How lucky would you have to be to live in the Gateway District right now? We’ve raved about so many great places that have opened recently. Now it’s Bakersfield’s turn.
Bakersfield OTR just opened in February. We usually try not to hit places when they’re brand new. Sometimes new restaurants need time to get up to speed and iron out opening jitters. None of that at Bakersfield. They know exactly what they want to be and are hitting the mark.
What kind of restaurant is it? It doesn’t do it justice to say it’s a bar or a taco joint, although it’s clearly both. The menu — and the bar — are honed down to a few things done well, which is the sign that they know their mission. The bar’s top notch, but it’s not a something-for-everybody place. There are no frou-frou candy-flavored drinks in sight. Johnny Cash and Hunter S. Thompson are the inspiration, tequilas and American whiskeys are the focus and margaritas are the feature.
We tried the Bakersfield Margarita ($5/glass, $22/pitcher) and the Rose Sangria ($6/$24) — the two drink options that are designed to be shareable. Like anyone who’s ever had a tequila night to remember (or, more kindly, to forget), I am cautious about margaritas, but the Bakersfield margarita is a classic cocktail, not a wicked corn-syrupy sweet and sour mixed potion. It starts with quality tequila — el Jimador Blanco — and fresh lemon and lime, sweetened with triple sec and agave nectar. Delicious. The Sangria was a little heavy on the schnapps, but I loved the chopped apple and pear garnish.
We were seated at the communal table, which is the perfect spot to watch everything going on, including the screen above the bar, which was playing the classic western, The Magnificent Seven. Coincidentally, we ordered seven tacos to try, and they were all magnificent. Serendipity. There are four meat options — sweet pork al pastor ($3) and spicy pork cochinita ($3), tomatillo braised chicken ($3) and a savory braised short rib ($4) — a perfect mahi fish taco with crispy fried fish sparked with lime and tobasco sauce ($4) and two vegetarian versions — Portobello ($3) with roasted poblano and Huitlacoche ($4). I honestly couldn’t pick a favorite. Each one I tried was well crafted and delicious, with ingredients mated together in the happiest of marriages.
Sheer curiosity had me order the Huitlacoche since I’d never had “corn truffles.” From the way these look — black and not too pretty — you’d never imagine the taste, which is like corn on steroids. Paired with roasted poblano peppers, they make an outstanding taco filling.
The Queso appetizer ($5) was a hit. This warm gooey cheese dip, served in a cast iron dish and surrounded by house made tortilla chips, is decadently delicious, even if you don’t add chorizo or black beans ($1 upcharge). My picky-eater husband’s enthusiasm didn’t go unnoticed. Our friend was reaching for her water glass and I asked her, “Why is your water way out in the middle of the table?” She replied: “I didn’t dare get it between your husband and the queso.” Fair enough.
The house-made salsas ($3 as an app, complimentary as a condiment) are also very good, especially the tomatillo. People are sometimes leery of green salsa and not quite sure what it is — mistaking it for guacamole. But this salsa has a clear flavor that’s distinctive — lots of garlic and cilantro. We also loved the Guacamole ($5), which was surprisingly spicy and thick with big bites of avocado.
There are two Tortas on the menu, served on freshly baked, crusty telera rolls. The Milanesa ($8) can now be proclaimed the Best Chicken Sandwich I’ve ever enjoyed. Even though I couldn’t care less about chicken on most occasions, I loved this crisp cutlet so much that I went back a second time to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. It’s the real deal. Dressed with lemon mayonnaise and loads of arugula and sliced avocado, it goes into my personal Sandwich Hall of Fame.
Acoustics can be challenging when Bakersfield fills up, so head next door to recently opened 1215 for coffee and dessert. They serve Tazza Mia’s excellent cappuccino, and the desserts are catered by the lovely ladies of Cooking with Caitlin. You’ll have a perfect Gateway/OTR night out.
GO: 1213 Vine St., Over the Rhine
HOURS: 4 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
ACCESSIBILITY: one small step at the front door