Saturday, Jan 25 2014 08:00 PM

PETE TITTL: Jake's Tex Mex: Just as wonderful after all these years

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    Dining Out with Pete Tittl

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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist

OK, I confess it's easy to take Jake's Tex-Mex Cafe for granted. It started out three-odd decades ago in Oildale as Beef and Beanery and eventually moved to Oak Street, where the menu has been so solid that tweaks are subtle and significant menu changes rare. As in Texas, you get what you get and you don't throw a fit. Once you've visited a few times it's a place, like Luigi's, you need to revisit every once in a while just to retain your equilibrium.

Yes, there are lines. You don't mind the lines. Look at it as an opportunity to catch up with people you haven't seen in a while, such as the parents of one of my son's old diving competitors who happened to visit on the day we visited. And forget about going later to avoid the crowd. We went well after 1, figuring the lunch crowd would be gone. They weren't. We were out the door. As usual.

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JAKE'S TEX-MEX CAFE

1710 Oak St.

322-6380

jakestexmex.com

Hours: 11 a.m to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Reservations not accepted.

Prices: Chili, $3.95 to $5.95; sandwiches, $7.95 to $9.50; family packs, $21.95 to $44.95; sides, $2.09 to $4.95; "Plates 'O' Stuff," $8.79 to $13.29; "Special-Deez," $7.95 to $9.95; "Lighter Side," $6.39 to $9.95; child's plate, $2.99 to $3.99.

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

Dress: Casual

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; beer and wine served; some vegetarian options.

Food: ****

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Service: ***

Value: ***1/2

Next week: Quig's BBQ Truck and California Hot Dog Co.

Another price you'll be required to pay is the parking drama. Getting a spot in the lot is as lucky as getting a Powerball quick pick winner. I always take a spin through the lot, hoping for good fortune, though I usually end up on Olive Street rationalizing that the walk back will help burn the calories from the cookies or cake I always have to have. What's funny, amid the frustration, is to read all the signs saying "No Jake's parking" on the walls of nearby businesses. Clearly that's got to be one of the downsides of being so close to this restaurant.

There are basically three meats to speak of here, all worth ordering depending on your mood. One of my companions got the baked garlic chicken breast ($10.49) with two sides. Love this chicken for a number of reasons. It's chopped up, easy to eat by itself or stuffed in a burrito, not too garlicky, very moist, and probably a healthy option given its general lack of visible grease.

The pit-style beef has never been bested in my opinion. I have tried this style of beef all over the state and even in the great state of Texas, a place that Jake's tries to replicate in spirit in every way. Like the chicken, it's separated into individual fibers though occasionally you run across an end piece that has extra flavor and an al dente firmness. I like those parts, too.

The third meat is the mesquite tri-tip. I got that in the half sandwich and salad option ($7.95) because it is so good with the salsa, jack and cheddar cheeses, the meat sliced to order on the cafeteria line. This is exceptional beef -- juicy, smoky and a worthy companion to the pit-style beef. The day is coming when I'll pick up a family pack with a full tri-tip, sides and rolls or tortillas for $44.95.

The three meat champs are available in salads, burritos, sandwiches, plates or with sides on an entree plate. It's all interchangeable. My other companion had a taco salad with beef, ($9.95) and I marveled at this plate with guacamole, sour cream, salsa, chili beans, tortilla chips (or Fritos -- spare me) and pico de gallo. She said when she comes with a friend they sometimes split one, perfectly understandable considering how big this salad is.

Yet the most treasured new creation to me is the box o'cookies, two chocolate cookie sandwiches with that simple but irresistible chocolate cream cheese icing in between. I recall someone asking me for the recipe once and the owner pooh-poohing the request, saying anyone could find the recipe on the Internet, that there are no secret ingredients to make it special. I've tried and failed in my kitchen to get the texture as perfect. Maybe it's the quality of the chocolate. Anyway, what I love about these cookies is how it's a perfect way to eat the frosting without having to eat the cake. In other words, I don't want to have my cake and eat it, too. I just want the frosting. I understand this does not make me the most mature guy on the block, but I'm willing to pay the price. I only bought the cake because my companions insisted.

Though I often mention Jake's in this column, I haven't devoted an entire column to the place in eight years. But like a fine wine, it gets better with age. At one point it was mostly a lunch spot, but now that Chipotle has made fast-casual cool at night, I find good crowds at Jake's then, too. And somewhere along the way the word "Original" got dropped from the name. Though it clearly is original to me, perhaps another Jake's laid claim to it.

Jake's Tex-Mex Cafe can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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