Rochelle Ladd, center, and Linda McCoy, sisters who received a James Beard award for their California restaurant, Noriega's, meet José Andrés, who was named the outstanding chef.
"I've never hailed a taxi in my life," Linda McCoy said on the phone last week from central California. "I'm terrified of this whole thing."
Ms. McCoy, one of the owners of a Bakersfield restaurant known as Noriega's, was making arrangements to visit New York in the company of Rochelle Ladd, her sister and her partner in the enterprise. They were coming to the city, a first for both women, to accept an award from the James Beard Foundation in a ceremony that took place Monday night at Lincoln Center. To be honest, Ms. McCoy didn't sound totally thrilled about it.
"If I can make it through this weekend, maybe my life can get back to normal," she said.
Ms. Ladd and Ms. McCoy would be the first to admit that they're not the kind of restaurateurs you'd expect to find clinking Champagne flutes with mandarins of gastronomy like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose ABC Kitchen was named the best new restaurant, or Danny Meyer, whose Eleven Madison Park was given an award as the outstanding restaurant and another for outstanding pastry chef. Noriega's was honored in the America's Classics category, which pays tribute to locally owned haunts that have played a crucial role in a community for over a decade.
In the case of Noriega's, go ahead and adjust that time frame to "over a century." The place sprang up near the train depot in Bakersfield in 1893, and its history sounds like a rogue chapter from a John Steinbeck novel. Renowned for its oxtail stew and pickled tongue (and if you're a really loyal customer, blood sausage), the restaurant dates to a time when Basque shepherds would make the journey from Spain and France to tend sheep in odd pockets of the American Southwest.
They usually gravitated to a network of Basque boardinghouses that provided beds, three meals a day, and a community of fellow immigrants who communicated in a language that often drew puzzled looks from those who spoke English or Spanish.
Larry Errea, a Superior Court judge in Kern County, Calif., tells a story about his grandmother Manuela Echenique, who could speak only Basque when she arrived at Ellis Island from Spain early in the 20th century. Before she caught a train across the country, immigration officials simply "pinned a note to her lapel that said 'Noriega Hotel, Bakersfield, Calif.'"
Remarkably, Noriega's continues to serve as a social nexus for Basques in Bakersfield. A handful of boarders, most of them retired from working in the fields, still live there and observe the same dining ritual that's been going on for decades.
Before a meal — especially at lunch on Sundays, when large platters of paella, pig's feet, bacalao or rabbit might pour out of the kitchen, and the scene gears up into something of a house party — everyone first gathers at the bar to chat, listen to music and drink picon punch, a Basque tipple.
"I don't know what's in a picon punch," said Huell Howser, a West Coast TV fixture who's featured the restaurant on his series "California's Gold." "But I do know you shouldn't have more than two if you want to remember much of the lunch experience.”
The crowd lingers until Ms. Ladd and Ms. McCoy are ready to lead each party to three long communal tables that can seat more than 120 people. Shoulder to shoulder in the stark white room, diners share unlabeled bottles of wine and a dizzying bombardment of dishes.
"If you don't serve a lot of food in Bakersfield, your place goes out of business,"" said Steve Bass, 68, a retired science teacher who is working on a history of Basques in America. Adults pay $10 for breakfast, $14 for lunch, $20 for dinner. That includes tax.
The surroundings are about as far from ABC Kitchen as an American restaurant can get.
"It's a really modest building, and it's got this little neon sign," said Patric Kuh, the restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine and a James Beard awards committee member, who nominated Noriega's. "Inside, there's this bar that looks like it hasn't, um, evolved since it was first put in there.”
Mr. Bass said: "There's a bar stool missing, and there's no effort to replace it. That's the charm of the place. Things don't change there."
Which helps explain why, after a distressingly bumpy Mother's Day flight from Los Angeles, Ms. Ladd and Ms. McCoy felt at home amid the dark wood and clay pipes of Keens, the change-averse meat palace on West 36th Street. During a meal of steak, creamed spinach and sautéed mushrooms, the sisters were grateful to unwind in what they saw as an oasis of comfort.
"Realizing that we had to come to New York and have our picture taken — the whole thing is rather scary," Ms. Ladd said. "We don't want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. And you're going to meet all these professional food people, and you don't want to embarrass yourself."
Indeed, receiving the Beard award was such a curveball that when the phone call came back in January — during a busy lunch hour, naturally — the sisters neglected to call back.
"I thought it was someone trying to sell me something," Ms. Ladd said.
Over dinner, Ms. McCoy, 49, came across as the more wistful and subdued of the two sisters. Her husband, Mike, died last November at the age of 53, so she had traveled to New York with Kelley Brown, an old friend whom she identified as her "hand holder."
Ms. Ladd, who is 58 and was accompanied by her husband, Mike, acted as the table's raconteur, telling stories about paying dues in a three-meals-a-day, six-days-a-week commissary where the work never tapered off and drama occasionally served as a house specialty. "One day my mom called and said, 'You’ve got to come and help me,'" she recalled. "'Paulino chased two waitresses out of the kitchen with a meat cleaver, and they quit.'"
Noriega's adhered to a snout-to-tail philosophy long before anyone thought to attach chic terminology to that mode of cooking, which meant that the sisters couldn't predict what they'd find back in the kitchen. "I'll never forget that time I opened the refrigerator and the lambs' heads were sitting there staring at me," Ms. Ladd said.
The next day, as dusk approached, the sisters put on their new black dresses and filed into Avery Fisher Hall a few steps behind Thomas Keller. And after they'd accepted their applause, the two of them roamed through the partying throng, relieved that their moment in the limelight had passed, wondering if they really wanted to nibble on corn sorbet with uni, bottarga and crispy kale ("Not particularly," Ms. Ladd said), and debating whether to wear their James Beard medals.
Ms. McCoy did; Ms. Ladd did not. "I've got a titanium plate in my neck," she said. "And that thing's heavy."
The scene was one of simultaneously chaotic and spellbinding glamour: black-tied chefs accompanied by Amazonian arm candy, shifting tides of scurrying publicists and jaded journalists, impossibly long legs in impossibly tiny cocktail dresses. If, as customers say, dropping into Noriega's can feel like finding a lost wing of your family, then milling through the Beard bash felt like being whisked off to a beguiling island whose inhabitants subsist on foie gras and pork belly and never gain a pound.
Restaurateurs stopped to embrace the sisters and to offer their respects. Gabrielle Hamilton, who had just won a medal for Best Chef, New York City, told the sisters she'd swooned upon hearing about Noriega's legendary tongue. A few moments later José Andrés, the Spanish chef who had captured the Outstanding Chef Award, gave the Bakersfield duo a bearish hug.
"Oh my God!" Ms. Ladd said as he dashed away. "Now that's exciting. He might come out and cook something at the restaurant. That's what he said."
Ms. McCoy remained muted, but there was no hiding her smile. "Today she finally said, 'I'm having a good day,'" said her hand holder, Ms. Brown. "That's what matters. Getting to that point where she could enjoy herself."
Noriega's in Bakersfield, Calif.