Yes, I realize there are areas of Bakersfield where you can't hurl a burrito out of your car window without hitting a Mexican restaurant. Oddly, though, in the northeast they're not that common. You've got Red Pepper and La Mina and a few under-the-radar places. But Mexican food is harder to find on the east side.
But now Anita's Grill and Cantina has moved into a building that has had a rather transient history in the restaurant business.
What opened as a steakhouse about 25 years ago morphed into too many restaurants to count. The obstacle? The hill that separates the Rio Bravo area from most of Bakersfield.
It's our optical illusion. Though restaurants like Red Pepper and La Mina are only a few minutes closer, that long descent that gets drivers closer to the opening of the canyon makes it seem like a long journey that requires more energy than most people have at the end of a work day. Such has been the frustration of restaurateurs who have come and gone, cursing silently the vagaries and oddities of consumer preferences.
Maybe now, with the revamped softball fields and the new homes in the area, there will be enough business for Anita's to survive and maybe even thrive.
The restaurant, which opened around Halloween, was packed on a Friday night when we visited. Prices are right for most items (the fajita selections carry a sticker shock, but the platters are meant for two people), and the menu is varied enough to include a fair assortment of vegetarian items and even a few Salvadorian entrees.
The menu is quite extensive, with seven different shrimp offerings, seven seafood selections, various steak and chicken entrees and, of course, fajitas (beef, chicken, fish and shrimp).
On our visit my companion ordered one of the best salmon entrees I've sampled this year, the tamarindo glazed salmon ($19). The menu described the sauce as a "chipotle tamarind" with white rice, steamed veggies (carrots and zucchini on this night), beans and plantains. The sweet-sour fruit is usually found in sodas and juice bars, but its use with salmon was so brilliant that I wondered why I hadn't run across it before. It came across as a sophisticated barbecue sauce, not overpowering, and the perfectly grilled salmon was enhanced by the sauce rather than overwhelmed by it.
My companion was entranced by the meal, though she thought the grilled plantains should have been paired with black beans as they are at Mama Roomba rather than conventional refried pinto beans. That seemed a curious choice indeed. In addition, the lightly grilled plantains were not quite ripe enough.
I selected the mole enchiladas ($12) and found the chicken inside to be moist and a tame match for the slightly sweet mole sauce. I never tire of this pairing, and though it wasn't as sophisticated and satisfying as what we found on the salmon, it was a decent choice and a value at $12.
Other observations: my companion's house cab was a very respectable version, and the bar offers a generous pour. When we arrived, the place was full of families and a tad loud, but never to the point that you couldn't carry on a conversation. The interior still has the dark wood/high ceiling/rustic western atmosphere it has carried for quite some time. Be ready for that.
Oddly, though fall had arrived by the time of our visit, the ceiling fans were going as if it were August. My companion did not appreciate that.
Our young waiter seemed a tad nervous, but he was trying so hard and had such a humble spirit and ready smile as he went about his work that it was easy to root him on.