Guernsey Park was a big deal restaurant. New restaurant openings seem almost blase these days, but when it burst on the scene in 2013, it was huge. Reservations weren’t impossible to get, but they filled up quickly and the reviews were largely raves.
The next few years saw changes to the kitchen staff and a massive influx of competition, which slowly drained away the restaurant’s clientele until it keeping it open became untenable.
Plenty of restaurants left us this year, but none have seen the immediate turnaround pulled off by Guernsey’s owners who opened two new concepts in the same building in a matter of months: Okie Pokie and Noodee.
The former built up a big following over the summer, which is prime time for poke bowls, and I have no doubt Noodee will see similar popularity as cooler weather rolls in.
I am heartened by their successes, frankly, because I am a quitter at heart. One big obstacle is all it takes to send me careening off the tracks and into a fiery crash, but owners Truong and Chynne Le are not so faint of heart. Guernsey Park closed (followed by the Edmond branch of the restaurant, Covell Park) and they just kept on trucking.
That perseverance is paying off and we’re the beneficiaries. Not only have Okie Pokie and Noodee solved a few issues Guernsey could not overcome (like the popular perception that the restaurant was “too nice” for regular visits), but they’ve done so while adding two crowd-pleasing concepts that can compete on a crowded 23rd Street.
One of the nice folks putting together the poke bowls told me she’s never worked at a restaurant with such a loyal group of customers. It’s not just people who come back every week or two, she said. They come back multiple times a week. That’s a dream come true for any restaurateur.
So what keeps people eating at Okie Pokie so often? Three things:
1. It tastes great.
2. It’s not outrageously expensive.
3. It’s about as healthy as delicious food gets.
Some of you might quibble about No. 2, because $10 could be more than you’re prepared to spend on lunch or dinner and I can understand that. The quality of the ingredients and the thoughtful recipes used for the bowls makes it worth the money to me, but your mileage may vary.
I don’t think I’ll get much pushback on Nos. 1 or 3, though. Everyone I’ve introduced to Okie Pokie has become an instant fan and a big part of that is how fresh and light and wholesome the ingredients are.
It’s a meal that is filling without being heavy. And, look, I’m not opposed to a lunch that requires a nap. Sleeping at inappropriate times is in my top two skills. Like, if you were putting together a team for a complicated heist and you needed a guy to fall asleep at a key moment, I’m your guy.
But not everyone enjoys feeling drowsy at 2 p.m., so we look for meals that satisfy our cravings without weighing us down. Hard to beat fresh fish, rice, vegetables and a dash of sauce for that.
Before we delve into the bowls, let me recommend a Hawaiian delicacy that was recently added to the menu: musabi ($5).
Musabi (pronounced moose-ah-bee) is a block of sushi rice topped with marinated Spam and wrapped in seaweed. If your initial reaction to that description is, “Spam?! Why would I put processed meat product in my body willingly?” I get it. My history with Spam is short and generally involves me politely declining to eat it.
But musabi has a stellar reputation and I learned why after a single bite. Wow. Marination has taken some of the weird funk off of Spam and the rice and seaweed ground the flavor in starchy goodness. If I didn’t have more to eat, I would have plowed through both cakes immediately and then ordered more.
Next I tried the Tropical Tuna bowl ($10), which starts with a bed of sushi rice and piles on cubes of raw tuna, togarashi sauce, mango salsa, guacamole, fried onions, scallions and tobiko (orange fish roe).
The mango salsa and guacamole worried me. I think I was bracing for an invasion of Mexican spicing, but I shouldn’t have been concerned. The salsa is bright and fruity and the guacamole is creamy and rich — a really great balancing act that accentuates everything about the firm tuna pieces. You can pick at a bowl, mixing and matching as you go, but I like to stir it all up and just go to town. Every bite becomes a surprise that way and each was tasty in a different way.
Another popular option is a build-your-own bowl ($10), which you can customize to fit your tastes. Protein choices include tuna, salmon, shrimp, crawfish, Spam and tofu and the toppings are all over the place. You want heat? Get jalapeno. You want rich? Get the shallot-infused cream cheese.
I let the G.M. choose my bowl, because the people who eat the food most probably have some good ideas about what goes together. The result was a joy. The base was a mix of brown rice and mixed greens covered in raw salmon, sliced avocado, marinated seaweed salad, crab mix, diced red onions, cucumbers, sesame seeds and a splash of toasted sesame oil.
The salad/rice mix was a perfect blend of light and filling and the swirl of flavors kept rearranging into different harmonious combinations. Crab mix and avocado are luxuriously rich. The bite of red onion was tamed with the sweet, nutty flavor of sesame oil. Cucumber’s light crunch and the delicious chewiness of the seaweed kept me diving in for more and more and more.
There was literally only one combination the staff warned me about. Hoisin-soy glaze, they said, is wonderful. But it’s a dominating flavor, so it’s best not to mix in more sauces.
That’s it. On the entire line, that was the one thing they said might not work well together. It’s a testament to how well thought out this concept is.
I’ll add more on Noodee later, likely when it gets to be a bit more chilly outside, but I did get to try a bowl of Drunken Noods ($10) — thick, chewy udon noodles tossed in a spicy drunken sauce and topped with grilled corn, cabbage, fried garlic, peanuts, a ramen egg and a skewer of grilled steak.
First off, that spicy drunken sauce is no joke. The udon noodles soak it up and deliver a slow-building but quite potent pop of heat. If you enjoy spicy foods, you shouldn’t have a problem with it, but if you’re even a little iffy about heat, I’d steer clear.
The big noodles are a textural delight, firm and chewy and satisfying. The steak is cooked well, leaving you with tender pieces of meat to mix into your sweet and spicy bowl. Seriously, once the temperature dips, I expect to see a lot more people ordering these.
As sad as it is to see some of the old guard go — and Guernsey Park will be missed — I can’t be too upset when the replacement is a pair of tasty concepts like Okie Pokie and Noodee. It’s especially cool to see owners who learn as they go, turning weaknesses into strengths and overcoming setbacks. It’s inspiring. But more importantly, it’s delicious.