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Review: Old Cha-Cha’s now has puffy tacos, borscht and burgers

October 2, 2018

Note: This is a Just a Taste review, which the Express-News does soon after a restaurant or bar opens to give our first impressions.

Cha-Cha’s made it for 30 years in Leon Valley with Mexican food. When its run ended last summer, it made sense for the new tenant, Oky Doky Restaurant and Bar, to fly the Mexican flag.

But Oky Doky forged the city’s most unusual culinary coalition when it also hoisted the flags of Ukraine, Russia and the polynational Eastern Europe bloc, along with the Stars and Stripes. Puffy tacos, borscht and burgers. It’s a brave new world.

Brave doesn’t mean reckless for Oky Doky, though. Each nationality gets its own space on the menu, and nothing crosses over. Call it peaceful coexistence, with influences from owners Inna Ramos, who was born in Ukraine, and her Mexican-American husband, Sal Ramos.

The sprawling restaurant, with a full bar and a children’s playscape, has been thoroughly scrubbed down and redecorated from its Cha-Cha’s days. Rooms were painted to honor each culture, including a U.S.A. wing with so much red, white and blue, it could march in the Olympics.

On the menu: What in the world do you order in the new world order? I can order puffy tacos and enchiladas all over the city. But borscht? Oky Doky’s in rarefied company with a Russian-Ukrainian borscht that showcased beets and the vermillion broth they generated, fortified with beef and cabbage for a stew at once sweet, earthy and savory ($11).

The Eastern Bloc parade rolled on with a cold Russian salad ($8.50) of sweet peas, potatoes, eggs and mayo that evoked family reunion potato salad from aunts who really knew how to make potato salad — and who really loved dill. Not enough dill for you? Try Oky Doky’s okroshka ($9.25), a refreshingly cool herbal soup with a buttermilk base, boiled eggs, potatoes and onions. It’s Go-Gurt for grownups.

If pelmeni dumplings don’t ring a bell, let me help: Picture wonton soup in thin broth with onions. Don’t change that sensory memory one bit, except for more bitter spices inside the shiny little dumplings. At $15 for a modest bowl, served without the salad promised on the menu, it rang the only sour value note at lunch.

Oky Doky’s Mexican menu scored a few early hits with puffy tacos ($9.50) and carne asada ($18). On appropriately crispy shells with soft interiors, the tacos were packed with tangy, braised chicken tinga and tender pulled beef with shades of coral still showing. And San Antonians who know their mom-and-pop asada plates would come to see that Oky Doky’s thin, bone-in steak with grilled strips of cactus and whole green onions is one of the better examples.

But neither a hard cheese enchilada ($2.50 a la carte) nor a bland chicken tortilla soup ($6 for small) would land a contract in the city’s massive Tex-Mex industrial complex.

On the American side, a Big Kahuna burger with black olives, mozzarella and Parmesan ($11.50) did most of the talking. But with an oversize, chalky bun and a modest beef patty and a side of waxy, undercooked fries, it didn’t say much. Neither did a small tumbler of cheese fondue ($10) with dried-out bread and mismatched cherry tomatoes for dipping. Call it queso fundido without the fun.

Part of me wishes Oky Doky could go all Eastern European all the time. But like “The Americans” on FX, sometimes you have to go along to get along.

Location: 5616 Bandera Road, 210-549-3268, Facebook: @Okydokyrestaurantandbar

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday

Mike Sutter is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic. Read more of his stories on mysanantonio.com and ExpressNews.com, our subscriber site. | msutter@express-news.net | Twitter: @fedmanwalking | Instagram: @fedmanwalking

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