Bento boxes, Cornish pasties and Picon punch? Who says there’s no good eatin’ in Northern Nevada? Actually, we have. But that’s only because we didn’t know what we were talking about. Below, food friend, former Las Vegan and now Salt Lake City writer-in-residence Greg Thilmont explores the best eats in some out-of-the-way (and not so out-of-the-way) spots way up north:
While Las Vegas is the undisputed epicenter of cuisine in Nevada,
there’s plenty noteworthy eating and drinking to be done up north in
the Silver State—some for historical reasons, some for surprising
novelty. I took a gustatory drive through the Great Basin last week,
and here are some highlights of my picturesque trip.
A Picon punch in the sweetbreads
Northern Nevada (along with southwestern Idaho and northeastern
California) is the heartland of North American Basque culture. In
Basque-style restaurants, dinners are served family style, meaning
many sides and multiple courses. Stopping in Winnemuccca, I chose to
dine at the the Martin Hotel, a bar/eatery/meeting place located in a
historic building right against the railroad tracks—the location
seemed fitting for a food-oriented journey.
It all started with a Picon punch, a deliciously lip-puckering
concoction of bitters from the Iberian Peninsula, brandy, grenadine
and soda water with lemon wedge. It’s the traditional Basque
pre-dinner drink and it goes well with chatting with ranchers and
At the Martin, you may choose to eat at communal tables, as I did.
With fellow dinner companions including a traveling retired
neurobiologist and a visiting young horse trainer, I asked for the
most traditionally Basque meal possible. This meant a combination
entree of roasted lamb shank and country-fried sweetbread. Before the
main courses, a slew of bread, soup, salad, beans, corn, potato salad
and beef tongue in brown gravy was served up … along with an
included carafe of blackstrap-like “burgundy” table wine.
The beef tongue, for my tastes, was standout. The brown gravy is
standard issue, but the lingual meat slices are like a luscious hybrid
of pot roast and thick-sliced mortadella. The thymus (or pancreas,
whichever I was served) making up the sweetbreads was so breaded that
it was far from offal appearance. It was just another cut-up cube
steak in taste. Nonetheless, it had snout-to-tail authenticity. The
original Basque shepherds wanted for much in this rough country, so
their descendants waste little of any edible critter—it’s a frugality
shared across working ranching families of all extraction to this day.
New booze in Reno
Reno has a down-and-dirty pop cultural rep, from Johnny Cash to Comedy
Central and on. But over the past decade, the northern Nevada
metropolis has plied the tide of growth, especially a much-touted
outdoor sports industry. I hit downtown for the first time and was
surprised. The Truckee River, which intersects the town core, was
lined with public parks and pavillions, and there were condo towers
(revamped old hotels) amidst the cornball casino architecture and flop
motels (though many have great old neon signs). Most importantly, I
found a pair of new drinking establishments that would be
normal-to-cool in San Francisco or New York City, let alone Vegas.
The first great find was West Street Wine Bar. It’s a cheery little
pad with a half-dozen tables and a sandwich shop-sized bar. A decently
mid-range wine list by the glass is offered, all served in an
atmosphere of pleasant music and artwork. West Street Wine Bar has
been open for barely four months, and one of the owners told me it’s
been “kicking ass” in terms of business—so there was pent up demand
for a hospitable independent wine bar in Reno.
A slight walking jaunt across the river and through a few blocks
(normal city blocks, not Vegas-like gargantuan plats) brings one to
the smooth and cool St. James Infirmary. This establishment is
white-and-black mid century mod naugahyde seating with great retro
photos and reconditioned neon letter signage on the walls—dig the
“society” installation in resplendent, glowing cursive.
This is a cocktail-and-talk place, fit for a perfect Manhattan or
other libation. St. James Infirmary has a killer cool jukebox to boot
that features Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf, White Stripes, Talking Heads,
Pretenders, et al.
Not to leave beer out, there’s a more established joint open alongside
the river—Sierra Tap House. It’s an outlet of sorts of the great
Sierra Nevada Brewery enterprise, offering harder to find batches on
tap. If great beer’s your thing, check it out.
With huge wide open spaces and lofty, snowy mountain ranges, the main
vehicle artery crossing north-central Nevada, Highway 50, is not
studded with eating establishments. This is, as they call it, “The
Loneliest Road in America.” Headed east a few hours from the Reno
area, however, you’ll find Austin.
This town is dipped in amber circa 1880. With three century-oldish
steepled churches and vintage buildings, Austin is a truly historical
place. There are two places at the moment for sit-down dining in
The first is the International Cafe & Bar. It’s located in the
patina-heavy International Hotel building, which is regarded as the
oldest bar in Nevada. On the dining side, it’s mainly burgers and
sandwiches, as well as pizzas. I went for the southwestern-ish Ortega
burger, which, like Xerox, is now a commonplace term taken originally
from a company name, here the Mexican food purveyor. The Ortega (or
even lower case “ortega” as it can be seen in some joints) refers
merely a hamburger with a canned roasted green chile topping.
At the International there was no Monterey Jack cheese as supplied
often with an Ortega, but rather a side of sour cream. The fries to
the side of the burger were some of the thickest I’ve come across;
there are no pommes frites in Nevada’s Austin. But it’s a good burger
for a traveler, and the pizza I espied at a nearby table looked far
better than a Totino’s job one might expect in such a remote location.
An Austin breakfast at the Toiyabe Cafe is nicely done with a good old
Country/Western underpinning of biscuits and gravy. Throw some bacon,
eggs and hashbrowns on the platter and add one taxidermy antelope head
on the wall above for company and suddenly the road’s not so solitary.
Elko, shiso exotic!
Elko, near Nevada’s eastern edge, is in Basque country, too. And that
inclues the well known establishments of Bil-Toki and the Star Hotel.
But there are two other cuisines offered in Elko that are unavailable
elsewhere in a huge swath of the region.
First, grab yourself a Cornish pastie. At B.J. Bull Bakery on Idaho
Street, Elko’s main downtown drag, you can enjoy fresh made savory
turnovers filled with beef, potato and onion; beef and mushroom; beef
and cabbage; and more. The proprietor even makes a signature brown
sauce a la HP for crust-sopping.
While the bakery is a transplant from San Jose, California a couple of
years back, the southwestern British portable meal makes complete
sense in Elko. Pasties are traditional miner food, and Elko is filled
with metal extractors enjoying upticks in the commodities markets.
A “gold boom” in recent years has brought new people with their wider
tastes and increased funds to Elko—and this, like Las Vegas, means
sushi. Yes, there is nigiri at Flying Fish, located in historic
downtown. So, in the adventurous mode, I checked it out for lunch.
While I stayed with a more filling bento box of shrimp and teriyaki
chicken with a lumpia appetizer to fuel up for a long drive out of
town, I did sample a sushi special, Dragon Wings.
It wasn’t the cutesy name that attracted me to the dish, it was a
truly unexpected ingredient: shiso leaves. At Flying Fish, two leaves
of this mint relative are secured as an envelope around tuna sashimi
with a firecracker-like sauce. The leaves and fish are then dredged
and flash-fried in a slight tempura coating. Topped with eel sauce, I
found the parcels snappy tasting and compelling.
As Elko is small (perhaps 30,000 people or so in the city and outlying
area combined), Flying Fish also serves as a town bistro/Italianate
place, too. There are also sandwiches and pastas on the diverse menu.
But it is a friendly place nonetheless and a change of pace from a
casino steak house or buffet, which are not hard to find nearby.
The Martin Hotel
94 West Railroad Street
West Street Wine Bar
148 West Street
St. James Infirmary
445 California Avenue
Sierra Tap House
253 West 1st Street
International Café & Bar
55 Main Street
150 Main Street
B.J. Bull Bakery
208 Idaho Street
382 5th Street