Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

Dine of the Times

With a passion for cooking, international tutoring, and a golden ticket, Saul Paniagua, Jr. is dishing out a little bit of a fusion with Southern and Southwestern dishes at Fireside Grill.

Michele Chiappetta
Marc Rains
September 29, 2017

Born and raised in Albuquerque, N.M., executive sous chef Saul Paniagua, Jr. has taken an interesting journey through the culinary world before arriving at River Spirit Casino Resort a little over a year ago to head up River Spirit’s Fireside Grill. With his passion for cooking, love of culinary competitions, and unique approaches to flavor, Paniagua is smoking up the kitchen, all to the benefit of Green Country residents who love good food.

“I started cooking when I was 16, almost 17, so I’m going on 20 years doing this,” says Paniagua. “I got to work with a really good chef in New Mexico who started teaching me how to make sauces and pasta from scratch. I really appreciated the art.”

From those humble beginnings, Paniagua worked his way up in the kitchen ranks, becoming a kitchen supervisor while he was 18 and still in high school. Clearly, he was hooked on cooking, going on to work in several area hotels. Then at age 22, his cooking took him out of New Mexico to see the world via cruise ship.

“At the time, I was young and single and didn’t have anything going,” he says. “I signed on with the Norwegian Cruise Line. I’d never even been on an airplane, never left the desert. I applied for the job. They asked me why I wanted it, and I told them I wanted to travel and learn more. They hired me on the spot.”

Smoked Red Chile Pork Brisket (Photo: Marc Rains)
Smoked Red Chile Pork Brisket (Photo: Marc Rains)

Two days later, Paniagua was in Honolulu, Hawaii, training for his time at Norwegian, where he was exposed to many styles of cuisine, many culinary techniques, and many cultures all at once. “That’s what I loved about it,” Paniagua says. “All the chefs were international, so I was learning from all these great chefs and not having to go to school for it.”

Working with chefs from the Philippines, Korea, Mexico and many other nations allowed Paniagua to draw on many more cuisines for his own cooking than he might have experienced in other, more traditional venues. “I got to learn something from each and every one of them,” he says. “It was fun. I really enjoyed it.”

After serving with the Norwegian Cruise Line for nearly three years, Paniagua decided to return to the U.S., where he hoped to make a name for himself. He returned to a hotel where he had once worked, becoming the executive sous chef. During that period, he became inspired to participate in cooking competitions — especially as shows like the Food Network’s Chopped became popular. Just a few weeks ago, he was in Oklahoma City for a competition, and is currently preparing to participate in the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Ala., in November.

“It’s the largest food competition in the world,” Paniagua explains. “The only way you can get in is by winning a golden ticket.” After winning three golden tickets at a competition this past May, he says, he can participate in the World Food Championships, competing in the seafood category. The Championships will be featured on various television channels such as the Food Network.

As it turns out, Paniagua’s journey to Tulsa is connected to his time on the Norwegian Cruise Line. “In 2013, one of the guys I worked with on the cruise ship called me from Joplin, Missouri, and asked me if I wanted to come to work at a Native American casino,” he explains. “I said sure.”

He ended up at the Downstream Casino Resort in Joplin for three and a half years before deciding to move to Tulsa with his girlfriend and child, an option made possible by his time at Downstream. “We’ve been here in Tulsa a year and a half,” he says. “It’s been amazing.”

Paniagua’s main focus is the Fireside Grill, a casual dining option for casino-goers that features delectable selections of salads, sandwiches, burgers, steak, fish, chicken, pork and seafood. “I do the features on the weekends,” Paniagua says, “as well as breakfast specials, menu planning, anything like that.”

Working with chefs from the Philippines, Korea, Mexico and many other nations allowed Paniagua to draw on many more cuisines for his own cooking. (Photo: Marc Rains)
Working with chefs from the Philippines, Korea, Mexico and many other nations allowed Paniagua to draw on many more cuisines for his own cooking. (Photo: Marc Rains)

Fireside Grill serves up great meal options all day, and it’s worth a visit whether you’re staying at the casino or just want to change it up from the usual restaurants you visit around town. Along with the expected offerings, such as eggs and bacon for breakfast or a burger for lunch, the menu fuses flavors to create some excellent menu options that you won’t find anywhere else.

“We’re doing a little bit of a fusion with Southern and Southwestern — hatch green chiles, shrimp and smoked grits, chili cheeseburgers with local mustard that we’re putting on,” says Paniagua. (Fireside Grill uses Seikel’s mustard, which is made in Tahlequah and sold at Reasor’s.) “We do smoked prime rib that we’re putting on the menu, a smoked meatloaf, a little bit of fusion of Southern barbecue and Cajun, with a little Southwestern flair.”

Paniagua and his team use locally sourced ingredients whenever they can, growing vegetables and herbs in their own garden as well as buying local meats and making a seasonal menu for fall/winter and spring/ summer. They use in-house smokers to smoke meat, and make just about everything, including the salad dressings, from scratch.

If you’re a breakfast lover, you might opt for the Black Pepper Sausage Biscuit Sandwich, made with golden, flaky biscuits with black pepper sausage, fried eggs and cheddar, served with country potatoes; or test drive the Fire-Roasted Apple Pancakes, served with applewood smoked bacon or sausage.

Lunch and dinner goers will enjoy unique appetizers such as the green chile queso and chips, served with a housemade queso seasoned with toasted cumin and fresh cilantro; the fried white cheddar cheese curds, served with jalapeño and chipotle dipping sauces; or the raspberry chipotle wings, which are deep fried and then tossed in a raspberry chipotle sauce, fresh jalapeños and fresh cilantro.

Be sure to check out the breakfast buffet on the weekends, which features unique specials, or visit on Tuesdays for creative taco filings at $2.50 each. If you’re in the mood for a small party, the Fireside Grill has a private dining room that seats up to 25 people. And if you like creative mixed drinks, check out their bar, which serves smoked and infused cocktails.

Paniagua says the Fireside Grill also offers special features on the weekends, so it’s worth stopping in regularly to see what’s new. “We get to get creative,” he says. “Whatever we think of, we do.”

Fireside Grill
River Spirit Casino Resort
8330 Riverside Pkwy. | Tulsa
Breakfast: 6-10:30 a.m.
Lunch and Dinner: 11 a.m.-Midnight
Late Night: Midnight-3 a.m.