Serving of Basque cuisine
Photo by Helen Arase

The Last Basque Restaurant in Southern California

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The family-run Centro Basco has served as a nexus for the Basque community — and delicious dining — since 1940.

Sundays are the busiest days at Centro Basco, the last Basque restaurant of its kind in Southern California. Long-time patrons are easy to spot as they convene around a specific corner of the bar and greet each other warmly with kisses on both cheeks. Some of the men wear traditional Basque berets.

This Chino restaurant is one of the few places in the SoCal region where you might hear the Basque language, Euskara. During a meal of stewed lamb shanks and braised oxtail, it’s not uncommon to hear four languages being spoken: English, French, Spanish and Basque — sometimes all during the same conversation.

Centro Basco was founded in 1940 and has been operated by the Berterretche family since 1970. Bernadette Berterretche, the youngest of the five Berterretche children, runs Centro Basco along with the restaurant’s head chef, her brother Joseph. Their parents, Monique and Peyo, have roots in Basque Country, on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains in a small town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

The term “Basque” refers to an indigenous ethnic population originating from the autonomous region located between Spain and France. In the early part of the 20th century, many Basque people migrated to America to work in various agricultural jobs in several Western states — including California. Here in Southern California, the city of Chino served as a geographical focal point. It is a landscape that used to be home to farmland and dairies, which have now have been replaced by big-box manufacturing facilities.

Centro Basco cook Eligio Villvalzo serves classic dishes from the Basque region. Photo by Helen Arase.

When the Berterretche family purchased Centro Basco’s property in the ’70s, it was already established as a full-service restaurant and housed small apartments for 32 “boarders” who already lived there. The boarders comprised Basque men who worked on local farms nearby and would receive all of their daily meals at the restaurant. For recreation, there was a full-sized handball court which still stands today. While many of the occupants have passed on or moved away, there remains one resident who worked at a nearby grain factory and has lived at Centro Basco for the past 53 years and still faithfully shows up each and every day for all of his meals.

Centro Basco offers guests two different types of dining experiences. Diners can order off an a la carte menu, or choose the “Boarder’s Table,” a family-style dining experience that features multiple courses and exclusive menu items like oxtail stew, rabbit and blood sausage. The meal begins promptly at 12:30 p.m. with the ringing of a bell letting everyone know to take their seats.

Patrons are then led to large dining rooms and sat next to one another at long communal-style tables. The meal begins with the arrival of large serving bowls filled with soup featuring vegetables and fideos, small vermicelli-like noodles, alongside a simple salad dressed with a classic vinaigrette. The meal also includes loaves of sourdough bread from the Los Angeles-based Frisco Baking Company served with a generous serving of Dutch blue cheese. Bottles of the house red wine from Galleano Winery in nearby Mira Loma are placed on the table.

In the spirit of Basque tradition, Centro Basco offers a communal-style dinner which features special dishes not found in their regular menu. At the Boarder’s Table, diners are served multiple courses, including two entrees, and all-you-can-drink house wine. Photos by Helen Arase.

Following the opening course, two entrees are served, one after the other. During a recent visit, the menu of the day featured a classic rib-eye steak, cooked medium rare, topped with garlic and parsley and served with french fries. Following the steak came the Poulet Basque, a braised chicken cooked with stewed tomatoes, peppers, onions and a splash of white wine and seasoned with piment d’Espelètte, creating an exquisite velvety sauce. Other regular menu items include lamb chops, rack of lamb and various sausages, all made in house.

“Everyone says that out of all the Basque restaurants in the United States, that we make the best sausages,” Bernadette says. Popular options include the traditional Basque-style lukinka, which is similar to Spanish chorizo in terms of consistency, but not as dry nor as spicy. Centro Basco is also known for their tripota, the traditional Basque take on blood sausage.

“You have to pace yourself,” says longtime customer Philip Harford. He started coming to Centro Basco in the 1950s with his mother when they lived nearby in Ontario. Nowadays, Harford and his wife, Loretta, live in Placentia — a bedroom community in Orange County —  but return to Centro Basco with their four adult children and 11 grandchildren for celebrations like birthdays.

Brothers Bert and P.H. Aphessetche, along with Bert’s wife Danielle, have been coming here for more than 50 years. The two are sporting the classic beret, and from their seats at the Boarder’s Table, they recall when they immigrated to Southern California from the French Basque region.

“When I came to the U.S. in 1956, my first meal from the airport was here,” Bert says. The siblings were originally hired to milk cows and went on to start their own successful scaffolding business in Orange County.

A friendly after-dinner game of cards turns into a lively affair at Centro Basco. Photo by Helen Arase.

While longtime patrons know and love Centro Basco, a younger generation has begun to discover, or rediscover what makes it special. Many of them have a family connection.

“They realized that they want their children to know how they grew up and relive their memories. And they’ll say ‘Oh man, my grandpa used to bring me here,’’’ Bernadette says. “And when I hear that, that’s what drives me to keep doing this. Because that’s all we have in the end, our memories.”

Centro Basco

13432 S. Central Ave., Chino, CA 91710 / centrobasco.net

Los Angeleno