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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Pepe Delgados Mexican Restaurante
702 Asp, Norman
What works: Unique family recipes for dishes that are cooked to order.
What needs work: How about tamales every day … not just on Fridays.
The tip: Afro-Mexican heritage adds to the menu’s mix of flavors.
“There’s an African-Mexican influence in our recipes, because my mother is African,” he said. “There was a shipwreck and her ancestors stayed right there in the jungles of Guerrero.”
Maintaining home culinary traditions has meant bucking the norm of what many here expect in a Mexican restaurant. None of Pepe’s dishes are buried under a half-pound of cheese, and endless baskets of chips with unnaturally yellow queso don’t arrive at your table.
“We use no animal fat, no preservatives and everything is made here fresh daily,” Salinas said. “Nothing comes from a can or jar.” Even meat arrives unprocessed. It’s marinated only in lime juice, salt and black pepper, then grilled. No cooking oil of any kind is added to the black beans or rice. Nothing here is served with even a hint of grease.
right Pepe Delgados’ grilled trout
Habanero, avocado and tomatillo varieties of salsa are made daily. Attention to detail and fundamentals has won the restaurant a loyal following that has only grown over its 20 years of operation. The food is not pretentious; it’s simply wonderful.
Pepe’s is not a white tablecloth dining room, but it’s not a hole-in-the wall, either. Vibrantly colored murals, Mexican music and comfortable booths make it a warm and attractive place. Specialty margaritas using mango or fresh orange juice are mixed at a long mahogany bar.
Pepe’s has the familiar tacos, burritos and enchiladas, but those in the know are more likely to order a daily special. Grilled trout ($10.25) was top of the board on a recent visit, served with a choice of Mexicana or diabla sauce, black beans and veggies. And speaking of vegetables, every dish on the menu has a vegetarian version. Enchiladas Oaxacas ($9) became so popular that it’s now available every day. A dark, luscious mole sauce redolent of subtle chocolate makes your choice of enchilada fillings irresistible.
Sopes ($9) are hand-formed, thick masa tortillas the size of a personal pan pizza filled with meat and topped with a chunky avocado sauce. They’re as close to Latino home-cooking as any you’ll encounter in the metro.
“On Saturdays, we do a Mexican barbecue that’s slow-cooked beef,” Salinas said. “It’s roasted for five hours and is traditionally served at weddings.”
Another beef special done well is rajitas en salsa verde ($9.50). Lean strips of top sirloin are sautéed with onions and poblano pepper strips. Roll that mélange up in a tortilla and it’s a mighty fine meal.
Burrito loco ($8.75) is crazy huge.
It’s big enough to feed two men and a boy, but I persevered and polished off the whole thing. A large flour tortilla is loaded with succulent grilled chicken, rice and beans. This burrito is a nod to American tastes.
A signature flourish I like on most dishes here is the generous sprinkling of fresh cilantro and chopped red onion.
Two amazingly good nonalcoholic beverages are made in-house. Agua de Jamaica is brewed from dried hibiscus leaves and tastes somewhere between cranberry and grape juices. Horchata is a milk-based ambrosia flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.
“I like running this place because we have great customers,” Salinas said. “Lots of regulars, but because of the university, people from all over the world come here.”
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aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or
service when appropriate.
Photo by Mark Hancock