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Spice is nice at new spot Baba's Hot Chicken

Bakersfield is booming with hot chicken joints but that doesn’t mean we can’t make room for another. And Baba’s Hot Chicken, which opens Saturday, brings something special to the Nashville hot chicken game.

It starts with founder and CEO Mahmoud “Mike” Hemood, who immigrated to California from Jordan with his family when he was 10. 

"I grew up with my dad barbecuing," he said. "He went all out. Dad likes to barbecue. He does kabobs and things like that."

Hemood's own passion for cooking — and hot chicken — really took off while attending UC Riverside. Armed with a fryer, he started working on his own take on the popular dish.

"Rather than follow the standard recipe, we have experience with Arabic food," Hemood said of his culinary chicken experimentation.

With a flavor profile that people will recognize, Baba's goes further, using halal, hormone-free chicken, imported Middle Eastern spices and a special brining method for a competitive edge.

The new Bakersfield restaurant will be the fourth for the chain, which started as a pop-up in Riverside in 2019. Hemood said longtime friend Ommar Choudhry helped encourage him to take the leap. 

"He supported me from day one," Hemood said. "Maybe six months into it, he asked, 'Have you ever thought of turning this into a restaurant?'" We got hit up by the (Riverside) Food Lab and now we have a space."

From there, Baba's continued to grow, adding locations in Costa Mesa at The LAB Anti-Mall — a haven for small businesses — and San Diego.

While Bakersfield might not seem like the next step, it was Choudhry and his uncle Tahir Salim, both partners in the local franchise, who pointed the way. Both lived in town and still have relatives who call Bakersfield home.

Tennis brings Salim, a South High grad, back to town, where he plays with friends like Chuck Beatty, a teacher and coach at Independence High.

Salim said it was Hemood's work ethic and delicious chicken that got him on board.

"He is intricately involved in the concept," Salim said of Hemood. "I was very impressed by him. The food tastes so much better than anybody else's. I loved the food so much I decided to become a partner."

Hemood said he was excited to bring Baba's to Bakersfield, bolstered by a conversation with Choudhry's cousin who teaches here.

"The way she talks about Bakersfield, I see what they mean about community," Hemood said.

Noticing that the city supports local chains like Flame and Skewers, he was excited to develop the new location in town.

"They (residents) love their restaurants," he said. "I love the fact that Bakersfield is such a tight community."

Hemood said he would like to make this location the flagship store since, unlike the other Baba's, it is built in a brand-new space, located in the California Avenue shopping center also home to Urbane Cafe, California Fish Grill and a soon-to-open Randy's Donuts.

Baba's Chicken has a short menu of chicken sandwiches and tenders, available in four heat levels: mild, medium, hot and extreme, which Hemood said uses Carolina reaper, which measures about 2 million on the Scoville scale for heat.

Side dishes include mac and cheese, crinkle-cut fries and fried pickles. Grilled cheese is also served as a sandwich or as the buns for the gut-busting cheesy Baba sandwich.

The first 100 customers when Baba's opens at 11 a.m. Saturday will receive a free classic sandwich.

Baba's Hot Chicken is at 5625 California Ave., Suite 200. For more information, visit babashotchicken.com.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.