The Bakersfield Racquet Club has been through some interesting times in recent years, but it sure does seem like things are moving in the right direction now, especially at the landmark's little cafe.
The club itself has undergone some turmoil over its direction and leadership, but things seem to have quieted down. On a recent visit, we saw three generations enjoying the facility, just the way it was during the club's glory years.
A further encouraging development is what's going on in the kitchen. Just as the club struggled to find its footing, so, too, did a succession of restaurants that moved in to the cafe -- and promptly moved out. There was Big Popy's Deli, Moo Creamery and RJ's, all successes at their flagship locations but no match for the Racquet Club. But now Randy Martin of Covenant Coffee has taken over. Californian columnist Herb Benham, a longtime BRC member, joined me there for lunch recently and his take is that Martin is perfect for a number of reasons: Covenant is happy just to break even, since the operation is really a ministry to help adult-age foster children build their lives, and Martin was smart enough to hire back longtime kitchen manager Carol Bianco, whose departure several years ago prompted several reader complaints. Bianco even donated equipment she'd had in storage, has helped train the staff (she was there on the day we visited) and even makes her famous taco salad dressing, a spicy French version that would be great on almost any salad. It seems to be a great fit.
Since Herb has enjoyed many a meal at the BRC cafe over the years, he was the companion to bring on this visit, though he was irked that the club's famous drink, the Bob Lynn (grape juice and 7Up) -- was not yet available. Though the menu now includes smoothies, coffee drinks, Gatorades and typical sodas, Bob Lynn has not yet entered the building.
On the day we visited, the famous chicken salad was available on the regular menu, but I ordered a beef taco salad ($7.95), which was satisfying. The kitchen mixes Romaine and iceberg lettuces, tops it with crumbled taco chips, cheddar and jack cheese and a fair amount of seasoned ground beef. I asked for the dressing on the side so I could sample it in different ways. Carol has not lost her touch.
My companions ordered sandwiches: roast beef and provolone ($7.95) and turkey and Swiss ($7.45), with the bread choices sourdough and wheat.
The beef was particularly special: juicy, rare, and thinly sliced. There was an emphasis on freshness and quality in pretty much everything we sampled. That's a good sign.
It's only breakfast and lunch right now. But we enjoyed our meal on the concrete patio just outside the door, where eight umbrella tables were set. In spring and fall, this is where you should dine. And Covenant has since opened a third location at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.
Another nearby restaurant that has changed names and format to some degree is Johnny's Burger on Oak Street, just south of the intersection with California Avenue. Of course for the longest time it was one of the John's Burgers in town, and still proudly touts its "best burger" medals dating back to the '90s.
What you can expect now is a bit better Mexican food, more homemade style even if it does fly in the face of expectations. For example one morning at breakfast I ordered the chile verde huevos rancheros ($6.99) off the specials board near the cash register.
This is not the huevos you find everywhere else. The two corn tortillas are not crisp, but they are filled with pinto beans. It's like a bean sandwich. The chile verde (which could use a bit more aggressive trimming of fat) is found on top, with the eggs (made to order) on the side. There's a healthy helping of some fascinating hash browns, thick strands and some chunks, obviously fresh cut but lightly fried with only a bit of seasoning salt, no peppers or onions or black pepper. And the finishing touch was a crown of tomato-heavy pico de gallo, notable for the bright red sweetness of the tomatoes. Always a pleasure to find that.
At dinner we ordered a chili burger ($3.49) and small fries ($1.99). The burger had a thin patty, simply grilled with a healthy portion of shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato and pickle slices. What was notable was the chili, which was not the thick, soupy, bean-heavy American variety you find at Wendy's. It was a simple pulverized ground beef and cumin mixture, spread thickly on both the top and bottom portion of the bun, which meant it wasn't an impossible mess to eat that would stain your fingers red and make you the best friend of any stray dog who happened to walk past. That may factor into your buying decision.
The fries were the crinkle-cut variety but were not fiercely fried, so if you like a potato that is limp, this is your product.