Taste January 4, 2017

Finding Joy in Cooking

Epi’s Basque Restaurant—rooted in courage, conviction and faith

In 1929, a young mother departed the Spanish Basque country bound for America with her toddler daughter in tow. Epi Inchausti was headed to Idaho to join her husband, David, whom she’d married only three years earlier. While Epi made the long and arduous journey, David was already in Challis, busy preparing to receive his new family. It takes no small amount of courage to leave your home, your family—everything you’ve known your whole life—and move to a strange place, learn a new language, and start anew. Seventy years later, in 1999, Epi’s granddaughters opened a Basque restaurant to honor their grandmother who passed away in 1983 at the age of 80 in her home in Hailey. If only she knew.

For 17 years, Epi’s, a cozy cottage-style house in Meridian, has served traditional home-style Basque dishes with sincere hospitality. A loyal following keeps the restaurant open, but the loyalty is well-earned, the result of Chris Ansotegui’s love of people and commitment to keeping her grandmother’s spirit alive. She had no restaurant experience when she approached her sister about opening a small place to serve their ancestral recipes. “I had always wanted to do that. Just something inside of me,” she said. “I could feel that my joy came when I cooked and served others.”

Ansotegui spent her early career in a forensic lab with the Oregon State Police, but divorce brought her back to her native Boise. She took a job she wasn’t the least bit passionate about while waiting for a job opening with the Idaho State Police. Driving to her mundane job every day, she passed by a tiny café on Main Street, and prayed, “God, that’s all I need. I just need a little house like that, like Grandma Epi’s house, to open my restaurant.”

When Ansotegui and her siblings were growing up, trips to their grandmother’s boarding house in Hailey were monthly occurrences. Epi housed seasonal Basque sheepherders, feeding them hearty Basque meals in the evening: “mingaina” (beef tongue in tomato and pimento sauce), “jamón croquetas” (ham croquettes), and “arkumea txilindron” (lamb stew). Ansotegui’s fondest memories of Grandma Epi’s house involve everyone—Epi and David had seven children—gathered for a large meal, usually cooked by her mother, Dorothy, and Epi. “Our lives just stopped for a while, and everyone was happy, sharing information and enjoying each other’s company. That feeling is, well, there’s nothing else quite like it.”

When the small café on Main Street came on the market for sale, Ansotegui was ecstatic. “I grabbed my sis and we went in [to see it] and it was a disaster, which was perfect, of course,” she laughed, “because we got to tear down the inside and start from scratch,” to reconfigure it as a quasi-replica of Grandma Epi’s old dining room. Their brother, Dan, who at the time was part of Bar Gernika, the Basque restaurant mainstay since 1991 in downtown Boise, “stayed up all night and drew up the plans,” Ansotegui said. “From there, we went to the bank and my prayer was, ‘God, if this is right, this is huge.’ I was 40 years old, starting something I literally had no background in. But I had passion. Lots of passion.”

The menu has evolved over the years, but it stays true to the principles of Basque cuisine. “Our cuisine revolves around seven ingredients,” Ansotegui said. “Olive oil, fresh garlic, pimentos, paprika, parsley, sea salt, and lemon. It’s very simple, and we try to keep our culture in mind when we develop new recipes. I hear people say, ‘We’ve come here so we have to have lamb,’ but I say ‘the European Basque experience is to eat fish, and the American Basque experience is to eat lamb.’ So we have both.”

Portions are plentiful. The dishes aren’t fancy but they’re full of flavor and reflect a keen attention to seasoning. Appetizers include the tenderest fried calamari imaginable, mushrooms bathed in butter and garlic with a splash of sherry, and grilled chorizo with snap and spice. Entrees are meat-driven: grilled lamb loin chops glazed in a lusty red wine reduction sauce, lamb stew, steaks, garlic roasted chicken, and Dorothy’s version of beef tongue smothered in sauce. But there is also halibut and Basque seafood delicacies: baby squid in ink sauce and cod with pimentos. Everything is made in-house from scratch, including the desserts. “Gateau Basque” (pudding cake), “arroz esnea” (rice pudding) and “flana” (custard with brown sugar glaze) share menu space with American bread pudding and chocolate mousse. Ansotegui works the room like a mother welcoming her kids home from college. Genuine warmth and hospitality spill effortlessly from her petite frame.

After 17 years, Epi’s is a thriving testament to what a woman with courage can accomplish. Like grandmother, like granddaughter. Chris Ansotegui’s brave leap of faith to open a restaurant without any prior experience followed in the metaphorical footsteps of Epi’s courageous trans-Atlantic journey from Biscay (Bizkaia), Spain, to Idaho. “So many times I feel Grandma Epi’s presence here,” she said. “In her simplicity, in her humbleness, she never thought she was anything, yet she is the reason we all learned how important it is to live in the moment and enjoy it.”

Love, passion—and courage—make memorable dining companions.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Territory Magazine.