Epi’s: A Basque Restaurant, Meridian ID
The northern area of the rugged Pyrenees range between Spain and France is the cradle of antiquity for the people known as Basque. This region includes Pamplona (world renowned for the annual Running of the Bulls) and Guernica (eponymous subject of the massive canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso), and is predominately mountainous, although it meets the Mediterranean at the Bay of Biscay. The Basque people seemed to have existed in that region before recorded time, although they have emigrated in large numbers in the late 19th and 20th centuries to pocket populations in South America; Canada; California’s San Joaquin Valley; northern Nevada; and, Boise, Idaho. These colonies all bear resemblance to the clime of their European homeland in Basque Country, where they continued to practice farming, ranching and fishing, and they have carried with them the simple and hearty cuisine synonymous with their name.
The descriptively titled “Epi’s: A Basque Restaurant” is nestled among a string of converted bungalows on a stretch of Main Street in Meridian, Idaho, just west of Boise. Christina Ansautagui opened the restaurant in 1999, naming it after her grandmother (Epifania “Epi” Inchausti) who served Basque cuisine to guests at the family’s boarding house in the valley town of Hailey. Most of the dishes served at Epi’s are inspired by Inchausti’s recipes and expanded upon by expatriate chef Alberto Beresiartua – the menu lists the food in English accompanied by their names in the Basque language.
Reservations are required, and so I left a message on the restaurant’s answering machine requesting a table; I was personally called back by owner Chris, who gave me the option of several available seating times for dinner. At first I thought that level of attention was a bit odd until we arrived at the restaurant; we were greeted by Chris at the door who referred to me by name and personally seated us beneath a remarkable piece of art – Picasso’s “Guernica” painstakingly carved in wood by Chef Beresiartua’s father (who hails from the town of Aspeitia in Basque Country). Service at Epi’s is exemplary; the fact that the restaurant was brought to life in an old house only accentuated the feeling of dining in someone’s home – our waiter and Chris regularly visited the tables, creating such a family environment that we were asked to join the diners at an adjacent table for pictures.
Epi’s menu is a tribute to the cuisine of the old country, yet playfully adaptive to changes in culinary styles of the transplanted Basque people in their adopted homeland. Although rich and hearty dishes with names rich in consonants harken back to the Pyrenees, residents of that region would undoubtedly not find the food authentic reproductions of the native fare. Meat figures prominently, with lamb taking a front seat; naturally I gravitated to the more unusual items and although the mingaina (tongue in tomato sauce) looked intriguing, I settled on the tximinoiak (baby squid cooked in their own ink). Claudia had some difficulty deciding and our waiter brought her a chunk of lamb bathed in savory gravy to taste, touting it as their specialty. Although not a fan of sheep flesh, she admitted that the morsel was pretty damned tasty before ordering the gambak (shrimp sautéed in garlic, butter, parsley and lemon). On advice from our waiter, we shared a dish of whole roasted chiles that provided a welcome kick to the meal.
The ink fish arrived in a casserole dish swimming in a thick and murky puddle of sepia; although a steak knife was provided, the squid was almost tender enough to be cut with a fork. Absent was the rubbery texture that can sometimes ruin a good squid dish and the ink added a remarkable flavor that made the dish memorable. Both our dishes were accessorized with a rice side dish that resembled paella, punctuated with firm bits of vegetables as well as Basque favorite and Epi’s signature chorizo.
After the meal, Chris joined us for conversation and gave us a heartwarming send-off with a hug, a practice I imagine she engages in frequently. It is rare to encounter a restaurateur that rolls out the welcome mat the way Ansautagui does, making patrons literally feel at home at Epi’s. While hospitality alone doesn’t define a great restaurant, Epi’s provides hearty well-prepared Basque-inspired cuisine in a warm and comfortable setting that will make you forget having considered asking where the Idaho potatoes were on the menu.
Epi’s: A Basque Restaurant
1115 N Main Street
Meridian, Idaho 83642
GPS Coordinates: 43°36’50.71″N 116°23’30.29″W