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Psst: Oklahoma City is a Sleeper Hit for Foodies

Gone are the days when chicken-fried steak and mechanical bulls were stereotypical fodder for Oklahoma City. Nowadays, chic cocktail bars, a thriving neighborhood culture, and restaurants blending history with modernity are all putting Oklahoma’s capital city on the map in a new way.

More so than most states in the middle of the U.S., Oklahoma all too frequently gets lumped into the “flyover country” category, which is a real shame for those who don’t know what they’re missing. Compared to most other American destinations, Oklahoma has an almost mythical lore to it, shrouded in cliched imagery of tornadoes, steaks, and cowboy hats. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that after spending a week or so in Oklahoma City, the only version of any of those things you’re likely to encounter is a life-changing filet at one of the city’s many chef-driven restaurants.

More likely, though, you’ll discover a mini metropolis on-the-rise. It’s a place booming with culture and history, characteristic neighborhoods, swanky bars, and an impressive food scene that runs the gamut from Guatemalan brunch to German beer halls.

Photo courtesy of The Jones Assembly/Facebook

Best of the Bars
One of the most exciting and unexpected aspects of Oklahoma City’s restaurant and bar scene these days is its innovative drinks. Cocktails, craft beer, and natural wine lists are dominating right now, and nowhere is that clearer than Arts District stunner Bar Arbolada. The sleek concept, awash in sunny, desert-inspired hues, comes courtesy of Dustin Lancaster, an esteemed restaurateur who presides over an empire of establishments in Los Angeles. For his latest venture, he returned to his hometown with Riley Marshall. There’s an abbreviated beer list focused on local brews, some esoteric natural wines, and a thoughtful food menu featuring snacks like ham and cheese toast with quince, or deep-fried stuffed pork chops. But the cocktails are the stars, as evidenced by stunners like the Elysian Cure, a tart and quenching medley of Scotch, rum, passion fruit, and shaved cacao, or the fizzy and fruity Laveta & Lee, which blends vodka, cantaloupe, lemon, and La Croix.

In nearby Film Row, a historic neighborhood experiencing a cultural renaissance of its own, The Jones Assembly is a dazzling feature. The sprawling venue, which spans two floors, a massive main bar, and various indoor and outdoor lounges, boasts an eye-popping motif with soaring ceilings, lush planters, bulb lights, contemporary chairs, and funky pillows. The food menu is alluring on its own, with options like Thai chile-glazed octopus and crispy salmon with sweet potato polenta, but those drinks once again prove that Oklahoma City’s bar scene is on par with anything happening in larger metropolises. Look for inventive—and beautiful—originals like the fragrant and spicy Collusion, with espresso-infused Russian Standard vodka (get it?), Grind Espresso Shot Rum, Gosling’s Rum, a bitter Italian digestif called Ramazzotti, housemade horchata, cardamom syrup, and black pepper. Dagwell Dixie is another fun one, highlighting the area’s pecan crops with roasted pecan-infused George Dickel Rye, Laird’s Applejack, simple syrup, and two kinds of bitters.

The Jones Assembly/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Aside from the swanky cocktail bars popping up like wildflowers, Oklahoma City is increasingly becoming known for its array of beer halls and outdoorsy venues anchored by food trucks, fire pits, and giant Jenga. The Bleu Garten is a prime example. Billed as the city’s original food truck park, the vast Midtown complex draws inspiration from German beer halls for its layout and offerings, with two bars and a slew of picnic tables and patio games. Cocktails and beer are available, while patrons can hit up any of the food trucks parked on-site for a snack or sandwich.

Speaking of German beer halls, Fassler Hall is the quintessential rendition. Another enormous Midtown mecca, the crowd-pleaser features an array of German beers and food in a warehouse-like space lined with group-friendly tables, a long bar, and ample outdoor seating. Sausages, sauerkraut, pretzels, hefeweizens, and dunkels are all popular fodder, especially when they’re served in hulking liter mugs at bargain prices.

Photo courtesy of Fassler Hall/Facebook

Beyond Chicken-Fried Steak
From Guatemalan cuisine to inventive pizza slices, Oklahoma City’s food scene is as diverse as it is delicious.

Start your day with breakfast or brunch at the rightfully popular Cafe Kacao, a no-frills neo-diner with a broad menu of authentic Guatemalan dishes rarely seen north of Latin America. From tikal (eggs with grilled flank steak and longaniza) to mosh (Guatemalan-style oatmeal stewed with three types of meal), the menu is filled with unique selections. The machaca is a fan favorite: scrambled eggs mixed with lime-braised shredded beef, tomatoes, onions, jalapeño, and cilantro, with black beans, potatoes, and flour tortillas on the side.

Photo courtesy of Empire Slice House/Facebook

One of the hippest haunts in the impossibly hip, boutique-lined Plaza District is Empire Slice House. The garage-like eatery draws a hungry crowd from the moment it opens its doors for lunch, straight through to last pizza call. And for good reason. People clamor over the giant meatballs, buttery garlic knots, and the thin-crust pizzas, available in classic flavors or more inventive options like the “Joezilla” with barbecue-Sriracha drizzle, feta, roasted chicken, red bell peppers, and barbecue marinara; or the “Ghostface Killah,” a fiery smattering of ghost chile marinara, pepperoni, poblano, and crunchy barbecue chips. Wash it all down with any of the bar’s myriad beers, several of which hail from local breweries like COOP Ale Works, Roughtail Brewing Co., and Anthem Brewing Company.

Photo courtesy of Pie Junkie/Facebook

While we’re on the subject of pie and the Plaza District, just down the street from Empire is one of the best pie shops in the country. Pie Junkie is as colorful and crafty as it is homey and comforting, toeing the line between Americana nostalgia and whimsical ingenuity. The pint-sized shop peddles slices and whole pies in classic flavors like apple, pumpkin, coconut cream, and cherry, but don’t overlook the unique originals, like red velvet cream, Thin Mint, or Birthday Pie, a quirky novelty of confetti cake batter mousse layered over vanilla wafer and sprinkle crust, topped with whipped cream and more sprinkles. The Bird Dog Buttermilk is a signature as well, a traditional silky-sweet buttermilk pie spiked with Bird Dog Blackberry Whiskey.

Oklahoma City’s also got a thriving Mexican community, exemplified by its surplus of top-tier taquerias and upscale Mexican restaurants alike. Cultivar Mexican Kitchen falls somewhere in between the two, offering tacos, tostadas, and burritos in a fast-casual format, while sourcing ingredients locally and sustainably. They even go to great lengths to source hominy from southern Mexico to ensure the utmost quality when grinding their own masa in-house and pressing their own tortillas. They provide the perfect foundation for tacos like crispy catfish with tomatillo tartar sauce, green cabbage, and salsa verde; grass-fed beef barbacoa with Brussels sprouts slaw, spicy tajin nuts, and cumin-lime aïoli; and herb-roasted mushrooms with arugula, red onions, and goat cheese crema. For a fast-casual restaurant, Cultivar features an impressively full-fledged bar program, including craft beer and cocktails that go well beyond the call of margarita duty with options like agave Old Fashioneds.

OSO tacos/Photo by Matt Kirouac

In the Paseo District, an artsy haven with an architectural motif reminiscent of Santa Fe, OSO is an apt example of Oklahoma City’s modern Mexican stylings. The space is sleek and effortfully stylish, allowing the food to shine. And shine it does, with shareable snacks like street corn with chipotle crema and ahi tuna tostadas with poké dressing preceding creative tacos and burritos like sweet potato tacos, cheeseburger tacos, and “left coast” burritos filled with grilled shrimp, skirt steak, queso, and tater tots.

If you’ve got wheels, a trip to Okarche is well worth the drive for some of the best fried chicken in the state, with a side of Oklahoma lore. About 45 minutes from the city, the small town looks like classic Oklahoma; the type of sleepy, timeworn hamlet where you half expect a twister to come blowing through, Helen Hunt hot on its heels. Instead, folks come from near and far to gorge on platters of succulent fried chicken at Eischen’s Bar, the oldest bar in the state, with history as a saloon dating back to before Oklahoma was even part of the Union. Nowadays, the rustic haunt still looks like the ultimate all-American watering hole, complete with cheap beer, chili, nachos, fried okra, and whole fried chickens for just $14.

Photo courtesy of Cattlemen’s Steakhouse/Facebook

For other old-school options, Oklahoma City is home to plenty of home-grown staples that transcend generations and trends. Chief among these offerings is Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. Located in the historic Stockyards City area of the city, it’s the oldest continuously operating restaurant in town, originally opened in 1910 as Cattlemen’s Cafe, and its enduring popularity becomes clear with the restaurant’s welcoming hospitality and food menu highlighting the state’s abundance of top-tier beef. Today, diners fill the storied dining rooms to clamor over delicacies like T-bone steaks, filet mignon, and chicken-fried steak swimming in cream gravy. Non-beef highlights include broiled salmon, fried catfish, ham steaks with red-eye gravy, and lamb fries, a Cattlemen’s signature that is not for the faint of hear (hint: they’re fried lamb testicles).

Photo courtesy of Tucker’s Onion Burgers/Facebook

Then there’s the onion burger, one of the most underrated burger offerings in the crowded canon of American classics. While suburban El Reno is said to be the birthplace of this local fixture, at a restaurant called Sid’s, the dish has become a regional staple solidifying the city’s dexterous prowess with all things beef. For some context, the onion burger emerged in the 1920s when restaurants relied on onions as a way to help maximize their beef usage on menus, by flattening ground beef patties and smooshing them with a heap of finely shredded onions. Much to everyone’s surprise, they wound up tasting delicious to boot; indeed, the concept of a thin, griddled burger studded with crispy onion threads is a no-brainer in all its tasty simplicity. Today, one of the best go-to examples is Tucker’s Onion Burgers, a local mini chain with a focused menu highlighting this Oklahoma delicacy.

From the old to the new and the fried chicken to the espresso-infused vodka, Oklahoma City is the rare breed of city that’s got a knack for both classic and contemporary. It’s a place where culinary traditions carry on strong, all while restaurants and bars progress smartly into the future, enticing new generations of diners, drinkers, and travelers along the way.

Header photo: Courtesy of The Jones Assembly/Facebook

Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.

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