Gerardo Santillan has got to be the hardest working restaurateur in Oklahoma City.
Santillan owns and operates La Queretana Bakery in the morning, delivering fresh-out-the-oven pan dulce, among other sweet (and some not so sweet) treats, to the Southside; then, sometime around lunch, he heads on over to the Northside to his restaurant El Tejano, 2131 W. Hefner Rd., to cook up homemade Mexican food late into the evening. (He’s also in the middle of building a new Latin grocery store next-door, but we’ll talk about that some other time.)
Located in a desolate shopping center filled with the illest of pawn shops and nail salons, El Tejano—or “The Texan,” if you’re so inclined—is a mucho gordo slice of South Texas right here in Oklahoma City. From the capitalist entryway—a small shop that apparently sells christening gowns is in there—into the back where the walls are mostly painted with a quaint village mural as the tight booths line neatly up against it, while a lone television loudly plays some Eugenio Derbez sitcom, you don’t get too many of these places on the Northside, let alone around Penn and Hefner.
El Tejano, according to the big banner on the wall, looks like it was meant to be a Mexican chicken place, offering up south of the Border-style roasted chicken and, Oklahoman enough, hot wings. But, for the blessed traditionalists, Santillan also keeps a second menu, a laminated rectory of additional foodstuffs there on the counter, moderately loaded with a few Tex-Mex faves, all for a decent enough price.
After a momentary scan or two, I ordered mi comeda and grabbed an ice-cold medio litro Coca-Cola from the icebox. As Santillan went back to the kitchen to start cooking it up, the pots and pans were rattling as he threw something on the stove and another in the oven; occasionally he came out to wipe some tables down fastidiously and then went back to cook some more. Every so often, an order came in over the phone, almost always in Spanish, which he wrote down and took back to the kitchen.
I went ahead and started off with some of the Mexican Hot Wings ($6.99), apparently the heart and soul of the El Tejano. Even though I ordered them with the mildest of flavoring, like a punk I winced as they still had an oh-so-fiery buzz to them; instead of that usual Frank’s Red Hot (or close enough substitute) taste that most wings have, these chicken-flappers had an almost Mexican hot sauce feel to them, like a dousing of Valentina or something similar, for an extra mean-spirited kick, was thrown in the batter. Good on you, El Tejano.
I needed something to cool mi boca down and the pop wasn’t helping, so I started scooping spoonful after spoonful of the smoky smooth bowl of beans that seemed to come with my next entrée, the Enchiladas Mexicanas ($5.99). It mostly helped, but what really did the trick was the silky queso Oaxaca that generally engulfed my entire plate, including some of the sporting rice and heavy beans.
As for the enchiladas themselves, there were about three or so to my plate, copiously stuffed with beef and onions and thickly rolled in a flour tortilla with, surprisingly, no green or red sauce—instead, it was just queso and more queso, stringy like mozzarella in one of those cool pizza commercials from the 80s. It was a change from the norm that was most definitely appreciated, believe me.
But, to be honest, the clear winner-winner-Mexican-dinner here was the indefatigable Birra de Res ($9.99). A true oddity on a taqueria menu, such as this, but that slow cooked beef stew (instead of the usual goat meat), mixing muy sensualmente with the bliss-worthy onion and cilantro, was a star-studded midnight charmer. With very little fat and very little grease, this birra was a class effort that’s got be worth the press, at least here. Order up a bowl and maybe another one to take home, bro.
The menu also features items like burritos, mojarra frita, and menudo (on the weekends), along with a slight handful of other rarities. It’s hard to believe that it’s just Santillan back there in the cocina, working his ass off morning, noon and night, but its hard work that has definitely paid off in the spectacular now that is his incomparable food. Cómpralo ya!