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Bold and the Bountiful

Chef Alfredo Vargas marries two beloved dining traditions at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino’s Buffet: authentic and unique dishes and all-you-can-eat options.

Michele Chiappetta
Marc Rains
July 29, 2017

Tulsa has a surprising number of highly recognized chefs these days. What is not a surprise is that chef Alfredo Vargas from Buffet at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa is one of them.

In the 1980s, a young Vargas brought his dreams and ambitions from Mexico City to the restaurant scene of Southern California. It didn’t take long for his love for food and cooking to propel him from an entry-level dish washer to running restaurant kitchens. From Denny’s to mom-and-pop restaurants to Sheraton Hotels, Vargas has challenged himself through the years to constantly improve his skills in the kitchen, all in pursuit of his passion for success.

Although Vargas was not able to gain any formal culinary training in his early days, the opportunity to work under talented chefs has proven to be excellent hands-on experience to rival any school of cooking. Through the years, as he has apprenticed with many well-known chefs, including an executive chef to the White House and various casino chefs in California, among others, Vargas has gained a lot of skill in the kitchen.

“To me, it’s important to learn as much as I can learn,” says Vargas. “Most of my experience is just cooking in the field and learning as we go. I made the decision that I have to work hard to pull myself to a high level. It’s been a journey. Every day we learn something new.”

His dedication to continually grow as a chef has led to many opportunities in his life. Even Vargas’ entry into the executive chef role in the Tulsa area began in a non-conventional way.

Chicken Mole with Mexican Rice (Photo: Marc Rains)
Chicken Mole with Mexican Rice (Photo: Marc Rains)

“My wife’s grandparents are Native Americans, Cherokees originally,” says Vargas. “She used to come to Tulsa and tell me how beautiful it is here. So, I came and bought a house here in Tulsa, and one day I stopped by the Cherokee Casino. It was not a Hard Rock yet.” In true Vargas fashion, he took a chance and got a break.

“I checked to see if they had any opportunities for executive sous chefs, or anything like that,” he says. “They said, ‘We don’t have one open, but we’d be more than willing to open one for you.’”

And just like that, executive chef positions began opening up for Vargas all over the place. Opportunities showed themselves back in California and then in Louisiana. He took them for yet another chance to learn more, to become even better at what he does. All the while, he had a growing family in Tulsa that he longed to be near. Some 10 months ago, Hard Rock Casino wooed Vargas back to Tulsa and to his waiting family, where he now oversees the popular and busy Buffet.

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa’s Buffet has become a huge favorite of regulars, every day of the week. Monday features Vargas’ specialty, which is Mexican. Being from Mexico and Southern California, Vargas is able to make Mexican Monday authentic and unique at the same time. You can snag a plate of guajillo chili and garlic adobo crusted brisket or chipotle barbecue ribs, to name just a few, all of which make this buffet no ordinary experience. It is because of Vargas and the rest of the staff’s attention to variety without sacrificing quality, that they can lure people from hours away, including Oklahoma City, says Vargas.

“Two months ago, we started a sushi bar on Fridays and Saturdays. Some people said, ‘Sushi, really?’ Yes. We accomplished it by training ourselves,” he says. “We’ve got many, many expert chefs in the casino right now.” 

He smartly takes advantage of the expertise for the Buffet’s menu. “We’ve relied on the chefs who know the various concepts very well,” he says, “so that way, those who like Cajun, for example, can come and enjoy really good Cajun food.” Or anything else you might like, since it’s probably available at one of the Buffet’s many specialty stations.

Carne Asada with Poblano Rice (Photo: Marc Rains)
Carne Asada with Poblano Rice (Photo: Marc Rains)

For those thinking of visiting the Buffet at Hard Rock for the first time, Vargas says that whatever unique dishes they may be serving that night, they’ll always have the comfort food Oklahomans expect.

“A lot of people are really into the comfort food, like fried chicken,” says Vargas. “They like good, crispy fried chicken. If you don’t have fried chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and catfish, then you’re in trouble [here]. Those are staple items. Every day the menu is different and people love that, but there are some things you can’t change that are staples in Oklahoma.”

People visit the casino from all over the world, and Vargas and his staff go out of their way to find new and interesting dishes to please the palate. However, it’s the regulars who seem to inspire the kitchen staff the most. Coming out from the kitchen to mingle with the customers is one of Vargas’ favorite things to do.

“We come out to see how everything is,” Vargas says, “and people tell us, ‘We will come back.’ And you know what the most beautiful thing is? We see them again. They come in and they recall us by our names, and we learn their names. It’s special. We talk about what they love to eat and try to make sure they have that when they come in. They will try something new too, and we will get compliments on it, and that makes it all worth it.”

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa
777 W. Cherokee St. | Catoosa

Monday-Friday: 7-10 a.m. ($8.95)
Saturday-Sunday: 7-10 a.m. ($8.95)

Saturday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. ($10.95)

Monday-Friday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. ($10.95)

Sunday-Thursday: 4-9 p.m. ($17.95)
Friday-Saturday: 4-11 p.m. ($23.95)