Power Lunch: El Guapo’s Cantina

When a posse from Tulsa Business Journal arrived for lunch at the brand-new El Guapo’s Cantina a half hour early, we were the third group in line. By opening, the line of people waiting to get into Elliot Nelson’s much-anticipated authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurant grew to what looked like 45-50 people.
Since we could already tell this was a place to be seen, we headed upstairs to the coveted third-story rooftop patio. As we climbed the stairs through the restaurant to our seats on the roof, we could see the casual atmosphere at this First Street newbie would take the edge off a lunch meeting. At the same time, dining while surrounded by downtown buildings added a touch of class to a very urban, patio-like feel.
The rooftop patio, finished with white Christmas lights, is trimmed with wood with that unfinished look and is accented by colors typically used in Mexican restaurants – teal, pink and yellow. We dined on wooden benches at a wooden table that reminded me of picnics at River Parks. If you can stand the heat on the roof, we recommend a spot under the awning, where you’ll be able to enjoy the view of downtown without getting sunburned.
The servers’ uniforms served as mild entertainment while we waited on drink refills and extra buckets of chips before we ordered. Some staff were clad in black cowboy shirts, some in red. All were embroidered with the restaurant logo and roosters in colors that, we assumed, were designations of rank. We felt like we’d found Waldo when we noticed our server was wearing an El Guapo’s belt buckle. Some patrons have assumed that El Guapo’s is part of a large new chain thanks to the hyper-coordinated uniforms, Nelson said in a post-lunch interview.
Appetizers at El Guapo’s range from $2 for avocado verde salsa to $12.49 for ceviche de camaron. My companions and I enjoyed a large order of Cinco de Gallo Dip ($6.99) and a small order of the Cantina Queso ($3.99).
El Guapo’s is one of the first places we’ve seen with a five-layer dip on the menu. Though the black beans tasted a bit done, the quality and composition of the other ingredients in the dip – queso, beef, green onion, tomatoes, verde sauce and the occasional jalapeno – made up for it. The queso was a bit runny but had great flavor.
The entrée menu was split between $10-15 authentic Mexican entrees and $8-12 “more comfortable” Tex-Mex entrees. One in our party had Carne Asada ($12.99), which Nelson described as a Mexican flank steak served with tortillas to make tacos. I chose the Pollo Verde ($10.99), Nelson’s personal favorite and what he jokingly calls the Mexican chicken parmigiana, is a scallopini chicken breast lightly breaded and pan sautéed covered in verde sauce with fresh avocados.
The entrees at El Guapo are original and authentic while providing just enough comfort of the familiar. Though the steak in the Carne Asada was more like brisket meat, covered in sautéed onions, it still satisfied. The dish came with rice, black beans dusted with cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream.
The guacamole topping on my chicken, which was served with rice and black beans, was perfectly ripe and combined, and my helping was fair to its price. The expert presentation of the food on the plate – drizzled sauces, avocado fans, good color planning – made up for lunches that took some time in coming.
We stared longingly at the beer and cocktails list, which leans heavily on margaritas and tequilas and covered more area on the menu than did either group of entrees combined. Beer starts at $3, and patrons who mean business can order margaritas as pricey as $45, depending on which tequila is preferred.
When Nelson told me late last year he wanted El Guapo to be to tequila as McNellie’s is to beer, I had my doubts. Shame on me. “I wonder if he’ll remember the rest of his work afternoon,” was all one of our group could say when he spotted a gentleman enjoying a margarita about the size of his head.
After we waited nearly an hour for our lunches, I realized: I goofed. To the chagrin of all involved, I led a posse to a brand-new restaurant for a review during its first food service. However, judging from the huge line that formed before opening and the hostess I heard telling a party at 12:30 to expect to wait an hour, the demand for this place is there. Since the quality of the fare at Nelson’s anchor venue across the street, McNellie’s Public House, is, in my opinion, second to none, I trust the servers and cooks at El Guapo will shorten wait time and fix the glitches in the kitchen.
El Guapo’s would be a great place to bring clients or associates from out of town. Take them out for margaritas or shots of choice tequila on the rooftop after hours – surround them with those downtown buildings and the atmosphere at El Guapo’s, and you’ll have nothing but good results. ?

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