Chef Jonathan Krell brings Yukon a taste of the East Coast.
Philadelphia native Chef Jonathan Krell landed in Oklahoma City in 2007. He was working two restaurants in Philly’s Old City neighborhood when his brother, Gerry Reardon, called to tell him that OKC was full of opportunities for a young chef.
“He’d just moved here from Orange County with his wife, who was pregnant at the time, and he told me that there were only a handful of chef-driven restaurants in the city,” Krell said. “I flew out here, fell in love with it and moved here the same year.”
Excluding good steakhouses, the small list of chef-driven restaurants at that time included Coach House, La Baguette, The Metro and Rococo. Yes, there were a few others, but it’s a surprising reminder of what’s happened in the 405 in 16 years, given that it’s now easy to rattle off 20 chef-driven concepts.
Over the next several years in OKC, Krell worked for himself and for the late, great Pete Holloway; he was also the executive chef at Stella at a critical moment in the development of Lori Burson’s Midtown restaurant. During that entire period, Krell regularly mentioned one thing he very much missed about living back east.
“I grew up in a Jewish household,” he said. “My mother converted when she married my stepdad, so Jewish delis were an integral part of our lives. In 2007, the closest thing was Ingrid’s, and I loved Ingrid’s, but it wasn’t an East Coast deli.”
After leaving the Holloway Group, Krell took over the kitchen of Patrono in what is now City Center, and that’s where he met the couple that would finally help bring his deli to life: Gary and Melinda Billings, owners of Patrono and now partners in Krell’s East Coast Delicatessen in Yukon at 2121 S. Yukon Parkway.
“Yukon feels a bit like OKC when I first got here,” Krell said. “OKC is on the verge of being oversaturated with chef-driven options, but Yukon is in need of chef-driven concepts, so I think we’re opening the deli at the perfect time, and the city has responded.”
And not just Yukon. People are driving from all over central Oklahoma already, many of whom are transplants who miss the Jewish delis of Los Angeles, Miami and New York City. Several times a day, a guest will talk to the chef about their favorite things back home and how much they, too, have wanted an East Coast style deli.
“We’re getting three kinds of guests right now,” Krell said. “Friends and followers I’ve known for years, Yukon residents who are excited about a very different option and the transplants who love Jewish delis.”
The food can be challenging for beginners, but it’s a worthy adventure. The kasha and bowties, for example, is likely the first version in a restaurant in the state: bow tie pasta, buckwheat and gribenes (crispy bits of fried chicken skin and fried onions). It’s not that exotic, though, if you had an Okie grandma who threw chicken skin in the cast-iron skillet to make cracklins. Many of the items have analogs in Oklahoma dining: hamantashen vs. fruit Danishes, noodles and kugel vs. bread pudding, and the kids’ fluffernutter vs. PB&J where the jelly is subbed with marshmallow cream.
As an entry point, it’s hard to beat the pastrami or egg salad sandwich. The flavors are warm and familiar — a hug from a deli, so to speak. The Philly is the standout on the menu, which is fitting for a Philadelphia native. Krell is quick to point out that his version is very, very traditional.
“You won’t find any green bell peppers on my Philly,” he said. “That’s not a Philly; it’s a red flag. It’s beef, grilled onions and one of three cheeses: Cooper Sharp, Whiz or provolone. That’s it. It’s a traditional build.”
And it’s delicious and worth the drive. Krell’s has breakfast items, too, and deli meats are available by the pound — it’s a deli, after all. For the uninitiated, the chef has some advice: “Ask questions when you come in. We want you to ‘get’ the food, and for sure try the samples we offer every day.”