Red Grill Onions

It may be an odd name—Red Grill Onions—but that’s the only thing odd about this delightful addition to Bakersfield’s downtown dining scene.

In a city stuffed with good Mexican restaurants, Red Grill Onions Mexican Café & Bar stands out, judging by Yelp and Facebook reviews.

But what about the restaurant’s peculiar name? Well, it sort of just occurred to owner Salvador Tejeda. Maybe Red Onion Grill would have made more sense? Nah. It’s cool as it is.

The name reminds me of an old place in Stockton, The Shamrock, where the restaurant’s sign was inadvertently hung upside down. Rather than change it, the owners recognized that it made the place memorable, so they kept it. Arguably, the strange name works the same for Red Grill Onions.

The cozy restaurant is also memorable for its food and drinks. The margaritas are among the best I’ve had in a long time. I had to try one after my wife, Claudia, told me about her experience there. She was with a group of friends and asked for a frozen margarita. The waiter suggested that was not such a good idea. “Why would you want to ruin good tequila by having a frozen margarita?” he asked. So she said, OK, I’ll try it your way: salted rim, on the rocks. She raved about it.

What better way to top off your Red Grill Onions dining experience than with deep fried ice cream?
What better way to top off your Red Grill Onions dining experience than with deep fried ice cream?

So later, when we went there for dinner, I had to try one. The waiter just smiled as he waited for my first sip. It was perfect.

Claudia spoke so glowingly of her meal at Red Grill Onions that I had high expectations when we walked in. At the time of our visit, the restaurant’s entry was at 1418 18th St., just east of Chester Avenue. The main dining room’s remodel has been completed, and you can now also enter at 1804 Chester Ave.

The restaurant/bar occupies an L-shaped configuration that wraps around the old bank building that was uncovered not too long ago, and is ready for a new business.

When I first moved to town, Red Grill Onions’ Chester Avenue address was The Potato Shed, a lunch place that featured baked potatoes with a variety of toppings. Shortly thereafter it gave way to The Ivy, a delightful European-style restaurant operated by Richard and Halah Burlingham; the 18th Street address was The Ivy’s bakery and coffee shop (the couple later opened the Bell Tower Club). The venue subsequently became Gumbeaux’s, a Cajun-style restaurant, then Rueben’s, a Mexican restaurant. Red Grill Onions is its latest incarnation.

We were greeted and seated by a friendly waiter who met everyone entering the restaurant warmly.

While waiting for our margaritas, we nibbled on the chips and salsa our waiter had brought to our colorful table—dark yellow tablecloth with a square red topper. A wall-mounted television featured lucha libre, or Mexican-style wrestling, known for acrobatic wrestlers wearing colorful masks.

The tortilla chips were thick and crisp, served warm without a hint of oiliness. The dark red salsa had a house-made texture and quality to it, with fresh flavors and just the right amount of spiciness—not too hot, not too mild. Adding to the atmosphere, the salsa was served in an oblong hand-painted colorful ceramic bowl.

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The waiter confirmed that the tortillas and chips are indeed made in-house, as is the salsa.

Impressed with the chips and salsa, we decided to try the guacamole ($5.25 small, $7.50 large). Unlike some local restaurants, Red Grill Onions’ guacamole is not made tableside, but clearly is freshly made. Served in a molcajete bowl, it had red onions, tomatoes and cilantro mixed in and was exquisitely seasoned. We found it simply delicious, and couldn’t get enough of it!

With our appetites whetted, we selected our entrees. Claudia ordered the camarones (shrimp) fajitas ($15.95), while I opted for the Los Angeles combination plate ($12.95). Both plates featured rice and refried beans.

The Los Angeles combination was in fact angelic. It had a beef taco, red enchilada, and chile relleno.

As luck would have it, I took a bite of my refried beans first. They looked like refried beans you see in any Mexican restaurant: mashed with a healthy topping of melted cheese. But they sure didn’t taste like any old refried beans! They had the perfect amount of seasoning to make the flavor, well, perfect. They were fabulous! This will sound odd but I’d go back to Red Grill Onions for the refried beans. They were that good.

After practically inhaling the refried beans, I found that I did have some other things on my plate, like the beef taco. The house-made taco shell was stuffed with shredded beef, lettuce and two kinds of cheese. A dollop of the salsa made for a tasty, crunchy treat.

Los Angeles combination plate
Los Angeles combination plate

The enchilada was rolled, loaded with melted cheese and smothered in a rich enchilada sauce, made with dried red chiles and ground cumin. Longtime readers will recall that I am partial to New Mexican style stacked enchiladas, and while this one was rolled, its flavors reminded me of the fresh chile enchilada sauces one finds in New Mexico.

The relleno was equally good. It was generously stuffed with a mild cheese; I don’t know if it was Asadero or Queso Oaxaca, but it complemented the flavor of the roasted green chile. The relleno was smothered in a mild, light-red sauce. It was delicious.

Claudia’s fajitas were sizzling when they arrived on a cast-iron skillet. Large shrimp were complemented by red onions, green and red bell pepper slices and tomatoes. Once the concoction cooled a little, I talked her out of a bite, and found it wonderfully flavored.

We thought we were stuffed, but at our waiter’s suggestion, we found room for deep fried ice cream ($4.95). It was a nice way to end our dinner: a ball of ice cream coated with corn flake crumbs and cinnamon, then flash fried so it’s crunchy on the outside, still solid on the inside.

A couple of weeks later, we had occasion to stop by for a margarita, and our server, Dimas Sanchez, insisted we try the Chile Verde. “It’s our signature dish,” he said.

So a few days later, I stopped by for lunch. Since I was by myself, I found a seat at the bar on the 18th Street side. The stool at the black granite bar was comfortable, and I cooled off with a brewed ice tea. Once again, the salsa and chips were excellent. The lunch menu featured a Chile Verde Burrito ($6.50), so of course I ordered one.

A large Santa Fe-style burrito arrived oozing some of the most aromatic chile verde you could imagine, and topped with melted cheese. One bite and I was in heaven. I could see why it’s the restaurant’s signature dish. It’s delicious. It’s loaded with slow-cooked tender pork chunks, and has just the right amount of cumin, green chile and other flavors that force you—force you, I say!—to eat it all. The light and fluffy Spanish rice was a great accompaniment, as were the wonderful refried beans. I enjoyed every mouthful.

As he was clearing my empty plate, Dimas smiled and said, “Didn’t like it, amigo?”

I winked as I said, “Just awful. … Awful good.”

Red Grill Onions is open for lunch and dinner, and accepts major credit cards. For reservations, please call (661) 322-2138. LET’S EAT!

Photos by Art of Eric James

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