Sometime it's hard to fathom living to 86 years old; it's even more unimaginable working at that age, but for Basil Blackburn, owner of Steakfinger House, it's just another day at the grill. Basil and his 66-year-old son, Larry, are the main operators of this restaurant, arriving at 5:30am to prepare diner-like breakfasts and crispy, tasty steakfingers for the Downtown crowd.
I've walked and driven past this corner for more years than they have been there -- around 32 -- yet just recently was my first step inside. In fact, twice I dined at Steakfinger House, located at the corner of 4th and Boulder -- for breakfast and lunch.
Two tables were occupied when I arrived on this dark autumn morning around 6:45am -- all men. Some talking shop; others projecting whether TU would win on Saturday for their homecoming game against Rice; and one man in overalls talking with friends just passing the time in idle conversation. Breakfasts at Steakfinger House consist of eight combination meals, biscuits and sausage gravy, and sides -- hash browns, ham, sausage, bacon, eggs, egg-cheese sandwich, egg sandwich, bacon-egg-cheese sandwich, toast and jelly. A few combo breakfasts include ham and cheese omelet ($6.75), three scrambled eggs with chopped ham ($6.90), two eggs with hamburger steak ($6.25) and two eggs with three strips of bacon or sausage patties ($6.25).
Orders are taken at the counter and then brought to the table. Larry was working the register this morning while Basil was at the grill. Larry recommended the ham and cheese omelet breakfast ($6.75) fly off the grill, so that is what I ordered. Combo breakfasts come with hash browns, toast and jelly. As I waited for my breakfast, I had time to take a look around the dining room. The place has a worn look about it, yet it was clean and bright. Tulsa Hurricane memorabilia blanketed the walls--from posters to pom-poms, jerseys, t-shirts, game schedules and more. My breakfast arrived. This was a no-frills, traditional omelet; large and flat, rectangular in shape with two slices of American cheese melted on top. Crispy grill-fried hash browns (my favorite way to fix them), and a biscuit finished the plate. Inside, melted American cheese and thin slices of cut ham filled the egg around it. This 2-egg omelet was hot, lots of melted cheese and an ample amount of ham. The hash browns were fresh, hot and crispy -- and even had that classic flat-grill flavor.
I met with Basil after breakfasting this early morning. He energetically, enthusiastically, and willingly revealed his life story of being in the restaurant business for the greater part of his life. Basil got his first taste of kitchen life at 18 while assigned to kitchen duty when he served in the Navy in World War II. This is where he said he "learned great lessons in life."
Originally from Indiana, he returned there after the War, operating a carpet store and eventually made his way to Oklahoma in 1954.
Basil has operated a number of Tulsa restaurants and drive-ins in his day, even having a spot at the Tulsa State Fair for 18 years. In 1957, he opened Town Talk Snack Shop, a burger joint at Pine and Harvard that ran for 16 years; in the late '60s, he opened Boots Drive-In, which in the day was a popular local hangout for Hale and Rogers high school students, at 17th and Sheridan Rd. He also had a Tastee Freez at Admiral and Yale for a number of years. But the job that gave him inspiration for his signature steakfingers was his stint at Argentina Steak House, a classic '70s restaurant where steaks were cooked tableside.
While there, he bought shares in the company and created the idea of steakfingers, he explained. He eventually sold his stock back to the company with the understanding that he could keep the steakfinger machine (which he bought at that time for $500 and continues to use today) and his own recipes. Moving on, he opened his own place for a very short while, Argentina Steakfinger House, at Admiral and Sheridan, but as Basil said, "it was just a very bad location and was up for sale in '81." It was at that time he moved Downtown and has been there ever since.
Another day I came back to sample what made this place a name for itself, the steakfingers. Basil shared how he makes these. He begins with inside round choice beef from Tulsa Beef Company. He then trims the fat and gristle and cuts the meat into squares. What makes the meat so tender is the next step. He runs the meat through his almost 40-year-old immaculately clean stainless steel machine which not only tenderizes the meat with the flat blades, it then cuts the meat into finger-like strips through a row of sharp blades. He hand-dips the steak into a water and milk combo and dredges through flour with special seasonings which Basil says is his secret. They are then fried partially done and finished off in a fryer upon order.
The end result is a basket of generously coated crispy, tender and hot steakfingers. Dipped in white gravy, it doesn't get much better. Freshly-cut French fries and a hot roll come in the basket for $6.75.
Steakfinger House does have other menu items -- chicken fried steak, old fashioned burgers, fish sandwiches, and hamburger steak.
Basil is a study in hard work and perseverance, and his son, Larry, is walking in his footsteps, carrying on the family tradition and tenacity in his iconic Tulsa restaurant.
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