The top reason this column can be useful to readers is introducing them to restaurants like Lino’s Mexican Cuisine in Pumpkin Center.

It’s a small place, easy to overlook, out of the way and with humble written all over it. No big advertising budget, no fancy building. Heck, the parking lot isn’t even big. But the food they serve! It’s no wonder that on a recent Friday night visit nearly every table was occupied — not exactly an accomplishment given its tiny size but those in the know already are aware of its allure.

We’ve written about it in the past, of course, especially when it opened with a flash of excellence three years ago. One of the family members left and opened Centro 18 in downtown Bakersfield, so you might think the place would suffer. It hasn’t. Since the family was long involved with Cafe Med’s catering business, they learned a thing or two about putting quality on the plate, and it still shows.

A couple of months ago we raved about Lino’s in our annual dining guide. Their specialty item is the pork belly tacos ($4.95). Now I know pork belly has been one of the hottest food trends in recent years, but the appeal is lost on me. If it floats your boat, this is the place to come. The kitchen here uses White Marble Farms pork braised and seared, then served in fresh-made corn tortillas with house-made hot sauce. I’ve been told it’s a slice of heaven from those who love pork belly, and I enjoyed it but Lino’s offers other menu items that send me to new happy places.

One I’ve written about in the past that is a must order to me is the pork barbacoa ($13.95). It’s like nothing else I’ve found anywhere. It’s not turned into stringy pork, but cooked low and slow so it’s tender and flavorful and shaped like a burrito. What absolutely puts it over the top is the house-made bacon chipotle barbecue sauce, which is spicy, smoky, not too sweet and a perfect mate for the pork. This is a must-order if you’ve never had it and love barbecued meats. On a plate with rice and beans it’s just a perfect meal and really indicative of what makes the Lino’s kitchen so special. Like Cafe Med, there’s a consistent emphasis on quality ingredients.

For our most recent visit, we blazed new territory, my companion ordering the pollo relleno ($15.95) and I choosing the camarones a la diabla ($15.95), one of the three different ways they prepare shrimp here. Both would match up to the standards set by the two entrees I’ve mentioned above. My nine shrimp were swimming (not literally) in a spicy but not too hot sauce that was so satisfying that my companion kept reaching across the table to dip her tortilla in it. The large not jumbo shrimp were fresh tasting and enhanced by that sauce.

My companion originally intended to order a more simple chicken dish, the pollo al horno ($14.95), which lacked the cheddar and jack cheese sauce, but our gracious waiter Jose (more on him later) steered her toward the relleno version. This is another winner, with 10 ounces of deboned chicken breast pan-seared then finished in the oven until very crispy. The wing drumette bone was still there, and that cheesy sauce surrounded the chicken. With guacamole, pico de gallo, rice and beans, it was both tasty and probably healthier than the steaks on the menu. A very large plate of food suitable for splitting if you’re not that hungry.

We also love the sandwiches, and, if you’re a fan of scallops, you’ve got to try their version ($16.95), using five extra-large Canadian scallops coated in Parmesan and breadcrumbs then baked in a buttery sauce and presented with toasted flour tortilla “toast” points.

One word about the atmosphere. Yes, it’s black tablecloth, but there are only two small dining rooms, one with a window to the kitchen, so it can seem cramped. There are grace notes throughout, such as the fresh hot tortilla chips served in a wire cone basket lined with paper rather than in a common wicker basket.

Service was excellent from Jose, a waiter who we’ve seen there often. He glides through the dining room with ease, keeping everyone satisfied and making you feel like you’re dining in the home of a good friend rather than at a business. He’s what I’d call a natural.

Lino’s Mexican Cuisine can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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