For a brief period, we were a city without a functioning Marie Callender’s.
I know — who could believe that? Sure, Carrows can close across the street on California Avenue, and chains are struggling all over the country, but then we lose both the one in the northeast and the one on California that I believe opened before I moved to Bakersfield in 1980?
Well, our ordeal only lasted for a few weeks before local entrepreneurs revived the place, announced plans for a remodel after the first of the year — during the slow time for restaurants — and brought back the menu without a liquor license, as it had lapsed. (The ABC notice is on the door and it will be returning.)
How’s the new place? Breakfasts are still awesome — we’ve been going there for decades and, despite menu changes, they do it right — and I’m always looking for an excuse to eat pie for breakfast — hey, it has fruit, right? Dinners, on the other hand, are not as thrilling, and my companion, noting a musty smell to the carpet on our nighttime visit, will be excited to see that remodel. The place right now looks the same as it ever was and unless you’re Luigi’s or Wool Growers (neither of which features a musty smell) you can’t get away with the dated look. Technically she described the smell as “old building/nasty carpet” but I think musty is more succinct.
Let’s talk about breakfast first. Admittedly, we were both hungry coming off a gym visit, but even accounting for that it was an impressive repast. My companion ordered the bacon tomato avocado omelet ($11.49) with pancakes instead of toast (an option I recommend) while I went for one of the skillets made with tater tots, the farmhouse ($10.79) with a side of French apple pie ($4.99). The only bad news was the sliced avocado on top of my companion’s omelet had some darkness on one end of the slices. Visually unappealing. Musty to the eyes you might say. But the omelet was filled with bits of bacon, tomato and three cheeses — cheddar, Swiss and Jack. And it was a thin, perfectly formed creation with above average hash browns on the plate. The buttermilk pancakes were thick and amazing, very light for something with such substance. Unless you’re a real nut for toast, I’d get this starch.
My skillet was notable for the many grilled, fresh veggies mixed in (white onions, red and green peppers, mushrooms, oven-roasted tomato chunks, even zucchini). The finely diced ham was all in one spot under the eggs. It was also notable for two cheeses, pepper jack and a spicy poblano cheese sauce. The restraint in the use of the cheese, not too much to overwhelm all those great vegetables, but enough to add that satisfying creaminess, was great. My companion noted that both breakfasts had not been excessively salted in the cooking process, which is a plus for anyone concerned about sodium intake.
The pie, which our excellent waitress Jackie offered to warm up (she deserves a raise, so welcoming was her presence at our breakfast) was just great, really like Marie Callender’s has always made. In my dad’s restaurant at one point he went with frozen apples and the texture on those is never the same as fresh, which get that melt-in-your-mouth feel. My companion noted that the apple pie seemed sweet, but what apple pie isn’t? It’s the nature of that fruit. I finished off her portion. And it should be noted that in this visit, my companion felt the whole restaurant smelled like pancakes.
(By the way, one of Marie Callender’s little publicized excellent breakfast treats are the muffins, particularly the triple chocolate ($3.39) which weighs in at 740 calories. You won’t regret a single calorie. The banana nut and apple streusel have their charms, too.)
Dinner was not as graceful. My theory with the nationwide struggles of Marie Callender’s is that they went too far in promoting their frozen food line in grocery stores and it had to hurt the dinner business. Go check out the freezer section at Vons anytime. Virtually every one of their specialties is available at a reasonable price there and somedays after work you want to just pop one of those into the microwave rather than going out. Especially now that someone invented Netflix.
When we visited at dinner, my companion ordered the Thai shrimp skillet ($13.79) and I ignored the things I’ve liked on past visits (the chicken pot pie, the meatloaf or the burgers) and tried something new, the beef stroganoff ($15.29). My companion’s overwhelming impression was that we’d been served a reheated frozen dinner. “How is this Thai?” she said, and since we’d recently had some great Thai food I had absolutely no response. The plate featured herb rice spread over half the metal skillet and shrimp mixed with roasted tomatoes and fresh vegetables. According to the menu, there was supposed to be a spicy Thai shrimp sauce in the mix but it was so polite as to be beyond detection.
I thought my beef stroganoff was better with a lot of fresh mushrooms, a bit of mustard in the mix but hardly any of the caramelized onions promised by the menu. At least the fettuccine served with it was al dente and the beef medallions were tender and seared on the outside.
There was a delay getting my dinner, so our waitress Mia offered us free pie (the staff seems really determined to keep customers happy), so we sampled the pumpkin cream cheese special offering available only for a limited time. Saw a shirt at the gym that read “You had me at pumpkin spice.” Sure seems like we’re moving in that direction as a nation.
If I go back at dinner, I’ll stick with the chicken pot pie and the burgers. I do need to note that children eat free on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and that I hope they revive the amazing happy hour they used to have once they get the liquor license back.