Tulsa is on the Southern board, and indeed it owes most of its culinary heritage to the South. Home cooking here is mostly Southern. But if you look at a map you'll see it's where the West begins. You'll find guys in cowboy hats, Indians, ranches, rodeos and lots of beef (though most of the best cuts make the journey out East). And once upon a time Tulsa was the oil capital of the world, a brash boom town full of fast-talking cigar-smoking fellas with Texas flair and East coast pretensions. Those days are gone, but you'll still find good restaurants staffed with CIA grads serving the latest food trends. This post isn't about them. It's about some old Tulsa landmarks, places with unique homegrown style, places that I, as a New Yorker, would patronize were I to find them in New York.
Jamil's Steakhouse first opened in 1945. It was a wild place then. I read an interview with one waiter who started work in 1946. At eleven, the place was empty and he asked if it was closing soon. No, it hasn't started, he was told, and then the hard-drinking crowds poured in, and he was still clearing drunks off the floor when he closed at 7 AM. Those days are gone, but there are still lines out the door waiting to crowd the wood-paneled rooms hung with thousands of photos of past patrons, once famous, now forgotten. You order your steak, and then they bring you platters of raw vegetables, hummus and tabouli (there are a lot of Lebanese in Tulsa), a basket of barbecued ribs, a salad, a baked potato, and when your steak arrives you've just about forgotten you ordered it. The quality varies, but its always good, sometimes excellent.
White River Fish Market is just about as old. There's a big glass counter with a display of fish, and a menu on a blackboard. you stand on line and pick out the fish, and order it, fried grilled or boiled, along with two sides, and sit down. The fish is quite good. It's always packed and a lot of fun.
Weber's used to be a tiny shack on Brookside, so beloved that it was front-page news when they tore down the shack and replaced it with a similar-sized shack made of concrete. They've been serving burgers since the 1930's, and notarized documents purport to show that the family was cooking burgers before the St Louis Exposition where they su[pposedly originated. But I dont go for the burgers, I go for the root beer. It's brewed in the basement from a secret mixture of 15 roots and herbs and served on draft in big frosty mugs. It's the best root beer I've ever encountered. The depth and flavor is incredible and puts the bottled stuff to shame.
As I said, I never go there for burgers. For that I go to Ron's. There's a guy named Ron in Tulsa who made the best hamburgers ever. His restaurant (photo below) looked like a cowshed and it would be jammed with people waiting for a seat. Rich lawyers sitting next to construction workers on lunch break. Ron was a genius cook and he put each burger through about ten steps. Meat was pounded flat, seasoned with salt and spices, coated with lard using a paintbrush, cooked on a superhot grill (500 degrees), steamed under a dome. I like my burgers extra rare and this is much harder to do , so Ron took it as a challenge and he gave me the best burgers I have ever tasted. Now this style of burger is flat and very thin (about a third of an inch thick) and as big as an old 45 RPM record. The meat is succulent and juicy and melts in with the cheese. The best chef in New York could not make a better burger. Ron doesnt cook any more but there are now seven branches. Ron developed a unique franchise system. He gave each of his kids a branch, and his wife got the busiest branch, downtown.
Just east of downtown is Family Diner, an old-school diner as the name implies, serving reasonably priced portions of stuff like chicken-fried steak. they are known for their wonderful cream pies. Pumpkin, coconut, chocolate, and more. A lot of people go there just to pick up a pie.
Now about barbecue.. When I first got here, I spent hours walking through Northside, which in those days looked like my vision of a tiny deep South hamlet. Wood shacks, lots of swampy trees, sluggish streams with names like "Dirty Butter Creek" I'd seek out tiny nameless joints, eat a rib, move on to the next place.
I quickly found a great divide in BBQ philosophy. Some places cared about the sauce. They'd serve indifferent meat with a yummy secret-recipe sauce, and you'd be more likely to get the formula for Coca Cola than you'd be to get them to divulge their recipe. Other places just slopped a sauce together and cared only about the meat. (In Tulsa, pig ribs.) They'd respect you if you ordered your meat dry, without any sauce. And it's this second type of place that I respect. Most of them are on the Northside.
The best places all use coal or wood. They dont use gas. Now an old coal or wood oven (or "pit") is a lovely thing and requires an artist to use it. There are hot spots, cool spots, sweet spots and the meat must be moved from one to the other in the correct time and sequence. (A lot like coal oven pizza at Totonno's, NYC) Also, the meat should be cooked slowly, smoked more than seared. As much as 12 or even 18 hours, and if it's less than four forget it, you're getting fast food.
A great rib has 3 layers. First, a crust, turned sweetly caramel by the long heat and smoke. Then, a pink layer, not pink from undercooking but from smoke. Finally, beneath it all, succulent, moist, juicy pig meat.
My favorite places until this year were Wilson's, Petes, Stutts, and Oklahoma, all in Northside. But Mr Wilson died and the place went downhill, and around the same time Pete's closed. Now my favorite is Reba Dale's, on Cincinnati just north of Apache. It looks like a shack but inside has been decorated like an old fashioned ice cream parlor. And their ribs ... incredible! And the bologna and Polish sausage, while obviously not in the same league, are another guilty pleasure.
Addresses and phone numbers:
Jamil's 2833 E. 51st, 918-742-9097
White River 1708 N Sheridan Rd, (918) 835-1910
Weber's 3817 S. Peoria Avenue, (918) 742-1082
Ron's 6548 E 51st St, (918) 664-5688, also one at 51 and Peoria and a few others
Family Diner, 3535 E Admiral Place, 918-832-0180
Reba Dale's 2648 N Cincinnati Ave (918) 382-9952