One would never guess, walking into the scruffy hipster hootenanny on the western edge of downtown’s funkiest strip, that Bakersfield Mass Ave—in all its brick-walled, tequila-soaked scrappiness—is actually one slick production.
The young man in the grotty trucker’s hat sipping his PBR from a glass mug shaped like a cowboy boot might not know that this honky-tonk has an identical twin, Bakersfield OTR, located in Cincinnati’s trendy Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The pretty tattooed girls waiting out front for one of the butcher-block tables to open up probably don’t know that the owners, Cincinnati natives John and Joe Lanni, started the Currito food-court burrito chain—or that their father, Nicola Lanni, was the founder and CEO of The Great Steak & Potato Co. And I doubt that any of the neo-bumpkins squirting salsa verde onto their fish tacos under a canopy of Edison-bulbed work lamps are aware that the Tabasco-lime sauce and citrus slaw that they are about to cram into their mouths came straight from a corporate recipe.
I also doubt that any of them would care. Almost as soon as Bakersfield opened in early March, the eat-drinky with the subhead “Tacos Tequila Whiskey” enjoyed quite a following, having transformed the old harlequin-themed Bazbeaux location into a warren of rough-hewn, amber-lit nooks.
A plunky soundtrack of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash tunes provides a base layer for the din—no coincidence, as the restaurant takes its name from the brown-collared California town where Owens originated his boisterous country-rockabilly style that the record business branded as the Bakersfield Sound. Add in the staccato note of martini shakers mixing up craft cocktails with names like La Tormenta (a sweet, effervescent combination of reposado tequila, fresh lime juice, celery bitters, and ginger beer) and the bourbon-based Bakersfield Sour (with Gran Marnier and the elderflower whiff of St-Germain, garnished with a pick of house-soaked bourbon cherries). The Chester Ave involves a muddled orange and an absinthe wash, and the Red Headed Stranger—BuffaloTrace bourbon set ablaze with cayenne and ginger liqueur—is Bakersfield’s nod to the incendiary-cocktail trend. This feels like an odd place to find such highly evolved mixo-logy. (What’s a nice barrel-aged Manhattan like you doing in a place like this?) But it makes for a good show at the centerpiece bar rimmed with shelves of Mexican prayer candles.
The food, in contrast, sticks to a simple plan. Your four-top table could probably check off nearly every item listed, beginning with the chunky house-mashed guacamole—as perfect a bowl of creamy-ripe avocado shot through with pockets of salt and the simple acidity of lime that ever touched the corner of a warm tortilla chip. The mains include a pair of meal-sized tortas. The Milanesa layers a pan-fried chicken cutlet with black beans, salsa verde, arugula, avocado, and lemon mayo. Call it the Mexican version of a breaded tenderloin, as delicious as it is decadent. The short-rib torta presses the braised meat—so tender it pulls apart in succulent strips—with deliciously wilted caramelized onions under a layer of Chihuahua cheese, a hearty creation that makes expert use of the meat.
Your four-top could probably check off nearly every item listed, beginning with the chunky house-mashed guacamole.
But most people are going to go directly to the $3-to-$4 street-style tacos that make up the bulk of the menu, each custom-garnished to complement its stuffing. The morsels are wrapped in housemade corn tortillas and amount to three slightly sloppy bites of, say, mole chicken with sweet-tart pickled red onions, or chili-marinated pork under nibs of pineapple and fresh cilantro. Servers bring out the entire table’s taco order on one big metal plate, placed on an elevated rack. This makes for an intimate experience as diners delicately lift their selections off of the wax-paper liner and lean in to avoid spillage.
The fish in the fish tacos is fried, as it should be. Both the pollo verde and the short-rib tacos are topped with thin slices of radish. And the vegetarian huitlacoche taco combines its funky corn truffles—basically tiny mushrooms—with roasted peppers and cotija cheese for an intense flavor that will make you wish you had ordered a dozen. That’s all the reason you need to come back for more.
BAKERSFIELD 334 Massachusetts Ave., 317-635-6962, bakersfieldmassave.com
Hours Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–midnight., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–3 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the July 2013 issue.