The Star Hotel
November – December 2019
Taste authenticity at this cornerstone of Nevada Basque cuisine.
BY ERIC CACHINERO
In September, Editor Megg Mueller and I, after wrapping up day two of ghost town adventures (see page 62), treated ourselves to one of the most consistently delicious meals in Elko—The Star Hotel.
Guests of The Star experience authentic Nevada from the moment they walk in the door, and we were certainly no exception. The atmosphere is typically busy, but always inviting. In true Nevada style, the first thing I do is to belly up to the bar and order a Picon Punch. The Nevada-Basque traditional drink pairs Torani Amer liqueur with a skosh of grenadine and soda water over ice, followed by a splash of brandy, a garnish of lemon, all served in a custom stemmed Picon glass. The cocktail presents an initial potent alcohol punch that is mellowed by the bitter orange and hints of mint presented by the Torani Amer. Megg opts for an even more authentic Nevada drink: whiskey and coke.
As we wait for a table and sip our drinks, our eyes can’t help but scan the wooden walls of The Star. Photos of old cowboys, trophy bull elk, and framed National Cowboy Poetry Gathering posters adorn almost every wall in the restaurant.
We’re soon seated, and it’s game time.
A portly bowl of steamy vegetable soup finds its way to our table, accompanied by an equally adequate bowl of green salad. Each no-frills dish lets the taste do the talking—the soup with its salty seasoned cabbage, tomatoes, and celery, and the salad with its creamy garlic sauce.
The trick to eating successfully at The Star—and any Nevada Basque restaurant for that matter—is not to fill up on the first courses. I’ve made this mistake many times before, as it is easy to do.
I assume it’s the Picon Punch that encourages me to make the same mistake once again as the next dishes are brought to our table. Seasoned pinto and garbanzo beans are supplemented with tender chunks of Basque chorizo, spaghetti is artfully drowned in marinara sauce, and the most addicting dish of perhaps the entire meal—crispy French fries—prove almost too much for me to handle. Luckily the main course arrives before I fill up too much.
I opt for the lamb chops. They’re served absolutely slathered in a mountain of aromatic sautéed garlic and served with a side of mint jelly. The combination seems odd, but it strangely blends as the lamb melts in my mouth with each bite.
Megg goes for the beef filet wrapped in a thick slice of bacon. Lucky for me, she lets me try a bite. The savory beef is equally tender as the lamb chops, and the bacon amplifies the already superior cut of beef.
I’m sufficiently stuffed at this point, so we opt out of dessert—a regrettable yet wise choice considering the circumstances. We walk out the front door a little bit fatter and a lot happier after having a taste of true Nevada.
The Basque sheepherder is an ingrained part of Nevada history, lured to the West like so many others during the late 1800s when gold and silver were being discovered. Far from their native lands, they gathered in communities with other Basques, keeping their traditions and language alive. In Elko, Basque ranchers supplied food to the growing population, tending both cattle and sheep. Family and friends were encouraged to come to the new land, to work as sheepherders and ranchers, and for some, such as Pete Jauregui and his wife Matilde, to open boarding houses.
The Jaureguis had long dreamed of opening a place where other Basques could find somewhere that felt like home, even in a different country. In December 1910, that dream came true with the opening of The Star Hotel. It started with 11 rooms and one bath. Wood stoves warmed the sheepherders that came to stay in the winter after the sheep had been sold. The hotel was so successful, in just two years, it doubled in size.
The boarding house became a social hub for the Basques, with frequent dances and weddings held there. Basque girls were employed as maids and waitresses, and not surprisingly, turnover was quite high as the sheepherders quickly proposed to the young women.
Meals were served family style, further encouraging the social life of the boarders. A bell would ring at mealtime, and dishes were passed back and forth. Traditional dishes included porru-salda (leek soup), baratzuri-salda (garlic soup), bacaloa a la Vizcaina (salt cod in tomato and pimento sauce), clams and rice, and garbanzos with chorizos. Side dishes included spaghetti and beans, and the food was plentiful.
For 109 years, The Star Hotel has been Basque-owned. A number of owners have come and gone, but each family kept the traditions started by Pete and Matilde alive. A few long-term boarders still live above the restaurant that is packed nightly with locals and tourists, all longing for a taste of Basque hospitality.