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Cover Story - Posted February 20, 2015 9:11 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

The List: 15 Things You Need to Eat and Drink in 2015

In Amarillo, one of our favorite pastimes is eating a good meal at our favorite restaurants. And we can be creatures of habit. In fact, most of us can probably count the usual places we dine out on one hand. That keeps our choices simple – the burger place tonight or Tex-Mex? – but simplicity leads to boredom. Despite the variety of local choices, we hear often from locals anxious for that one popular national chain restaurant to finally open, or wishing the place they love in Dallas would find its way to town.

Here’s an idea: Instead of waiting for some outside business to satisfy our hunger, what if we stepped away from routine and branched out? You may not realize it, but in recent years Amarillo has maintained a steady pace with the national foodie revolution. Our city is a Mecca of small, locally owned restaurants, from hidden dives and greasy spoons to classy, unexpected delights.
The good stuff is already here. Many of us just haven’t discovered it yet.

So for this issue, we compiled a list of some of the dishes and drinks we find ourselves recommending to readers and friends, many of whom may not have even heard of the restaurant. We trekked all over the city – from the extreme southwest to the extreme northeast – to create a diverse list. There are no chains here. The price points vary. But each of these establishments is locally owned, operated by good people who are passionate about offering quality food and drink to their patrons.

Our advice? Don’t let 2015 pass without trying all 15 of these suggestions. Drive a little further. Go out of the way. Try something new. Life is too short not to pursue a little culinary adventure.


[Food]

Elk Tenderloin: OHMS
A Tyler Street fixture in the lengthy shadow of the Chase Tower, OHMS has a well-earned reputation for its tasteful live music, signature martinis, and classy downtown ambiance. But the real secret of owner Mary Fuller’s establishment is the food itself. OHMS is vintage Amarillo by way of Santa Fe – upscale dining at its flavorful best.

If you’ve never enjoyed dinner at OHMS, one of the best places to start is the Elk Tenderloin. Why? Because in a town where beef rules – and rightly so – this is something rare. A lean elk tenderloin is higher in protein and lower in fat than beef or chicken. To our taste buds, the flavor of seared elk is tender, clean, and carries just a hint of sweetness. Mary’s presentation, with wild mushrooms and butternut squash risotto, is as memorable as the taste itself. 619 S. Tyler St., 373.3233, ohmscafe.com

Butter Curry Chicken: Amarillo Hut
Despite a vibrant and influential Indian population, authentic Indian cuisine has been hard to come by in Amarillo. But it’s getting easier, thanks to relative newcomer Indian Hut. The “hut” name is apt: It’s located in a tiny building on a triangle-shaped lot across from Sam Houston Middle School on Western. There’s very little seating other than an outdoor patio area, so take-out is the specialty here. Everyone’s been raving about Indian Hut since owner Ifrah Kanwal opened it in 2014.

When we called to place our order, we were blown away by the gracious and friendly service. The small staff helped us translate the menu, asked questions about our preferences, and guided us to dishes they thought we’d love. They were right. The butter curry chicken with basmati rice and naan bread was amazing. Affordable and freshly prepared – with both traditional Indian meat and vegetarian options – this is fast food you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating. 4201 Bushland Blvd., 576.3400

Quinoa Cake: Yellow City Street Food
Well-traveled locals – whether they’ve explored New York or San Francisco on foot or simply visited Austin a time or two – have long lamented the lack of an authentic street-food culture here. Those prayers were answered when Scott Buchanan and Rin Roberts opened Yellow City Street Food two years ago this April in a cozy drive-up near 10th and Madison. YCSF is inspired by street food worldwide, offering affordable, inventive dishes from Korean barbecue pork tacos to a Cuban sandwich called The Castro.

It’s not all meat, though. From the beginning, YCSF’s vegetarian fried quinoa cakes have become one of the most beloved items on the menu. Crunchy on the outside and unbelievably good on the inside, a full or half order of these cakes comes topped with seasonal vegetable ragout, artisanal cheese, and a drizzle of the house’s rich crema. Arrive promptly, though, because the only limit to Chef Scott’s creativity comes from his supply. He uses only the freshest ingredients, which means the most popular items sell out fast. 909 S. Madison St., 223.2882

Cheese Fritters: Furrbie’s
Here’s an experiment: Find someone who lived in Amarillo in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Say the words “Char-Kel cheese fritter.” Then watch their eyes bug out as they get lost in a mouth-watering reverie. Maybe they were once high school students piled into a car during lunch, speeding to one of Char-Kel’s old-fashioned drive-up locations for a bag of these 99-cent delicacies. Or frazzled moms searching for a cheap snack to pacify their kids after preschool. Or businessmen needing a quick afternoon pick-me-up.

Whatever the case, the entire Amarillo population developed a hopeless addiction to the heavenly cheese fritter. If you missed out, imagine the best grilled-cheese sandwich you’ve ever had, with gooey American cheese between a subtle spread of mayo. Then? Batter and fry that sucker. OMG. When Char-Kel closed, the entire city mourned and went into withdrawals.

That is, until Furrbie’s came along. This whimsical diner has everything you’d love in a classic greasy-spoon joint, but what matters most is that, at long last, they serve cheese fritters. Real, live cheese fritters that taste exactly like Char-Kel’s. No kidding. Place your order, then get lost in the glorious fried nostalgia. 210 SW Sixth Ave., 220.0841

Barbacoa: El Manantial
Like an overstuffed burrito, Amarillo is a city bursting with Tex-Mex chains. But this small family restaurant on the northeast edge of the city gets our vote for some of the best true Mexican food in town. In fact, El Manantial is one of our favorite places to eat, period. Located at the east end of Amarillo Boulevard, it grew out of a catering business owned and operated by the Gonzalez clan. The family makes every dish on the menu from scratch, including the chips. Which means, even if you live on the other side of town, just about everything on the menu is worth the long drive.

One of our favorite dishes is El Manantial’s tender, moist, expertly seasoned barbacoa. This traditional, slow-cooked, Mexican cheek meat has just the right balance of flavor and texture, served shredded with soft corn or flour tortillas on the side. If your experience of barbacoa goes only as far as the Chipotle menu (Hint: While delicious, Chipotle’s is just barbecued beef shoulder with Mexican spices.), then it’s time you tried this authentic, melt-in-your mouth Mexican favorite. 3823 Amarillo Blvd. East, 383.1852


[Drink]

3319 Cocktail: Kushi Yama
Located on I-40, Kushi Yama Asian Tapas and Grill has the sleek sophistication of a high-end establishment in Las Vegas. You wouldn’t know it was locally owned. But this upscale cultural fusion restaurant – think Thai, Korean, Japanese and Chinese – is as homegrown as they come, offering one of the best dining atmospheres in the city. It’s calm, romantic, and delightfully modern.

While the extensive dinner menu is fantastic, of course, right now we love Kushi Yama’s creative and hand-crafted cocktail menu. Our favorite is the dangerously refreshing “3319,” named for the restaurant’s location at 3319 W. Interstate 40. Rumor has it this drink won a national bartender competition in Vegas. That’s no surprise. It starts with muddled strawberries and lemon-sour basil leaves, then gets topped with a combination of Hendrick’s Gin and a house-made rosemary-infused simple syrup. The 3319 goes down so smoothly, you’ll be ready for a refill soon after your first taste. That’s what makes it so dangerous. 3319 I-40 West, 358.2900, kushiyamarestaurant.com

Sangria: 575 Pizzeria
In Europe, you can’t call this fruity alcoholic beverage sangria unless it was actually made in Spain or Portugal. Luckily, U.S. labeling laws are not as strict, because the best sangria in Amarillo comes from 575 Pizzeria – approximately 5,000 miles and a few drops of ocean away from Portugal.

A traditional sangria consists of red wine, chopped fruit, a sweetener such as honey or orange juice, and a splash of brandy. The refreshing blood-colored drink (thus the name) is then chilled and stored, allowing the fruit to marinate with the rest of the ingredients. The result can be inconsistent from one restaurant to another – we’ve suffered through our share of sangrias that tasted too much like, well, fruity lotion – but the house-made 575 Signature Sangria is consistently spectacular. A cold glass makes the perfect complement to 575’s award-winning pizza. So does a second glass. 2803 Civic Circle, 331.3627 / 7320 Hillside Road, 322.5575, 575pizzeria.com

Whiskey Sour: Taste Dessert Bar
A typical whiskey sour can be challenging to make at home. It requires just the right amount of whiskey or Bourbon, combined with lemon juice and sugar. But in the hands of an expert mixologist, this drink can be one of the simplest and most refreshing cocktails at the bar.

That’s what you get with the whiskey sour at Taste Dessert Bar – one of the best of its kind in Amarillo. Once you order it, prepare for a cocktail even more pleasurable than expected, because Sean Anderson uses a secret ingredient. Hearkening back to the bygone practice of adding egg whites to this classic drink, Sean’s recipe results in a silkier, smoother texture that offsets the lemon and balances out the flavor. (It also adds a nice layer of froth on the top of the drink.) Sean uses Bulleit Bourbon to enhance that delicate finish, garnishes it with a skewer of house-made liqueur cherries, and suggests pairing the drink with Taste’s sweet southern biscuits. 1909 S. Georgia St., 398.2000, tastedessertbar.com

Lychee Martini: Rain
Few Amarillo restaurants offer the sleek urban vibe guests feel the moment they enter Rain Premier Sushi Bar & Lounge in downtown Amarillo. Housed in the landmark Paramount Theater building, it’s one of the city’s best-loved sushi lounges – especially during Happy Hour (4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and all day on Wednesday). That’s when the downtown crowd goes crazy for Rain’s invigorating, four-dollar lychee martini.

An exotic fruit from Southeast Asia, the lychee is a sweet, fragrant soapberry with a distinct floral aroma – and a well-made lychee martini ought to carry both the fruit’s distinct taste and fragrance. Made with smooth, high-quality vodka, this is another one of those drinks you find yourself sipping too quickly. You’ll definitely want another. Thanks to the chic atmosphere and great Happy Hour pricing, that decision is an easy one. 817 S. Polk St., 331.1155, rainsushiamarillo.com

Bloody Mary: Embers Steak House
Though locals probably remember its near-Georgia location as “the old David’s Steakhouse,” Embers has quietly built a name for its relaxed charm, delicious burgers and steaks, and a new Bloody Mary menu that already has people talking. Owner Chad Lardie told us he likens mixing a good Bloody Mary to the art of cooking – it’s all about bringing together the right ingredients into a satisfying whole – but discovered no one in town was really giving this classic cocktail its due.

He mixes an excellent traditional Bloody Mary, but Embers’ creative varieties are even more memorable. Lardie spices up his Southwest Mary with jalapeño vodka and a jalapeño base. The Texas Mary (according to the menu, “a bloody Mary that a Texan can be proud of”) is built on a smoky base of barbecue sauce and jalapeño vodka, and the Embers Bull contains beef bouillon and horseradish. We were especially taken with the heat level of the Samurai, featured on our cover, which contains Sriracha vodka, Sriracha sauce, soy sauce, and a fortune cookie garnish. 2721 Virginia Circle, 350.3303, amarilloembers.com


[Sweets]

Crème Brûlée: Public House
Crème brûlée is French for “burnt cream.” If you think that’s not the most appetizing description of this popular dessert, that’s because you haven’t tried the Crème Brûlée of the Day from Public House.
One of Amarillo’s newest upscale eateries, this gourmet gastropub advertises its wine list, craft beers, and cocktails. But the dessert is what keeps bringing us back to this quiet, intimate setting, time after time. The Public House’s partners include the owner of Crush Wine Bar & Deli and a former chef at OHMS, and their experience shows. The contrast between their crème brûlée‘s crunchy caramelized topping and the thick, creamy custard below is as delicious as any we’ve had. Chef Brent Lancour changes the flavor from one day to the next, but our favorite combo is an espresso-infused cream topped with the chef’s choice of berries. Trust us: We’ve downed a lot of crème brûlée. Going in the first time, our expectations were low. This one surprised us. 3333 S. Coulter St., Suite A, 398.7777, publichouseamarillo.com

BTS Cake: Café Marizon
Once located in the Marizon Building downtown on Polk Street and now operating out of a quaint little location on Hillside, Café Marizon has been part of Amarillo’s lunch scene for years. While they’ve always served great, old-fashioned burgers, sandwiches, and salads, we think of it as the place with the killer BTS cake. That is, when we can get it. It’s almost always sold out.

For those not hip to classic bakery lingo, BTS stands for “better than sex.” That’s a high standard to set for a dessert item, but this cake delivers. While there’s nothing particularly fancy about the combination of super-moist chocolate cake, whipped cream, and crushed toffee candy bars, this dessert is unfailingly delicious. Best of all, you can be assured it is handmade. Among restaurants where far too many after-dinner sweets come prepackaged and frozen from a big retail food distributor, that gives the BTS cake a leg up on you-know-what. 6151 Hillside Road, 374.3058

Assorted Donuts: Benjamin Donuts & Bakery
Amarillo is known for its passionate loyalty to the local, family-owned doughnut chain, but over the past decade, another indie bakery has built an outspoken and dedicated customer base. Benjamin Donuts is owned and operated by Benjamin and Linda Kim out of one location in southwest Amarillo (7003 Bell St.), one in Hereford, and another in Plainview.

Prepare to be surprised, especially by the variety of doughnut s and other breakfast foods available, particularly on weekends. The friendly staff prepares your donuts with custom toppings by request. Our favorites were the unusual flavors you don’t often find elsewhere in Amarillo, like green tea-glazed donuts (not as sweet as standard glazed), the scrumptious red velvet cake, and a bear claw that was crammed with apples and cinnamon. And don’t miss the mocha-filled puff donut. Instead of machine-injecting the filling, they’ll slice the donut in half and ice it like a cake. In a hurry? Call ahead and they’ll prepare your custom order for pick-up. 7003 Bell St., 353.1100, letseat.at/benjamindonutsbakery

Double Toffee Banana Pie: Roosters Coffee & Tea Co.
Tanner and Karolina Exposito bought this quaint, cozy shop back in 2011. He’s a trained chef who once worked in Alaska. She’s a self-taught baker who learned to cook from her mother and grandmother in Poland. When the two joined forces, they gave Amarillo one of its best options for fresh, quality food and excellent espresso.

We love their quiche and sandwiches, but stopped in recently to try a dessert we’d been hearing about: Rooster’s Double Toffee Banana Pie. We can’t figure out what delighted us most. Was it the from-scratch graham cracker crust? Or was it the creamy filling? The Expositos wouldn’t reveal their kitchen secrets, but we’re guessing the rich filling was a homemade pudding infused with caramel. Topped with a layer of banana slices beneath real whipped cream, and sprinkled with crushed toffee, this pie quickly earned its place on our dessert list. It truly was one of the best dishes we encountered while creating this issue. 3440 S. Bell St., 353.7309, silver-fork.com

Gluten-Free Brownies, Sticky Buns, and Cupcakes: Zinnia Bakery
Unless you’d been officially diagnosed with celiac disease, you may have wondered whether gluten-free baking and sweets were much more than just a dietary trend. The fact that the Girl Scouts introduced a gluten-free shortbread cookie to last year’s lineup should answer that question. Gluten-free is here to stay. Your second question is probably this: Are there any good gluten-free bakeries in Amarillo?

Zinnia Bakery provides the answer. Owner Heather Lancour has celiac disease, but that didn’t stop her from opening this fun, new bakery late in 2014. She bakes everything on the menu from scratch using one of nine different house-mixed gluten-free flours – and we’ve yet to find anything that wasn’t delicious. The sticky buns are amazing, the peanut butter cupcake will melt in your mouth, and the brownie is so big and rich you’ll want to share it with a friend. Best of all, we kept forgetting it was gluten-free. You won’t be able to tell, either. 5120 S. Western St., 803.9076

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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