Hope you caught Herb Benham's Nov. 5 column about Lamont restaurateur Luis Aguilar, who founded first El Jacalito and later El Pueblo after he was forced to move from his original site in a rent disagreement. To Lamont, he was like George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life”: a successful man who was always helping others. Once a homeless man, he made the American dream happen in his life but never forgot where he came from and who he once was. He helped others in so many ways, including mission trips to Mexico. One of the good guys and successful to boot.
(If you missed it, click here.)
What was most amazing about Aguilar was his vision of building a great Mexican restaurant in Lamont using old family recipes, a move that eventually had people driving from Bakersfield and lining up every weekend to get the food. I’ve seldom encountered more patient people than customers waiting for some of first El Jacalito goodness and then the same from the bigger El Pueblo. And you could usually see him in the dining room, a gracious host always.
But two months ago, he sold it to Rafifs and Ana Karabeyan and, while the food still seems the same, the crowds have dissipated. We went early on a Saturday night and were seated immediately, which almost never used to happen. The fresh tortilla station near the door was not manned, and though we did receive house-made tortillas with our meal possibly the novelty of that wonderful treat has been diminished with so many restaurants wising up and offering the same since Aguilar got into the business. Considering how so many Mexican restaurants in Bakersfield have upped the ante over the past two decades, making that long drive from our town might be asking a lot.
The entrée I ordered might be the ticket to get the lines back. It’s shrimp Cancun ($15.95), and the menu says it’s their most popular dish. I haven’t had it in a long time so I wanted to see if the new owner had this one down. My companion selected the enchiladas poblano mole ($10.45). I paid the extra $1.95 to get my dinner with refried beans on the side. If you’ve ordered the shrimp Cancun before you know it’s a beautiful presentation with a large mound of rice in the center, the shrimp and the ranchero sauce ringing it, and melted cheese forming a delectable crust on top of the grains.
If you love shrimp, order this. The menu calls for “one dozen specially prepared selected shrimp in a tasty seasoned batter.” Not deep fried, pan fried, but the secret ingredient mixed into the shrimp during the special preparation process is jack cheese and that subtle creamy touch puts the shrimp over the top. It’s as good as it was when Aguilar was in the house.
My companion’s mole was interesting and started a discussion at our table on how that label is about as helpful as the word curry if you want to know exactly what sensations will be dancing on your tongue once the plate comes out of the kitchen. It’s an umbrella term that allows for a lot of chef creativity, and the very dark mole sauce here has more chocolate and cinnamon notes than we were expecting. That’s not a bad thing, but one does need to be ready for this, and I suspect it’s not as broad of a crowd pleaser as those shrimp.
The menu looks the same, filled with Aguilar's touches such as offering a free child’s meal to any “Straight A” students at report card time. What we also like from the house specialties is the tres amigos enchilada plate (one beef, one chicken, one cheese, each with a different sauce) and anything with the chile colorado or carnitas. Some of the large chimichangas are also amazing. I was pleased to see they have been slow to tinker with the menu and are restrained about making radical changes.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.