Wondering what's so pleasantly different about that chile verde? Wide-eyed over that steaming platter of garlicky Basque fried chicken? Sizing up an angle of attack on that briny, rich clam linguine?
For each of those culinary experiences, thank the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1889, the now-defunct rail line decided it wanted nothing to do with Bakersfield, so it essentially created its own town, Sumner, later to incorporate as Kern City. That’s where the railroad — and, eventually, east Bakersfield's restaurant row — laid down its tracks.
Or, thank Faustino Noriega, a Basque immigrant who beat the railroad here by six years. In 1893, Noriega opened a boarding house for young Basque men engaged in what was then a common vocation for imported workers from the Pyrenees mountain range of northern Spain and southwestern France: sheepherding. The market for sheepherders eventually faded but interest in the Noriega Hotel did not.
In any event, over time Bakersfield’s second “main street,” Baker Street, sprang up a mile or two east of Chester Avenue.
As the "downtown" of east Bakersfield, Baker Street thrived, particularly from the postwar years into the 1970s. All the shopping and entertainment one might ever need was here: Grocery stores, department stores, furniture stores and a Benjamin Franklin five-and-dime. Stinson's Stationers, which opened in 1947, was a steady presence, as was Saba's Men's Wear. Tally Records, the homegrown record company that would later discover Merle Haggard, had a comically tiny recording studio on East 18th Street (and later on Baker, next door to Saba's). Moviegoers flocked to the Tejon Theater, at Baker and Monterey, for first-run movies, and to two smaller theaters, the Granada and the Rialta.
But over time business slowed, shops closed or moved, and the once-thriving district became a tenderloin of rent-by-the-week hotels and idle vagrants. The Tejon shut down, later to become a church. Saba's closed, Stinson's moved.
The street people stayed.
But one group of Baker Street businesses stayed along with them, even thrived. And that cluster of locally owned ethnic restaurants — some you’ve heard of, some you’ve perhaps not — is still right here, within a single four-block square of land: Wool Growers, Luigi’s, the Pyrenees Cafe, the Noriega Hotel and the Arizona Cafe.
Within two blocks east and west of the Baker-East 21st intersection are the cuisines of a half-dozen countries or regions: Basque, Italian, Mexican and Salvadoran, with Chinese and Japanese just a few blocks farther.
The Los Angles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, the late Jonathan Gold, consistently raved about the neighborhood restaurants on his frequent forays north of the cultural desolation line. In an article for Smithsonian magazine that focused on Basque cuisine both in Nevada and Bakersfield, he wrote: "I loved the Nevada restaurants. But still, I couldn't wait to get back to Bakersfield, which feels like home." He loved Luigi's, too, and of course Dewar's peanut butter chews.
TV chef-tourist Guy Fieri of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" offered a salsa-drenched thumbs up for Baker Street's restaurant row, singling out Pyrenees Cafe. The late James Beard got on board, too, by way of his cuisine-celebrating foundation, which named the Noriega Hotel one of its "America’s Classics Restaurants." A string of four- and five-star reviews from the travel news website TripAdvisor has out-of-towners traipsing regularly into the Arizona Cafe. Saveur, the New York-based gourmet food, wine and travel magazine, recommends Wool Growers thusly: "Solid, satisfying, lovable: it's just how we want this old-world cuisine to be."
Celebrity sightings are not uncommon: The Mexican norteño supergroup Los Tigres del Norte has exhibited a fondness for the Arizona Cafe. Barbra Streisand and husband James Brolin have been spotted more than once at Wool Growers. Gov. Earl Warren, who grew up just a few blocks away, ate Basque when he was in town, as did Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Two or three decades ago, civic cheerleaders successfully rebranded the Baker Street corridor "Old Town Kern" to promote its status as one of the most historic, unique neighborhoods in greater Bakersfield. Things have been slow to change for the better in that time, though. Bakersfield's redevelopment agency, a branch of city government, coordinated some noteworthy improvements, including new, modern multifamily housing, but when the state rewrote the law that authorized municipalities to create those special districts, funding evaporated and City Hall's investment slowed.
And that's where it stands. As the homeless population has grown in this part of the city (as everywhere), services to feed, house and direct them, such as the Mission at Kern County, a block from Luigi's, have grown as well.
"We try to be good neighbors but we can't do everything," said Carlos Baldovinos, who has been executive director of the Rescue Mission, as it is also known, for nine years.
The Rescue Mission, identifiable by the solitary, iconic "Jesus Saves" neon-topped pole that serves as a lighthouse beacon for haggard souls, has been a part of the Baker Street scene for decades; it started in 1952 as a soup kitchen at Beale and Sumner, serving the hobos who rode into east Bakersfield on the rails of the Southern Pacific.
Baldovinos, whose shelter has a 250-person capacity, doesn't give mere lip service to his "good neighbor" assurances. Mission residents, joined by volunteers, walk the streets of Old Town Kern every Saturday for what Baldovinos calls the Mission Spot, cleaning up as they go.
And that security guard in the bright traffic vest outside Luigi's is not a Luigi's employee, as one might expect. He is from the Mission, working to ease the minds of restaurant customers and staff. Several restaurants, though, including Luigi's, supplement that protective presence with security guards of their own during the evening.
"The socioeconomics, the drug infestation, really make it tough," Baldovinos said. "A lot of businesses have left in the last three or four years. There's a lot of poverty but also opportunities for revitalization."
He used an example from his hometown, Minneapolis, where business and government teamed up to transform Hennepin Avenue, a once-derelict area, into a booming commercial district.
"It can be done," he said.
Old Town Kern's city councilman acknowledges the challenges — and the possibilities.
"It's pretty apparent that homelessness continues to plague our community," said Andrae Gonzales, whose Ward 2 includes the Baker Street corridor. "You see signs of it in Old Town Kern. You also have a lot of vacant buildings, and that contributes to the blight of the area, which in turn creates other issues."
But on the positive side ...
"We have some of the best restaurants, some of the most popular places to eat, in the city," Gonzales said. "It's a destination. Those restaurants are the anchors of the neighborhood. They are beacons of hope for the whole area."
HISTORY ALL AROUND
This isn't like actual Basque country, where nothing qualifies as old unless it was built before 1700. But American West-old, sure — hotels and restaurants built before 1900 get to wear that badge here. Look closely and you might spot an old hitching post — yes, for horses — poking out of a concrete curb. One is still right there in front of Luigi's, even if owner Tonya Valpredo had to convince an ambitious city curb-and-gutter crew to fish it out of a heap of rubble and re-cement it back in place.
Houses one might dismiss as simply small, old and ordinary carry around their own history. Take 707 Niles St., two doors down from Baker. It's a 102-year-old, 1,248-square-foot wood-frame house, unremarkable in every way. But Earl Warren, the 14th and most influential chief justice of the United States, the man behind the court decision rightly considered an overdue extension of the Emancipation Proclamation, was raised right there.
The house also is wrapped in infamy. It was at 707 Niles, on the night of May 14, 1938, that Warren's 72-year-old father, Methias H. Warren, was bludgeoned to death. The crime, never solved, is still perhaps Bakersfield's most infamous murder. Although we're now pretty sure we know who did it.
The Bakersfield City School District Education Center, built in 1895 at 1300 Baker, is an architectural gem. Washington Junior High was built and established in 1891 at that spot on Baker. The school was damaged by the 1952 earthquake and rebuilt on Noble Street in 1955. The old school site became home to the city school district office. Then there's the county library's oldest surviving branch, built in 1915 at 1400 Baker, which possesses uncommon grace. And there's the beautiful and dignified Noriega House at 1325 Baker, not to be confused with the Noriega Hotel, whose owners built the residence a few blocks from the family business in 1899.
"All of these institutions that remained in Old Town Kern (after others left) — the BCSD Education Center, the Housing Authority Complex, which provides affordable housing, have kept that area strong," Gonzales said.
Some changes represent addition by subtraction.
International Square, a park built at Baker and Sumner in 1970, was supposed to have eased the blight by adding a dash of green to the dreary landscape, but it only brought things down further. Every aluminum bench — and there were several — was occupied, day and night, by a row of forlorn vagrants, and well-meaning citizens made it worse by making it a drop-off center for food and clothes. In January 2004, the city acknowledged its error and tore out the park. But for 15 years now, that corner lot has been an empty, barren patch of dirt, useful to neither the homeless population nor Old Town Kern boosters.
Gonzales has overseen some real improvements in the neighborhood, ZIP code 93305. The David Nelson Pocket Park, at Niles and Monterey, a bit east of Baker, has eased the hard visual edge of asphalt and concrete. Kentucky Street has been completely reconstructed, and other streets are on the short list of coming makeovers.
"We have to address some of our older parts of town," Gonzales said."But it's a signal to the community that the city has not forgotten the area."
Measure N, the voter-approved 1 percent city sales tax increase narrowly approved by voters, which takes effect in just over a week, will have a dramatic effect, potentially filling a portion of the funding gap left behind when the redevelopment agencies went away.
"We can do some things now we couldn't do before," Gonzales said.
He points to the vacant, city-owned parcel of land at Baker and Kentucky streets that city officials would like to privatize — specifically, put in the hands of a developer who might be willing to bring a supermarket or another transformative commercial development to the area.
Still, Old Town Kern is a long, long way from an economic, sociological tipping point. The homeless problem, the most visual evidence of physical and cultural blight, is not going away anytime soon.
Old Town Kern businesses live with it, occasionally with some difficulty.
"We've had to call the cops twice this week because of people camping out in the front of the restaurant," said Oscar Ramirez, of the Arizona Cafe. "The police do their best, but it's tough. The homeless kinda scare the customers away — the new customers. The old customers are used to it; they know what to expect."
Oscar Leon owns Oscar’s Road Service & Towing at 728½ E. 19th St., precisely halfway between Luigi's and the Mission at Kern County. He says the way to deal with the homeless is to treat them with kindness. Don't be a pushover, he says, but respect them and they'll respect you back. That doesn't mean he doesn't have occasional problems — he does — but kindness and empathy go a long way.
"You can't be a jerk," he says, holding his tiny, doll-like Pomeranian, Chika, against his chest. "You gotta be nice but you gotta be firm. Sometimes they need air for their tires or oil for the gears, or they want a drink of water. I try to help them out, and so they look out for me. I've learned to adapt to their way of life."
The restaurateurs themselves are also accepting but aware, as are their regular customers. As one diner wrote recently on TripAdvisor, commenting on the Arizona Cafe, "Get the menudo, the best in town. Not the best area in town, but don't let that stop you from going." Wrote another: "It is in the older part of Bakersfield, which just adds to the fun of going to an authentic Mexican cafe."
That's the spirit. Good food, with a hint of adventure.