Los Banos

Getting there:
Exit #391.  Take turn-off for Fresno.  Los Banos is located 6 miles east of Highway 5.  Fresno is 67 miles farther.  Highways 33, 165, and 152 all pass through town.  Interstate 5 is 6 miles to the west, and U.S. Highway 99 is 35 miles to the east

Located near the geographical center of California in the San Joaquin Valley, Los Banos is famous for its agricultural products, including melons, almonds, walnuts, apricots, cotton, tomatoes, and dairy products.  It is about a 2 hour drive from San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and Yosemite National Park; and about 1 ½ hours from San Jose and the Monterey Peninsula.  Highway 33/Pacheco Blvd. is the main drag through town.  Do exit it for a drive through the old downtown centered at I St./6th St. (Main St.).

Los Banos attraction

San Luis National Wildlife Reserve 
On Wolfsen Rd., 2 mi. E of Hwy 165, N of town. 
On the way, you’ll pass the San Luis Camp Adobe, which was built in 1848 as a stopping place for vaqueros herding cattle to the gold fields.  Now, during the spring and fall migrations, more than 2 million birds stop at this reserve which makes up one-third of the state’s remaining wetlands.  A 9-mile auto loop with interpretive displays passes ponds filled with snow geese, mallards, and teal ducks, and you will also see many birds and maybe tule elk.  A short nature trail follows the edge of the marsh.  Campgrounds are nearby.

Los Banos restaurants

Black Bear Diner 
The menu is expansive, and the reputation is for large portions of freshly prepared diner food, served fast and at a reasonable price.  More description and images.

Cutija Taco Shop 
5 West Pacheco Blvd., (209) 826-8024.  No cards. 
This small stand-alone taco stand is known for large portions of great refried beans, big burritos, and crunchy deep-fried rolled tacos—all with your choice of filling and a heap of guacamole and toppings.  Minimal seating is provided in a sheltered outdoor area. 

España’s Southwest Bar & Grill 
1460 E. Pacheco Blvd.  
This sprawling restaurant includes several dining areas and a cantina bar.  While misters cool things off at the entry and on the outdoor patio, potted plants and a fountain provide the interior with an outdoor feel.  Booth seating is an option.  Meals begin with a basket of chips and salsa.  The extensive menu includes Mexican specialties such as enchiladas, chile verde (slow-cooked pork), and halibut fish tacos, but southwest chimichangas and an organic salad bar are also options. 

interior of Espana in Los Banos, California
interior of Espana in Los Banos, California

Los Banos Drug Company Soda Fountain & Lunch Counter 
601 J St., downtown, (209) 826-5834. 
Also known as the Rexall drug store, this authentic blast-from-the-past soda fountain and lunch counter is worth going out of your way for.  The only seating is at a long counter with swivel stools.  Breakfast includes waffles, donuts, and English muffins as well as eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns.  Lunch features an array of sandwiches–ham and cheese, liverwurst, turkey, tuna, grilled cheese, deviled egg and more–as well as salads (try the taco salad) and soups (the lasagne is popular).  The grill is turned off around 2:30 p.m., but old-fashioned milkshakes, sodas (cherry phosphate is a specialty), ice cream concoctions, and pie are still available.  Save time after for a browse of the extensive gift items and other drug store staples.

lunch counter at Los Banos Drug Company Soda Fountain & Lunch Counter in Los Banos, California
lunch counter at Los Banos Drug Company Soda Fountain & Lunch Counter in Los Banos, California

Wool Growers Restaurant 
609 H St., (209) 826-4593.  No cards.  No reservations. 
This area has a large Basque population, and this family-run operation has been catering to them since the early 1900s.  A pre-set family-style French Basque menu is served.  Large portions of soup, beans, potato salad, pork or lamb chops, lamb stew (particularly tasty), and other traditional Basque dishes are options, and every meal comes with a bottle of the house red wine.  Note that there is no vegetarian entree option. 

exterior of Wool Growers Restaurant in Los Banos, California
exterior of Wool Growers Restaurant in Los Banos, California

(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)