Bakersfield is named after the central California town perhaps best known for its Western swing and honky-tonk sounds. It opened its first location in Cincinnati serving refined, but basically traditional, tacos, tortas and tostadas. Now, it vies for the title of best Mexican taqueria in Pittsburgh.
Time was, that was a pretty low bar to clear, and we would have welcomed any tacos served outside of a fast-food setting — not to mention margaritas made with fresh juice and good tequila. Happily, Pittsburgh’s prowess on both fronts has improved considerably in the past couple years. With so much local Mexican mojo, what do Cincinnatians bring to the table?
Location, location, location. This block of Penn Avenue has been on the rise for some time, and when we visited early on a hot Saturday evening, it appeared to have achieved peak vibrancy: The sidewalks overflowing with people strolling, socializing and sitting at outdoor tables, soaking up the scene. A good restaurant is a destination by itself, but there’s no denying the value of this sort of vitality.
The energy extended inside Bakersfield. Part of this was due to a pair of large bay windows which provided a view to all that street life; inside, there was an airy space with a long bar and high tops nearby, plus large tables at the front. The interior was undeniably noisy, but even with a full house, not oppressively so. The decor was the now-familiar trifecta of barnwood, steel and Edison lightbulbs, but a massive mural on two walls, blending imagery from Pittsburgh and Bakersfield, at least provided references specific to this establishment. A downstairs space was cozier, with some very appealing, U-shaped 10-person booths plus another bar.
We reviewed the menu over margaritas, which were legit and decently priced. The food selection focused almost entirely on tacos, with nine fillings available. For the non-taco-inclined, other options were tortas (sandwiches) and tostadas — two variations on each — plus some chip-and-dip options and three salads named after Johnny, June and Willie. We found enough variety to satisfy diverse tastes, within a tight specialization that should allow for excellence.
And it did. The guacamole was absolutely top notch, California-grade, creamy and chunky with a subtle but unmistakable heat. The housemade chips were thin and crisp, but not to the point of breaking off in the substantial dip. They were a bit under-salted on their own, but we didn’t notice when paired with the guac.
Tostadas are too often treated as little more than flat, crispy tacos, but Bakersfield took a clever and very effective approach, using two tortillas with a layer of shredded, dressed romaine between them and hot components on top. In our case these were black beans and chicken chorizo, just enough to substance and savor, not enough to become heavy.
Bakersfield also broke the mold with the tortas, replacing the traditional cemitas roll, which is similar to a hearty burger bun, with a telera, which is closer to a French, or perhaps Cuban, roll. The crust was substantial without overwhelming the interior of the sandwich or causing ingredients to squish out the sides.
Our ingredients were Milanesa — fried chicken cutlet — with black beans, arugula and avocado-lemon mayo. Salsa verde on the side was good, tangy and spicy, but superfluous with everything else working so well. The chicken was close to perfect — crisply crusted and super-juicy; basically, it was so good we’d order it plain. The spicy black beans took the flavor south of the border, and the dressed greens added brightness and textural contrast.
And then the main event: tacos. We sampled five, all of which amped up traditional fillings through modern techniques and flavoring approaches: fish, braised short rib, bistec (marinated short rib), pork belly al pastor, and huitlacoche (corn truffles, roasted poblano, corn, onion, cotija cheese and cilantro). Bakersfield is the only place locally that we know of to get this last taco option, which took the classic corn-and-poblano combo and made it pop with flavor intensified by corn truffles. The fish taco was perhaps a bit heavy on the slaw, but it was a good one, crunchy and citrusy. The beef and pork were deeply flavorful, tender, and juicy across the board.
Unfortunately, the other thing all the tacos had in common was the tortillas. Made in-house, they were pale and soft like flour tortillas, but as fragile as corn, routinely buckling and tearing under the weight of fillings and the moisture of sauces. Another traditional taco feature that Baskersfield might consider adding is the doubling of tortillas to prevent this.
Other than that, it’s hard to argue with food this tasty, at prices this low, in a spot so sweet. Welcome to Bakersfield.