North Central News

Okra: cooking Italian by way of Memphis

By Patty Talahongva
It’s not exactly easy to find Okra Cookhouse and Cocktails (5813 N. 7th St.) because it’s not visible from 7th Street, but if you turn east at Palo Verde Drive, just south of Bethany Home Road, and drive around the back, you’ll find the doors to this Southern food haven tucked into North Central Phoenix.

“It’s probably one of our biggest challenges,” admits Cullen Campbell, chef and co-owner, of the location on the backside of the recently revamped Crown Plaza. Still, he likes the location and the fact that his longtime dream is now a reality.

Campbell was born in Arizona but raised in Memphis, where they say supper rather than dinner. His family had a farm in Arkansas and he was raised on Southern food. His parents are in the medical field, so his foray into food was his own idea.

Cullen Campbell, chef and co-owner at Okra Cookhouse and Cocktails, prepares fresh herbs for a dish to be served at the Southern eatery with an Italian twist (photo courtesy of Okra).

“I was cooking even in high school,” he recalls. “I did a lot of pastas,” cooking for friends mostly. He worked in a restaurant in Memphis, at first washing dishes but soon was promoted to prepping food for the Mediterranean eatery. “When I saw some chefs cook, I’d think, ‘Wow, I should try this out.’”

When it came time for college, he started in Memphis and transferred to Arizona State University, where he majored in Business Management.

He and his business partner, Micah Olson, own and operate Crudo and Bar Crudo, both very successful restaurants in Phoenix with highly acclaimed cocktails. Olson is a mixologist. But Campbell had a yearning.

“I’ve always wanted to do something Southern,” he says. “I miss food from back home.”

He took dishes from his favorite restaurants in Memphis and put them on his menu at Okra. The result is Southern cooking with an Italian twist. Campbell says he is pleased with the results. He urges first timers to try the fried chicken, which has proven to be a customer favorite. “People just love it,” he says.

Campbell’s favorite item is the potpie with pork cheek meat, which is another popular item. “The meat is so tender you can break it off with a fork.”

The snacks and shares menu features items that range from $5 to $16 a plate. You can try grilled okra and quark (a soft cheese drizzle), fried headcheese and herbed vinegar, mac n’ cheese balls with marinara sauce, or grilled oysters with garlic butter and parsley. “A lot of people really enjoy that, you get a few plates for the table and everybody tries everything.”

The chicken wings are cooked in a smoker rather than deep-fried, and the added barbecue sauce gets caramelized in the process. Okra also has a daily special which ranges from lasagna to a fish fry.

The kids’ menu is simple: a cheese focaccia, hamburger (plain or with cheese) or crispy mac n’ cheese balls. Vegetarian options are on the menu and the kitchen will do its best to accommodate vegans with special orders.

Dessert includes homemade pies from local pie proprietor, the Pie Snob, which offers seasonal options. Cooked in house are the canned biscuit donuts. “It’s one of our biggest sellers,” Campbell says. If you want to give it that Southern flair, order the donuts with chicken skins. Yes, you read that right.

Southern specialty drinks also can be found at the bar. You can try five different blends of mint juleps, as well as a selection of bourbon-based drinks. Campbell selects the wine list and his partner takes care of the beer and bourbon. There are drink specials after 10 p.m.

Food is his life and so Campbell takes vacations with food in mind. “I actually went on an eating trip with my cousin and we ate just about everything,” he says with a laugh. He likes taking trips and trying out restaurants owned by friends in other states. “They’re fun because I don’t get a lot of time off.”

Like most families, Campbell’s relatives get together and cook huge meals during the holidays—but he says he’s not the one to be found in the kitchen. “Actually, my aunts are very good cooks and so is my mom.”

Campbell calls the North Central area home and appreciates the people who like to visit locally owned restaurants. He does have a new year’s goal and that is to do more catering in the new year. “I’m always a firm believer that you work around what people need.”

Okra is open 4-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Fridays, 3-11 p.m. Saturdays and 3-9 p.m. Sundays. Happy Hour is Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. and 3-6 p.m. on weekends.

See the menu at www.okraaz.com, like the restaurant’s Facebook page or follow it on Instagram. For more information, call 602-296-4147.

 

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