Bakersfield Mass Ave (334 Massachusetts Ave., 317-635-6962, bakersfieldmassave.com) officially opens at 4 p.m. today, and hosted preview parties on Friday and Saturday nights. Housing their taco-tequila-whiskey haven in the former Bazbeaux spot on the business end of Mass Ave, the owners smartly knocked out the walls that separated three rooms on the main floor, implementing steel beams to prop up the room and thus opening the space, letting it breathe. This is a mini-chain with just two stores so far, the first abiding in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district. The owners were thrilled to be able to do so much to this building, as the original location is more than 200 years old, with updates to the historic building either forbidden or impossible.
The result here is a rowdy, loud, exceedingly good time, to be sure. Even on a soft opening night, Bakersfield came off knowing exactly what it wants to be. Whiskey, bourbon, and tequila rule this roost, with the sounds of Johnny Cash's catalog and Dolly Parton's "Jolene" wafting overhead. Just as Bazbeaux had additional seating downstairs, Bakersfield boasts communal tables below, with a full-service subterranean bar to boot. An exposed liquor cabinet with moody lighting greets one at the base of the stairs, setting the basement's speakeasy tone early.
Our favorite taco held spicy pork cochinita, with habanero salsa. We actually started there but definitely recommend ending with that. Let the flavors get bigger as you taste. Start with the takes on tomatillo-braised chicken (pollo verde) or the mole chicken. And then move on to the tortas: We ordered the chicken Milanesa. But the flavor tasted greatly of oil, sort of overwhelming the meat itself. Elsewhere, we liked the freshly baked, crusty telera roll, and the Johnny salad—mixed greens, bacon, toasted almonds, cotija cheese, and more bathed in a cider vinaigrette dressing. (The other salad on hand is, of course, named June.) The house guacamole is not mild, rather spicier than so many others in town, and this is good news. What's more, everything in this downtown saloon arrives quickly and modestly priced (until you get to the top-shelf liquors, of course).
We didn't find either house salsa—for pouring over the tacos and pairing with the chips—to be terribly spicy, though one was billed so more than the other. You can request an off-menu habanero-chili salsa at no charge, or for those harboring the need a truly spicy alternative, a cup of intensely hot ghost-pepper salsa is available for $3. Also, a great feature for late-night nibblers is that the full menu will be available until midnight Monday through Thursday, and can be ordered all the way to 3 a.m. on weekends. Whether it's a Pabst's Blue Ribbon draft or another, you can have your beer served in a glass shaped like a boot. (By all means, tap that.) A bevy of local brew options are literally chalked up here, appearing on the wall above a doorway. You can also write messages about and to the establishment, and to fellow patrons, on the bathroom hallway's wall.
Margaritas here, the $6 Bakersfield 'rita or the $12 top-shelf version, are not corn-syrupy sweet, actually rather tart in light of the freshly squeezed limes. Not overtly boozy either, but tasty in their own right. Alas, whiskey was not on the agenda at the Friday preview party. Trust that this place has dozens of whiskeys on hand, and those are ready for your enjoyment beginning today. As it was, servers were admittedly acclimating to everything else after a week of intensive training.
That training showed on these soft opening nights, attended by an array of local foodies and members of both the media and the city's certifiable Twitterati. In two separate sittings, our servers, shepherded by general manager Trevor Snowden—himself sporting a mighty fine pompadour—were confident and knowledgeable. (To note, one server also co-owns Lick Ice Cream). They knew the flavors quite well as they pertained to both food and drink, and were engaging and visibly excited to share the Bakersfield way of things. This is a welcome addition to the Mass Ave strip, and becomes the latest spot to dot what is fast evolving into an Indianapolis arts-dining-nightlife district on par with Short North in Columbus, Ohio.
NOTE: As of March 12, Bakersfield announced via Facebook that it would begin serving lunch in mid-April 2013.
HOURS Mon.–Thurs. 4 p.m.–12 a.m., Fri–Sat. 4 p.m.–3 a.m., closed Sun.