorable meal in his 81 years of life – his most memorable anything – didn’t include my mom or me.
That damn restaurant in Fresno would come up regularly, long after we left California, and often while eating in other restaurants that didn’t impress him half as much.
He didn’t recall the name of the place or much detail about what he had. Or, maybe, having heard the story so many times, I never asked for details. But, it was in Fresno and it was Basque.
Basque cooking, a seafood and lamb heavy cuisine, comes from the Basque Country, a region of northern Spain that kisses a corner of France.
I have plenty of memories of my dad, but that stupid mysterious Basque restaurant in Fresno is stuck in my brain, the kind of random fraying connection we use to hang onto someone who has been gone a very long time.
My dad would have loved the Internet, and he would have liked that I’m using it here, determined to find out which Basque restaurant in Fresno he found so appealing and memorable.
And, if I can find the meal that so moved him in memory, then maybe I can find a little more of my dad, too.
My dad ran the Sacramento-Stockton-Fresno circuit – as a regional manager for an oil company – from about the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.
Downtown Fresno. Mid-1960s’ish
If you know anything about Fresno – and, look, I’m not assuming you do – there is a large Basque community there and there were more than a few Basque restaurants there in the 1960s and more than a few completely different ones there now.
For those wondering when the baseball is going to arrive, I offer only this today:
Famed Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren, born just a few hours south of Fresno, was of Basque descent.
Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver was born in Fresno in 1944.
Now, back to food.
For the record, I’m not sure I’ve ever been to Fresno. But, even if I have, I am absolutely certain I’ve never been to a Basque restaurant there.
But, I am going to find it. The restaurant that prepared a meal that came at the end of my dad’s long workday and long drive through the Valley. A meal that my dad would speak of wistfully for nearly 40 years.
“Home of Good Food.”
Esain’s Villa Basque is no longer there. (It’s now the site of a Sherwin Williams Paint store.)
I can find no photo of it online. Just this matchbook cover.
But, Esain’s Villa Basque. Home of Good Food. That had to be it.
Is it the one? Is it the restaurant that was one of my dad’s most important memories? I can’t know for sure, and yet, I am sure.
It was a restaurant owned and run by a Basque immigrant couple – he, a former sheepherder, from the Spanish side of the Basque region, she, a cook, from that part that is more French – and staffed by Basque immigrants, most of them former sheepherders, too.
My dad would have loved the hearty Basque fare – many courses, plentiful sides. And, lamb. But, of course! My dad loved lamb and my mom, grudgingly, would make it for him, but only once in a while, serving something else for herself and me, since we were not so cruel, she would say, as to eat a baby lamb.
(To this day, I’ve never even tasted lamb.)
The menu at Esain’s was always the same, one reviewer noted in 1971, which meant there was no menu at all.
Dinner, served from 4 to 10 p.m. was always this: a first-course vegetable soup made from chicken or beef stock, served with potato salad and a relish dish of cheese, salami, celery, cherry peppers, and olives; followed by a stew of beef, pork, or lamb, served with hot garbanzo beans with smoked pork sausage, and the vegetable of the day; followed next by a green salad, dressed with vinegar and oil; … (I’m not done yet) … ; followed by a plate of fried chicken; and … finally … dessert.
The fixed price for this five-course meal? $3. (That’s about $19 in today’s dollars.)
My dad was not a fussy man. This unfussy, hearty – and, bonus, not terribly expensive – feast would have been perfect for him.
The one time my dad came to visit me on the East Coast, years ago, I tried my best to find a restaurant and a meal that might be near as good as the one he had in Fresno. I wanted to be part of a meal he remembered. I wanted him to talk about the place I took him to like he talked about that Basque restaurant.
I wanted that number one spot in his memory.
The closest I came was La Cantinita, an unfussy Cuban hole-in-the-wall in a run-down building outside Washington, DC. It was a family restaurant serving hearty food and run by immigrants. I didn’t know then how close I had come.
My dad studied his meal carefully and seemed immersed in thought. I was sure I had – finally – impressed him. Turns out it wasn’t the meal at all. He was impressed by the beer, a Philippine beer (yes, in a Cuban restaurant) that reminded him of being based in the Philippines at the end of World War II. If you think that led him to reminisce about his time in the army, you are wrong. It led him only to mention that it was interesting to have a Philippine beer in a Cuban restaurant and it was a good beer, but it was no Michelob.
If I had been smarter, I would have scoured the library for cookbooks and made him a Basque meal. I wouldn’t have tried to force a new memory on him. I would have embraced the memory he had … and made it our memory. I missed that chance.
A fire destroyed Esain’s Villa Basque restaurant in Fresno not long after we moved away. It never reopened.
“Basque restaurants draw from the Basque community as well as the community at large,” a reviewer in The Fresno Bee once noted. “Over the years, Villa Basque has served such well known figures as Joel McCrea, the late Inger Stevens, Frankie Laine, Rita Hayworth, Petula Clark, Gary Merrill, Mike Connors, the late Eddie Peabody, and Slim Pickens.”
And, I am certain, my dad.
My dad was not a fussy man.
I miss him.