Frank Willis originally had no plans to turn his Alpha Grill food truck, which he has operated since 2016, into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“But I guess you could say ‘The Man’ made it happen,” Willis said, laughing. “I’d have police officers, people from the sheriff’s station, people from the health department, coming by, and they always asked when I was going to open a sit-down place.”
Finally, Willis relented and opened Alpha Grill in Mall 31 — on March 31, two weeks into the initial city lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were able from the start to do carry-out and curbside pick-up,” Willis said. “And the strange thing — business actually got better. People were seeking us out.”
When restrictions on restaurants were eased earlier this year, Willis set up tables in the mall’s hallway to provide for more socially distanced dining.
“Our customers have really appreciated that,” said Quinta Willis, who runs the business with husband Frank.
Alpha Grill is very much a family business, with Quinta handling the front of the house while Frank cooks. The couple’s 17-year-old son, Deivon, is in charge of smoking the ribs that are one of the restaurant’s top sellers.
“Everybody here is family,” Quinta Willis said.
Frank Willis calls what he does “Barbecue with a Twist,” which can include finding ways to combine Mexican, Cajun and Caribbean foods and flavors with traditional Oklahoma barbecue.
“That’s the thing I love to do — just thinking up new things to put together and see what comes from it,” he said. “I know some people are a little surprised when they look over the menu — they’re like, ‘What’s a barbecue joint doing selling burritos?’ But once they try it, they like it.”
We tried one of these experiments, the Alpha Smoked Gumbo ($10), during a recent visit. It combines chunks of smoked chicken, shrimp and slices of hot link and Polish sausage with green onions and rice in a peppery broth. And the whole thing comes topped with a meaty beef baby-back rib.
The broth is a bit thinner than most gumbos we’ve had, but the cayenne-forward heat is nicely balanced — enough that one feels a pleasant burn on the tongue but not so strong as to clear the sinuses. The chicken, which in our serving was mostly white meat, was tender, and the eight good-sized shrimp were perfectly cooked and well-seasoned.
But the real star was the rib. The meat had a gentle smokiness, with the rub giving it a hint of sweetness. It took the slightest tug to pull the meat off the bone, which personally I prefer to it falling off the bone, as it usually means the meat is tender and juicy. That was the case here — in fact, I wished the gumbo came with a few more ribs.
The Alpha Smoked Gumbo will be offered as a special during October. For those wanting gumbo in a more substantial format, one can order the smoked turkey legs that Alpha Grill serves Thursdays stuffed with the gumbo ($20). The legs alone are $12.
From the standing menu, we chose the Omega ($12.99), one of the specialty sandwiches. It’s an impressive — and impressively messy — construction of smoked bologna, hot links and pulled pork topped with coleslaw and a choice of sauce.
Each of the individual elements are good to great, the latter being the pulled pork that almost melted in the mouth (except for those stray bits of highly seasoned bark, which were delicious in their own way), and the slaw, made of roughly chopped red and green cabbage in a mayo-based dressing that was rich and sweet, with just the right vinegary tang to balance it out.
Manage to get everything in one bite — or in a single forkful, as we did — and it just works.
Other choices include a barbecue sundae ($11.99) that layers potato salad, slaw and barbecue beans with a choice of two meats; the Fatt Alpha potato ($22.99), which tops a large baked potato with three meats and two ribs; and BBQ Fries ($8.99-$14.99), with onions, cheese, sour cream, ranch and barbecue sauce, along with a choice of meats.
All sauces, rubs and sides are made in-house. One of the newest is called Tennessee Honey, which had a mellow sweetness and robust spice. It’s good, but the meats we sampled needed no sauce to be flavorful.
The Alpha Grill food truck remains active. “We got a brand new truck, and we still take it all over the place,” Frank Willis said.
Another tradition that has been a part of Alpha Grill from the start is helping people in the neighborhood.
“At the end of the day, whatever we have left over I will box up as meals and we take them to the homeless people that are in this area,” Quinta Willis said. “It may seem a little thing, but it’s something we know we need to do and that we want to do.”
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James D. Watts Jr.
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