Wednesday, January 31, 2018

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.”

Watch the Video!

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.

(Note: The Blaze discontinued operations in 2016 - Ed)

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 (now $1.09 - Ed)
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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Back to the Streets of Bakersfield - Part 1

What many call Nashville West sits on top of the biggest oil deposit on the continental U.S. west coast. With oil billionaire at one end and completely destitute at the other, the contrasts can be severe. It's the first city of any size you encounter after you've crossed the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles.

It's not a long drive but it's a bit nerve wracking coming over the Grapevine on Interstate 5. We're hungry, the city is hot, and we go to the first place we always do in Bakersfield...Los Tacos de Huicho where Mexican street food is taken to its highest level. 

A few tacos and sopes under out belt and a quick check-in at our hotel, we head east of town where we visit the animals of the California Living Museum, also know as CALM, Bakersfield's zoo in Hart Park.

Last time we were here, Letty fell in love with a small burrowing owl named Mr. Fuzzywiggles. He's now grown into a sullen teenager who no longer seems enamored of my wife's charms. 

Watch the Video!

Tim and I head over to the petting zoo, where we find the food machines out of order, and scratch the ears of a couple of goats. We have better luck feeding the ducks in the pond and seeing the birds of prey in their aviary.

In this fourth year of drought, the hillsides are bone-dry but the Kern River still flows in this part of town. By the time it reaches downtown, all the water will have been removed to be stored in reservoirs or channeled into canals for the local farms.

We have a quick beer nearby at Ethel's Old Corral before heading back into town. They have live music here on Sunday afternoons and we consider coming back for that.

It's hot today, in the 90s, so another trip to Dewar's for ice cream before taking a rest break at the hotel.

We end the day with a big, Basque dinner at Benji's, a French Basque restaurant on Rosedale Highway.

We split a ribeye between the three of us while also filling up on soup, bread, salad, pickled tounge, corn, and French fries.

After that, we can hardly move so we'll call it a day and rest up for a big day tomorrow.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2015 - All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 26, 2018

Kern County and Bakersfield, California - Part 2

UpTake Travel Gem

JULY 2,2010 - UPDATED CONTENT BELOW (Scroll down)

Previously on The World on Wheels: Bakersfield, we ate some great tacos, drank an awesome margarita, listened to some country music, and took in some stock car racing.

Watch the Video!

The next day, we get ready for some baseball. Today, we’re taking in a game of the Bakersfield Blaze who are hosting the Lancaster Jethawks. The Blaze are the single A minor league affiliate of the Texas Rangers, while the Jethawks are with the Houston Astros.

(Note: The Blaze discontinued operations in 2016. Sam Lynn ballpark is now home to an independent team, the Bakersfield Train Robbers - Ed)

It’s a Sunday, so that means a day game. A stiff breeze greets us as we get to the parking lot of Sam Lynn Stadium in Bakersfield. I like the wheelchair seats here because they are elevated platforms in the first row of this small stadium. It’s rare that wheelchairs get to sit in the front row anywhere.

We set up on the platform, buy some hot dogs and beer and wait for the game to begin. The wind is blowing stronger, so Letty has us move back a few feet where we can use a stairwell as a wind-break.

The game begins, and the wind gets worse; kicking up clouds of dust. Soon, our hair is dusty and there is grit in our teeth. Our beers are polluted with that Bakersfield dirt.

The Blaze get out to a quick lead. The announcer asks people to avoid a tented pavilion down the right-field foul line for safety reasons. Advertising banners are being blown off of the outfield wall.

In the second inning, the Jethawks pitcher steps off of the mound and starts rubbing his eyes. The two team managers come out and ask the umpires to delay the game. They do and now we’re in a wind delay. Since it’s only a delay, we have no recourse…your tickets are still good for today only. We wait and luckily one of the team execs comes by and says they’ll wait a half hour and make a final decision. We can live with that.

Howling winds buffet the stadium and the fans. Finally, the umpires relent and suspend the game. In baseball, there are no refunds…your tickets for a cancelled game can be used for another game later in the season. We will hope for better weather tomorrow but it’s too windy to put the tarps on the field and a short but heavy rainstorm hits that night, drenching the field. Tomorrow’s game will be cancelled too. Oh well, we’ll hold on to our stubs and come back in a couple of months.

UPDATE: June 2010

Since we still had tickets to a Blaze game, we went back up to Bakersfield last weekend to catch the game. It would have been cheaper just to eat the tickets but anything for an excuse to go to Bakersfield… yes, we are nerdy like that and, yes, we do like Bakersfield but this weekend would probably be the last weekend we could go before it got unbearably hot.

It was a pretty uneventful drive over the Grapevine and we pulled into Huichos for lunch and then headed to Dewar’s for dessert at the newer location on Hageman Road. The server was a delight but the lady that rang up our bill seemed to want to get into an argument for some reason. Sensing a little hostility there, I just kept my mouth shut and paid the bill. Great ice cream, though.

Again, we stayed at our home-away-from home, the Springhill Suites by Marriott just off Rosedale Highway. I was on the verge of being sick so I took a nap while Letty went out to the pool. Dinner was at Benji’s, a Basque restaurant near the hotel. We love Basque restaurants and Benji’s gets my vote for the best salad I’ve ever had. Their pickled tongue is also good, second only to Centro Basco in Chino. Overall, it gets my vote over Woolgrower’s as the better of the Basque restaurants we’ve ate at in Bakersfield. The only other one we’ve been to is the Basque Café which is no longer in business.

On to the game. We got blown out by a dust storm in April but today the weather is fantastic. Due to the batters facing directly into the sunset because of the field alignment, night games start at 7:45pm this time of the year. We get great seats right behind home plate in the first row.

Sam Lynn Stadium…home of the Blaze…is old and in dire need of a rehabilitation but it is also so down-home friendly and comfortable that I can overlook that. We sit in the middle of a small group of friendly season ticket holders who are more than happy to chat about all things baseball and Bakersfield. Like the usual Bakersfield residents, they are kind of amazed that someone would actually visit their city for a getaway but most acknowledge that they live in a hidden gem of a town.

The Blaze give the lead away early to Visalia via a solo home run.

After the first inning, just like in April, Letty is chosen to be the sweetheart of the game and is given flowers by the mascot, Heater, and is announced over the PA system. No, I didn’t pay anyone off…just a happy coincidence.

The Blaze tie the game and take the lead. After nine good innings, they take the game with a score of 5-4.

Breakfast the next morning was at the 24th Street Café in downtown. It has a good reputation for a breakfast place and the food is very good, but the service was slow and they really try to shoehorn people into the smallest tables that they can. Later, I would get sick on something…I think the chorizo I had for breakfast here…and would spend the rest of the day in bed when we got home.

Overall, a fun and very quick getaway to one of our favorite places. Bye Bakersfield…you are far too hot for me now, we’ll meet again in the fall.

We go back to the hotel where we take a swim and then a shower to get all the dirt off of us. Luckily, our hotel has an indoor pool so we don’t have to go outside. The day is ended with a dinner at Frugatti’s, an Italian place on the eastern side of town. It’s good but expensive and the service a bit slow.

Bakersfield is world-renown for its Basque restaurants. The Basque people (from a region that straddles the border of France and Spain) were shepherds and many migrated to this region. It’s hard work and requires hearty food to keep up. There are at least half a dozen Basque restaurants still operating in town and the culture is still a big part of the city’s identity.

We’ve been to the Basque Café (now closed) and Benji’s. My wife made me promise to try a new restaurant this trip so we head to Woolgrowers located in the old, rundown section of town east of the current downtown. For around $12, we get a meal that starts off with a bowl of hot, vegetable soup followed by a bowl of salad accompanied by a plate of marinated tomatoes and onions. Next come the beans, bread, and salsa. Tim likes to dip his bread in the salsa. The entrées arrive…a New York steak for me, a beef dip for Tim, and a garlic-infused lamb sandwich for Letty with some great French fries on the side. You can also get just the "set up,", everything but the entree and fries, for about $8.  It is all very good and very filling but I’ll give the edge to Benji’s, who is just ever-so-slightly better than  Woolgrowers.

On the road to our next destination, it’s about 45 minutes west of town, the Tule Elk Reserve.  Tule elk are smaller elk that are native to the area. They are endangered so a reserve was set aside for them here, where they can be protected and breed to replace diminishing populations within the state.

It costs $8 to park here. There are clean restrooms, picnic tables, and a wheelchair accessible elevated viewing platform.

We went up the platform and it took us awhile, but we finally saw some antlers poking up through the grass about a half-mile away. It took some binoculars to see that much. There’s also a pond in front of the platform and many birds to watch flitting around from black phoebes to golden eagles.

Next, some time is spent driving around the nearby hills, looking at wildflowers which are in their peak season in mid April and then it’s back to town to find the game has been cancelled.

A stop at Dewar's is in order.  This 102 year-old ice cream parlor packs 'em in with their sundaes, shakes, and ice creams.  My wife swears by the pink peppermint and chip ice cream.  They also make great candies.  I especially like the caramel chews, which I call "Dewar's Chewers." 

The old shop is small and tight. Even normal people in this day and age have trouble fitting on the small stools at the counter. The few tables are squeezed in very tight and are not easy to get a wheelchair in. There is another, newer location on the north end of town at Hageman Road and Calloway Drive that is much more roomy and accessible and another at the corner of Rosedale Highway and Calloway Drive, on the west side of town, is scheduled to open in January 2012.

The original shop is at California and Eye Street.  Bakersfield has some quirks, and that street name..."Eye" one of them.  The downtown streets are in a grid, mostly with numbers (1st Street, 2nd Street, 3rd Street) running east and west, while the letters (A Street, B Street, C Street) run north and south.  Eye Street is in between H Street and J Street.

Another quirk is with business names.

"Curl up and Dye" is a salon.  The lot next to Too Fat Sandwiches has a sign on the wall saying "Parking for Too Fat Customers."

With no baseball to watch, it’s back to downtown Bakersfield and the “Arts District.” There are many bars and nightspots here. Fishlips is a good place to watch some hard rock acts, the restored Fox Theater features big names, and the new Brimstone in the old Padre Hotel is drawing a crowd. The granddaddy of them all is Guthries Alley Cat.

Famous as a dive bar, it’s gotten so much popularity and attention that I’d have to call it a former dive bar. Drinks are good, the resident dog can be friendly…if its owner tells it to be, and the locals are nice. A lot of history on the walls and a pool table in the back. Something about it, however, doesn’t call to me so while it’s nice to see what the fuss is all about, I’ll stick to my regular watering hole…

...Mexicali. We want to go back to what we know so it’s down 18th Street to this friendly little DARK bar. It’s funny, we’ve been maybe 5 or 6 time over the last five years…we walk in and everybody remembers us (probably remember Tim more) and say hi, ask us what we’ve been up to and so forth. Great drinks, really friendly bartenders, servers, and patrons. Great bar. Wish they had better food, but Huicho’s is only a block away.

Copyright 2010 – Darryl Musick

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Last Man Standing in Oildale...Rockwell and His Honky Tonk

UPDATE 2018 - Well, another one bites the dust. Trout's, the last true honky tonk in Bakersfield, stopped operating around June of last year. The club's owner, Thomas Rockwell, defaulted on the bank loan and the building was sold at auction to Truman Investments, Inc. At that point, Rockwell seems to have disappeared or is at least 'lying low' as one of the attorneys involved says.  He also seems to have absconded with the iconic trout sign out front.

Now, the new owners are suing him for damages and return of the sign...if they can find him. What is to become of this legendary nightclub is anyone's guess at this point. For now, if you want to hear live Country music in this Country music Mecca, your only choice is the Crystal Palace and maybe the occasional concert by a headliner at the Fox Theatre or the Rabobank Arena.

We met Rockwell (see below) and he really seemed invested in making Trout's a viable venue. A true gentleman on the day we met him, it's sad to see how this tale is unfolding. 

Read on to see our visit to this iconic and historic honky tonk, located just a few blocks from where Merle Haggard grew up.

Each time we come to this city in the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, we find something new to see or experience.  There was the first time we went to the Crystal Palace. Then, the old town streets of the Kern County Museum and the Oil Museum. Letty getting to be the darling of the game at the local minor league team's game; tasting the great margaritas at Mexicali; the outstanding food of Los Tacos de Huicho, Urrichio's, and the area's many Basque restaurants; hiking along the Kern River...the list goes on and on.

So what will we find on our latest stay in this very underrated travel destination?

I've got two free nights at the Springhill Suites courtesy of the Marriott Rewards program and a day and a half to explore. We're thinking of going honky tonking tonight but can't decide if we should go with the safe bet of the Crystal Palace or be a little adventurous and head over the river to the more rough-and-tumble Oildale.

Our Bakersfield guide says that there are local bands jamming all day at Trout's...billing itself at Bakersfield's last "true" honky tonk...we head over there to see the action.

Mid day on Friday, though, there is none.  We do settle in to have a drink and introduce ourselves to the bar's owner, Thomas Rockwell. Rockwell is what he prefers to be called, so Rockwell it is. He's very nice and a gentleman to take a few minutes to chat with us before heading over to the other end of the bar.

There, a camera crew has set up and is interviewing Rockwell for a show. He's in very high demand as Trout's, and the Bakersfield Sound, is getting a lot more attention these days. Even the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville has set aside a wing to salute the Bakersfield Sound (very distinct from what comes out of Nashville) and hometown heroes like Buck Owens and Oildale's most famous product, Merle Haggard.

While the bartender sets Tim and I up with a couple of good microbrews (I know, in a honky tonk?) and makes a red velvet cocktail for Letty, we wander around the two stages, snapping a few pictures and listening in to the interview.

We learn that Trout's has been at this location since the 1940's and in business going back over 80 years.  Rockwell is trying to spiff it up a bit but there are still corners of the building that are off limits because of ongoing repair issues.

Back out into the harsh, Central Valley sunshine, we pile back into the van and head back to Rosedale Highway for dinner.

We'll fill up on an extensive Basque meal at one of our favorites, Benji's, sitting behind derelict derricks and other oilfield detritis just east of the 99.

After the drive from Gold Country, we end up too tired to go out for the show, so we just relax in the suite and enjoy some after dinner wine before turning in for a long night's rest. Tomorrow, we'll go find another new pleasure in our favorite underrated travel destination.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 22, 2018

Kern County and Bakersfield, California

“Y’all must be crazy”

Yep, that’s what a lot of you are going be saying when you see where were going. The truth is, we’ve been to over a dozen countries and most of the states, but when we finally left the freeway and started exploring, Bakersfield turned out to be one of the most fun and interesting places we’ve been.

OK, so if I haven’t lost you by now, please read on while I plead my case…

Watch the Video of this trip!

For a couple of years after 9/11, the travel industry was on the ropes. You could get airfares and hotels for a song. Eventually, the economy turned somewhat and many in the industry tried to recoup the losses…tried very, very hard in some cases.

In the most intense period of Tim’s college days, we had very little time to spare during the school year and even less money to do it with (college tuition is a back-breaker!). We had a weekend between semesters where we could get away. Unfortunately, most of the usual suspects were charging usurious rates for basic rooms…over $300 a night in Pismo Beach at the same hotel we’d previously stayed at for $69 the year before.

I’m a music fan, and I also like good country and western music. I’d always wanted to see Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace but just never got around to Bakersfield to see it while he was alive but I’d found a great deal on a two-room suite there so we planned an overnighter. We had a ton of fun watching Buck’s son Buddy lead the Buckaroos while we dined on some fabulous steak. While we were there, we started to see the city in an ever more favorable light and went back again when we had some more time.

It finally happened. Instead of seeing it as a hot and dusty pit stop on Highway 99 on the way to somewhere more exotic, we fell in love with Bakersfield. Give it a try and you might just start looking at it with new eyes too…

It’s an easy two-hour drive over the Grapevine to Bakersfield when the weather is nice. When it’s not, this can be the drive from Hell. It’s the week after Easter, so along the way we stop in Gorman to view one of nature’s most majestic displays; a mountain covered in brilliantly colored wildflowers. About a half-hour east of here in Antelope Valley is another…miles and miles of fields covered in California Poppies. There is an official state reserve here, along with a much larger area of unofficial blooms.

After taking a little time to literally stop and smell the flowers, we continue on to the down side of the pass into the Central Valley. Thirty minutes later, we make our first stop in Bakersfield, a margarita in the dark and cozy bar of Mexicali on 18th Street.

The friendly bartenders here make one of the best margaritas in the city using Mountain Dew  (actually, it's ReaLemon as I just recently found out - Ed) as the sour mix. They also have a wide variety of margaritas to try but we’ll have to come back sometime when we don’t have to drive.

Just a couple of blocks away is the Holy Grail of tacodom, Los Tacos de Huicho. It’s a good place to walk to and eat off the margarita.

Huicho’s has nothing bad on the menu. Their specialty is al pastor, a pile of marinated pork rotating on a spit with onion and pineapple juices blending with the meat’s own juice as it is slowly cooked to perfection. I have eaten this meat everywhere from Guadalajara to Santa Rosa…no one comes close to the delectable perfection of Huicho’s. It’s also one of the world’s best bargains at only 99 cents (now $1.09 - ed) per taco.

There is also an excellent carne asada, cabeza, tripas (cow milk gut), fish, and shrimp. Besides the tacos, you can get your meat served in burritos, mulas, huaraches, gringas, and sopes. The tacos come plain…just the meat and tortilla. You then take them to the condiment bar and load them up. I like to sprinkle on the onions and cilantro, followed by the spicy red or green salsa, topped off with their creamy and spicy guacamole salsa. That last one is extremely rare north of the border but is pretty common in Tijuana. It’s just heaven.

Tim also wants to tell you that they make some of the best fries he’s ever had too. The only down side is their bar. It’s pretty much a fast food type of place, but they have a full bar in the back that makes some really uninspired mixed drinks. The beer’s good, though. Huicho’s is located just east of the intersection of Union Avenue and 18th Street.

After less than twenty dollars, all three of us are stuffed. It’s time to find our hotel.

There are several good choices here, most reasonable to cheap. The Best Western (now a Red Lion hotel - ed) next to the Crystal Palace is good if you’re going there. It has nice rooms, a friendly staff, and…being right next door to the Palace…is drinker friendly. I saw a two couples by the pool there once preloading with around 30 bottles of booze before they walked over. Hey, whatever floats your boat…as long as you’re walking and not disturbing me (they behaved, actually they were very nice people).

If you do find yourself drinking to excess there, all you need to do is walk across the parking lot to your room. The full breakfast in the on-site coffee shop that’s included in your room rate will help heal that hangover.

Two blocks away on the other side of the freeway is our current favorite, Springhill Suites. Located in a hotel ghetto between Rosedale Highway and the Kern River, it’s a quiet location and all suites. The staff has come to know us and puts us in the same accessible room on the second floor, overlooking the pool and the river beyond. It’s not as nice a view as it sounds…an oil-rig supply company sits between the hotel and the river.

The room is very nice and spacious. It includes a wet bar with microwave, coffee maker and refrigerator. A large bathroom with a transfer seat in the tub. There are also suites with roll-in showers but they are on the first floor and my wife prefers to be upstairs. A hot breakfast is served each morning off of the lobby. Above all, it is quiet, even when the hotel is full of kids’ sports teams. Rooms here go for over $100 but many discounts are available and I always pay around $80 per night…check their website for current offers.

After unpacking and a little rest, we head over to the Crystal Palace. We have 6:00pm reservations for dinner and a show. Along with the dinner, there is a $5 cover charge for the show. A wonderful steak dinner here will set you back $31. It’s a huge amount of food; 20 oz. steak, salad, squaw bread, biscuits, green beans, and your choice of a side. Plenty big enough for two, the split plate charge is just $8. There’s also sandwiches and pizzas from $9 to $12. A soup and dinner-size salad menu runs from $5 to $13. A full bar is also available. Dinner for three, including a couple of drinks for each of us and the show, comes in around $70 plus tip.

The main band is the Buckaroos, Buck’s old backup band. Every other weekend, Buck’s son Buddy Alan Owens flies in from Phoenix to play with his father’s band. Although he’s Buck’s son, Buddy was mostly raised by his step-father, Merle Haggard (another Bakersfield star), who married his mom after her original marriage broke up. It’s a rockin’ good time as the band plays not only Buck Owens material, but Merle’s too…while Buddy provides some personal back stories to go along with them and folks crowd the dance floor down front. He also mixes in quite a bit of classic rock into the mix.

Buck Owens is legend in this town, so the Palace also doubles as his museum. Hundreds of artifacts from his career sit in display cases lining the joint but the place of honor goes to his Buckmobile, a custom 1972 Pontiac with rifles on the hood and silver dollars mounted on the dash that is permanently mounted over the bar. Buck won the car in a poker game from Nudie, the guy who made all the glittering suits Owens wore during his career.

After the Buckaroos finish, Steve Davis and Stampede take over as the house band. They’re also very good but after two or three songs, it’s late for us and we head back to the hotel. If you only have one night here, an evening at the Palace gives you a good, very fun, distilled version of what this city is all about. It’s family-friendly too, so don’t be afraid to take the kids.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
nickchapman under CC-BY license

In front of the Crystal Palace is the iconic Bakersfield sign that used to welcome travelers into town, stretched over Union Avenue in downtown. It was in bad shape and slated to be demolished when the town’s adopted musical hero, Buck Owens, stepped in to save it. It is now completely restored and crosses Stillwell Avenue next to the steakhouse and night club that Buck built.

Up the river a ways stands more signs. At the Kern County Museum, an effort is being waged to save the iconic neon signs that were a part of this city. You can see some them in the back of the museum grounds, such as the sign that pointed out the annex of the Bakersfield inn…one of the anchor points of the sign Buck Owens saved. Others are awaiting their restoration, like the TEJON letters of the old Tejon Theater marquee. More signs never got the chance…few more iconic signs existed like the block-long Rancho Bakersfield motel sign, long since demolished when the motel became a rehab center (which has since met its own fate on Golden State Avenue).

Along with the signs, acres of old, restored buildings dot the grounds like an old town. A jail, an undertakers office, many houses, an old hotel, a gas station. You could…and probably will…spend many hours exploring them.

Of course, Bakersfield is a huge oil town providing 64% of the oil produced in California. A visit here needs to include the Black Gold exhibit explaining the history and process of the local oil business. A theme-park quality motion simulator ride takes you beneath the ocean floor to find oil deposits. You can operate an antique derrick. Inside, exhibits show how oil does not sit in huge pools under the earth. Rather, it must be pressed out of the rock. No matter how you feel about the oil industry, this thorough look at it is fascinating.
Out front, another rescued icon, the Beale clock tower stands guard.

After the museum, we head north on Chester Avenue to our next stop. Over the Kern River in Oildale is Bakersfield Speedway, a 1/3 mile dirt oval nestled on the edge of town. We get here before 5:30pm and are able to take advantage of their happy hour, $1 dollar Bud and Bud Lite beer. OK, it’s not my favorite…in fact, it’s kind of like drinking water…but for a dollar, it’ll do.

We find a spot in the wheelchair accessible front row at turn four and watch the cars take practice laps. When the powerful, open-wheel modified cars come out, a shower of mud chips hits us every time they come around the corner. It’s time to rethink this and we move up to the top row, which is also accessible by a ramp that is a little steeper than we’d like.

The view and the comfort are much better from up here. A note: the seating here is nothing but concrete benches. Fans bring their own lawn chairs to sit in.

Racing gets started at 6:00 with heat races, starting with the mini-dwarf cars. These are tiny, lawn mower powered jalopy replicas driven by kids as young as 5 years old. They are very competitive and a lot of fun to watch. Next are the hobby stocks, local garage built cars, then the modifieds and finally the super late models, which are the fastest and loudest cars they’ll be racing tonight.

The top two cars from each heat race gets to compete in the next event, the trophy dash. Six cars from each division compete in short races to get a nice trophy and a picture with the trophy queen. The main events start right after the trophy dashes, with long races for the right to be the night’s champion and to claim the prize purse, usually several hundred dollars. The final race we see tonight features a last lap, neck-and-neck battle to the checkered flag. It’s thrilling and a lot of fun.

There's a lot more to come, be sure to come back for Part 2 of our road trip to Bakersfield where it's baseball, wildlife, fine ethnic cuisine, and a look at the nightlife of the city.

Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick