“Oklahoma is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” explains Dave Cathey, food editor of The Oklahoman and author of Historic Restaurants of Oklahoma City (2016). Sandwiched between pork-loving Kansas City and beef-centric Texas, the state’s ‘cue scene has somewhat of an “identity crisis” due to the fact that it’s not a master of either.
“I talked to chef Rick Bayless about this because he grew up there, and his family owned a barbecue joint. He describes it as a crossroads.”
Even so, Oklahoma’s no slouch when it comes to smoking meats.
It does, in fact, have a specialty it can call its very own: smoked bologna. “It’s all over the state, from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. They’ll smoke it first and then slice, or sometimes even fry it afterwards. It’s served in slabs or on a sandwich. It’s almost like an alternative to sausage. Even my vegetarian wife misses it.”
But Cathey argues that Oklahoma’s biggest strength is its rich lineage of competitive barbecue champions.
“In a way it’s trickery, because it’s stuff you can’t really reproduce sustainably on a large scale. But I will say this: If it wasn’t for competitive barbecue, Aaron Franklin would not have the success he has,” says Cathey. “His genius is putting research into practice. Aaron’s brisket comes from prime beef, and it’s a trend that became popular on the competitive circuit. It’s almost like a test kitchen for others to observe.”
From a Lebanese steakhouse with a thing for smoke, to a middle-of-nowhere fried chicken-barbecue twofer, Cathey guides us to some of his favorite eats in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and beyond.
The Frankenstein from Burn Co. Barbeque
Address and phone: 1738 S Boston Ave, Tulsa, OK (918-574-2777)
Cathey says: “It’s smoked meats stacked on top of one another. What else do you need to know? They smoke the stuff right, and it’s just pure heaven. I’ve waited in line for 45 minutes to snag one.” (Photo: Yelp/Reazy B.)
Fatty Brisket from Back Door Barbecue
Address and phone: 315 NW 23rd St, Oklahoma City, OK (405-525-7427)
Cathey says: “The biggest mistake people make north of Red River and east of Texas is not cutting the brisket right. It’s an ornery beast. If all of barbecue were the music industry, brisket would be country music: it doesn’t have the most fans, but it has really strong fans. A lot of it is really bad, but when it’s right, it’s really right. Back Door does it right. (Photo: Facebook/Back Door Barbecue)
Fried Chicken and Pork Spare Ribs from Railhead BBQ
Cathey says: “It’s truly in the middle of nowhere. They do really great barbecue and fried chicken, and to do both in the same place is sort of unbelievable. It’s a truly underrated spot.” (Photo: Yelp/Bret S.)
Smoked Bologna from Jamil’s Steakhouse
Address and phone: 4910 N Lincoln Blvd, Oklahoma City, OK (405-525-8352)
Cathey says: “There’s a Lebanese steak house called Jamil’s. Many years ago the Lebanese established themselves as a community here in Oklahoma. When Jamil’s first opened, they were afraid that Middle Eastern food wouldn’t appeal to the general public, so they decided to sell steak and barbecue. But they also wanted to include their own food as well. So now you can get mezze, pork ribs, and smoked bologna—before you get your steak. Their bologna is some of the best in the state.” (Photo: jamilssteakhouse.com)
Hot BBQ Sauce and Strawberry-Banana Cake from Leo’s
Cathey says: “I only grew up eating sweet sauce, but Leo’s is so damn hot. It’ll burn your lips for 20 minutes. It’s tomato-based with probably a bunch of cayenne. It’s sublime. Secondly, their strawberry-banana cake is unbelievable. It’s a yellow cake with tones of butter and a clear glaze.” (Photo: Yelp/Chef Stef K.)