— -- The scene: Beneath the shiny veneer of mega-casino glitz and flashing neon, there is another, more authentic side to Reno. It can be seen in the cowboy-boot stores, the popular rodeos and the many working ranches that still surround the city, a gaming mecca that has maintained far more of a connection to its Old West roots than its Nevada sibling, Las Vegas. Reno's western history includes a large influx of sheepherders from Spain's Basque region, famed for their skills on the range, and while most of the sheep are long gone, the city still has a couple of Basque restaurants, relatively uncommon in the United States. Louis' Basque Corner, opened in 1967, is the oldest and by far the most popular (and the sixth oldest eatery in Reno). It was recently renovated and spruced up - opening up the interior to make it airier and brighter and adding a new coat of paint -- but you wouldn't know unless you had visited previously. Freestanding and just a few blocks from the downtown casinos, Louis' has a neighborhood feel, and as you walk in through the bar, you're immediately struck by the Old West flair, with wide wood plank floors, exposed bricks and beams, a deer head mounted on the wall, and the large mirrored saloon-style bar back. The bar is generally packed in the evenings with a diverse mix of locals and tourists, in everything from cowboy hats to Patagonia ski jackets.
On the busy weekend night I visited, at least half the patrons, myself included, were downing the signature Picon Punch, which the restaurant calls "the Basque cocktail" with a provenance dating to 1837. A potent blend of a bitter orange liqueur called Amer Picon, soda, brandy, and grenadine, it is unique but tastes vaguely like a less sweet, less tart margarita. After one or more of these, the crowds find their way around the corner into one of two small, bustling dining rooms that form an L-shape with the bar, both filled with large family-style tables for 10 to 12. These feature rustic embroidered fabrics under glass tops, and are simply adorned with red plastic opaque cafeteria-style water glasses and ketchup bottles. While there are reservations, these tables are filled in and typically served en masse, with the many shared platters of salads and sides passed among friends and strangers alike. Your only choices are the entree and dessert, and while this elbow-to-elbow scene is not for everyone, Louis' Basque Corner has a very loyal local and out-of-town clientele who come in large part for the boisterous camaraderie and friendly staff.
Reason to visit: Picon punch, Basque specialties, fries, lunch.
The food: Served family-style, the main appeal of the dinners at Louis' Basque Corners are their heft and value - no one leaves hungry and it does not put much of a dent in your wallet. Just about everything is solidly satisfying, but nothing is fantastic. My main disappointment was that the actual Basque dishes constitute a very small part of a menu dominated by steaks, leg of lamb and double-cut French lamb chops, and while lamb is arguably a real Basque tradition, there is nothing atypical or exotic about it. Other than Sweetbreads, a nightly menu fixture, the Basque dishes at dinner show up only in the form of a regularly scheduled nightly special, so if you want to try the Hunter's Rabbit that was featured on cable TV's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, you have to come on Thursday. Most nights there are one entrée and one appetizer special that reflect the Basque heritage, and these can include beef tongue, chicken Basquaise, oxtails, calamari, chicken and rice, or paella. On Fridays, when I dined, the only nod to Basque cuisine was the paella-like appetizer special of mussels and yellow rice.
That being said, my lamb was perfectly fine, as were my companion's steaks and salmon, and where Louis shines is in the non-stop platters of starters and sides passed around the table, which always includes a simple tossed green salad, a soup of the day (New England clam chowder on my visit), Basque beans, the special (mussels and rice), and really delicious French fries. Every entrée except their lamb chops ($25) is $23, and all the sides and starters are included, as much as you want, as well as a carafe of house red wine and complimentary soft drinks. There is a wine list, but I never saw anyone order off of it, as house red or additional Picon Punches seem to be the favorites. Dessert is thrown in too, a simple choice of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce or dry Jack cheese with fruit.
Louis' is a fun and lively place to eat with a feel-good atmosphere and is a great value, but if I were going again I would try to visit based on the nightly menu, hitting the oxtail, paella or rabbit. Fortunately, the detailed daily menus are listed online. However, it is worth noting that the restaurant is also open for lunch most days (Tuesday-Saturday), and this consistently features more Basque options including sweetbreads, tripe, chorizo burger and chorizo sandwiches, plus the same changing daily entrée specials, with all the sides and wine for just $13, a proposition even the casinos find hard to beat.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but if you are in Reno it is one of the few sure things, fun, a great value and a good reason to get out of the casino hotel.
Rating: Mmmm (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 301 East 4th Street, Reno; 775-323-7203; http://louisbasquecorner.com/
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at email@example.com.