In case you’ve been caught unawares, the Chelino’s Mexican Restaurant located at 5900 N. May—the one restaurant that some would argue was perhaps the best out of all 13 locations—served its last cheese enchilada last week after almost 20 years at that address.
It was certainly my favorite spot when it came to dining at the venerable Oklahoma City institution. With an almost wistful single tear, I think of all the first dates and group outings, business meetings and friendly lunches, break-up dinners and Bob Sugar-style firings that have occurred in my life in that very restaurant and my soul just slides away.
But don’t look back in hunger, I heard her say.
True to form, when one Chelino’s closes, another one opens, this time at 6728 N. Olie Avenue, a hidden fortress and surprisingly obscure (and obscured) choice for the Tex-Mex eatery to go with. Calmly situated on a hill behind a Hideaway Pizza in a nondescript building that apparently housed a Henry Hudson’s for many years at one point, welcome to your new Chelino’s, Oklahoma City.
My original idea was to show up on opening day last Friday, to be first in line when the door unlocks at 11 a.m., ready to sample that first set-up of chips and queso and so on, but the best laid plans of Latinos often extraviarse when they can, so here it is and here I am, Monday afternoon and the place is absolutely barren, the new restaurant smell overpowering any food that might be prepping in the kitchen.
As soon as I was seated, I was immediately met with a warm basket of chips and even warmer bowl of queso—perhaps my favorite queso in town—and a fresh menu, but I already knew what I wanted; everyone has that one dish at Chelino’s that they always order, without fail, and mine just happens to be Nino’s Favorite Enchiladas ($10.99).
Named after their “dear friend” Nino, the owner of one Oklahoma's first tex-mex chain, the dish takes two cheese enchiladas, covers them in chili and then tops that with two sturdy fried eggs; add some of their flawless rice and beans to the side and you’ve got a solid Tex-Mex concoction that hits all the right culinary g-spots, especially on this visit. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had their food in a while now, but it was a very welcomed, very relaxing meal; after eating at Chelino’s for two decades, maybe this is my own private comfort food?
Throughout my entire meal, the place remained empty, with the exception of the dutiful staff that kept themselves busy; I was even able to strike up quite an entertaining conversation with my server, Eduardo. Ask for him on your next visit and maybe tip him a little extra to help fund his trip to Las Vegas.
I very rarely, if ever, order dessert at restaurants but it’s hard for me to pass up their wonderfully decadent take on fried ice cream, expertly delivering an exquisite variation of the neveria favorite, the caramelized, crunchy coating giving way to sweet vanilla ice cream, sewn into a dress of whip cream and chocolate sauce, sweet tortilla triangles surrounding the bowl. I can only get through half until it become the sweetest overkill.
There’s a reason that since 1979, when Marcelino Garcia came to Oklahoma City from Aguascalientes to eventually open up that first restaurant, Chelino’s has not only poder de permanencia in the Metro, but a poder de permanencia that cuts across the city's class lines, racial lines and district lines. You don’t stay on top for that long without doing something right and let’s be honest: Chelino’s usually gets it right. ¡Cómpralo ya!
You ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out. Follow Louis on Twitter at @LouisFowler.