It’s pretty much impossible for me to dine in Taft without thinking of the late great Ollie’s, a chrome-plated diner on Kern Street that had a nice run specializing in the most amazing malts, shakes and burgers. We went there with the family enough to try almost everything on the menu. The location has been turned into a Little Caesar’s pizza. No offense to Caesars of any size, but you can stick those in any strip mall. Ollie’s had ambiance, style, charisma. Sadly, now it’s now just a memory.
Across the street, however, is a small barbecue restaurant serving lunch and dinner that may create some new warm memories in Taft. It’s called Roots Eatery, and when I told family members who live in Taft to meet us there for a meal, they were stoked. It’s a small-time smoked-meat restaurant that specializes in burgers, big salads, sandwiches and plates, though the kitchen divides the menu into “the good, the bad, the ugly,” like the old Clint Eastwood movie.
The “good” is the salads and some healthy sandwiches, like turkey avocado. The “bad” is the barbecue. I resent that. The “ugly” list features the burgers and the amazing sandwiches they offer.
It’s an incredibly small place, so I imagine it gets pretty crowded during the day, but we visited at night when most of the customers were taking out rather than staying.
We had a chance to sample a turkey avocado sandwich ($8.99), a barbecue plate with chicken, pulled pork and pork ribs ($16.99), the spicy tri-tip sandwich ($10.99) and the killer pastrami ($10.99). Those last two items were from the “ugly” list, and, trust me, they were anything but repulsive. These were big sandwiches that when you get first sight of them, you think, I’ll save half for lunch tomorrow. But once you sample it, you can’t stop, and lunch tomorrow will have to fend for itself.
Let’s talk about the pastrami, which may not have been made in-house but sure tasted as fresh as if it were. It’s served on grilled sourdough with provolone cheese, grilled onions, bits of bacon, pepperoncinis, ground mustard and an aioli. The aioli was overkill, but otherwise it was a memorably orchestrated creation that will be difficult not to order, even if only to go, anytime we’re within five miles of the place.
Let’s talk about the tri-tip. We saw the smokers in the back parking lot, resting by the time we visited, but the beef had smoke emanating from it as it was set in front of us. Two cheeses — pepper jack and provolone — jalapenos and an Ortega chile, ground mustard again (I like their mustard), all on a toasted hoagie roll. I’d heard good things about the blue cheese brioche burger, but who can compete with these two?
The turkey avocado couldn’t, but of course it was on the “good” list, and was limited to healthy items like arugula, tomatoes, avocado and sliced turkey. You only live once. Get away from the healthy stuff.
The barbecue plate was respectable, featuring a chicken breast that looked like it had been deboned and smoked to the point of dryness but rescued with a sauce. The pork ribs had a dry rub, no sauce and were perfectly moist. The pulled pork was that perfect mix of moist strings and crunchy exterior, all chopped and separated and presented in a small round ceramic dish. The beans and cornbread had a nice homemade taste.
Service was a little slow — it took 25 minutes to get the food to the table after ordering it at the counter — but the staff was small-town friendly. One warning on the glasses of wine: They were about $10 each, though the price wasn’t on the menu and I had to figure out the cost from adding up the rest of what we ordered. Beer is $3.50 to $5, a better value by far.
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