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PETE TITTL: Noriega's good in new neighborhood

It was a culinary tragedy when the Noriega Hotel had to close, the only restaurant in town to ever win a James Beard national award and a distinctive place open since 1893 that was one of those fascinating, unusual restaurants that drew visitors.

Fortunately for us the restaurant lives on as Noriega's under new owners Bill and Koie Osathanukhro, who also own Happy Wings and Glitz Cafe. The pair purchased the name, liquor license, tables, chairs, plates, recipes and talked some former employees such as Chef Gilbert to come along and keep a Bakersfield tradition alive.

They relocated to another place with a history of excellence, the former Cafe Med. Though there has been naturally a loss of ambiance — the old place did not have to fake its age — this could entice those in the southwest who might have been too lazy to drive across town, which has become a real adventure with all the continuing road construction lately.

When we visited on a Saturday night, we were seated near four old Noriega vets who had moved into the nearby Rosewood Retirement Community on Stine Road. You gotta know they’ll be visiting more often with it right in their neighborhood.

Change is seldom well-received by most people, and throughout our experience we were running memory checks to see if the food was comparable to what we remember from the old Noriega Hotel. In most cases, it seemed to match up, though I must say they’re bringing out smaller platters of food but replenishing them quickly when you note an empty plate.

I know that one of the latest political issues floating around is how much food we waste in America, and I have to think doing it this way will result in less food waste, though a man seated near me got the platter of oxtail stew when there was no longer any meat on it, and he had to bring it to the attention of the waitress that he desired some. She returned quickly enough with a platter and started it with him. I have read on social media from customers complaining about this, but trust me, they bring more, just tell them when you want more, and less waste should help the planet and the owner’s pocketbook.

Before I proceed, I must strongly advise you to make reservations. It was a miracle we got in at first seating on a Saturday night, and I did not see an empty seat once everyone from the bar had been seated in the dining room. The good thing is there are seatings at 6 and 8 p.m. instead of just at 7 p.m., so you can get more people in the door. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are a fixed price although, in a pleasant bonus, state and local taxes are already included in the price, but not the tip.

Because it was a Saturday, oxtail stew and garlic fried chicken were the entrees, with the usual bread, butter, salsa, cabbage soup, beans, cottage cheese with the chives, pickled tongue, canned green beans seasoned with garlic, chilled house red wine, blue cheese, ice cream for dessert, if you wish (I like that they take orders for that, too, as I had no room). And the french fries, which came out last.

Everything is served family style, all the food coming out in intervals that did not seem rushed, though I did wonder if we were gonna get done in time for the next set of customers.

Based on my taste memory, it was pretty much what I remember from the old Noriega’s, and one of our neighbors at this meal said they’ve been finding more of the same except one day at lunch when the brisket seemed too dry. I would’ve hated that, but the oxtail stew was the real star of what they brought out.

I recall reading an essay in the past year from a food writer extolling the wonderful delights of oxtail stew. To me, the beef always reminds me of the sinewy but tasty beef you get from short ribs and the version here had potatoes, carrots, celery, onion and red pepper chunks in a thin broth. I could eat it all day, and it deserves the starring role on Saturday night.

The chicken was crispy with just the right amount of oily garlic sauce, and the fries were also quite appealing even if some were unevenly fried in the process.

Service was great in the dining room though the staff was in constant motion and trying to get a drink at the bar before dinner can be a challenge as there were only two people behind the counter serving the customers. There is an outdoor patio from the old Cafe Med days but that was not in use when we visited in early July.

Both the dining room and the bar are a very loud environment even with hearing aids, so you’ve been warned. Customers are called into the dining room one by one, and it can be a challenge to hear your name called. Perhaps electronic voice amplification is in order.

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