As an Arkansas expat, I have learned many things about my home state, oddly enough, by being in other places. Nothing stands out more clearly than the realization that The Natural State boasts a disproportionate number of outstanding restaurants. Truly, it boggles my mind. It was the case when I lived there, and the restaurant scene has only gotten better in the two decades since I packed up the U-Haul and made off for Texas on a snowy New Year’s Day in 2001.
I now live in central Oklahoma, and find that it boasts more than its fair share of great places to eat, too. If you’re ready for a trip but nervous about straying too far from home (both literally and conceptually), look west.
For every Oark Store and Tommy’s Famous, Oklahoma boasts a Lucille’s Roadhouse (Weatherford) and a Baker’s Pizza (Maysville). For each Taylor’s steakhouse or Pasquale’s Tamales, we have a Click’s Steakhouse (Pawnee) and a Pete’s Place (McAlester). I still haven’t found the Oklahoma answer to venerable barbecue destinations like Craig’s or Jones or McClard’s — but the search is half the fun.
Should you find yourself over this way, you could do a lot worse than to stop at these — my quite subjective list of the 10 (or so) best places to grub in and around Oklahoma City.
Located just to the northwest of Oklahoma City, Eischen’s is said to be the oldest operating bar in Oklahoma. But it is far more famous for its fried chicken, which draws people from around the state. The family is not sharing the secret recipe, but all of the chickens are tossed whole into a line of deep fryers and served up crispy and piping hot. There is other food on the menu but it is generally regarded as a complement to the chicken as opposed to something to have instead.
Carican Flavors (Oklahoma City)
It’s true. Excellent Caribbean eats are here for the having in Oklahoma City. The restaurant is owned and run by a native of the islands and the food is traditional fare like curried chicken and goat, stewed oxtail and lamb stew. The jerk chicken is not to be missed. On the side, enjoy rice and beans, sweet potatoes, plantains and some amazing mac and cheese. If you’re lucky enough to land here on a Friday or Saturday you can enjoy some first-rate callaloo, the delicious Caribbean vegetable dish anchored by taro leaf.
Fresh, house-made pasta is the calling card at this outstanding Italian mainstay on I-35. The couple who runs this place started out in a nearby strip mall but soon needed more space to accommodate the hungry diners. They settled into a building that once housed an outpost of a popular Tex-Mex chain. Diners cannot miss with any of the pasta dishes here; it’s all great. The meatballs are simply outstanding, and anyone fortunate enough to hit Gaberino’s during Sunday Brunch should just go ahead and order the spaghetti carbonara with crispy prosciutto. It is perfect.
Nic’s Grill (Oklahoma City)
Burgers are the name of the game here. Because that’s the menu. Nic is manning the grill and he offers both kinds: onion burgers or not-onion burgers. The space is a former Steak ‘n’ Egg Kitchen and anyone remembering the venerable breakfast spot will recall that there isn’t much room. But that’s not the only reason that people are lined up outside. These burgers are that good. Actor Colin Farrell, for one, calls this the best burger he’s eaten.
The Service Station (Norman)
If your preference in burgers runs to the char-grilled variety, this is often seen as the best in Oklahoma. The fresh-cut fries (on the Service Station menu as dipsticks — get it?) are almost worth the visit by themselves. But unlike Nic’s, there is much more on the menu here and it is all good. The green chili stew is often on the specials board and it stands up to most of its New Mexican counterparts. The Alfa is a sandwich with turkey, avocado, tomato and spinach served with a sublime dill sauce on fresh-baked wheatberry bread.
The Butcher BBQ Stand (Wellston)
This outdoor barbecue stand on Route 66 northeast of Oklahoma City sprang from the efforts of the Butcher Barbecue competition team. After winning most of the big honors in the barbecue world, they decided that competition judges shouldn’t be the only ones who get to sample their food. At first it may seem strange to see people lined up outside of a converted shipping container in such a rural area. One taste of the meat and it all makes sense. Don’t miss the burnt ends, which are on par with most of those offered in Kansas City. The most popular of the many excellent sides? Apple pie beans.
STONE Sisters Pizza Bar
One does not have to be gluten-intolerant to enjoy the signature sprouted spelt crust at this family-owned pizzeria located just a stone’s throw from the state capitol. The actual sisters, whose titles are chief penny pincher, chief enchantment officer and chief optimism officer, are also serving up salads and pasta. Recommended: the West Coast Party in Your Mouth Pie. It starts with a crust brushed with bacon fat and is topped with Lovera’s Original Caciovera cheese (from Lovera’s Grocery in Krebs), grass-fed ground beef, uncured bacon, chipotle adobo mayo, yellow mustard, avocado mash, grape tomatoes and a pastured sunny-side-up egg. Also, three … count ‘em THREE vegan pies.
Guyute’s (Oklahoma City)
This Phish-themed eatery in the re-emerging Uptown 23rd Street district has the jam going with items such as the Hey Big Guy Home Fryz on the brunch menu. It is sausage, egg, jalapeno and cheddar with bacon curry gravy and a sriracha wine reduction. Hollandazed & Confused is falafel, tomato, avocado and a poached egg topped with hollandaise, with a side of home fries. Peace in the Middle East is a wrap with hummus, falafel, roasted cauliflower, couscous/quinoa blend and pickled carrot with lemon vinaigrette, twisted up snug in a whole wheat tortilla. Find those anywhere else.
Goro Ramen + Izakaya
Sitting in the Paseo Arts District just to the east of OKC’s substantial Asian district is this venerable establishment serving up some of the best noodles in the region. The Kare Mazemen is a favorite, with thick noodles, chicken confit, beet pickled ginger, negi, goma and a house-made curry sauce. This also comes in a vegan mushroom version where the shiitake sauce and fried shallots replace the chicken and curry sauce. Pork Belly Nikuman is cooked just right with plum sauce, pickled cucumbers and negi. The matcha ice cream is a refreshing way to cap off the meal.
Juan del Fuego Mexi Diner (Norman)
Juan’s is one of those places we hate to share because the crowds are already large enough. But this hidden gem is a go-to for breakfast and lunch comfort food. The family affair came to be when patriarch Juan — seen in the background working his magic in his floor show on an earlier episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” — decided to go it on his own after leaving Norman’s century-old Diner. He took the opportunity to add some of his own Mexican favorites to the traditional American menu. The end result is rib-sticking favorites like pork tamales and eggs covered by any of the house-made sauces and served along with the signature fuego fries. The food here is made in-house from scratch, including the sausage patties, fluffy pancakes and specials such as the South of the Border Eggs Benedict. Pro tip: Try the chorito or the Santa Fe papas. Or anything else, really. You can’t go wrong.
Cheever’s, Oklahoma City
Libby’s Cafe, Goldsby
Big Truck Tacos, Oklahoma City
Ken’s Steak and Ribs, Amber
Coney Island, Oklahoma City
Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse, Oklahoma City
Panang 5 Thai, Edmond
Sid’s Diner, El Reno