The whole idea of going to Tehachapi for a day trip to try a couple of restaurants had its roots in word of mouth. People tell me, often via email, that I was missing out on some amazing food experiences if I didn’t visit Kohnen’s Country Bakery and Red House BBQ.
The final straw came last when the owner of Red House BBQ sent a protest email to Sound Off editor Robert Price for not being nominated in the Best of Kern County barbecue restaurant vote. Bob, a reasonable fellow, wondered if I’d been there. I told him it was on my list, and that elevated the place.
In a nutshell, both of these places are amazing, and it’s hard for me to imagine even driving past Tehachapi in the future without a quick stop in to one or both. I had intended to merely pick up dessert at Kohnen’s, but they have sandwiches, the best way to sample some of their amazing breads, so we made that first stop on a Sunday, beating the after-church crowd.
Most people seem to know the drill. There are slips to custom-order your sandwiches as part of the process, so had a chance to customize the Reuben ($9.65) made with pastrami. There’s a choice of two rye breads, and we went with the grau brot, described as a German rye with dense texture and strong flavor (but no caraway seeds). We also ordered a Florentine lace cookie ($1.10), a piece of apple strudel ($2.85), a chocolate macaroon ($1.65) and a mini cheesecake ($4.95) with raspberry and chocolate on top. Don’t judge. It was all on display in the case as you’re waiting to order the sandwiches and if the line had been longer I would’ve gone for the German pretzels ($2.25), the lemon bar ($2.95) and the peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie ($1.10).
Hard to pick a favorite from all that, but the cheesecake was amazing, shaped like a hockey puck, so dense inside with nary a hint of lemon, piled with raspberry preserves all atop an appealing, rich chocolate crust. The strudel was described on the menu as being a “Nord Rheine Westfalian style” so don’t expect intruders like raisins or nuts inside — it’s simple but solid with a lattice-work crust on top and flaky (though not as extreme as a croissant), too. The lace cookie and macaroon had a fresh bakery taste and the sandwich was a panini with Swiss, sauerkraut, German pickle, Thousand Island dressing and above all a German rye bread so similar to what we had in Munich once. I didn’t know it was possible to get this in the States.
The atmosphere is relaxed and festive, with a cuckoo clock in the wall that on the hour featured a boy coming out as “Edelweiss” was playing. There are plenty of German beers available and if a sandwich seems dull you can get this amazing-looking pizza bread ($6.75) made with Monterey Jack cheese, pepperoni and house-made marinara sauce, or bierocks, a baked-in-the-bun sandwich that reminds me of pierogies that were common in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It’s not a dessert place at all.
After an hour or two in the antique stores in Tehachapi’s pedestrian-friendly downtown, we were ready to eat again. Once again, don’t judge. Just down the road a short drive away is Red House, a completely different experience. Some have called it a hole in the wall, but I think that’s selling it short. There are a lot of tables, a waterfall, walls near the entrance filled with customers' messages and a menu that offers more variety in smoked meats than most of its competitors.
There are mini-feasts and feasts ($40 and $70) if you’re feeding a large group, but we went for the build-your-own two-meat combo meals ($17.99), My companion selecting the half chicken and pulled pork with macaroni and cheese and Buffalo fried cauliflower, while I selected the beef ribs and brisket with pot beans and red slaw.
The must order has got to be that mac and cheese, dark yellow, thick with cheddar, so rich, so perfect. They slap a $1 or $2 surcharge “if meal has more than one side order,” according to the whiteboard. I’m not clear on what that actually means but a look around the room showed most everyone gets it. One taste and I understood why.
After sampling the meat, I understood the anger in the owner’s email to Price. There’s a nice smoke ring on everything, the chicken was perfect, still moist in the center of the breast, and you could bring your nose near and have the oak smoke make its presence known. The beef ribs were meaty and graced by a nice rub, but three types of house-made sauces were on the side if you want those. The pulled pork was my companion’s favorite over everything, as she mentally scanned through all the pulled porks we’ve sampled in the past year all over the state and she couldn’t recall a superior version.
The red slaw had an apple cider vinegar tang, the whole beans were simple but good with some onions and peppers, and the fried cauliflower looked like cheese curds, most of the spice in the thick batter and the veggie inside pure white. But whatever you do, get the mac and cheese.
My brother-in-law, Henry, is a big fan of the place and he has two specific recommendations: the Friday chili macaroni and cheese special (“They mix the chili from the week into that great macaroni and cheese,” he said.) and the Indian fry bread taco (“One fills the plate and it’s an entire meal.”)
Both of these restaurants have been around for a while. Red House opened in 2007, moving to its current location in 2010. Thomas Kohnen, the bakery’s owner, is a native of Bottrop, Germany. He apprenticed at a bakery there, eventually moved to Santa Barbara, got married to a California native named Colleen and took over a historic bakery in Ojai called Bill Baker, moving to Tehachapi when his building there was sold in 2004.
These restaurants are both worth, as Michelin would say, a special journey.