Sunday, Dec 23 2012 05:49 PM

Pete Tittl's best meals of the year

By PETE TITTL Contributing columnist thedish@bakersfield.com

It was another year of change and progress for Bakersfield restaurants in 2012. Sure, we lost a few restaurants, but a lot of promising, exciting, locally owned places opened to give an energetic jolt to our already respectable dining scene. And it looks like more diversity is on the way in 2013. A few trends are evident:

Locally sourced food

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NEW RESTAURANTS

Winner: The Mark (1623 19th St., 322-7665). Clearly the most substantial downtown opening this year, setting up in the old Victor Victoria space, The Mark is a worthy competitor to the neighboring Padre Hotel for sophisticated fare and a bar that is beautiful and impressive.

Runners-up:

Cafe India Indian Cuisine (3017 Wilson Road, 833-1313). The owners of the former Cafe Desi on Panama Road near Costco moved the operation into an old Pizza Hut on Wilson Road, and with little fanfare brought some solid Indian food to the southwest. Amazing vegetarian dishes and naans, with great choices for meat eaters, such as the tandoori or butter chicken entrees.

Eureka! Gourmet Burgers & Craft Beer (10520 Stockdale Highway, 241-5999). This chain, which specializes in unique beers, whiskey, great sandwiches and occasional live entertainment, brought a real energy to southwest Bakersfield. So many great choices on the menu, including the salads.

Sugar Twist Bakery & Cafe (9500 Brimhall Road, 829-6761). Skip the franchise restaurants for a breakfast sandwich here. Try any of the amazing bagel/egg/steak creations. The innovative sweets and cupcakes will destroy any New Year's diet, so here's an idea: Go once to sample something. Decide a return visit for that item will be your reward for meeting a weight goal. You'll never find a stronger motivator.

Steak & Grape (4420 Coffee Road, 588-9463). I wasn't that impressed when it first opened, but subsequent visits, especially at breakfast on the weekend, have me convinced that this is a restaurant trending in the right direction. The occasional Friday wine tastings are a hit with readers, based on my emails.

Zaika Indian Cuisine & Bar (5123 Ming Ave., 836-0100). I predict a long life for this versatile Indian restaurant, in a location that has been something of a turnstile in recent years.

FINE DINING

Listed alphabetically, the city's best fine-dining spots are:

Belvedere Room (Padre Hotel, 1702 18th St., 427-4900) Since the Padre opened, this kitchen has energized the downtown dining scene. Reservations are a must, as this small but elegant space fills up. The menu has changed a few times since it opened, but in the past I've been wowed by the steaks, risotto, duck breast, almost any of the seafoods, soups and pastries or desserts. I love Yorkshire pudding, and they have it here. They've embraced the beef fad of the moment (short ribs) with flair and imagination.

Benji's French Basque (4001 Rosedale Highway, 328-0400). Yes, I've loved the souffles, but I also love the lunches, the sauces, the exceptional attention to detail at dinner and the way the kitchen takes such a familiar Bakersfield cuisine and elevates it to the level of our finest kitchens. Too many entrees to recommend, but off the top of my head I'd go with any steak, lamb dish, the hard-to-find abalone steak and the shrimp scampi. And the owner frequently prowls the dining room, keeping his eye on the customers.

The Bistro (5105 California Ave., 323-3905). This restaurant has evolved from a high-end expense-account location like the Belvedere Room to a more casual restaurant emphasizing quality at a lower price point (sandwiches in the low teens, for example), while still offering steaks priced in the 30s for those with the funds to spend. The Italian rib dip is amazing, as is the macaroni and cheese made with pancetta, chicken, Boursin cheese and white truffle oil. They have a steak with a smoked red pepper sauce that is absolutely stunning.

Cafe Med (4809 Stockdale Highway, 834-4433). Owner Meir Brown has been at or near the top since he opened his first small place in the northeast, and he's got an operation that's still operating on all cylinders. I love so many entrees here but have a particular fondness for the filet mignon stuffed with gorgonzola, the mustard steak, any of the pastas, any of the lamb entrees, shrimp salad, basil chicken and those pita bread pieces with the amazing dipping sauces. Readers sometimes email me about service gaffes, but I haven't experienced those on my visits.

Chef's Choice Noodle Bar (1534 19th St., 325-1234). Owner Nick Hansa has really developed a winner with so many solid choices, from pineapple fried rice to his marinated beef steaks and prime rib. There's a real people-pleasing energy in this room, a zest for the best in food and wine ($25 bottle specials are common), and I suspect this place will continue to evolve in new and exciting ways.

Little Italy (8200 Stockdale Highway, 833-4055). The sort of place where I haven't had a disappointing entree in my many visits, so I feel comfortable ordering anything. Personal favorites are the lasagna, the lobster ravioli (just an amazing staple of this place since it opened), the chicken piccata, any of the veals. Dark, romantic dining room. Friendly staff. What's not to like?

Mama Tosca's Ristorante Italiano (9000 Ming Ave., 831-1242). An ultra-professional restaurant after three decades, an exceptionally trained staff, an obsession with quality in food and wine, and Mama still does all the cooking (or at least has taught the capable crew how to prepare entrees to meet her exacting standards). My favorites are the gnocchi, the chicken sun-dried tomato over linguini, the veal Marsala, the scampi al pomodoro fresco and the chateaubriand for two. If they have Chilean sea bass on the specials list, I'd order that. Decisions, decisions will vex you here.

The Mark (1623 19th St., 322-7665). An impressive start for a new restaurant that serves actual aged beef, with great pastas, shrimp and chicken dishes. The desserts are amazing, too. The atmosphere is uptown and I'd definitely make reservations unless you want to eat in the bar.

Red Pepper (2641 Oswell St., 871-5787). In recent years, co-owner/chef Gilbert Sabedra has emphasized more fine wines and seafood in his Mexican restaurant, and the new direction is just another successful twist that makes ordering at this northeast restaurant so painful. Lobster chili verde is always excellent, as are the bacon-wrapped prawns with mushroom garlic sauce.

TL Maxwell's (1421 17th Place, 323-6889). Now that owner Terry Maxwell has been elected to the City Council, I hope his restaurant continues to impress. His inventive wine sauces have been a plus for so long, with one of those classic atmospheres that only an old space downtown can provide. The must-order is the South African pudding for dessert.

Uricchio's Trattoria (1400 17th St., 326-8870). I could order the sand dabs every time I go to this noisy, lively downtown restaurant, but there's so much more to the menu. Pasta with sausage in vodka sauce, the raviolis, the steaks and any of the veal dishes. A pioneer in Bakersfield's downtown dining revival. Save room for the creme brulee cheesecake.

Valentien Restaurant & Wine Bar (3310 Truxtun Ave., 864-0397). A small, intimate but marvelous restaurant that does things like offer movies on the patio. An emphasis on the trendy (pommes frites fried in duck fat, for example). The pastas, lamb, the fish can all be on the recommended list. The prix fix lunch, if they're offering it that day, is a value. Be warned, however, that portions are, in true L.A. style, much smaller than almost any other restaurant in town. It's food meant to be savored, not devoured. Very good choice for a romantic occasion.

BEST-KEPT SECRETS

Highland Cafe (2201 N. Chester Ave., 829-7885). Great salads, hamburgers and fish and chips with an emphasis on quality ingredients.

The Orchid Thai Fusion Cuisine (5550 California Ave., 864-7979). It moved from its larger Rosedale location, but the food is still amazing. Order the famous macaroni and cheese with lobster ($18), the roasted Scottish salmon ($22) and the mango chicken ($14). Save room for the mango sticky rice dessert.

Camino Real (3500 Truxtun Ave., 852-0493). A true American success story by owner Alejandro Ocampo, who has brought new life to a remodeled Truxtun Avenue restaurant. A fusion cuisine menu with Mexican food presented with California influences. Underrated.

Red Stone Italian Grill (9901 Hageman Road, 587-9090). The pizza here is amazing, though I'm not sure anyone even knows they're open. Haven't seen crowds there yet. That's a pity, because the food is amazing.

On the Rocks Bar & Grill (1517 18th St., 327-7625). The old Fishlips location offers comfort food, including a deep-fried burger, pulled pork, macaroni and cheese and pasta dishes. Another great addition to the vibrant downtown dining scene.

AJ's Bagel House (2813 North Chester Ave., 679-7971). Yes, I know how hard it is to find a decent bagel in this town -- an authentic, chewy, substantial bagel. Who knew you had to go to the 'Dale? Way on the north end, but worth the journey. Good sandwiches, too.

Victor's Mexican Grill (9500 Brimhall Road, 588-0004). All the advantages of Chipotle with some welcome menu options such as grilled cactus or shrimp. Victor's is the place to visit for an inexpensive casual lunch or dinner.

Milt's Coffee Shop (6112 Knudsen Drive, 399-4975). Breakfast, lunch or dinner, the Olive Drive-area restaurant is an amazing cafe: wonderful desserts, high-quality food. One of those places that people describe by saying, "Everything's good."

Blue Elephant Thai Cuisine (8200 Stockdale Highway, 833-8190). The owner of Little Italy is actually an expert at Thai cuisine and used to cook it for friends, who raved about it. So he decided to open a sister restaurant a few doors down from Little Italy. Not as popular as it deserves to be. Some of the best vegetarian options in town, especially the spicy eggplant.

The idea that such a no-brainer is worthy of trend status would be laughed at by classical French chefs, who have always made it a cornerstone of their cuisine.

But the common-sense movement comes at a time when concerns over energy and pesticide use are at an all-time high, and many are willing to pay a premium for fruits and vegetables from farmers markets.

We happen to be living in an agricultural mecca, where availability of so many crops is a positive for the local food scene. I've been noticing more restaurant specials boards and menus promoting the establishment's use of local produce. The owners of the new Wiki's Wine Dive & Grill mentioned using food available locally as one of the primary goals on the chef-designed seasonal portion of their new menu. This is a trend with momentum.

Small plates

The Spanish have tapas, the Chinese have dim sum, the Japanese have sushi, and we have happy hours in places like La Mina and Tahoe Joe's, where small plates at inexpensive prices can tide you over instead of a full meal. Other restaurants also have shown a growing willingness to offer options like this to accommodate changing tastes and budgets.

On a recent visit to Santa Barbara we stopped at this odd restaurant called The Pan on Cota Street. It's open only on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight and offers hamburgers for $4 that are about the size of sliders, or an exceptional bacon spinach salad for $3 and a truffle macaroni and cheese for $5 (which was very rich and actually not a small plate). The versatility of two dining on such quality fare and sampling many things rather than committing to one entree is something restaurateurs expect to see as a continuing trend.

Locally you can get something like this at Moo Creamery, which has happy four from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with $4 sliders and $2.50 beers, and also offers Spanish tapas sandwiches made with lomo and fuet Spanish-cured salamis ($8). Look for cutting-edge places like The Bistro and The Padre to advance the trend.

Downtown

It just keeps getting stronger as a restaurant destination, which has probably got to please the early pioneers like Uricchio's and 24th Street Cafe, once lonely outposts trying to serve the heart of the city. There are many factors in this revival, not the least of which is all the entertainment options (the Fox Theater and Rabobank concert complex), nightclubs with live entertainment and art galleries promoting the quite social First Friday events. In my 32 years living here, it's never been better and has come so far since the pessimists thought downtown was dead after Brock's closed. Five of my picks for top fine dining restaurants are downtown, and some, such as Valentien, are just a couple of miles away.

Reinvigorated locally owned restaurants

Bakersfield has this reputation as being chain restaurant heaven, but when you look at the list of local entrepreneurs who are putting their money behind their dreams and not buying a franchise, it's hard to argue that we don't have a vibrant local restaurant scene right now. So many exciting new places opened this year and even when we got a chain, like Eureka!, it was a small California-based operation rather than T.G.I. Friday's or Claim Jumper. (The latest persistent rumor that I've been unable to confirm is that a Cheesecake Factory is on the way.)

Now it's up to us to support these bold visionaries, especially when they're pushing to offer us quality and value.

Gourmet hamburgers

Countless attempts to class up the American staple aren't going away. It's not just chains like Eureka!; it's the high-end treatment burgers are getting in restaurants all over Los Angeles. Locally, the most innovative kitchen for burgers is Moo Creamery, which keeps pushing the envelope without getting too esoteric. I think the basic American love for beef will keep this trend thriving.

Casual

Listed alphabetically

Coconut Joe's (4158 California Ave., 327-1378). This fish and chips/chicken/tri-tip restaurant has continued to evolve and now has some off-menu specials you really need to ask about, such as the lime chicken burrito that someone suggested I order. The chicken soup is a great to-go order during the cold and flu season.

Crest Bar & Grill (5025 Wible Road, 833-9998). One of the most innovative kitchens in town, and I'm a sucker for the lunch and dinner specials. You might not expect this kind of food in a trailer park, but the Crest always delivers. Old-timers will remember when there was a drive-in movie theater there, where I took my son to see "Batman" so long ago.

Eureka! Gourmet Burgers & Craft Beer (10520 Stockdale Highway, 241-5999). So many chains don't seem to have much soul, or they seem to be faking it. Maybe because Eureka! is such a small chain, it has retained a noncorporate vibe. A fun place for a moderately priced dining experience.

Frugatti's (600 Coffee Road, 836-2000). In recent years this long-time Italian restaurant has taken on a new energy with a personalized menu playing up the family connections and story of owner Ralph Fruguglietti, with wood-fired pizzas that are so amazingly smoky and the new "fitness" menu that lets you enjoy great Italian cuisine without blowing the diet. Fewer cheesecakes available nowadays, but they're always worth ordering.

Great Castle (410 Union Ave., 325-3311). So many excellent menu items at this Union Avenue restaurant besides the specialties of kung pao beef made with tender, juicy steak or the walnut shrimp that seems to find the perfect mix of sweet and hot. Other menu choices on my recommended list include tangerine beef Hunan style, Dai Chin chicken (much better than sweet and sour or orange) and the sizzling rice soup. Still great after all these years.

Jake's Original Tex-Mex Cafe (1710 Oak St., 322-6380). The new chocolate chip cookie sandwich with that chocolate cream cheese frosting in the center should be illegal. In an era of casual Chipotle-style dinners, this is quite a relaxing, reasonably priced option for a good meal that's not a production. All the Texas signs on the wall are just bonus fun.

Lengthwise (three locations). The main Bakersfield beneficiary of the brewpub trend, this success story boasts a solid menu with almost everything under $10 and six locally made beers on tap. A visit to any of the Lengthwise locations always cheers me up.

Luigi's (725 E. 19th St., 322-0926). Another restaurant that does so many things well, has so many specials that entice you to visit on a particular day that it's always a great dining experience. The social atmosphere, the fact that so many people you know are likely to be there at the same time is another plus. Inevitably I need an afternoon nap after a lunch visit. I blame the pasta, but I can't stop ordering it.

Moo Creamery (4885 Truxtun Ave, 861-1130). Still one of the most innovative local restaurants, with an almost obsessive drive for quality ingredients and innovative, edgy treatments of classic fare. I'm not always sure I'll like some of the new specials, but the kitchen there has earned my trust. And the pastries are amazing. I can't go and not order dessert. An excellent new choice I sampled recently was the beef brisket melt (pepper jack cheese, chipotle mayo and roasted jalapenos on grilled fresh-baked ciabatta bread, $9).

Mama Roomba (1814 Eye St., 322-6262). If you love black beans, plantains and the kind of satisfying Caribbean food we don't see enough in Bakersfield, get down there ASAP and support this fantastic place located in what was once the home of Luigi the Tailor.

Muertos Kitchen & Lounge (1514 Wall St., 324-2557). I was sad when Fishlips closed, but then one of the owners opened Muertos a couple of blocks away. The space is smaller, with a more idiosyncratic menu, but Muertos has become another plus for the downtown dining scene. Has all the charm of a friend's kitchen, if your friend is a really good cook. So much to recommend, but you can't go wrong with the halibut tacos or the chicken with okra.

Zaika Indian Cuisine & Bar (5123 Ming Ave., 836-0100). We were led to this amazing Indian restaurant by the $7.99 lunch buffet (a great value), but the food is just as good off the menu at night. Good vegetarian choices, butter curry chicken and garlic naan.

Specialty dishes

Lamb at Kabob House (4701 White Lane, 837-8330). The Persian twist adds flair to the lamb. Humble, tiny, but just marvelous.

Caramel sundae at Dewar's (various locations). Everybody loves the black and white and the George's special, but I have a soft spot for a simple caramel sundae. Something about that caramel sauce tastes so buttery, so alluring I almost embarrassed myself by licking out the dish. Almost. I really didn't do it. I swear. Those pictures are a Photoshop forgery.

Shrimp at Manuel's Casa de Mariscos (700 Truxtun Avenue, 325-8834). Manuel's moved recently from its longtime home on Union Avenue, but there are so many great shrimp dishes on the menu that I'd follow them anywhere.

Sunday brunch at La Mina and Anita's. Buffets that are an exceptional value for the family; the fresh-made tortillas are a big draw.

Philly cheesesteaks at Jersey Mike's (various locations). This chain might skimp on the veggies on their cheesesteaks, but they fry it all up on the spot and mix it with white American cheese. Not healthy, but oh so fresh and satisfying.

Italian beef sandwich at Brinks Delicatessen & Fine Wine (3803 Ming Ave., 398-8525). This garlicky sandwich is amazing no matter which cheese you put on it (provolone, pepper jack, cheddar).

Prime rib at Hungry Hunter (3580 Rosedale Highway, 328-0580). They brag about having the best prime rib in town, and they just might be on to something at this value-loving restaurant.

The chili verde pizza at Tony's Pizza (two locations). It has a real kick, and the tender, stringy pork is strewn over a pizza thick with cheese. I have to order it every month or so to stay sane.

Greek food at Goose Loonies Tavern & Grill (816 18th St., 631-1242). As a bonus, it's still one of the most lively places to watch football games, college or pro. Props, too, for the variety of microbrews.

Hot and spicy shrimp at Lam's Chinese Restaurant (2510 University Ave., 871-7455). Not complicated, but so expertly executed in the kitchen. Fresh shrimp dusted in flour, fried in a hot wok and tossed with oil and hot pepper flakes.

Mexican

Winner: Red Pepper (2641 Oswell St., 871-5787). Co-owner/chef Gilbert Sabedra has an imaginative kitchen that is always tinkering with Mexican classics while not ignoring the familiar and traditional choices that other customers may prefer. I know that Red Pepper has been king of the hill for decades now, but this is not a restaurant that ever gets stale, ever seems to take its customers for granted. Lunch and dinner are always an adventure, especially if you opt for the white board specials.

Runners-up:

Agave Cantina (250 Oak St., 637-2000); Arizona Cafe (809 Baker St., 324-3866); Cactus Valley ( 4215 Rosedale Highway, 633-1948); Camino Real (3500 Truxtun Ave., 852-0493); Casa Munoz (1736 Union Ave., 861-1625); El Pueblo (9705 Main St., Lamont, 845-0065); La Tapatia Mexican Grill (1015 North Chester Ave., 393-7388); La Mina ( various locations); Los Aguacates (two locations); Mauricio's Grill & Cantina (10700 Rosedale Highway, 589-5292); Que Pasa (various locations)

We're lucky to have so many excellent Mexican restaurants in Bakersfield, something I never take for granted having grown up in Wisconsin in a time where you couldn't even find decent south-of-the-border fare in Chicago. And it's a wide variety. Arizona Cafe is old school, while Agave is upscale (but not expensive), with an extensive collection of tequilas in the bar. Casa Munoz is idiosyncratic (lately adding more expensive varietal wines from Argentina, Spain and Chile to its offerings) but so reliable. El Pueblo in Lamont has authentic food and amazing fresh-made tortillas. Que Pasa and La Mina are growing fast due to their customer-pleasing reliability. You can't go wrong with any place on this list.

Chinese

Winner: Great Castle (410 Union Ave., 325-3311). So many consistently excellent choices on this menu that I had to give it the top prize.

Runners-up:

China Bistro (various locations). Cafeteria-style fast food at a great price. The orange chicken sauce has just the right balance of sweetness and bitterness.

Lam's Chinese (2510 University Ave., 871-7455). It's tempting not to get anything but their amazing shrimp, but I like a lot of the beef entrees here, too.

Peking Palace (5600 Auburn, 872-9689). Excels at so many different Chinese cuisines, with an admirable freshness to the ingredients.

Japanese

Winners: Miyoshi Sushi (8200 Stockdale Highway, 398-3397), Tokyo Garden (4149 Ming Ave., 835-7874)

Runners-up:

Izumo Sushi (4212 Ming Ave., 398-0608), Love Sushi (3940 Coffee Road, 587-4245), Shogun Palace (5498 California Ave., 325-0007), Sushi Kato (3631 Rosedale Highway, 323-5286); Toro Sushi Bar & Grill (9000 Ming Ave., 663-7878); Enso Sushi Bar (1419 19th St., 327-7785)

OK, I've got to pick two winners: Tokyo Garden for teppanyaki (best combination of food quality and entertainment value, but make reservations) and Miyoshi Sushi for sushi, with Toro a close second. I've always thought the freshness of the product at Miyoshi is its biggest strength. Someone told me they make their wasabi, which is another plus. (I am aware that those two restaurants have the same owner, for what that's worth.) Shogun is more an entertaining teppan destination than anything else, but we've got some options right now. Sushi is getting more popular every year, and Bakersfield is not getting left behind.

Burgers

Winners: Eureka! Gourmet Burgers & Craft Beer, Prime Cut, Moo Creamery, Juicy Burger

Runners-up:

Big Popy's Deli (1927 20th St., 327-3354), Chuy's (various locations), Famous Dave's Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que (7777 Rosedale Highway, 829-2128), Grinder's Burger House (1230 H St., 864-7760), J&M Bar & Grill ( 10801 Rosedale Highway, 589-3042), Kelley's Coffee Shop (8645 Golden State Avenue, 399-1223), Muertos Kitchen & Lounge, Tom's Famous Burger (9531 Rosedale Highway, 588-4850)

I wussed out on this one and picked four winners. Maybe they could have a death cage match to settle it once and for all. Juicy Burger is the best value, and I'm addicted to those fresh-cut fries prepared in peanut oil. Eureka! and Moo are both willing to go out there to redefine the ingredients of a burger in a startling way. But Prime Cut, when all is said and done, just seems to use the best beef, which is maybe why its Merv Burger is so expensive. You can't go wrong with any of these. Another area where Bakersfield is a serious food place. (Worth noting: Grinder's has two exceptional veggie burger patties.)

Sandwiches

Winner: Sequoia Sandwich Co. (various locations)

Runners-up:

Big Popy's Deli, Bonnie's Best Cafe (two locations), Brinks Deli (3803 Ming Ave., 398-8525), Caesar's Deli (various locations), Jersey Mike's Subs (various locations), Riverwalk Cafe (two locations)

Sequoia never lets me down on quality and keeps some interesting sandwiches on the specials list. Riverwalk Cafe is hot on its heels, though. I don't think you can go wrong with any of these choices. Love the unusual sodas at Big Popy's, which I used to find only in the BevMo stores.

Fried chicken

Winner: J's Place (2681 Calloway Drive, 587-8420)

Runners-up:

Linda's Place (3508 Stine Road, 835-0603), Popeye's (various locations)

J's Place keeps it simple, crisp and authentic. I know Popeye's is a chain, but they are a step above the competitors, in my opinion. Linda's is an under-the-radar operation located in the longtime home of Mr. Tibbs' Ribs.

Brunch

Winner: Padre Hotel. The creativity of this kitchen is on full display in the weekend off-the-menu (not buffet) brunch. I've yet to sample the whole menu, but based on my fantastic experiences so far, I will be working my way through it long past the NFL season.

Runners-up:

Steak & Grape. Amazing potatoes, a great brunch value, love the prime rib omelet and the amazing Greek omelet.

Buck Owens' Crystal Palace (2800 Buck Owens Blvd., 328-7560). This lavish Las Vegas-style buffet is the place to go when you want to stuff yourself after church to inspire a long Sunday afternoon nap.

La Mina. A great value, good variety and a lot of homemade-style Mexican creations.

Can't pick a winner

Pizza, Basque and breakfast depends so much on your mood and small details, that "the best" can change any day of the week.

Pizza

Cataldo's Pizzeria (various locations), Cubbies Chicago Style Pizza (9510 Hageman Road, 587-6555), Frugatti's (600 Coffee Road, 836-2000), Mountain Mike's (various locations), Pizza Bob (2100 Alta Vista, 871-2000), Red Stone Italian Grill (9901 Hageman Road, 587-9090), Tony's Pizza (various locations)

There was a time when Sam's Pizza Boat ruled this town, and I'd say these are the folks duking it out for that title right now. Cataldo's is the fastest-growing locally owned operation, and it has a nice New York-style pie. Pizza Bob's "Detroit-style" Sicilian pizza is an amazing, thick cheese creation with the sauce on top. Mountain Mike's, in my opinion, is the class of all the chains, most notably for a premium pepperoni that has the charm and power of a real sausage. Cubbies is really moving into its own with a cheese-dense, Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza. Frugatti's product has that amazing smoky taste from its wood-fired brick oven that really has no peer locally.

Basque

Benji's French Basque Restaurant (4001 Rosedale Highway, 328-0400), Noriega Restaurant & Hotel (525 Sumner St., 322-8419), Pyrenees Cafe & Saloon (601 Sumner St., 323-0053), Wool Growers Restaurant (620 E. 19th St., 327-9584).

I think all four listed here are excellent. The kitchen at Benji's is so graceful that I'd choose it if I wanted high-end. It's Wool Growers when I get a craving for those long twisted French fries and that spectacularly crispy-fried chicken with the garlic-parsley sauce drizzled on top. The consistency there almost makes me wonder if robots are manning the kitchen. Pyrenees offers a true old-school atmosphere and some exceptional values on the daily specials list ($12.95 Thursdays for the steak; $13.50 for the roast lamb sandwich on Fridays). The award-winning Noriega Hotel is the place to go if you're eager to eat family style with complete strangers and stuff yourself on some of the best country cooking in town.

Breakfast

24th Street Cafe (1415 24th St., 323-8801), Cafe Crepes (1028 Truxtun Ave., 374-4946), Cope's Knotty Pine Cafe (1530 Norris Road, 399-0120), Donna Kaye's Cafe (212 Oak St., 322-1875), Happy Jack's (1800 20th St., 323-1661), Hodel's Buffet (5917 Knudsen Drive, 399-3341), J&M's Bar & Grill (10801 Rosedale Highway, 589-3042), Milt's Coffee Shop (6112 Knudsen Drive, 399-4975), Molly J's (3150 Panama Lane, 834-7372), Moo Creamery (4885 Truxtun Ave, 861-1130), Red Wagon (18800 Beech Avenue in Shafter, 746-0420), The Links at Riverlakes Ranch (5201 Riverlakes Drive, 587-5465), Village Grill (2809 F St., 325-1219)

Yes, we can sure do breakfast right in Bako. The Links has such a quiet, relaxing ambiance, 24th Street Cafe has been so good for so long. When people ask about biscuits and gravy I think J&M's is tops. Village Grill is always crowded, and with good reason. If I lived in Westchester I'd be walking there every Saturday. Donna Kaye's is small but powerful. Moo has some amazing choices, including French toast sticks (vanilla-dipped homemade brioche with caramelized cinnamon sugar, and honey butter and maple syrup on the side, $8).

R.I.P.

We lost some good restaurants this year. Pedal Car Cafe couldn't keep moving, apparently feeling the pain from that construction on Coffee Road near Brimhall. La Mina moved in and hasn't looked back. T-Bones Steakhouse was developing exceptional values at breakfast, lunch and in couples dinners, but finally ran up the white flag. La Mina moved in there, too. Plumberry's in the southwest couldn't overcome bad publicity about cockroaches and the intense competition from the pizza chains. As of press time, La Mina is not moving in there. Country Rose Tea Room downtown, a nice romantic dinner spot, closed its doors. The Espresso Cafe up near Bakersfield College, which readers recommended, has a for-lease sign on its door now. The Hourglass closed early in the year, its time apparently up. Thai Orchid closed but returned in a smaller space near the intersection of California Avenue and Stockdale Highway. Santiago's on H Street also closed, to be turned into a second outpost of Los Aquacates. Just a step ahead of La Mina, perhaps. Mill Creek Deli is dark, at least for now. Burger Depot has pulled out of the station. And a favorite of mine, The Q Rib Shack, has smoked its last rib. But new owners have taken over the Rosedale Highway location and are grilling up a storm.

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