Better than OK: The Most-Iconic Food in Oklahoma
Feast like a rancher on the state's best steak, chili, chicken-fried steak and fried pies.
Photo By: Jim Beckel
Savor the Sooner State
Oklahomans have a love of the land and the food raised and grown on it. The state is rich with culinary heritage evident in local favorites like chicken-fried steak, Indian tacos, fried-onion burgers and, of course, barbecue.
By Dave Cathey
Fried-onion burgers are popular statewide, but were born in El Reno during the Depression. Hamburger Inn owners H.W. Davis, Ross Davis and E.C. Cannon pressed a five-cent meat patty into a mound of shredded onions over a hot griddle, using the back of a heavy-duty spatula to make the burger look bigger. Turns out caramelized onions with charred edges make a burger so good that folks still line up for them daily at three places in El Reno: Robert’s Grill, Sid’s Diner and Johnnie’s Grill. The combo has also sparked an annual festival where they make one the size of a flying saucer.
Go to: Sid's Diner
The heavyweight champion of diners’ affections in Oklahoma is a good steak, and nobody has done it longer than Cattlemen’s. Born as Cattlemen’s Café in Oklahoma City’s infancy, and won in a dice game after World War II, the institution evolved into Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in 1990. Owner Dick Stubbs broadened the menu to include prime beef to go along with choice cuts, creating dishes that draw droves from around the world. The restaurant serves its hearty steaks at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The steak earns Cattlemen’s a lot of attention, but the restaurant is almost as popular for its lamb fries and salad dressing.
Go to: Cattlemen's Steakhouse
Oklahoma boasts numerous wonderful fried chicken emporiums like Florence’s Restaurant in Oklahoma City, where owner Florence Kemp has fried in a cast-iron Dutch oven since 1952. But no one draws them like Eischen’s Bar in Okarche. Oklahoma’s oldest bar opened in 1896 and fries thousands of birds a week. The frill-free experience revolves around whole birds broken down into eight pieces and served with white bread, pickles, onions and squares of wax paper for plates. Folks come from far and near knowing a seat might not present itself for an hour or more. It’s worth the wait — the chicken really is that good.
Go to: Eischen's Bar
Few burger joints have drawn affection like Nic’s Grill. The home Justin “Nic” Nicholas bought in the mid-1990s had a long-dormant 22-by-22 lunch counter on the property. Rather than raze it, Nic turned the former Marcia’s Sister’s Café into a burger mecca that’s been appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Starting with a proprietary hamburger blend, Nic crafts huge patties that he sears on both sides, then slowly finishes in a cozy corner of his flat-top. Mounded with grilled onions, jalapenos and cheese, they arrive on a simple bun with hand-cranked curly fries. In 2016, he added Nic’s Place Diner and Lounge.
Go to: Nic's Grill
Perhaps the Vietnamese community’s most-popular contribution to the Oklahoma table is pho. A hearty soup of beef broth and rice noodles, pho can involve a number of proteins, likely served with a side platter of basil, saw-leaf, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices and lime wedges. Sriracha and hoisin sauce are optional enhancements. No pho restaurant in Oklahoma draws longer lines than Pho Lien Hoa in Oklahoma City’s Asian District. Owner Lien Le has run the place since 1993. Since then, pho has stretched into every section of the city and beyond.
Go to: Pho Lien Hoa
Richard Dermer didn’t open Oklahoma’s favorite homegrown pizza joint, but he worked there. Dermer was a delivery driver for Stillwater’s Campus Hideaway Pizza. Its owners got the idea in Bloomington, Indiana, and successfully brought it to Lawrence, Kansas. Their attempt in Stillwater, back in 1957, failed, but Dermer and his wife, Marti, bought it on credit and changed the name to Hideaway. Four decades later, three ex-employees approached Dermer about expanding. He wasn’t interested but let them start Hideaway II Inc., which sparked an explosion of kitschy gourmet pies and fried mushrooms statewide.
go to: Hideaway Pizza
Lebanese Hors d'Oeuvres
When Lebanese immigrant Jim Elias opened Jamil’s Steakhouse in Tulsa in 1952, he knew folks in his adopted country loved steak, so he made it the centerpiece. But Elias also wanted to share the flavors of his heritage, including hummus, tabouli and cabbage rolls. So he paired those mezzes with smoked ribs and bologna, then called it Lebanese Hors d’Oeuvres. The idea was a hit and inspired similar offerings at Freddie’s Barbecue and Steakhouse in Sapulpa and Eddy’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City. Eddy’s has closed but Freddie’s and two Jamil’s stores continue the tradition.
Go to: Jamil's Steakhouse
Fried pies have been popular in these parts since the first time someone dropped pie dough in a deep-fryer — supposedly by accident. Using her grandmother’s perfect recipe — which dates back to pre-statehood days feeding ranchers — Nancy Fulton serves fried pies to hungry masses at her Arbuckle Mountain Pie Company, in Davis. In an A-frame at the foot of the mountain for which it’s named, Fulton churns out thousands of pies a day. Offering both savory and sweet fillings in an impossibly flaky pastry, the pies are offered at franchises throughout the state and as far away as Cincinnati.
Go to: Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies
Lamb and Calf Fries
Braum's Ice Cream
Emporia, Kansas, dairy farmer Henry H. Braum made it through the Depression well enough to open a chain of ice cream stores called Peter Pan. He sold the company to his son Bill in 1957. Bill expanded Peter Pan and sold it in 1967, promising not to compete in Kansas for a decade. So, he moved the family to Tuttle, Oklahoma, and opened the first Braum’s in 1968. Today the company has close to 300 franchises throught the region, including Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Arkansas. No longer just ice cream parlors, Braum’s serves burgers that have become quite popular.