POSTED ON OCTOBER 3, 2012:
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Individuality and Intimacy Tie Tulsa Cooking Together
Philly has cheesesteaks and Chicago has deep dish pizza, but what does Tulsa have?
For a city so proud of itself, it sometimes seems that we have relatively little that's unique to our community. Yes, we have world class museums and theatre troupes, but when the outside world hears "Tulsa," there's not any one thing that comes to mind. You never hear about the Tulsa accent or the Tulsa stereotype.
A Google search for "Why are New Yorkers so ..." yield 56,000 results. "Why are Portlanders so ..." gets 829. "Why are Tulsans so ..." only gets 53.
This is especially true when it comes to cuisine. There is no signature Tulsa food. When you want to meet a friend for lunch, there is nothing you can eat here that you can't also eat somewhere else.
We have so many restaurants, yet the only thing they seem to have in common is how different they all are.
Perhaps for this reason, it's sometimes easier to eat out at large chains. We don't know what "our" food is, but we know roughly what we'll get if we do lunch to Chili's or Outback. So we don't patronize our small, locally owned restaurants nearly enough.
With all this in mind, I went off on a quest to find out what constitutes Tulsa cuisine. For the past two weeks, I've eaten my way through Tulsa. I've eaten all sorts of food from all different kinds of folks. You might say I had a series of working lunches. My only requirement was that each restaurant be locally owned.
I ate a vegan, raw foodist tuna salad sandwich. It probably had 12 calories in it. But that's okay, because I also ate cheese fries that will one day be a direct cause of my death. I ate barbecue at a cowboy buffet that also serves Shariah-compliant food. I ate fried mushrooms that had one (1) chicken liver hidden deep within. (My vegetarian wife found it. Oops.) I had fried catfish, the most Okie of dishes, seasoned with Jamaican jerk sauce. I ate a Reuben sandwich that tasted so good because the corn beef was made in the sausage factory next door.
Sometimes it felt like I traveled around the world. No matter where I lunched, I really could get any type of food I wanted. And almost all of it was delicious.
Other times it felt like a spiritual experience. Perhaps this was inevitable in a city as religious as Tulsa, but it amazed me how closely and how easily restaurant workers related what they do to their spiritual journeys.
I found that Tulsa restaurateurs could not agree among themselves what constituted Tulsa cuisine. Some thought Tulsa is a healthy town; others disagreed. Some were positive about the state of our restaurants; others were quite negative. Indeed, given the diversity of the places I visited, it was difficult to find any common culinary threads at all.
However, all the restaurants I visited valued individuality and intimacy in their businesses, sometimes in surprising ways.
My first stop was the Brook South -- 7727 E. 91st St. This restaurant has been there since 2004, but it's not nearly as well known as the original Brook in Brookside.
Like its Midtown namesake, the Brook South offers enormous portions of goodness. My favorite dish has always been the cheese fries with chives and jalapenos. I have never known how they manage to get so much cheese onto one plate, but it has been a staple at the Brook since it opened. It's terrible for you, but so delicious.
Cathy Morgan, a manager at Brook South, credited the atmosphere to owner Michael Watkins. Morgan said he likes things big. When the economy turned south in 2008, Morgan said many restaurants around reduced their portion sizes as a cost cutting measure. Watkins did no such thing. He kept the Brook's large portions. "That's just the way he is," Morgan said.
Moreover, the Brook South was opened in response to requests from customers at the original location. "We had a big bar crowd on Brookside who lived south," Morgan said, who has worked for the Brook since the first location opened in 1995.
In other words, Watkins listened to what his clientele wanted because he was physically there to do so. Nowadays, the Brook South "pulls from Bixby, Broken Arrow, Jenks," Morgan said.
The Brook was the largest restaurant I visited -- the South location employs about 50 people and it was packed even on a Tuesday night. As a result, it had the closest thing to a traditional, corporate philosophy. The Brook's goal is to "get people in, take care of them, and get them out," Morgan said.
Yet the Brook still manages to create intimacy for guests and loyalty among employees.
Jennifer Kassen, a waitress, said the Brook South is "by far my favorite" place to work. It has a "more homey feel" than other places she's worked, Kassen said. She attributes this to the fact that it is "locally owned."
As if to prove that she meant it, Kassen said she has worked for the Brook South for two years, a long time to work in a restaurant, which usually has a high turnover rate for wait staff.
Keys to Business
The Dilly Deli -- 402 E. 2nd St. -- values its manager's quirks even more than the Brook.
Dru Titchner, the general manager of the Dilly Deli -- which is part of the McNellie's Group -- doesn't just bring her own vibe to the business. She makes the restaurant feel like her own kitchen. She's earned it. Titchner started as a bartender at McNellie's and worked her way up in the company.
Steve Haddigan, a manager, said that Titchner names the Dilly Deli's sandwiches after her friends, her family members, even her pets. City Councilor G.T. Bynum is a regular -- he has his own milkshake.
The Dilly Deli opened in March 2009. Both Titchner and Haddigan opened the restaurant. "I painted these chairs," Haddigan said.
To show how influential Titchner's own personality has been on the Dilly Deli, Haddigan pointed out several keys hanging from a pillar in the building. Titchner had been collecting those keys since she was a child; most of them came from hotel rooms she and her family stayed in over the years.
Right down to the décor, the Dilly Deli is Titchner's baby.
By a strange coincidence, I had ordered the Steve, a sandwich Titchner had named after Haddigan. The vegetarian sandwich had American and Muenster cheese, pesto, spinach, and red onion on sourdough. It was a bit heavy on the pesto, but very tasty.
I also had a chocolate milkshake that took my mind back to the Metro Diner, a Tulsa institution of bygone days.
For a mid-week lunch, the Dilly Deli wasn't very crowded. I noticed, however, that it attracted people of various social classes. There were both business people and casual diners.
Leigh Flanary, a waitress at the Dilly Deli since June, sang the restaurant's praises. "People who work here are real people," she said.
Flanary used to work at Starbucks, which requires employees to wear a detailed uniform. On the other hand, Dilly Deli waiters and waitresses have free dress as long as they wear shirts playing up Tulsa or Oklahoma.
The managers "embrace everyone's uniqueness," Flanary said.
The Dilly Deli provided the first hint of a spiritual element to Tulsa cuisine. Flanary gave me a clipboard with my credit card receipt.
On it was written: "Love is my religion."
A Brookside Institution
Brookside by Day -- 3313 S. Peoria Ave. -- is less a spiritual center and more of a family.
Jared Stockard, a waiter, has worked at BBD, off and on, since 1994. He described the owner, Kyle Phillips, as one of his closest friends. "We used to play golf three or four times a week before I got married," he said.
Brookside by Day has the "feel of family -- we're a close knit group," Stockard said. "I met my wife here. My friend Everett met his wife here. Zach [Phillips, the owner's son] and his wife both work here now."
I ate a murrito, my favorite meal at BBD. It's basically a breakfast burrito: sausage, scrambled eggs, cheese, and so forth, wrapped in a tortilla. Stockard described the restaurant's food as having the "feeling of home-cooking with a Tulsa flair."
Stockard said Tulsa food is like healthy comfort food. "People try to add a healthy twist ... avocado and sliced tomato."
The Jamaican Jerk Joint
Jessi Ford, a waitress at Hibiscus -- 3316 S. Peoria Ave. -- agrees that Tulsans like healthy food. A recent transplant from San Diego, Ford admitted she didn't expect this. "I'm surprised by how much Tulsa has freshness in the way Tulsa presents its food. ... Like fresh fruit, like why would you want processed food all the time?" she said.
The healthy, home-cooked nature of Tulsa cuisine is part of the appeal of Tulsa culture for Ford. "I appreciate [Tulsa]. The change of pace is nice. ... I'm surprised by the variety of people you have here and by the way everyone embraces themselves and embraces each other," she said.
Hibiscus itself is a Caribbean restaurant. It serves traditional Jamaican food, including pork, fish, and goat. "Everything has imported spices from Jamaica. ... People come because it has a laid-back vibe," Ford said.
Here, for the second time, I saw "Love is my religion" at a Tulsa restaurant. Ford proudly wore the slogan on her (non-uniform) t-shirt.
Vincent LaTouche, Hibiscus' owner, continued the spiritual theme. He began our conversation by talking about Jesus.
Referring to the film The Last Temptation of Christ, LaTouche said, "This movie, it was like, the Savior of the world came down and he was just like me. He had emotions and feelings like me. I remember when the movie came out in the '80s, people were outraged. ... 'Jesus is above emotion. Jesus would never look at a woman,' they said. But if he didn't do that, he's not really human."
Whether he was talking about Christ or his cooking, LaTouche spoke of the importance of intimacy. "I am part of Tulsa cuisine," he said.
I ate some wonderful jerk-fried catfish with delicious rice and Jamaican sweetbread. I asked LaTouche why he combined an Oklahoma dish like catfish with Caribbean food. "Catfish is a staple here," he said. "I wanted to catch people's attention ... but it's not your mama's catfish."
Overall, LaTouche has a negative impression of the local culinary scene. He described it as "over-restaurantized" and lamented that people go to their favorite chains.
For this reason, perhaps, LaTouche has made a point of combining traditional food with Jamaican flavors. The jerk on my catfish was the single richest flavor I tasted on this journey.
The Middle East in the Wild West
Golden Saddle -- 6618 E. Admiral Place -- has very little in common with Hibiscus, but it continues the melting pot theme.
The walls are chock full of cowboy memorabilia, but it serves food devout Muslims are permitted to eat.
It also espouses the same intimacy I saw at each of the restaurants I visited. Waitresses didn't make small talk; they sat down with my wife and me and told us their life stories.
Pamela Diaz grew up in Hulbert, where she went to Lost City Elementary School. Even though she's only in her 40s, her school didn't have indoor plumbing until she was in third grade. "I'm an Okie," she said.
Kayla Stone, another waitress, has only worked at Golden Saddle since July, but has had a positive experience so far. "I asked him [Nasim Salari, the owner] for a job because I needed one," she said. She was recommended by a regular customer and Salari hired her on the spot.
Diaz has worked at Golden Saddle for several years. She waxed about how close she feels with her co-workers and customers. She said that each Christmas the employees have a Santa exchange and that each Thanksgiving they offer a free dinner to customers.
Last Christmas, Salari put up stockings for each employee. "Customers put stuff in our stockings. ... Everyone got a half dollar," Diaz said.
Golden Saddle is a home-cooking place if there ever was one. Diaz said "nice" Tulsa food can be found at chains like Olive Garden, but her preference is for "home-cooked, outdoor food." That's exactly what Golden Saddle offers.
Salari said his restaurant offers "a little bit more than a little bit of everything."
When he first bought the place several years ago, Salari kept the barbecue style that existed before. He gradually added other types of food. Golden Saddle has a breakfast buffet now. He also began cooking kabobs and other meals from his native Iran. The food was a bit too greasy for me, but the buffet reminded me of an after-church Sunday lunch in small town Oklahoma.
TU students from the Middle East and Central Asia began to frequent Golden Saddle because of the Iranian food. Some of them requested halal food -- the Islamic equivalent of kosher -- and Salari obliged. "TU has a lot of Muslim students," he said.
Salari said he serves so many types of food because there is "not enough market" for any one thing. So he offers everything. This bespeaks not only a desire to stay afloat, but a desire to connect with the community (or communities) that come to Golden Saddle. In other words, because he operates a small business, Salari can respond to what his customers actually want, not what a corporate chain thinks they should want.
He is rewarded with a slew of regular customers. The waitresses knew nearly everyone who came to Golden Saddle while I was there, swapping stories and exchanging insults.
Salari also has intensely loyal employees. Diaz, for example, is a trained medical assistant, but has stayed at Golden Saddle because Salari treats his employees so well. If she's sick, she is able to call the restaurant and call in, with no questions asked, because Salari trusts her. Diaz said she can't get that at any other job.
Still, Salari is most proud of the food. His specialties: "Ham and beans, and we make a mean one; ... or maybe a tie with chicken fried steak," he said.
At the Corner of Guthrie Green
When I looked around Caz's Chowhouse -- 18 E. Brady St. -- I thought it looked like a living room inside a warehouse. Once again, a restaurant I visited displayed the personal peculiarity of the owner. I asked Sydney Smith, a manager for the past five years, why the atmosphere felt odd. "[The owner] is extremely eccentric...and likes strange," she said.
For the same reason, it was hard to put my finger on the exact kind of food Caz's serves. It has a "Southern feel," said Smith.
The intimacy with employees and customers was here too. When my wife asked for vegetarian food, Smith named all the veggie items off the top of her head, giving various combinations even if they weren't on the menu.
Caz's mixes jalapenos into its coleslaw to make its signature spicy slaw. My wife really enjoyed putting this on her Boca burger. Instead of chips and salsa or something similar, Caz's serves cornbread, which was pretty good (though not quite my Memphis mama's).
Smith said what differentiates Tulsa restaurants from chains is that employees are able to develop real relationships with upper management. "This is so much more personable. ... It's much more laid back than corporate rules and regulations. ... I work with the owner. He's seen me grow. I've seen him [and] the business grow," she said.
The Kitchen with No Oven
Raw Intentions -- 848 S. Aspen Ave. in Broken Arrow -- serves vegan and raw food exclusively. The kitchen has no stove and no oven.
Denise Madeja, the owner, has been a raw food professional for about two years. She became convinced of the benefits because of various health problems she had had. "I was desperate to feel better," she said.
She attended Optimum Health Institute in San Diego to learn how to navigate the raw food lifestyle. "I jumped in with both feet and became a raw foodist. I haven't looked back since."
Madeja teaches raw food nutrition at various health food stores, such as Whole Foods in Tulsa and Green Acres in Jenks. Raw Intentions opened on April 28 of this year in response to requests from her clients.
The tuna salad in my sandwich was made from almonds and sunflower seeds "soaked and mashed up," said Blaine Young, a clerk at Raw Intentions. My bread was a large piece of crisp lettuce. It was tasty.
What was even better was the sample of chocolate pudding Madeja gave me. It didn't faze me that it was made from avocado.
Because of her diet, Madeja is a bit disconnected from broader Tulsa cuisine. "I haven't eaten out in two years," she said.
She offered some ideas of what Tulsans look for in food. "I think most Tulsans want the most food for the least amount of money." This has led to some unhealthy choices among many people locally.
Nevertheless, she echoed the opinions of other restaurateurs that Tulsa cuisine has a healthy streak. "A lot of people want health options. ... A lot of people just want a healthy meal."
Yet again, a religious theme emerged from my meal. The walls at Raw Intentions feature two quotes from the Bible: Genesis 1:29 -- "God said, 'I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food'" -- and Galatians 5:14 -- "Love your neighbor as yourself."
When asked why she painted these quote on her wall, Madeja framed philosophy of her restaurant in religious terms. "I believe that God created everything that grows out of the ground for our food," she said. "This is a lifestyle, not a diet."
The Best Meat in Town
Siegi's Gasthaus -- 8104 S. Sheridan Ave. -- may not share Raw Intentions' vegan philosophy, but if you eat at either place, you will know exactly the ingredients of what you're putting into your body.
Siegi's has been around for more than two decades, but it only became a full restaurant in 2010. Originally, it was a sausage factory. Later, it developed into a deli with a few tables. Even now that it has a restaurant with a full menu (and a great selection of German beer), all the meat is produced in-house.
The owner, Siegi Sumaruk, was born in Linz, Austria, and is a fifth generation sausage maker. He now works with his three sons, the sixth generation.
"What makes it work is the sausage is first, the deli second," said Jerry Gardner, a Siegi's manager. "There are freezers back there you can play basketball in." That is, Siegi's knows what goes into their meat because it's their meat from the beginning. The company even processes deer and other wild game brought by hunters.
Like other restaurants, Siegi's values intimacy. "The children know the deli guys. ... We have customers who come three or four times a week," Gardner said.
Siegi's also inspires fierce loyalty among its employees. Gardner has worked there for five years but still considers himself somewhat of a newbie. Siegi's has several long-term employees.
Gardner credits Sumaruk with creating an environment for both guests and employees. "He's a good man. ... You've got the owner that's [here]. He wants to keep good people," he said.
Likewise, the business incorporates the personality of the owner. When Siegi's moved to its present location, Sumaruk designed the exterior of the restaurant to look like the row houses of his native Linz.
Gardner described Tulsa cuisine as a "variety of things," but he emphasized our taste for meaty food. "I think one of the things that makes German food work is that it's comfort food," he said.
I ate a Reuben, which I raved about throughout Gardner's interview. He pointed at my sandwich. "The reason you like that Reuben is we make the corn beef. ... We make the sauerkraut here," he said.
Loving the Local Food
As different as all these restaurants were, they had a number of things in common.
They did not share cooking styles or spices, but each combines the virtues of humility, individuality, and intimacy.
Each restaurant took pride in its work, but most took pains to describe itself as home-cooking as much as possible. Even if the food was significantly different from mama's kitchen, restaurateurs wanted customers to compare their food to that, and not to fancy cooking, and certainly not to the chains.
No one I spoke with framed their restaurant in terms of a corporate vision or concept. Instead, each owner or manager poured his or her own personality -- often including spirituality -- into the restaurant. Instead of using marketing jargon to describe a restaurant, each owner or manager is able walk into the kitchen and say, "This is me."
Each restaurant encourages an intimate, familiar atmosphere. In an industry known for high turnover of employees, waiters and waitresses can stay with their restaurants for years, sometimes decades. They raise their families there and treat their regulars like old friends because, in many cases, they are.
I took this assignment thinking there was no such thing as Tulsa cuisine. For the most part, I was right.
What I learned, though, is that culinary style does not make a meal Tulsan. What makes the meal Tulsan is the manner in which it is served.
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