The Hip Mom Does the Dome District
One of my favorite destinations while living in the Northwest was any one of the family-friendly pubs owned by the McMenamin brothers. The McMenamins would buy a dilapidated barn, school or otherwise old structure, renovate it while preserving its quirky character, and then place one of their wonderful pubs there. Our favorite, the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse, was a historical house with bucolic grounds; we would sit at the picnic benches and watch the kids frolic, while I sipped a glass of their reasonably priced wine, and PVT enjoyed one of the million and seven delicious microbrews. When the kids finally got hungry, we would order some “haute” pub food: a hummus plate, burgers, salads, chicken for the kids.
And then I arrived in Tulsa, where it seemed if you wanted to go out to dinner with the fam, you were consigned to one of the many national chain restaurants.
But clearly Elliot Nelson was anticipating my arrival – and the hunger that Tulsans felt for warm, friendly service, good beer beyond Bud Light, and a comfortable, cozy place to eat and hang out. You’ve probably heard Elliot’s biography. After interning one summer in a law firm, he decided that practicing law was not his calling and, instead, used the small fund his mother had set aside for him for law school to open a pub in downtown Tulsa. Wouldn’t you have loved to overhear that conversation? But obviously Elliot has been vindicated: What started as James E. McNellie’s Public House has now grown into a successful group of restaurants spanning the world of cuisine from Asian-fusion to Mexican. So whether you need to get out of a date night rut, or need a new spot to take the kids, the McNellie’s group has a place for you!
My first spot to “research” is Yokozuna – “Noodles, Sushi, Cocktails, Happiness.” This is Nelson’s first venture into Japanese and Asian cuisine. As a native Seattleite, where Asian cuisine is cheap and plentiful, I am wowed by Yokozuna. The décor is funky minimalist Asian; the clientele is authentic hipster – just what you might find at a San Francisco sushi joint on a Tuesday for lunch! The menu has a variety of sushi, sashimi and sake for purists; there is also a spicy General Tso’s chicken and tempura for those less adventurous.
My partner in crime Kappa Kappa Karen thoroughly enjoys her chicken Pad Thai. I try the seaweed salad, which is perfect, and follow up with the El Guapo roll. While it’s perhaps not for the purist, it’s just heavenly — imitation crab, chipotle cream cheese and jalapeño, fried and topped with guacamole, ichimi pepper and wonton chip. Whew! Plus, the kids’ menu isn’t dumbed down. There’s a kiddie California roll, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Fried Rice and Chicken Strips – so refreshing that the kids can’t just get away with the usual hamburger. I wash my lunch down with some warm sake and spend the rest of the afternoon in a happy food coma.
If I could eat somewhere every night, it would probably be El Guapo. The building is so much fun with its three stories; the atmosphere is festive and bustling. I drag my husband on a Saturday night, and the place is teeming with cool, beautiful people hungry for excellent Mexican food. I almost tear up when they play “Chains of Love” by Erasure on the sound system. I consider myself somewhat of a gringo connoisseur of salsa and guacamole, and both are just sublime at El Guapo – the salsa is hot and chunky. The guacamole is creamy and full of avocado chunks, cilantro and onion. The margaritas are just sweet enough and so easy to drink (a little too easy, perhaps – their smoothness belies how boozy they really are). The tortilla soup’s blend of spices is perfect; the tacos are excellent. PVT gets the Enchiladas de Mole Poblano – this is a regional specialty that is hard to find at more run-of-the-mill Mexican joints. The mole sauce with just a hint of chocolate and cinnamon is smooth and so unique. Elliot is really getting the food right at all of his places. I can’t wait to go back – especially in the summer when the rooftop is open. But be sure to go early if you bring the kiddies. It fills up fast! We return with the kids, and they love all the funky skeletons and décor a la early cheezy Mexican, with Christmas lights and whacky piñatas hanging everywhere.
Elliot tells me his three kids’ favorite restaurant is Dilly Deli. My fantasy is to bring all the kids for brunch and turn them loose on the outdoor backyard playground while my husband and I sip Bloody Marys. Right now we content ourselves with bringing home some of the big cinnamon rolls. I worry that four won’t be enough for my group, but they are the size of Rhode Island, each with a vat of cream cheese frosting. And they are simply divine. It takes us two days to get through four – unheard of in my house! Dilly Deli also serves up mouth-watering specials for brunch such as Creole Crab Benedict and Green Eggs and Ham (a sneaky way to get the kids some spinach!). Their sandwiches are not ho hum turkey and cheese varieties, but span from the Vincent Carbone (a Philly Cheesesteak) to the Brown Eyed Girl with brie, grilled chicken and arugula. Dilly Deli also does dinner until 8 p.m., serving one dish each night (i.e., Wednesday is family pasta night; Friday is Fish and Chips). And kids eat free every Thursday night!
Right next door to the Dilly Deli is Dust Bowl Lanes. This is a small treasure of a bowling alley right smack in the Blue Dome district (across from an “Adult Superstore, Mom!” which my 8-year-old points out gleefully. I am pretty sure he is doesn’t quite understand why he finds this so hilarious – so I hope!). Dust Bowl Lanes offers bowling, beverages and food – “Bringing the Magic Back one Tater Tot at a Time.” There are only eight lanes, so reservations are probably a good idea. What a great place to bring the kids, plan a birthday party, or do something a little less ordinary for date night.
Of course the Nelson pubs are great places to drag your husband. Is he currently vegging in his man cave? Well, be sure to subscribe to the McNellie’s group emails (www.mcnelliesgroup.com), where you will be kept up to date on such happenings as the McNellie’s Beer Dinners. Every course is paired with a beer: There’s Tasso ham and stilton dip with torn baguettes, alongside Green Flash Trippel (that’s a beer), then Chef Pete’s famous gumbo with Hop Head Red (yes, beer), and an entrée of blackened beef tenderloin, topped with Dungeness crab béarnaise, served with eggplant ratatouille and paired with Green Flash Imperial IPA (more beer!). Even dessert comes with beer: Cherries jubilee, topped with vanilla bean ice cream, to be enjoyed with Green Flash Double Stout. Girls, if you can’t lure your husband out with that menu, your marriage is probably in trouble.
Finally, Fassler Hall will fulfill your guys’ Bavarian caveman fantasies — sausage, bratwursts, German food galore – and German Beer! Fassler Hall holds events like their Annual Beer & Beefsteak Baquet (benefitting Youth Services of Tulsa). In addition to a commemorative apron, $50 covers more meat, beer and live music than you can imagine. “Vegetarians are welcome, at their own risk.”
So what are Elliot’s plans for Tulsa? Fortunately for us who live far from downtown, Yokozuna is coming to 91st and Yale. And a new McNellie’s pub is coming right to 68th and Yale! Elliot tells me his success is not from building a huge “chain,” but opening one restaurant at a time – and hiring great people. It’s true. The service is solicitous at every Nelson spot I go. And I’m not a restaurant critic, but everything I’ve tried without exception is just sublime.