Restaurant review: Bakersfield brings barrels of big Western fun to Short North

By Columbus Alive
From the October 31, 2013 edition

Every hour is happy in here,” giggled my server when I asked about HH deals in the brand new Bakersfield. Before the evening was over, I wanted to shake that truth-teller’s hand because Bakersfield is the most fun bar/restaurant to open this year for econo-minded revelers. See, you needn’t play “Beat the Clock,” in this playground of big flavors and cut-loose ambiance, because inexpensive treats await you all-day everyday.

Eight kinds of attractive, over-stuffed-into-homemade-corn-tortillas tacos go for $3-$4 apiece (good, but I’ll mention better edible bargains soon). Drinkwise best buys include $3 daily chalkboard shots (e.g. Bulleit bourbon), $2 pints of PBR (served in glass cowboy boots of course) and $6 Mason jars of more-tart-than-sweet Bakersfield Margaritas, i.e. the best damn cheap margaritas in town. OK here’s the caveat: This place is such an instant phenomenon that, even on a Monday, tables can be scarce during prime time (try arriving prior to 7 p.m.).

A Cincinnati-based mini-chain named after a city famous for twangy-guitar-playing country music, you’ll mostly hear infectiously rockin’, electrified-hillbilly tunes in here. What you’ll see is a movie-set-saloon-influenced calculated rusticity featuring repurposed barn wood, corrugated aluminum, brick, communal and whiskey-barrel tables, low-glowing industrial bulbs, a large bar, day-of-the-dead skulls, handsome hardwood flooring, classic westerns on flatscreens and lots of windows. Call it skillfully balanced between slick-and-appealing and barely-too-kitschy.

OK, if you really must have another “craft beer” (a lemming-luring phrase that’s become irksome to me), you can find that here. But why not go with the house specialty — refreshing margaritas awash in fresh real citrus? The aforementioned eponymous cheapies (also available for $24/pitcher) are terrific, yet persnickety big spenders upgrading to the super-terrific (if smaller) $12 “Premium” version won’t regret it.

Before discussing Bakersfield’s tacos and dips, I’d like to direct you to a nifty salad (two are offered, named after Johnny and June Carter Cash) and a couple huge and highly recommended tortas.

The Johnny Salad ($8) was surprisingly dynamic for a barroom-y meta-taqueria. Rich, bitter, crispy, creamy, smoky and meaty, it was a colorful assembly of bacon, avocado, greens, radicchio and almonds gently dressed in a sprightly cider vinaigrette.

Those killer — if quasi-traditional — tortas arrive on thinnish and winning, crisply toasted “telera” rolls (think ciabatta). The Milanese ($8) starred a mammoth chicken cutlet with tender and juicy breast meat underneath a wonderfully crackly panko jacket flattered by an inspired lemon mayo. The Short Rib ($9) featured deeply beefy pot roast hunks intensified by caramelized onions. Both sensational sandwiches are outfitted with arugula, salsas and smashed, flavorful black beans.

Dip-wise, the not-so-nuanced guacamole ($6, with freshly fried tortilla chips) ain’t bad. It’s simply fresh avocado mashed with lotsa lime and garlic. If the tangy and crusty-cap-broiled “Queso” ($5) is a tad grainy, at least it’s not Velveeta-gloppy. It improves greatly with $1 extras of excellent house-pickled jalapenos and the-kind-you-want chorizo.

Bakersfield’s prettily tricked-out tacos are presented on tableside pizza-stands and mostly taste as good as they look. My favorites were the rare-around-here, inky, earthy and mushroom-esque huitlacoche with theme-reinforcing grilled corn (huitlacoche is a “corn fungus”) and the smoke-and-spice-biting juicy pig strands called cochinita pibil (it’s absent authenticizing sour Mayan orange, but nonetheless addictive). Laced with cilantro, queso fresco and pickled onions, the zingy red-style Mole taco is also worthy as is the above-average fish taco and the lively “Rajas” veggie-fest. I’d only pass on the barbecue sauce-tasting Pastor taco because, with all the happy-all-the-time stuff Bakersfield has to offer, why bother?

Photos by Meghan Ralston