Taino’s Caribbean Fusion: Chef Ismael Ortiz Brings Uncommon Cuisine to Tulsa

By on September 21, 2015


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There’s not much in the way of decor at Taino’s, the newly opened oasis of tropical food and bonhomie on a strip of Memorial mostly devoted to car lots. It looks like a pool hall without the tables. But you won’t notice that. Once the food comes, you won’t think about anything but eating it. Even experienced chefs rave about that food.  Tim Richards, executive chef at Doc’s, recently commented, “I love what he’s doing at Taino’s!, the food is phenomenal!”

After you And until the food arrives your eyes are drawn to Ismael Ortiz. There he is behind the counter of the open kitchen, wearing his trademark Yankees baseball cap, and he never stops moving. Chopping onions with balletic grace (“We Puerto Ricans do have a holy trinity in our food,” he says, referring to the Cajun name for their omnipresent spice mix. “It’s cilantro, onions and garlic. But we don’t use it blindly and in everything like they do in New Orleans.”), chatting to customers, stirring a saute pan, checking the pork shoulder (it’s been roasting 6 hours and it’s falling off the bone), or pounding the mofongo (plantains pounded into paste with mortar and pestle) he’s always in motion, and he’s clearly happy.

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The anticipation of this meal had me happy as well.  Puerto Rican food is something New Yorkers take for granted, the same way Tulsans know there’s always a Mexican joint nearby. I’ve been missing the slow-cooked stews and savory black beans of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Things like pernil, that pork shoulder Ismael just checked.

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The pernil pork shoulder ($9) is so yummy, crispy crackly and tender all at the same time. “I marinated it for days,” Ismael explains, “and then slow-cooked for six hours.” Mine was accompanied by tostones (fried slices of plantains). Though they come from green unripe plantains, they have some sweetness to them, along with the meaty rich filling quality of french fries. And then there’s rice and beans. I ask for my beans separate. Red or black (I prefer the black), those long-stewed delicious beans are the signature dish of Puerto Rican cooking.

So what to order? Aside of course from that pernil. “Oh everything’s on point today!” says Ismael. (It turns out he’s right.) Does he have any of the slow-cooked stews, those spicy Puerto Rican delights, rich in olive oil and spices, called “guisado” or “fricase” that are my special love? “Oh I’m making a nice carne guisada,” Ismael tells me, “but it won’t be ready for another hour. It’s tomorrow’s special, because, like Indian curries, guisados get better if left for a day, but you can have it tonight. You can be the first ones. And if you like, you can also have what I’m making here. It’s my own creation. A pork chop stuffed with mofongo with a bit of mojito on top.” That’s not a Cuban drink he’s talking about, but a mildly hot creamy sauce. “I think you’ll like it.”

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We decide to wait. In the meantime, we order the pernil, the pork chop, and another dish to fill that hour. After discussing with Ismael, we take our seat and the waitress comes to confirm our order. She’s also the sous-chef. I recognized her because Ismael had posted a photo of her pounding plantains with the caption “Never in a million years a Japanese woman making Mofongo!!!” She’s from the quiet small towns of the northeast, where the tsunami hit. Cathe, my date, asks her about Tokyo. “Oh they never sleep there!” she says.

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I stroll over to watch Ismael cooking. So where did you learn to cook, I ask. “I learned from my mom,” he says. “It’s a family tradition.” This doesn’t surprise me. But then… “I played pro baseball for a couple of years, and then I went to OSU Culinary School. I worked at Bodean.” I ask him about Tim Richards, the exec. chef there for a dozen years. “He’s my mentor!” His eyes light up. “He taught me, he’s so patient!” And Antonio Godoy, the current chef de cuisine? “Yeah, Tony. We used to play practical jokes on each other!” Tim Richards, by the way, remembers Ismael well and still considers him a close friend. “We had an immensely talented kitchen back then, with Antonio, Jared, four or five other fledgeling stars, and then Ismael arrived, telling us he’d show us Puerto Rican style. The guys gave him a hard time over that, but what Ismael made was really really good. It was fantastic.”

I ask Ismael if he’s been to New York. Turns out he has relatives in the Bronx. I’d spent a lot of time in the South Bronx too. “Back before Giuliani, summer was a 3 month long Mardi Gras,” I tell him. “Every bodega had a loudspeaker on the street playing Puerto Rican salsa music and everyone was dancing in the streets.” Those were the days, he agrees. “And now they’re trying to gentrify it!” He says, shaking his head. “Can you imagine a Starbucks in the South Bronx?” And then the food arrives.

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First came Bistec Encebollado ($11). That’s a traditional dish. Encebollado means with onions. Before being cooked and topped with sauteed onions, the meat is pounded flat, then marinated overnight in adobo mojado, which is a mix of spices, white wine vinegar, and olive oil. This gave the meat a fantastic citric flavor. It was delicious. The stuffed pork chop was a close rival. The meat was crisp yet juicy and full of flavor. Ditto for that long-cooked pork shoulder. And the tostones! The black Beans! I couldn’t stop eating them!

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And then came the star of the show, the slowly simmered stew. “That’s my Grandma’s recipe!” Ismael proudly announced, “This is straight from Grandma’s kitchen!” Ismael usually serves it over rice, but I requested it in a separate bowl so I could savor the rich complex flavor. It’s not an easy dish to make. Usually the meat is seared in annatto oil and then stewed with such additional ingredients as olives, tomatoes, capers, cumin, coriander, oregano, bay leaves, and maybe a bit of ham thrown in. Ismael’s version didn’t disappoint. It packed a big flavor punch. Fortunately my three dinner companions were full. So I ate it all!

Our sous-chef server was back. “You must try the flan,” she said. “It is made for us every day by a woman. That woman studied baking. She in fact just had a baby last night. She is…” and a slight frown of disappointment crosses her face… “his wife.” So that explained that spring in Chef’s step! Of course we had some and it was delicious. Not your typical flan, it tasted more like a rich delicious cheesecake with fruit syrup on top. (In case you’re wondering, it was delivered the day before the pastry chef had her baby.)

“Well I hope you loved it,” said Ismael. “Here comes the cavalry! I gotta go.” And in came a loud raucous troop of young kids fresh from school, accompanied by a few happy adults. Ismael’s family.

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Taino’s Caribbean Fusion

4840 S Memorial Dr
Tulsa, OK 74145
(918) 622-2291

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

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.

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