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.

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

Dong A Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mad Meal

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How bout a bite of… cocktail?

A trip to New York always yields a million things to write about: Sights, experiences, adventures that are just too numerous to recount in the detail they really deserve. I mean, I saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman in the broadway production of Death of a Salesman AND brushed shoulders with Emma Stone in the same theater. Why aren’t I writing about that??

Well friends, it’s because I wanted (more like needed) to write about my last meal in Manhattan. I needed to commit it to paper while the memory is still fresh, before it fades into that ephemeral, warm recollection of something life-changing but long since passed. That last meal was at none other than Eleven Madison Park. It is indeed located on Madison Park in the flatiron district of Manhattan.

The dining room is a grand, high-ceilinged art deco lobby of a great, unfinished skyscraper, intended to be the headquarters of Metropolitan Life as well as the tallest building in New York before being cut short by the great depression. The restaurant began as a creation of the infamous Danny Meyer, it is now run by executive chef Daniel Humm. An impeccably executed farm-to-table blend of nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy, it sets the standard for chef-owned restaurants.

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Goat butter, cow butter, sea salt.

Did I mention it has three Michelin stars? Oh, and it was also named among the top 10 restaurants in the world this year. Getting these accolades is no easy feat. Not only does the food have to be delicious, inventive (which basically means something “weird” needs to be in there nowadays, with the advent of molecular cuisine), and beautifully plated, but if you want to get that third star instead of just two, the service must be perfect. The staff needs to know the menu and wine list inside and out, the tablecloths must be spotless, and even the water holding the table’s flowers must be crystal clear. Aside from not having flowers on the table, Eleven Madison Park goes above and beyond these requirements.

The menu is beautiful in its simplicity. I mean just look at it:

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You get four courses, picking your dish based on its main ingredient while the prep on each remains a surprise. But if you ask me what to get at a place like this, I’ll tell you go big or go home. And that means the chef’s tasting menu.

No quantity of adjectives can convey the experience of a meal there. My most humble attempt will simply be to take you through the 13-course tasting menu that occupied a rapturous and unforgettable 3 hours:

Hors D’oeuvres

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The meal begins with a mystery: What’s in the box!? But faster than Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en, my curiosity got the better of me. Voraciously tearing into the neat package, I discovered our first course: black and white cookies. Although they looked like the classic New York bakery sweet, equal parts chocolate and vanilla, there’s a twist: these are a savory take on the pastry. The “black and white” are truffle and Parmesan, sandwiching a small dollop of goat butter over brioche. Savory, buttery, just a small bite to tease the palette and anticipate what’s to come.

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Apple

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Ahh, nothing like waking up to a nice, warm cup of tea with some eggs and toast. The next course was precisely that: neatly arranged little sunny-side-up quail eggs, no bigger than my thumbnail, on brioche with sea salt and bacon. To balance out the savory, the eggs are accompanied by a small cup of warm, herbal apple tea and a sprig of thyme.

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Yogurt and Chickpeas

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Ice-cold Greek yogurt lollipops with curry were sweet and a little tart, with crunchy shells dotted with fried lentils around a soft, creamy yogurt filling. For contrast, the chickpea panisse with a dab of yogurt were warm and savory.

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Smoked Sturgeon

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This was actually a smoked sturgeon “sabayon” (served in egg shells, no less). Know what sabayon is? It’s okay, I betray my own ignorance by admitting I didn’t know what it was either. Turns out its an italian custard made from egg yolks and whipped until light and fluffy. So this was a fish version of that dessert? Yes. Yes it was. It was the essence of smoked sturgeon in a warm, airy liquid that wasn’t quite foam but wasn’t quite soup either. With just a hint of chive oil, the flavor was breathtaking. This is the kind of dish which simply bears no comparison to anything else. The ingenuity of molecular gastronomy at its best is in this ability to produce completely new foods which manage to be bizarre in their originality while actually tasting delicious.

Clam

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Time for another surprise: a modern take on the New England clam bake! What you see is a pitcher of clam chowder surrounded by clam two ways (one with chorizo, another with apple), complemented by savory corn and potato cakes.

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Cocktail Hour

Our waiter tells us we’re invited back to the kitchen. Huh? Have they confused us for some important Manhattan real estate moguls? Has my blog really gotten that popular? Well, I don’t want to mess up what could be a fortuitous mistake by asking, so off to the kitchen we go. Inside there’s a small table (standing room only) set up for three, with a view of the entire kitchen. This is no mistake at all, but something Eleven Madison Park does for only a few customers! I guess they thought we were “cool,” or my constant picture-taking convinced them I would appreciate a little extra behind the scenes view.

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Family in the kitchen

A very nice pastry chef named Becky makes apple cocktails with liquid nitrogen-hardened pomegranate foam as we watch over 50 staff members meticulously prepare food at their stations (on a peak night there are more employees than customers!) The cocktail is light and refreshing and the kitchen is amazing to behold. After this little treat, it’s time to return to the dining room for more.

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Becky and the nitrogen

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Voila!

Almond

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“Variations” on the almond, to be exact, mainly a crispy chip over a tangy cream. This is mixed among greens (mostly flowers) and a balsamic vinaigrette, as well as a salty cured Mangalista ham.

Foie Gras

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Often mispronounced, never unwelcome: fatty goose liver. No upscale meal would be complete without it. This one was thinly sliced and coiled, making for a unique presentation, with a dark, sweet black sesame sauce and duck prosciutto.

Whey

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Whey and I go whey back (see what I did there?). But this isn’t just a workout supplement. This is the liquid runoff of yogurt, served warm and (appropriately) with buttermilk “curds,” as well as gnocchi and spring herbs to cut the heaviness of the broth.

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Lobster

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7 courses and we’re only just now getting to the first entree! This is lobster claw poached in Meyer lemon butter. I think that’s worth repeating: POACHED IN MEYER LEMON BUTTER. Served with shellfish bisque and “burnt leek,” which very cleverly cakes the roots of a fresh leek taking on the appearance of dirt.

Beef

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And finally, the heavy stuff. This was no ordinary beef, but cured and aged ribeye (the best cut, if you ask me), roasted and served with wood sorrel and roasted potatoes. Need I say more?

Cheuflada

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As much as my auto-correct wanted to make that “chef lady,” Cheuflada is actually correct. What is it? Well, since it’s not quite dessert, it’s the cheese course, of course! It’s a fragrant (read: stinky) cheese which is actually a thick liquid at room temperature. To give it balance and even a little something to hang on to, it is adorned with pearl onions, potatoes, and pickled whole mustard seeds.

Egg Cream

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Dessert begins with another New York classic: Egg Cream. This classy beverage transports you back to the soda fountains of yore, and Eleven Madison even uses an antique bottle to make seltzer. In a fun table-side presentation, I learn their egg cream uses orange oil (where the original used chocolate syrup) with the essence of cocoa nib. Mixed with milk and seltzer and stirred to frothy magnificence, the drink is a sweet and refreshing palette cleanser for what will be an incredible dessert.

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Cheesecake

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New York style cheesecake made with goat cheese. Sound good? Well, it is, especially topped with orange sorbet and a chilled vanilla “snow.”

Chocolate

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And now the grand finale: could it be anything other than chocolate? This most beloved ingredient still gets special treatment. The plate is a mountain of crispy flakes of “caramelized coco puffs,” and soft, frozen “chocolate snow” (think Dipping’ Dots). All of this is bordered by a sea of Meyer lemon cream sauce and just a touch of olive oil.

In a final touch of poetic creativity, the end is in the beginning. Another box appears before you containing the sweet black and white cookies which had been so successfully quoted at the outset. They’re at the same time unexpected, self-referential, and an ode to classic New York City food. I can think of no better metaphor for the restaurant itself, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of its food.

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Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Southbound and Down

Texas, for those not from around here, has a bit of a different feel from Oklahoma. It’s bigger, busier, but it’s also a state of contrasts; It has sprawling cities and vast swaths of desolate countryside (think “No Country For Old Men”), a strange blend of modern American cosmopolitanism and backwater secessionist crackpottery. This is the home, after all, of both the Kimball Art Museum and Rick Perry.

The Kimbell

But what makes such a place worth driving through hours of repetitive scenery laden with casinos and adult bookstores? Naturally, my friend Sarah and I drove to Ft. Worth and back one fine Saturday for one thing: a meal. Yes, one lunch and even one dish at Ol’ South Pancake House is well worth a 200 mile drive both ways. Don’t believe me? Read on.

I would be loath to ignore all of the fun sight-seeing attractions on a road trip like this, and especially all of the cool things to do in Ft. Worth and Dallas. Just because we came for or food and left without so much as a museum visit doesn’t mean you should! I couldn’t recommend the Kimbell and the Ft. Worth Modern highly enough. The former is an architectural masterwork by Louis Kahn (if you’re into that sort of thing) which is probably the closest thing to hallowed space this side of the Red River. The museum is small, but that means every single piece, ranging from ancient to modern, is a stand-out. The light and materials of the space give intimate and beautiful respect to the works displayed within. Much larger is the Ft. Worth Modern, another masterpiece, plain and simple, by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. It contains pieces by such names as Ed Rousha, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, and that Andy Warhol guy you may have heard of.

Andy Who?

The best part? These museums are right across the street from one another! And only a short drive from our destined pancake house. Not into art? Well I-35 has plenty of diverse and exciting sights to offer! There’s the action figure museum in Paul’s Valley, Ardmore’s bustling Starbucks, even the world’s only osteology museum! The town of Moore, home to Toby Keith and a big movie theater should also top your list! You can even stop off at the monstrosity that is Winstar Casino, an amalgam of reconstructions of famous buildings from around the world which looks like a pile of greeting cards were willed into terrible, monumental reality by the same evil force that gave us Branson, Missouri. As if this weren’t enough Americana for one day, you’ll even get to see the NASCAR Texas Motor Speedway rising up alongside the highway like an ancient temple of beer, fried food and men in tank-tops.

But if you’re like me, you’d like to go straight through without any stops and cut the 4-hour drive down to 3 with careful observance of posted speed limits. The highway didn’t have an abundance of broken heroes on a last chance power drive during our trip, so we made pretty good time. And suddenly, there it was: right alongside downtown Ft. Worth Ol’ South Pancake House sits with a full parking lot, enormous as you’d expect a themed restaurant in Texas to be (Medieval Times is nearby). I’ll admit this restaurant is unusual for my blog. By that I mean it is really down-home. Desserts are displayed up front, and the wooden booths, old-timey lamps and murals of Southern Plantation vistas give the place a folksy, cracker barrel feel. There is no hint of the exotic quaintness of the foreign restaurants I usually seek out. There are no pillows to sit on, no hookahs, no ducks hanging in plain sight. It doesn’t even have organ meats on the menu! But our meal was phenomenal nonetheless.

I say meal, but really there’s one big reason to come to Ol’ South. When we let our waiter know we had come all the way from Oklahoma City, he instinctively replied “Ah, German pancakes then.” He understands. Yes, iHop claims to be the “International” house of pancakes, and this place also offers several international twists on the traditional breakfast pastry (Swedish Crepes, Belgian Waffles, Blintzes, etc.). But I promise, you have never had anything like these German pancakes. The cake itself is like an egg-based crepe: rich and fluffy like a soufflé but cooked nearly crispy on the flat-top. It arrives at the table flat, like an edible plate holding a gleaming dollop of melting butter and snowy coating of powdered sugar. But then the show starts. Your waiter carefully pours a bowl of fresh-squeezed lemon juice over the pancake until it’s steeped in the buttery nectar. Then he folds it over, making it a sweet, juicy present with a pancake wrapper.

Before

After

Now are these pancakes really just like those eaten in Germany? I don’t know. Somehow I doubt it. But it is one of the sweetest, richest foods you’ll ever eat. After cutting into the mound of pancake, your plate will be swimming in the butter and lemon. Each bite will be just as explosive, the hot, porous cake soaked in the magical liquid. Now my German pancake was actually what they call a “Dutch Baby,” the small version. The standard size is huge, as in hanging off the plate before they wrap it up huge. Should you be brave enough to try the full pancake, that’s a meal in itself. But in the interest of exploring more of the menu, my Dutch Baby was complimented nicely by eggs, bacon and Cheese Blintzes. You have the choice of strawberries or sour cream on the Blintzes, the latter of which I chose because I was already close to a sugar overdose. The pancake may be a hard act to follow, but the Blintzes were like hot cheesecake wrapped in a crepe (with packets of sour cream administered by yours truly). Need I say more?

Blintzes

So we left Ol’ South and Ft. Worth sated and filled with the food of the gods. There was no room for the pies and cheesecake beckoning to us from their glass case on our way out, but I have no doubt they would have been just as divine. This pilgrimage is one I would recommend all my Oklahoma friends take at least once. The German pancake may not be like anything you’ve eaten, but like everything else on the menu, it’s just great comfort food. Maybe the drive there is a little kitschy, a blend of Las Vegas and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it should put you in the right state of mind for a good southern meal. And Ol’ South is just that: Proof that Southern cooking, at least, isn’t gone with the wind (sorry about that one).

*Ol’ South Pancake House is open 24 hours/day.

Ol' South Pancake House 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.

Golden Phoenix on Urbanspoon

What’s going on here?

Hello all! For those who don’t know, my name is Sam Lower. That’s pronounced like “Flower” or “Matt Lauer.”

So I know everyone and their dog has a blog these days, including me, so what exactly am I adding with this one? To explain, I started a blog in the last month with a friend of mine called “EatingOklahoma” (which can be found here: http://eatingoklahoma.wordpress.com). The focus of that blog is to find authentic food from other cultures here in my hometown of Oklahoma City. The idea is to go out and eat with friends, and each of us will share our experience from his own unique point of view. While I plan to contribute to that blog when I can, circumstances often lead me to be:

1. Out of the city (or country, lately)

2. Eating food that isn’t necessarily “ethnic” or imported from another culture.

While I love EatingOklahoma, I want it to be pure in its concept. So now, without further ado, I present the blog which will heretofore contain all of the experiences that just don’t quite fit into EatingOklahoma; Most notably, my recent adventures in London. The blog will still be almost entirely food focused. I’ve literally grown up in the restaurant business, and culinary experiences are the ones I have regularly enough (and which I usually find interesting enough) to share.

I expect this will be 50% sharing stories, and 50% restaurant reviews, though the two often run together. And I intend to be honest in my reviewing. If it were up to me, I would always eat food I like. But when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to try new places, or let the friend decide where to go, or if time constraints are really so desperate that the only option is toxic fast food, I will not hold back my discontent. There are some bad restaurants in the city, whether it be because of service (I’m looking at you, Rococo North), food or otherwise. In this, my unofficial declaration of principles a la Citizen Kane, I intend to find the gems, the truly wonderful dining experiences, beyond the ever-increasing onslaught of corporate chain restaurants. And trust me, negativity aside, there really is some great stuff out there. Now let’s eat!