#EMBARKEats reviews, as well as convenient public transportation, are brought to you by EMBARK, Oklahoma City's transportation and parking authority. With bikes, buses, streetcars, and ferries, wherever you're heading, EMBARK can help get you there.
My favorite part of Spokies is that they’re everywhere. Definitely the coolest neighborhoods in town are covered with nearby spots to park your bike or pick up a new one. From the Boathouse District and Scissortail Park all the way up to the Paseo and state government buildings, you’re never very far from a pedal-powered ride. (Use the Bcycle app to find dockless Spokies Dash bikes near you!) Granted, my endurance requires frequent stops, but you’re still moving a lot faster than on foot and with a much smaller carbon footprint.
Speaking of the Paseo...when it came time to review Red Rooster, the food-forward revival of the classic Paseo dive bar, I knew I needed one man with me: New York Times editor Josh Crutchmer.
But, since Crutch is a total jerk who insists on living in New York “for work,” I grabbed the next best things, my friends Nate and Jen, who spent a considerable amount of time and money in the former incarnation of the Rooster with Mr. Crutchmer.
Just because he refuses to live anywhere near me after I ONE TIME bought a house that was BASICALLY IDENTICAL to his doesn’t mean Josh won’t contribute. Here are his memories of the old Red Rooster:
“It had one of the best CD jukeboxes in all of Oklahoma City, if what you wanted to do was piss off everybody else who was over age 23 in the bar or near the bar. Just the most eclectic mix of AC/DC, Presidents of the United States of America, and like 250 Rolling Stones songs.”
“My favorite memory was going there in the middle of the afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday in 2003, not to watch the game but to pregame with a couple of friends by watching Oklahoma State win a really (at the time) important basketball game at Texas Tech. Your standard bar order there was a burger and a bag of Lay's chips that were hanging behind the bar. We were seated at the bar. Late in the game, the Cowboys did something that basically clinched the game (a fast break dunk? a three? I don't remember anymore) and I threw my empty plate full of chips at the TV in celebration. That caused the other OSU fans in my group to throw THEIR chips at the TV, and before you know it, the whole place was slinging potato chips. The bartender got in on the act too.
And also the giant 33-ounce beers that cost something like $4. Long live the Red Rooster, which I am certain is still as strong as ever and completely unchanged from the dive that I so fondly remember.”
Nate and Jen just kept looking around and laughing. Looking at the menu and laughing. Looking at me and laughing (this might be unrelated). It’s just so incredibly different.
Do I love a dive bar? Sure. In theory. If I were 20 years younger, I’d probably enjoy one a lot more, but I’ve had all the stale-smoke-breathing, terrible-beer-drinking, and frozen-burger-slightly-warmed-in-a-toaster-oven-eating beaten out of me by decades of enjoying really great food.
What I like a lot more are clean restaurants with a noise level that doesn’t discourage laughter, but makes it easy to hear my friends talk, a bartender who knows how to make great cocktails, and an honest-to-god chef in the kitchen. Weird, I know.
One can still get a burger and a beer at Red Rooster, though the quality of both have risen considerably. There’s even a $10 Monday night special that gets you a burger, fries, and a beer. Not as cheap as it used to be, but infinitely better, in my opinion.
I’ve tried that Rooster burger ($10 by itself most of the time) and it’s extremely worth it, no matter when you go. The patty is juicy and beefy, held together only by hopes, dreams, and a layer of melted cheese. On top are grilled onions, pickles, and the usual condiments. I loved it.
Look, Oklahoma City has never been a slouch when it comes to burgers, but we are in the midst of a Golden Age of Burgers right now and I hope you are thanking your lucky stents every day. What a time to be alive!
Still, I said it’s changed, and—aside from the burger—the menu is so different you’d be hard-pressed to connect the two establishments by anything other than name and location.
Smoked steelhead trout dip ($12) is the sort of thing I’d run screaming from at the original Red Rooster, but under the ownership of Andrea Koester (Holey Rollers), Josh Gautreaux, John Otjen, and executive chef Timothy Mort (Urban Agrarian), I couldn’t wait.
It’s not at all fishy, for one thing. Firm white flesh is imbued with a mild smoky flavor, crumbled, and mixed with a base sauce that is both creamy and solid. Thank goodness for the house-made chips, which are thick enough to easily scoop big bites of dip into waiting mouths. It’s an excellent appetizer, yes, but I could just as easily snack on this at the bar while watching...well, I’m not much for football anymore. Curling? The Great British Baking Show? You know, something good.
I’d already tried the masa grit cakes ($9) during my First Looks visit, but as this was Nate and Jen’s first time, I had to get it again. It’s such a beautiful dish and such a beautiful concept. Based on the Three Sisters—the agricultural trio of corn, beans, and squash prevalent in Native American cooking—the masa cakes are gluten-free, vegan, and delicious. (As you know, I really only care about that last one.) The grit cakes are sturdy and mildly sweet, while the black bean puree adds heft and a savory base for the pickled squash on top to play. Paired with slices jalapenos and an avocado crema, it’s simply amazing. And amazingly simple. I wish we had more restaurants taking cues from Native American tribal cuisines.
Not meaty, but also not vegan, the squash caprese ($9) is another truly elegant dish. There’s a big, thick slice of heirloom tomato at the bottom, with roasted squash, basil, and ricotta stacked on top. Then they lay a Parmigiano Reggiano crisp on top and serve it with fresh peaches on the side and a drizzle of honey gastrique.
The braised pork shoulder ($15) is actually a two-in-one pork dish, because you also get crispy pork belly along with the fall-apart-tender shoulder cut, roasted carrots, fluffy rice, and some of the best bok choy I think I’ve ever had. (Oddly, the online menu references “boo choy,” which I hope is some sort of Halloween cabbage off-shoot.)
That a $15 entree is the second-most-expensive item on the menu really tells you something about the ethos of the people behind this restaurant. Yes, it’s a much nicer Red Rooster than it was before, but it’s solidly affordable compared to other options of the same quality. And that big piece of pork shoulder will likely yield at least a second meal for you tomorrow, which is a pretty solid deal.
The Rooster has a ways to go with their crab cakes ($18) before they can challenge the reigning champs at Rococo, but I love the direction they’ve taken. The trio of crab cakes are thin, almost like a burger patty, and they have a nice char on them that plays well with the yogurt cucumber gazpacho—like a tzatziki sauce you’re supposed to eat with a spoon. There’s a nice pop of heat from the seasoning, which is quickly cooled down by the yogurt. If you want a meal that is filling without being over-filling, this is for you.
By the way, there’s one side on this menu that you should order, regardless of what else you’re getting: the crispy smashed fingerlings ($5 small, $7 large) are a revelation. Creamy, buttery potato insides, crispy, shatteringly fried skins outside—these are not french fries. These are heaven fries, sent down by whatever greater power you feel deserves the credit.
Me? I’m saying a prayer at the Altar of Chef Mort, because these taters show an amazing sense of the ingredients and the best way to showcase them. These are a must-order every time.
And, since I can bike around the Paseo to Sparrow or Goodholm parks, I’ll have some time and space to work off those carb-tastic calories, too.
#EMBARKEats is brought to you by EMBARK. If you'd also like to be brought to you by EMBARK, it's easy! Just catch a bus, hop on a streetcar, or rent a Spokies bike.