Those who say there’s nothing for young people to do in town have never been to either Rush Air Sports, the trampoline heaven near Temblor, or the Bakersfield Karting Experience, located in the old Costco building on Gilmore, all just north of Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
BKE is slick. It’s an indoor track and, in the best racing tradition, there are ads on the walls all over from local businesses who are sponsoring this enterprise. The crowning touch to me is the replica of the old Bakersfield Inn archway that Buck Owens saved from ruin by rebuilding near the Crystal Palace. Go-karts have been in Bakersfield a long time but these seem particularly fast, requiring drivers to wear helmets, and the indoor track has misting tubes to keep cool during the summer. Nearby are some amazingly complicated video games, including a golf booth where you can realistically choose the appropriate clubs, and in the back near the bar are two pool tables and a cornhole game. This is another family fun place like the Firehouse locations that make for an entertaining night.
The food is found in Smokey’s Grill & Pub at the back, and it’s already gone through a few versions in the pursuit of a checkered flag for restaurants, starting with a menu that featured dinners such as chicken-fried steak and fried chicken, then replaced by a board that subbed those out with “Fresh Mex” selections, appetizers and continuing the burgers and sandwiches. Based on our visits, it’s still a work in progress though I must say one item was stunningly impressive though simple: a pastrami sandwich ($10.99).
What made it distinctive, and so appealing that my companion couldn’t keep her fork out of it, wasn’t the grilled bakery-fresh French bread roll. It was the thin sliced pastrami that had been grilled to the point of being crispy and slightly black in spots. Doesn’t sound appetizing, but topped with Swiss cheese and yellow mustard, it was darn near irresistible. Everyone steams it, but here Smokey’s is willing to be bold and the darn thing works by being distinctive in both taste and texture. It was served with fries that were not fresh-cut but were an appealing, thick version of the shoestring variety.
My companion ordered a grilled chicken salad ($9.99) and since it was taco Tuesday, a chicken and beef taco ($1 each). These items were not as impressive. The carne asada tacos at Temblor cost twice as much on taco Tuesday but those are a lot more impressive. As my companion noted, there is almost no cilantro and chopped white onions on these, though we both liked the cornstarch-based hot sauce on the side (which reappeared for the nachos we ordered on a second visit). The beef seemed too timid, though when the same beef was used on the trash-can nachos, the time under the heat lamp brought out an appealing crunchy exterior. The chicken chunks on the salad were warm, but the greens were dull and ordinary.
At least the high-ceilinged atmosphere was high energy, and not just because you heard the sounds of the race cars. There were a lot of televisions tuned to sports and my companion was digging the classic rock mix, songs from the Eagles, “Hey Jude” from the Beatles, a real boomer mix.
On a second visit we ordered trash-can nachos with carne asada ($9.99) and a bacon avocado cheeseburger ($11.99). I’m not much of a fan of the trash-can nachos trend, which strikes me as a forced piece of dining-room theater that can sometimes compromise the quality of the chips in the process. Guy Fieri invented this in his Las Vegas restaurant a couple years ago and only bakes the chip and cheese mixture for a couple minutes before bringing it out to the customer and pulling the can off the platter as part of the presentation. Here, they didn’t do that but they did use pre-made (aka store-bought) chips in the process. Talk about trash-can nachos. It’s basically the kind of chips you can get at the movie theaters. Ugh. Did like the amount of beans and cheese on the chips and the guacamole was decent, but those chips could only be enjoyed by the truly starving.
The cheeseburger was less impressive than that pastrami sandwich, mostly because the bun and the patty were so ordinary. The kitchen forgot the avocado. Now I could see where it might be satisfying if you’ve been racing around the track for hours working up an appetite. But otherwise I’d pass and never stop ordering the pastrami.
Smokey’s has a full bar and a nice selection of beers on tap, including local products like Lengthwise Zeus and a Temblor IPA. Service was decent, though it was crowded on the first visit and one poor bartender was running from customer to customer to fill orders. The food was brought to the table in 25 minutes, reasonable considering the staffing levels.
Happy hour here is an attraction, with appetizers priced from $3 to $6, $4 wines and beers, draft and bottles, ranging from $2.50 to $4.50, including craft beers. It’s available Monday through Thursday 4-7 p.m. and all day Sunday.