For years the standard reaction when a new Mexican restaurant opened in Bakersfield was, “Another Mexican place?”
Even after we’ve lost Mexicali West, La Colonia and Sinaloa in recent months, you could understand that sentiment given how many fine Mexican restaurants we already have. But Aqui Es Texcoco is nothing like anyplace else that’s here now. And it’s not just the quail and the grasshoppers on the menu that earn it that distinction.
This is a fascinating place. People think of Mexican restaurants they think of the usual suspects — tacos, enchiladas, chips, fajitas. This place specializes in barbecued lamb, and it’s a must-order on the menu and the good news is you can get it in so many different ways, including the head.
Aqui es Texcoco has an interesting lineage, having opened in Tijuana back in 1990 and later expanding to Chula Vista (near San Diego) and Commerce before moving into the former Lumberjacks coffee shop. The late, great Jonathan Gold from the Los Angeles Times put it on his list of 101 Best Restaurants in 2015, saying “When you get in your car and drive to Aqui es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas. The mixiotes, stews baked in parchment with fat slivers of agave leaf, are delicious, especially the one made with rabbit, but they are as minor a diversion as the roasted lambs' heads. You are there for vast portions of lamb barbacoa, pit-roasted with those agave leaves, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. And come early. The barbacoa is often sold out by early afternoon.”
Forewarned, we ordered accordingly, though we arrived late on a Saturday night and word was not yet out about this place so there was plenty of lamb. My companion chose the three enchiladas plate ($8.75), choosing the lamb, chicken and refried beans and cheese for her fillings. I went for the quesataco ($4.15) filled with lamb and the flautas ($8.75) filled with lamb, chicken and beans. We saved room for the house-made flan ($4).
If you prefer you can just order a plate of the lamb with all the fixings as Gold described above (one-third pound $12, half pound $13.95 — go big and bring any you can’t finish home for leftovers), and it is definitely the house specialty: juicy, smoky like great pit-style beef in texture but with the more interesting notes you get from lamb. My companion when told about the place got a quizzical look but could not believe how amazing it was. Particularly in that grilled cheese taco.
Now I know a lot of restaurants trying to please keto customers are offering those tortilla-free tacos with “shells” made from firm melted cheese, but the version they offered will win over even those lukewarm on the appeal of the amazing dairy product. It sort of melted on the plate after being stuffed with the hot lamb, best consumed with a fork but such a compatible marriage we can’t imagine ordering any of the other meats.
Reader Tim Ross had emailed us saying he wasn’t particularly a fan of lamb as prepared Basque style but he loved it.
“My wife grew up in Orange County, in a Hispanic family that ate a lot of lamb. I never made a connection between lamb and Mexican food,” he wrote. “I am a local gringo who tried lamb a couple of times in Basque restaurants and didn't care much for it. Anyway, I liked this style of lamb and my wife (the expert) gave it two thumbs up.”
My companion’s enchiladas were presented not rolled but with tortillas dipped in the sauce and plated as if they were tacos. The chicken was respectable, though trying it after the lamb really wasn’t fair. The flautas were crispy and coated with lettuce, cotija and cream. The end result of our dinner, however, was a lust for more of the lamb, and on our next visit we’ll just get the eight ounces with tortillas and beans and dig in.
This is not the sort of restaurant where chips and salsa are brought out as the first course. Instead you get lime wedges, chopped white onions with cilantro and these amazing spicy white onions that are a perfect garnish for any of what the kitchen brings you. Particularly perfect for the chicken.
You will see so many items on the Aqui menu that are not typical for our city. The lamb is available as meat, rib, tripe, brain (available only in tacos) and the head, “seasoned and cooked in the oven” according to the menu. You can get the lamb meat Mediterranean style with pita bread and a dill yogurt sauce. Lamb cooked in parchment, grilled cactus, blood sausage, pressed pork belly, grilled quail marinated in dark beer, grasshoppers with avocado slices. I am constantly reading futurists who tell us that eventually insects will be a natural part of the American diet, as if someday we’re all going to evolve into Anthony Bourdain-like clones eating anything put on a plate in front of us, as if it’s all a dare. I’m also aware that this style of eating is common in many parts of the world. I’m not there yet. You can even get a side dish of guacamole with grasshoppers. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The back page of the menu tells you the story of the Texcoco region that reminded me of that great book by Diana Kennedy, “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.” The menu page outlines the traditions of slow roasting meat in underground fire pits covered with maguey leaves, a process they’ve tried to replicate in a special oven that led to the restaurant getting press from Rachel Ray and The Travel Channel.
Service was stunningly professional for a new restaurant, from a young, eager, well-trained crew that seemed to expend a lot of calories taking care of everyone without stressing.
Aqui es Texcoco can be recommended for a fine dining experience. But trust me on the lamb.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.