The opening of Tamazul, 5820 N Classen Blvd., Suite 1, marks the beginning of another important chapter in the development of Oklahoma City's dining market.
In the space where Matthew Kenney first introduced raw foods to Oklahoma City, his restaurant group recently unveiled this new concept that promises to modernize the Tex-Mex menu we've come to both love and loathe, by bridging it to its roots and elevating it with modern techniques.
Director of operations Rob Crabtree believes the time was right to retrofit the space that first was 105 Degrees, then Matthew Kenney, into something more approachable but no less ambitious than the raw foods concepts that preceded it.
“What I would most liken it to is Mexico City and the transition between your street food and your more high-end food.” Crabtree said. “We're somewhere in the middle, glamorizing street food and downplaying offerings from more upscale restaurants.”
Tamazul occupies the space in Classen Curve where Kenney first opened his 105 Degrees and 105 Degrees Academy in 2009. The innovative raw foods concept made an initial splash, drawing culinary adventurers and making chef Rick Bayless's list of Best New Restaurants in America for Forbes Magazine in 2010.
Unfortunately, our prairie province's chicken-fried culinary heritage was too far a stretch to find a consistent audience for 105 Degrees and later Matthew Kenney, neither of which served cooked foods.
The Kenney group chose chef Ryan Parrott to oversee the culinary conversion and Vivian Wood as general manager to oversee daily operations.
Parrott is a veteran of several notable Oklahoma City kitchens, starting way back at Tommy's Italian Grill before a long stint at the Deep Fork Grill and more recent stops at Iguana Mexican Grill and his own Table One and Local in Norman. He was the chef at the 9th Street incarnation of the Iguana when the promotion formerly known as Taco Tuesday became one of the hottest in the city.
Parrott hopes the spirit of Taco Tuesday can be invoked at Tamazul, which boasts an impressive taco menu of its own.
“We want to keep the dishes but try to elevate them with some interesting ingredients and maybe some classic technique.”
You won't find the freebie faux chile con queso that's pervasive in this market on the table at Tamazul. Instead of the thin, quick-to-congeal, processed cheese and chicken broth concoction so many Tex-Mex establishments give away, Tamazul serves Queso a la Plancha, which is griddled queso asadero flambeed in 100 percent agave tequila and served with house-pickled chiles. You'll have to pay $6 for the appetizer, but it's worth every penny.
Also on the appetizer menu is the notable Tamales de Hongos, but the mushrooms inside this steamed masa aren't your prairie-forager's mushrooms. Instead, chef Parrott sources huitlacoche, a Mexican delicacy that grows on field corn.
The entree menu is short and sweet, offering recognizable Mexican dishes elevated by Parrott's deft touch and vivid imagination, including a chile relleno consisting of a roasted chile poblano battered with blue corn crust stuffed with black beans and quinoa — and lobster when they've got it — instead of the standard egg- or beer-battered chile stuffed with cheese and a greasy protein before a dip in the deep-fat fryer.
For something lighter, there's Snapper Veracruz over green rice with ultrathin fried plantains. On the other end of the spectrum is Carne Asada, a hearty steak dish with piquant salsa verde.
Keeping with the spirit of the taqueria, Tamazul offers a variety of tacos and tortas, those being Mexican sub sandwiches.
Tacos come in fish, chicken, smoked mushroom, al pastor and ground beef. Parrott also offers traditional Torta Milenesa, in achiote chicken and chorizo incarnations.
My personal favorite is the Tacos al Pastor. In true street tradition, the red chile and pineapple infused pork is carved from a rotating vertical roaster onto warm corn tortillas.
Parrott takes on the daily challenge of elevating and educating a populace with a strict but skewed view of what Mexican food is with help from chef Chris McKenna, but the team was clear about not wanting to take things too far.
“The menu we have today won't be the menu we have a year from now or five years from now,” Parrott said. “We want to keep it simple to start out and see where our guests will let us take them into Mexican cuisine.”
The bar focuses on the underappreciated agave spirit, mescal — best known as the de facto embalming fluid of worms bound for gullets on a collision course with disharmony. But Crabtree wants you to know there's more to mescal than a means to an end that involves ingesting a worm.
“We are actually introducing mescal to Oklahoma City,” Crabtree said. “To us, it's a complete passion that goes along with our food.”
Crabtree said tequila actually is a mescal, but the mescals carried at Tamazul are a much larger range than just tequila.
“I liken them more to wine,” he said. “We do have other spirits, like a hibiscus martini, but we like to focus on the mescal and especially the educational part of it.”
Tamazul is casual dining in a chic, modern space with classic touches to stay anchored to the traditions the restaurant aspires to celebrate. The name is from an artwork by Mexican painter Francisco Toledo.
The open kitchen makes the dining experience appear to have a floor show, with flame periodically bursting from the plancha as another order of queso hits the kitchen.
The result is an energetic dining experience featuring bold flavors and inventive cocktails, which point to a dynamic future.
Tamazul's story is still in its preface stage, but the narrative it's already revealed is intriguing, delicious and compelling enough to create high anticipation for the chapters ahead.
Prices range from $9 to $16 for dinner and a little less for lunch. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 879-4248.