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“Bistro 234, A Local Success Story” – Success, Fall 2003

When Jennifer Doerksen Bethel opened Bistro 234 in downtown Turlock, she was a fanatic about freshness. Her kitchen didn’t even have a can opener – she wouldn’t allow it.

But one of the lunch favorites, the Thai Chicken Salad, takes coconut milk. And with palm trees scarce in Turlock, that meant a can. And after about six months, Jennifer finally relented and let the chef have a can opener.

Then, on Friday July 13, 2002, the restaurant promptly burned down.

“Maybe it was the can opener,” she said, remembering the timing. “I hadn’t thought of that before.”

Actually, the fire department cleared the can opener. Jennifer is still a fanatic about freshness, and Bistro 234 is back in business. Again.

“It was totaled,” she said, looking around at the rebuilt dining room. “There was nothing standing, down to the concrete floor.”

Some people might have taken the fire as a sign and moved on. Not Jennifer.

“There was no question about reopening,” she said. “I had made the investment – an emotional as well as physical as well as monetary investment. This was my third baby.”

So last November, Bistro 234 rose from the ashes. Same earth-tone colors on the wall. Same open-beam ceiling and industrial feel.

“We wanted it to be funky and fun,” Jennifer said, “not intimidating.”

During the reconstruction, they took out a deli case and extended the bar, but that was the only major physical change. And the bar’s been busy on the weekends, so Jennifer is happy with the decision.

“The bar is a friendly atmosphere,” she said. “It’s a place where a woman can feel free to come in and have a glass of wine.”
The decision to open Bistro 234 came after a long transition from English teacher to full-time mom to cooking teacher, and now, restaurateur.

After teaching English at Turlock High School, the Denair native started teaching English classes through the Extended Education office at California State University, Stanislaus. She’d bring food to her classes. Good food.

“So they talked me into teaching cooking classes,” she said. Those courses eventually included a restaurant series that took students – and their teacher – into the kitchens of the area’s best restaurants. Jennifer made friends, found mentors, and decided to take the plunge. A Thai restaurant had closed in the heart of downtown Turlock – at the corner of Main and Center streets – so Jennifer bought the building and gutted it. In December 2001, Bistro 234 opened its doors. Since the fire, business has been really strong, and Jennifer credits Chef Leroy Walker for the success.

“He runs an immaculate kitchen,” she said. “He’s the most organized creative person I’ve ever met.”

Specialties of the house include whatever pasta special Walker plans daily, and the turkey pesto and Thai chicken salad at lunch, and the filet and chicken Marsala at dinner.

“We also have a hamburger you wouldn’t believe,” Jennifer said. “We use ground filet and serve it on a specialty bun we get fresh daily.”

The staff is friendly and fast, but the faces do change periodically.

“We just lost one bartender to medical school and one to grad school,” Jennifer said. “We’re sorry to see them go, but happy for them at the same time.”

One of the Bistro’s summer workers was Jennifer’s oldest daughter, Alexandria, a grad student herself at University of California, Santa Barbara. Younger daughter Antonia is a senior at Turlock High and standout hurdler on the track team.

And as busy as Jennifer is with the restaurant, she makes time for them.

“I cook at home four nights a week and we’re closed on Sunday and Monday,” she said. The rest of the week, she’ll be downtown, at her restaurant, and loving it.

“We have regulars who come in ever day,” Jennifer said. “It makes me happy every time I walk through that door.”

Photo: Jeff Broome

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