BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Most people like some authenticity in their ethnic dining experience. A chef who knows a thing or two about Old World spices. A server with continental accents. A bartender who tells stories with an accent that says “I was there”.
The latter describes Joaquin Mendiara, an 81-year-old bartender who, like any good bartender, is quite a good listener. But, for customers of the Oak Street Chalet Basque restaurant who are inclined to listen to themselves, he reveals impeccable Basque bartending credentials.
Born in the Basque Country – it’s the mountainous region in southwestern Europe where Spain and France meet in the Pyrenees – he worked in his father’s bakery in their small mountain town of 400 people. .
And at 20, he served in the Spanish army of legendary Generalissimo Francisco Franco. But when Mendiara’s father’s bakery began to struggle, he and his brother decided to travel to the United States to earn money they could send home to save the family business.
They told immigration officials they were shepherds — shepherds, in the young men’s native tongue — because that’s the kind of skilled work U.S. officials were most likely to seek from applicants. like them.
Mendiara’s first proper meal in the United States – breakfast at the Noriega Hotel in Bakersfield. It was there that he met his future employer, a Kern County sheep farmer. Over time, Mendiara rose through the ranks to a supervisory position. But in 1964, just days before it was time for the rancher’s flock to make the spring trek from the East Kern desert to a cooler climate, the company herder quit and Mendiara took over. had to intervene.
And so accompanied only by two trusty German Shepherds and a donkey – he trekked 700 head of sheep from Mojave north through California’s eastern spine 250 miles to Lee Vining, north of Bishop. The trek lasted 29 days.
“700 sheep, (sheepdogs) Fina, Pancho and my donkey, Marcellino,” Mendiara said. “We started walking, and it took me the first time, it took me about 29 days, from Mojave to Lee Vining.”
We don’t eat with it, we don’t sleep with it, we don’t walk by it and we don’t care for 700 sheep, in the eastern shadow of the Sierra Nevada for almost a month, without a seizure or two along the way.
Most desperate was the day one of his dogs was bitten by a rattlesnake – and probably had only minutes to live. Mendiara grabbed his knife and cut open the wound, tied a tourniquet over the bite with a rope, and steamed the wound carefully. For the next few days the dog hobbled painfully along the procession, but after about a week he was fully recovered. However, the trip was trying for all of them. Mendiara has lost three or four sheep to snakebites, old age or other ailments – not unexpected.
The same thing happened the following spring. The shepherd resigned and Mendiara intervened. This time the trip lasted 32 days.
Eventually, Mendiara entered another career – bartending. For nearly 50 years now, he’s been pouring drinks, talking sports and advising on weddings – that’s what bartenders do, after all – at a handful of Basque restaurants, as well as Rice Bowl Chinese and Red Pepper, when the Mexican restaurant was on Sumner Street. , near the Noriega hotel. He married his wife Jessica in 1985 and they have lived in the same house near Garces High School for about 30 years.
Retirement has been discussed, and sometimes, when Mendiara stands on both of his replaced knees for six or eight hours, it looks appealing. But his fans need him – at least according to his fans. So, for now, Mendiara will continue to work the day shift, Wednesdays and Thursdays, at Chalet Basque.
Sixty years ago, Joaquin Mendiara was living the life we in Bakersfield associate with Basque immigrants. Today, he is a historical record of walking, talking and mixing drinks from those days, still at work there on Oak Street.