"Hello, chicken-fried" yelled the food-line server as he placed a chicken-fried steak on my plate in the buffeteria line. It's been a while since I heard that melodious call for more chicken-fried.
Nelson's is back and going strong, according to Suzanne Rogers, wife of Nelson Rogers, who together operated the downtown Nelson's Buffeteria for more than 30 years on Boston Avenue. His father, Rogers, Sr., began this family restaurant tradition in 1929 at the original Nelson's at 13 W. Fourth St.
Today, grandson Nelson Barry Rogers III continues the family business on 3rd Street, in the former Debby's Ranch House, after a five-year hiatus from downtown Nelson's closing.
Suzanne explained how her son, Nelson Barry, went to the University of Kansas in Lawrence and worked in food service with some of the former Nelson's chefs, serving the famous chicken-fried steak. But when the financial opportunity to reopen Nelson's in Tulsa came through, Barry returned to Tulsa and began the process of opening Nelson's Ranch House as the third generation owner.
"The food is identical to what we had at the downtown buffeteria food line," said Suzanne, which to many Tulsans have come to know and love the food. "I just had to laugh because as word got out, almost one-by-one, our former employees at the downtown location eventually began coming in to apply to work here. It ended up with our whole kitchen coming back."
So, what makes this food so good? Part of the popularity and hype is Nelson's tradition of great comfort food served by a friendly staff that comes to know their customers by name. The downtown Nelson's was like going home--people were served and treated like family. The new Nelson's continues this tradition. Suzanne said the recipes date back more than 35 years. She preserved them as she "followed the two head cooks around with a pen and paper and I wrote down all the recipes." She said they were so experienced, that they just "eye-balled" it while she was a little more attentive to details and wrote measurements.
Nelson's Ranch House is in an area of town rarely frequented by too many except those who live nearby. The building itself is not too appealing from the outside (and inside), but the atmosphere complements the food. It's a no frills kind of place: booths, tables and much of the same décor as its previous tenant. It is clean, yet styled from years' past décor; still, it works for what Nelson's is all about.
The buffeteria line is there to receive hungry guests. A friend and I were very eager to go. We walked in and were quickly greeted and directed to the buffeteria line. We were a few deep in this line, but the line kept a quick pace just as in times past.
I chose a special for the day, stuffed bell pepper with mashed potatoes and white gravy, their famous macaroni and cheese and white bread. My friend ordered the Chicken-Fried Steak with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, macaroni and cheese and white bread. Both dinners were $7.69.
Nelson's has two separate dining rooms; we chose the dining room outside the buffet line. It was quiet in this room and a little more removed from the activity in the main room. We were soon asked by a server for our drink order, who returned a few times to see if we needed anything with our dinners.
The green pepper of my stuffed green pepper was on the bottom of the over-sized meatball. The meatball was mixed with white rice and was very tender and moist. The green pepper was so tender that no crispness remained. A thick tomato sauce was part of this dish. The mashed potatoes were instant but were very good: creamy with a buttery taste. The white gravy (also packaged or from a can, no doubt) had flecks of black pepper and was very tasty.
My friend's chicken-fried steak tasted perfect! A light breaded coating was secure on the steak; the steak was perfectly tender and tasty. My friend enjoyed the mashed potatoes and the brown gravy, which was a rich, dark, thick gravy with a beefy taste. We both found the macaroni and cheese wonderful. Suzanne said their homemade version of this classic comfort food is a favorite side item for customers. It was creamy and cheesy, not mushy at all.
I had a piece of coconut cream pie ($2.50) for dessert. It was very good. The crust was exceptionally crispy and flaky; the custard had a slight caramel taste to it; and the meringue was tall and stately, light with toasted coconut on top. It was fabulous and authentically homemade. Suzanne said that she still makes all of the desserts from scratch, basing hers on Betty Crocker's recipes. Other pies include banana, chocolate, strawberry cream and lemon meringue.
Breakfasts are sit-down service only, Suzanne said. Other items for lunch include Pan-Fried Steak, Chicken-Fried Chicken and Grilled Chicken Breast. Daily Specials include items such as Baked Spaghetti on Mondays to Baked Cod and Salisbury Steak on Fridays. The Nellie Burger, which Suzanne said is very popular, is served on Thursdays.
As they get on their feet and more settled (having only been open since early July), Suzanne said they will make their beloved "Super Donut" (for around $1 or $1.50), which she explained as a "cake donut that gets better the older it gets. It's great to dunk in coffee." She said it is about six inches in diameter and "really fills you up." She said they also have plans to have soups, salads and chili when the weather gets a bit cooler. And, as they get more into the groove of operating the restaurant, they will hopefully be open on Friday nights for dinner beginning at 5pm.
"Since we have been open, we have really been hit hard," said Suzanne, but this is one problem she is happy to have.
Nelson's Ranch House
1547 E. 3rd St.
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