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Basque in tradition: Winnemucca's Martin restaurant

Christopher Smith
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Solomo, a classic Basque dish of roasted pork, peppers and garlic.

The black-and-white photos on the walls of The Martin are real. Of course, they’re real real. But they’re also real real. That is, they aren’t pieces of store-bought history – you know, the kind you see in, say, Italian restaurants or American chain eateries trying to conjure up some classic or old-school cred. Rather, these photos reflect the many ages and eras of the Basque restaurant since it began operating as such in 1898. Also on the walls are shiny prize buckles from recent rodeos; on the TVs, a basketball game. The mashup feel reflects a longtime Winnemucca institution that serves as both a town social hub and a tribute to Basque culture and cuisine.

“Fifty percent of our business is local, and the other fifty percent comes once a year,” owner John Arant jokes.

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According to Arant, The Martin building itself dates back to 1878, and the original restaurant opened on the site in 1898 to service the clients of what was then a brothel. By 1915, the brothel had become a hotel, and largely served the Basque shepherds working in the nearby mountains. They become long-term seasonal customers. “The shepherds would stay here for a few months until the money ran out.”

It made sense, then, to adjust the menu to appeal to their tastes. Because seafood, a staple for European Basques, wasn’t readily available, the menu evolved to become “Basque American,” favoring meats such as lamb, beef and chicken. The menu hasn’t changed for about 70 years. But, actually, the hallmark of Basque cuisine isn’t meat, says Arant. “Garlic,” he says. “Lots and lots of garlic.” In dishes such as solomo, two-day roasted pork with pimentos in a white wine sauce is spiked with whole cloves of garlic. Piles of minced garlic also season The Martin’s signature dish, a tender lamb shank, also roasted for two days. Even the salads are adapted to become rib-sticking fare. An iceberg lettuce salad is drizzled in cottonseed oil and sprinkled with “prairie dust” (salt, pepper and, of course, garlic powder), and then generously ladled with baked beans and chorizo.

It’s all washed down with copious carafes of unapologetically inexpensive red wine – or, better yet, a glass of Picon punch, known as “the Basque cocktail.” It’s made with Amer Picon (a French aperitif made with herbs and orange peel), grenadine and brandy, and can pack a whiskey-like punch. The free-flowing wine, generous portions and large tables that accommodate families and strangers (“This isn’t a date-night kind of place,” Arant says) encourages a social – and, with enough wine, happily raucous – atmosphere. “Winnemucca is a crossroads place, and this is a crossroads restaurant – a place where strangers meet and become friends.”

Arant himself was heeding the call of that crossroads when he bought the restaurant in 2004. Arant grew up in Las Vegas and Reno, but was working as a banker in Maine when he learned The Martin was for sale. “It was an excuse to get back to Nevada. It’s home,” he says. “I would have never bought a restaurant anywhere else.”

Since he bought it, the only changes he’s made are small tweaks here and there; most significantly, expanding the beef menu to bolster The Martin’s reputation as also being an excellent steakhouse. But other than that, he doesn’t plan any major changes. “Respect for tradition, solid food – people want that,” he says. “As long as we keep doing what kept us here for 100 years, we’ll be in business for another 100 years.”

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As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.