Residents of Oklahoma City all seem to agree to disagree on one thing: precisely to what part of this diverse United States the Sooner State belongs. She sits due west of the Southern state of Arkansas, but some Oklahomans tell me they are not part of the South. Others say they are part of the greater Midwest, even if a bit too far south to fit into such convenient geographic classification. Some definitions claim it belongs in the category of Southwest due to the fact that a small part of its western Panhandle touches both New Mexico and Colorado. (Oklahoma brewers are officially classified as being in the “Southwest” region by no less an authority than the Brewers Association.)
Yet Oklahoma, with its collision of thousands of years of American Indian history with the newer — and ongoing — influence of American culture, defies such convenient categorization, which makes it both unique and, like each of its 49 brethren, deserving of recognition for its unique culture. And at its geographic center lies the capital, Oklahoma City, born in the aftermath of the great land rush of 1889 that also gave rise to its nickname — what with cheaters staking out their positions in the territory grab the night before, i.e., “sooner” than the rest.
The Washington Times spent a weekend in Oklahoma City to experience its cuisine, its culture, its history and its ever-evolving present. What I found amazed, inspired and upended any preconceived notion I brought along with me to the 46th state to enter the union.
She is surprising and wonderful, just as any place new to an eager traveler should be.
Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport serves as a stop for six major U.S. carriers, offering daily nonstop service to and from East Coast hubs like Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as direct access from San Francisco and Los Angeles in the west, making it easily accessible with a maximum of two legs from most major American airports. My route in takes me from Baltimore by way of Atlanta, and my route back goes the reverse but for a layover in Detroit.
Public transit is still catching up to the Sooner capital’s expansion, so to get downtown, the route of least resistance from Will Rogers (named for the native son and famous actor) is a taxi or Uber. In an Uber, my driver, an African-American, and I cannot help but discuss the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land. I haven’t even been in town an hour, but already I’m learning to put my assumptions to bed as my driver, though he voted for Hillary Clinton, says he also voted for George W. Bush in 2004. We share a lively, friendly chat about both his hometown and my adopted home of Washington, D.C., on the 20-minute ride into downtown OKC.
I arrive at the Ambassador Hotel Autograph Collection (1200 North Walker Ave., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73103, 405/600-6200), located in the happening Midtown district and sited inside the former Osler Building, built in 1929 and thus a source of historic pride. My room is a spacious affair, featuring a king bed and settee, desk, fully stocked fridge and snack bar plus an incredibly generous bathroom space. I am instantly feeling at home beholding a gift basket from the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau containing coffee grounds, pretzels, chocolate and other ephemera — all from Oklahoma sources.
It’s time for lunch, and I am picked up outside the Ambassador by my hostess and “godmother” of this excursion, Tabbi Burwell, communications manager for the OKC visitors bureau. A friendly, thoroughly congenial native of the capital, Tabbi takes me a few miles north to Iron Star Urban BBQ (3700 N Shartel Ave, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73118, 405/524-5925), a true-blue smokehouse named for notorious femme fatale Oklahoma outlaw Belle Starr.
Decor is what you would expect to see at a chuckwagon out west, with wooden floors and brick walls lending it a definite air of authenticity. Iron Star has a lively atmosphere, with Friday-afternoon lunchers eagerly dining and chatting. My only complaint here is that the booth’s seating is rather too close to the table for comfort, whose height is also a little high up on chest level for ease of eating.
No matter, as our scrupulous server runs down the entire menu to the most minute of details. I come from a restaurant background, so his acumen of his business’ wares is impressive, as is his knowledge of Oklahoma City, where he tells us he moved from his Seattle home.
For starters I grab an “Urban,” Iron Star’s twist on the old-fashioned, but served with a splash of ginger beer and packing a pleasantly spicy flavor. The table goes for the bacon-wrapped quail breast ($14), which is beautifully presented, if a tad underwhelming to the palate.
As I’m having trouble deciding from the many entree offerings, I out for the combo plate ($16), which allows two choices of any of the meats. My two proteins of choice for the platter are the pork ribs, which are succulent and tasty, and the brisket, which is satisfactory if not incredible. However, on the side I go for the mac n’ cheese, which is heaven-sent, and the fried okra, which may be the absolute best I have ever tried on any side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
There is absolutely no room for dessert. Under the circumstances, this is just fine.
As mentioned, the Brewers Association considers Oklahoma craft beer makers to be part of the “Southwest” region, but however they are so classified, as a microbrew lover, it’s up to me to explore how precisely the locals are contributing to the scene. So back in an Uber, and off to the industrial Winds West area of town to visit Coop Ale Works (4745 Council Heights Rd, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73179, 405/842-2667). I am greeted by co-founder Daniel Mercer, a former military man and private-sector venture capitalist who, with partners, one day decided to put his energies into his passion full-time. Daniel is cordial but slightly quirky after that manner that seems so peculiar to those who fashion (and taste) their own beer for a living.
While offering me a tour of his facilities, Daniel tells me how Election Day voters easily passed Oklahoma Law 792, which will allow grocery stores to begin selling both wine and “strong beer” above the Prohibition-era limit of 3.2 percent alcohol. This is good news for Daniel, who heretofore has only been able to retail his wares in state “liquor stores” and here at his own facility.
As we chat, he tells me how, in an ever-more saturated marketplace, it becomes increasingly difficult to find unique names without stepping on previous copyrights given the plethora of brewers churning out more and newer brews, but I’m impressed by the honorifics he has come up with his products. The DNR Strong Belgian Dark is a tad bitter for my liking, but it offers a delightful nose and, it must be said, one of the single coolest artworks I have yet seen on a craft beer. The Native Amber Red Ale is a definite highlight, as is the Horny Toad Blonde. The Spare Rib Pale Ale, though a tad hoppy for my tongue, is amazingly smooth. I’m glad I made a pass at the Spicy Hawaiian Elevator, a hefeweizen made with pineapple and habanero, but a few sips were enough to satisfy my curiosity.
The great find, to my surprise, was the Gran Sport Coffee Porter. I am not a coffee drinker by any stretch, but the nose of the beans combined with a throughly enjoyable taste was heaven. Daniel gifts me a “crowler” of same to take back to my hotel to enjoy at my leisure.
Coop’s tasting room is open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
Heading back to Midtown, my next stop on this micro-microbrew tour is Anthem Brewing Company (908 SW 4th St, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73109, 405/604-0446). Proprietor Patrick Lively — a former employee of Coop, as it turns out — welcomes me into his taproom, advantageously situated closer to the center of the downtown action and thus more amenable to foot traffic. Live music is a staple of his establishment, as it is this Friday as the day transitions into evening.
It’s still fall, and Patrick still has his Oktoberfest, called the Ogletoberfest, on tap. It’s malty goodness in a glass, and makes me just a tad teary that the dark months are upon us and this style of beer must be back-burnered for yet another year. The double IPA is nicely hopped, and I also enjoyed Anthem’s quad offering. The Arjuna Belgian-style wit wasn’t without its charms, though its best asset is its floral nose.
But Patrick has more up his sleeve, and steps behind the bar to produce some special release offerings. The Pappy Burleson aged wheat wine, named for a local musician, is aged in bourbon barrels and offers a complex taste and satisfying profile. Next up is the Old Man Ogle, which is basically the Ogletoberfest after it too has been aged in bourbon barrels. It’s a stand-up knockout of a craft beer, and one of the most unique and stellar I have tasted in some time.
I’m supposed to head out for dinner soon — alone — but Patrick, with a sly smile and welcoming eyes, has a different idea.
“Why don’t you come out with me and my girlfriend instead?”
I travel a fair amount, both for my profession and in my personal life (Oklahoma is my 49th state visited), and one thing I have learned in my travels is that if a local offers you the chance to see his hometown, through his eyes, and away from both the tourist scene and the big-moneyed hotels, you are doing yourself a massive disservice and shutting away the possibility of experiential serendipity by declining.
It’s an immediate yes.
Patrick hails an Uber, and before I know what is happening, we arrive at the 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City (900 W Main St, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73106, 405/982-6900). While the property bills itself as an inn, each of the 21c properties is also a walk-in museum, and contemporary modern art awaits me in the lobby — as does an after-work reception in full swing, with hipsters, art buffs and the city’s intelligentsia holding court while a local jazz combo provides the soundtrack for the proceedings. Free charcuterie and cheese are on offer, as is a complimentary cocktail bar.
I am already incredibly grateful I agreed to come along.
At this somewhat incongruous gathering, I chat with local writers and artists, as well as make the acquaintance of Trae Carson, the co-founder of 405 Brewing Co. (named for the state’s area code) in nearby Norman. In between drinks standing amid quirky art installations, I am somewhat surprised by the number of disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters I encounter. (The election, but a few weeks in the past, has kept passions high on all sides.)
As the affair winds down, Patrick, his girlfriend Alena and I make our way to the Oak & Oar (1732 NW 16th St, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73106, 405/606-2030), a craft beer bar with a heady selection. Brews from around Oklahoma are on offer, including those from both Coop and Anthem. I can’t help but smile as Patrick orders one from his own brewery.
Next we walk to The Mule (1630 N Blackwelder Ave, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73106, 405/601-1400), a rather well known local dining spot. To soak up some of the beers and bourbon of the evening, I chow down on the Macaroni Pony, a heart attack sandwich of BBQ pulled pork and mac n’ cheese interposed between two slices of jalapeno cornbread. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and after a few bites in, I raise the white flag. It’s tasty, yes, but too filling, and it’s a bit heavy on the sauce, making it a messy affair.
It’s getting on midnight, and Patrick and Alena say there is one place in town we simply must visit. At Ludivine (805 N Hudson Ave, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73102, 405/778-6800), a different person is chosen to give a toast at the stroke of midnight each Friday evening — a sort of weekly, ritualistic New Year’s renewal in microcosm. As all hands raise a glass, a young lady from the gathered offers up hopes for the new dawn, the new weekend, the new everything.
Yet as all things new must at some time become old, I’m tired after a rather full first day in the capital. I bid Patrick and Alena a fond farewell and head back to the Ambassador for sleep.
Depending on how you feel about standing in lines — in the cold, no less — will determine whether or not you’ll enjoy patronizing Waffle Champion (1212 N Walker Ave #100, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73107, (405) 525-9235), a hip joint in Midtown that offers a rather arty take on both savory and sweet waffle sandwiches. I overslept a bit this morning, much to my own detriment, as by the time I walk next door from the Ambassador, the line is indeed snaking around the block.
Did I mention it’s cold?
However, I endeavor to view experiences like this as adventures, and so, with this week’s New Yorker under my arm for company, I stand with my fellow patrons as the line moves ever, ever, ever so slowly.
By the time I have made it into the joint and ordered up my yummy-sounding S’mores waffle treat ($8.95) at the counter, I have been in the queue for an hour all told. The S’mores waffle sandwich indeed has all the accoutrements you’d expect to enjoy round a summer campfire, and its carb-o-licious profile fills me up fast, but to be frank, it just wasn’t worth the wait. This is more an “experience” than a quality place to dine, in my opinion, and is best experienced with a group of friends.
Everyone in Oklahoma City remembers where they were the morning of April 19, 1995, when, at 9:02 a.m., a massive explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, resulting in the deaths of 168 office workers, children and other innocent people, plus untold more injuries. The blast could be felt for miles around, and even registered on an earthquake monitor 35 miles away.
Today, that site of so much horror is now a place of peace, learning and calls for future understanding. At the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (620 N Harvey Ave, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73102, 405/235-3313), visitors walk through exhibits that show how this block of real estate in the central part of the city changed from the early part of the 20th century until it became a site for the government — and how all that tragically altered on a cloudless April morning 21 years ago.
The museum is incredibly extensive, and even at a brisk pace, it really takes at least two hours to see all of the exhibits and watch all of the videos on display, showcasing the bombing’s immediate aftermath, the rescue and recovery efforts as well as the demolition of the no-longer-safe structure and the construction of this memorial, visited at various times by presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the chief executive at the time of the incident. A thorough timeline from the moment the explosion happened on through the investigation and ultimate convictions of Timothy McVeigh (since executed) and Terry Nichols (in prison for life) shows how, even in a dark hour when terrorists attempted to undermine America’s foundations, those very same institutions gave them fair trials. Judge Steven Taylor told Nichols at his sentencing: “It is truly ironic that the very government and the Constitution … you professed to hate is the very government that assured you a fair trial and protected your rights.”
Various sundry items, such as eyeglasses recovered from inside the bombed-out structure, bear chilling testimony to the human costs of that day. Hours more could be spent watching video testimonials of victims and their families, however, after two hours of peering into the darkness, I find it better to exit the museum and walk the reflecting pool crafted in the footprint of the gone Murrah building, on the far side of which stand 168 chairs, one for each of the victims of the blast. Even more incredibly, the so-called “Survivor Tree” still stands at the site, which not only bore the brunt of the explosion, but whose children have been planted the world over in a show of the strength of life over death.
After such a heady few hours, I need to refuel my stomach and unwind. So off next to Tucker’s Onion Burgers (three locations; visit TuckersOnionBurgers.com to find them) for lunch. I’m a bit of a burger snob (thank you In-N-Out!) but I must say, Tucker’s offers one of the best patties — and a very friendly staff — I have enjoyed in quite some time. I go for the double onion burger with cheese, cooked to absolute perfection, along with fries and a drink. The patties vanish before I know what happened, and I am happily sated.
Hailing an Uber, I have a short time to enjoy the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (1700 NE 63rd St, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73111, 405/478-2250). It’s a bit far outside of the downtown corridors and an incredibly large facility devoted to not only America’s great natural Western frontiers, but also those pioneers who left the safety of civilization behind to explore and “settle” it for whites. As much space is given to the American Indians, whose uneasy history with American expansionism — and continued, though much diminished, presence in the fabric of current U.S. identity — is well documented here.
I wish I’d had more time to explore, but it’s near closing time, so I peruse as much as I can, the most wondrous example of which is a large gathering room wherein reside five triptychs by the artist Wilson Hurley portraying idyllic scenes of the West.
Just as the sun is slanting away for the evening, I head into Bricktown, OKC’s first warehouse district that saw a decline in the latter 20th century as industry faded away. But thanks to a taxpayer-passed Metropolitan Area Projects Initiative (MAPS) project in 1993, Bricktown is alive and thriving, now boasting a minor-league ballpark for the Oklahoma City Dodgers (yes, affiliated with the team out west), a canal and Water Taxi as well as new businesses, restaurants and other such improvements. It’s living proof that urban renewal is not only viable, but one of the best uses of taxpayer moneys.
Before it too closes, I pop into Bricktown’s staple cultural stop, the American Banjo Museum (9 E Sheridan Ave., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73014, 405/604-2793). A history of American music would not be complete without acknowledging the contributions this singular instrument has made to bluegrass, country and, yes, even rock ‘n’ roll, and this museum offers a thorough hagiography for the banjo, from its humble beginnings in poor immigrant and black communities on through its renaissance in bluegrass music and even into the hands of such contemporary players as Steve Martin, for whom a large exhibit is devoted to his enthusiasm for the instrument. This place also hosts a thrilling collection of banjos from the Jazz Age onward, as well as a recreation of the long-defunct Your Father’s Mustache banjo nightclub chain that reigned in the 1960s.
Conveniently sitting right next door, the Bricktown Brewery (1 N Oklahoma Ave, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73104, 405/232-2739) offers up more craft suds for those who venture to this righteously revitalized part of town. The joint has a cheeky sense of humor, as evidenced by a manifesto on their website that decrees nothing happened in these parts “until Bricktown Brewery came to town, and in an instant the whole world changed.”
I particularly enjoy the Bluesberry Ale, with its crisp and tasty fruit flavor, as well as Wiley’s One-Eyed Wheat, reminiscent of the best of the German style. Three Guardsman IPA isn’t too overly hopped and is quite drinkable, and my other favorite from the sampler is the Millie McFadden Red Rye Ale, which, if I ever return, will be the first pint I order.
One quick final stop in Bricktown is the aforementioned Water Taxi. For anyone who has ever visited a similar waterway in San Antonio, this is kind of the same deal. Our fun-loving gondolier shuffles us through the not-quite-circular canals of Bricktown while imparting an impressive array of information about the MAPS projects, Bricktown, Oklahoma in general and Oklahoma City in particular. In between jokes that would be right at home on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride (the captain in fact hails from Anaheim, California), our guide lists off such famous natives of the Sooner State as Mickey Mantle, Will Rogers, Vince Gill and Ron Howard, who grew up in nearby Duncan before embarking on a Hollywood career that, in 1992, brought him full-circle as director of the epic “Far and Away,” whose climax, of course, centered on the Cherokee Strip land run of 1893, about 100 miles north of what is now Oklahoma City.
A wristband allows you to ride endlessly, but I found one revolution through the canal to suffice.
I head out of Bricktown and back toward downtown for my dinner at Cheever’s Cafe (2409 N Hudson Ave, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73103, 405/525-7007), named in honor of Oklahoma Belle Cunningham, the first baby born in the brand-new city, and who later marry Lawrence “L.L.” Cheever, who started a flower business in this space on Hudson Ave. during the Depression. Cheevers descendents sold the building in the late-‘90s, and a restaurant honoring their family name opened here in 2000, with the flower display window now repurposed for the restaurant.
Cheever’s features lovely decor inside of a warm yet thankfully informal atmosphere. It’s a bit louder than I was hoping for a quiet final dinner in town, but as I sip on a lovely South African Chenin blanc, I overhear the bartender discussing — thankfully in a level voice — the recent election with two patrons. I do my best to be nothing more than an eaves wallflower while munching on house bread served with butter infused with salt that is absolutely rocking.
My server is a class act and knows the menu through and through. He helpfully steers me away from newer dinner items that he claims were sent back to the kitchen by other diners, but he says that the tortilla crusted Alaskan halibut ($33) is not to be missed. He could not have been more correct as this dish absolutely lights up my happy places. The northern fish is served over spicy shrimp risotto and swimming in a cilantro-lime broth that packs a hint of an aftertaste kick. It’s an absolutely awesome flavor medley, although if I had it all to do over again, I would have picked a Chardonnay to pair with it over the Chenin blanc in my glass.
For dessert I nosh on the roasted pecan ice cream ball ($11), which is another absolute wow. The dish comprises vanilla ice cream rolled with pecans that were roasted with brown sugar, cinnamon and red chile — all of it topped with chocolate sauce. It’s a bit heavy on the pecan flavor for my liking, but the presentation is glorious, and it’s precisely what is called for at the end of this meal.
After a scotch at O Bar, located at the tip-top floor of the Ambassador, I’m ready to retire — not from writing, but from this evening. I have a 5:45 a.m. flight out of Will Rogers, and I have an evangel to preach: Oklahoma City is not what I expected it to be, and it will not be what you expect either. Allow yourself to be enveloped in its undiscovered, untouted wonders of food, history, adventure and some of the kindest, most welcoming people on either side of the Mississippi.
For I have learned just a little bit more about the people with whom I share this country, and it’s just one part of understanding that leads us, as Americans, toward a greater appreciation of all that this great nation has to offer.
Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.