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

Dinner at Dinner

Heston Blumenthal

It’s a stroke of luck that allows me to start this blog with one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory. To clarify, it’s not the best. If I’m ever asked what that might be, the answer is easy: The Fat Duck. It’s located in Bray, a town about an hour’s train ride outside of London, in an unassuming little cottage on a quiet street (Exotic restaurants like these have a funny way of popping up in quaint spots in the middle of nowhere. Look up “El Bulli” and “The Three Chimneys” if you don’t believe me). For what it’s worth, this place has three Michelin stars and was named Restaurant magazine’s best restaurant in the world in 2005, before being supplanted later by El Bulli.

A Fat Duck Presentation

What’s so special about it? It’s an experience. My family and I spent four or five hours there and had tastes, textures, even sounds in a meal unlike anything I’ve experienced. For those who have heard of molecular gastronomy, that’s what this place is all about. It’s experimental, doing things with food that have never been done before. A sushi dish that feels like sand and seafoam in the mouth? Sure. A tea jelly which is simultaneously hot and cold? Check. How about ending the many-course meal with “breakfast,” which includes candied bacon and egg ice-cream made by whipping eggs in liquid nitrogen table-side? Actually, more than one dish used the liquid nitrogen. How cool is that?

Liquid Nitrogen!

And Eggs!

And Oh My God!

While this all might seem a bit artsy and over-the-top, what’s great about this food, and the genius of chef Heston Blumenthal, is that it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. His food tastes good. It’s all about breaking things down to their component parts, capturing their essences and flavors. It’s playing with familiar experience in a way that makes it completely new. As just another example, we were handed conch shells with the seafood dish that contained headphones, so we could listen to the sounds of the sea as we ate. It’s all about the experience.

Sounds of Seashores in the Seashell

Just last week, I got to experience the genius of Heston Blumenthal yet again. For our anniversary dinner, Cornelia and I went to his new London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. And what a night it was.

Located in the posh Knightsbridge in the middle of London, Dinner is not quite as avant garde as The Fat Duck. Nothing is dripped on your plate from a pipette or whipped in liquid nitrogen. But the concept is just as unique. You notice upon first looking at the menu that there are dates listed next to each dish.

Meat Fruit (c. 1500)

Roast Marrowbone (c. 1790)

Savoury Porridge (c. 1600)

The idea here is that everything on the menu is traditional English food. For us foodies, we don’t encounter much “traditional English food,” unless you’re talking about fish and chips and gin. But what Heston has done is resurrect the English food most of us don’t know about, to prove that it can be just as diverse and flavorful as French, or any other cuisine we usually associate with fine dining. On the reverse side of the menu are a list of sources for each of the recipes. I can’t imagine the research Heston put into finding these old, obscure dishes. One even dates as far back as 1390, the Rice and Flesh, from “The Forme of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II.”

Lamb Broth with Hen Egg

For the most part, the presentation is pretty straightforward: Meat is served on a plate, with little (if any) sauce, and no sides unless ordered separately. My appetizer, the Meat Fruit, was served on a block of dark wood with grilled toast. But there’s more to the meat fruit than meets the eye. It’s one of the dishes where Heston’s touch is really apparent, a modern twist on the old recipe. What I was served looks identical to a little mandarin orange: it’s shiny, has pores, etc. But cutting into it, what’s revealed is a delicious chicken liver pate encased in a very thin layer of mandarin orange jelly, everything edible but the stem. Cornelia started with the Broth of Lamb, which would surely be good on its own, but was phenomenal with a poached hen egg and sweetbreads.

Meat Fruit

Each menu is bound by a slip printed with a historical fact about England’s food. Mine talked about the old French nickname for the English, “Beefeaters,” as they were known for centuries as having the highest quality beef. After reading this, how could I not order the Hereford Ribeye (c. 1830)? It was a beautifully tender cut of meat with a delicate marbling of fat, served with red wine sauce, chips (read: fries), and a mushroom ketchup. Cornelia had the Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780), served with an ale sauce and artichokes. Is anything more evocative of medieval cookery and mead halls of yore than pigeon, spices and ale? Why yes, actually, my dessert. While Cornelia finished with a Taffety Tart and blackcurrant sorbet, I had the Brown Bread Ice Cream (c. 1830) with salted caramel and malted yeast syrup. Just typing it makes me want to abandon any pretensions of a low-carb diet.

But beyond all of the delicious, fascinating, satisfying food, beyond the beautiful wine (Shaw and Smith Shiraz, highly recommended), the highlight of the night was that Mr. Blumenthal himself was in the house. Yes, Heston Blumenthal was eating dinner only two tables away from us. And to top it all off, I got a brief moment to speak to him as we were leaving the restaurant.

So all in all, pretty good night. It was the one year anniversary with my girlfriend, it was some of the best food I’ve ever had, and I got to meet a hero, the man behind it all. It was one of those rare, always-going-to-remember-it experiences, which I can only hope I’ve managed to capture a glimmer of in this blog.

*A note about photos: This food all looked wonderful, and I do wish I could share photos of all of it with you. But alas, it was dark and my poor iPhone camera just couldn’t keep up. Meat fruit picture is not my own, but definitely worth seeing.

 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal 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.

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