Review by Scott Cherry Photos by Matt Barnard
We were driving Tulsa streets researching an upcoming article for Tulsa World Magazine when my wife said, “Stop! Look!” I hit the brakes.
The sign on a business in an aging strip center at 11th Street and Mingo Road read: Ohana Bakery & Restaurant.
“Ohana means ‘family’ in Hawaiian,” Judy said. “You need to check it out.”
Ohana can mean immediate family or extended family, I learned, and I did, indeed, need to check it out.
I also soon learned the bubbly owner, Marimar “Ruby” Rios, is not Hawaiian but Puerto Rican, and her food reflects authentic island cuisine, from sweet and savory pastries to hearty meat dishes and plantains prepared various ways.
Rios said after moving here from Pennsylvania in 2011, she worked at a hotel until her father died a little more than a year ago.
“I liked the owners, but I was so depressed about my father,” she said. “I felt I had to do something more.”
A friend of hers who owns a bakery in her former hometown of Adjuntas, a mountainous region of Puerto Rico, suggested she open a bakery.
“I didn’t know how to make a cupcake, but he came here two times with his dad, and they taught me how to make bread and pastries,” Rios said. “I knew how to cook the lunch and dinner dishes.”
We stopped in recently for dinner and ordered two entrees — pernil ($13.99) and pollo guisago ($9.99) — and the tripleta sandwich ($9.99) on the advice of another customer, a native Puerto Rican.
Ohana uses sofrito as a flavoring agent common in Puerto Rico in most of its dishes. It can have a number of ingredients, and we were told Ohana uses primarily onion, garlic and cilantro blended to a liquid.
Because my wife has a strong aversion to cilantro, she ordered the only items without it — pernil, white rice and a side salad. Pernil featured four or five large chunks of slow-roasted, tender pork with a consistency close to roast beef. The rice was plain but moist, and the salad was a simple mix of lettuce and bright-red tomatoes.
Pollo guisago featured a slow-cooked chicken leg and thigh swimming in a bowl of savory broth with a chunk of white potato. The meat was almost falling off the bone.
It came with three tostones (flat, round, fried plantains) with a mayo-based, Thousand Island-like dipping sauce and a mound of brown rice dotted with green pigeon peas. The small, earthy-tasting peas are considered among the healthiest vegetables in tropical cuisines.
The tripleta included layers of pulled pork, ham and salami with melted cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and, I think, a mayo-based sauce inside pieces of nicely-textured house-made bread. It was hefty, literally, and delicious, maybe one of the best sandwiches in town. It’s a good bet the Cuban sandwich is a winner, too.
Another popular dish at Ohana is mofongo, basically mashed plantains with garlic and, upon request, bacon. It is served with a choice of pulled pork, pork chunks, chicken breast or shrimp.
The sofrito, as it turned out, had a nice, mellow flavor but no distinct taste of onion, garlic or cilantro. My wife tried a few bites of the chicken and rice and did just fine.
During the regular lunch hour, Ohana has a cafeteria-style station with five or six main dishes that range from $8.99 to $13.99. During our photo shoot, I saw a couple of humongous pork ribs, which, in retrospect, I wish I had purchased that day.
The pastries are exquisite, mostly flaky crusts filled with such ingredients as cream cheese, guava paste, fruits and meats. Some are topped with powdered sugar, some not. Most are about $1.50, a bargain.
The strip center might be old, but Ohana is very clean and decorated with lots of wood and corrugated metal to resemble an island eatery, or, as Rios put it, “like a farmhouse from a long time ago.” Rios said a nephew created a striking island feature on one wall.
The room also has some old telephones and radios donated by customers and a mish-mash of items Rios said she picked up in antique stores and flea markets between here and Pennsylvania. It also has a domino table, a popular gathering spot for many of the customers.
Like a relic from a bygone era, a lone pay phone is stationed on the wall outside the restaurant. I knew it was deader than an 8-track tape, but I couldn’t help picking up the receiver to see if there was a dial tone.
Rios said she and her family moved from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania in 2006. She said a few years later, her daughter came to Tulsa to study culinary arts at Platt College.
“She has ended up working in an office, but while she was in school, I came to visit her three times,” Rios said. “The third time, in 2011, I told her I was going to stay. I liked it here, and it was too cold in Pennsylvania.”
The strip center is not large and oddly enough has three other eateries — Tulsa Snacks, Cosina Mexicana el Gallo Loco and El Hidalguense — all featuring Mexican cuisine.
“Where I come from, business people help each other, and that’s how it’s been here,” Rios said. “I was told this is not a good place for business, but it was the place I felt I needed to be.”