September 21st, 2012 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (7)
Ricardo’s is not the kind of place I normally like. It’s a Mexican restaurant without any Mexicans. (There might be some in the kitchen I didn’t see, but I think not.) It was owned by a guy named Richard Hunt, who named it Ricardo’s rather than Richard’s to sound more authentic. You won’t find any food like that in Mexico. And yet it IS authentic, in its way, and it is very good. It’s been around since 1975, which makes most of the authentic Mexican joints over on Garnett seem like brash young interlopers. It’s a shining old-school example of America’s most popular regional cuisine, Tex-Mex, Oklahoma style.
In 1938, a WPA writer interviewed an old lady who had worked as a cook in Texas since she came up from Mexico around 1870. “The cowboys all time make say they like me to cook, make good tamales and all Mexican food,” she said. “Then I make a try plenty hard to please them so they tell me a good cook.” It started with Mexicans changing their recipes to please Texas cowboys. Then the cowboys and their wives took over and started cooking Mexican-style to please themselves. 140 years or so of evolving taste leads to Ricardo’s.
Ricardo’s motto is “where the locals eat.” Of course, it’s not in a Mexican neighborhood. I’d never heard about it until my mailman told me about it. He’s a tough old-school Oklahoman and I think he’s a distant relative of Richard Hunt (whose family still runs Ricardo’s). It’s been in the same location since opening day but it’s been fairly recently remodeled, and they did a good job.
This photo may make the space look cluttered because of all the booths but it’s not and here’s a second photo to prove it.
Closer to the entrance there’s another dining area where tables on two levels are grouped around an atrium. There are a lot of tables. But, even on an early Monday evening, there were a lot of diners. I’d never heard of Ricardo’s but a lot of people evidently have. They are famous for their chile rellenos: “a mild Anaheim pepper, skinned, stuffed with cheddar cheese, battered, fried, and smothered with our famous chile con queso,” proclaims the menu. I thought of getting that. Then my eye was caught by Ricardo’s Grande. This is how the menu describes that $11.50 feast: “A chalupa (crisp corn tortilla, refried beans, ground beef, cheddar, guacamole) is served first, then a platter with refried beans, Spanish rice, beef tamale, an enchilada (choice of cheddar, sliced chicken breast or ground beef), a crispy beef taco, and a chile relleno is served second. A dish of ice cream or sherbet tops off this unique dining experience.” But I finally went with the dish the mailman told me is his clear favorite.
Now I first started to like Ricardo’s when I watched the patience and kindness with which our blonde waitress answered the silly questions asked by diners at nearby tables. (“What is an enchilada?” “What is the difference between a chicken enchilada and a cheese enchilada?” etc etc) But I started to love Ricardo’s when the dish arrived.
It’s called Enchilada Huevos ($9.50). I think it might be Ricardo’s invention and it’s a good one. “Three enchiladas filled with your choice of cheddar, sliced chicken breast or ground beef topped with two large eggs cooked any style.” I got one of each filling and got my eggs sunny side up. I broke the yolks and spread the sunshiney liquid around, dug in and it was delicious! The beef and cheese enchiladas on the left come with a brown sauce, the chicken had a white cream sauce and a scoop of sour cream, and all had melted Cheddar on top. It melded to form a rich gooey delight.I’m looking out my window right now hoping to see the mailman so I can thank him.
That brown enchilada sauce is an authentic Tex-Mex treat that’s common in Texas but which I’ve never before seen in Oklahoma. It is not a Mexican mole but a gravy made by simmering ground meat with some Mexican spicing. Twelve years ago the Houston Press did a series on the long history, sometimes touching and sometimes hilarious, of Tex-Mex. Here’s what they had to say about that brown sauce, which they call chili gravy. “It resembles the flour-based brown gravy you might find on a Salisbury steak or a roast beef plate at the Piccadilly Cafeteria, but with comino and chili powder added. I believe that the taste of chili gravy explains Tex-Mex more eloquently than words ever will. The thick brown gravy with Mexican spices is neither Mexican nor American. It wasn’t created in the homes of Texas Mexicans, either. It was invented in old-fashioned Mexican restaurants that catered to Anglo tastes.”
Cathe got a spinach and chicken quesadilla ($8). I took a photo but it didn’t come out, so you’ll have to imagine a light fluffy thick tortilla stuffed with spinach, chicken, cheese and peppers. I loved it! It was surprisingly light yet flavorful. Ricardo’s goes easy on the fat, and even has a separate low-fat menu. I ordered a plate of rice and beans ($3) since these don’t come with the enchiladas. The beans were made without fat. (“I’d like a side order of fat,” I told the waitress.) But they were good.
On the way out I saw a basket of pecan pralines by the cash register. I was thrilled because this is also a part of Tex-Mex history. About 80 or 90 years ago, Mexican immigrants had access to free pecans, provided they shelled them. They wanted to make something they could sell to Texans but didn’t know what, until someone gave them a praline recipe from Louisiana. An instant success, and a new addition to Mexican immigrant lore was born.
5629 E 41 Street (two strip malls east of Southroads Mall, but still within easy walking distance of the AMC Southroads movies and across the street from Promenade Mall)
Open daily (except Sunday) from 11 AM to 9:30 PM
The Tex-Mex history series:
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.
Tags: Mexican Food