#PigOutOKC is brought to you by the Oklahoma Pork Council. Twice a month we’ll be delving into restaurants and recipes that bring home the bacon (among other delicious cuts of pork). Experiencing your own pork-fueled adventure? Use the hashtag #PigOutOKC to let the rest of us in on the fun.
I don’t talk a lot about beer here because, well, I don’t drink a lot of beer. Also, I have John “This Isn’t An Alias At All, No For Real” Barleycorn writing about beer and he’s a certified beer judge, so, like, you don’t really need me waxing rhapsodic about how I like beer that is “cold.”
But, if you are a beer lover, you should certainly know about McNellie’s, or, if you’d like to call it by its Christian name, James E. McNellie’s Public House. And that’s because, before all the breweries opened up and before 1,000-point beer became available in gas stations, grocery stores, and Sunday schools, McNellie’s was the place to get good beer. In fact, I remember sharing a few with my friends visiting from Houston when I ran into a guy talking about the new brewery he was opening.
Was it Cope? Corp? Something to do with chickens? Anyway, I hear those guys turned out OK.
But McNellie’s was never just a bar. People there love to drink, but even beer-less nerds like myself knew McNellie’s was also a really delightful restaurant full of Irish and British pub favorites. Yes, you could get sloshed on the best beer in town, but you could also just have a nice meal without risking a serious next-day hangover.
McNellie’s is still a bar, by the way. Each of the three locations (OKC, Tulsa, Tulsa again) has a killer selection of beers and liquors and other things of an intoxicating nature. Maybe I’m just too old for the bar to really resonate with me, or (more likely) I just keep going at meal times, but when I go it seems a lot more people are eating and not as many people are tipsy-to-hammered.
I’m not going to lie to you—I was fully surprised that Irish Nachos ($10) came on a big bed of fries. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s literally the first three words of the description and I am, even on my worst days, semi-literate.
But the real shock came when I realized how big this massive appetizer of french fries, liberally covered in smoked pulled pork, small-dice jalapenos and tomatoes, fried onions and a big dollop of sour cream truly was. I thought it was on a plate. It was a bowl.
The reason for that might be the Harp beer and Irish cheddar sauce that has been drizzled over everything. The bowl, it seems, is there to prevent a flood of that drool-worthy cheese sauce from spilling onto the table and my pants.
Do not order these alone. You will not finish them and, if you do, you shouldn’t have done. This is for a group of three, minimum, and should be deployed only when everyone is very hungry and/or trying to stave off intoxication. But they are delicious, so maybe just start making friends.
I wanted to like the deviled egg duo ($11) more than I did, but I didn’t and that’s the truth. The smoked salmon eggs were tasty, but the flavor of the salmon really blew everything else out. Not a bad thing necessarily, but probably not the original intent. The pimento cheese eggs were just too runny, which—at least in my reckoning—made them both difficult and a little off-putting to eat. Your mileage may vary.
I don’t suppose cheeseburgers are super-duper Irish, but McNellie’s Charburger ($9.50, add cheese for $1, add bacon for $2) is not to be missed. Many a night I spent in McNellie’s as a younger man, enjoying a pint and chowing down their Wednesday night burger special (still going, by the way, if you’re looking for a great deal).
The joys of aging, coupled with this being my job, mean that I can afford to pay full price and even add a few things to my burgers. Crack into this lovely hunk of beef and you’ll see a perfectly cooked pink center if you order it medium. On top of the 8 oz patty, you’ll get the usual lettuce-tomato-pickle-onion combo, plus cheese and bacon, if you so choose.
I so chose.
This is just a really solid burger. The brioche bun is soft and sturdy, so you don’t have to worry about it disintegrating on you halfway through. Shoutout to the chef for cooking the bacon to exacting burger specs, crisp and flat, which makes the whole thing a pleasure to eat. If you’d like bacon in every bite, you’ll get it.
The Cubano burger ($13) was good, but I wish they’d just call it a pulled pork burger. A Cuban sandwich can be incorporated into burger form, but this didn’t quite get the job done. The half-pound burger is still there, but the veggies have been replaced with pulled pork, Swiss cheese, grilled onions, pickles, and a blast of spicy mustard. Maybe the addition of ham would do it? I don’t know. It’s a tasty burger, but if you’re going in wanting a Cuban, you’ll be disappointed.
Or maybe take the burger out of it! You’ll be a lot closer to it being the spicy smoked pork sandwich ($10), which I quite enjoyed. It’s a big pile of pulled pork, covered in a gorgeous cherry pepper relish and a slice of pepperjack cheese, all on a potato roll.
By far the best move here is putting the barbecue sauce on the side. I love barbecue sauce, but its application should be determined by the diner. A little sauce adds a bit of sweetness to a very rich dish, but too much would take away the zing you get from the cherry pepper mash.
That said, if the name is keeping you away, don’t let it. It’s “spicy,” but it’s not spicy.
If you’re not in the mood for a sandwich, well, you’re in luck. Yes, the burgers are great, but superfans know the dish to get is fish and chips ($14). Oh me oh my, I do love my fish and chips—especially when they’re done this well. They use an Atlantic cod, which has a great firmness to it that you don’t always find with fried fish, and the batter is light and airy without going overboard into funnel cake territory.
But maybe fish isn’t your thing (even though this would definitely be the fish for people who say they don’t like fish), but you still want to eat with your fingers, then congrats! McNellie’s has chicken fingers ($12).
“Really, Greg? You’re reviewing chicken fingers now?”
Yes, voice in my head, I am. I kind of did a big thing about it last year and it’s not like OKC has suddenly decided they don’t like chicken in strip, finger, or nugget form. And, let’s be clear, a restaurant like McNellie’s doesn’t just pull frozen breaded chicken from a bag and toss it in the fryer. These are done with fresh chicken, breaded and fried, right there in the kitchen. It’s a difference you can absolutely taste.
The “fingers,” by far my least-favorite term for this kind of dish, are moist and well seasoned. The crispy breading has a satisfying crunch that doesn’t fall apart after you take a bite. I’m not saying “the game has changed” or anything like that, but if you’re in the mood for a much-better-than-average chicken strip, McNellie’s its their recipe on lock.
Yes, I got them with ranch dressing. No, I don’t want to talk about it.
Finally moving away from finger foods, we’ve arrived at some of my favorite McNellie’s dishes. Cottage pie ($14) is a simple dish that is deeply satisfying. Beef tips and veggies are coated in a lovely brown gravy, covered in mashed potatoes, sprinkled with shredded cheese, and lightly broiled until they are perfect. It’s like being at grandma’s for supper and getting a perfect bite of steak and mash and gravy and veggies...except it’s every bite.
(P.S. If cottage pie sounds too heavy, you can get that excellent gravy and mash as a side with other dishes.)
Similar, but much less potato-centric, is the pub stroganoff ($12). Beef. Mushrooms. Guinness sauce (which I have long argued should be available at the bar as a shot). A big pile of egg noodles. It’s a carb-y, protein-y mess and I love it. If there’s a chill in the air, there’s pub stroganoff in my future.
McNellie’s has weathered many a storm—especially the one in Oklahoma City, where neighbors Irma’s Burger Shack and Esca Vitae have sadly fallen by the wayside—because they’ve cracked the code. Great beer selection. A scratch kitchen that aims right at the comfort zone. And location, location, location. Plus, the price point is perfectly suited to be, if not an every day place, the kind of restaurant you could visit weekly without breaking the bank.
The Oklahoma Pork Council represents the interests all of pork producers throughout the state, promoting pork and pork products, funding research and educating consumers and producers about the pork industry. Learn more about the OPC, find recipes and more at OKPork.org.