East meets West in Tulsa cuisine as Asian restaurants continue to flourish around town. What was once thought of as simply a trend has withstood the often harshly critical Tulsa dining crowd. Sophistication in Asian cuisine continues to grow, transcending such places as China Buffet, China Café, China King, China OK, China Palace and China Wok, to the nouveau Asian and diversity from East Asia, the Pacific Region, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
As a child growing up in Tulsa, I saw Asian food as synonymous with fortune cookies, boxed fried rice and canned chicken chow mein, that is, unless we went for a family outing at the Rikshaw restaurant (where Kampai Lounge on Brookside is today).
Guldeep Singh, owner and manager of India Palace Restaurant, said it best: "People in Tulsa just like ethnic foods."
Asian cuisine means much to many people. The regions are as diverse and historically fascinating as their spices and cooking methods. India and the bordering countries of Southeast Asia conjure up mystery, magic and even romance. The exciting discoveries made by ancient explorers and their conquests are what movies are made of. This excitement included something as simple, yet lucrative as the exotic spices grown in these regions for centuries. India is often labeled the "spice bowl" of the world, while Southeast Asia is no slouch in the history of the ancient spice trade. Long before the English, Arab, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish traders were lured to this area of the world, these premium spices were simply a way of life for the locals.
Indonesia, comprised of a chain of some 18,000 islands covering more than 5,000 miles in the South China Sea, is a place difficult to fathom in land-locked Oklahoma. For centuries Indian, Arab and Chinese traders were drawn to this region for its spices, but it was the 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo who gave the land the name "Spice Islands." Soon, word of its wealth spread throughout Europe. A few centuries later, Italian Christopher Columbus grew interests in these valuable spices and set sail to search for a water route to these islands and India. He sailed west rather than east, of course, for he knew the earth was round. During these years of exploration, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English explorers laid the foundation of what would be such an incredible mark of the cuisine.
Another advantageous aspect of Asian cuisine is its healthy qualities. With an emphasis on fresh ingredients-meats, fish, vegetables and salads, together with rice-a complete and healthy meal is common each day.
This eating tradition carries on today as meals consist of a small piece of well-prepared meat surrounded by a big mound of rice. This style is atypical to American dining (at least in Oklahoma), where meats take center stage and a side dish, such as rice, is an idle afterthought.
Extras to these meals include freshly made sides, such as pickles, chutneys, salads and sambals (blends of hellish-hot chilies and other seasonings used as relishes, condiments or sauces in Indonesia) mixed with herbs, chilies, yogurt or soy sauce. Countless curries, cumin, cardamom, coriander, cilantro, chilies, garlic, ginger, basil, lemon grass, lime leaves, mint, galangal, mushrooms and turmeric are just some of the many spice blends available in Asian cuisine.
Not quite the same mystique as sailing to the Spice Islands, but traversing across Tulsa, will land the interested diner in a plethora of Asian possibilities.
East Tulsa has been home to many of the Vietnamese community since the 1970s. Hints of Asian dining that have been there for years still exist, such as Saigon Palace Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant (21st and Garnett), which boasts Thai, Laos, Hong, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In the same vicinity sits Nam-Hai Oriental Market, a place that everyone with any Asian interest must investigate. There are unimaginable Asian food items that are sure to conjure up exotic dreams of far away lands.
Just south is Hmong Café (11197 E. 31st St.), which "delivers fresh tastes from Southeast Asia." According to general manager and part-time chef Joey Yang, it's a family-operated restaurant that brings their family's home-cooked Southeast Asian cuisine and culture to Tulsa. With his parents Kia and Doua, Yang opened Hmong Café (the "H" is silent) in late September and has been working diligently ever since.
"Mom and dad have worked [in other jobs] in Tulsa locally for over 20 years, and my mom wanted to begin her own business," reflected Yang. But it appears they have a niche in the restaurant world with their cuisine, which Yang said reflects mainly Southeast Asian dishes.
"There are a lot of countries in this area that have similar food, but each culture's food is a little different," he explained. "We share a lot of similar spices, and we use fresh herbs and vegetables. For example, Thai foods will have basil and curry, but Hmong cuisine is greatly influenced by Laotian cuisine," he went on.
Common Hmong ingredients include cilantro, basil, garlic, green onion, mint, ginger and hot pepper. The spices may be similar, but dishes tend to be different. Yang's signature dish, he said, is the Braised Duck, with fresh herbs and spices, and the Pad Thai, rice noodles with chicken and shrimp.
Sticky rice is something Yang is particularly proud of, saying it is the only restaurant in town (that he is aware of) that serves this type of rice. Also known as sweet rice, this short-grained rice is traditionally made into a ball with your hands and then dipped in other foods or sauces.
Yang knows the Tulsa market quite well, and he's aware of those brave and sophisticated enough to move beyond the Chinese buffets in town and explore authentic Asian cuisine.
Continuing down 31st Street just before Mingo is Thai Chef Fresh Cuisine of Thailand (9720 E. 31st St.). The menu is full of Thai dishes, including soups, grilled meats, salads, beef, poultry, pork, seafood, noodles, curries, fried rice and vegetarian delights. More than 100 dishes are available. It's worth a visit, even if it's just to read the menu.
Just beyond Sheridan on 31st is B?nh Lê (5903 E. 31st St.), a long Tulsa tradition in Vietnamese cuisine since the early '80s. The menu includes soups, fried rice, plenty of vegetarian dishes, chowmein vegetables with rice, sweet and sour, dishes with shrimp, beef, pork and poultry and specialty dishes such as Bun Cha Gio (chopped egg rolls with noodles, vegetables and Vietnamese beef steak), combination lo mein (noodles, vegetables, chicken and shrimp) and Deluxe Bun Cha Gio (a special salad with an excellent combination of beef, chicken, shrimp and chopped shrimp potatoes). Bring the family along, for B?nh Lê serves Vietnamese family style dinners for two, three, four and five people.
Head west on 31st to Peoria and then south is Kampai Lounge, a blend of the exotic and ordinary. Brookside Sliders partner with such dishes as Wok Seared Scallops, Grilled Shrimp Satays, Kampachi Sashimi, and Peppercorn Salmon Sashimi. Some sushi choices include the Id Roll, Restless Ribbon Roll, Candy Roll, Keaton Roll and Spicy Tuna Roll, the same you'd find just down the street at In the Raw. The lounge effect brings out the Asian way of gathering to share meals.
The always popular sushi bar, In the Raw (3321 S. Peoria, 6151 S. Sheridan), shares the same owner as Kampai. This place continues to be the gathering site for people to enjoy sushi or just to be seen seemingly enjoying it. The list of sushi is fantastic for lunch or dinner. Non-sushi diners can enjoy a bowl of Miso soup or any of the fine salads that incorporate the freshest of tuna, salmon, halibut into one (Lomi Salad) or crab, shrimp, octopus and cucumber-seaweed salad with ponzu vinegar (Sunomono Combo). In addition, rice bowls and noodle bowls, and even Cabo Tacos, Blackened Salmon, Macadamia Nut Halibut and a Pepper Filet are served.
At 35th & Peoria is the newly popular KîO, a restaurant that offers Thai, Malasian, Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine. Owner Bill Hyman and his chef wife Zahidah are very proud of this place. They should be; dining here is like stepping out of Tulsa for the evening.
"We have a unique city atmosphere," said Zahidah. "It's more narrow and long. It sets us apart. We also have a full bar and we are open every day throughout the [week]."
Zahidah said she selected the best dishes on her menu so that there was a variety of different regions.
"There's not a Cambodian restaurant in Tulsa," said Zahidah, who is from Cambodia. She brought family recipes with her, passed down from grandma to grandma. She offered some of her favorite dishes, beginning with the stir fry KîO House with lemongrass, onion, green bell pepper, lime leaf and chili pepper. Other favorites are soups, the Pho, a Vietnamese soup, which she said takes eight to 10 hours just to prepare the broth. It's comprised of thinly sliced steak, Vietnamese noodles and a rich beef broth. She said customers are welcome to pick the spiciness they desire for this soup. The Tom Ka (Thai heritage) is a chicken, coconut milk, lemongrass, mushroom and tomato soup. The Vermicelli Salad features seared beef and spring oil, and comes served on a bed of vermicelli, with lettuce, cucumbers and carrots. The salad comes with a sweet lime vinaigrette.
Zahidah said five basic flavors are integral to her food's tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and hot. Spices in her dishes include Thai chili peppers, ginger and chili paste, which really add to the spice factor.
"We make all our dishes to order so they are always very fresh," she said. "We buy the seafood from Bodean [Seafood Market] daily; we get the lime leaf, lemongrass, ginger and galangal [like ginger root but spicier] from an Asian distributor.
"And," she added, "we are pretty reasonably priced."
Before exiting Peoria stands another Tulsa favorite, Fuji Sushi Bar and Japanese Restaurant (3739 S. Peoria), which claims to have the most extensive sushi and sake menu in Tulsa.
In Other Countries
Another popular type of Asian cuisine in Tulsa is Indian. India Palace Restaurant (6963 S. Lewis) has been open almost 15 years and features northern Indian cuisine. Owner and manager Guldeep Singh said that any Indian cuisine uses the same kind of spices; the difference is in the preparation.
"We use more than 21 spices in our dishes," he said. Some include cumin, curry, saffron, coriander, bay, black and green cardamom, cloves, and mustard rai. And, before each dish is brought to the table, fingreke and garam masala, "a pepping up" spice, are sprinkled on each dish. Gara (meaning hot) masala (meaning spice blend) is an aromatic blend of Indian spices. The spices are first toasted, then ground. The effect seems to increase body temperature and produce what some say is a warm, pleasant, glowing feel after eating a flavored dish.
One of my favorite items at India Palace is the Naan bread. It is made with yogurt, milk, liquid baking powder and white flour and baked in a tandoor. Singh took me into the kitchen to get a first-hand sample of Naan bread hot out of the tandoor oven. It's an old way of baking the bread. You slap it against the wall of the tandoor and it sticks there until it is done. Then you pull it off the wall with special utensils. The taste is full, rich and almost creamy.
Singh is from Punjab, a city in northern India. He said that, while southern Indian cuisine makes dishes with rice and potatoes, northern cuisine reflects the many vegetarians in that region. He said 50 percent of the population is vegetarian because they are Hindu. Foods in this region include cheese, lentils, beans, fish, goat, lamb, pork (no beef) and vegetables.
The lunch buffet at India Palace is very popular. The items are changed each day, so customers get a good sampling of Indian dishes. He usually has three vegetarian dishes, soups, salads, Cream Spinach, Tandoori Chicken and the dessert is rice pudding or mango custard.
"This food is very healthy," Singh said. "We have very few breaded or deep-fried foods. Our sauce is made from vegetables, not fat, and we have lots of vegetables in our dishes."
And, while he said the lunch buffet is a good way to sample the foods, the evening atmosphere is very relaxing and cozy with low lighting and classic Indian music.
Suki Unique Dining (7828 E. 71st St.) is one of the newest styles of Asian dining in Tulsa. The raw food is cooked at the customer's table in hot vegetable stock.
"No one brings raw food to the table to cook," said executive chef Adam Peterson. "We have Maine Hardshell Lobster, beef--top sirloin, Black Angus and America Style Kobe, which is a Japanese breed of cow, and fresh seafood." Fresh vegetables come from Progressive Produce in Dallas.
Suki has been open six months, and, thus far, the beef dishes are the most popular. Customers can cook their meals to their preferences. The food is cooked, as Peterson described, in a Shabu Shabu, a Japanese hot pot similar to sukiyaki. Peterson said the meal begins with a "good base of rich vegetable stock and you're changing the stock yourself with what you put into it, such as chicken, seafood and meat."
Suki has a set menu, with prices listed per person and including complimentary dishes. Suki dinners are listed from A to D, each with varying courses. For example, Suki A ($16) includes six ounces of top sirloin and a chef-selected seasonal vegetable platter.
Peterson said this Asian fondue style of dining is very healthy and accommodating for vegetarians and those with food allergies. Other dishes include items from the wok--Pineapple Beef, Curry Pork, Ginger Chicken and Spicy Seafood. Save room for dessert--Green Tea Ice Cream, Coconut Sorbet, Orange Vanilla Ice Cream and Chai Crème Brulee.
Just a short drive from Suki is the little gem of a restaurant Bali Fusion Café (6808 S. Memorial). Owner Ervintha Soemntri from Java, Indonesia, said the name "Fusion" indicates that she has more than just Asian dishes on her menu.
"I try to accommodate all tastes here," she said. Her Asian dishes are well-known in Indonesia, and they are something the American palate would enjoy. "The Dutch people have had a big influence on our cuisine since we were colonized by them," she explained.
"We have all authentic Indonesian food at reasonable prices and in a nice atmosphere. It is a place where people can eat on a daily basis and enjoy the different foods. All recipes are my own," she said.
Having come to America with her husband, she admits she was not much of a cook at home. But since she and her husband missed the food from their homeland, she began preparing dishes and found out she could do it quite well. She created her own dishes from mixing recipes to find the perfect taste she was seeking. Soon after, she wanted to share these Indonesian dishes with Tulsans, and it seems Tulsans are ready for them.
She and her husband owned a Bubble Tea Café at Woodland Hills Mall four years ago, and Bali Fusion Café was her next step.
"My passion and dream is in the food business," she said.
When visiting with Soemantri, I sampled many of Bali's popular dishes, beginning with the Chicken Satay and Lamb Satay with Peanut Sauce. Both meats were incredibly tender and full of flavor. They were also slightly sweet, which Soemantri said is common in Java, where sweet soy sauce is used as a marinade. She said with all the islands in Indonesia, each has its own way of food preparation. Also common to Java foods, she adds sesame oil at the end for a unique flavor.
"We are the only Indonesian restaurant in Tulsa and even in the state," she was proud to say. "We provide something new and something Tulsans will like to eat. There are many Asian restaurants in Tulsa, and we are not trying to compete with them--we just want to offer something new and different to Tulsa."
She said there is not a large Indonesian community in Tulsa, so that is one reason she wanted to have a menu that catered to all tastes. A few other items I sampled included Spring Rolls and Risoles appetizers, which she said reflect the Dutch influence. The Spring Rolls were excellent. Light and crispy, they were filled with chicken, shrimp, shredded carrots, cabbage and green onions. The Risoles had a slight sweet taste and are definitely a Dutch-influenced dish. She described them best, "like a chicken pot pie, yet a little different." This is a Dutch-Indonesian breaded egg roll stuffed with chicken ragout (a creamy white sauce with peas, carrots, chicken) and served with honey mustard. It was very good.
I also sampled the lo mein (Mie Goreng), which is stir-fried egg noodles with chicken, carrot, cabbage and green onions. This is a hearty dish full of wonderful flavors and textures. Soemantri said this dish is akin to the Chinese version, but with a slight hint of sweet with the addition of the sweet soy sauce. For dessert, I sampled the Banana Spring Roll, fried and drizzled with butterscotch syrup and topped with pecans. It was light and not too filling; the banana was warm and soft, adding a good complimentary texture to the crispy roll.
The Fusion menu consists of such dishes as Mexican Chicken Tortilla soup, Grilled Panini Sandwiches (The Italiano, Smoked Tacchino, Tuscany, Roma Veggie and Sante Fe Turkey Melt). Also, cold sandwiches are served. A definite must try is the Bubble Tea--favorite flavors include Honeydew, Thai Tea, Mango, Strawberry Vanilla Snow and Almond.
Other Asian restaurants of interest include TeKei's Chinese/Asian Kitchen (1616 S. Utica); KoLam Innovative Indian Cuisine (4844 S. Memorial); Be Le Vegetarian Restaurant (6634 S. Lewis Ave.); Desi Wok Indian Asian Grill (3966 S. Hudson); Indian Corner Restaurant (6122 S. Garnett); and for a fun evening with family and friends in the art of hibachi cooking, Shÿgun Steak House of Japan (6808 S. Memorial).
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