Dong-A Style

“Unlike almost every other food culture, the Koreans seem to have f****ed up their food the least.” – Anthony Bourdain

Who's that handsome guy?

Who’s that handsome guy?

Well said, Tony. It’s true. It would seem that nothing is sacred in the world of food once it hits our shores. Our so-called “Chinese” cuisine has birthed things as perverse as egg rolls and fortune cookies. Tim Ferris (another of my spirit animals) points out in The 4 Hour Chef that chains in China have had big success selling “California beef noodles.” You know the Japanese were probably scratching their heads at “California rolls.” We’ve even managed to Americanize something as humble as traditional Mexican food. Was the world really made a better place by the invention of the chimichanga?

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Korean food is served in America without alteration. They have not dumbed down their complex, spicy flavor profiles for our vulgar palates. Kimchi, their famous fermented cabbage? Sure. Drink-able sweet potato? Why not. Beef intestine stew? It’s all there. If you’ve eaten Korean food in this country, it’s very likely you would find the same things in any Korean home. And if you haven’t ever eaten it, you’re about to find out that living near an air force base has its perks.

Meet Anastasia: Native of Seoul, good friend, and hairdresser extraordinaire.

I’m lucky to know Anastasia, and especially lucky that she knows her way around Korean food. As luck would have it, Tinker Air Force Base and its surrounding hamlets (Midwest City, Del City, Moore) which straddle Oklahoma city are a hotbed of Korean cuisine. Anastasia’s favorite place (and now mine) is Dong-A in Moore, a short journey down I-35 from Oklahoma City. The restaurant is located in a strip-center next to an other-worldly Korean grocery store which carries colorful, indecipherable packages of things like squid jerky and cylindrical rice dumplings. The whole things smacks of the kind of authenticity you’d expect from a side-street in Seoul.

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Together with our friends Louden and Igor, we trekked South for an enormous, unforgettable meal. Anastasia conversed with the restaurant’s Korean owners and got us a seat in the barbecue room. Cordoned off from the larger dining room, this chamber of secrets is like having your own private kitchen for the evening. Each table has a built in grill which allows you to––you guessed it––cook your own food. And by food (and this is the best part), I mean meat.

A meal for 4???

A meal for 4???

We had only a small sampling of what the menu has to offer, but the three meat dishes alone probably could have fed the whole Romney family, sister-wives included. Before our beef-stravaganza we had pork belly, the fatty king of all the meats. Brought to the table raw and seared on our personal grill with garlic and a menagerie of side-dishes, the sweet meat allowed us to taste the whole spectrum of Korean flavors. You could try the meat on its own, or add a little bite of spicy vinegar lettuce. Or maybe you’d prefer kimchi, bean sprouts, or a little dip into sesame oil and chili paste. The whole idea is to mix and match and try new combinations, all of which are add new strong flavors and textures.

Pork

Step 1

2

Step 2

Following on the heels of the pork was Bulgogi, Korea’s quintessential marinated beef. Sweet and rich like teriyaki, the beef was nicely complimented by the salty sesame and the tang of kimchi.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Finally there was Galbi: one beef to rule them all. These are the short ribs, bone in, which allow you to gleefully tear at the meat with your hands (that is, if you enjoy eating like a savage as much as I do). Marinated in soy before we grilled it, this was definitely the meat with the most flavor, even if eating it required a little more fortitude.

She's a beef stylist too.

Watch out, she uses scissors for more than styling your hair.

To say Korean food is “different” is a massive understatement. I mean, where else do you get to use scissors as a utensil? It is indeed un-f***ed up, offering meat dangling with tasty fat and fermented vegetables pungent and spicy enough to make your hair stand on end. This is not food for wimps. But it is a seriously distinct cuisine, like Vietnamese or Indian, which developed its own way of using ingredients and spices. Dong-A is as good as it gets in the Oklahoma City area, offering a fabulous menu beyond what you grill yourself. Not only that, the portions are huge, and everything comes with the obligatory Korean side dishes, all for very reasonable prices (think <;$10 per person).

So if you’re not squeamish about raw meat (why are you reading this?) and you want to try something totally, unapologetically unique, then take the drive down to Moore. I promise there’s nothing else like it.

IMG_0544

Dong-A is open Tuesday-Sunday for Lunch and Dinner.

Dong A Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Inca Roads, Take Me Home

So, what does the average Oklahoman really know about the Incas? Far too little, thanks to their civilization being all but obliterated by the Spanish Conquistadors. To give them some credit, the Spanish didn’t just bring diphtheria, smallpox, forced labor and unparalleled cruelty to the Americas; They also brought some of their more. . . delicate recreational activities which, coalescing with the rugged new terrain and traditions of the native peoples, formed the unique culture of Latin America we know today. The most obvious result of this (and my personal favorite, of course) is the food. Yes, the Spanish had the foresight not only to preserve some Inca recipes, but also to use the indigenous ingredients to create a whole new cuisine.

For some perspective, Europeans did not eat corn or potatoes until they discovered South America. Yes, before the fifteenth century, most of the world had no corn and no potatoes. Corn and its derived products are everywhere now. It’s a part of the food you eat every day in many ways you’re probably not aware of. But it isn’t just the plant that’s pervaded every continent. The ways in which it was used by indigenous peoples (the tortilla, anyone?) have been immortalized in the familiar staples of the Mexican food we all know and love. Latin America may have been conquered by Europe, but its food, in turn, has conquered the world.

So we arrive at Inca Trail, the restaurant in Oklahoma city (and the only one I know of) which specializes in Peruvian cuisine. The first thing I want to get across about this place is that it isn’t Mexican food. Sure there are similarities, heavy use of beans, rice and corn being among them, but the flavors and preparation are something completely unique. And perhaps the best example of Peru’s contribution to food is ceviche.

Ceviche is a blend of chopped seafood (fish, scallops, shrimp, etc.) marinated in lime. There are many different styles, but the dish and most of its variations originated in Peru. Being such a point of national pride, my parents and I decided it would be the best way to start a Peruvian meal (after a complimentary cup of warm soup.) Inca Trail offers four different preparations, but how could we not go for the one called “Leche de Tigre?” ($7.99) That’s “Milk of the Tiger,” which turns out to be an appropriate name in more ways than one. The base of this particular ceviche is the highly acidic liquid runoff used to cure the fish, made up of lime juice and other seasonings. The glass is filled to the brim with the opaque (yes, it looks a little milky), pink liquid, and densely packed with bits of fishy goodness. According to the menu, the dish is both an aphrodisiac and hangover cure. That’s right Kids! Leche de Tigre can be your drink of choice for prom night and the morning after!

That tiger must be hard to milk

Take your first bite and you’ll see what they’re talking about. A spoonful of the fish cocktail is mouth-puckering tart. Served chilled, it manages to have explosive flavor while still being cool and refreshing. The kernels of corn on top, something I’d never seen used in ceviche before, are actually a great idea, providing a nice crunch for contrast. But even after a couple bites it still has time to surprise you. Yes, it’ll be faint at first, but lurking within the glass is the kind of spiciness that sneaks up on you. When your face starts to flush, you’ll realize the dish’s pink tint comes from a healthy dose of chili pepper. But don’t let me dissuade the faint of heart. I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy food and this is just the right amount; Perfect for getting the blood flowing (hey, it is almost valentines day, isn’t it?)

The ceviche is a hard act to follow, but the rest of the meal turned out to be diverse and just as interesting. My meal was the Parrillada Inca ($17.99), a platter of assorted meats (does this come as any surprise?) so big that the sides come on a separate plate. It covers all of the important bases: steak, pork, chicken and sausages, all with a side of rice, beans and Inca salad. The meats are all tender and juicy, grilled and marinated in what the menu calls “traditional Peruvian spices.” The chicken in particular is cooked in a charcoal oven and has great flavor and dark, crispy skin (just the way I like it).

For meat lovers only

Dad ordered the half chicken as its own dish ($9.99), while Mom had the Tacu Tacu ($10.99), a stir fry of rice and beans topped with sirloin steak and salsa criolla. But the best part of this dish, by far, is the fried plantains. This is the one thing I require you to try if you come here. The firmer, less-sweet cousin of the banana, plantains are a revelation when fried. Crisp on the outside, tender and warm in the center, they’re the best natural candy you’ll ever have.

Do u Tacu Tacu?

The menu is too big and diverse to be summed up with just these three dishes, but everything Inca Trail does, it does very well. The meats are all well-seasoned and fresh, with a wide variety of veggies and starches (Peru has over 2800 native varieties of potato, after all). If the plantains don’t satisfy your sweet tooth, they offer some fabulous desserts such as a traditional Flan custard, or ice creams made from fruits native to Peru (both $3.95). Another distinctly Peruvian treat is Chicha Morada ($2.50), a drink that dates back to Inca times made from sweet, purple corn and a hint of fruit juice. In my humble opinion, this was one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory.

Mmm... Chicken

When I think on my meal there, all I can say is: they’ve done it again. This is city has managed to provide a home for yet another restaurant so interesting and well-executed, so far removed from our own culture, it seems to have dropped out of the sky. Like the fabled vehicle that came from somewhere out there just to land in the Andes? Nah, if the Incas really had aliens on their side, Pizarro wouldn’t have stood a chance. The credit for this wonderful food goes to the hard-working people in every culture who, through pure trial and error, tirelessly worked to discover the different combinations of spices and methods of cooking that work so well, and that we now take for granted; And especially to the people who keep those recipes alive so they can be shared in a city like this one. We’re lucky to have them.

*Inca trail is open daily for lunch and dinner. You can peruse their menu here: http://incatrailokc.com/

Inca Trail Peruvian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Fung for All

“There’s no better Chinese food in this city.” So said our waiter on our second visit to Fung’s Kitchen this week, and I’m inclined to agree with him. As my (perhaps limited) experience with Chinese food goes, I’ve had nothing that quite compares to the variety and uniqueness of the flavors on their menu.

The subject of my first review on this blog, Golden Phoenix (which I was very sad to find out closed due to a fire), was an Asian restaurant that dabbled in everything on its enormous menu: a little Vietnamese, a little Chinese, even some of the same dishes that Fung’s offers. In fact, Golden Phoenix is just a few blocks south of Fung’s in Oklahoma City’s bustling “Asian District.” But those are the only comparison to be drawn. Fung’s is all Chinese. Any question of its authenticity can be settled by looking at its menu. And by that I mean the Chinese menu.

Yes, I found out by a happy accident that Fung’s actually carries two different dinner menus. One is marked with a little “A”, which I assume must stand for “American,” and which they must give to people that don’t quite look, er. . . local. It offers all of the Chinese food you’ve probably heard of before: spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken, moo goo gai pan, even the dreaded egg roll. All I can say is don’t waste your time with that. Ask for the “other” menu and buckle up, because it’s impossible not to try something new and interesting.

On all of my visits, the place has been mostly full, and my good friends (Sophie and Grace) and I have definitely been in the minority of caucasians. It’s easy to see why; When you open the massive Chinese menu you’ll see every dish printed first in Chinese characters, and upon reading the English translation, realize that almost every one is something we have simply never heard of in this country. Take the Frogs Legs in Salt & Hot Black Pepper ($12.95), or the Duck Tongues in Salt & Hot Pepper ($12.95); good luck finding those at P.F. Chang’s. The revelation of this place, something which I’ve never experienced in this or any other American city, is that they actually serve food that people eat in China. Imagine that! So if you feel a little lost in this territory, bring a Chinese friend. Don’t have one? Make friends with one of the waiters!

I’m not kidding about that last part. We had the same waiter (named Ray) on both of our visits, and he was extremely helpful in taking us through the menu. But I’ll go chronologically here, and say that on our first night we knew nothing and decided to play it safe with familiar protein and veggies. Grace and I (both on diets, as fate would have it), after perusing the multitude of meat and seafood options, decided to share three dishes: half of a Roast Duck, Barbecue Pork, and Chinese Broccoli. You know it’s a good sign when the person taking your order says “oh good!” with genuine enthusiasm (this in response to the Chinese Broccoli). And I must say, he had reason to be pleased with our choices.

Duck, Duck, Goose!

To start, Chinese Broccoli ($9.25) is absolutely nothing like broccoli broccoli, making me wonder why it’s so named. Cooked in garlic and butter (or oyster sauce, your choice), The vegetable is dark green, soft and leafy, but with crunchy stems and a slight touch of bitter; something between bok choy and spinach. It was also maddeningly delicious, which is an achievement since, after all, we’re talking about a vegetable here.

Not Broccoli Broccoli

The Barbecue Pork ($7.50) was one of many “Chinese Barbecue” items on the menu. For those who have never had it, it’s not the smoky, cancerous Barbecue we’re used to (and don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff), but simply roasted until crispy on the outside with a sweet glaze. The pork is still tender on the inside, with a lot of flavor under a crackling, red, caramelized surface. I would also highly recommend the Pork Belly with Preserved Vegetables ($8.95)

Heeere Piggy!

But the real show-stopper here, what I’ve started identifying as “the reason to come back,” is the Roast Duck (half, $9.95). If there’s any question in your mind about what good fat tastes like, let this duck be your answer. When you walk into the restaurant you can see it displayed proudly in the middle of the room, glistening as it beckons to you in its glass case. After watching a gentlemen come out from the kitchen and hack it with a cleaver behind the glass, you’ll be able to enjoy the layers with soft fat and that tasty, gamey meat all encased in that crisp, golden skin. Sure, it may be a little difficult to eat as you have to extricate the edible parts from shards of bone, but every precious bit is worth it.

Everything but the Tongue

We were also persuaded to try the Fresh Shrimp Wonton Soup ($5.75). An absolutely huge bowl for the price, the soup is rich warm broth with dozens of shrimp dumplings happily bobbing on the surface.

I Want Wontons

On our second night Ray made a couple of recommendations, including changing our vegetable to Snow Pea Tips, claiming “they’re better than Chinese broccoli” (he was right). But ok, here it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: I asked Ray about the Pig Intestines ($8.25), to which he replied “They’re my favorite! But try the deep fried ones.”

Intestinal Fortitude

I came, I saw, I tasted. And believe it or not, I didn’t regret it. Intestines are pretty tasty. That’s not to say they’re for everyone, as they definitely have a distinct, musky, animal taste that I could only take in small doses. But served sliced with a spicy sauce, cooked crispy on one side, left soft (tissue-y?) on the other, they were definitely rich and interesting, if not a little overpowering.

So, where do I go from intestines? Not anywhere, as it turned out that night, because this food will fill you up. Four dishes split between three people is more than enough here. Three would probably do it (two meats and the vegetable). Taking that into account, did you notice the prices? You can get half a duck for less than $10! Not to mention some of the best-prepared pork you’ve ever had for even less. So if you come with friends, you’re looking at about $8-9 per person, which for exotic, fun food from a faraway land is pretty incredible. They also bring out rice with the meal, in addition to complimentary orange wedges and the obligatory fortune cookies before you leave.

Orange you happy you read this far down?

Whether you’re an adventurous daredevil, or just want a good, hearty meal, Fung’s Kitchen may just change your conception of Chinese food and become a new favorite. It’s definitely become one of mine. Maybe next time I’ll try the duck tongues.

*Fung’s Kitchen is open daily for lunch and dinner, as well as Dim Sum starting at 10 am Saturdays and Sundays. A very good Dim Sum at that (I would highly recommend the Shrimp Dumplings and Barbecue Pork Buns).

Fung's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Simply Divine

Just look at that table. . . It’s waiting for you. But don’t let the austere presentation fool you. The simple place-setting gives no hint of what’s in store when you sit down. In fact, the table is a good metaphor for the whole restaurant. It is in the most unassuming of locations (an old Pizza Hut) on a street which usually does the opposite of excite me (May Avenue). But its out of the way location and bare-bones atmosphere are what they need to be and nothing more, turning your focus to what’s really important here: the food. And make no mistake, The Divine Swine is one of the most important and creative things happening in this city’s culinary scene.

Even the name is perfect in its simplicity. It tells you all you need to know, i.e. that this place specializes in pork. And of course you already know that pork is good. There is no meat more juicy, more flavorful, more layered in varying textures from tender meat, to buttery fat and crispy skin. Has there ever been a nobler ingredient around which to theme a restaurant? Out of the infinite number of things you can do with this meat, and I’m willing to bet The Divine Swine covers quite a few you hadn’t thought of.

Take brunch, the meal I was lucky enough to have with my parents at this Mecca of pork. We don’t often associate the stuff with breakfast (aside from bacon and the ham in eggs benedict, but those are just a given, aren’t they?). But this menu does not shy away from boldly going where no bacon has gone before. Just one example is the Candied Bacon French Toast ($8.00), proof of the time-honored truth that bacon really does make everything better.

In addition to the breakfast items served on the Sunday brunch menu, they have what would be your standard lunch fare of sandwiches and salads, but with pork. They have a Ground Pork Burger ($8.00, with bacon, blue cheese and red onion jam, naturally), a Pulled Pork Sandwich ($8.00), even Honey-Glazed Ribs ($6.00). Mom enjoyed the Chef’s Salad ($8.00), which the menu claims changes from week to week, containing on this particular occasion very thick-cut slices of bacon. Dad got the Chicken Sandwich, the menu’s concession to the fact that it’s not a perfect world, and not everyone is in the mood for pork all the time (though they do manage to slip some bacon mayo in there, at least!).

Really, it makes everything better.

As to what your humble food-blogger ordered, how could I resist something called The Whole Hog? Yes, this dish is the ultimate expression of this place’s genius; made up of sausage, bacon, ham, biscuits (mhmm) with pork gravy (that’s pork four ways!), all with a side of eggs and potatoes. It’s everything it sounds like: decadent, filling and, above all, delicious. The bacon and sausage are still sizzling in their own tasty fat, cooked perfectly crispy around the edges while still retaining their juiciness. Perhaps my favorite cut of meat was the ham; thick, pink slices of that pure, concentrated pork flavor I love. The biscuits are like cake, fluffy and thick, drizzled with gravy made from that same rich pork.

The Whole Hog

How about dessert after brunch? Why not! You only live once. Even if the candied bacon french toast was your entree, the desserts here are so phenomenal they’re worth the sugar crash later. I present as my evidence the Candied Bacon Sticky Buns. I think that’s worth repeating: Candied Bacon Sticky Buns. Just try to think about that for a moment without falling into a salivating reverie.

Unfortunately, they were sold out of the sticky buns by the time we were ready to order them, but we can’t say we weren’t warned! The sticky buns go fast, so the restaurant encourages you to order early. But the dessert we had, the Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta with blood oranges, was not at all a let-down. For those unfamiliar, it’s a wobbly, gelatin-based custard served chilled, usually with some sort of sweet sauce. After trying The Divine Swine’s version, I completely forgot about the disappointment of missing out on the sticky buns. There’s no bacon involved and it’s one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. Yes, ever. Pairing the typically light panna cotta with the richness of creme fraiche (the slightly more curdled, more cheese-like cousin of whipped cream) is a smart take on the dessert. And with a tart blood orange to contrast the sweetness, every precious, creamy bite is a perfectly balanced finish to a heavy meal.

Panna Cotta da Vida

From the savory to the sweet, the bacon to the creme fraiche, this place is truly an experience; providing one of those absolutely sensual meals we foodies can only hope to find very rarely. The food isn’t “fancy,” but it is definitely on the level of gourmet in its creative use of ingredients and its richness of flavors. And did you notice the prices? The Whole Hog is probably the best-spent $10 in town, and almost every other entree is cheaper than that. I would argue nowhere else in town offers food this good for anything close to the same value. Chef and owner Josh Valentine has done something very special for the city, providing a stripped-down, concentrated dining experience; a celebration not just of one ingredient, but of all the different and wonderful things that can be done with it. My hat is off to all involved, for creating something so exciting in an unexpected place, and for the proof that food can be something close to divine.

*Follow The Divine Swine on Twitter and Facebook for opening hours.

Divine Swine on Urbanspoon

Prairie Sushi

I admit, at this point, that Japanese food is kind of old hat. You know when any concept has been made into a nationwide chain (Benihana, in this instance), it’s lost that quaint quality of being truly foreign. Now I’m not going to stay on my soapbox for long, because I’ve never actually been to a Benihana. But I have an innate suspicion of huge corporate chains, probably stemming from a traumatic Chili’s experience. I reserve a special animosity for those that try to sell themselves as representing any kind of foreign cuisine. Do you think Olive Garden bears a passing resemblance to anything that really exists in Italy?

Sushi bars, Japanese steakhouses, and teppanyaki grills are scattered around just about every big American city now, but not all of them owe their success to the increasing popularity of chains. Japanese food has a distinct style all its own, no more similar to Chinese or Vietnamese than it is to French. As luck would have it, Oklahoma’s only Japanese restaurants are locally owned. So I decided it was high time to write about this unique cuisine, which is really too important to be overlooked.

The quintessential Japanese restaurant in the city has to be Musashi’s. They cover all of the bases: teppanyaki, sushi, even the robata grill. What’s teppanyaki? Why, it’s the big table that doubles as a flat-top grill! You’ve seen it. I myself have spent many a birthday watching the show where the guy sets the onions on fire and flips an egg into his hat. If you feel like you’ve been there done that, where this place really shines is a little alcove of the restaurant called “The Fire Room.” It’s an open-kitchen bar/grill/patio with a menu separate from the rest of the restaurant. While the main dining room has a Kill Bill vol. 1 vibe, this area is a little more fun and casual, the walls adorned with cases of sake and little wooden “boats” in which sushi is served. Eating here again, I found myself smiling at just how different the food is from anything else you can find in the city.

The Fire Room

I’ll start with what isn’t so exclusive to this place, which is the sushi. Musashi’s is right across the street from (and shares a lot of its menu with) its sister restaurant, Sushi Neko. Can you guess what they specialize in? Now I know what you’re thinking: This can’t be! Sushi in Oklahoma? Before you coastal dwellers recoil in terror, I can tell you I’ve had it on a good many occasions and it’s never made me sick. Thanks to fossil fuels and modern refrigeration, we can have our fish shipped in from the same body of water you get it from, and with the illusion of being just as fresh.

On this particular occasion I had the yellowtail sashimi. Those who have had sushi will understand how hard it is to describe to anyone who hasn’t. All I can say is this was some of the best I’ve had (and I’ve had quite a bit at my university in Norman, OK, scary as that may be). It’s fatty, soft, without any of the rubbery briny-ness you might expect from raw fish, and sublime with a dab of soy sauce and wasabi.

Yellowtail

The fire room specializes in small plates, or what they call “Japanese Tapas,” so in addition to the sushi, my mom and I shared some edamame and “Lobster Shooters.” Edamame are whole steamed soybeans, salted, healthy (high protein, folks!), and even a little fun as you pop the beans out of their pods.

Edamame

Lobster Shooters have a very clever sake-style presentation. Each cup contains a little ball of lobster meat, arrayed neatly around a spicy coconut and curry sauce. Pour the sauce in, then eat each cupful as the name implies: bottoms up!

Shot of Lobster, anyone?

But the crowning dish of this meal, the reason for coming back, was the Black Cod: a buttery, soft white fish that falls apart beneath your fork, its crispy skin charred and caramelized on the robata grill. It’s sweet and rich, without even a hint of salt; about as far from fishy as you can get, standing in stark contrast to the light, chilled sashimi; the fish equivalent of a good seared foie gras.

The Codfather

There’s a lot to The Fire Room I haven’t tried and wouldn’t have nearly enough space to mention here. If you want to have some fun with your food, try “The Rock.” No, not the bemuscled movie star with a facial expression deficiency, but a literal, scalding hot rock brought to the table, on which you can cook your own little sizzling strips of raw meat. The sushi menu is very extensive (keep in mind they can fill a boat with it!) and they have all sorts of grilled goodies to blacken on the robata grill. It’s a fast and reasonably priced place, and perfect if you’re into the tapas-style sampling of many small dishes. Japanese food is truly unique amongst Asian foods, and deserves, chains or not, to be revered in a league of its own.

*Musashi’s is open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday, and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

Musashi's Japanese Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Let’s Go Pubbing

A cold front blew in last night. Sunny Oklahoma skies turned grey within an hour, and by nightfall, snow was beginning to swirl around the quiet streets. Sounds like perfect pub weather to me!

Yes. Yes they do.

We all need a cozy little spot to escape to when the weather (or things in general) aren’t so great. Sean Cumming’s Pub in Oklahoma City goes beyond cozy. It’s the kind of place that could easily become your local haunt (it was basically mine and Cornelia’s). Give it a few years, and we’ll probably refer to it as “an institution.” Nowhere else in the city (or the US, as far as I know) evokes so accurately the vibe of a real pub. Having been to quite a few in England in the past month, I can vouch for its authenticity.

Our Cozy Corner

The first thing you’ll notice, on certain nights, is the musician(s) playing right inside the front door. Sean gets different live music acts for almost every day of the week, most of them guitarists who sing traditional celtic tunes, and sometimes get the whole pub singing old bar songs. The music’s warm lilt will make you feel right at home (except for my girlfriend when they bring out the anti-crown IRA type songs). The place is small, dimly lit, sealed off from the outside world with maroon curtains, and adorned with an eclectic clutter of frames on every wall, mostly cute old Guinness ads and family photos (genuinely Sean’s family, most of them priests). It’s the perfect, home-y setting for some warm comfort food.

And Music Too!

And how about the food? I can’t drink (the magnificent Guinness served on tap), so there must be something to it that keeps me coming back. To start, they bring out some soda bread and butter as soon as you sit down. It’s a soft, thick, mealy bread that’s only slightly sweet, though Sean serves two different kinds including one with raisins. With some creamy butter to counter the dryness, the bread is a great way to settle in and wet your appetite.

Soda Bread

As for the menu, it’s mostly very traditional pub fare. There’s the obligatory Fish & Chips, crispy and delicious with malt vinegar, Bangers and Mash (that’s a very flavorful link sausage called a “banger” served with mashed potatoes), meat pies, and a whole array of sandwiches. For those really cold nights, though, nothing warms you up from the inside like their Shepherd’s Pie. Under a mountain of melted cheese and mashed potatoes is a hot, broth-y mix of beef and vegetables, delicately seasoned and roasted so soft it almost melts in your mouth. It is, in a word, perfect.

But on this most recent trip I got my old go-to. Probably the dish most exotic for our American palettes, and with the most meat (surprise, right?), the Irish Breakfast. It’s a plate heaped with protein: the aforementioned banger, two slices of grilled pork loin, two fried eggs, black (read: blood) and white puddings, and a halved grilled tomato. The banger is thick and super juicy with the most animal flavor. The pork loins are a little more dry, but delicious when they happen to get dipped in a little egg yolk. The puddings, though, are my favorite. The delicious taste of congealed blood with the timeless preparation of pudding? What could be better? White pudding is the same thing, basically oatmeal and ground meat, but without the blood. Though I vastly prefer anything with blood, they’re both the heaviest part of the dish, and it’s interesting to go back and forth between them. The tomato is a nice note to finish on, its tartness a nice contrast to the rich, sweet meats.

This'll break your fast all right

For those less carnivorously inclined, my Dad got the club sandwich on this trip, which is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. They pile it high with fresh-made bacon and serve it with a side of their thick-cut chips.

The Club

What can I say? Sean’s is the real deal. Filling, hearty food in an authentically comfortable atmosphere. It even has non-American “football” on the TV! If you’re looking for a lively place to get away to and have a beer, or just a good meal, Sean Cumming’s should be a spot you go back to again and again. I know I will.

*Sean Cumming’s is open every night. Over 21 only after 10 p.m. on weekends.

Sean Cummings' Irish Restaurant & Pub on Urbanspoon

The Weirdest Burger in Oklahoma

The Elvis

One of the things we do right in Oklahoma (setting aside all food created in foreign countries and faithfully reproduced here) is beef. Yes, for all our cultural failings in the buckle of the Bible Belt, we make pretty good burgers and steaks. In the heart of Oklahoma City, about a 20 minute drive from where I’m currently writing this, is the historic “Stockyards City,” which still functions to this day. So you know it’s fresh!

In case you were wondering, the title of this article is a compliment. I wouldn’t dare name anything “the best burger in Oklahoma.” I guarantee that’s a major point of contention, mainly because there are so many different types! There’s the classic cheeseburger, onion burgers, chili burgers, some with sausage mixed into the ground beef. Some are served with thin, burned to a crisp patties, others with juicy, organic beef. There’s a different burger for every taste, so saying one is “the best” is like naming a favorite child. So please, let’s not. Even if there’s one you happen to prefer, the hope is that they’re all special in their own way. Having cleared that up, it is easy to say that S&B’s Burger Joint does have the weirdest, wackiest, and really most creative burgers I’ve had in or out of Oklahoma.

The place is located in the ground floor of one of the more unassuming office buildings in the city. It shares a parking lot with Best Buy and Home Depot. Needless to say, I hadn’t heard of it until this year. The first thing you’ll notice is the fun, kind of dive-y atmosphere. The bar is plastered with old Rolling Stone covers, Johnny Cash blares on the sound system, and there’s even a set-up for a DJ, though I never found out when they ever have occasion to use it.

The Joint

The real reason to go to this place, though, is the menu. They have basically done for burgers what Big Truck Tacos did for tacos. It’s all creative, experimental, fun stuff that we don’t often think of putting on a burger. There’s the classic Oklahoma-invented Theta (mayo, hickory sauce, pickles, cheddar), and a whole host of other, more exotic burgers such as The Frenchman (mushrooms, Swiss, fried onions & French onion sauce), and The Asian (gingered onions, lettuce, tomato, miso-soy glaze & wasabi mayo). They offer the burgers in standard size or as sliders so you can try several. With the variety to choose from, sliders are probably your best bet. Though they have salads, your only options for sides are all fried, including sweet potato fries (yum) and fried spicy cheese cubes (questionable). There are even wine and beer pairings specific to each burger! Ah, to be twenty-one…

Healthy side options!

Anyway, while the family tried some sliders like The Columbian (sea salt & coffee crusted with smoked cheddar, avocado, & cilantro lime salsa) and The Chili Lime (chili paste, cheddar crisp, avacado cream & cilantro lime coleslaw), I went out on a limb. Yes, knowing I’d be writing about it, I got The Elvis. This appears to be your standard burger: lettuce, tomato, patty, but oh no. Beneath the bun, over a meaty crucifix of bacon, it’s slathered in peanut butter. I don’t know who came up with this strange concoction, seeming to push the boundaries of human decency. But while the parents didn’t like it, I have to admit it worked for me. Something about the sweet, sticky, fatty veneer of peanut butter enhanced the smoky meatfest of burger and bacon. I felt guilty enough after eating this that I decided to atone for my sins by doing some pushups, squats and lunges. That part I don’t recommend.

Silders (Theta and Columbian)

At last, Elvis' true form revealed

Beyond burgers and terribly mistimed exercise, the best part of the meal might have been dessert. S&B’s serves homemade pies (the menu claims they’re made daily, and urges you to order before they sell out), which on our visit included key lime, chocolate, and banana cream. We went with the banana cream, and all I can say is YUM. Imagine a banana split with wonderful, crumbly crust and a towering layer of whipped cream. Need I say more?

PIE

All in all, I would highly recommend S&B’s. The atmosphere may be a little funky for some, and I don’t know if you have any choice about the burgers being cooked a touch past “well-done.” But it’s definitely unique, and well-worth a drive up the dreaded May Avenue. Where else are you going to get a burger with peanut butter? You certainly shouldn’t try this at home.

Get it?

*S&B’s Burger Joint is open for lunch and dinner daily

S & B's Burger Joint on Urbanspoon

God Save the Queen

From Eating Oklahoma

Ah, Ethiopian food. The very mention of it conjures up images of. . . what, exactly?

I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea what to expect from Ethiopian cuisine before trying it for the first time. A small part of me, maybe the insensitive part, wondered if it might involve scarce portions that left one feeling only barely nourished. Little did I know, Ethiopian is some of the most rich, flavorful, and filling food around.

Queen of Sheba is a well-hidden treat in Northwest Oklahoma City. The location is far enough West that I’m rarely nearby, and almost far enough South that it’s close to being an impulse-homicide zone. But the trek to a less-than-beautiful part of town is well worth it, because once you step inside, you feel like you’re somewhere else entirely.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is the tapestry depicting Haile Selassie, a former emperor (read, “dictator”) of Ethiopia, who I’m told was not the nicest of leaders. As he stares out at the dining room in full military regalia, lending the place an Orwellian charm (or maybe something more like Woody Allen’s “Bananas”), we are greeted by the two visible members of staff, one of whom is the owner. Both are natives of Ethiopia.

Any meals with my friends Shelby and Otis mean eating with a vegetarian and a half, so to begin our meal, we ordered a vegetarian appetizer. Before the food arrives we are brought hot towels, which makes the experience feel more like flying first class than being in sub-Saharan Africa. But the hot towels have a purpose, as after our appetizer we will no longer need utensils.

Lentils

The appetizer was a crispy fried shell, like phyllo dough, stuffed with a savory, hot filling of lentils. It was tasty and very hot, great for a cold night. A meat-included version of this same dish exists, but the vegetarian had plenty of flavor on its own. As the evening goes on we will find that Ethiopian food, much like Indian, seems to be based around very careful blending of spices. It’s the kind of food that could only be developed through years of trying different combinations, the clear sign of a culture that really cares how their food tastes.

For our entree, we went for the single most diverse plate, what I think of as the Ethiopian “tasting menu,” called the Messob. This is basically 8 different foods served on a large platter of injera. What is injera, you ask? Being completely unaware of its existence before being introduced to Ethiopian food, I found out it’s a spongy flat bread made from teff, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia. And you won’t know what to expect until you try it. It’s soft, almost sticky, almost like uncooked sourdough in its tartness, still fermenting as you eat it. But the taste of the bread is subtle compared to the rest of the dish, and it isn’t meant to be eaten on its own. Yes, the reason for the bread, and the most fun part of Ethiopian cuisine, is that you eat with your hands!  Tear off a piece, hold it between two fingers, and start scooping.

Messob

So what’s on the Messob (clockwise from top): Salad, potatoes, beef, chickpea, lamb, lentils, sautéed vegetables, and two chicken legs in the center. But listing the main components of the dish completely ignores the unique flavor experiences of each preparation. The starches are soft, heavy, buttery. The meats and lentils are coated in different sauces, all rich in spices but not “spicy,” dark and almost sweet.The vegetables are simple and tasty, and the pretty-standard salad with vinaigrette serves as nice contrast to the savory meats.

I suppose my only word of warning is watch the bread. They give you a whole plate of the stuff, rolled up, and if you eat it with every bite you pick up, you are bound to fill up fast. The three of us ordered the Messob “for two,” and we still couldn’t finish it. You’ll find that this is one of the most satisfying meals in town, and almost all from a single dish, no less.

Injera

So you’re probably thinking this place is an exotic luxury, something you’d have every now and then. And while that may be true, based on the overwhelming richness of flavors and sheer amount of food, the price point is shocking. Had we not ordered an appetizer, the meal would have cost under $30. So split three ways, we’re again looking at more than you can eat for about $10 per person. That cuisine from a culture so far from our own could be both available and affordable in our city seems almost too good to be true. But it’s here, unchanged even after traveling halfway across the globe. This was not my first time to enjoy Queen of Sheba, and it certainly won’t be my last. If you don’t think this city has exciting food options, this is the first place you need to try. So until we meet again, my hat’s off to the Queen.

- Queen of Sheba is open for dinner, Tuesday-Saturday til 10 pm.

Queen of Sheba on Urbanspoon

Hungry For Some Phoenix

From EatingOklahoma

On our first adventure last night, we decided to have a traditional Vietnamese meal at Oklahoma City’s wonderful “Golden Phoenix.” There were a few reasons for this:

  1. We had just watched Anthony Bourdain (one of my personal heroes) bad-assing through Vietnam on “No Reservations” and got inspired.
  2. Danny’s the only one in our group with any family ties, knowledge, or language experience in another culture, which happens to be Vietnam.
  3. Oklahoma’s Vietnamese food is the real deal.

Seriously, the “Asian District” in Oklahoma City has more pho, banh mi, and dim sum restaurants than we’d ever be able to blog about if we devoted a whole year just to them. And in the center of all these restaurants is the Super Cao Nguyen, the Asian supermarket to end all supermarkets, packed with ingredients and products most of us have never heard of. So if we’re going to find authentic cuisine in Oklahoma City, this seems like a good place to start. This square mile in the heart of the city probably has the largest concentration of any foreign culture (on the northside at least, stay tuned), and lucky for us, they brought their cuisine with them.

So, Golden Phoenix. This is not your typical watered-down for the American palette egg-roll and sweet-and-sour sauce Asian food with which most of us are familiar. This is authentic stuff you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else but Vietnam. A menu with 300 items? Sure. They’ve got everything ranging from the tame (beef noodle soup), to the really exotic (congealed blood, anyone?). So to begin, we searched through the menu for something veggie-friendly (for Otis and Shelby), something freaky (for me), and things that Danny happens to know are good from growing up eating them.

First thing I tried was the “Crispy Pork Bean Curd Hot Pot.” ($9.95) The “Hot Pot” it’s served in is exactly what it sounds like: a hot iron pot which keeps the food warm through the whole meal. Good idea! In retrospect, I don’t know if this was the best place to start because it was the best part of the meal for me. It was a mysterious bowl of tofu, pork bits and herbs all mixed into a sweet brown sauce. It also has the added fun of being a treasure hunt for the precious pieces of pork skin, little fat-lined curls which I described as “football textured,” and I mean that in the best way possible.

Hot Pot

Next was the vegetarian dish, “Crispy Yellow Egg Noodle Topped with Stir Fried Vegetable and Tofu.” ($8.95) I’m not one for vegetarian dishes, but this was actually fantastic. Great texture between the soft tofu and the little crispy dry noodles, and the bok choy had a wonderful crunch and flavor.

Vegetarian

Now here’s the dish I was most looking forward to, the not-for-the-faint-of-heart, startlingly authentic “Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from Hue with Beef, Pork Bologna, and Thick Round Rice Noodle.” ($6.50) I carefully composed my picture of it to show the congealed beef blood in the lower left-hand foreground. Yes, that’s what that is, and yes, Otis and I both ate it. To be honest, the blood didn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. The soup is a thick, spicy, complex broth that tastes like nothing else I had. I want to compare it to Pho, and I’m sure it comes from a similar beef stock, but there’s a lot more going on. It’s almost like perfume in its intensity. Dig more through the soup and you find a big chunk of beef attached to two disc-shaped bones (don’t ask me which part of the cow it is, I never found out). It was a challenge to tear the meat from the bone with only chopsticks and a spoon, but it was well worth it. It was a wonderfully tender cut of beef with thick layers of fat. Best part is, the fat was not at all gummy or hard to chew, it melted in your mouth. Sound gross? Then stick to Panda Express.

Blood Soup!

We finished with something a bit lighter (though it doesn’t sound like it), the “Yellow Egg Noodle Supreme with Shrimp, Pork, Crabmeat, and Squid.” I’m sure when this blog is translated into German there will be one specific word to describe that, but in the meantime, sorry for the wordiness. It was a broth-y mix of seafood that was just different enough from everything else we’d had; a nice, warm palette cleanser after all the sound and the fury of the spicy blood-and-bone soup.

Supreme Seafood Noodles

To top it all off, we had coconut milk right out of a coconut. And just a warning kids, it does not taste like coconut-flavored candy or shaved coconut. It’s a cloudy, watery liquid with a strange, musky taste with just a hint of the “coconut” flavor we’re all familiar with. I didn’t think it was delicious, but there’s pleasure to be found in tasting something that is totally unrecognizable and unique.

Coconut

So is Golden Phoenix worth the trip? Definitely. When you’re in this place, eating this food, surrounded by the almost exclusively Asian customers from the neighborhood, you feel as if you’ve left Oklahoma City. In addition to the food, the atmosphere feels authentic: nicer-than-you’d-expect decor, juxtaposed with tanks of live fish and a window displaying whole roast ducks and chickens. And the best part is, have you been paying attention to the prices? The four of us had more food than we possibly would have been able to eat, and it was all for under $40.00. Is there anywhere else in town where you can have exotic food from halfway across the world for less than $10 per person? We shall soon find out!

*Golden Phoenix is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Golden Phoenix on Urbanspoon