editor’s note: One of the best things about Mexico is the preponderance of quality food. In a country not entirely subsumed by chains, it’s so much easier to find a decent meal right off the highway. As we travel to and through this culinary Valhalla, we will detail our triumphs and pratfalls.
Interstate 5 through central California has got to be one of the most godawful drives on the planet. We thought we’d stop for lunch somewhere, but realized that the stretch from Oakland to Bakersfield is essentially a cultural wasteland: nothing but fast food and truck stops. We hit Bakersfield around dusk and decided to stop early and find some real food and a bed.
We had our sights set on a cluster of cheap hotels, but Rich pointed out that it would be wise to look for a promising restaurant first: we seemed to have landed in a giant strip mall.
“Let’s hunt down some decent food first, and then we can come back to the hotels,” he said.
“Yeah, there’s got to be a cool part of Bakersfield somewhere,” I agreed, thinking of Merle Haggard.
Forty-five minutes later we were still driving. We’d passed three Panda Express outlets, maybe thirty McDonald’s, and as many family style chains. The only non-chain places we’d seen were a dubious “family style Mexican” place in a cartoonish stucco edifice, and an equally dubious strip mall “Cantina” that looked like it probably ran heavy toward taco salad and neon margaritas. Needless to say, strip mall Mexican food was low on our list for one of our last meals before crossing the border. We happened upon route 58 and decided to give up on Bakersfield entirely and try our luck in the next town.
Tehachapi didn’t look incredibly promising, but we figured that it would at least be easier to locate downtown in a burg with only three exits. We were correct. After trolling through strip malls and apartment developments, we located “Historic Downtown Tehachapi”, a single strip and looking sleepy on a sleety Sunday night.
Historic Downtown Tehachapi featured two open restaurants: an unpromising “family-style” place with ghastly fluorescent lighting and a BBQ joint, which looked pretty run of the mill from the outside.
“Barbecue it is,” I said.
The inside of Redhouse BBQ is anything but run of the mill. A large fake rock waterfall took up one corner, and the walls were decorated with an interesting mix of taxidermy, antique weapons, butcher knives, military memorabilia, and a sign that read “Hippies Use the Back Door, No Exceptions”. One wall featured a mural of the high desert, and a rounded doorway was decorated with an amazing mirrored mosaic. A taxidermied wild boar wearing a party hat presided over the kitchen, which blared (incongerously) 90s rock and was ruled by the apparent owner, a big guy with a shaved head, plug earrings, and unusual geometric tattoos. In short, the place was the perfect antidote to a day squandered on freeways and generic strip malls.
“Nice beer selection!” I marveled, eyeing a refrigerator with a wide range of craft beers.
“Yeah, the owner is really into it,” the hostess said, gesturing toward the kitchen. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with a side of mac n’ cheese (large sandwich with one side for 9.99, smaller version of sandwich with side available for 7.99) and sat back with my IPA to wait.
I needn’t have ordered the large sandwich, as it turned out to be about the size of my head. The mac n’ cheese was some of the best I’ve ever sampled: rich and creamy, with an appropriate touch of Velveeta. Piled on a soft bun, the barbecued pork overwhelmed my expectations: luscious and smoky and not too sweet (which is always my fear). Two types of barbecue sauce (spicy and regular) were served on the side. Rich’s perfectly fried and crispy catfish came with house made tartar sauce, tangy and spiced (he thinks) with a little paprika. The coleslaw was equally ideal: a light vinegar dressing on crunchy red cabbage.
Verdict: we win.