Saturday night special
Boston Deli offers everything from smokin’ ribs to sandwiches.
Quite often, especially during the summer months, I get a bad case of grill envy. I specifically covet those lucky to own an Oklahoma-made Hasty-Bake grill, but more often I envy the talented few able to transform a rack of ribs into a tender, juicy delicacy.
For both reasons, Ken Schafer, owner of the Boston Deli Grill & Market, has been the target of my envy for quite some time. Every Saturday, his talented crew (led by Chef Doug Zimpel) throws rack upon rack of baby-back ribs on his Hasty-Bake grills*, and smokes them to perfection.
I have to backtrack a bit, however, before going into detail about those ribs. Schafer took over the Boston Deli (then located on downtown’s South Boston Avenue) back in 1991, after leaving a career as the corporate food and beverage director for DoubleTree Hotels in Scottsdale, Ariz.
In that position (in addition to regularly clocking 100-hour workweeks) he gathered recipes, menus and tips from chefs all over the world. It was inspiration that would soon be put to use at the deli he bought on a whim after several lunchtime visits.
After a crowded weekday trip to Ike’s Chili in which the line was too long to wait, Schafer headed next door to the Boston Deli and grabbed a sandwich. He loved the quaint café’s location as well as its potential and made several trips back before offering to buy it from the owner.
After updating the space (it was decorated with lobster traps and life-size photos of Larry Bird) and the menu, he stocked his lunch fare in 15 snack shop locations around downtown. In 1993, an opportunity presented itself in a south Tulsa shopping center — so, Schafer headed south, invested in some bread ovens and never looked back.
At the new location, along with the Boston Deli’s now-popular lunch service, he added a chalkboard dinner menu. Items changed daily based on seasonality and availability — a trend that continues more than two decades later. Today, the chalkboard menu is a memory, but the restaurant still offers up fresh, seasonal dishes.
Schafer has always offered an eclectic menu, with dishes featuring Asian, Southwestern and European twists on classic dishes.
“I have gone with what I have liked and enjoyed over the years,” he says.
Now, about those ribs ... Schafer’s father was friends with Grant Hastings (the founder of Hasty-Bake). As a result, growing up in south Florida, Schafer’s was the only house with a big Hasty-Bake.
“It was the neighborhood foodie hangout,” he says. “My father grilled for the neighborhood at least once a week.”
Schafer’s father loved to experiment with different rubs, marinades and woods as well as cuts of meat.
“Back then hanger steak and flank steak were unknown, inexpensive cuts, perfect for grilling,” he says.
He learned his father’s recipes and techniques, and puts them to good use today. He cooks ribs one day a week: Saturday. I suggest you get to the restaurant early; it usually sells out by 7 p.m.
But don’t fret if you can’t make it in on a Saturday evening, for the menu offers delicious specials on a daily basis. Pop in for a casual order-at-the-counter lunch with your choice of sandwiches made on freshly baked bread, salads (that take advantage of local produce whenever possible) and creative side dishes (quinoa tabouli and carrot, raisin and walnut salad).
If you are a fan of the classic Reuben, Schafer offers the best version around — thinly sliced, house-cured corned beef, smoked pastrami or smoked turkey is piled high on his own Jewish rye and topped with fresh caraway sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and BD’s version of Russian dressing ($8.29). If I am ever able to order something different, I will go for the Italian meatball Parmesan on a baguette ($7) or hickory-smoked chicken salad sandwich ($4.50, small; $7, large).
Dinner service is a bit more dressed up. Servers take care of you tableside, and the menu is kicked up a notch. Aside from those ribs ($16), you will find daily specials, including fried chicken with chili honey ($13) and Hasty-Bake-smoked chicken ($16). Regular favorites include pork tenderloin with chili-ginger drizzle served over smoked tomato grits ($16) and a coffee-spiced smoked rib eye with ancho chili-mushroom sauce ($21). Each month, Schafer designs a seasonal Thursday night special; the entree comes with a salad and a piece of pie ($23).
Portion sizes are reasonable, allowing customers to sample starters and salads, but maybe more importantly, to have room for dessert. Pastry Chef Jessie Rice stocks the case daily with mile-high pies and desserts. Try the signature Limoncello-Pecan Pie ... I’ve had nothing like it.
“We have the best loyal customers,” Schafer says. “We love to hear our customers talking about food while they are in the restaurant. We have an unbelievable following.”
I suspect those customers are following their noses to some Hasty-Bake grills on South Sheridan Road.
*The print version of this article erroneously stated that Boston Deli's ribs were smoked on Hasty Bake grills "just outside the back door." Due to Tulsa Health Dept. regulations, the ribs are actually smoked on Hasty Bake grills in a specially vented area inside the market.