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.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Fried-Onion Burger

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

Steak

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

Chicken-Fried Steak

In 1988 the state legislature placed chicken-fried steak on the official Oklahoma State Meal list, so it’s common to any patch of red dirt within shouting distance of a deep-fryer. Kendall’s Restaurant in Noble has been chicken-frying its steaks for more than three decades over three moves, and doing it so well, crowds line up for crisp-on-the-outside, juicy-in-the-center steaks. Hubcap-size tenderized pieces of batter-fried round steak are served with the gravy — usually cream-based — mashed potatoes and, with any luck, fried okra.

Indian Taco

Omnipresent at festivals and fairs across the state, Indian tacos are a specialty of The Miller Grill in Yukon. When the federal government forced Arizona Navajos into a 300-mile trek to New Mexico more than 150 years ago, the uprooted were requisitioned canned goods, flour, sugar and lard. The last three ingredients became the basis for frybread. Over time, frybread became a makeshift taco shell for toppings like pinto beans, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheddar and salsa. Miller Grill Chef-Owner Jason McCormack makes his great-grandmother’s frybread daily. He serves it with ground beef traditional, grilled chicken or meatless.

Barbecue

Oklahomans’ love affair with barbecue is best illustrated by the World’s Biggest BBQ of 1923. The result of a campaign promise by governor-elect Jack Walton to have a public barbecue instead of an inaugural ball, the event lured about 100,000 to the state fairgrounds in frigid January temperatures to feast on beef, pork, mutton, chicken, turkey, rabbit, squirrel, possum, goose, duck, deer, buffalo and reindeer smoked in a mile-long pit. Today, BurnCo BBQ in Tulsa uses locally made Hasty-Bake charcoal ovens to make ribs, brisket, chicken, pork, sausage and local-favorite smoked bologna. House specialty The Fatty is a roll of three kinds of sausage wrapped in bacon.

Banh Mi

Thanks to an influx of Vietnamese refugees in Oklahoma City after the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese cuisine has become part of Oklahoma food culture. Banh Mi, in particular, has become popular across the state. Showcasing culinary influences from the French colonization, the sandwich starts with a French baguette and ends with cilantro, jalapeno, pickled carrots and daikon with the diner’s choice of protein in between. Husband-and-wife team Philip and Danielle Phillips opened Lone Wolf Banh Mi in 2012, serving signature sandwiches, rice bowls and kimchi fries.

Theta Burger

Ralph Geist’s Town Tavern in Norman received so many orders from the Theta sorority at the University of Oklahoma for burgers with pickles, mayonnaise and hickory sauce, he named a burger for them. It turns out sorority girls aren’t the only who love the combo: It became so popular, the burger, called the Theta, eventually became a staple at drive-ins all over the state. Drive-ins have diminished in number, but the burgers are still popular at places like Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler, which has served them since opening in 1971.

Fried Chicken

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

Nic's Cheeseburger

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

Root Beer

Oklahoma has long been root beer crazy thanks to brands like Triple AAA and places like Weber’s Super Root Beer Stand in Tulsa and Coit’s Drive-in in Oklahoma City. Weber’s opened in 1933 and is still open, as is Brownies Hamburgers in Tulsa, where the house brew is still served in frosty mugs with old-fashioned hamburgers and homemade pie.

Pho

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

Pig Sandwich

Hubert Marsh brought the Juicy Pig Sandwich to Oklahoma City from Dallas in 1924. His first Pig Stand required police assistance with traffic of people queuing for the combination of pit-roasted pork drenched in stock and sour pickle relish, all stuffed in a toasted bun. In 1933, Marsh taught Bob and Helen Hammond his secrets so they could open Bob’s Pig Shop in Pauls Valley. After 44 years, they sold it to Phil Henderson, who carries on the tradition today. In Shawnee, Van’s Pig Stand has served its pig sandwich since 1930, with additional locations in Purcell, Moore and Norman.

Waffles

Waffles were the key to success for two of Oklahoma’s first restaurant pioneers, Bill Bishop and Beverly Osborne. Bishop’s Waffle Houses dotted highways across the state in the early 20th century before evolving into Bishop’s Restaurants, and Osborne’s Waffle Shops preceded Beverly’s various concepts that featured Chicken in the Rough. Today, Todd Woodruff’s Waffle Champion in Oklahoma City has taken the humble dish to the next level with a variety of sweet and savory toppings.

Cherry Limeade

Sonic Drive-ins all began with a little root beer stand outside Shawnee called Top Hat. A recently returned G.I. owned it and soon turned it into a drive-in, eventually changing the name to Sonic in 1959. By 1967 it had expanded to 41 locations. Today, Sonic boasts about 3,500 units. Each of them sell as many cherry limeades over popcorn ice as anything on the menu.

Hideaway Pizza

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

Daylight Donuts

In 1954, Tommy and Lucille Day were intent on opening a distinctive doughnut shop. They took aim at the dough, seeking a recipe that yielded a distinctively light texture and flavor. The Days’ light doughnut recipe became the foundation for Daylight Donuts. Countless coffee-ready doughnuts later, the Tulsa-based enterprise has become a worldwide network of independently owned shops.

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

Chili

Chili and tamale wagons first rolled past the Red River shortly after the Land Rush of 1889. A century later, a restaurant survey concluded chili was one of the state’s three most-popular dishes, along with chicken-fried steak and barbecue. Ike's Chili Parlor was opened in Tulsa in 1908 by Ike Johnson and today serves chili made from the same secret recipe by the bowl or over spaghetti or tamales. Will Rogers, who once called chili “a bowl of blessedness” famously turned down a banquet meal at the Mayo Hotel in Tulsa because "I can always eat chicken, but I can't always eat at Ike’s.”

Fried Pie

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

Coneys

Despite the 1,400-mile distance, Tulsa shares a connection to Coney Island in the form of hot dogs. Back in 1926, Greek immigrant Christ Economou opened his first Coney Island-inspired stand downtown. Today, coneys are as popular as ever at seven Coney I-Lander locations and Jim’s Coney Island. Oklahoma City boasts a pair of Coney Island restaurants owned by Greek families, too. The signature dish at all of them is a slow-grilled frank topped with Greek chili, onions, cheese and mustard in a steamed bun.

Lamb and Calf Fries

Before statehood, Italian immigrants came to Pittsburg County for coal mining. After mining declined, the immigrants made a living making pasta, sausage, cheese and bread. Somewhere along the way, they also embraced lamb and calf fries. Today, Oklahoma’s batter-fried testicle slices come from lamb, rather than calves. In Krebs, a small city within Pittsburg County, they’re sold at Pete’s Place, The Isle of Capri, and Roseanna’s. In northeast Oklahoma, Stillwater even has a ball of balls, the annual Calf Fry Festival. In Oklahoma City, try them at Cattlemen’s.

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.