I dreamed about feasts taken in the warm, fuzzy confines of Old World France, in old stone farmhouses off the main road, amidst rolling hills and grazing sheep. Anthony Bourdain, my punk-loving, ass-kicking, testosterone-driven kitchen demigod, tickled my fancy for Basque hospitality. When I awoke, I knew I would make the drive to Centro Basco, Southern California’s biggest Basque diner south of Bakersfield, and its own formidable institution since 1940.
At first, it was the Pomona Freeway and then Central Avenue. I traded rolling hills for mundane cityscapes as I pulled into the parking lot nestled between two run-down industrial cinder blocks; one a small, single-story apartment-like complex, and the other an ugly, windowless blob of stucco not unlike a shriner’s lodge . . . not exactly the bucolic charm I’d imagined. At the end of the parking lot, a group of Latinos enjoyed a mean game of handball while their wives communed with babes in hot cars, fanning flaccid sheets of paper to dissipate the summer heat. Centro Basco was the formal dive of Basque shepherds before mass suburbia displaced their livelihoods (not to mention the livelihoods of the bovines). Back in the ‘60s, you’d find tired dairy farmers chucking their worries away with a sweaty display of sportsmanship, stopping at the lodge for chow and spirits before surrendering the night to nagging wives.
Today, Centro Basco has the same relaxed, comfy, unhip vibe as the good old days, providing good communal nourishment for tired souls. The clientele has segued from working-class to double-chinned, bursting-at-the-seams gluttony, but it retains its overall rustic domesticity. Memorabilia of bygone eras dot the walls—coats-of-arms and murals of longing for the home country, accolades from every major paper, a menu that hasn’t changed except to keep in tune with inflation. Descendents of the Berterrechte family still run the place, offering friendly service that strays occasionally into lethargy before snapping to sharp attention. Lack of water never seems to be a problem, and no sooner do you finish one course than the waitress clears your plate for the onslaught of the next.
High up on the list of favorites are the lamb roasts and veal stew (ready to risk eternal damnation, anyone?). The chef here makes an awesome French onion soup unmatched by anybody around, but unless you’re lucky enough to score it as the soup du jour, you’ll have to stand in line behind the weekday lunch crowd before basking in its cheesy holiness.
Centro Basco dishes up a lavish weekend family-style affair at 7:30 p.m. in the Red Room. A steal at $17, each person is served table wine and receives no less than a bottomless tureen of soup, two salads, bread, pasta and two meat entrees (one roasted, the other a hearty classic sheepherder’s stew). My dining companion and I ditched the brouhaha for a simple spread in the main dining room, which, of course, proved not so simple an affair in the end. Long before the meats arrived, we’d had our fill of the mediocre veggie noodle soup, a plain but excellent olive oil and vinaigrette-dressed iceberg lettuce salad, the slightly tart beef tongue salad topped by minced garlic and tomatoes (surprisingly tasty and tender, even if it’s a little rough around the edges), and spaghetti with canned tomato sauce, jazzed up admirably with a healthy dose of parmesan.
The chicken poulet arrived in a blood-red bath of sweet, juicy tomatoes and sweet bell peppers. Although slightly bland, the meat exuded an elemental robustness, tasting like a victim taken fresh from the slaughter and plopped into a sauce that didn’t obliterate its true animal nature. The pan-fried Idaho trout failed to ignite my lust at first, but some digging beneath the toasty skin revealed the fish’s sweet flesh, which jumped delightfully in the lemon and garlic drizzle. Every meat had that wonderful elemental quality—light on the seasoning, but wholesome in itself. We dusted off the meal with a richly decadent chocolate cake and a good cuppa joe.
Home-style cooking is at its best when done in pure simplicity—kudos to a meal that’s hearty enough to fuel my continuing passion for the Old World.
Centro Basco, 13432 Central Ave., Chino, (909) 628-9014. Dinner for two with wine, around $54. Closed Mondays.