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.
Winning big can be hungry, thirsty work. We scoured Oklahoma’s casinos for your best bets on sustenance whether you are on a winning streak, holding, folding, walking away, running, or just down to your last five bucks.
Los Vaqueros Mexican Restaurant
1316 N. Interstate Drive, Norman
What worked: jovial staff serving generous meals
What needs work: Please refrain from spraying cleanser on the dining room tables during hours of operation.
The Tip: Above-average Tex-Mex food, generally with some superior dishes.
On a recent Friday evening visit to Los Vaqueros Mexican Restaurant, co-owner/operator Roberto Deloera spontaneously burst into an a cappella song between waiting tables. He alternated those cheery outbursts with whistles mimicking tropical birds. It was the kind of festive atmosphere that can’t be faked.
The Mexican native and his brother, Francisco, have been in business at various metro locations for two decades. Currently, they’re 50 yards off the street and across a parking lot in a strip mall anchored by a Starplex Cinemas $2 movie theater.
In most respects, Los Vaqueros resembles any number of Tex-Mex joints in these parts. The dining room is spotless and simply furnished. Numerous pictures of Latino luminaries on the walls include Mexican Revolutionary war hero Emiliano Zapata.
Service is exemplary. The familiar, little red dishes of yellow queso and red salsa with crispy corn tortilla chips and soft flour tortillas are brought to the table in a flash. When I was there, entree orders were taken efficiently, and our meal arrived a short time later.
The menu took some study because many dishes are named after customers. You learn that John’s Special ($14.25) is a half-order of guiso, a chile relleno and a chicken or beef flauta with rice and beans. That John is a hell of a guy. His platter turned out to be magnifico. Most of the dishes are straightforward descriptions of tamale, enchilada and burrito combinations.
But occasionally, you get to read Reggy’s, Joe Jose’s or Daddy’s culinary tributes. Daddy, in case you were wondering, is a shrimp-wrapped-in-bacon kind of hombre who digs a couple of flautas and quesadilla on the side ($20.99). His plate is the most expensive, with the majority of entrees between $8 and $12 at dinner and under $7 for lunch.
Team Deloera will be delighted to have you devise your own platter, and just about everything they prepare is available á la carte.
My Tex-Mex test is if you could make a meal out of just frijoles refritos and tortillas.
Often, refried beans are treated as a lowly side dish in places serving a mostly gringo clientele. Los Vaqueros’ beans are smooth, creamy and delicious. They get an A+. If that’s because of the magical goodness of lard, I don’t want to know. An á la carte order of beans ($3.99), a handful of tortillas and plenty of salsa fresca is my idea of a happy meal. Three fingers of tequila to wash it down is optional.
Another hearty “Viva gusto!” goes up for the stuffed poblano peppers. There’s a chile relleno dinner ($10.99), and they appear among combinations in several other dishes.
The expertly grilled steak chunks and luscious, bubbly hot cheese inside that dark green poblano pod was the evening’s best taste. Some places may buy these frozen from corporate suppliers, but here was the homely irregular shape and impeccable freshness of being lovingly handmade.
The guacamole garnish, on the other hand, had the appearance and texture of being scooped from a plastic container.
Los Vaqueros’ cowboy stew is a stunning guisos special ($10.99) that knocked me out of the saddle. Deloera said it’s the dish truest to the family’s Mexicano heritage. Beef or pork chunks slow-simmered in tomatillo sauce with garlic and onion is genius in its complexity of flavors. There’s also a caldo de pescado y camarones ($11.50), fish and shrimp stew fragrant with fresh cilantro and Christmas tree (red and green) chiles.
Whale on a Platter ($11.99) is whole catfish sautéed in garlic sauce and served with tomato, avocado and papas fritas.
Warm, sugary sopaipillas are the only dessert; but by then, we’d hit the tipping point and they were carried home in a bag. A return trip is in order for further exploration of Los Vaqueros’ menu, along with another jolly whistling serenade.