Last week I went searching for good barbecue in Oklahoma. I wasn’t looking just for barbecue joints in the state, but was instead trying to find a defining factor of how barbecue in Oklahoma is unique to that state. With my wife’s family still living in Oklahoma City, I’d canvassed the barbecue options there pretty well, but found a style with an identity crisis that falls somewhere between Texas and Kansas City barbecue. Every joint has brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and chicken, along with a thick, sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce, but the only unique item was a neon-red hot link more akin to a frankfurter than smoked sausage. That’s not much for an entire state to hang its barbecue traditions on, but maybe a trip through Tulsa could provide more clues. Luckily, the Tulsa Press Club asked me to come talk to them about Texas barbecue, so I had two days to get my fill.
Chef and television personality Rick Bayless is a native Oklahoman, and back in 2004 he wrote an article for Saveur magazine Hickory House Memories where he reminisced about his family’s now defunct barbecue joint. He too struggled with a definition for Oklahoma barbecue.
“What I do believe is that most people don’t think of Oklahoma barbecue as unique…In fact, this barbecue is usually described in terms of what it’s not: it’s not as saucy as barbecue from Kansas City, though both places commonly use hickory wood, and what sauce it has can be similar to K.C.’s with ketchup as a main ingredient. It’s not as tangy as Memphis barbecue and not as vinegary as what they serve in North Carolina. It’s not as dry as most classic Texas barbecue, and it’s not inclusive of just one kind of meat: both pork ribs and large cuts of beef (like brisket) play a major role.”
His points are hard to argue, but after eating my way through eight of Tulsa’s favorite barbecue joints, I wonder how Rick forgot about the smoked bologna. Food Network Magazine selected it as the single representative sandwich for the state of Oklahoma. Its nicknames include “Oklahoma Tenderloin” and “Oklahoma Prime Rib.” It’s everywhere, but I found a lot more to like about the barbecue in Tulsa too.
My first stops were in North Tulsa. It’s a section of the city that is primarily African American, with the demographics stemming largely from the race riots in 1921. During those riots, white supremacists burned a huge section of a thriving neighborhood called Greenwood on the north side of downtown. It had been known as the “Black Wall Street” at its height, but it never recovered from the riots. Whites in the city pushed the African American population further north, and forbade them from shopping south of downtown. This created segregated business districts in North Tulsa, but they faded after the city became integrated. North Tulsa is now a semi-rural neighborhood with sparsely spaced businesses, many of which are permanently closed. Along East Apache Street, between an abandoned building and some empty lots was a hub of mid-afternoon activity at Stutts House of Bar-B-Que.
Stutts House of Bar-B-Que – Buttermilk Pie
We sampled all the meats expect the ribs which were sold out. The tepid rib tips were undercooked and the brisket was a chewy version of pot roast. Something I would soon learn to expect is that the smoked bologna tasted a lot like…bologna. When an uncut tube of bologna is placed on a smoker, there isn’t anything for the smoke to adhere to, and there isn’t much hope of smoke penetration through the thick casing and the dense meat. I won’t disparage a nice, warm slice of bologna, but it’s hard to call it barbecue. I would have been happier just to make this a dessert stop since the warm buttermilk pie was fantastic.
Wilson’s BBQ – Best Signage
Wilson’s is run by the same family as Stutts. They serve the same buttermilk pie, but this one was a cold brick delivered in a plastic bag. “U Need No Teeth To Eat Our Beef” is their motto, but tenderness should be the least of their worries. I left with an admiration only for their creative signage around the restaurant.
Latimer’s Famous Bar-B-Q – Biggest Potential
Latimer’s went out of business in the last few months of 2008. Just across East Apache Street from Wilson’s, the building has some good bones, and the signage is incredibly photogenic. According to author Michael Wallis in his 1993 book Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation, this was one of Tulsa’s greats along with some other extinct North side legends. “BBQ is serious business in Tulsa, and the north side has produced some of the finest barbecue chefs in the nation. Joints such as Latimer’s, Reese’s, Ben’s, Reed’s, and Al’s were all part of Tulsa’s BBQ heritage.” Now sitting empty, the place still looks like it could house Tulsa’s next great barbecue joint.
Big Daddy’s All American BBQ – Turkey Leg
A bit further north is Big Daddy’s. The service is friendly and the menu is huge. They’re known for their overstuffed baked potatoes, but it was the turkey leg that took my attention here. The tender meat pulled off easily in bite-sized chunks. Unlike most turkey legs that are so tough as to be hardly worth the effort, this one was salty, smoky, and easy to enjoy. It all made sense after I learned that Big Daddy got his start selling turkey legs from a barbecue truck.
Buffalo’s BBQ (Sperry) – Pulled Pork and Hot Links
Donny Teel is a barbecue competition cook on the weekends, but he sets his trailer up alongside Highway 11 north of Tulsa selling barbecue Monday through Friday. He uses a Jambo pit for competitions, but it’s an Ole Hickory mounted to the trailer. The ribs and brisket were passable, but it was the pulled pork that first got my attention. The meat was smoky and moist, and the texture of the truly pulled (rather than chopped) pork was great.
They also serve a smoky hot link. I ran into this same Mountain View brand (from Stilwell, Oklahoma) at a number of joints in town, but Teel put the best smoke on these spicy links. They’re a big improvement from the bright red hot links that you’ll find in OKC.
Burn Co. Barbeque – Brisket and Sausage
There isn’t a more popular barbecue joint in Tulsa than the three year old joint Burn Co. They’re on every “best of” list I could find, and on the tip of every local tipsters tongue. They just moved into new building a few months back, so don’t let Apple maps guide you to the old location like it did me. When you’re getting near, don’t look for a sign since they didn’t bother installing one. Instead look for a line of people waiting outside the door.
Inside you’ll find a battalion of diminutive smokers covering the kitchen area. Adam Myers (who co-owns the joint with Robby Corcoran) was a salesman for Hasty-Bake charcoal grills before branching out on his own. Now he’s their biggest advocate. Everything on the menu is cooked on Hasty-Bakes. There isn’t a gas or electric burner to be found, but Myers does admit it’s a pain to boil water for macaroni & cheese on a charcoal grill.
The charcoal flavor is at the forefront of most meats, but especially the baby back ribs. Deep cuts scored into the bologna provide more surface area for the smoke which improved it greatly. The flavor is more muted on the briskets, primarily because they’re cooked hot and fast with a majority of the cooking time being in foil. There’s still a good hint of smoke, and the meat is very tender. I was surprised to learn that my brisket likely spent about 5 1/2 hours total in the smoker. It’s not going to rival a good Texas brisket, but it was clearly the best that I ate in Tulsa.
Burn Co. also employs butcher and sausage maker Craig Kus. He stocks a retail meat case up front, and make some great bratwursts including my favorite Lava Link. Add one on to your “Happy Plate” which is sampler of all the meats expect the sausage.
Elmer’s BBQ – Barbecue Sauce
Elmer’s has been operating on the south side of town since the eighties. Tulsans told me that it used to be great, but the brisket, ribs, and chopped pork that I received only reiterated Elmer’s motto. “It be bad.” But I did like the spicy homemade sauce that had a hint of sweet and a good bit of apple cider vinegar. I was feeling some bologna fatigue by this point, and what I saw on other patrons plates didn’t look any different to what I’d been eating all day. I did find a nugget of bologna wisdom from owner Keith Jimerson when he told the Tulsa World “if you don’t do it right, it puffs up from the heat and has a tendency to explode.”
Smokie’s – Bologna and the Coolest Smoker
Broken Arrow is just twenty minutes from Tulsa, but to most Tulsans it might as well be another state. They just don’t normally bother to make the trek. If they did, they might just find the holy grail of their signature state barbecue item. This is some damn fine bologna.
They portion the bologna into 1/2″ thick slices before smoking it, so there’s a whole lot of extra surface area for the smoke to cling to. It’s the one bite of bologna in Tulsa that tasted like it had actually been transformed through the power of smoke. The rest of the meats (brisket, ham, and pork) were ironically sliced paper thin and piled high like you’d find in Kansas City. It wasn’t an improvement.
The smoker here is no joke either. It’s made from a 4″ thick concrete culvert pipe turned on end. It burns incredibly efficiently, but that door isn’t exactly easy to open.
Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Cue – Burnt Ends and Pork Ribs
Also in Broken Arrow is the one of two locations of Oklahoma Joe’s in Oklahoma (the other is in downtown Tulsa, but all the meat is smoked here). Its Kansas City brethren has become famous around the country for ribs and burnt ends, and Joe Davidson is keeping that reputation alive here in Broken Arrow. The burnt ends were a text book version of tender, smoky, highly seasoned chunks of crusty brisket. It ran circles around the thoroughly average sliced brisket, and was even better as part of their famous Z-man sandwich with cheese, sauce, and onion rings.
Does he have bologna? “You couldn’t open a barbecue joint in Oklahoma without offering smoked bologna,” Davidson told Tulsa People “but in Kansas City, we couldn’t give it away.” Ironically, there are some in Kansas City, including barbecue legend and columnist Ardie Davis who recently lamented its absence on Kansas City menus. Joe tried to rock the boat a bit and serve an artisan version, but his customers revolted. Now they’re happy with their regular old bologna, and he’s happy to be paying half the price for the cheap stuff.
The St. Louis ribs were also excellent. Joe comes from a competition background, so you’ll find more glaze than bark, but even in mid-afternoon the texture was superb and the sweet and smoky flavors were spot-on. These are well-balanced competition-style ribs. The only way to improve them is to finish your meal with some cherry bread pudding. It’s a recipe from the raisin-averse Joe Davidson, and it’s hard to argue with the bing cherry substitution after trying a bite.
A great deal of credit must be given to the Tulsa World for helping shape my itinerary with their recent article on the best barbecue in Tulsa. Also, the Tulsa Food Guy offered not only advice in planning my tour, but also led me on most of it. His knowledge of the local barbecue scene and generosity with his time were invaluable.