Sunday, March 1, 2015

Good old boys and Cesar Chavez farm worker advocates line lunch counter at Keene, Calif., café


Kirk Roper, left, and Jackie Palik stand in front of the Keene cafe.

A peeling, weather-beaten sign that shouts “Keene…Eat…Deli…Gas” looms over what at first glance appears to be a small wooden shack.

If you have ever traveled on Highway 58, between Bakersfield and Tehachapi, you have seen the sign and likely just kept driving.

But mountain residents and travelers adventurous enough to pull off the highway at Woodford-Tehachapi Road have discovered the shack-looking Keene Café is a treasure trove of good food and local lore.

“It’s our country club,” said Margaret Miller, a wiry woman who doesn’t stand still long enough to answer a reporter’s questions. She can’t. She’s too busy taking orders and slinging food onto tables, while cooks Huberto Chavez and Christian Gutierrez are flipping “loop burgers” in the kitchen.

Miller has worked at the restaurant for only a year. But a 20-year resident of the area, she has been a long-time customer.

The Keene café is where everyone comes to eat, talk and just hang out, said Miller, who lives in Hart Flat. “I love it here.”

There’s the “men’s club,” a group of local “guys” who eat together every week at the cafe. A framed, yellowing Tehachapi News story hanging from the café’s wall also calls the group the “Swat Team,” for the men’s commitment to swatting flies at the diner.

And then there is the “women’s club,” a group of local women who call the Keene café their home away from home once a week.

Located next to a Kern County Fire Department station and Helitak pad, the café is the weekly gathering place for area firefighters.

Open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Keene café is a magnet for just about anyone who passes by. Customers arrive on horses and Hogs, in sedans and pickup trucks. The point is: They just keep coming, with the big attraction being breakfast, which is served until 11 a.m. on weekdays and until noon on weekends.

“Their omelets are awesome,” said customer Jackie Palik, on a recent Saturday, as she and her friend, Kirk Roper, were climbing onto their motorcycles and getting ready to head back to their Tehachapi homes.

With the Union Pacific railroad tracks and famed “Tehachapi Loop” in spittin’ distance from the café, the menu’s trademark hamburger is called a “loop burger.” Customers also can find fancy entrees, like healthy salads, or gourmet dishes, like mushroom burgers, as well as hearty steaks and Mexican food on the menu.

Pies made by Tehachapi baker Charles Lewis using local fruit -- one pie with the intriguing name of Tehachaberry -- are encased in old-fashioned glass displays on the café’s counter. Miller insists that before customers can leave the café, they must cap off their meal with a slice of fresh pie.

Palik and Roper have been eating at the restaurant for around 15 years.

“It’s friendly and old-fashioned,” said Palik.

Roper, who also likes that it is “small and out of the way,” said he looks forward to the barbecues held on the patio out back in the summers.

Miller said she has had customers tell her that they have driven by the café for 20 years without stopping. And when they finally decide to stop, they become “regulars.”

One of the café’s regulars was the late Cesar Chavez. In 1971, Chavez’s farm workers organization bought 187 acres up the road from the café. The land was formerly Kern County’s tuberculosis sanitarium. It is now the National Chavez Center and the headquarters for the United Farm Workers union.

Monica Parra, conference and event manager for the National Chavez Center, recalled that Chavez and the café’s owner, Ruby Wood, would tease each other. She would ask Chavez when he was going to sell his land to her, and he would ask Wood when she was going to sell her café to him.

Chavez died suddenly at the age of 66 in 1993. A few years later, Wood’s health failed. As she planned to move to Oregon to be near family, Parra said she contacted the Chavez family. Remembering Chavez’s interest in buying the restaurant, she gave the UFW the right of first refusal before she put the café up for sale.

The UFW took Wood up on her offer, becoming the owners and operators of a refuge for bikers, good old boys and country folk.

“It’s a wonderful, cozy diner,” said Parra. “There are people who are in there every day. We have tweaked the menu and added some Mexican food, but we have kept it the way it has been for years.”

This article written by Dianne Hardisty was published first in The Bakersfield Californian on July 25, 2010.

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