If you’re looking for an evening of quiet, intimate, white linen dining, you won’t find it at 10th Street Basque Café. This lively San Miguel spot is better known for its clanging paella pans, copious portions, and convivial patrons — and owner Dallas Holt wouldn’t have it any other way.
The most formal thing about this place is that dinner doesn’t officially begin until Holt emerges from the kitchen and bangs his paella pan. The entire restaurant is just a couple of rooms, so it’s kind of like attending an informal dinner party in someone’s house — emphasis on “informal” and “party.”
In true Basque fashion, diners sit at communal tables (sometimes outside, weather permitting) and are served family-style. Given that setup, a bit of wine, and Holt’s gregarious personality, the stranger sitting next to you won’t be one much beyond the first course, and certainly not after two-plus hours of dining.
Holt’s path to running his own restaurant is a circuitous one, but the short version is that about 14 years ago, he became the owner of the building. At the time, it housed a pizza place and office space, and although he didn’t know how to make pizza, he dove in and ran that business for almost a year.
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As Holt relates at the beginning of his “Never Cook Bacon Naked” cookbook, a sheepherder who was running his flock right past the pizza place stopped to share a glass of wine. He suggested that the restaurant should serve Basque food, and the more Holt thought about it, the more sense it made.
Reaching back to the culinary legacy of his maternal grandmother, Holt began serving Basque dinners about once a month. Those proved so popular that weekend dinners were added, and eventually the pizza menu went out the window.
That’s probably the last time there was a menu here. Holt often decides in the afternoon what he’s serving that night, because “We’re really driven by farmers markets and whatever we can get that’s fresh. There are usually about seven or eight courses — several tapas (appetizers), soup, salad, a couple main courses (one will almost always be paella, that’s what we’re known for), and dessert,” he explained. Everything, right down to the breads and rolls, is house-made and often cooked in the old pizza oven.
Tapas might include a roasted vegetable medley, lentil stuffed grape leaves, and Basque potatoes. You’ll probably be tempted to make a meal just of the tapas, but pacing is important here if you going to go the distance to dessert.
Soups are all made with house-made stocks, and run the gamut from rabbit stew to a chilled tomato gazpacho. Salads typically showcase fresh produce that’s simply tossed with house-made vinaigrette and topped with croutons made with the restaurant’s leftover bread.
For the main course, you might be served red snapper in a red wine sauce or octopus in paprika sauce, roasted rosemary chicken or pork chops and red cabbage, Basque shepherd’s pie or rack of lamb. (Granted, 10th Street is pretty meat-centric, but most of the tapas are vegetarian, and Holt’s always happy to accommodate advance requests.)
If you’ve properly allocated just enough stomach space, you’ll top off your meal with something delightfully decadent such as chocolate mousse or Basque rice pudding.
As you drain the last drops of wine from your glass, you may swear that you’re not eating again for a week, and Holt wouldn’t have that any other way either.
As he says, “We don’t like people to leave hungry!”
Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.