If you can handle some raw language, go on YouTube and look up "Hitler Rants on Bakersfield." It's hilarious. At one point Hitler asks everyone who "doesn't remember Sam's Pizza Boat" to leave the room, and most of the Nazis exit. He later rants about the foolishness of those of us standing in line for an hour to eat at a chain restaurant.
But hilarity aside, "Hitler" was off the mark about the current state of Bakersfield's dining scene. There were a lot of new restaurants this year, increased diversity in our options and even some respectable chains bringing stores here. Our well-documented tendency to eat out has given entrepreneurs reason to take their chances in the notoriously difficult restaurant world, and we are reaping the benefits.
Two big takeaways for 2013? We love barbecue and wine.
Ah, to have been a wet nap salesman in Bakersfield this year. We were slathering barbecue sauce on everything, thanks to the deluge of restaurants specializing in ribs, brisket, pulled pork, etc. And the best part: All of the new barbecue restaurants are pretty decent. Some have even made the cut for my favorite new places of the year.
Wine, too, saw a surge in popularity, or, more to the point, its power to bring people together socially. More and more businesses are getting into the organized tastings/wine dinner business that is part social exercise, part opportunity to try new things and expand the palate. I've heard great things from readers about the First Friday events at Steak & Grape, the every-few-months events at Valentien Restaurant & Wine Bar, Luigi'sCafe Med and even the recent Beer Tasting dinner atBJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse ($30 a person for food and drink).
But more than any gauge, the real proof that Bakersfield had a banner year in dining is the sheer number of wonderful new restaurants that opened in 2013. Seldom have I seen so many. We had 10 restaurants worthy of inclusion on this list, and those are just the independently operated kitchens. Some great new chains expanded here as well, and I don't mind saying so, even if it means more ridicule from YouTube Hitler.
But to offer a survey of a city's restaurant scene, you can't stop at the newbies. Opening a restaurant is one thing, but keeping the food interesting year after year takes some doing. We have many worthy veterans out there who could show the new guys a thing or two.
And when money is tight -- when in recent memory has it not been? -- we return to the restaurants that have perfected that winning combo of great food at great prices.
My take on the most exciting places to dine in 2013:
Best new restaurants
Wiki Wine Bar & Grill (11350 Ming Ave., 399-4547)
Wiki is the best new restaurant in Bakersfield and that's saying something, considering all the solid choices on this list.
The upscale wine and casual gourmet restaurant has an upbeat vibe and a kitchen that's both inventive and geared to keeping people happy. If you're celebrating a Thursday night, those $3 glasses of champagne in the bar are a lot of fun. In only its first year, Wiki's shows a willingness to evolve, listening to customers and tweaking the menu.
You can spend a lot, you can spend a little, but you'll get first-rate food and drink in a blood-pressure-lowering atmosphere.
The Grill Hut (6801 White Lane, 847-9797)
Who says dreams can't come true in America today? A small kiosk on Ming Avenue does enough business to warrant a move to a converted railroad car on White Lane, with a nice wood deck patio, and beer and wine to give it a more polished dinner atmosphere. The Grill Hut is part of the amazing barbecue renaissance we enjoyed in Bakersfield this year. Pulled pork, burgers and homemade pineapple upside down cake are worth ordering.
Old River Grill (9450 Stockdale Highway, 282-8860)
This place would make the list if only for offering the burger made from 50 percent ground chuck, 50 percent ground bacon, but there's more: solid breakfast options and a pleasant, convivial atmosphere. You can't go wrong imitating 24th Street Cafe.
Salty's BBQ & Catering (9425 Rosedale Highway, 587-8437)
The accommodations aren't inviting (picnic tables?) but one taste and you'll understand why people wait so patiently in line for some of the barbecue. Pulled pork, slow-cooked over red oak, ribs, chicken with a nice smoke ring. Definitely a great idea for takeout after work.
Rincon Cubano (1907 S. Chester Ave., 310-0807)
A very humble, small Cuban cafe that is a real value. We love the shredded beef (ropa vieja), roast pork, shrimp and garlic chicken.
Kan Pai Sushi Teppan Lounge Bar (9500 Brimhall Road, 587-0665)
A slice of Santa Monica in Bakersfield. Love the atmosphere, love the bacon-fried rice, the snapper, the sushi, the short ribs. Very satisfying at prices far below what you'll see in L.A.
Seoul Korean (3615 Coffee Road, 589-2800)
As authentic as it gets, with as many variations on kim chi as seems possible. Other positives: the banchan options, the accommodating staffers who realize they may have to teach customers about the food (not everyone is familiar with the cuisine), and they do it with a good heart. But don't run to the restaurant just yet: A note on the door said Seoul Korean has been closed since late November for remodeling, with no word on when it will reopen.
Coseree's Restaurant & Catering (8700 Swigert Court, 654-8553)
Hard to find, but you get amazing breakfasts, crepes and sandwiches here. The quality of the ingredients is what charms you — things like the three-cheese panini with smoked Gouda and a sundried tomato pesto dressing. Wow, what fond memories.
Sol Y Luna (900 Truxtun Ave., 325-2535)
The restaurant opened downtown over the summer in the old Tailgaters space, and not only does it have a great happy hour, but the service is first rate from a staff that seems determined to win you over as a regular.
The Fusion (1823 Chester Ave., 861-8900)
This restaurant was stunning when it debuted a few months ago, and it still packs a punch though the number of cuisines being fused has been dropped to two: Chinese and Japanese. Very classy atmosphere, not too crowded yet, nice people staffing the place.
Best new chain restaurants
Flame Broiler (3505 Coffee Road, 588-7888)
My favorite new chain, the Flame Broilers is a healthy alternative that proves such food can taste fantastic and be quite affordable. I'm sure the sodium content on the sauce is up there, but the steamed vegetables, the brown rice, the lack of MSG and other additives make up for it.
Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers (2649 Calloway Drive, 587-3374)
Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, like Dickey's BBQ, is not going to be good for anyone worried about their sodium content, but it did bring that trendy "smashed hamburger" to Bakersfield as well as the frozen custard I grew up on in the Midwest.
Black Bear Diner (4102 California Ave., 322-5000)
I've gone to Black Bear Diner on visits around the state in the past and will admit that some of the menu items are as destructive as land mines (don't understand that supposedly healthy stuffed chicken breast with broccoli thing) but I love the pancakes, love the trout at dinner and can successfully avoid those massive dessert creations that look like they're built for giants. Ten years from now, I'll bet it's still open in a California Avenue building that has never seen such stability in tenants.
Dickey's Barbecue Pit (3505 Coffee Road, 589-4227)
Dickey's, from Texas, is a slow version of fast food (they cut the meat to order, and since it's slow smoked they're can be out), but that chicken is worth the wait.
Great ... and getting better
Camino Real (4501 Stine Road, 852-0493)
I love the move to the less prominent location, the more intimate atmosphere, the crazy values (especially for happy hour, which runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily). Owner Alejandro Ocampo is not a slave to conventional Mexican cuisine, so you won't get burgers that are an obligatory offering to those with cowardly taste buds. So much to recommend on the menu, but my favorites include anything with those house- made lime marinated onions and the El Gigabyte burrito ($16), which I can stretch to three meals. This is a place that continues to improve.
Various restaurants at Padre Hotel (1702 18th St., 427-4900)
It's hard to get a handle on the Belvedere Room, Brimstone or Prairie Fire, because the place is always changing, always trying to stay on the cutting edge. Downside: It's unlikely I'll ever develop any favorites here, as they won't stay. Upside: Every visit has the potential to offer new delights. The energy to stay fresh is still there three years after the opening. Your taste buds will never fall asleep here.
Zaika Indian Cuisine (5123 Ming Ave., 836-0100)
My Pakistani doctor says the quality of the food here rivals what he's found in L.A., and there are some rice dishes that you can't get elsewhere in Kern County. What I love is the butter chicken, the garlic naan, the tandoori mixed grill, but those are just personal preferences; everything else is probably just as impressive. If you want to sample the quality to check out what I'm saying, I recommend the $7.99 lunch buffet.
Red Pepper (2641 Oswell St., 871-5787)
Sure you could order a combo meal here, but that's the very definition of a wasted opportunity. I realize my praise for this place in the northeast is not news; I've been raving about it for decades now because it's consistently top drawer, always changing, always embracing new trends. In recent years, the emphasis on fine wines with Mexican food has been quite intriguing. Even the most interesting man in the world, were he to visit this place, might pass up a Dos Equis to try what Gilbert Sabedra is pairing with his shrimp chili verde. By the way, all the shrimp choices are great, and the specials board is always an adventure. I know almost everyone loves bacon-wrapped shrimp, but try their version with the light cream sauce that lifts it to another level. So hard to order here -- so many tempting options.
Steak & Grape
(4420 Coffee Road, 588-9463)
I wasn't impressed when the restaurant first opened, but Cafe Med wasn't built in a day either, and it does seem every time I go back the place has improved. Love the happy hour, the Sunday brunch menu and the execution with steaks, chicken and pasta. The prime rib is about the only one that can rival Hungry Hunter's. What I've loved on past visits is the peppercorn steak, the basil chicken with pasta and the roasted red pepper hummus. Solid wine list, too, almost on a par with Wiki Wine Dive & Grill.
Frugatti's (600 Coffee Road, 836-2000)
I missed the seafood festival they had recently but heard it was great. Love, love, love the healthy options section of the fitness menu; taste is not sacrificed for the calories. The family packs, similar to what Cafe Med offers, are a good value for those who want restaurant food at home. This is a place that definitely has its swagger back.
Jake's Original Tex-Mex Cafe (1710 Oak St., 322-6380)
I'm not talking about the great pit-style beef or garlic chicken, or the way this place was Chipotle before Chipotle was Chipotle. I'm talking about the desserts, which include amazing cookies and those irresistible chocolate chip cookies with that famous cream cheese chocolate frosting in the middle. And the white chocolate chip/potato chip cookie? I had to be talked into trying one, but it's like a sugar cookie with an extra salty/crunchy punch. Now I've got another dessert I want to get. It's to the point that I think more about what I'll order for dessert when I visit than what protein I want on my burrito. I don't know who's got the great sweet tooth back there, but it's a diet buster to visit this place.
Most underrated/ unfairly overlooked
Red Stone Italian Grill (9901 Hageman Road, 587-9090)
Every time I visit I wonder why it's not hard to get a table. I love the calzone at Joseph's, but they're even better here for all the fine details they take care of in the kitchen, such as caramelizing the onions inside. Great salads and flatbread sandwiches, too. Service can be spotty, but not in a way that wouldn't get you to come back. We've also loved the salmon with dill sauce and the spinach and artichoke pizza.
Cafe Crepes (1028 Truxtun Ave., 374-4946)
We sometimes forget in our automatic "Let's go to 24th Street Cafe" mode to visit this humble but always satisfying downtown breakfast and lunch spot. Across from Rabobank Arena, it excels at both the sweet and savory crepes. Try the lemon curd crepe with baked blueberries or anything with Nutella. Nutella is the bacon of breakfast spreads.
Jake's Steakhouse (213 S. Curry St., Tehachapi, 822-6015)
This is a moderately priced place that I finally visited in the fall, and it's already my go-to restaurant when I'm up in this mountain community. Small, though, so make reservations. Get the flat-iron steak if you're in a mood for beef.
Hungry Hunter (3580 Rosedale Highway, 328-0580)
Watching your pennies? This is the place to go, not just the amazing bargains at happy hour, but the deals they occasionally offer via coupon, where two can dine for under $40 with practically everything included. There was a coupon in the paper last month and they're usually good for one in January, when they know money is tight for most people.
La Tapatia (1015 N. Chester Ave., 393-7388)
I'm not sure it's authentic, but so many menu items taste so good I don't care. Chili verde fried chicken is a must, as are the chicken enchiladas with the white sauce. Populated by regulars but they don't discriminate against the occasional customers like me.
Coconut Joe's Beach Grill (4158 California Ave., 327-1378)
The chicken and beef are good standbys, the fish and chips are amazing, the chicken soup is a great option when you're ill -- or healthy but just craving it -- and the banana cake has grown on me. Cool surfing atmosphere, prices are right, young folks working there are pleasant. I like how thin the batter is on the cod in the fish and chips.
Muertos Kitchen & Lounge (1514 Wall St., 324-2557)
I have readers who tell me that, like the Padre, they go just to see what's coming out of the kitchen next, like tuning into a TV series that has done a good job of keeping you happy in the past. Owner Shawna Haddad-Byers keeps an artistic vibe going both at the bar and in the kitchen. Love crab cakes? This is your place. Same thing if you're a fan of sangria. Also good are simple things like fish tacos and burgers and the pumpkin pancakes. They have a ceviche they call a "halibut salsa" that's definitely worth ordering.
Moo Creamery (4885 Truxtun Ave., 861-1130)
Look, I love the Bakersfield Autobahn (also known as the Westside Parkway ) as much as anyone -- it is so fast to zip from the northwest to downtown now -- but I do worry about the impact it will have on this amazing eatery. It has cut off the easy way we used to visit this marvelous food/drink/ice cream restaurant. But once you get the hang of the journey, via Commercial Way, it's a snap. That problem solved, you have no choice but to become a regular. The happy hour is a particular value with quality $2 beer and food available at such low prices (but it does cut off at 5 p.m.). The inventiveness of the kitchen is still unrivaled and they have a healthy Paula Deen-like respect for butter. When the kids come home to visit, we must go to Moo. They offer things like a grilled mac 'n' pork cheese sandwich on sourdough made with mac and cheese (sharp cheddar makes that great), pulled pork and pepper jack cheese. The sticky toffee bread pudding is a must order if it's available. Those missing the lamb burger at Eureka! should try the Moo version -- I think it's better with its oregano vinaigrette. Richard and Jessica Yoshimura have a consistent winner that can't be destroyed by traffic patterns.
Sugar Twist (9500 Brimhall Road, 829-6761)
Admittedly I'm not helping anyone's health by recommending this place as a restaurant, but the bagel breakfast sandwiches and burritos are good, and you work so hard that you deserve dessert for breakfast. Those cream cheese sticks are so light there can't possibly be any calories in them. Right? Recently remodeled and expanded, more changes may be headed our way from this Rosedale bakery. Stay tuned.
Detroit native Bob Sikarski finally raised the white flag on his decades-long attempt to bring us deep-dish Detroit-style pizza made with whole milk mozzarella cheese and real Italian sausage. He started up in the northeast on Morning Drive, opened a second location in the southwest at the corner of Ming and Ashe, moved into the old East Hills Mall at one point before going into the old Shakey's/Sharkey's location just a few blocks away from the Tam O'Shanter. Along the way he battled some serious health issues, but he kept on fighting. He finally gave up the battle last summer. It was a unique pizza with passionate fans, and he will be missed.
Back in the '80s, Lemucchi's Tam O'Shanter was right up there with The Coachlight as the place to go for a special night out in Bakersfield. Last month when we went on a weekend night, it was dark, at least the restaurant portion.
Highland Cafe in Oildale
At times this converted bar on North Chester was offering cutting-edge food and drink. We had some amazing, inexpensive meals there that would cost twice as much in Los Angeles.
This California Avenue chain Mexican restaurant was a happening place back in the 1980s, but the trend has not been its friend. A lot of national Mexican chains (Chevy's, Acapulco, ChiChi's) have been in financial distress in recent years. The Bakersfield restaurant closed last month. If you just have to have some of their food, they have kept open the Valencia and Santa Barbara restaurants.
The Q Rib Shack
It had some amazing hamburgers and beef ribs but closed early in the year, to be replaced by Salty's.
Riverwalk Cafe (18th Street and Stockdale Highway)
A decent entry in the gourmet sandwiches market, but it couldn't survive.
Cataldo's on White Lane
The original Oildale Cataldo's has continued to thrive and expand, but the one in the southwest didn't take.
Fiorina's in Taft
People were telling me how great this place was, and I went and discovered they weren't kidding. Lunch was always more crowded than dinner, some residents told me, and I think the prices were just too low to make it a go.