Basque in glory with family-style dining

San Francisco used to be known for its Basque restaurants, especially in North Beach, where young and old on a budget congregated for huge, hearty, family-style dinners of really good quality at astonishingly cheap prices.

The cooking leaned toward the French side of Basque country rather than the Spanish, and featured homey soups, long braised meats and brown sauce on everything.

I didn’t realize how much I missed these generous, low-key meals until I ate, recently, at the Basque Cultural Center, a bona fide community center and cultural institution hidden away in a residential neighborhood in South San Francisco.

What a revelation! The sprawling, free-standing building with parking lot not only houses foreshortened pelota fronton, mostly used by racquetball players, and a ballroom where dancing classes go on, but a comfortable, old fashioned, hotel-style dining room with green carpeting, an acoustic ceiling between half-timbered beams, print wall paper and white-linen covered tables.

The dining room accommodates many large groups at long tables, plus deuces and four tops. Singles sit at the long, polished wood bar watching sports on TV. A separate private dining room is almost always full.

On the Thursday night I first visited, everyone’s meal started with a velvety, true-flavored spinach soup, ladled from a metal tureen set on the table, a signature of Basque family-style restaurants. The salad was just as tasty, a big pile of butter lettuce in a creamy, green goddess-like dressing.

Then, if you ordered the nightly special ($16.95), you got a ramekin of rich, gelatinous, super tender veal cheeks in thickened brown pot juices followed by an ample chicken cordon bleu, a pounded chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese, breaded and fried — an old fashioned dish done well — drizzled with completely superfluous brown gravy. I couldn’t even get to the heaps of fresh vegetable medley, and roasted potatoes scattered with handfuls of chopped garlic, piled on the plate. Excellent spumoni comes with the nightly special. Amazing.

Diners who prefer only one entree can choose from a number of a la carte main courses that also include soup and salad. A cassoulet ($18.95) comes to the table piping hot in a terra cotta casserole. Flavor-packed, tomatoey, white beans conceal a silky confit of duck leg and a garlic sausage.

Beef tongue lovers (count me as one) will appreciate a big plate of fork-tender slices — smothered in brown gravy. I scraped it off.

The Sunday night special ($17.95) brings not only a main course-size portion of meltingly tender lamb stew in a glorious mahogany sauce as an “appetizer,” but a thick slice of rare roast beef in that brown gravy.

I nibbled my way through two plump, juicy quail on a king-sized bed of mushrooms, pearl onions and bacon ($18.95).

The frozen almond nougat ($5), a semi-freddo filled with crunchy, caramelly, toasted almonds was sweet yet sophisticated.

The wine list is a miracle, full of perfectly drinkable riojas, bordeaux and bottles from Irouleguy and Cotes de Ventoux for $17 to $25. Cocktails, like Makers Mark Manhattans ($5) are perfectly made.

Kudos to chef Michel Veron and manager Francois Camou for attending to every aspect of the experience at The Basque Cultural Center.

I’m committed to returning for all the weekly specials — I have four to go.

BASQUE CULTURAL CENTER

Location: 599 Railroad Ave., South San Francisco

Contact: (650) 583-8091 or www.basqueculturalcenter.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Price range:Lunch, $7.50 to $12.50; full dinner, $12 to $24.95

Recommended dishes: Weekly specials, cassoulet, quail, tongue, frozen almond nougat

Credit cards: All major except Discover

Reservations: Accepted

Subscribe to “Unterman-on-Food,” a printed, bi-monthly newsletter by e-mailing pattiu@concentric.net.

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