Revitalizing the Boise Basque Scene: A tapas joint with a difference

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dan started Bar Gernika in 1991 on the Basque Block downtown andopened the Basque market there in 2001 If there is Basque food being made in Boise, Dan is likely to be involved in it...

Revitalizing the Boise Basque Scene: A tapas joint with a difference

Boise is well known for its Basque culture; with an estimated 16,000 Basques living here, its food, music and festivals have become ingrained in the Boise lifestyle. One of its most famous Basques is Dan Ansotegui, who has played a central role in many of the essential parts of Boise Basque culture, most notably food and music.

Dan and his Basque food

Dan started Bar Gernika in 1991 on the Basque Block downtown and opened the Basque Market there in 2001. If there is Basque food being made in Boise, Dan is likely to be involved in it... Most recently, he has become Catering Director at Txikiteo [chee-kee-tay-o], which means pub crawl, or stroll with friends, a small space that multi-tasks beautifully. You’ll find locals having coffee and a breakfast sandwich early, and office workers grabbing some tapas and wine or beer later in the evening. There is a heavy Basque influence, with a focus on tapas (or pintxos [peen-cho] as they’re more commonly called in the Basque region). Dan’s keen to point out that this isn’t a traditional Basque eatery, however.

“We don’t consider ourselves just a Basque place; we’re influenced by what you’ll see anywhere in Spain, not just in the north where the Basque region is. And we have a number of Italian meats and French cheeses.”

While Dan has set up and worked in a number of the more traditional Basque eateries in Boise, it’s clear he sees the need to adapt and update the recipes to reflect on where and when the food is being served. He describes how Basque cooking, what Boiseans look for when they drop into restaurants on the Basque Block, had already adapted as the Basques moved to the US. The Basques who moved here in the early 20th century weren’t the grandmas who traditionally did all the cooking, but the young adults who hadn’t spent much time in the kitchen yet. And they couldn’t always find the same ingredients, they lacked the fresh fish, the salty cod and the traditional sweet peppers that Basques used as staples. As a result, they developed “Basque Ranch” style. A visitor from the home country might be surprised at what they find on a menu in a Basque restaurant in Boise. Txikiteo is continuing that adaptation, pulling strands from cooking styles all over the world.

Txikiteo is situated on a corner site within the Watercooler Building, a site that won the 2018 City of Boise Buildings in Excellence Award for Excellence in Design. It includes several live/create units, apartments above, and Txikiteo on the first floor. The restaurant is set back from the road with a patio that is larger than the indoor space. Spring through Fall they host Campfire Stories at the fire pit on the patio on the second Monday of the month, with local storytellers and food served outside; at the last one for the season Dan plans to cook paella. On Sundays throughout the summer they also host local musicians outside. The restaurant itself is small, but it’s floor to ceiling windows integrate the patio as a central part of the space and make it feel much bigger. The flow of patrons and staff as they move between the indoor space and the patio thread the two together to make it bigger than the sum of its parts. Dan helps create that feeling; he’s welcoming and warm to everyone he meets. I met with Dan on a midweek morning at 10, not long after Txikiteo was open. He asked if I minded him working while we talked; which of course I didn’t. A handful of customers came in and out ordering coffee and pastries. Some were neighbors he knew and chatted with, others he joked with as they bussed their own table, offering a wet cloth so they could finish the job. As he dotted in an out of all these conversations, it was clear he was in his element. This may be why he is such a local institution; he loves to be involved, but never wants to be the star.

Dan and his music.

Last month Dan headed to Washington D.C. to receive a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. It is the highest honor given in the country for traditional and folk artists, and there were only nine recipients this year. Boise was keen to celebrate with Dan and there was a send-off at Txitkiteo first. With music, of course. Dan, in his signature style, tells me that he shied away from the suggestion they have an evening to celebrate him. He joked as he told me the story.

“They said, ‘what if we make it a celebration of Basque music instead of just about you’, and I said sure. It turned out I happened to be in every band. So, they tricked me into it.”

Dan has always had a central place in the Basque music scene in Boise, playing a variety of traditional Basque instruments for dancers, playing in a band of local Basque musicians combined with a modern rhythm section, and teaching the Basque button accordion for 18 years. The accordion lessons have just started up again for the winter season, and Dan tells me there were 18 men between the ages of 10 and 62 at the first class, with 6 of them taking up the instrument for the first time. Basque traditions are still a strong current that runs through Boise culture.

Dan was awarded the Fellowship due to his contribution to maintaining the Basque culture, mostly through music. But Txikiteo and the bands he’s played in look very different to the food and music his grandparents would have known. To Dan, that adaptability is how the culture can be maintained and indeed thrive.

“If you’re just imitating, it’s a copy of a copy of a copy and becomes unrecognizable. But if it’s something that you’re doing where you keep one foot in the idea of what it was supposed to be, but try to adapt, that’s how it survives.”

He describes how in his band, those with a Basque history will find a piece of music they like, and take it to the rhythm section, to see what they hear and how they can weave in that music. When he teaches the accordian players, he encourages them to form bands, to take the music they are taught and run with it in new directions. The parallel with how food is cooked and menus developed at Txikiteo is not lost. “I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before, but yeah, how we adapt with music and with food, it’s really similar.”

The History

A visit downtown wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Basque block, where you can sample traditional fare like croquetas at Bar Gernika or visit the Basque Cultural Museum. Throughout spring, summer and fall the road within the block is often closed off to cars for festivals with enormous pans of paellas to feed 100 people, selections of local wines, or traditional dancing. Next year, Boise will host Jaialdi, a traditional festival celebrating all things Basque held every 5 years; the last one had around 40,000 guests. The original Basque region is in the Pyrenees, overlapping France and Spain, and has maintained a strong cultural identity despite becoming part of two different modern countries. The Basques who moved to Idaho in the 1880s and 1890s and found work as sheep herders, did the same.

Now you can head a little further west downtown and see how that culture within Boise has evolved and is spreading beyond its traditional roots, pulling in locals and tourists alike and revitalizing the Boise Basque scene.