Photo by Anne Fishbein
My friend Robert Sietsema, co-founder of the Organ Meat Society and editor of the food zine Down the Hatch, is well known for his insistence that the best food in New York City is always at least 20 minutes and two bus transfers past the point you are willing to go. Did you have a good Afghan meal on Ninth Avenue? Too bad you missed the really good stuff out on Horace Harding Parkway, in a part of Queens where the subways have long since dribbled into nothingness and the car services fear to roam. Do you like the Uzbeki grill on 48th Street? You should have gone to Forest Hills. Have a good Italian lunch in the Village? You should taste, just taste, the spleen sandwiches out on Avenue U. In his column in The Village Voice, Sietsema has insisted that his readers schlep out to Canarsie for the Bajan food, to distant New Jersey for vaguely Oaxacan cooking, and to Ridgewood for an ancient German restaurant smacked down in the middle of a Lutheran cemetery. He probably spends as much time eating Senegalese lamb dishes in Harlem as The New York Times critic does eating French food in Midtown.
So on the infrequent occasions Sietsema makes it out to Los Angeles, I am often at a loss: Do I take him to the dynamite Isaan Thai place in Bellflower or to my favorite burrito stand in East L.A.? To Watts for the terrific braised short ribs at the original M&M or to Koreatown for black-goat soup? To the freelance taco chefs on East Olympic, or to one of the painfully authentic Sichuan restaurants that have popped up in Monterey Park? To Thai Town, Little Armenia, Little India, or Little Phnom Penh? Is it possible to find a restaurant inconvenient enough for him, or will he flee, as he did a few years ago, to chase down some cockamamie theory about hash browns in the vicinity of Thousand Oaks?
A couple of weeks ago, I gave Sietsema the grand tour. We went to Mission 261 for dim sum — far superior to anything available in the five boroughs — and we went to Golden Deli for the spring rolls. I took him to Mr. Baguette in Rosemead for the Vietnamese pâté sandwiches on freshly baked baguettes, and to Chalio in East L.A. to eat birria, goat stew, amid a clientele that seemed to be made up mostly of mariachis on lunch break. I even took him to the Border Grill in Pasadena so that he could experience the sort of Mexican food that can be purchased with an American Express card.
But as happy as Sietsema seemed to be, as appreciative as he was of tiny suckling pigs and steaming tureens of Cantonese eel-ball soup, I could tell that something was wrong. Sure, Rosemead and Boyle Heights may be a little out of the way to an easily impressed Brentwood resident, but it was obvious: To him, it wasn’t quite inconvenient enough.
Which is why, the next afternoon, we found ourselves at the Pyrenees bar in East Bakersfield, knocking back our second Picon punch and watching the old Basque guys roughhousing down at the other end of the bar.
If you’ve never had a Picon punch, which is more or less the official tipple of Basque Bakersfield, it can seem a little like a girlie drink, a cocktail of brandy, maraschino syrup, and a healthy slug of a bitter Algerian liqueur called Amer Picon. If you get the right bartender, it even comes with a cherry in it. But if you linger at the Pyrenees long enough, rest assured: You will see a burly oil worker thrust out his gut, snarling, “Gimme Pi-cahhhn.” Picon punch goes down smoothly, but gnaws at your brain for hours. Sietsema was slammed hard by the drink, and woozily asked the bartender, who could have passed for a young Betty Page by the third Picon punch, if she’d consider taking him home with her.
She sneered at the lameness of Sietsema’s come-on, a world-class sneer, a sneer that would have served her well behind any bar in Silver Lake or on the Lower East Side, and the two of us were as smitten as any two drunk, married guys could ever be at 3 in the afternoon.
“You two are from out of town,” she said delicately. “Tourists.” She flicked the hair out of her eyes.
“You brought a wrapped loaf in with you, so I know you’ve already been to the Pyrenees Bakery. You probably stopped in at Luigi’s — for what? A plate of beans? Spaghetti with sauce? — but you had your main lunch at one of the Basque restaurants. My guess is Wool Grower’s, because you two are too pathetic to have gotten up in time for noon lunch at one of the better places. You have a bagful of Dewar’s peanut chews in the car. After this, you’re going over to the Alley Cat, because the place is for losers, because you think the neon and the Hirschfeld mural are ‘cool.’ Tonight for dinner, you’re going to . . . not here, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here now . . . to the Noriega. Definitely the Noriega. And I don’t blame you for going there: Tuesday is prime-rib night.”
On her way back to the regulars, she turned in our direction, pulled up her blouse, and flashed us. It was a friendly gesture, and we appreciated it. Even if she’d had us mostly dead to rights.
But as long as I’ve been coming to Bakersfield, I’d never heard of Dewar’s, a candy counter kitty-cornered from the high school, a store so little changed from its heyday that it looks almost art-directed, like a set re-created from the pages of a 1946 Vogue fashion spread. When you order a sundae, the soda jerk packs the ice cream scoop densely into a cup by crimping its edges with a butter knife, then pours syrup over it until it cascades stickily onto the counter. And the peanut chews, Tootsie Roll–size cylinders of taffy barely encompassing payloads of salty, crunchy ground peanuts, are just magnificent.
We did go to the Alley Cat, where the AC/DC on the jukebox and the clientele of college kids and deaf folks did indeed contrast nicely with the faded Hirschfeld caricatures on the walls, and we did go to Noriega for its usual zillion-course dinner, pickled tongue and cabbage soup and beans with hot salsa, lettuce salad and doctored cottage cheese, stew and spaghetti and prime rib and sheep cheese, all served communally at long tables.
After dinner, we drove up to Oildale, a grungy suburb on the other side of the Kern River best known as the birthplace of Merle Haggard, because I wanted to show Sietsema Trout’s, which is probably the last real honky-tonk in this part of the state, and I wanted to see if Red Simpson might be doing an early-week set. Simpson is the king of the Bakersfield truckin’ balladeers — his classic album is called Roll Truck Roll — and his shows at Trout’s have to be seen to be believed. Imagine every badass who threatened to stomp your ass in high school, and then imagine them 50 years older, still without a dental plan, and packed together on a dance floor. That’s a Red Simpson audience.
But this was karaoke night, Toby Keith songs were on the agenda, and half the room seemed to want to introduce us to their granddaughters, and by the way, want to get me a Miller Lite? We were way out of our league. And for the moment at least, this was foreign enough even for Sietsema.
Dewar’s Candy and Ice Cream Parlor, 1120 Eye St., Bakersfield, (661) 322-0933; Guthrie’s Alley Cat, Wall Street Alley, Bakersfield, (661) 324-6328; Luigi’s, 725 E. 19th St., Bakersfield, (661) 322-0926; Noriega Hotel, 525 Sumner St., Bakersfield, (661) 322-8419; Pyrenees Café, 601 Sumner St., Bakersfield, (661) 323-0053; Pyrenees French Bakery, 717 E. 21st St., Bakersfield, (661) 322-7159; Trout’s, 805 N. Chester St., Oildale, (661) 399-6700; Wool Grower’s Restaurant, 620 E. 19th St., Bakersfield, (661) 327-9584.