Louis' Basque Corner diners enjoy same delicious food in updated digs.
WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS
Saturday night and the place clatters with chatter and laughter. Decibel levels soar as Picon Punch flows — poured by Luis Zabalegui, the venerable bartender of 39 years here at Louis' Basque Corner, in Reno.
On this night (typical for weekends), two groups celebrate birthday parties in the packed dining room. The rest of the crowd — a mixture of locals, old folks, young folks, Burners, and a tourist or two — sit elbow to elbow at family-style tables laden with hearty Basque food.
It feels like old times, say Bascos and regulars. It's a happy endorsement for this restaurant, which, in 2011, went through major changes that upset some folks. After 44 years under the ownership of Louis Erriguible and his wife, Lorraine (who died in 2013), the restaurant and building were sold to two young locals. But even die-hards came around, rallying behind the new owners to enjoy their treasured food and drink as well as the renovations.
Shaking it up
Chris Shanks, a sixth-generation Nevadan, and Brian Elcano, a fourth-generation Nevadan with Basque lineage, have been buddies since high school and college days. As Shanks put it, "beers over the years" shaped their friendship and sealed the joint ownership of the restaurant they've known and loved since they were kids.
New owners weren't the only shakeup. A dramatic renovation followed when the partners gave Louis' an astounding facelift, transforming it from old-world shabby to retro-urban cool.
They uncovered the brick walls of the 1907 building, hidden behind plaster for eons. They replaced linoleum floors with 150-year-old reclaimed barn wood and tore out low ceilings, leaving original ductwork exposed. Still, not all Louis'-the-first stuff was swept away. A couple of familiar photographs and prints still hang in the dining room and two bota bags hang in the renovated bar.
And the food? Except for some new dishes and added bar fare, the menu is the same.
"Louis gave us all his recipes," Elcano says.
And executive chef Frank Vargas, who has been at Louis' for 21 years, promised his former boss he wouldn't change them.
Six entrées plus three specials are offered at dinner. But pace yourself: Before the entrée, you face a parade of dishes — freshly made soup (homemade delicious), Basque beans with chorizo (perfection: Do not skip!), a simple crisp salad, and a dish of the day.
The top dinner choice is the Colorado porterhouse lamb chops. It's easy to see why. Sizzling hot from the grill, the two chops, four ounces each, are thick, juicy, and tasty, pungent with garlic salt.
Sweetbreads, the second-best seller, are sautéed, then "drenched in a red wine, mushrooms, and garlic sauce," chef Vargas says, adding that he and Erriguible developed the sauce years ago.
Louis' kitchen is small, but the variety of food and flavors it delivers is huge.
"The kitchen," Shanks explains, "concentrates on dish building. Nothing is premade."
Dishes here take time and tending. Basque dishes using oxtail, beef tongue, and tripe involve many steps, starting with slow cooking for six to eight hours. The Basque bean dish begins with dried pinto beans. They simmer in one pot while, in another, chorizo, garlic, onions, and bell peppers braise long and gently until they melt. Then the two are mixed together. Savory simplicity at its best.
Lunch at Louis' can "slow your afternoon down," Shanks says.
This is especially true if you choose a traditional Basque menu with many courses. But now there is a second choice: small plates, served at the bar.
"People have taken to calling them 'tapas,' but it really is a bar menu," Shanks says, listing the top sellers: lamb French dip on a roll and a hamburger of ground chorizo and beef, topped with sautéed onions, red bell pepper, and garlic.
Even Louis — as he's known by all — is a frequent lunch customer, stopping by to eat at the bar with friends. If you spot him (he's the one wearing the black beret), give a shout out and thank him for the old times, which now blend with the new.
Reno food writer Sandra Macias has shared a zillion meals at Louis' with family and friends, celebrating life's milestones or just a plain night out. The restaurant's changes jarred her at first, but she's with the Bascos and Louis' faithful now. It feels like old times.
Louis' Basque Corner
301 E. Fourth St., Reno
Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Tues. – Sat. and dinner nightly 5 – 9:30 p.m. Reservations accepted.
(courtesy of executive chef Frank Vargas, Louis' Basque Corner, in Reno. Serves 4 to 6)
This dish of chicken in a Basque-style sauce is the lunch special on Fridays.
8 to 12 pieces chicken, bone in
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon garlic salt
For the Basque sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large green bell pepper, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
3 ounces white wine
1 teaspoon sugar
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon parsley
½ teaspoon thyme
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon garlic salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl, mix chicken with olive oil, paprika, and garlic salt until ingredients spread evenly. Place chicken in a 13-by-9-inch glass pan, skin side up. Place in oven and cook for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, prepare sauce. In a 10-inch pan, over medium heat, sauté peppers, onions, and garlic in olive oil until vegetables are soft and cooked through. Add remaining ingredients to pan, and bring to a boil and let boil for 2 minutes while stirring. Turn heat down to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes.
After chicken is cooked, remove from oven and add sauce from skillet to chicken. Mix it in, cover with foil, and put back in oven for an additional 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Osagariari! To your health!