With a state larger than the entire UK, we’ve got a whole heckuva lot going on. Extraterrestrial alien land, the glitz and glam of the Strip, the hypnotically hued waters of Big Blue and of course, a whole lot of cowboy country. Among this melting pot of mega amazing ingredients, I would think it’s a totally safe thing to classify Nevada as the Wild West, right? While there are massive amounts of other attention grabbing elements within all 110 thousand square miles of Nevada, we have an undeniable western vibe that I think [hope, pray?] most people have embraced. We are meat eaters through and through, hold the largest Cowboy Poetry Festival in the world, are carried away in the open range and have pretty much have our buckaroo game tight. With authentic cowboys stealing the show, one other culture has thrived quietly for generations.
Reader, meet Basque, Basque meet reader. Pronounced just as if you’d want to bask in the ubiquitous Nevada sunshine, it’s funny because all I want to do is bask in Basque culture. Yep, I’m talking about the Basque Country: a region straddling France and Spain, the origin of a wave of immigrants to Nevada in the mid 19th century. If you visit Nevada, you will most certainly have an opportunity to roll around in the deliciousness of Basque fare. You’ve heard the saying that man cant get by on bread alone…and if you’re in Basque country that is astonishingly correct...and guess what? Instead, you’ve gotta have a side of french fries, a heap of garlic everything and liquor, lots of strong liquor.
Claiming their stake in the American West roaming the Great Basin and Sierras, Basques began immigrating to the U.S. from the French Pyranees or Spain, mostly, says the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada Reno . Drawn to the country like many others during the 1860s, they had their eye on the American dream, in search of a better life for themselves. Here, in the U.S., they turned to what they knew so well, sheepherding, and created their own sheep empires with herds of up to 1,500 to earn their daily wages.
Conveniently, who else was pouring into the American West at this time? A whole truckload of prospectors. And what did they lack? Adequate winter wear and reliable nourishment. While the Basques had basically developed an airtight reputation of being crazy dependable as sheepherders, they became even more trustworthy and reliable by supplying wool and meat to a slew of miners. While most eventually returned back to their native land, the Basques left an undeniably interesting impression on some places, and Nevada is definitely one of them.
While they were catering to the miners, Basque immigrants also opened several other businesses throughout the state to accommodate the Basques: overlands, or boardinghouses. These businesses were set up around the state, and created a home-away-from-home sort of situation for Basque sheepherders, divvying up lodging and meals, all of which were communal in hopes of combating the loneliness these single men faced wandering the Nevada countryside. Today, many of these overlands, particularly the restaurants, still exist as an awesome little bonus to both residents and travelers.
Funny, calling the Silver State home for 18 years and running, this spellbinding culture somehow seemed to have fallen through the cracks. Hash it up to geography of gargantuan proportions, or the fact that many Bascos returned to their Sweet Promised Land. This magnetic culture is something you might not be aware of unless you just so happen to swing by one of these restaurants, and even then so, you might not fully understand the historical cache nestled inside.
Knowing this was some sort of mysterious piece of the Nevada puzzle, my interest went zero to a hundred when hiking Mt. Jefferson’s Alta Toquima Wilderness this past summer. Rumored to have unbelievable tree carvings, I had hoped to spot some through the trek, and was lucky enough to spot a BUNCH. As in like everywhere I looked. Deep in the heart of grove upon grove of aspens, there were arborglyphs dating back to the 20s and 30s, with gnarled symbols, shapes and names…seemingly left by sheepherding Bascos keeping watch over their herd this enormous canyon. Perhaps these illustrations were done out of boredom or loneliness—regardless, they remain as one of the only records of Basque immigration.
And, just like the arborglyphs are sprinkled all over the most mountainous state in the continental U.S., so are the maddeningly delicious Basque overland restaurants. Ooohwie baby…take me there. I’d checked out a bevy of other iconic Basque joints across the state, but was ready for what was supposed to be the historical overload, a game changer. I’m talking ‘bout J.T. Basque in Gardnerville.
With a stomach still stretched out from my one-man-eating-competition a month prior at The Star in Elko and The Martin in Winnemucca, I wised up this go-around and brought another person. No sir, I will not strap on a bib or elastic pants on another Basque bender…this time I would savor this communal style meal.
Walking up to this undeniably cool old building in a particularly charming downtown block of Gardnerville, we were ready to be wined and dined, and suddenly felt like we had almost traveled back in time as our footsteps echoed against the wooden sidewalk in front of J.T. Basque. It kinda sorta depends on where you are in the state along with who you’re asking, but every Basque place claims to be the best. So, true to form, J.T. followed suit was the BEST in the state. So far they’d all been good, and by the looks of this place, it was going to be another slam-dunk.
The time traveling vibe strengthened even more when the weathered wooden front door swung open to a whooping good, Wild West-y good time. With every barstool filled along with packed bar tables, everyone was clearly having an uproariously amazing night. If we weren’t already excited to test this place out, now we definitely were. Cutting through the crowd, it was hard to not be distracted by the countless dollar bills on the ceiling and hat-lined walls as we made our way over to the dining room. It wasn't long before the maître d’ spotted us and corralled us in one of the only remaining two toppers in the boisterous dining room.
This wasn't my first rodeo, I knew how this was going to go down. She didn't leave us with any menus, and there wasn't going to be one—it was all pre-set with a bazillion mouthwatering courses, and we would get our choice of the main entree. A simple, yet enjoyably personal facet of Basque dining that broke up the routine of a conventional restaurant that I sooooo enjoyed.
Before long a friendly gent made his way over to our table delivering the usual bottle of red table wine that comes with your Basque smorgasbord, and our first two courses: soup and bread. Instantly, he cast a culinary spell over us by rattling off options for our main course: top sirloin steak, lamb shoulder steak, Basque chicken, sweetbreads, pigs feet with tripe, lamb chops, shrimp scampi or roasted rabbit. The gang's all here—this was your tried-and-true Basque lineup, just about as authentic as it gets.
With our decisions made [steak with garlic and shrimp scampi] the only thing left to get this party started was to indulge in some true Basque cocktails. The bases were loaded with three integral classics: the Picon Punch, the Kalimoxto, and the High Ball. Having had a Picon Punch just a month earlier—hands down, the most significantly important of the three—I thought I’d opt for the dangerously delicious Kalimoxto [pronounced cal-ee-MO-cho] this go around. Besides, I already had half the ingredients on the table, now I just needed a cola. Yep, red wine and Coke. If this is wrong, I just don't want to be right.
While I settled on that super-easy choice, my partner in crime stuck to his guns and got the good ol’ Picon—pretty much as traditional as it gets with a concoction straight from the old country. Made of straight liquor, the Picon demands adherence to a quintessential rule: 1 is just not enough and 3 is too many. With each Basque restaurant making their own mark on the drink—at The Star, it’s stirred 13 times—we were excited to see the J.T.’s twist on this iconic mixed drink. Surprised to see it arrive in any glass other than a Picon glass, we liked it…straight to the punch in a no-BS kind of way that was unwaveringly delicious. I got my cola, whipped up my own liquid delight, and now we were really ready to roll up our sleeves and get down and dirty and nosh on some Basque fare.
With the soup and salad down the hatch, our server promptly delivered the next go around: beef stew, beans and salad. Yum-o. Although not to easy to imagine, each course seemed to be better than the one before. The soup was seasoned to perfection and had the right amount of heartiness, the bread was soft and delicious, and the beef stew was tender and flavorful…all of which tasted amazingly good on a brisk winter night. And the salad?! The insider trick here is to combine the beans with the salad. Crispy greens offset by the girth of pinto beans? It’s making my mouth water right this second just thinking about it.
It wasn't long before we’d had all five courses in the books and were presented with our entrées, and the sixth course: french fries. All of the food is plain and simple…it follows the tradition of the original meals served in these legendary overlands. That being said, I’m not sure where the french fries course came in as it doesn't exactly seem on par with the rest of the cuisine, but if I had to guess it’s probably because it’s flipping delish. The french fry course is always the favorite for me…who doesn't like a gigantic plate of friends with their entrée??
Yowza. The entrée’s were off the charts tasty. True to Basque form, everything was loaded down with gobs of garlic…just the way I like it. The scampi was crazy delicious, but the steak, covered with practically an entire clove of garlic, is what stole the show. Let me make it easy for you: if you’ve never been to a Basque restaurant, you just can’t go wrong with a steak. Do it.
We polished off our scrumptious entrees with gratifying ease, and were quickly presented with the two remaining courses of coffee and ice cream. Does life get any better than that?! I mean seriously. With a sense of contentment I’d been out of touch with for years rippling over me, we HAD to find out the story behind the hats and dollar bills in the bar. Plus, we wanted to get our hands on the rambunctious time ensuing in there…plain and simple.
Unable to lock down some bar side seats, we posted up on the next best thing: a bar table right next to the jukebox. About ready to flip a coin over my next libation, I remembered another western cocktail I had to order, something that was in just about every cowboy’s hand at The Star…The Highball. What was it about this drink that drew everyone in? Was it a cultural thing? Was it just downright tasty? Maybe the Highball’s popularity was related to its name, derived from a signal used in the 1800s on the American railroad. If a ball was raised high on a signal post that meant the train could drive through at speed. With a highball, you could get somewhere fast. With a Highball cocktail, you could get on your way to loosening up fast. When in Rome.
Five minutes spent in this rambunctious bar seemed like the best five minutes of my life. We were comfortably full, surrounded by good people, and sipping on some liquid goodness…talk about having a ball. The expression ‘How The West Was Drunk’ was definitely becoming more and more clear! I was in excellent company, but it was hard to not be completely distracted by people watching. Everyone seemed to know each other, with one individual seemingly the common denominator. As I watched a cheerful woman energetically bounce around the bar—it became hard to ignore her, especially when she popped over to the jukebox to lineup more tunes.
We greeted her, she pulled up a chair without hesitation, and it soon became clear why everyone knew and loved her: she was the owner! Perfect timing, considering I had an itch that needed to be scratched…I must know the history behind this ultra cool establishment. And boy did she lay it on me. She told us how the JT was originally moved from Virginia City [silver mining mecca] to Gardnerville in 1896 and opened up for business as a bona fide Basque restaurant later that year. 1896. Just want to make sure that sinks in.
Named JT after the Jaunsara and the Trounday families, it was changed hands in the 60s after another Basco—Jean Lekumberry—bought it. And guess who sat before us? His daughter, Mary Louise, who is also 100% Basque, and resident historian. Could this night get any better?! People would pass through town, stopping to eat at the J.T. on the regular. One day, a man showed off his fancy bar trick making a dollar bill stick to the ceiling. Mary Louise’s brother picked up on the secret of this kitschy trick, challenging people to do it in the decades since. With a ceiling full of innumerable bills from a bevy of countries, I’d say he isn’t the only one who knows how to do this. As for the secret in getting them to stick? You’ll just have to go there yourself and find out for yourself.
The hats lining the walls? That came from an old, local Basco who would come to the bar each afternoon, escaping the mundane day-to-day routine with a Picon or two. Eventually, he developed the playful habit of purposely leave his hat behind so he’d “have to turn around and go back for it.” As this became a regular habit Jean Lekumberry started hanging it on the wall, Gardnerville was a small community, and everyone knew whose hat it was and wanted to know why his hat couldn't be on the wall too. One thing led to another, and now the place is covered in hats—super-cool hats, mind you. With Basque names written on some Buckaroo flat hats, a big bunch of military style caps, and the tried and true cowboy hat, it definitely made for some fun conversation, and was in itself a unique way to go through history.
Marie Louise explained that it was very important that her family maintains a reputation of having a restaurant where everyone felt welcomed and satisfied, and good grief, did they deliver. Sometimes outsiders are not easily accepted in a locally dominant establishment, but that couldn't have been more the opposite at the JT, which for me is what made it such a great outing. The food and drinks lived up to their reputation of being unbelievably delicious, the unavoidable history had me in a tizzy, and together with the rambunctious Wild West sort of vibe, concocted a recipe most people wouldn't be able to resist. The whole-hearted, sincerity and candor the JT presented was truly what satisfied me the most. With innumerable attractive qualities to this enthralling underground culture, this quality alone is what sealed the deal—you cannot replicate legitimate kindness, and while I sincerely doubt you’re going to be searching for an excuse to hit up the JT, that alone is worth a trip. Talk about wanting to make you kick off your boots and stay a while.