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The Mighty Punch of Picon
A delicate balance of bitter and sweet flavors, the Picon Punch is a Basque concoction that packs quite a wallop without putting a big dent in your wallet. Fresno is lucky enough to call itself home to three excellent Basque restaurants - The Old Basque Hotel, the Shepherd's Inn, and the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant. Sure, you can order up an MGD for a fair price at any of these bars, but for those with an adventurous streak or a penchant for cocktails with character will find the flavors of Picon seductive.
The recipe for Picon Punch is simple: it's basically a liquid parfait built out of layers of grenadine, soda water, amer, and brandy. This recipe was developed in San Francisco by Basque immigrants early in the 20th century and was later exported back to the old Basque country (a stretch of the Pyrenees mountains that spans the border between France and Spain) where it became the celebrated "National Drink" of the Basque people.
We begin our tour at the Old Basque Hotel, arguably the most traditional of the three. Omni-present wood paneling, the stuffed goat's head on the back wall, and the checkered tablecloths in the neighboring dining room all add a certain rustic charm to the bar. The staff here is cordial if not altogether friendly, a small group of busboys and servers watch the wall-mounted television while we enjoy our cocktails. "The Picon? Oh that's a very popular drink here," replies our bartender when prodded into conversation. And you can understand why once you try the sweet and tasty punch she produces from behind the bar. At $2.50 each, the Basque Hotel's Picon Punch is a steal - the healthy shot of grenadine she pours in at the beginning of the "layering process" creates a refreshingly sweet version of the drink and is reminiscent of a spicy rum and coke.
The Shepherd's Inn, located across the street from Fresno's train station, is in the most historically accurate spot for a Basque hangout - most old school Basque Hotels were centered on local railroad stations where they would pick up and house "bascos" as soon as they got off the train. "When I started here, the old bascos would look me over and say, 'You better know how to mix Picon,'" comments our bartender Shanna as her sure hand readies two punches. "And if you don't layer it just right, you're in for it." Shanna's Picon definitely has a parfait-like quality to it - the brandy that floats on top warms up the belly and the sweet grenadine/amer mixture at the bottom of the glass refreshes. The flavors are distinct and complimentary.
The Santa Fe Basque Restaurant is considered remote by Famous standards - it's on Shields for goodness sakes! But the trip north turns out to be well worth it. Owner Jean Pierre Etchechury, full-time proprietor and part-time bartender, proves to be an expert on the subject of Picon Punch. He gives us a few pointers about the drink, "A Picon Punch is ordered as an aperitif. It is not designed to go with any particular food, except perhaps an olive." He kindly garnishes our Picon with olives and he's right - the two work together excellently! And who can complain about getting a snack served with your drink?! The robust black licorice flavor of the Amer balanced with the sweetness of the grenadine and the warmth of the brandy is awesome - this is what I hoped a Picon would taste like! "The difference between a good picon and a bad one is the guy who's making them," adds Jean Pierre. "If you grow up drinking them you just know how they should taste."
But the Picon isn't the only great thing about the Santa Fe. For starters they have an outdoor patio behind the bar that easily rivals those of the more frequented "patio spots" like Livingstone's or Elbow Room. They also have a juke box full of American Oldies and traditional Basque tunes. Most importantly the Santa Fe has a Happy Hour that runs from 8-10 PM. "We call it a pre-Tower Happy hour," adds Jean Pierre. "Miller Genuine Draft is a dollar."
What??? A dollar for a beer! Sign me up Jean Pierre.
Old Basque Hotel
1102 F St.
(picon punch $2.50)
935 Santa Fe
(picon punch $3.00)
Santa Fe Basque Restaurant
3110 N. Maroa Ave.
(picon punch $3.00)