It is said that opposites attract, but who would think that sushi eaters and barbecue eaters would ever sit down to the table together. Consider the apparent historical, societal, cultural disparity between these two "food groups" and the chasm appears enormous.
On the one hand, see hard core carnivores feast on meat that has been cooking slowly, completely for more than one-half of a day; and on the other, observe delicate omnivores, who dine on cold, raw fish delicately prepared just minutes before it's presented at table.
But there they are--a restaurant tables all over Tulsa--baseball-capped, good 'ol boys and their kin manhandling chopsticks and gorging themselves on negiri and California rolls while urbane gourmands don the rib bibs and pick roasted meat off pig bones.
This gastronomical incongruence would be most noticeable, it would seem, right here--smack dab in the middle of these United States--where the tectonic palates of East coast meet West coast. So why no fist fights? Why no bumper stickers proclaiming "My BBQ Can Baste Your Sissy Sushi!", why no Red State, Blue State bickering?
The farmers and the ranchers have become friends, swords have been beaten into napkin rings, and you can drink beer and sake at the same table.
No doubt sociologists could provide their version of this mystery. An uncomplicated answer can be as simple as both are palate pleasers and regional favorites in Oklahoma.
Strange, though, how barbeque and sushi had similar beginnings--meat slow cooked for hours, and fish and rice fermented for months to a year.
Indeed, the term "barbecue" is often misused: it has come to be known as anything cooked on a grill or even in the oven if a spicy tomato based sauce is used.
For the record, barbecue is not a dish but rather a method of cooking. Also, not to confuse grilling with barbecuing: grilling is done over the direct heat of a fire; barbecuing is the process of cooking meat a low temperatures (210 degrees or less) for long periods of time.
Barbecue is based on these factors: the type of meat used; the sauce or flavoring added to the meat; the flavoring added during the preparation; the role that smoke plays in preparation; equipment and fuel used to cook the meat; and how much time is spent cooking the meat.
Barbecue has evolved into a regional favorite throughout the country as various types of meats and sauces are popular depending on the locale. Since the turn of the previous century, beef brisket has been the favorite Texas barbecue cut; pork for Memphis and the Carolinas; mutton is popular in Kentucky; to each region it's own.
Sushi--in it's purest form--is diametrically different from barbecue, besides being from another continent. Still, both are some of the most popular foods in America today and eaten in astonishing amounts, some even for dietary purposes. Low-carb dieters seek out the meats as well as the low-fat sushi.
What began as a means of preserving fish has turned into a multi-billion dollar business. The term sushi is most frequently equated with raw fish, when in fact dishes made with raw fish are "sashimi." Sushi is any dish made with vinegar rice, which may or may not include raw fish. Often, sushi consists of shellfish such as crab or lobster or cooked fish placed with other fresh ingredients then tightly wrapped inside sticky vinegar rice.
Shine Them Bones
Barbecue has been part of the city's palate since statehood and locations are plentiful in Tulsa. There are many practitioners, many experts, but for the purposes of this piece, we chose three locals: Jeff Jackson, owner/partner with Billy Sims of Billy Sims Barbecue (The Farm Shopping Center and 1600 W. Kenosha, Broken Arrow), Chuck Gawey, owner of Albert G's Bar-B-Q (2748 S. Harvard) and Priscilla Hutchinson, General Manager of Knotty Pine Barbecue (3301 W. 5th St.). These all say that in Oklahoma, ribs and brisket are the regional favorites.
Jackson boasts of his ribs as he recently won 1st place with his St. Louis-cut style of ribs in a sanctioned Kansas City contest. "The ribs are perfectly tender, not too tough and the meat will stay on the bone," is how he describes them.
Ribs and brisket are big sellers, says Jackson, although The Heisman ($6.99), as you might imagine, is the most popular menu item. This "Special Teams" Specialties item is a choice of chopped brisket or pulled pork, piled high with a slice of bologna and hot link.
Jackson is no stranger to barbecue, growing up in Kansas City eating barbeque in plentiful amounts. Jackson became acquainted with Billy Sims not long ago through Jackson's other business, Sports Fan-Attic. "I hit it off well with Billy, and we decided to become partners in this venture," he recalls.
As one would think, Billy Sims Barbecue indulges in such sports menu monikers as The Triple 20, The Lineman, The Option, The Wishbone, Pulled Razorback, Arkansas Steak, Smoked Jayhawk, Texas Dog, The Full Back, Sooner Slaw-ter and more.
Lunching with Jackson, I was treated to a sampling of all the meats: turkey, chopped brisket, chicken, bologna, Polish sausage, hot links pulled pork and a few ribs for good measure. They were all wonderful meats, but I was immediately fond of the rich, tender ribs, hot links and brisket.
Jackson acquainted me with the Broken Arrow location which is tastefully outfitted with sports gear and memorabilia. A banquet room is available for parties, also with the sports theme. Smoking of meats is done right on site, with the two keeping very busy every day. "All meats are fresh, never frozen," Jackson says.
Each afternoon the meats are prepped (rubbed with spices), some waiting 24 hours before they are placed in the smoker. Those that are cooked overnight are pulled out in the morning, ready for the noon rush. Beef brisket and pork are smoked in pecan wood from 12-14 hours while the ribs are in for about 4 hours.
Jackson comments as he points around the dining room that women are less present than men when it comes to barbecue, at least at Billy Sims. Salads and the slow-smoked, loaded potato have been added to the menu to attract a female crowd. And honestly, it should be no surprise that the main meat eaters are men ages 25-55 when looking at its history.
A first written account of barbeque comes from a young adventurer Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo left Spain with a 20-ship armada in what is now Columbia. His journals tell of trapping deer and pigs with branches, killing, then quartering and cutting into pieces with stones and flints. He and his crew then roasted the flesh on sticks which were placed in the ground over a pit of fire. They called these barbacoas.
This first-written account of culinary techniques in the New World in 1526 continues with the Taino Indian method of smoke roasting: "Since this land is naturally hot, even though it is tempered by Divine Providence, fish and meat soon spoil if they are not roasted on the same day that they are killed or caught."
From then, the technique continued as Spanish farmers in the 17th century began settling in southern Texas. And, the tradition continues through today when star chefs such as Bobby Flay of Food Network fame brings barbecue into the homes of millions with his "Grilling and Chilling" show.
What is it about a 14-hour smoked slice of beef or pork that draws people in? A name like Billy Simms can't hurt, but according to other barbecue entrepreneurs, "It's all in the TLC of the preparation" says Gawey, a veteran of perfecting the art of barbecue since 1992.
Hutchinson, who got started in the barbecue business as a steam table operator at Knotty Pine in 1978, says their claim to fame is the succulence of the meat, supported by a menu built around home-cooked, made-from-scratch favorites. "We're known for our ribs and brisket," she says. Where have you heard that before?
Family-owned and operated since 1952, Knotty Pine Barbecue has been in the same obscure, hard-to-get-to location in west Tulsa from the beginning. It's food people swear by around these parts.
As with other barbecue restaurants, Hutchinson says the beef is slow-cooked using hickory wood overnight from 12-15 hours while the ribs are in from 2 to 3 hours. Besides those two, she says that bologna is a "big winner" among customers.
Ironically, even though she has devoted almost 30 years of her life to this business, she claims she's never been much of a barbecue eater; she does admit she nibbles on a good, hot rib right out of the smoker every now and then.
Gawey's recipe for success is similar. He says he begins with good meat and adds a special savory rub, with the beef brisket going in the smoker for at least 12 hours at a low temperature, being a "pretty tough piece of meet," then taking it out in the morning and loading up the ribs in the smoker for 4 to 5 hours.
"It's an experience. I always feel like I can do better," Gawey says. He uses hickory wood, saying it is very plentiful in this area and it is what people in this region are used to. He compares this with Texas, where the barbecue is mostly smoked with mesquite, as it is plentiful in Texas. All the sides are made from scratch, adding with a grin that he's probably the only BBQ place that serves tabouli, attesting to his Lebanese heritage.
His working life has been devoted to the restaurant business. Albert G's was a risk, but calculated. "I was 30 and said it was time to do my own deal. When I began, I was there day and night meeting the customers. It is in my blood."
While in high school, he began what would become a love of the restaurant business, beginning very modestly bussing tables at Jamil's; he then went to OU majoring in Business Finance, and on to Oklahoma City getting into other restaurant opportunities.
Albert G's location is a former gas station garage, and just recently has spruced the décor up a notch to make it homier, he says, by painting the floors, adding lighting and booths. "I wanted to get people to stay there at night," he says. He draws them in on Wednesday and Saturday nights with the ? chicken $7.39 special which comes with two sides.
Elmer's claim to fame was bringing some of the city's best soul food to south Tulsa. At the time it was established in 1983 by Elmer and Georgella Thompson, as a very small place in Brookside on Peoria and 34th Streets. There was nothing like it. The only authentic BBQ to be found was in west or north Tulsa--places southsiders to this day seem to fear, or at least view with great trepidation.
Elmer's popularity caused the business to move to its present location at 4130 S. Peoria. Elmer died in 2003 and the business was briefly closed until Keith Jimerson took over as owner and manager.
BBQ meets jazz at Elmer's--it's a great dining experience, the atmosphere and barbecue. Ribs and chopped beef are some of the favorites. I particularly enjoyed both, but also the hot links and bologna. The green beans with rib chunks are also spicy and some of the best around.
Sauce is important with barbecue and the spicy sauce packs incredible heat with it. Lots of cayenne pepper does the trick. As a friend of mine said about the sauce, "it's the sauce I've been waiting for."
While many meats can be eaten sans sauce, most often they are an important dimension for barbecue. Gawey's sauce is his own recipe developed over time. Jackson says a sweet and mild sauce is what most chose to cover their meats although "we've also noticed that many people enjoyed the cooked meat served dry with no sauce." His hot sauce is the sweet and mild sauce "kicked up with cayenne."
"We are known for our sauces," says Hutchinson. "We make it all from scratch, a sweet mild, medium hot and 'Hot Stuff'," she says, claiming that the Hot Stuff is 99% hot. She contends Knotty Pine's "secret" sauce is what brings the people back for more.
While these sauces can be purchased at the restaurants, Jackson is negotiating getting them on the shelves of Wal-Mart and Reasor's for even more exposure.
What Sushi Has Become
It was inevitable in our age of instant communication and shrinking world that the culinary East would merge with the culinary West, and what has evolved today is coming together of same spices with sushi and BBQ. Today, many of the new barbecue sauces reflect the Far East with spices such as ginger (for heat) and soy sauce. Sauces are important for barbecue, and can make or break the eating habits of some customers.
These same spices are found where sushi is served.
The '70s in America should not only be remembered by disco--in the culinary world, sushi was reaching a high point in popularity. This popularity continues today. "Sushi has not lost its trendiness yet," says Greg Hughes, owner of In the Raw (6151 S. Sheridan and 3321 S. Peoria). "Seafood is so good and healthy for you," he adds.
And he's right. Sushi is low fat, high in protein, an excellent source for Omega 3 fatty acid and loaded with nutrients.
Nori, the seaweed used in sushi is extremely high in Vitamin A, B-complex, niacin and vitamin C. It also works as a digestive, together with pickled ginger, a favorite sushi accompaniment. The rice is rich in complex carbohydrates.
Both In the Raw and Tsunami Sushi (RiverWalk Crossing and 309 E. 2nd St)--two very popular sushi restaurants are best described by Hughes when he describes In the Raw: "It is sushi with a pulse. Our concept is not to be a sleepy restaurant."
Just walking in, that "pulse" elevates as people getting them into the music, raising the level of the heart rate to set the mood, says Hughes. It is a lively atmosphere which is contagious to all who enter; it is a hip, urban and artistic environment.
Richard Becker, owner or Tsunami Sushi, describes his establishment as an izakaya, a Japanese bar or restaurant for after-work drinking and eating. He finds most of his sushi eaters are the young, open-minded clientele, and since he opened three years ago, his downtown location has proved very successful for him. It is not only the after-work crowd that he counts on, but also the 300,000-plus people who throughout the year, attend a PAC performance.
"Even in the winter it is a busy time for us, he explains. "We have Midnight Sushi on Friday and Saturday nights, staying open until 2am to accommodate the PAC crowd. Business-wise this made good sense to us. We see everyone from ages 6 to 90 come in to try sushi.
"If they are not sushi savvy when they come in, we will gradually get them there." And Monday through Thursday is Happy Hour Sushi--5 different rolls are half price from 3-6pm at the downtown location and 5-7pm at the RiverWalk restaurant.
Since the '70s, the sushi bar has been Westernized to accommodate the American eaters. Sushi has taken on a varied transformation from the traditional Japanese bars. This improvisation is observed just looking over the sushi menu.
As Hughes says, it would be "sacrilegious" for the Japanese to use such a menu as In the Raw's. The contents and combinations of fish and vegetables are avant garde. Modern sushi chefs interpret traditional sushi definitions loosely--especially where ingredients are cooked and less threatening to the American palate.
Becker and Hughes wonder why people are less apt to try the clean, very fresh and healthy fish in sushi, but they will think nothing of eating a rare steak--bloody meat or steak tartare.
Makes sense, it seems. All sushi restaurants pride themselves on serving only the freshest of fish. Becker says the fish is served within 24 hours of being in the water. He says the fish is flown in from Hawaii 2 to 3 times each week. "Fresh fish such as this is easily attainable in this global market," he says. He adds that "sushi grade fish", not unlike steaks, has a 7-day shelf life in the refrigerator.
The most common sushi one will find on a menu in America are Nigiri sushi (slicing pieces of fish on top of small balls of sushi rice); Sashimi (raw fish), Maki-zushi (think rolls made by wrapping sushi rice and ingredients in nori seaweed), spicy rolls and vegetarian rolls.
Hughes says the trend today in sushi is to mix up the flavors and ingredients, such as marinating the fish in spices and sauces usually known with other cuisine dishes, such as a pesto sauce and other ingredients that usually do not go with sushi. "It is more off-beat," he says.
While all this might sound complicated, even confusing for a newcomer to sushi, it really isn't. It is recommended that you sit at the sushi bar, consult the sushi chef and just enjoy the experience.
Ask the chef for recommendations of nonraw sushi. A few nonraw choices include a tempura shrimp roll, spicy shrimp roll or a Philadelphia or California roll. Becker and Hughes both recommend the California Roll for those new to sushi. It simply contains crab meat, avocado and cucumber--items often found in most people's diets. "It is the ultimate beginner's roll," says Hughes.
Also, Becker suggests to "begin with something that is cooked. The texture is the most frightening thing for people."
Hughes says, though, that "biting into a real good piece of tuna, cut less than a day old, has some amazing flavors" that cannot be captured elsewhere than in sushi. He says the flavors will change when the fish is cooked--oils come out and the texture is changed. "When raw, customers are tasting the true fish as it's meant to be tasted--really clean meat of the fish. Adding a little soy sauce and wasabi [a Japanese horseradish] (a little salt and spice) makes it great!" he says.
The Baja Roll is the best selling item at Tsunami--it has crab cake, avocado, chipotle and cream cheese. Becker's personal favorite is the Typhoon--salmon, asparagus, Thai chili, with yellow tail tuna, ell and avocado on top.
Hughes says the Keaton Roll (named after his daughter) is also a popular one. It has shrimp, cream cheese, avocado and spicy sauce and rolled in pink soy paper (rather than the seaweed). Other popular choices are the Nirvana Roll (crab cake, cream cheese, avocado, jalapeno and blackened tuna rolled in masago (small eggs of the Capelin, orange in color) then topped with eel, sesame seeds, scallions and creamy habanero sauce.
Hughes says for those who are accustomed to the taste of barbecue sauce should try their eel which is actually cooked in a barbecue sauce.
Hughes also lauds the 6151 which is crab cake, cream cheese, jalapeno and asparagus rolled in masago then topped with 6 oz. lobster tail cooked in a Fresno chili cream sauce, caramelized eel sauce, garlic, scallions and sesame seeds.
For the purist, more traditional sushi bars are available. Fuji (3739 S. Peoria and 8226 E. 71st St.) and Asahi Sushi Bar (7831 E. 71st St.)are two such places.
Fuji on 71st opened in 1986 as the first sushi bar in Tulsa. Manager David Le says their restaurant is family-oriented. "We invite parents to bring their children to enjoy the experience," he says.
The experience is quieter than what one would find up the road a bit at In the Raw. The table and booths allow for quiet, more personal dining, and at the Peoria location, reservations are taken and parties of 30-40 may be accommodated.
As Hughes and Becker contend, sushi can be intimidating even for the seasoned eater. Still, Le says they should be scared--people can request the chef prepare whatever they like--both raw and cooked fish in the sushi. He refers to the California Roll and the Veggie Rolls which have no raw fish at all.
His most popular is the Volcano Roll which has snow crab, asparagus, and topped with mussels, scallops, craw fish which has been cooked in a spicy sauce. A new menu is expected out sometime this month, in which the most popular items will be featured.
Le comments on one of the most important ingredients with sushi--the rice. "It must have the right amount of vinegar and it must be mixed in really well. It should not be too sour--it is a very important technique." He says that some chefs in Japan train for many years just cooking and making the rice. Fuji's chefs are trained in-house, taking about 2 months to be ready to roll the sushi. Le invites people to come it, sit at the sushi bar, and let the chef take care of them.
Asahi Sushi Bar is a quieter, more traditional sushi bar as chefs clad in bright red clothing and hats prepare the sushi in front of customers sitting at the bar. I particularly enjoyed the Nigiri Sushi Shrimp; it was a nice presentation with an exceptionally fresh taste.
The newest sushi bar in the city is Sushi Train (3300 E. 51st St.). Diners can take a board a seat at the Sushi Bar and select their own sushi as it travels on the flat cars of a toy train that circles the bar.
Strange, indeed, but in Japan, it is common to receive sushi on a conveyor device of some sort.
At the Train, sushi has been placed on color-coded plates: red plated sushi is $1.45; green is $1.85; yellow is $2.45; and blue is $2.95. The beauty of this is that one may choose his or her own and can see what the finished product looks like. An accompanying menu displays the featured sushi to know what is being served.
Odd as this may sound, mechanical conveyor service has been around a while. Since 1958, Kaiten-zushi or "rotating sushi" is a fast food familiar to people of all ages in Japan.
Customers in a kaiten-zushi sit around a circular conveyor belt and choose from the plates of sushi that pass before them. When they finish eating, the price of the meal is calculated simply by counting up the number of color-coded plates.
At Sushi Train, booths are also available for those not interested in fast food sushi. I sampled the sushi from the train, selecting one each of the four color-coded plates (sushi Pizza, Shrimp, EBI Tempura Roll and the House Roll). To my surprise, it was very good, very fresh tasting. The person who helped me "aboard the sushi train" said the restaurant caters to families, and the concept is one that would attract children and adults of all ages. It's worth a visit just to experience the concept.
Over all, whether sushi or barbecue, "consistency is the key," says Jackson. "Brisket is brisket--some just don't make it as good as others." And, he adds, "You're only as good as your employees. Employees who care just as much as me about the food is what's important.
"They have to love what they are doing. The drying of meat happens quickly. They need to know what to do to keep it fresh and moist for all customers."
Gawey echoes that saying it is important to have good help, making sure all is up to standard every day. "These guys must treat the restaurant like I would."
When it comes to sushi, the sushi chefs take center stage. They are the ones who mingle with the people at the sushi bar and they are the ones with the sharp knives. Hughes says it takes up to 6 months of training to be a sushi chef. The person in training or the sushi prep begins with making the rice and then works on the knife skills. Cutting is key for sushi.
With success, for many, comes the thought of expansion--which is in the air for a few of these local entrepreneurs. Jackson is expanding with a third location in Edmond and then it is on to Norman. Hughes has set high goals to expand out of state--Dallas, Kansas City and St. Louis. Gawey says he looking at a few more locations in the future.
Others are content where they are. Hutchinson says their success is being in this same location since 1952 claiming that expanding or moving to a larger location would possibly lose their customer base that have been coming again and again from generation to generation.
How common is it when a carnivore crosses the line to raw fish? Fairly common, it seems. Gawey says "he loves sushi. I eat it more that I eat barbecue," he says. Jackson says he is a frequenter of In the Raw, saying he is particularly attracted to the atmosphere. "I like the 6151 the best," he says. "My wife and I usually split the entrees when we go." Hutchinson is a bit less eager to attempt sushi. "No, it is not something I'm interested in," she smiles.
While barbecue is often a staple in the American diet, admittedly, it does take some will on the part of the diner to choose sushi for the first time. Still, the trend continues--sushi restaurants are becoming ensconced in American mainstream. Sushi bars in the U.S. have quintupled between 1988 and 1998, and the trend sees no signs of slowing.
And, in some ways, it's simply mind over matter to pair the two for meals in a week's time.
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