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Polo’s Mexican Restaurant Expansion, Contraction Threatens Universe With Instability While Serving Up Delicious, Affordable Sizzling Fajitas

Johnny Forada
Rick Vazquez is one of the heirs of the Polo's empire
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ADA, Okla. -- There is a legend among the citizens of Ada, Oklahoma about Polo’s Mexican Restaurant. Around 1975, a young man named Polo Vazquez was working at a local Mexican restaurant and wanted to move up in the worker hierarchy. His boss denied him the opportunity. So Vazquez quit, started his own restaurant, and put his former boss out of business.

Some versions of the story say the boss left town. Others say he lost everything he had and died a broken man. A few say he was forced to work for his former employee.

That’s the story, which I’ve heard told and retold in various forms. It isn’t so much an urban legend as a piece of gossip that has been passed around Ada so many times it has taken on the glowing luster of old brass. But when I asked Polo’s son about the story, he was tight-lipped.

"I guess my father worked for somebody before." (Shrug, shrug) "I don’t know."

Yes, that former boss is definitely dead and his skull is being used as part of Day of the Dead decorations at the Vazquez house. You can take that to the bank. In the meantime, however, let’s focus on flaming fajitas.

Nothing says "classy joint" like a waiter setting food on fire right next to your table, and beyond a doubt the signature dish at Polo’s is the flaming fajita which comes in various meat combinations. Sooner or later every young romantic couple in Ada ends up at Polo’s, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes, as blue flame marries meat to heat.

A one-man fajita for loners is $14.55, not a bad deal if you want to be sitting all by yourself in a restaurant when everybody’s head turns instinctively toward the flash and sizzle of flame. A far more popular item is the two person fajita at $22.75. Because the hot metal dish continues to cook the meat while you make your own fajitas (you can have corn or flour tortilla shells) the dish starts out piping hot and sizzling and then settles comfortably into warm, slightly charred goodness.

I’ve seen friends almost stab each other with a fork, competing over deliciously blacked pieces of onion, pork, peppers or...well, you can’t always tell what the blackened object is, but it’s yummy. If you don’t like blackened food (and that’s fair, some people don’t) best to make your move early in the meal. If you love blackened food, like I do, then just wait to make your move toward the end.

I asked Rick, son of the famous Polo Vazquez, what is used to set the fajitas on fire?

"Vodka," he said, grinning. Then he added, quickly, "Diluted vodka. We don’t want the flame to get out of control."

Yes, an out-of-control flame indeed. Like a supernova. But what happens when a supernova collapses upon itself?

That’s right: a black hole. Well, OK, admittedly it all depends on the original mass of the star involved. But consider the interesting conundrum of Polo’s pattern of expanding and contracting, creating an unstable situation where either Polo’s will become extinct (a terrible day it would be for Ada) or, in the alternative, the entire universe will eventually become a Polo’s restaurant.

Consider. Polo’s started with one building in 1975. But in the early 1980s the restaurant expanded into a nearby retail store. In the early to mid-1990s, Polo’s expanded in the other direction, taking over a carpet store. Only a local who has been to Polo’s a number of times can avoid getting lost in that conglomeration of buildings which have become spacious, sprawling dining areas and a little tucked away bar.

Given the rate of expansion, the whole universe could eventually become a Polo’s, right?

But, maddeningly, Polo’s is also contracting. There was a satellite restaurant in Seminole, Oklahoma at the historic train station until a couple years ago. But that restaurant closed. Then there was a Polo’s in Ardmore. That one also closed. But the old train station in Seminole is still a Mexican restaurant, just not a Polo’s. How to calculate something like that? And where is the missing body of the guy who allegedly thwarted the ambition of young Polo Vazquez? What would his skull say, if it could speak?

It seems like only the day-to-day management of Polo Vazquez himself can deliver the kind of delicious, highly affordable product which has Polo’s in Ada packed night after night. Polo’s works in Ada. It doesn’t seem to work anywhere else. But the whole extended Vazquez family appears to work at Polo’s. Won’t they be wanting their own restaurants one day? Can the formula ever be replicated and produce a successful Polo’s outside of Ada?

Buying a meal at Polo’s is like buying two meals, one to be warmed up later from the doggy box, because the portions are so generous. One night I went there and had bottomless chips with two kinds of salsa (the bowls are color coded to hotness) as well as a Diet Coke for $2.17, tax included.

"Is that all?" I asked, almost begging to be charged for the chips.

That was all. Two dollars, seventeen cents for bottomless cola, bottomless chips, and unlimited salsa. If I dine with a group of friends who don’t worry about what’s left of the flaming fajitas in the center serving dishes, I can eat free for two more days. One entree comes with two fried eggs on the top. If I play my cards right, that’s breakfast, too.

Given a choice of anything on the menu BESIDES the signature sizzling fajitas, you can’t go wrong with Tres Hombres; a chile relleno, taco and your choice of rice or refried beans for $12.49. But there are dishes with just as much food on the plate that come in around nine bucks. In the meantime, one gobbles down so many chips that when the meal arrives you’re already thinking "I need a doggy box." I call it Mexican Restaurant Chip Syndrome. I don’t know if anybody else calls it that, but it’s not unique to Polo’s.

Lots of families with children frequent Polo's due to its affordable cuisine (with unlimited free chips!) but the place is so large I’ve never seen anybody forced to sit near a fussy child who wasn’t duty-bound by DNA or some kind of relationship commitment.

Now it’s time to be critical. I can’t write a restaurant review and not say something critical, so here’s the best I can do.

Polo’s doesn’t have menudo, a dish Mexican food purist such as myself consider the difference between authentic Mexican versus an American interpretation of Mexican cuisine. But who knows if Ada is ready for a spicy soup of hominy and tripe which is reputed to be an effective hangover cure? (The most traditional Mexican restaurants only serve the dish on weekends for this reason)

Yet menudo, once daringly sampled, can become an addiction. I would ask Polo’s, nay, I would beg them:

Could you serve menudo just ONCE A YEAR?

But even without menudo on the menu, If you’re passing through Ada, you can’t go wrong with Polo’s.

Just don’t expect any answers about what happened to Polo Vazquez’s unfortunate former boss.

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Johnny Forada
Johnny Forada is the moniker of a writer whose true identity will be revealed in good time,...
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