Two small restaurant franchises recently opened stores in Bakersfield. One was returning after leaving us years ago, the other is blazing a new trail with locations at both the Valley Plaza and The Marketplace.

The new entrant is Ike’s Love & Sandwiches, a company founded in the Bay Area in 2007 by Ike Shehadeh that has been growing by leaps and bounds, now up to 55 locations. Their specialty is a “dirty secret sauce” but you’re lucky, if you stick to the Bakersfield-special menu, to get a lot more different types of sauces. Sure the bread is fresh and ingredients are first-rate, with a lot of vegan options including meatballs and nuggets (take that McDonald’s), but the sauces can be a bit overwhelming so my advice is to get them on the side. The crew does that willingly and then you can decide if the mango habanero, the Godfather sauce or the cranberry sauce is really an asset or overkill.

We visited the Ike’s at The Marketplace where they moved into a narrow space that seems just right, given all the outdoor seating near the fountain. We ordered a Friday the 13th ($11.11) and what used to be called a Merle Haggard ($11.11). I say used to be because the name of that pastrami sandwich is blacked out on the menu, and the counter person wouldn’t say why this attempt to localize the menu was not met with love by his family. (I have a feeling lawyers were involved.)

The sandwiches were good, but asking for the sauce on the side was the key to making it all work. The Friday the 13th had a fried chicken cutlet and we got it on the Dutch crust bread, which Too Fat made popular here long ago, and it also had ranch, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and the mango habanero. You can dip it in the sauces and get the same effect. We got the sandwich formerly known as Merle on sourdough and it had provolone cheese, purple slaw (a real bold choice that works) and the mango habanero again, which didn’t thrill us with a meat like pastrami.

The cool thing is the restaurant has hundreds of other sandwiches that they’ll make for you; you can find the complete on the website. In true Chipotle style you can also customize the sandwich with 10 add-ons such as avocado, bacon or mozzarella sticks at an extra charge, and there are freebie add-ons such as jalapenos and banana peppers. That old Burger King slogan “Have it your Way” is just commonplace now.

The other new franchise is Yoshinoya Asian Kitchen, which used to be on Ming Avenue years ago when it went by Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. The new name is more in tune with the times, and the menu is a lot more versatile nowadays. I remember back in the day you basically got boiled beef with raw white onions and not a lot of other protein options. Now the choices for building your bowl or combo plate include teriyaki chicken, steak and peppers, sweet chili fried shrimp, habanero chicken, orange chicken and grilled tilapia. We ordered a combo feast meal ($23.46) which is the best value: four spring rolls, four chicken wing segments and two plates: teriyaki chicken and habanero chicken with fried rice and vegetables, and another with beef and peppers and the shrimp with Japanese noodles and potatoes.

I really think Yoshinoya is on the right track by diversifying its menu so it can compete with fast-growing chains like Flame Broiler, which, though far less Asian, does offer similar food. My companion’s biggest issue is that in freshness it wasn’t up to Flame Broiler, particularly in the vegetable with the cabbage-carrot-broccoli mix far more over-cooked. I was a lot more enthusiastic about the shrimp and the beef on my plate, which had green and red pepper chunks mixed with the white onions. It was far more interesting than the standard beef they offer. And the potato chunks were like good home fries, really. The habanero chicken was spicy but not radically so.

The wings and spring rolls were OK, nothing to really inspire raves, the sauce on the wings pretty salty. My companion thought the sodium level on everything was pretty elevated compared to Flame Broiler.

The new place just east of the 99 on White Lane is pretty spiffy inside in its standalone building that has been home to a lot of fast food restaurants in recent years, and I have to give the crew credit for their hustle. It was crowded but they were working so fast most people were getting their orders five to 10 minutes after paying for it. The dining room is small but functional. The chain’s first restaurant opened in Tokyo in 1899 and they’re now up to 2,000 worldwide.

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

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