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Greg Nichols

From left, Gary Frazier, Matt Munoz, Muertos owner Shawna Haddad Byers, Ray Pruitt and Don Martin inside Muertos Kitchen and Lounge.

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Greg Nichols

Hawaiian tacos

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Greg Nichols

Halibut salsa and chips

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Greg Nichols

Sirloin steak

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Raspberry beer float

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Greg Nichols

Fernando burger

Muertos Kitchen & Lounge is one of the newest eateries in downtown Bakersfield’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Opened by Shawna Haddad Byers — former co-owner of Fishlips — the name comes from the Dia de los Muertos celebration, honoring those no longer with us (celebrate this year’s Dia de los Muertos here, Nov. 1 to 2). Shawna thought it would be a wonderful way to honor her late grandmother, Sittie, with whom she was very close.

Muertos is in the historic Wall Street alley. In the late 1800s, it was a firehouse and the back patio was a stable for the horses that pulled fire wagons. Through the years, the space has housed the iconic Sud’s Tavern, Paco’s Tacos and more recently, Azul.

As you walk into Muertos, you immediately notice the high ceilings, brick walls, hardwood floors and a beautiful concrete topped bar. This place has been designed to make dining here a real experience. The kitchen is open to the bar area, and it’s quite entertaining to sit at the bar with a drink and watch the chef and kitchen crew work their magic.

The idea behind Muertos is to provide a simple and fresh menu with a fun, laidback atmosphere where people can enjoy conversation over tasty food and drinks. And Shawna has certainly accomplished just that.

Dudes’ note: Many of the items we tried were not on their menu. That’s the neat thing about this restaurant and lounge — there are different appetizers and entrees served daily, so make sure to ask what the specials are before you order. The owner and kitchen staff will work with you to make the meal you want.

Dudes on the amazing appetizers

Ray: Shawna Haddad Byers, took care of us from the get-go. She spoiled us with several appetizers including popcorn pork, shrimp and cheese-stuffed portobello mushrooms, halibut salsa, chicken and okra, carne asada tacos and pork Hawaiian tacos. Each were amazing, but I have to focus on the popcorn pork, which was similar to large chunks of chicharrones. I could have wrapped them up in a tortilla with some homemade salsa and called it a meal. The pork was lightly seared, moist and we dipped it in a chipotle mayo sauce. Yum!

Gary: I thought the shrimp and cheese-stuffed portobello was the perfect appetizer because it was just enough to wake up the taste buds, but not fill you up. The halibut salsa is a nice twist on ceviche that now has me thinking of other seafood I might try “ceviche style.”

Don: Muertos has a very eclectic menu. You must start with the halibut salsa and chips. The salsa is fresh and tasty, and the chips are steaming hot and made-to-order. One of Muertos’ specialties are the tacos, and my favorite is the machaca — filled with eggs, peppers, onions and cheese. These tacos are a delight.

Matt: I’m a big pork fan, and popcorn pork was a hit from the get-go. Hearty chunks of pork, lightly fried, with a delicious chipotle mayo dipping sauce blended to complement the pork flavoring — a great appetizer to be enjoyed alone or with a group. The arrival of the Muertos halibut salsa was a perfect follow-up. I like ceviche and I have my local favorites, but here we have some new twists. The halibut flavoring is less fishy, but easier to scoop with the fresh, made-to-order tortilla chips. The flavors are well-balanced and the presentation is eye-catching.

Dudes on the entrees

Ray: Shawna decided to make several dishes, bring them out and let each one of us try the creations. It was a great idea because we all got to taste a bite of everything. We started with the citrus marinated swordfish sandwich served on a baguette. We dipped the sandwich in a butter, lemon-lime marinade. The sandwich was perfect and would make for a great meal for lunchtime. We also tried the sirloin with asparagus. The sirloin was cooked medium-rare and juicy and the quality of the steak was evident. Next came the Fernando burger, which was invented by the chef, and served with pepper jack cheese, crushed red peppers, chipotle mayo and garnished with jalapenos. The hamburger was seasoned with a spicy seasoning that gave it a zing. It was served with fries, lightly seasoned and fried to perfection. I’m full again just thinking about it.

Don: Bakersfield is a burger town, and I think right now, Muertos has the best burger in town. My choice is the Hudson, named after Shawna’s son. This is a hand-formed burger topped with cheese, bacon and a fried egg. It’s simply delicious and served with french fries that are perfectly golden brown and crisp. The dinner menu changes nightly, and Muertos is great about posting pictures on its Facebook page almost every afternoon.

Matt: Every reputable restaurant has their signature burger, and the Fernando burger is no exception. The burger is succulent and made of good quality beef, and it was cooked precisely as we were told — with lots of love. Our quarter-split pieces were distributed evenly, and the bun was good to support the flavorful meatiness of the burger and all its good juices. After one bite, I had a serious “hamburgasm,” with the kick of jalapenos that hit me. I’m not the biggest fan of too much heat on my comfort foods, as it usually makes the experience uncomfortable. But here, the heat level was about a three as opposed to a “10.” It’s phenomenal on all levels and large enough to share with a companion.

Dudes on the specialty, non-menu item

Gary: The Hawaiian pork tacos were so good and uniquely flavored that we split the last taco into four sections, so that we all could get one more delicious bite. Tacos with marinated pork is nothing new, but add a tangy fruit and serrano chili salsa with chunks of mango, strawberry, pineapple and kiwi — now you have a taco to write about! Muertos offers an extensive selection, from burgers and tacos, to Lebanese chicken and okra stew (which was a lot like gumbo). And each dish has its own unique twist on Mexican, Italian, Lebanese and Caribbean cuisine.

When I asked Shawna how she came up with so many entrees, she said that she uses the input and suggestions from her customers to create many of Muertos’ selections. So if you’re eating something tasty at Muertos and think, “This would be great in a tortilla,” just tell Shawna, and it may become a Muertos specialty.

Dudes on dangerously delicious dessert

Gary: Muertos has the distinction of having the most unique dessert item I have tasted as a Food Dude: the raspberry beer float. They put two large scoops of chocolate ice cream in a tall class and pour Lindemans Framboise Belgian Raspberry Lambic over it. This fruity Belgian liquor is like a sparkling raspberry wine cooler, though the Framboise Lambic is technically a beer. If you like chocolate and raspberries, then you will love this special concoction.

Don: My favorite is the wedding cake, which comes from local favorite — Smith’s Bakery. It’s covered in sweet frosting and the Muertos crew fluffs it up with fresh berries. A perfect end to a great dining experience.

Dudes’ final farewell

Matt: According to Shawna, one of the benefits of dining at her establishment is that “customers can design their own food, and if we have time and ingredients, we will make you what you want.”

That’s a pretty ambitious statement, but after our visit and the welcoming hospitality, you just may find me sitting at the bar at quittin’ time taking them up on that offer.

This year’s Food Dudes experience has been amazing. Kern County has some of the best restaurants in California, and I suggest everyone take their taste buds on an adventure.