By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
You wouldn’t expect to eat well out by the Tulsa airport in a building surrounded by light industry and warehouses. And nothing about the appearance of White River Fish Market will raise your hopes. Outside, it looks like a hardware store in a strip mall; inside, there is no printed menu—just a posted list of items on the wall above the counter where customers stand in line to place their orders. Meals come at fast-food pace to Formica tables, some of which are private, some communal. The brightly lit dining room, occupied by blue collars and Oxford shirts and blacks and whites and Native Americans, sounds like a rowdy factory mess hall. But for all its indecorous democracy, this improbable outpost serves the most elegant fish in the city, maybe the best in the state. We know that’s a funny assertion given that Oklahoma is the heart of the beef belt and has no reputation for seafood other than the great all-you-can-eat meals at McGehee’s Catfish, overlooking the Red River in Marietta. But you’ll have a hard time naming a place in Charleston, South Carolina, or Mobile, Alabama, with as wide a variety of beautiful fish so perfectly prepared.
What’s especially wonderful about eating here is that you get to choose exactly what you will eat. Just inside the front door is a long glass case with trays of raw sea scallops from Boston, catfish from Louisiana, rainbow trout from Idaho, red snapper, frogs’ legs, colossal shrimp and popcorn shrimp, salmon steaks, tilapia, orange roughy, perch, and whole Gulf Coast flounder. Select what you want and tell the server your preferred cooking method. If you want it fried, the piece or pieces are immediately dipped into salted cracker meal; if it is to be broiled, your choice is put directly onto a broiling tray. The ready-to-cook order is then handed through a large pass-through to the kitchen. Meanwhile, you pay and find a seat. The servers make a mental note of where you’ve gone, and by the time you’re settled, the meal is being carried from the kitchen, trailing wisps of savory steam. The procedure has evolved since the early days of White River Fish Market, when the house motto was “You pick ’em, we fix ’em.” Customers handed their chosen fish to the cook, and he weighed it and charged accordingly. He then fried it right behind the counter in a Frialator filled with lard.
“It’s more sanitary to have one person handle money and another cook the food,” says proprietor Garry Cozby, who bought the restaurant in 1981 from founder Oran Fallis. Cozby also says that lard is a frying medium of the past. The kitchen remains remarkably small and uncomplicated. Everything is either deep-fried, broiled, or grilled. A house spice mix is sprinkled on the fish, but there are no complicated preparations.
It doesn’t take much prompting to get Cozby to tell us how the business began. “In 1932, Oran and his father were delivering produce from Oklahoma farms to stores in Arkansas. Somebody down there said, ’You’re going back with an empty truck?’ So they carried some fish from the White River and sold it by the side of the road.” The Fallises then rented a building downtown and opened what was for many years the state’s only fresh-fish wholesaler, supplied almost totally by regional anglers. When Oran returned from World War II, he put in a lunch counter and started frying. “In the mid-sixties,” Cozby says, “urban renewal moved him out of that spot and he came to this location and put in tables and chairs.”
We’ve never been disappointed stopping at White River Fish Market when traveling along old Route 66 between St. Louis and Oklahoma City. We especially love the moist, rich white meat of the broiled red snapper. Fried shrimp, oysters, and scallops are crunchy-crusted and crack open to vent perfume as ocean-sweet as any to be found in restaurants on either coast. The frail hoops of fried onion are excellent, and buttermilk pie, made from a recipe Cozby’s aunt found on a Borden buttermilk carton in 1953, is creamy southern comfort.
The dish at the top of our must-eat list, though, is broiled flounder. It is one fish, weighing over a pound. Its flesh is scored in a diamond pattern, making the display of several raw flounder on ice in the glass case resemble a shimmering jewel box. When broiled the flesh firms up and contracts so it forms a pattern of bite-size diamonds of meat arrayed neatly atop the skeleton. Each juicy nugget you lift—using the gentlest upward pressure of a fork slid underneath it—has a delicacy that disallows any fancying up. Cozby says that when Hurricane Katrina wiped out his flounder supply for three months, he got fussed at endlessly by loyal flounder fans, some of whom jokingly hinted that it was all his fault. Regulars know that Cozby won’t eat flounder or any other seafood. Incredibly, he is a lifelong fish-frowner.
While he never changed the water-to-kitchen-to-table efficiency of the operation started by the Fallis family, Cozby did add an item he discovered in his early travels along the Gulf Coast as a wholesale seafood salesman: gumbo. “I’m originally from central Texas,” he says. “That’s as far from gumbo as you can get. I learned to make a real roux, took out the fish, and put in chicken.” We sampled some in the company of our friend and Cajun food adviser, Many McNeil, a native of Sulphur, Louisiana, who claims that his mother, an umpteenth-generation Guidry, put gumbo rather than formula in his bottles when he was a baby. We liked the gumbo; it made the tongue tingle, was thick with okra, and had a dark, smoky character unlike any ordinary soup or stew. When Cozby came to our table wanting to know what a native Louisianan thought of it, McNeil politely responded, “It’s okay gumbo.”
Cozby recognized the pan. “We don’t use fish heads and turtle feet like you all,” he said with a grin. “But we do stir that roux for three hours.” McNeil leaned back at the lunch table and wistfully recalled his mother at the stove endlessly stirring her roux, and while he never did relent on his declaration that this restaurant gumbo is not up to Mama’s family’s standards, he finished every drop in his bowl before laying waste to a large plate of fried catfish and sweet-cornmeal hush puppies.