My oldest memory of Cafe 501 is cramming for the AP U.S. History exam with my friends and sharing an epi de blé, or sheaf of wheat, baguette. Shaped like, you guessed it, a sheaf of wheat or an olive branch, the baguette can be easily torn into individual loaves, which we slathered in butter and ate greedily.
The aftermath was likely terrifying for whoever the poor soul working that day was. Crumbs everywhere. The horror. The horror.
That was...oh god...that was more than 20 years ago. Holy hell I’m old.
While I’ve aged anything-but-gracefully, the last couple of decades have been very good to Cafe 501.
The once-bakery has since expanded into lunch, dinner, brunch and a second location while continuing to make some really delicious bread. They’ve also become a REALLY great place to get drunk. A drink, I mean. One, maybe two drinks. Tops. Then you, the responsible adult, will get in a cab and go to your home and take some aspirin, drink a glass of water and lay out your church clothes for tomorrow morning.
GM Ryan Young is kind of a liquor genius. Check out this menu. Keep an eye out for seasonal cocktail variations, which are ridiculously creative, delicious and, yes, intoxicating.
The restaurants also do a series of special prix fixe menu dinners each month and I highly recommend you check them out. Some dishes are a preview of upcoming menu items while others are just tasty seasonal one-offs that you’ll never see again. Plus, the booze.
Not long ago, I was perusing Instagram, as I am wont to do, when I saw some posts from Cafe 501 executive chef Joel Wingate. The pictures of the dishes made my mouth water and my eyes sting, though that last part was probably allergies.
Joel is a Dallas boy who only started cooking professionally a few years ago, but with a number of great mentors he’s quickly found his culinary voice.
One thing he’s figured out is something I desperately hope all chefs will learn — the art of balance. Tasting his dishes, it was easy to see how well thought out each plate is.
Cafe 501 does a great job of keeping dishes not only seasonal, but bringing fresh tastes to Oklahoma. Like many other restaurants, the owners and managers do a fair amount of traveling and keep their eyes open for emerging trends.
With fall and winter approaching, Wingate’s new menu items are definitely geared toward the warm and cuddly. He isn’t shying away from heavier fare, but what’s so wonderful is the way he balances it with lighter flavors that add brightness to each bite.
Pan-roasted chicken ($19) needs a better name, frankly. It’s descriptive, sure, but doesn’t it sound like what you’d find everywhere?
It’s an airline chicken breast (that’s skin-on chicken breast with the drumette still attached) that is roasted to perfection. Crispy skin, tender juicy meat. But as good as chicken is — and let’s not try to pretend you don’t like chicken, okay? It’s basic, but so are we — it’s the beurre blanc lemon pan sauce that sells it.
Beurre blanc is a white butter sauce and the lemon and white wine give it a burst of brightness and a light counterbalance to the heaviness of the meat and fat.
Under the meat is a ceci bean cassoulet. That’s what they call it on the menu. They’re garbanzo beans/chickpeas cooked with bacon until they’re perfectly tender. Cassoulet is usually made with cannellini beans or smaller white beans, but the chickpeas add a heft and texture that’s lovely and filling.
Let’s talk about Della Terra pasta.
Made in Oklahoma by chef Chris Becker, Della Terra pasta is the real deal. It’s extruded through brass dyes, which sounds fancy. But apparently it’s also functional, because it gives the noodles a rough texture.
“Dude, I don’t want to eat any sandpaper linguine, okay?”
It’s not rough like that, you moron. Besides, you’re going to cook it, which softens it considerably. The rough texture isn’t for your tongue. It’s there to soak up and hold onto sauce. It’s the difference between most of the store-bought pasta you make at home and the kind restaurants like Cafe 501 creates.
Wingate’s new menu includes a local handmade rigatoni ($21) using Della Terra pasta tossed with a hearty bolognese sauce.
Oh, goodness, bolognese. What a blessing, what a curse. A great bolognese is meaty and rich without oiliness and a deep tomato flavor that comes from hours of cooking.
Unfortunately, bolognese is what a lot of people think they’re making when they mix ground beef into Prego sauce. Hey, no judgement. I do it. It’s fine. It’s just not a quarter as tasty as bolognese like 501 makes.
Wingate uses beef, Italian sausage and bacon (foregoing the traditional veal) to create a sauce that has a lovely tickle of heat and a full, mouth-coating flavor. On top of the pasta is a parsley gremolata and fresh parmesan. The gremolata is a treat, adding bit of fresh green flavor and some crunch.
The mildly chewy pasta, the crispiness of the gremolata and the supple tenderness of the meaty sauce makes for a dish that is at once intensely familiar, but extremely well done.
Every meal of pasta should be this good. Wingate gives a lot of love to Della Terra, but I hope Becker knows how well Cafe 501 is treated his product. It’s a match made in foodie heaven.
Are you the kind of person who likes steak?
Of course you are. Even vegans like steak. It’s one of the things they miss about being non-vegans.
Well, steak lovers, the steak frites ($32) at 501 is a beautiful little preparation.
Rather than using a more traditionally and fattier ribeye, Wingate makes his steak frites with filet mignon. It’s a bold choice, trading flavor for texture. The ultra-tender filet is far from flavorless, mind you, but it requires more work and seasoning to give it that big, meaty burst you might be seeking.
And, especially in a dish like steak frites, the beef needs to be able to stand up to flavor of the hand-cut fries. Big props to the compound herb butter, because that, paired with the sear, adds a ton of taste.
The fries are expertly done and, I hope, well appreciated. We may take good fries for granted, given the amount of burgers we eat, but when a restaurant like this puts them on the menu, you’re in for a treat. Oh, and check out that lemon aioli under the fries. Get a little of it on the fries and pair with a bite of steak. Goodness me.
The french green beans are gorgeous, tender crisp add a nice light element to the plate.
Quick shoutout to one of my all-time favorite dishes on the Cafe 501 menu — cast-iron chicken ($18) is literally served in a cast-iron bucket. It’s a load of creamy polenta covered in sauteed spinach, tender sauteed chicken and red wine and tomato sauce. It’s been on the menu for a few years and there’s a reason why. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
But that’s true for Cafe 501 all the way. I love this place. If you’re in Edmond, stop by Cafe 501 and say hi to Joel. But the Classen Curve location is awesome, too. You can’t go wrong at either one.
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Steak + Frites - $32
Pan-roasted chicken and cassoulet - $19
Local rigatoni and bolognese - $21
Cast-iron chicken - $18