Saturday, Aug 25 2012 11:57 PM

Muertos latest to liven up downtown dining scene

By The Bakersfield Californian

BY PETE TITTL

Contributing columnist

Related Info

1514 Wall St.

324-2557

Hours: Serving food 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Reservations not necessary.

Prices: Salads, $9 to $15; appetizers, $3 to $12; taco plates, $11 to $13; burgers, $8 to $10. No child's menu.

Payment: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover and personal checks accepted.

Dress: Casual

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; full bar service; some vegetarian options.

Food: ***½

Atmosphere: ***½

Service: ***

Value: ***½

Next week: The Mark

Inside

Sheila G. Mains' brownie brittle offers a unique tasty treat. Read about it in The Dish, D7

Dining Out

MUERTOS KITCHEN & LOUNGE

pftittl@gmail.com

Believe it or not, the downtown dining scene was once tired and mostly dark, reliant only on the old guard like Mexicali, Bill Lee's and Rice Bowl.

Things started to turn around when 24th Street Cafe, Uricchio's and T.L. Maxwell's got established. Soon Fishlips and Sandrini's were offering both decent food and entertainment, the Padre -- the big dog on the block -- finally reopened with multiple dining options, and Chef's Choice Noodle Bar revitalized a space that had been a revolving door.

In recent months, On the Rocks has made a big splash in the old Fishlips location, and The Mark is primed to pull even more folks downtown (my review of that restaurant next week). But in all this commotion, don't lose sight of Muertos Kitchen & Lounge, a humble, low-key eatery across from Guthrie's Alley Cat.

Its proprietor is a previous co-owner of Fishlips, Shawna Haddad-Byers, who is offering a more limited menu than her old restaurant had (probably due to a smaller kitchen), but what we sampled sure impressed us.

People complain Bakersfield doesn't have enough true seafood restaurants, but Muertos had an assortment of specials featuring red snapper and mahi mahi on the night we visited. Entrees served after 5 p.m., the menu says, are rotated on a seasonal basis. My best suggestion is to print out a dinner menu rather than have the waitress deliver it orally, as that's too much for the customer to remember.

We stuck to the regular menu, however. My companion chose the halibut tacos ($13), while I, with fond memories of the amazing burgers served at Fishlips, chose the Hudson ($10), a burger made with bacon and a fried egg.

Both were incredibly satisfying. My companion was presented with three tacos, the tortillas soft though lightly grilled to add some crispiness. The fish was as fresh as we've had all summer, even on a trip to Florida. The entree was rich with lime juice and a Spartan cole slaw that actually allowed you to taste the fish. No gloopy sauce, thank you; just a salsa verde on the side.

The burger had the juicy quality of the old Fishlips burgers, though the bun was pathetically crumbling in my hands and not special in the least. I would hope for a divorce, or at least a retooling of that pairing. The fries were nothing special. One interesting oddity: The burger and fries were served on a plate, the tacos in a red plastic basket.

I also sampled one of the drink specials that night, a pineapple Serrano chili margarita ($7) that had a nice mix of sweet and spice. There were various sangrias available and eight beers on draft, including Blue Moon, Guinness, Smithwicks (that hot Irish beer) and old Italian standby Stella Artois. The regular menu features three salads, and the appetizer list offers a "deep fried drive in burrito" with fries for $6. I'll try that on my next visit. Another interesting item is chicken and okra ($8), an old recipe from the owner's grandmother that is more like gumbo than anything else.

Haddad-Byers wrote in an email that the restaurant's name means death, "but I'm celebrating life. I am embracing all my success and sorrows. The passing of my grandmother, who I love and miss very much. Life is filled with things that are new and exciting and things that end due to disappointment or just running their natural course."

The interior adds another amazing downtown place with character: aged brick walls like Sandrini's, but with a high ceiling, wood floors and a glaze on the bricks that almost gives them a wet look, and large windows to the front that let in a lot of natural light.

Haddad said in the email that the interior took more work than they expected and placement of decorations won't be finished until September. Her husband built the bar, which has a distressed marble look. There's an outdoor patio for seating, and the kitchen is designed to create that "you're in the kitchen" feeling.

The menu, she said, makes no culinary sense, "but is a gathering of things I enjoy eating." Expect frequent changes, which you can track on the restaurant's Facebook page.

"Halibut salsa is my take on ceviche and we make the chips to order," she wrote. "The popcorn pork are small chucks of pork lightly seared in the fryer and served with choice of sauce, dips or salsa."

Desserts are similarly idiosyncratic. Haddad has emailed that wedding cake would be one of them, but apparently too many romantics had visited recently because there was none left when we were there. Instead, we enjoyed a peach parfait made with Dewar's vanilla ice cream, fresh peaches rich with brown sugar and chunks of crust found like little treasures throughout the creation.

In short, this is a restaurant that's difficult to pigeonhole, and something tells me the owner would prefer that. It's as diverse as life itself.

Muertos Kitchen & Lounge can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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