While back home for the Okie Noodling Tournament, I found this in my mom’s pantry.
Part of the Rocking L-H Asparagus Farm’s line of Ben Jack Larado’s Gourmet Foods, which also includes barbecue sauces, meat rubs, dips, candied jalapeños, pickled asparagus & garlic, 8 other mustards & more (all available online), Rich & Robust Yellow Jack is Dijonesque, but with a sharper kick. (After all, even good old Grey Poupon contains fruit pectin & sugar, which I assume neutralize the vinegar & spices somewhat.)
I say get you some right quick; it’d be the bomb with grilled brats et al.
Here was what there was to eat in Oklahoma when I was growing up: Steak. Chicken-fried steak. Fried chicken. Biscuits. White gravy. Brown gravy. Fried catfish. French fries. Fried okra. Burgers. The occasional barbecued rib. More steak.
Yet even here, things have changed—not a lot, but enough. In just a couple of decades, for instance, Oklahoma City has become home to a significant Vietnamese population—enough to warrant notice by the New York Times back in ’07, in a piece whose author gave a nod to Pho Lien Hoa (aka Pho Hoa). ‘Twas well-deserved.
But for a couple of apps—including the taut-wrapped & sprightly goi cuon (the ubiquitous but rarely so fresh spring rolls) with a superb, thick, smoky-spicy-sweet dip (note the extra dollop of chili sauce on top)
& 3 noodle-based dishes (bun), the menu’s composed entirely of soups—nearly 50 in all.
That there’s the H4 or hu tiu My Tho, i.e., pork broth with clear noodles, barbecued pork, shrimp, quail eggs, lettuce, scallions, fried onions & such a cute little cracker with a shrimp in the middle.
As uniquely comforting as noodle soups are, the work that goes into them is easy to underestimate. And while quick-witted, intensive multitasking—chopping & peeling & frying & stirring & draining & chopping & frying some more—is key, the ultimate craftsmanship reveals itself in the broth (as anyone who’s ever made stock from scratch, much less tackled, say, a double consommé, knows all too well). This one was unforgettable—light yet tealike in the complexity of its spiced aroma, & just a slight touch sour-&-sweet. You wouldn’t say it was porky in the way you’d say a beef broth tastes beefy or a chicken broth chickeny; that it was in fact porky was reflected simply in the way it enhanced the mild, chewy slices of pork itself. And beneath it all, an abundance of glass noodles to add slurp to the chew & bite of the meats & veggies.
One soup is not a lot to go on, but it’s enough to ensure that Pho Lien Hoa will be my first stop upon landing at the ever-optimistically named Will Rogers World Airport (there are about 12 gates total; as Rogers himself said, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer”).
Of course, this is still a red state, with cows & oilwells & televangelists & shit; true ‘cue can be found all over the place. But not in a former college bookstore run by a hospitality group. (Real pitmasters don’t wear their corporate values on their sleeves. Hell, they don’t even usually wear sleeves.) There, instead, you’ll find Iron Starr Urban Barbeque, whose menu consists of 1 approximately barbecue classic (ribs, brisket, pulled pork, etc.) to every 4 plates of cornmeal-dusted rock shrimp with jicama slaw or molasses-glazed salmon. In short, this isn’t a barbecue joint, it’s a contemporary American cafe. As such, it’s just fine. As I knew it would be; the way-savvy owners of terrific gourmet shop Forward Foods, my dining companions Wampus & Suzy, wouldn’t steer me wrong.
Though we all had our misgivings upon the arrival of our appetizer of bacon-wrapped quail breast.
Before they could crawl off the plate & squirt us in the eyes with their instant paralyzing venom, we just had to stab the obscene little reanimated body parts in their sore spots & rip ’em in half with our teeth. Turns out suppurating leeches taste pretty good, charred here, unctuous there & slicked with apricot-serrano jam.
Meanwhile, get a load of this “salad.”
Apparently employing mathematical formulae to determine the smallest ratio of vegetable to protein necessary to equal a salad, they actually scooped out the iceberg wedge to make room for a building block of blue cheese & pecans “spiced,” presumably, with lots of butter & brown sugar. I can’t pretend the mixture wasn’t a heady one, right down to the swirling of the pecan drippings into the bacon-blue cheese vinaigrette. The tenderloin, grilled nice & rare, was really just the icing on this guilty-pleasure cake.
As for Wampus’s rib dinner,
the description of the house specialty sounds a note of warning in promising “fall-off-the-bone perfection.” In fact, the meat on perfect ribs should not fall off, a sign of overcooking; it should slide clean off. And though the St. Louis–cut pork ribs are supposedly smoked for 24 hours over hickory & pecan, they lacked a well-defined smoke ring. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t competition material. I didn’t try his mac & cheese or “slaw” of seasoned browned onions, jalapenos & I’m not sure what all else, but the latter looked to me like the best thing on the plate.
A bit dry at the edges, the cornbread was otherwise decent, studded with whole kernels.
& if neither was the intricate stuff of a brilliant pastry chef, both were wholly satisfying, well-textured (I feared the cake might be a bit dry too, but it wasn’t) & clear-flavored for being so rich.
Ultimately, if it’s true ‘cue you’re craving, I’d check out this guy’s suggestions, adding my beloved Bob’s Pig Shop to the roster (see here, here & here), & maybe Midwest City’s Mr. Spriggs, if for no other reason than to reward them for the greatest ad ever. For an easygoing bar & grill experience, however, you could certainly do worse than Iron Starr.
“What lobster is to the New England States, Chicken Fried Steak is to this part of Oklahoma.” So claims the menu at Bob’s Pig Shop, 1 of the happiest places on god’s greenish planet. Not only is it home to the Okie Noodling Tournament (see here, here & here); not only is it run by the one-of-a-kind Phil Henderson, a wildly yarn-spinning sage with a soul of gold; not only is it a treasure trove of hard-won Americana—but it’s a genuine roadside BBQ j-o-i-n-t with an 80-year-old smoke pit.
Now, as both a childhood Okie & a Bostonian in much of adulthood & spirit, I have to admit I’ve never gone gaga over either lobster or chicken-fried steak. In its natural richness & sweetness, just a little of the former seems to me to go a long way—doing its best work as part of an ensemble rather than as a solo performer. As for the latter, 1 too many limp, gray gristle disks on my grade-school cafeteria tray led me to take personal offense at chicken-fried steak as an abomination of the red-state dinner plate on the order of pigs in a blanket & anything in white gravy. I’ve snubbed it ever since.
But when I saw it on the menu at Bob’s, I knew this was our chance to reconcile, chicken-fried steak & me. And kiss & make up we did.
Served on toasted housemade sourdough with lettuce & tomato, the cube steak was coated just thickly enough in a zesty seasoned breading & deep-fried. It was also supposed to boast a little housemade buttermilk ranch; mine didn’t, for some reason, but it didn’t need any after a few squirts of the tangy signature table sauce (whose recipe, I’d guess, is fairly close to this one).
Speaking of seasoning, I couldn’t resist a side order of the seasoned fries.
In retrospect, my only regret is that I didn’t take home a few orders of homemade tamales & cobbler. But then, as they say, regret is just another word for an excuse to return.
The Toy & Action Figure Museum (whose logo tee the Director’s rocking as we speak) isn’t the only detour Wampus took me on during my trip back home for the Okie Noodling Tournament. On the eve thereof, he & Suzy—his expectant wife, co-gourmet cheesemonger & rare comic equal—drove me all the way to the OK-TX border to do mouth-based research at a legendary catfish palace called McGeHee.
Housed way, way off any main road in an Americana-bedecked cabin overlooking the Red River, the place evokes a clubhouse for ballcapped, grizzled good old boys to sit around in guzzling beer, cheating at cards & spinning fish tales. But when we met a couple of Wampus & Suzy’s friends there around 8 on a Friday night, it was virtually empty—8 being nearly closing time in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not sure there’s anything on the menu besides catfish fried or grilled (but who doesn’t get fried? no one, that’s who), served AYCE family-style with all manner of sides; certainly the ordering process amounted to a smiling confirmation that that’s what we’d be having.
In no time, the waitress returned with a trayful of this & that & this—not only a dish of raw onion slices, peperoncini & lemon wedges but also
sweet pickled green tomatoes, hypercreamy coleslaw
& crunchy-tender free-form hush puppies,
which we had just the right amount of time to plow through before the presentation of the beaucoup pièces de résistance.
The cornmeal-fried catfish was expertly done—greaseless, moist & flaky—but I gotta say it was the snappy, salt-dusted, mahogany-hued, skin-on fries that enthralled me most, not least for being the 2nd absolutely spectacular batch of spud sticks I’d had in as many days.
Had we been anywhere Bacchus actually knew—McGeHee is dry—no telling how many I’d have polished off in inebriated bliss, hid in my pockets & otherwise hoarded. So many I’d still be eating ’em now, that I can t ell you.
Lee’s nuggets, Bob’s riblets & Darth Vader’s Potato Head: The 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament Pt. 3!
With a name like Wampus, you just have to be the host of the first-ever catfish cookoff at the 10th annual Okie Noodling Tournament.
You may also have to own the best gourmet shop for miles & miles around, as does my old pal Steve “Wampus” Reynolds, along with his ultralovable wife (& former Martha Stewart payrollee!) Suzy Thompson—namely Norman’s (& soon to be OKC’s) Forward Foods. You definitely have to wear a T-shirt depicting legendary OU Sooners football coach—& bootlegger’s boy!—Barry Switzer that reads “Hang half-a-hundred on it.”
But above all, you really have to launch that Okie Noodling Tournament catfish cookoff—an event that’s sure to get inked in on the smudged & spattered kitchen calendars of aspiring chefs forevermore.
With a name like Denveater, meanwhile, you have to be terribly restless & afeared to miss a noodlin’ thing—to the point that, instead of waiting for Wampus (“He said Saturday [pause]. I think”) to close his store for the afternoon, you force your poor mom to chauffeur you 45 min. to the fairgrounds, i.e. the half-block radius around Bob’s Pig Shop, just in time for the official weigh-in to begin.
Luckily mom is a trooper.
Such a trooper, in fact, that this JewBu who bore me uprighted her vegetarian leanings (never mind risked her kosher cred) just long enough to join me in a luscious, luscious lunch of Bob’s ribs.
Served on plates when the place isn’t getting slammed by more orders than Pauls Valley has residents, the rib platter includes beans that I’d swear were baked, not quite the same (but no less tangy) than the spiced pintos that came with my pig sandwich on Friday (see above link); extra-creamy coleslaw & potato salad; house-baked, toasted white bread; &, oh my, the ribs themselves.
I’m no BBQ expert, but I know a thing or 3: 1) That’s a serious smoke ring right there. 2) The meat slid—not collapsed, not yanked, but slid horizontally, easily yet precisely—off the bone. 3) The bark was addictive—deep, dark & peppery.
Here’s what I didn’t know til my nominee for world’s truest gentleman (too bad, old dad; them’s the breaks, Director, love of my life) showed me—tuckered out as he must’ve been at the end of a 100-plus-degree day spent overseeing a famous fishing tournament, running a beloved BBQ joint & babysitting his blur of a 2-year-old granddaughter: that those ribs get an ungodly-early start every morning in the brick pit that’s as old as the Pig Shop itself—76 years & counting.
(That Bob’s Pig Shop is full of such treasures I showed you here—but I saved the best for last. Check this out—it’s dated April 15, 1865:
—which you’ll get a full load of when I resume this post ASAP.
To pick up where I left off, Wampus & I dodged the dusty scorcher for a spell by ducking into the above, also in little old (pop. jut over 6,000) Pauls Valley. Enthusiast or no, you gotta love it.
To have even heard of noodling is to know Lee McFarlin. To look “noodling” up on Wikipedia is to see his picture. To Google “noodling” & “Gordon Ramsay” is to catch a slide show of the respective stars of Okie Noodling & “Hell’s Kitchen” gurgling à deux amid the red swirls of an Oklahoma fishing hole. To scan article after article on noodling on the New York Times & ESPN websites is to learn of his legend.
But you could also just show up at the Okie Noodling Tournament, because Lee, even as he’s being trailed by Discovery Channel camera crews & prepping for an August trip to Spain in search of a half-ton catfish,** is a man of the people in the least ironic, most gregarious sense, & he will blithely bend your ear at every turn.
From, say, the inside of the huge fishtank in the parking lot of the great Bob’s Pig Shop, where he performs the aquatic art he has perfected.
(The seat of his trunks reads “Noodlers Anonymous,” the name of the group of Missourians I mentioned in my last post who flout state law to grabble.)
also a noodler & a past tournament queen—man every year to fry up some 400 lbs. of catfish over the course of the festival,
Or from any old spot where he happens to be taking a breather with the jug of goofy juice he totes around all the livelong day.
I don’t know what it was exactly, but when I asked his answer was to give me a sip in which vodka figured very, very heavily.
And if you admire his hands,
you might, despite the fact that your back is a filthy, fleshy waterwall in the 100-plus-degree heat, get an under-the-shirt rub to verify the exfoliating aptitude of callouses (& only that, rest assured. What a gent!).
More on the catfish cooked up by those hands, & many other dishes by many other hands, to come in Part 3.
**That reminds me—ever seen the episode of “Fishing with John” where Lurie & Dennis Hopper go on the hunt for giant squid? Almost as good as the one where he & Jim Jarmusch look for sharks in Montauk. More for film buffs than fisherfolk, granted.
***Over the course of the next few days I’ll spill all the half-baked beans I happily gathered at the 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, while hanging with an array of insiders whom I’d now count among the coolest, kindest, oldest souls a person can be lucky enough to encounter all at once.***
Prizes go to both the most massive beast & the poor puniest loser—the latter this year being 12 & the former being
(We straight for now? If not, or even if so, go here to get the cinematic scoop from filmmaker-founder Bradley Beesley & the gang.)
We at Denveater grew up in big bad Oklahoma.
Like megamesmerizers The Flaming Lips, like notorious Normanite & owner of great gourmet shop Forward Foods’ Wampus (whom you may have met here), like doc-directing dynamo Bradley Beesley & spell-casting yarn-spinner
Unlike them, though, I can’t take any credit for the global phenom that the Okie Noodling Tournament has become since its inception in 2000.
That said, this year, for the 1st time, I’m at least attending the bare-handed catfishing contest founded by Beesley & Henderson, scored in spirit by the Lips & rounded out by a Wampus-sponsored catfish cookoff.
The noodlers were off in a cloud of dust—or a spray of murk, I guess—as of 7pm CST this eve to go sticking their fists down the faces of ancient aquatic beasties, & they’ll be due at the weigh-in in Bob’s parking lot by no later than 7pm tomorrow (last year’s piscine prizewinner was nearly 65 lbs.).
Until then, I’ll be stuffing my own face in the museum of major mementos & cracker-ass curios (in the positive sense) that is the Pig Shop dining room.
While the noodlers are flailing all over Lake Eufaula (or wherever their secret holes are), & the toddlers are flocking & gawking ’round the catfish-&-human-filled demo tank, & the cookoff contestants are grilling up to their gills, I’ll be chowing down on
the marinated & chopped Pig Sandwich
with red pepper–spiked pickle relish & some of the best table sauce I’ve ever tasted (catch the splotch at the bottom)—a vinegary variation on Phil’s great-uncle’s sweeter original—plus satisfyingly soupy, lightly spiced beans on the side;
hand-cut, skin-on, perfectly crisped fries coated in Phil’s own special blend of seasonings;
& lordy knows what all else I’ve yet to try—the babybacks? the tamales with chili (does not equal chile)? the prime rib on house-baked sourdough? a bowlful of that table sauce I’d lap up in a patch of sunlight like a kitten? (kittenfish?) in a flash?
Tune in this weekend to find out. (UPDATE: More about Bob’s here!)