When it comes to searching for culinary inspiration, Ken Schafer is willing to travel across the country. Or just across town.
“I’m the sort of person who likes to go to places some people might shy away from,” Schafer said over a plate of birria tacos at his restaurant, The Boston Deli. “About three years ago, I went to this little place near 11th Street and Memorial Drive, called Tacos El Dorado. It was the first time I had had birria tacos, and I thought they were sensational.
“We had started offering street tacos at the restaurant, so we worked up our own recipe and added it to the menu,” Schafer said. “And this was before birria tacos became a thing. They’re everywhere you look these days.”
Birria is in essence a stew, traditionally made with goat, that is cooked at a low temperature in a richly seasoned broth. The Boston Deli’s version mixes cuts of beef — short rib, cheek and chuck — in a broth loaded with pepper and spice, stuffs the meat into corn tortillas with cheese, which are then grilled until crisp. The resulting tacos are served with a side of the broth, or consommé, a roasted jalapeño pepper and a crispy rice-and-black-bean cake.
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For most of the past 30 years, The Boston Deli has been at the forefront of Tulsa’s fine dining scene, serving high-quality food in a casual atmosphere at reasonable prices.
It has also been the place where national food trends tend to show up first in Tulsa. When the “Nashville hot chicken” craze was first starting to get national attention, Schafer came up with his version as a weekly special, but it soon ended up on the regular menu.
And Schafer and his team of cooks routinely experiment with flavors and preparations that usually become the Thursday special, a monthly dinner offering that includes an entree, sides and dessert — much of which is prepared on the restaurant’s signature Hasty Bake charcoal grills — for under $30.
It’s an approach that has consistently earned The Boston Deli five-star reviews for its food and service from Tulsa World food critics — rankings that a few recent visits proved to be still applicable.
The restaurant, at 6231 E. 61st St., has evolved over the years. It started as a downtown kosher deli on Boston Avenue, where Schafer was a regular customer. He ultimately convinced the owners to sell it to him in 1991, and two years later moved it to its present location.
Schafer switched from deli-style ordering at the counter to full table service and a set menu about a decade ago.
“I’ve never been a fan of using frozen meats or vegetables,” he said. “It was a way to reduce our food waste, while keeping our quality high and prices low.”
The Thursday Chef’s Special began as a way of encouraging customers to come out on what was a traditionally slow night in the restaurant business. It also allowed Schafer and his chefs to experiment.
This month’s special, which is served between 5 and 8 p.m., is a Santa Fe spice-rubbed King Ranch Sirloin with sundried tomato, roasted garlic and parsley compound butter; roasted broccoli topped with lemon, Parmesan cheese and butter; hasselback potatoes with garlic and rosemary; and a spicy cucumber ring salad, with carrot, red onion, red bell pepper, pesto and a strawberry-balsamic reduction. Dessert is a lemon-raspberry cake with lemon cream cheese frosting. Cost is $29.
“Our goal is to sell out of the special each night,” Schafer said.
Shelly Benson is the restaurant’s executive chef, who joined the staff in 2019.
“Ken’s very collaborative, and we usually work out the specials together,” she said. “I’ve brought some things like the braised beef tips that are on the dinner menu, and I’ve been trying to venture into using more game meats. But I know that we have a lot of loyal customers who are expecting certain things done certain ways, and we want to take care of them.”
Schafer said the restaurant was able to make it through the pandemic with a robust takeaway and curbside delivery program.
“It’s what you had to do,” he said. “We were very fortunate that our customers responded the way they did. And we’re keeping that going, because there are still people who are leery — and with good reason — about getting out and coming into a restaurant.”
Benson said most of the orders filled during the pandemic were for comfort food dishes, “which makes perfect sense,” she said. “But more and more, we’re seeing people who are wanting to get out again, to have that restaurant experience.”
Reservations are recommended for the Thursday special. To reserve, and for more information: 918-492-4745, thebostondeli.com.