It's OTR, so that means it's time for me to get on my soapbox
When it comes to Over-The-Rhine, I really can't express the excitement and general energy that pervades the entire district. Having been re-founded son the backs of a few enterprising young men and women, to say it has come a long way would be nothing short of an understatement. Of course new restaurants always catch our fancy, but whether it's Mt. Adams or the downtown business district, there's just never the same level of excitement that surrounds a new opening in OTR. Now, this isn't to say that there aren't restaurants of equal merit in these other areas, but it carries an entirely different meaning. With every door swing of Senate and newly-tapped keg of wine at Abigail Street, it's not simply commerce, but an infusion of life and vigor into the once-blighted area. There are very few areas that have seen such wildly different ups and downs over the last hundred fifty years- but out of this dynamism has grown a powerful character unto itself, unrivaled and unmatched; entirely unique and surprisingly powerful in bringing about the kind of change that the whole city can expound off of.
The newest kid on the block is of course Bakersfield OTR. Brought to us by the (in)famous Lanni brothers, this little slice of the honky-tonk SoCal town of the same name brings authentic mexican food paired with some of the finest bourbon and tequila this side of the Mississippi. Driving past the "Coming Soon" sign (which, god knows, has been there far too long), you can't help but to salivate just a tad over a tagline that reads "Tacos, Tequila, and Whiskey." The Lanni boys, of Currito and SoHi fame, have now decided to step away from the slick fast-food in and out style and have opted for a much more laid back and true dining experience.
Here's the premise- basically in the 50's and 60's a bunch of drawl-laden Texas natives moved into a small town in Southern California and started a hybrid honky-tonk musical genre known as Bakersfield Sound that stressed the pedal steel guitar and intense vocals. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are the quintessential Bakersfield boys of the age. Here it is; think flamboyant rhinestone gilded nudie suit meets spaghetti western. Then add bourbon- a ten-gallon hat full of it.
So the restaurant is nestled on Vine St just across from Senate and a couple doors up from Lavomatic. In classic arterial neo-OTR loft form it has grand ceilings and exposed ductwork, with unabashed brick walls. To really kick in the Southeastern Arizona communal feel, the Lanni's have provided a picnic table for at least 12-15 and a couple of old wooden casks to lean the ol' snake-skins against. The bar is a sky-high assortment of top-shelf bourbons and tequilas, but they also provide $2 draft nights and $3 shot specials that alternate throughout the week. My drink of choice on opening night was the waiters no-hesitation drink of choice, the Red-Headed Stranger. A barrel aged bourbon with a dash of cayenne pepper garnished with a tart candied piece of ginger, it was a spicy contrast to the chips and guacamole we were enjoying for our appetizer. Fryer fresh tortilla chips with a healthy portion of guacamole second only to Nada came out nearly immediately and gave us some time to skim over the rather succinct menu. Simple and to the point: Couple salads, couple sandwiches, six or seven tacos. Real mexican street food, a la carte. This takes to heart the words of the late Mr. Jobs "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." One orders two or three (or 7) different tacos from a list. These two or three bite tacos are served on 4" tortillas hand made everyday by a tireless crew of white college kids (adds to the authenticity). Preferably, a group orders a couple of everything and enjoys the tapas feel. A great meal that doesn't leave you wanting for more, but doesn't weigh you down either.
A kindly couple behind us immediately struck up conversation and we began falling all over ourselves about OTR and how amazing it was for the area. Clearly at least a couple bourbon's deep, they recommended the Pastor, a marinated pork taco with a liberal topping of pineapple for a soft citrusy finish. Great flavor, but I found that the pork was a little tough and chewy. My favorite (which we would continue to see rounds of these coming) was the Short Rib. A braised short rib topped with cheese, white onion, a dash of cilantro and a radish to finish. It was truly perfect. An explosion of spiced short rib flavor, you immediately think you must have this marinade all over your face and wonder to yourself- How could so much flavor be contained in this fluffy hand-made tortilla. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I finished that with just a tad of the green avocado-based sauce, too late to realize there really wasn't much of anything that could be added to it. High marks were also given to the fish taco (hold the lime on that one) and to the cochinita pibil- another pork braised dish with a strong pickled onion and habenero glaze. With a couple drinks, 4 or 5 tacos a piece, and the appetizer, brought the bill to just under $25. With our server's well-deserved tip we were out of there for an even $35 each.
All in all it was a great time, and will be a perfect addition to this thriving quarter of the city. Mexican food is easy and cheap, Americanized and made slutty by Margaritas and Chi Chi's. Bakersfield OTR pays homage to American Mexican, but an authenticity all its own. More importantly however, it raises even further the high standards of what we have come to expect from OTR, and has us chomping at the bit for the next bite of culinary expertise to grace our fine city.
Note: Addendums will be made for tequila down the line- spelling and grammar be damned in that one