I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting restaurants when I’m driving around. It’s a habit, and when kind readers aren’t telling me about new and promising spots I have to find my own.
While on a trip to Costco I came across a tiny Mexican restaurant in a strip mall on Stine Road called El Rinconcito Mexican Grill & Bar. Never heard of it, but as I looked at the storefront written on the windows was “Pete Tittl gives us *****.”
That brings up a number of issues. Earlier this year I had a heated email exchange with a fan of a restaurant that I had rated only 3 1/2 stars. He insisted it deserved five. I explained that it’s only on a four-star scale. He wasn’t accepting that, and I began to realize why so many food critics like the late, great Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times avoid any star rating entirely. Probably doesn’t help that Yelp, Trip Advisor and other online rating services have gone with the five-star system.
The other issue is when was I there? Have I been trapped in a time warp? I, of course, went back to my computer and email systems to do key word searches for both the address and the name. Turned up nothing. Maybe this whole thing is some sort of "Back to the Future" thing — I’ve already written the review, but I took an ill-advised trip in a DeLorean!
Discombobulated, I stopped in first for happy hour on a Tuesday when tacos are a mere 99 cents, margaritas $3.50 and beers $2.50. It was one of those 99-degree Bakersfield days that don’t seem unreasonably hot unless you have to work outside. All eight of the other happy hour revelers at this time were males who looked like they worked outside and knocked off early, singing that Jimmy Buffett song about 5 o’clock. Anyway, with the ceiling fans going and the AC, it was quite refreshing compared to the outside. And let’s admit it, one of the real delights of restaurant dining in Bakersfield is using someone else’s AC so you don’t need to use a home equity line of credit to pay the August PG&E bill. Unless you’re one of those solar people who this time of year has a special spring in your step and looks years younger.
Anyway, I ordered asada, pastor, carnitas and grilled chicken tacos. What I was served did not have any version of carnitas I’ve sampled in the past, unless the kitchen messed up and gave me two pastors. The most puzzling thing is that though they looked different, they didn’t have a pronounced difference in taste. In fact, they tasted as if the flavors had been scientifically removed in some heretofore secret process. I almost took a razor blade to the white plastic stars on the window outside, but the beer and margarita were as cold and refreshing as the AC-friendly air.
Back for dinner where things were more promising but still not five stars. My companion ordered the enchiladas suizas ($8.99) and I selected the grilled fish tacos ($9.99). The air was just as cool inside on this hot day and our pleasant waitress pointed out that drinks were still available at those happy hour prices. The fish tacos were the real star: The morsels of fish were grilled with brown specks and the white fish was fresh tasting. We had recently come back from the gulf coast of Florida where a humble fish store made some amazing grilled grouper tacos and these were comparable, though instead of the cole slaw we’re seeing in more places we got shredded iceberg lettuce, jack cheese and some of the juiciest tomato bits we’ve seen locally. It came with respectable rice and beans and was something I’d order again.
My companion’s enchiladas were less impressive mostly because the shredded chicken inside was just way too bland — we’ve sampled too many with grilled chicken that blends more naturally with the green sauce — and the cheese on top — nicely torched — was a bland jack rather than the Swiss she loves at Los Agaves in Santa Barbara.
It is worth stressing that with those happy hour margaritas at El Rinconcito are a pretty decent value, even if you’re not there for the 99-cent tacos. The stars issue does linger with me, though.
My curiosity did get the better of me and I called the restaurant to find out that it had been reviewed under another name in the past — which I was unable to track down in my notes — and new owners took over in January and changed it to El Rinconcito. No one gets five stars, though.