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Monday, January 16, 2017

HUNGRY? The Great Bakersfield Food Tour.

“Try to stay hungry.”

“I just need a piece of bread or something…”

“I know, but just don’t go overboard…you’ll need your appetite.”

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So goes the back and forth between my wife and I as we head on across the Tejon Pass, just north of Los Angeles. It’s been a long Lent and now we’re ready to break it. It’s time for a food-centered trip to one of the great, undiscovered food destinations in California…Bakersfield.

It’s mid April as we have an easy drive over the Grapevine. Sunny and warm, it’s the perfect weather for the wildflowers that paint the hillsides above Gorman. Still early for them, they’re just starting the show. Come here at the beginning of May and it should be spectacular.

First up, a snack to hold my wife and son over until dinner. Dewar’s has been in business here over a century making premium ice cream and candy. It’s great, delicious fun but the original location, with it’s tight spaces, is hard on a wheelchair. Fortunately, their new location is just about perfect.

West of the 99 on Rosedale Highway, just past the giant shopping center where WalMart is, you’ll find the new Dewar’s outpost just off of the corner with Callaway Drive. Not only a great, spacious ice cream parlor, you’ll find a museum of Dewar’s…and Bakersfield…history featuring ice cream making implements going back a century and a guitar given to them by local legend Buck Owens that Letty is standing in front of in that picture up above.

Apart from the giant tour buses blocking the handicapped spaces in the parking lot, check-in goes smooth at the Springhill Suites. Apparently, dozens of college swimmers here for a meet will be surrounding us tonight. Pray for us…

Unpacked and very hungry, we head out for our first meal of the weekend.

Bakersfield has a reputation for being gritty. It’s not a completely undeserved one. Walking the streets of downtown, you’ll have no problem spotting the homeless and others who are down on their luck. The blocks just east of downtown are dotted with halfway houses and rehab centers.

The city also is home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and there’s a renaissance just over the next hump. New restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs are edging into spaces next to the old guard, Bakersfield classics. Come downtown on a Friday or Saturday night and the place is alive.

This is where we come for our Friday night dinner to Uricchio’s Trattoria one block west of Chester Avenue on 17th Street.

We spend a lot of time in this city…a lot. Once we found out the charms and hidden beauty of Bakersfield, we fell in love with it and refer to our frequent stays at the Marriott here as our “timeshare.” Each visit, we try to find at least one new thing to try. This weekend it’s Uricchio’s.

Opened in 1995 by Nick Uricchio, his son Steve, and chef Raphael Hernandez, Uricchio’s serves high-end Italian cuisine in an updated space at very reasonable prices.

At the beginning of dinner service…5:00…we’re able to squeak in without a reservation. The server is very friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the food and the building itself. We notice that some of the windows, most etched with fine detail, have been replaced by plain glass.

Our server tells us that due the historic nature of the building, no one can create windows like that anymore so when one breaks, it can only be replaced by plain glass.

The wine is poured and warm, soft bread is served. Not too long afterward, our entrées appear.

Letty has the linguini pescadora which has seemingly every critter in the ocean swimming in its light marinara sauce. It is pronounced heavenly.

Tim has the manicotti, delicious crepe tubes filled with ricotta and topped with melted mozzarella. He opts to have his covered in meat sauce.  Again, a perfect dish with a nice bold taste to go with our bottle of Syrah.

I have a sublime veal saltimbocca with parmesan potatoes and a delicious vegetable medley on the side. I appreciate the restaurant that tries this dish and love the ones that get it right. Uricchio’s is one of the best I’ve had.

Each entrée is also nicely south of $20.

One meal down, we head back to the hotel to let the food digest and to watch our Angels beat up on the Orioles.

Did I mention we were sharing the hotel with hordes of college swimmers? Luckily, it only took one request to get them to stop screaming in the halls and after bedtime, they were quiet as mice. In the morning, however, these ravenous athletes decimated the hotel’s breakfast bar leaving us with just a cup of yogurt and a bagel.

Oh well, they’ll be checking out today and it’ll be nice, quiet, and empty at the Springhill Suites tonight.

Armed with whatever calories we could find this morning and with quite a few still hanging around from last night, we head south of town to check out another new site for this trip…the Wind Wolves Preserve, nestled up against the backside of the San Gabriel Mountains south of town.

Run by The Wildlands Conservancy, this preserve was purchased from the Tejon Ranch and contains some prime California Condor territory as well as ancient grasslands and canyons.

We don’t have time to go on a long hike and Tim is feeling some ill effects from the heat today so we keep near to the visitor’s center and hang out with a couple of volunteers there looking for birds and any other critters we can find.

About a hundred cliff swallows are flitting about, packing mud under the eaves of the building for nests.

A Bullock’s oriole sips water from a nearby pond before buzzing us up on the balcony.

Tim and I find a bee hive in the roof…hey, where’d Tim go?…as I see the wheelchair flying as far away from the bees as possible.

Some light hiking around the area reveals an algae filled pond with thousands of tadpoles waiting to become frogs. Out on the grasslands, larks sing relentlessly.

It’s back to Bakersfield where the hunger is starting to reassert itself. 5:30 and time for the next stop on our food adventure.  This time, it’s an old friend…Benji’s.

Benji’s is one of Bakersfield’s famed Basque restaurants.  On the edge of one of the city’s oil field no man’s lands, it occupies a corner on Rosedale Highway between an oil rig business and an auction.

Long home to shepherds, the area is known for this unique style of dining. The most famous of the city’s Basque restaurants is Noriega’s, an old boardinghouse in the old downtown area east of the current city center. Most people know it as the place where everybody sits at long tables, passing dishes back and forth family style.

At Benji’s, you sit at your own table but you still share the dishes among you, and what dishes they are! Seating is prompt. The dining room opens at 5:30 and not a minute before, however the bar is open and you’re welcome to enjoy a soothing glass of wine or a strongly mixed picon punch before your meal.

Once seated, your server will take your drink order then give you a basket of crusty French bread, accompanied by their spicy, warm salsa and butter.

A big tureen of thin, vegetable soup is next, served with a plate of beans used to thicken it up. It’s all made from scratch and is incredibly delicious…much more than the thin broth would indicate.

The salad…another large bowl to be shared by all…arrives. In all of my life, I have never had a salad and house dressing better than they make here at Benji’s. Fresh produce, along with a plate of ripe tomatoes and onions, and their creamy house dressing make this a dish I could make a meal of.

Along with the salad course comes the pickled cow’s tongue. If you’ve never had it, what a treat you’re missing. Beefy and covered in a slightly tart sauce, this delicacy will have you asking for more.

Next comes the main course, with green beans and fries, your entrée is served. That is a ton of food so we do what most people do now and order one entrée with the rest of us getting the “set up.” The set up is the entire meal as described above, less the entrée. Our one entrée tonight is a big, medium rare rib eye steak that we cut into thirds and share.

We are completely, satisfyingly stuffed. Dinners here are also reasonable, most entrées between $14 and $20 with a set up going for $13.95.

Dinner over, we head to the other side of the freeway to Sam Lynn Ballpark and spend the evening watching the local minor league team, the Bakersfield Blaze, win over the San Jose Giants.

The Blaze is now affiliated with the Cincinatti Reds and we get to see a true superstar, Ken Griffey, Sr., take the field as he is now managing this team.

Game over, it’s back to a very quiet and empty hotel to sleep off the day.

Sunday morning dawns and we pack up to get ready for the trip home. After checking out, we head across the street to Costco to gas up, down the street to Cruz Thru Car Wash to get the dust and bugs off of the van, and then to the food highlight of any trip to Bakersfield for us.

Back across town, on a quiet side street off of busy Union Avenue, sits the little neon green building that makes the best food in the world. No longer visible to customers since it’s been moved back in the kitchen, marinated pieces of pork slowly spin on a vertical spit known as a trompo. A large onion sits on top of the stack as the heat makes the juice trickle down the side as it all slowly cooks.

The cook takes a tortilla, quickly fries it on the lard coated flat top. A sharp knife is used to carve the cooked pieces of meat off of the trompo and placed into the tortilla. This shepherd’s style of Mexican pork is known as al pastor and no one does it better than Los Tacos de Huicho, the little taco stand that could, sitting here in this bright green building in the rundown neighborhood east of downtown.

We have been known to drive out of our way to make it a meal at this place and wouldn’t think twice about the two hour drive from L.A. just to have some.

The taco comes plain, meat only, on the tortilla and you finish it off at the condiment bar next to the counter. Here, you’ll find chopped onions, cilantro, pickled and fresh radishes, deep fried jalapeño peppers, green salsa, red salsa, and…the star of the bar…their absolutely breathtaking creamy, spicy, guacamole. For me and the al pastor, it’s onions, cilantro, their fiery hot red salsa, and the guacamole.

That’s one heck of a taco for only 99 cents.

In addition, their burritos, sopes, and other dishes called gringas and mulas, are very good. There is not a bad thing on the menu here. One item I get that grosses a lot of my friends out are the tripas tacos…intestines fried to a cruncy bite wrapped in a tortilla. It is another taste I’d drive two hours for.

For some reason, this little Mexican restaurant in Bakersfield also makes some of the best seasoned French fries you’ll ever find.

This will pretty much be all the food we need today…two burritos (one chile verde, the other bean and cheese), two tripas tacos, two tacos al pastor, two carne asada sopes, and an order of fries.

Filled to the brim, it’s back on the 99, heading for home already making plans for the next time.

Copyright 2012 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved


  1. the linguini pescadora looks sumptuous... so yeah, i wanted every critter in the ocean floor on my plate. LOL

  2. I really appreciate the wonderful way you have described Bakersfield and its delicious food fare. As a Bakersfield native, it is wonderful to hear of people coming to our town and enjoying what we have to offer. So many times I tell people I'm from Bakersfield and they say "I've driven through there", and they don't know what they're missing! Thank you for making the trip and spending your weekend with us. It sounds like you've been to some of our best restaurants. Come visit again and try out Si Senor Grill (Airport drive), Rocketshop (South Union), or The Highland Cafe (N. Chester Avenue).