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Light my fire

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With no less than three self-portraits of Frida Kahlo on its dining room walls, the controversial painter could be Juan del Fuego Mexi Diner’s patron saint.

Kahlo’s impassive gaze times three, colorful Mexican folk art and wrought-iron candelabras decorate the diminutive space that seats around 55. On weekends those seats usually are filled from 7 a.m. until close at 2 p.m. Service is fast and efficient, but every dish is cooked to order. With only word-of-mouth advertising and in an off-the-beaten-path strip mall, owner Juan Herrera’s diner has become Norman’s hot new destination for brunch.

In a sense, Juan’s is not new at all. Herrera honed his skills at the nationally recognized The Diner on Main Street for 17 years before opening his own place. The two joints share similarities, with Juan del Fuego being more Latino-centric. The youngest of 10 children, Herrera learned to cook in Celaya, Mexico.

“I was right there by my mom at all times,” Herrera said. “Learning by watching her is how I did it.” He learned well. Juan’s pork burrito ($7.99) with grilled onions, potatoes and green chiles wrapped in a soft flour tortilla feels, looks and tastes like it came from a Mexicana cocina.

The menu is divided into breakfast and lunch sections, but everything is available from open to close. A server promptly delivered a relleno omelet ($7.99). It is a culinary celebration of roasted poblano pepper flavoring the eggs, along with red onion, garlic and cream cheese. An avocado garnish makes it a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Most breakfasts are served with crispy browned potatoes and toast. Customer favorites include huevos rancheros ($5.99), accompanied by blue corn tortillas and black beans. Another favorite is the pork tamales and eggs ($7.99). As a nod to Herrera’s roots at The Diner, the menu has an Anglo-friendly option of handbreaded chicken-fried steak and two eggs ($7.50) next to the Fiesta Plato ($5.99). Okie à la carte doesn’t neglect biscuits and gravy ($2.50). For the unadventurous, there’s a cheeseburger ($5.99) or grilled chicken sandwich ($7.50).

Herrera has a talent for putting his own stamp on dishes, such as Chilaquileggs ($5.99) that resemble crunchy corn chip migas with red sauce. Daily chalkboard specials include chile verde, à la carte posole and fish tacos ($7.99), served only on Fridays. The busy kitchen area is open and easily observable from most of the dining room and just feet away from the countertop seats.

“I’m cooking everything right there,” Herrera said. “Part of my Mexican culture is that food should be fresh and homemade.” Poblano sauce, salsa fresco, red, green and ranchero sauces are blended daily by staff. The spicy chorizo is front-and-center in a few dishes and is made in-house.

You can order an Iguana Melt sandwich ($6.99), which is poblano strips, chorizo and cheese on grilled bread, not roasted lizard on a stick. Roasted green chile melt ($6.99) is a south-of-the-border take on the diner standard — the patty melt. The chile in this burger was spicier than anything else we tasted, including tamales ($8.50) and green chile chicken enchiladas ($8.50). The Mexican meals are served with rice and a choice of black or pinto beans.

“On weekends, we mostly sell breakfasts,” Herrera said. Besides a dozen meat, egg and potato platters, there are also specialty pancakes. Blueberry ($5.99), banana and chocolate-chip flapjacks are popular, along with banana French toast. Kiddy meals are all under $5 and include milk, juice or a soft drink.

“What I enjoy most is seeing people come in and being able to put a smile on their face because they like what they’re eating,” he said. “That makes me happy.”

Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or service when appropriate.

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