Writing for a monthly print publication is sometimes an act of hope. Once the story is filed, there is a four- to six-week gap before readers hold it in their hands, and a multitude of things can change in that much time. Just last year, two of our choices for Best New Restaurants closed two weeks ahead of the magazine hitting mailboxes and newsstands—a moment of awkwardness for us, but a personal tragedy for restaurateurs. (It’s important to keep things in perspective.)
Culinary creativity is always worth celebrating, and restaurateurs haven’t lost hope, so we’re pressing on and tweaking things. This year, we’ve broadened the qualifications for being a “restaurant,” and for the first time, a food truck makes the list. But what is a food truck if not a mobile restaurant? A concept that is more “snack bar” (emphasis on bar) than restaurant also makes the list. Full service restaurants are mostly struggling right now, and some of the new kids are experimenting with different approaches. Why not have a snack bar with great food and cocktails? One day, if current models continue to evolve, we’ll likely have a pop-up in this feature, too.
The innovations and challenges that happened during and after 2020 are reshaping the service industry, and it’s clear from the tinkering with models that we’re in the early stages of a massive re-visioning of what hospitality will look like in the next few years: more counter service, fewer menu choices, less tolerance for customer shenanigans (long overdue), more transparency, higher food costs, and more parity between front and back of house. The service industry has always been resilient, and it’s driven by innovative people who love hospitality, so we can expect them to stick around and make things work, even if the things look very different from what we’ve come to expect.
RENDEZVOUS PIZZA – When Pizza Hut is advertising it, you know Detroit-style pizza has arrived on the national scene, and Rendezvous specializes in it. The Bricktown concept from the Bricktown Brewery team is a welcome addition to our pizza options in the metro. What is perhaps most exciting about Rendezvous is how well it does everything. The wings are exceptional—get the gochujang sauce—as is the New York pizza. It has an excellent beer selection, too, but the star is still the Detroit pizza. The cupping pepperonis are a nice touch, and the sauce is delicious. Choose your combinations wisely, though, because even the small Detroit is two meals, and you need room for wings. (27 E. SHERIDAN)
HI FI BURGERSHOP – By the time this issue is in your hands, Bryan Neel’s burger truck may be a burger joint. One half of the original S&B Burgers, Neel has a knack for making great hamburgers as well as the sides that accompany them. The onion rings are a personal favorite, but so are the curly fries. His classic Fidelity burger is Wagyu, American cheese, mustard, lettuce, onion, and pickle, and it’s perfect … but his real genius shows on the Batch #23, featuring his house-made barbecue sauce, bread and butter pickles, smoked cheddar, and mayo. It’s a flavor bomb, although you might need a nap after.
CHAPALA FAMILY MEXICAN KITCHEN – First the caveat: this is not a TexMex joint, but there are enough choices that a TexMex fan will find something familiar and delicious. For the more adventurous, the regional cuisine—drawn from the area around Chapala, Jalisco—is a deep, hearty dive into rustic sauces, mole, chile colorado, seafood, steak, and tacos al carbon. Portion sizes are huge. The Tres Amigos (chile verde, chile colorado, and chile relleno) for example, is more than two normal meals. The large tequila selection is a nice touch, especially given that we’re talking about Jalisco, and the service is exceptional. (7801 N MAY)
BIG WATER GRILL – Located inside RIVERSPORT in the Boathouse District, Chef Nathan Frejo’s fast casual concept is designed to function as a restaurant, bar, and snack bar for the facility’s customers. Originally conceived as a casual, dine-in restaurant, Big Water Grill’s dining room became home to the snow ski simulator, a move that forced Frejo to retool quickly. What emerged is a versatile concept that serves grab ‘n’ go alongside one of the city’s best burgers—the Eddy—delicious wings, wraps, sandwiches, fish and chips, and healthy options for the active clientele. It’s easy to imagine a chef just shrugging his shoulders and mailing it in, but Frejo overcame the obstacles and produced a smart, flexible mash-up that turns out good food and solid cocktails. (800 RIVERSPORT)
CAFE CONTEMPORARY – Located inside Oklahoma Contemporary, Avery Cannon’s Cafe Contemporary remains one of the most creative concepts in the city. With help from Chef Neely Hopper and baker extraordinaire Kristen Steimer (get some of her cookies!), Cannon built a small menu with broad appeal. The broccoli slaw is a must-have in our dining-scape, and his ability to balance the demands of omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans is inspired. The Bolognese is fantastic, but so is the mushroom Reuben, and with one minor substitution, the latter becomes vegan. It’s smart, thoughtful, creative, and flavorful, and diners can choose the cafe, library, deck, or lawn for the site of their meal, as well as glass of wine or local beer. (11 NW 11TH)
TROMPUDO’S TACOS – Chef Guadalupe Garcia’s taco joint was drive-through only the first time we tried it, and it was busy. The son of restaurateur Marcelino Garcia (Chelino’s), Lupe grew up in and around kitchens, and the bug bit him early. Rather than stick with Tejano food, though, he’s taken a more-than-casual interest in the food of Mexico City, especially al pastor, the tacos that emerged from Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. He makes his al pastor traditionally, on the trompo, and his abilities as student and chef show in everything from the meat to the sauces. He also features excellent suadero, carnitas, and chorizo, and serves tacos, tortas, mulitas, and burritos. (6015 S May Ave)
JIMMY B’S CULINARY + KRAFTED – Boasting the best cocktail bar among the Hal Smith Restaurant Group as well as excellent food, Jimmy B’s is, we hope, a peek into the future of HSRG. The brainchild of Mike Kraft, Jimmy B’s—the name is an homage to the late Jim Blanchard, a popular regional manager—is both downtown destination and test kitchen. The most pleasant surprise, besides how well the concept handles both Asian and American food, is how great a job Sterling Black has done at building an extraordinary bar program. Must-haves are the Korean beef tenderloin, Thai steak and noodle salad, Osaka style sushi, and Jimmy’s Old Fashioned. (1225 N. BROADWAY)
VENN PIZZA – Old Britton is booming right now, and more is on the way, but Venn Pizza has already made Britton a destination because it’s one of the rarest things in dining: a pizza joint with excellent cocktails. Much of the success of Venn’s bar program is due to industry vet and operating partner Jay Iaquinta. It doesn’t hurt that the pizza is excellent. The Bikini Bottom is a Hawaiian pizza everyone can get behind—it has Spam and jalapenos!—and The Nomad, an homage to the old May Ave. Italian restaurant, has pepperoni four ways. That’s creative genius, is what that is. (915 W BRITTON)
UNWIND CAFE – Uptown 23rd has reason to be very excited about what these three Miami transplants have pulled off in the old Scottie’s Deli location. Chef Mikel Pichs is a Cuban chef who comes to us by way of Spain, and the European flair shows up in his brunch and lunch dishes, and particularly in his pastries. The Love cake is going to be a local favorite, but the chicken salad sandwich is the standout on this menu of beautiful egg dishes, sandwiches and Cuban coffees. The brunch also features a variety of mimosas and rum cocktails. Co-owners Kefren and Maria Arjona provide a warm, hospitable atmosphere in the front of house, making this a place where you don’t mind hanging out for a leisurely lunch on the patio. (427 NW 23RD)
PRIVATE KITCHEN – Chef Henry Yang has done something remarkable in the Asian District. He’s ignored all previous conventional wisdom about making sure Chinese restaurants don’t scare off Caucasian diners by focusing on salty, sweet, inoffensive dishes like General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken. In two separate experiences at Private Kitchen, we had chicken feet, beef lung, sashimi snails, and live shrimp with wasabi—in other words, very traditional Chinese food with regional specificity. Yes, it has excellent Szechuan wings, Fuzhou ribs, and grilled, whole fish, and you’ll love the angel hair pasta with seafood … but allow yourself to do something you haven’t before. Taking a tour guide along for the ride helps. (1117 N.W. 25TH)
The Newest of the New
Every year, it seems, a flurry of openings happen right before we’re wrapping up for print, so we wanted to give you a quick heads-up on these new concepts to watch. We’re betting you might see them on our Best New list for 2022. Others have made significant moves worth noting during the year.
Rococo consolidated its concepts to one beautiful location at 4308 N Western, keeping the original “island” on Penn as a catering kitchen and event space. The new location features a stunning bar with excellent cocktails, and a beautiful, covered patio for al fresco dining and drinking.
Ray’s Chicken Kitchen made the transition from truck to The Parlor at 11 NE 6th St., making its outstanding chicken strips available in a comfortable setting with a full bar.
Finally answering the question “When will Empire Pizza start its imperial campaign?” Rachel Cope opened outlets in Tulsa and Nichols Hills. The focus in the second OKC location at 1125 NW 63rd St. is grabbing and going, but there’s still room to sit.
Chef Jeff Chanchaleune opened Ma Der Lao Kitchen in the old Goro space at 1634 Blackwelder in the Plaza District. The menu features traditional Lao dishes like nam khao and larb, with the welcome addition of solid cocktails.
Basil Rayan’s upscale casual, new American concept City + State opened just east
of Broadway at 19 NE 6th. Executive chef Kari Clark-Garrett oversees a focused, delicious menu of small plates, apps, and entrees, and guests have several dining style options, including al fresco on one of the two patios.
Stelen Covel opened 405 Burger Bar south of the OU campus at 1429 George Ave. in Norman. The no-fuss location features excellent burgers and a full bar with easy access from Highway 9 and plenty of parking away from the crush of Campus Corner.
Hot Pot Heroes grabbed the spot formerly occupied by Magic Noodle, 2800 N Classen in the Asian District. The theme is in the name, and the hot pots range from the very spicy Szechuan to the much milder Coconut Chicken. Lunch specials are a good way to try this for the first time, and be sure to order the Korean fried chicken.