When Cincinnati restaurateurs John and Joe Lanni opened the first Bakersfield Tacos, Tequila & Whiskey Bar in their city's Over the Rhine neighborhood last year, they weren't counting on the kind of success it's had straight off the bat, both in business and culinary terms (it's now rated the #2 Zagat restaurant in Cincinnati).
But their concept - one that combines Mexican street food with the barrel liquors and country-pop of Bakersfield - has attracted an audience equally tempted by tacos and outlaws. Indy diners will have a chance to test the hype with the opening of a second installment of the restaurant on the south end of Mass Ave, in a location that housed Bazbeaux until that pizzeria moved across the street.
The Lanni brothers aren't new to the business. They own a small national chain (16 units) of "fast-casual" burrito restaurants called Currito (one franchise is located in Circle Centre), as well as the stand-alone Sohi Grilled Sandwiches in Oxford, Ohio.
"Bakersfield is a passion project for us. We wanted to create a fun, upbeat bar and restaurant where people could let loose a little, have a good time, listen to really great tunes," he told NUVO during an opening night party in early March. When he talks about "great tunes," John refers to artists of the Bakersfield Sound era - Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, etc. - and more contemporary artists who have been influenced by them.
"These guys were the first real rebels of their time - rock stars with a hillbilly country attitude," he said. "They all sort of nested in Bakersfield, an agricultural town in southern California where Mexican food is indigenous."
While the connection between Mexican food and tequila might be obvious, whiskey is something of a unique addition to the equation. "Tequila bars have been done," John said. "We wanted to incorporate bourbon and whiskey into the mix because of the regional importance of those liquors, with bourbon originating in Kentucky. It's also what the Bakersfield Sound musicians were drinking, back in the day."
If guests waver on a decision between the more than 50 varieties each of bourbon and tequila available, a large poster of Johnny Cash holding a glass of whiskey might push them away from the tequila menu. Also served each night are rotating $3 shots of both liquors, along with $2 glass boots of PBR. A full bar is available for those who prefer other liquors, and rotating drafts will offer selections of local and national craft beers.
The menu is described as street Mexican with a chef-driven flair. "We use premium ingredients, but are very affordable so people can eat here frequently," John said, pointing out that every food item on the menu is priced under $10 and the menu was intentionally kept small.
The lineup typically consists of eight tacos - including the fan favorite fish (crispy Mahi) and Pastor (marinated pork and picked red onions) - two tortas, two salads and chips with dips, including vegetarian options. Bakersfield's guac - hand-cut with chunks of avocado, lime-forward and punchy - won a "Best Guacamole in Cincinnati" award from three publications last year.
As for the choice of downtown Indianapolis for their second location, John said it just seemed like a wide-open market: "Mass Ave didn't have any Mexican on the street - we thought we'd be a good complement to all the other really great restaurants around the city."
The restaurant seats 110 people, with a room downstairs available for private parties, and is considered family-friendly until a rowdier late-night crowd arrives.
He notes that the location was a huge selling point as well - they were attracted to the historic building, the look of exposed brick and the flexibility of the space after knocking down a few walls. "We are one part restaurant, one part bar and we opened up the space to blend the two," he said.