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Basque in tradition

The Martin's Lamb Shank
Photography by Christopher Smith
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The Martin's Lamb Shank

In Northern Nevada, The Martin restaurant is a culinary and social hub for regulars and weary travelers alike

Winnemucca, NevadaThe 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 of tchotchke you see in, say, Italian restaurants or modern American chain eateries trying to conjure up some classic cred or interesting backstory or, of course, the candied history on offer here in theme-crazed Las Vegas, where the past is just another interior design motif. Rather, these photos reflect the many ages and eras of the Basque restaurant since it began operating as such in 1898. Winnemucca is almost 500 miles away from Las Vegas, but the metaphorical distance feels even greater as owner John Arant muses on what’s kept The Martin alive for nearly 120 years. To someone used to Vegas’ constant chameleon shifts, it sounds alien.

“Respect for history sells,” he says. “Whether it’s the building, or the meals, the way they’re prepared or that they’re served on long tables — the whole feel of the place — what I’ve found is that as long as we respect what’s kept us here for 100 years, we’ll last another 100.”

To talk about The Martin is to talk about Basque culture in Nevada. The Basques are an indigenous people based in northern Spain and southwestern France, thought to be descendants of the first modern humans in Europe. While their roots as native Europeans run deep, they’ve also traditionally been a migratory people, and the West’s gold rush was the spark that brought them to America. While many Basques worked in the mines, many others soon found work as shepherds in the vast, rugged expanses of the Great Basin area. The Basques soon distinguished themselves as experts at herding sheep, and many went into business for themselves. But whether they were working for ranchers or striking out on their own, what didn’t change were the long, lonely seasons spent in the hills and valleys of the Nevada outback.

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A network of rural Nevada Basque restaurants and hotels developed to serve them. They were places not only where a tired shepherd could eat and sleep, but also vital social hubs where they could talk with fellow Basques over a bottle of wine, write home, and maybe even meet a future spouse.

“The shepherds would stay here for a few months until the money ran out,” Arant says. “Then the innkeeper would find another flock and send them out.” Because seafood, a staple for European Basques, wasn’t exactly abundant in the desert, local menus evolved to become “Basque American,” favoring meats such as lamb, beef and chicken.

 

‘Lots and lots of garlic’Today, with sheep-herding on the decline and Basques replaced by Peruvians, Arant estimates his clientele is less than five percent Basque. (“They criticize the cooking all the time,” he jokes. “There’s nothing as tough, no person as difficult to please as a true Basquo woman!”) But the other regulars who eat and drink at The Martin come for the same reason: good food and good company.

“Fifty percent of our business is local, and the other fifty percent comes once a year,” he says. Those annual visitors are drawn by the same sense of solid tradition that brings the Winnemucca regulars. Arant says the menu hasn’t changed for about 70 years, still serving simple, hearty but carefully cooked lamb, beef and chicken dishes, of all which go heavy on the signature ingredient of Basque cuisine. “Garlic,” Arant says. “Lots and lots of garlic.”

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Chicken Basque.  Photography by Christopher Smith

In dishes such as solomo, grilled pork with pimientos in a white wine sauce is spiked with whole cloves of it. Piles of minced garlic also season The Martin’s marquee dish, a tender lamb shank, roasted for two days. (You slide the meat off the bone with a fork, dab on a little mint jelly, and then enough minced garlic to make your eyes water.) Even the vegetables are adapted to become rib-sticking fare. For instance, 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 seems strange at first, but the richness of the beans and chorizo and the cold crunch of the lettuce call to mind something like a taco salad.

 

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 hard-to-find French aperitif made with herbs and orange peel), soda water, grenadine, a float of brandy, a twist of lemon, then stirred 13 times. (“Because it’s Basque,” Arant says.) It can pack a whiskey cocktail-like punch.

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Comfort foodAnd when you put it all together —the free-flowing wine, the generous portions for sharing, the large tables that mash up families, friends and strangers (“This isn’t a date-night kind of place,” Arant says), all fueling a rousing, even raucous, atmosphere — sure, you have the recipe for a traditional Basque restaurant. But it achieves something even more fundamental than that. It gets back to the original idea of comfort food: not standardized dishes intended to guess at the average American’s memories of mom’s cooking, but unique dishes that play a part in creating an improvised home.

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“Winnemucca is a crossroads place, and this is a crossroads restaurant – a place where strangers meet and become friends,” Arant says. “A lot of what happens here at The Martin would succeed in any place that’s a crossroads. If you’re coming out of the Bay Area, or even coming out of Vegas, this is kind of a halfway point. This is where you stay the night and, basically, the people who come here, they kind of run into people who are doing the same thing. The conversations that go on at the tables are just amazing.” He rattles off anecdotes about chance meetings, a-ha encounters, serendipities that seem like more than coincidence.

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, he’s expanded the beef menu to bolster The Martin’s parallel reputation as an excellent steakhouse. But other than that, he doesn’t plan any major changes. Just as the The Martin offers diners many satisfactions other than food, Arant is in the business for reasons other than money.

“Owning a restaurant in this community is very interesting. There are only about 7,000 people in Winnemucca. More people stay at the Mirage on a weekend than live here,” he says. “But you get to know people here, you become part of their lives, and that kind of connection is very satisfying.”

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.