Every year, food vendors pine for spots inside the Round-Up Grounds. But when Mario Zubiria started Mario’s Basque BBQ, he received a personal invitation.
The year was 1985, and the Round-Up Board of Directors were specific in their request. They wouldn’t allow him to fix hot dogs or burgers: They wanted Basque food.
The cuisine, named for its region of origin in Northern Spain, “is like gourmet food on a paper plate,” said Mario’s son, Tony, who oversees the business today. “It’s the taste of old Europe. You get real meat, not processed foods.”
That commitment to authentic flavor made Mario’s Basque BBQ an instant Round-Up hit. Thirty-two years later, Tony is continuing his father’s barbecue legacy, a treasured Round-Up tradition.
Food played a major role in Mario’s life from the start. Born in 1929 in Pamplona, Spain, he’d run the bulls as a young man, coming home to his family and a fresh, home-cooked meal. Mario moved to Oregon in 1959. After long days felling timber, he’d gather his fellow men for wine and fresh fare. His boss asked him to cook for the company barbecue, and Mario, always entrepreneurial, said he’d do it for pay. The guests raved.
Basque food is bursting with flavor. Its most popular dishes include chorizo sausages, lamb and beef kabobs. Olive oil, red wine and garlic serve as staple ingredients. Time could be considered another. Tony marinates the red meat for 48 hours. “When you pull it out of a refrigerator and get ready to grill it, it’s already delicious,” he said.
Basque food was once more common in Eastern Oregon, as Spaniards moved to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1980s for sheep herding jobs. Tony said most moved back.
“We’re darn exclusive,” he said of his cuisine. “All I have to do is stop grilling and it’s over with.” The business has never had a brick and mortar facility, sustained on word-of-mouth referrals and nearly 35 catering events per year.
When his father’s health started failing in 2006, Tony stepped in to take over Mario’s Basque BBQ. He’d been grilling alongside his father since he was in high school and was eager to show his parents he could succeed in running the business.
Tony’s mother, who handled the administrative side, passed away in 2013. Mario passed away in 2015.
Mario saw the business as a service, a way to connect the community and make memories, Tony said. That’s something he’s determined to continue.
Over the years, the Mario’s Basque BBQ stand at Round-Up has increased in size and changed locations. It currently sits at the west end. The menu, too, has seen alterations. Tony had to stop cooking lamb at Round-Up because it’s too labor intensive. He added chicken to the menu after Kessler’s Chicken left. He switched the process for cooking kabobs, doing away with the skewers.
But the major traditions remain intact. Every year, he cuts 2,000 pounds of meat into bite-sized cubes, a process takes the whole month of August, he said. And, following in his father’s footsteps, Tony enlists his son and daughter to help.
Tony admits it’s a lot of work without his father’s guidance. But the community makes it all worth it.
“You’ll see years and years and years of the same people,” he said. “Everyone wants to talk to you.” Despite the demands of cooking, Tony puts down the spatula and listens. It’s often that they’ll reminisce about Mario.
“It’s damn special,” Tony said. “I plan on cooking at the Pendleton Round-Up for as long as they’ll let me.”