Palo Santo pushes the boundaries of bar food

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What happens when a bar adds food, and the food is so good you want to start calling the place a restaurant? Without question, Palo Santo at 1203 NW 2 in the Farmer’s Market District is the best new bar to open last year, and in spite of opening mere days before the COVID-19 shutdown, owners Brian and Bailey Butler have managed to generate buzz in the hospitality industry both for creative, delicious cocktails, and food so good you may go at 3 p.m. on a Sunday – when according to some you shouldn’t be drinking – just to get the burger.

“I wanted to make food that you could eat with your hands,” Brian Butler says. “Drink, take a bite, set it down, take another drink.”

That leads to a menu heavy on sandwiches and “finger foods,” but heavy is a bit misleading. The menu is small, consisting mainly of one entrée per category: burger, torta, taco, wings, etc. All of it, though, shows that Butler is not just some dude frying up out-of-a-box salty, fatty snacks for drunk people. This is not that kind of bar. He’s running a scratch kitchen – except for the Kewpie Mayonnaise, a condiment he learned to love and utilize while working with Chef Roy Choi, the pioneer of fusion food trucks, in California.

“It’s really magic sauce,” Butler says. “We use it on the burger, along with habanero hot sauce.”

It doesn’t matter what words we string together to describe it, some folks are going to get stuck on the “mayonnaise on a burger” part. No, it’s not necessarily an Oklahoma go-to, but its role is to tone down the heat of the habanero hot sauce and impart creaminess without cheese. Add to that the joy of holding a burger in your hand to eat without making a huge mess, and you have a nearly perfect burger experience.

The Asian food background sneaks into the gochujang wings, as well. After brining for 48 hours, he confits the wings for six more and then flash-fries them for crispiness before adding the sauce, a simple mix of gochujang paste, apple cider vinegar, honey and sesame oil.

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“When you work in a kitchen, you see what comes back, and you check it to see what people are loving and not loving,” Brian says. “The wings always come back stripped to the bone.” 

Rightly so. They have flavor all the way to the bone, thanks to the brining, and the sauce is tangy, spicy perfection. Combined with the okonomiyaki tots – a sort of deconstructed Korean-style potato and onion pancake – they make for an excellent meal without ever ordering an entrée. The tots are so good regulars demanded they go on the everyday menu instead of just the weekend menu. Brian feigns irritation, but he’s clearly proud of his food, with good reason.

His specialty seems to be using simple ingredients to build layers of flavor in such a way that you can taste all the components. The burrata features a “sauce” that is just grated fresh tomatoes, salt, pepper and flash-fried green peppercorns. It’s clean, wholesome, flavorful food, and it’s one of the best things on the menu, which means it’s one of the best things in town. 

Palo Santo is a bar, though, and as such, it’s exceptional. Bailey Butler, who earned her bartending skills at the beautiful Melrose Umbrella Co. in Los Angeles, starts with cocktail “families” or categories: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Martini, Gimlet, etc. The menu is divided into stirred, shaken, long and hot drinks, and the options range from very traditional to very creative.

“I love to play with seasonal fruits and flavors, tea, bitters and liqueurs,” Bailey says. “We bounce ideas off each other and tweak things until the cocktail tastes good.”

“Good” is her humble take on the cocktails. Better word choices would be ridiculously good, outstanding, that’s incredible, what did I just put in my mouth, my life is changed – that sort of thing. She said getting the creative range is made easier by beginning with the basic recipes in the cocktail families. “I wouldn’t call it plug and play because of all the forethought and work that goes into it, but that’s kind of what happens once the basics are down.”

Lazy afternoons, when the big bay door is open and good music is on the playlist, are the best days at Palo Santo. It’s an open, airy space with a definite California cool, casual vibe, including a pool table and seating choices that range from bartop to couch. Drink, take a bite, set it down, take another drink.

Visit palosantobar.com

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