Two new restaurants opened up in recent months in the WinCo shopping center on Panama Lane in the southwest. One, a barbecue place that benefitted from a big name chain failure, the other a from-scratch seafood place trying to compete in the fried seafood category.

Big D’s Smokehouse & Grill moved into what had been the second Dickey’s Barbecue to open in Bakersfield, and apparently our town isn’t big enough to support two of them. What’s more likely is something we touched on in the year in review Dining Guide story last December: We’ve gotten so many strong locally-owned competitors in the past couple years in this niche of the restaurant business that chains like Dickey’s and Famous Dave’s can struggle. Big D’s, which on the door touts that it’s “locally owned,” was lucky enough to inherit the shiplap décor and the smoking equipment left behind by the big dogs. That’s pretty sweet.

Though I have enjoyed Dickey’s, I think Big D's is better because the staff is so exceedingly friendly you feel like you’re dining at a friend’s house. There are salads, sandwiches, burgers — a more complicated menu than Dickey’s it seems — but we went straight to the smoked meat plates, my companion selected the pulled pork plate with barbecued beans ($11) while I went whole hog for the two meats and three spare ribs combo plate ($21), choosing smoked chicken, beef brisket, green beans and potatoes and gravy.

All the meat, especially the ribs, had a nice smoke ring and I for one appreciated how moist the chicken was. The brisket was fatty — had to trim that away — but that was the first carne to disappear from the table. The pulled pork was like the chicken, not too dried out, crispy in some parts, smoky in all areas. The green beans were crisp and had a buttery taste, the mashed potatoes had some lumps in them to convince us they were real, not mixed, though the brown gravy was on the ordinary side. We didn’t mind the indistinct nature of the smokiness — you don’t get the pronounced apple or oak or hickory notes that some barbecue places tout. I do think the quality and prices will keep Big D's around longer than its predecessor.

Moving to the south side of the shopping center we have a small (six table) place called Garrison’s Seafood Express where our reaction to the food was decidedly mixed. The shrimp combo plate ($14) I ordered was fantastic: eight jumbo shrimp, fresh tasting, crispy, coated in a thin batter with an herb mix that sure beats out Old Bay and other common concoctions. I’d order it again.

Less impressive was my companion’s two-piece cod combo ($13), which admittedly is competing with our taste memories of the great product we’ve raved about in the past at Coconut Joe’s and Mossman’s Westchester Coffee Shop (and its sister restaurant at 3610 Wible Road, another bowling alley). My companion got two very large pieces of fish — at least two inches across and wide filets — but the thickness of the cut somehow seemed less appealing than what they serve at our favorites. It was OK, rather than completely charming. Two small hush puppies were included in each basket, and those thankfully were completely done and still moist inside, as well as a small portion of serviceable coleslaw.

Other things were quite disconcerting. The steak fries served with each meal were not completely done. Not raw in the middle, but definitely undercooked. Oil not hot enough? Not enough time in the fryer? Who knows? We saw only two younger women staffing the place, and perhaps attention to detail was lacking during our visit. The other thing that stuck in our craw was the mandatory soda purchase. At night, we’re not in the mood for iced tea, there is no beer or wine and we are some of those people who’ve sworn off soda for health reasons (it happens). There is no option for a full meal without a soda purchase. Doesn’t seem right.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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