Everybody has those things they’re proud of. I have my kids, the ability to write words good sounding and a pretty decent handle on where to eat food in Oklahoma City.
So when somebody springs someplace new on me, I get a little...jealous. And filled with a bottomless rage that threatens to engulf everything around me in flames. Especially when that “new” place has been around for a while and I was just too dumb to realize it.
Enter Paul, a nice person who is part of my Patreon. Paul told me about Cafe Bella and I kept not quite getting around to eating there. Not out of any malice or disbelief, but because I am a deeply lazy person and the 9000 block of South Penn is very far away from wherever I am most of the time.
But because Paul is part of my Patreon, he “won” a one-on-one review meal with me and he chose, yeah, Cafe Bella.
Folks, it took all of one bite of Bella’s red beans and rice for the furious anger that runs through my veins to begin shooting signals at my brain to stand up and begin screaming at Paul at the top of my lungs.
“HOW DARE YOU?! THIS IS MY THING! YOU THINK YOU CAN JUST TAKE MY THING AWAY FROM ME?!” are things I probably would have begun yelling if I wasn’t too busy taking another bite and another and another of those red beans and rice.
Paul was right. Cafe Bella is good. Great, even. And every single item I tried exceeded expectations and then some. I went in planning to sample this and that. I left extremely full and already planning a return visit.
First things first, order the red beans and rice ($4.99). Paul gets his extra spicy and I loved it that way, but if you’d prefer a little less red pepper burn, just get it the regular way and you’ll still be awestruck by this dish.
“What’s the big deal with red beans and rice?” you might ask, knowing full well I’m already in an angry mood, like an idiot.
Well, IDIOT, red beans and rice is not just red beans plus rice. It’s beans cooked until they’re tender in a dark, rich Cajun sauce that builds layer upon layer upon layer of flavor, coalescing into a stew with a creamy consistency. The rice soaks up some of the sauce, but leaves enough to keep everything nice and fluid. Thinly sliced honey-glazed sausage give it an added sweetness to balance the spice.
I used to sell red beans and rice at the state fair (true story) and they were pretty great. These were better. I’m 100 percent going back to buy the 32 oz. to-go red beans and rice ($12.99) to share with my dad.
The cool thing about being a restaurant that cooks its food instead of just reheating it is that you can ask for little changes and they can make them. So, when Paul ordered the gourmet Philly ($7.99) spicy, it was no problem for Chef Nikole to boost the heat levels.
Technique really shines through here. I love a Philly, but it can be very wet if you’re not careful. Cafe Bella’s version has tender, moist meat, but it doesn’t soak the bread. The hoagie is toasted and the onions and peppers in the sandwich are tender, but still retain some snap. It’s a miracle of engineering and it shows how important a little forethought goes into making a sandwich memorable.
On the side, we got some potato salad, which I thought was good, but the fried green beans were so much better. Sweet, crunchy and addictive.
The Bella Wings ($5.99-21.99) are not like you’re run of the mill hot wings. They’re like tiny fried chicken wings. The seasoning is really built into the batter, which is why they don’t drench them in sauce. But you definitely should try dipping into the sweet/spicy honey barbecue sauce they serve with it. Nikole said it took her three months to reverse-engineer it and she thinks her version is better than the one she first tried.
Paul announced straight off the bat that he’s not much for chicken wings. Then they arrived and he changed his tune. Definitely a must try.
Finally, we got the cashier’s recommended Tuscany panino ($7.99). Yes, the singular of panini is panino. No, I can’t go back to calling a sandwich a panini any more than I can return to the carefree days when I pronounced pho “foe.”
I’m always a little reticent to get a turkey sandwich because, you know, it’s a turkey sandwich. Most places are using deli turkey meat, which I don’t mind at home, but seems like a letdown at a restaurant. I peeled back the top layer of bread and under the spring mix and veggies, I was extremely pleased to see a slice of actual turkey breast. Nikole grills them in back and slices them thin. It’s amazing the difference it makes.
Cafe Bella is a southside standout and a spot I’ll be revisiting as often as possible. If you’re a fan of flavor and real cooking, I think you’ll like it, too.