Even though NE 23rd Street is one of the most historical streets in Oklahoma City, many locals tend to forget that it’s also home to some of the most grassroots and homegrown eateries in town, the best having a specific focus on soul food, barbecue and old-fashioned Southern cooking. NE 23rd Street restaurants are OKC’s culinary history all in a few blocks and really should be revered as such.
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“Let’s go to Louie’s!” That’s the frequent chant I hear bellowing from friends of mine when we try to come to a decision on where to eat.
Imagine, just eight years ago, the first Louie’s opened in Campus Corner.
from left, Jamie Forsyth, Mike Fuentez and Kate Kahmann at Louie’s
Louie’s is under the umbrella of the successful Norman-based Hal Smith Restaurant Group that has established its reputation and continues to soar. The Hal Smith group also runs several unbeatable franchises, including Charleston’s Restaurant, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, Mahogany Prime Steakhouse and Ted’s Cafe Escondido.
The group also runs the regional operations of Krispy Kreme, which is where Mike Fuentez, the general manager of the latest Louie’s, got his start. When asked how much weight he put on while working in that particular doughnut shop starting in June 2001, he said he actually lost 35 pounds in his first four months. He worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. with two-hour lines.Fuentez, who entered Louie’s management program and became a managing partner, now owns a piece of the action. With nothing more than $10 on its menu, Louie’s is famed for burgers, plus pizza, salads, soups and sandwiches. There is also a full bar with wine, specialty drinks and beer.
More than a dozen flat-screen televisions command the handsome seating room at this latest Louie’s. Those televisions are tuned into many different sports events being broadcast simultaneously — unless the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University are playing.
“It depends on how much orange or crimson we have in the building,” Fuentez said.
After work, the 5 p.m. crowd gathers around the bar. The outside patio looks welcoming, but it’s the sleek, modern decor of Louie’s and the comfortable chairs that most regulars enjoy.Our music is playing all of the time for people in the mood for a cocktail.
Walking through the doors, customers are greeted with a “Hi! Welcome to Louie’s!” from the servers. Patrons appreciate being noticed. It’s somewhat like “Cheers,” “where everybody knows your name.”
For larger groups, panels between tables come down, allowing everyone to sit together. Plantation shutters block unnecessary sunlight, and hanging on the burgundy-walled dining room and the inside lobby are stunning pieces of art, all gathered by Traci Smith, the daughter of Hal Smith.
Seating capacity, not counting the bar top, is 120. Groups of 25 to 30 come in, and they can be seated, but for anything that large, the crew would like prior notification.
The patio is seductive and holds 18 people. In spring of 2012, plans are to add up to six more tables.
PICKING THE BEST
When Louie’s started assembling its crew, there were a few rough spots.
During the long, hot summer of 2011, the newest Louie’s, 7300 N. Western, was in the midst of the remodeling and there was no air conditioning available because there was no electricity, which stunned the applicants. But they hustled along with Austin Wiggins, the food and beverage director in charge of hiring.
“It was horrible with 108 degrees outside and just two outlets in the whole building were working,” said Mike Fuentez, general manager. He said several employees on his staff, which now numbers approximately 42, came from other Louie’s in Edmond and in Moore and brought along their valuable experience.
“Several of our people worked at other Louie’s and still do work more than one job. Some actually have multiple jobs, but they come in knowing the job and where everything is,” Fuentez said.