Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review - Juan del Fuego in Norman

(Norman, OK) - As we wait for the fall session of Barbecue Competition Season to fire up again we are holding forth on visits some non-barbecue places of note. Juan's is absolutely worthy of such.

We have frequent occasion to travel I-35 and have discovered ourselves making a habit of stopping in the pleasant tree-lined All-American college town of Norman (location of our sweet People's Choice 1st Place Pork Shoulder victory) to eat at this hidden gem of a spot. Yes, it's a BBQ blog. But it can't be smoked meat three meals a day EVERY day. Occasionally the palate must be cleansed, if nothing else, for the sake of perspective. Our experience dictates this is an excellent place to do just that. Besides - it is summer and it's hard to find a contest to judge anywhere near the South Plains so we've time on our hands and we've empty stomachs.

First a little back story. The namesake is one Juan Herrera whose first 15 minutes (we believe there are more to come) came as the "floor show" a couple miles to the east at the venerable, 110+ year old Diner during an episode of Diners, Drive-ins & Dives on the Food Network. While owner Mark Amspacher (deservedly) hogged the glory with Guy Fieri it was Juan in the background doing all the work. The community lost a well-loved and affable character a little more than a year after that episode aired when Mark died.

The Diner soldiers on under the eye of his family and long-time employees. We've been once since then and it is still crowded and the food is still great. The only thing we noticed missing was Juan - the Eddie Van Halen of the flattop. Asking around a bit we learned that after nearly two decades (for whatever reason - and we've heard a few) he left The Diner. Juan found a spot in a largely overlooked but tidy strip mall next to a Sam's Club on the west side of Norman, a stone's throw from I-35, and set up shop amidst comfortable tables in a bright and airy room adorned with pressed tin and images of the unibrowed countenance of Frida Kahlo.

The floor show remains. Juan is used to people watching him work his magic, he knows he's good, and he likes for us to watch. A spot at the counter is a box seat for excellence in short-order cheffery. This master is turning out the best food of his career and he's doing it his way and this time around HE is the boss.

If we've learned one thing about eating here it's that it is pretty much impossible to go wrong. The menu includes standard American breakfasts, Tex-Mex lunches, vice-versa and a number of hybrids. Best as we can tell (it'd be wrong to stop Juan and ask him when he's that busy) everything that can be home made from scratch is. For fans of The Diner's legendary flapjacks - good news - you can get 'em here too even if Marks two-time state champion chili didn't make the trip down Main Street (I would guess that is a function of Juan's respect for Mark's legacy - because you KNOW he knows the recipe by heart).

Most of the meals come with potatoes: home fries with onions, fries or hash browns (the latter two not fresh made but rather SYSCO specials - fine though). The house-made chorizo is loose and carmelized a touch on the flattop and just spicy enough to get it done without scaring away the timid or meek. There are three sauces: verde, ranchero and red -- all are Juan's own creations and they are outstanding. When Juan cooks eggs he gets them just right and when he puts them over easy on a pair of pork tamales covered in red it is sublime. The tamales boast a generous 1:1 pork to masa ratio and have to be some of the finest anywhere north of Texas.

This blog is to be continued with more photos and more food -- as we eat it. Stay tuned and check back often!

Juan Del Fuego on Urbanspoon


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