Even though NE 23rd Street is one of the most historical streets in Oklahoma City, many locals tend to forget that it’s also home to some of the most grassroots and homegrown eateries in town, the best having a specific focus on soul food, barbecue and old-fashioned Southern cooking. NE 23rd Street restaurants are OKC’s culinary history all in a few blocks and really should be revered as such.
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Bolero Spanish Grill & Tapas Bar faced many uncertainties when it opened in late 2009, and by that, I mean people uncertain of what tapas were.
Staff at the Bricktown restaurant said some diners are hesitant, but most get over it once they try the food.
The concept has origins in Spain and caught fire in the stateside food scene a few years ago. Tapas are essentially small plates of food — not appetizers, but small dishes — aimed toward sharing and combining into a meal rather than one massive plate of the same food.
In this way, it’s actually less of a meal and more of a social experience. Friends share bites of the same food and become their own food critics, discussing what they like and don’t like. Diners swap, joke and pick their favorites while sipping on a glass of wine or sangria, enjoying each other as much as the food.
The open-air dining setting, stunning view of lower Bricktown, the canal and often live entertainment on Centennial Square only add to the energy and conversation. The decor is simple, but effective, with mostly black chairs and walls with pops of color and paper light fixtures, with colorful tables dotting the sidewalk.
What’s atmosphere without good food, however? Bolero has had no problems in that department. Owner and chef Curtis Bramlett and executive chef Justin Ward have been dishing out traditional Spanish dishes with stylish, modern and unexpected flourishes through an ever-evolving menu constantly growing to suit diners’ tastes.
The menu has changed around in the two years Bolero has been open as the staff experiments with foods to pique the appetites of Oklahoma, but change is just a part of tapas.
The biggest favorites, however, tend to stick around; dishes like the pork carnitas ($14), grilled lamb and sherry reduction ($14) and rock shrimp with Manchego gratin ($14) have become some of the most popular.
The best, however, has to be the golden-fried goat cheese drizzled with Tupelo honey ($7), a sweet and savory bite that hits all the right notes with the light crunch of its shell, creamy interior and tangy glaze.
The Spanish cheeses with hard chorizo and Serrano ham ($12) serve as a nice starter to the rest of the dishes with its artisan-quality array of deli items. The patatas bravas ($5) not only provide a nice little kick to the palate with its punch of red chile and garlic, but also a nice, hearty component to a mostly lighter meal. The fried tomatillos ($7) are good, and the green, powerful chimichurri it’s plated on top of makes it all the more potent.
The honey-paprika pork tenderloin recalled Asian flavors as much as Hispanic ones.
The flaky, not-at-all greasy chicken empanadas ($11) are warm and comforting with its homey-butelevated feel (improved only with its accompanying dish of white queso and green chile).
The honey-paprika pork tenderloin ($13) was a personal favorite and pleasant surprise with a sweet and spicy nature that recalled Asian flavors as much as Hispanic ones.
Some portion sizes — like the cheese plate and patatas bravas — feel appropriate, while others — the empanadas — maybe less so. It’s worth knowing that if you are seeking to leave totally full, you may have to shell out more money than you desire.
That being said, the quality of the tapas should more than make up for any qualms with quantity, as does the bright, elegant bar that serves up sharp sangrias and perfect wine pairings for your meal. You can end on a sweet note with the heavenly, creamy caramel flan ($6), which some customers have called the best you can get for hundreds of miles.
It’s most certainly an experience worth trying yourself, as there are few better ways to spice up your dining life.
Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or service when appropriate.