By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
For all who prize the taste of good red meat, an eating tour of Oklahoma City is an adventure in paradise. First stop: an eighty-five year old café in the stockyards district called THE CATTLEMEN’S, where the menu always lists a “blue-ribbon special.” This premium cut—which costs about twenty dollars and comes with salad, potato, and a roll—is as luxurious as anything served on the white-clothed tables of New York City’s Steak Row or in the premier beef houses of Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. Indeed, it is precisely what we plan to ask for when the warden tells us to choose our last meal.
Usually the blue-ribbon special at Cattlemen’s is a sirloin, though on occasion the kitchen gets rib eyes or club steaks that qualify as among the two percent of all beef that is graded “USDA prime” and are also good enough to pass buyer’s muster. The sirloin is magnificent just to see—a boneless, perfectly seared crescent of meat that stands alone on a white crockery plate, surrounded by a puddle of translucent pan juices.
“If y’ all would cut into your steaks,” the waitress says when she sets the plates down, “we’ll see if they’re done just the way you like them.”
To carve the steaks, the restaurant provides each customer a wood-handled serrated knife. The blade eases through the meat’s crust and down into its warm rosy center—medium rare, as we requested. You don’t really need the sharp edge—a butter knife would do the job—but it sure is mouth-watering to feel the keen steel glide through beef that, although tender, has real substance. This is beef with corn-fed character. In contrast, a filet mignon, however sumptuous, seems wan.
Cattlemen’s sirloin provides a supremely hedonistic eating experience. Slow aging amplifies the meat’s tang, and a fast broil over hot charcoal seals in all its vitamins and mineral riches. The result is delirious flavor that flows and flows. Even salt is superfluous. The beefy smack cannot be heightened or improved upon. Juice seeps freely when the sirloin is cut open, and the small puddle of savory liquid grows larger as you eat. Mop a chunk of baked potato in it; drag some crusty gold French fries through it; dip a piece of yeasty dinner roll in this pool of goodness. Who cares that the baked potato is accompanied by bright yellow margarine instead of butter? So what if the dinner salad is little more than iceberg lettuce? When one is in the company of this steak’s greatness, secondary culinary issues dwindle to nothingness.
Other specialties of the house are listed on the dinner menu. One is a lusty mahogany-brown steak soup crowded with vegetables and beef. The other featured item, to which many Oklahomans are addicted, is lamb fries—testicles that are sliced, breaded, and deep-fried. (Gonads are a highly regarded delicacy in much of the West; when young livestock is castrated on the range, it is traditional for cowboys to fry up their harvest at the end of the day.) Cattlemen’s lamb fries are served with cocktail sauce for dipping and half a lemon to squeeze on top, a presentation reminiscent of fried clams along Yankee shores. One evening we were eating lamb fries in the company of locals Jim and Sharron Shoulders. Jim, who became rodeo’s greatest (and still unequaled) champion in the 1950s, and Sharron, an accomplished cook, were complaining about a column we wrote last July in praise of fried clams. They winced at the thought of eating a clam, and wondered how such a civilized magazine could possibly extol the virtues of so frightening a food.
Surrounded by the largest livestock trading center on earth, with its vintage saddleries and cowboy clothing stores, Cattlemen’s is the consummate Western steak house. The original dining area maintains its old lunch counter where brokers, haulers, and buyers come in for steak and eggs starting at 6 A.M. In the South Dining Room, which was added back in the fifties, there are spacious upholstered booths and an immense, illuminated panoramic transparency of a herd of black Angus with two men on horseback watching over them. Curiously, the men are not dressed in buckaroo attire, but wear suits and ties, apparently to distinguish them from common cow-hands who work for wages. These gents are cattle ranchers who can afford a blue-ribbon special.
A carnivore’s tour of Oklahoma City necessarily includes barbecue. The longtime leader of the field is LEO’S FAMILY BAR-B-CUE; and although Leo himself passed away in 1994, his family continues to serve splendid slow-smoked beef as well as “super special cake”—a homey frosted yellow layer cake made with strawberries, bananas, and pineapple. The restaurant’s beef is hacked coarse so that every portion of it contains some outside chunks with crunchy blackened edges and others that are velvet-soft and dripping natural juice. Leo’s hot sauce is dark and devilish with a vinegar punch—good not only on the meat but on the small, buttery baked-potato half that accompanies all sandwiches and meals. The menu also lists pork ribs, hot links, and a locally favored treat, bologna. Before you dismiss barbecued bologna as a smokehouse aberration, you need to try it here. This is not bubblegum—colored supermarket lunch meat; it is a thick-sliced, dark-pink slab with wicked zest—dense and powerfully smoky.
Oklahoma City is probably the most hamburger-savvy place in the nation. The onion burger was perfected here (a round of ground beef is squashed on the grill along with a handful of sliced red onions so the two ingredients sizzle in tandem); and there are dozens of drive-ins, restaurants, and taverns known for novel burger variations. When we write our magnum opus on the subject, we’ll enumerate them all, but for now we’ll tell you our favorite: the Caesarburger. As served at the SPLIT-T, a sports bar with TVs in the upper corners of each room, it is a broad patty on a big bun with a full inch of sopping Caesar-dressed stuff piled inside. The condiment is a sort of cross between salad and sauce, and the combination of this zesty cool garnish and hot beef is inspired. The burger comes wrapped in paper, but copious spillage is inevitable.
You can also get a good hamburger at the CLASSEN GRILL—charcoaled and with a choice of twelve different toppings, from green chili sauce to marinara; and you can even get a garden burger—meatless!—made of grains, vegetables, and cheese. The burgers, as well as the steaks and debonair grilled fish, are not the main reasons people flock to this hip little café, though. Classen owner-chef Tupper Patnode is famous for his breakfasts. Start the day with taquitos (tortilla-wrapped packets of eggs, cheese, and vegetables) or Chinook eggs (salmon patties topped with poached eggs) accompanied by a block of lush cheese grits. Insatiable appetites go for “biscuits debris”—two big ones split open and mounded with gravy chock-a-block with sausage chunks and ham and cloaked with melted Cheddar. On the side you get either home fries or Classen potatoes, which are mashed, seasoned with garlic and rolled into little balls, then deep-fried until brittle gold on the outside. The result is a kind of prairie knish. When Oklahomans choose to take a break from their city’s beefy machismo, they repair to the chic METRO WINE BAR AND BISTRO, in the northwest part of town, where the walls are decorated with posters of French wine labels and the tables are covered with thick linen and butcher paper. Even here, there’s good meat: smoked tenderloin hors d’oeuvres, grilled fillets stuffed with mushrooms and shallots, a Roquefort burger with pommes frites or lacy fried onions. But the real lure (aside from a list of twenty-five wines by the glass and an inventory of infused vodkas from cilantro-serrano to vanilla bean) consists of urbane creations such as acorn-squash cakes with orange-glazed shrimp and scallops. The seasonal menu is redesigned every two months; last year at this time it featured roast quail salad, braised tilapia with herbs, and a feuillete dessert constructed to hold wine-macerated spring berries. Year-round, there is one dessert we can never resist: bread pudding with bourbon sauce. “I don’t drink bourbon,” revealed our waitress when she brought us a serving of this dark, cinnamon-scented treasure in its liquory pool. “But I sure like to eat it! ”
The Metro Wine Bar and Bistro