El Rey Restaurant, Bakery and Cantina is not your typical Mexican restaurant in east Tulsa. While owner and chef Roberto Vargus' name gives away his heritage, growing up about 90 minutes south of Mexico City, Vargus came to Tulsa via Illinois (Chicago) and Wisconsin, working in restaurants in both states.
Vargus and his wife, who met in Wisconsin, came to Tulsa to enjoy warmer weather and to open a restaurant. The couple, their eldest son Damon, daughter Chelsea and youngest son G. Cruz all work at El Rey, creating a homey and welcoming place to dine.
Just south of 21st and Garnett, the restaurant is housed in a nice, large, new building. I was impressed by the bright atmosphere, the clean dining areas and the remarkable personal touch with the service.
"To me, we all need food, but my focus is to enjoy and stimulate the senses when eating the food--it's more than just to fill up your stomach," said Vargus.
He said he truly strives to satisfy hunger pangs, and for guests to enjoy the flavor, environment and the attention the servers give.
The menu begins with breakfast selections that will fuel the body for the day. Take, for example, the El Rey Especial Supreme T-Bone, topped with two eggs any style and covered in salsa ($12.99). Now that is the way to beat a Monday morning. From there, the breakfast menu features huevos (eggs) in a variety of ways--con chorizo (seasoned Mexican sausage), con fajita, con chiletas (pork chops), con carne asada (seasoned beef) and more. Prices are reasonable--most plates are priced under $6.
A friend and I came for dinner, so we looked over the dinner selections. The list includes a number of traditional items sure to please any Mexican food lover and also a list of items that are more specialized. Enchiladas are plentiful, with seven varieties from which to choose. Enchiladas Americanas caught my eye--seasoned beef topped with chili, cheddar cheese, black olives, tomatoes and lettuce and served with black beans and rice ($9.25).
Burritos, Traditional or Wet, are featured with a choice of fillings: Carne Molida Con Frijoles (beef and bean), Asada (shredded beef), Al Pastor, (marinated pork in a red sauce), Tinga (seasoned chicken mixed with chorizo meat and avocados).
My friend settled on a traditional burrito with everything but meat, and I challenged myself to a large plate of Mar y Tierra Filete de Tilapia y Carne Asada (a.k.a. Surf & Turf) for $13.99.
The burrito was large and satisfyingly filling, beginning with a flour tortilla, stuffed with beans, cheese, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream, then wrapped tightly and held in a paper wrap. My friend consumed as much as he could in one sitting, taking a few remaining bites home for later. He commented on the freshness of the burrito--especially the crispy and tasty vegetables.
But my meal was really something to come back for. Lightly breaded and no doubt gingerly fried, the tilapia was light, buttery, almost creamy to taste. The filet was a generous portion.
The Carne Asada was the best I have ever had in Tulsa. This tender Mexican style steak was thinly sliced grilled beef (usually flank or skirt steak marinated for hours), and was rich with seasoned beef flavor. Each bite was savored. Rice and ranchero beans were served with this meal, but took a back seat to the fish and beef.
We also shared an order of Cocktail de Camarones and a side of guacamole. The shrimp cocktail was mixed with avocado, cilantro, garlic, onion and tomatoes. The vinegar base to this appetizer was prominent. The guac was the freshest I have had, with small chunks of avocado (rather than smooth) and fresh cilantro. It had a tasty, personal homemade touch.
Drinks here from the Cantina include domestic and import beers, margaritas and wine. Mexican waters are also available.
Dessert is another deviation from the typical Mexican restaurant. Homemade New York style cheesecakes are Vargus' specialty, having perfected cheesecake baking while in Chicago. Tall, stately cheesecakes seem a bit out of place in a Mexican restaurant, but they are very much a welcome sight for customers, many of whom custom order cheese cakes to go. Black Forest, Peanut Butter, Caramel and New York were only some of the many selections available. Pies are also a featured dessert. Tres Leches (cake of three milks) is the only Mexican dessert you'll find here--and it looks fabulous.
"Everything we cook and bake here is all from fresh ingredients," said Vargus. "Even the Tamales (which sell by the dozen) and Chile Rellenos are homemade, even though they are very time-consuming to make.
"We are a little different from other Mexican restaurants. We are a little more 'upper class Mexican,'" he added.
He explained that the presentation of the food is different, yet holding firm to the Mexican style and heritage. Sauces are red (mild), green (cilantro, avocado, and tomatillos), and hot. Vargus said that his signature green sauce brings many customers in just to enjoy it with their meal.
"People eat with their eyes; first they look at where they are eating, and then move on to the food. I want people to not only enjoy the food but to also enjoy their time in the restaurant," said Vargus.
El Rey Restaurant, Bakery and Cantina
2146 S. Garnett
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