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If anything, I wasn't put off by Oklahoma's gun culture, big trucks, or the cowboy regalia, which are at  odds with everything New York. My father was an aficionado of all of those trappings, NRA stickers were a window presence on our family's pick-up growing up, and a pair of custom-made shark skin boots lived in my parents' closet, and yes, a gun or two were tucked into dresser drawers.

Tarahumara's freebie starters

At Tarahumara's, and most Oklahoman Mexican restaurants, chips, flour tortillas, salsa, and queso appear as a matter of course, and are replenished as soon as they start to dwindle.  Even though I knew an onslaught of food was on its way, I couldn't stop eating the fluffy tortillas and pale, melted cheddar (not Velveeta, as I would've presumed).

Tarahumara's mexican combo

Tarahumara's chicken taco

Combo platters rule. My Mexican dinner (only $12, hardly anything crept into the double digits) consisted of two tamales (I hate to admit that I have no idea what the filling was–there was so much going on–though I want to say beef), a cheese enchilada, rice, beans, and a hard-shelled chicken taco with guacamole and sour cream. When James' coworkers (my visit was a business trip tag-along) complain about no Mexican food in NYC they mean no giant platters like this. It's true.  The melted cheese, masa, corn tortillas, and chili start blurring together, but it's a delicious mess.

Tarahumara's mixed grill

And a mixed grill, which is fajitas of all fillings (beef, chicken, and shrimp) like a Mexican happy family, with even  a few potato slices thrown in for good measure.

Tarahumara's drinks

I don't know if the long wait was typical or if it was more a case of a Mother's Day Sunday rush, but you can hang out on the patio with a giant margarita or a lime juice-and-salt-rimmed Negro Modelo.

Tarahumara's * 702 N. Porter Ave., Norman, Oklahoma

Sid’s Diner

If I had been in El Reno just one Saturday earlier, I may have witnessed the world's largest fried onion burger. But being a regular Saturday, the small town 30 miles west of Oklahoma City, was pretty sleepy with the exception of Sid's (I did not check out the names in the game, Johnnie's or Robert's). Yes, you can also find fried onion burgers in the state capital, but why not go to the source?

El reno streets

What seemed like a main drag was a ghost town with nothing open except an office supply-type store.

Beau brumel barber shop

Beau Brummel was also shut up tight. At least I could admire its signage in peace.

Sid's counter

El Reno lays claim to the fried onion burger, a meat-stretching, depression-era treat that presses and grills a shitton of onions (half a whole onion, I've read) onto a thin patty, creating one caramelized entity.

  Sid's fried onion burger

Adorned with little more than pickle slices and heavy squirts of mustard, the sandwich is only lightly beefy with onion sweetness and the tart condiments in the foreground. I prefer my austerity-measure food in this fashion–I've never grown to love oatmeal-riddled, ketchup-slathered meatloaf. Size-wise, the burger harkens back to fast food of yore. It won't weigh you down. That's what the too-thick-for straws milkshakes are for (not pictured).

Sid's exterior

Sid's Diner * 300 South Choctaw Ave., El Reno, OK

Junior’s Supperclub

Junior's whiskey sour

I thought Spain was the last hold-out and even that nicotine-riddled dream was quashed on my visit around this time last year. Holy moly, smoking is alive and well in bars (well, some–I don't fully understand the rules) in Oklahoma. As a member of that wretched class, the social smoker, I very much enjoy the rare moments in life when I can indulge (I hate words like sinful and indulgent in relation to food, but it truly feels that way with cigarettes) in a indoor cigarette with an alcoholic beverage.

Junior's in the oil center

And if you're going to do it anywhere in Oklahoma, it should be at Junior's Supperclub, a dark, smoky subterranean lounge that goes one step further by being in such a wackadoo location. It is in the basement of a towering office complex called the Oil Center, along the expressway that also housed our hotel, with a Hooters and Sonic providing the padding in-between.

Door to junior's

Would you guess there was a piano bar and restaurant behind this door?

Junior's bar

We secured the last two plush chairs (it's not a standing type of venue and a hostess will seat you) at the far end of bar, just out of sight of the live performance (Michael Jackson covers sung by a woman wearing and playing a washboard bathed in the blue and pink lights, out of camera-shot) and abutting a large multi-generation party of the type I'm not familiar with personally but I imagine are  fixtures in lesser, maybe more southern cities around the country: very white yet tan, seemingly wealthy, preppier than the setting calls for, and used to being accommodated.

Two young men spilling over from their tables into my comfort zone shouted, "barkeep!"  and while I snickered at the antiquated term (and mentally shot daggers to keep their chairs from wheeling into mine) it got immediate service and cigars from the bar top humidor. Then again, no hipsters. One must pick their battles.

I only regret not having sufficient time to return.  They don't make them like this in NYC, and it makes me sadder for the demise of Bill's Gay Nineties, the closest facsmilie, which wasn't really that close at all the more I think about it.

Junior's Supperclub * 2601 NW Expressway, Oklahoma City, OK

Chuck House

I have heard Oklahoman tales of chicken-fried steak, or just chicken fry in local parlance, that spans an entire plate and then some. This was not the case at Chuck House, though you still got a lot of food for your $5.69: witness the pounded beef cutlet, mashed potatoes, and Texas toast buried in a velvety blanket of cream gravy white and speckled like vanilla ice cream. A meat sundae.

Chuck house chicken fried steak

We were nearly the only ones not partaking in the salad bar; that was the prime source of towering feats of plate-filling whimsy, heavy on the shredded cheddar and ranch dressing. I was more taken with the ordering system that has diners call to the front counter to place your order (some get very specific: "extra mayonnaise," "fries well-done, not salted") within eyeshot of the staffer speaking and noting your request.

Chuck house call & order

When it's ready, your phone rings and you retrieve it on a plastic tray from the front counter. Driving-thru is also a respectable way to pick up an order, though that probably precludes the popular salad bar.

Chuck house exterior

Chuck House * 4430 NW 10th St., Oklahoma City, OK

From Tortas to Chicken-Fried Steak

The first time I went to Chicago Mo Rocca sat directly in front of me on the plane.

Mo rocca's head

On my recent visit to Oklahoma City I was routed through Chicago, and once again trailed Mo Rocca. While still at La Guardia I spied his location via a flirtatious Rick Bayless retweet.


Tortas fronteraSoon enough, I, too, had a torta (choriqueso) for the road. Tortas Frontera is a great idea at O'Hare. It's too bad my plane was already boarding when I arrived for my return flight–even though the restaurant was right next the gate, it takes a chunk of time (15 minutes for the original sandwich) for the food to get made because there's usually a line and everything's prepped on demand. Actually, I ran over (I'm one of those freaks who pays to check my bag, so I don't need to rush the gate to snag precious storage bin space) in search of anything readymade and was able to score a poblano chile and Chihuahua cheese mollete boxed up rapido. They call them open-faced sandwiches.  I've always thought of them as Mexican French bread pizzas.


Even McDonald's in Mexico has a version.

I have the suspicion that no one's clamoring for a slew of posts on Oklahoma City dining unless you greatly enjoy variations on meat and potatoes: steak and baked potato, chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes, and ribs and fries–there were even potatoes in the Okla-Mex fajitas.  It's not one of those regions that may be third-tier but still has plenty of food lore, like say, Charlotte and environs, with North Carolinian barbecue culture as a backdrop. (Chowhound had  almost nothing in the way of OKC advice and Serious Eats had no more than a mention or two. The craziest thing I read about online but didn't have a chance to check out was a weekend-only honey-dipped fried chicken truck in the "bad" part of town that a pair of local, Native American, dwarf, Christian rappers had written a song about.) But here are some photos untill those posts arrive, like them or not.

McMollete photo via Brand Eating where there is currently a must-see series on all of the Mc items at McDonald's around the world.


Sonic in view of motel

No,  despite the frequent commercials taunting Sonic-free New Yorkers, the food isn't anything special. But when you're on the chain's home turf (founded in Shawnee, OK in 1953) you must pull-in to one of the many beckoning parking lots for at least a little something.

Country inn & suites
A Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster Sandwich (a Texas toast cheeseburger topped with squishy onion rings) and a Hey Batter Blast (that would be cookie dough and brownie bits in a Styrofoam, the to-go material of choice in the South and Midwest, cup of vanilla ice cream) were enjoyed in view of my hotel (or is that a motel?) the new-to-me brand, Hotwire-win (only $68 a night) Country Inn & Suites, owned by Carlson, the same as T.G.I. Friday's and the "upper midscale" chain, Park Plaza, I've booked for Bangkok this summer.

I love this country

I'd already eaten in a car and been greeted by the slogan, "I love this Country" within an hour of touching down at Will Rogers Airport.

Seasons 52

Seasons 52, Darden’s upscale, ostensibly healthy chain would be an ideal candidate for The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County, New Jersey treatment…but that will have to wait until 2013 when the state of New Jersey receives its first branch in Edison.  Instead, I visited the closest location to NYC, at the King of Prussia mall just three miles from the Valley Forge Radisson with a 15th floor dedicated to fantasy suites, of which one, The Star Gazer, was a setting in Blue Valentine.

Seasons 52 exterior

If you stripped away the burgundy arch and oversized lanterns near the entrance, and swapped some wood for metal, Seasons 52's facade isn't radically different in style from Elements, the foodie destination restaurant in Princeton. (Also,  I think that I could be one-half of that couple, if I were ten years older and took a very slightly different path in life–one that involved marrying a man who wears light denim.)


Not a chain restaurant.

 A Saturday at 7pm demanded a one-and-half-hour wait, though the first-come seat-yourself lounge had a spacious booth wide open up for grabs. And it took a few seconds to register that, not only was that not the Sade version of “Smooth Operator,” filling the packed room, but that it was being belted out just a few feet away by a young-yet-mature blonde woman sitting at a piano inside of the ovoid bar.

Ok, live music, a roaring fire, chunky mid-century stone, and metal cocktail shakers placed in front of a good number of patrons? Classy.

And on-trend with a seasonal menu with specials that change weekly (hence the name, duh) and no dish with more than 475 calories. Playing up the mainstreaming interest in food-sourcing  with a nod to portion control is not a common combination in the chain food world. And clearly, it's striking a chord with suburbanites based on the crowds.

Seasons 52 martini
The cocktails (yes, wine is their focus, not spirits) still read very middle-American, i.e. a list of typically fruity and sweet "martinis." Of course, that shouldn't stop anyone from just ordering a simple stiff drink if that's what they want. I did.

Seasons 52 flatbread

Flatbreads are like crackery pizzas; taking out the chew and the squish is one way to slash calories. This was a special with goat cheese, artichoke hearts, and caramelized onions, an ok enough snack. I would've liked some Kalamata olives on this, but with the cheese that would certainly break the 475-calorie-limit. Frankly, I wasn't hungry after an afternoon of cheesesteak and Italian sandiwch sampling–I just wanted a drink and something light.

Seasons 52 columbia river steelhead trout wtih couscous

The Columbia River steelhead trout atop arugula, chopped vegetables, shrimp, and couscous isn't the type of thing I normally order at restaurants, well, because it read as very healthy, but completely pleasant. The fish was still moist (yes, I know everyone hates that word), the cilantro-spiked yogurt sauce was a fine addition, and the grilled lemon added a little visual interest as well as more acid.

I was told by our server that this dish "doesn't taste like trout," despite showing no skepticism of that poor fish. “It tastes more like salmon,” I was further reassured. Clearly, people in King of Prussia hate trout, though I probably wouldn't bring up my trout defense with a group of diners unless prompted.  It almost made me want to complain about the trout being too fishy after ordering it, just to get a reaction.

Seasons 52 cedar plank roasted salmon
Of course you could just order salmon.

The food had a familiar quality to me, and James pegged it: "It's like Cooking Light recipes." Sure enough, the petite lean proteins bulked up with vegetables, yogurt mimicking cream sauces, juices adding flavor instead of fats, did resemble our not terribly exciting (though not bad tasting) weeknight dinners.

And there's the rub. I do tend to make lighter food during the week to balance out more decadent meals out, maybe one weeknight and over the weekend (I wish I was one of those bloggers who eats out every night of the week, but my health can't afford it even if my finances could) and when I do go out to restaurants I don't necessarily want to continue my dietary austerity. But I do love the novelty in this franchised form and it makes sense for these higher-income pockets of the suburbs. It wouldn't as well in a bigger city where eating healthy is less of a struggle, heirloom vegetables and heritage meat are in abundance, and plates rarely come piled with enough food for multiple meals. It's not as if Seasons 52 could compete with ABC Kitchen.

Maggiano's looks like a mansion

There's also a Maggiano's (on my to-try list–it's a fancier Olive Garden, right?) that looks like a mansion in the parking lot. Also, why is Maggiano’s always near a Crate & Barrel?

Seasons 52 * King of Prussia Mall, 160 N Gulph Rd., King of Prussia, PA

One of These Restaurants Is Not Like the Other


I wonder if people call 30 days ahead for Fadó reservations?

Chart via Compete

Mugaritz vs. Marshalls: A Salt Showdown

Sea salts

Food 52 (which I always want to call Seasons 52) recently wrote about “10 Salts to Know.” It reminded me of the eight barely known to me salts I wrestled up from various shelves and cupboards a while ago to assess. The massive plastic shaker of Trader Joe’s sea salt is the only one I paid money for. Frankly, I don’t recall how most of these specimens found their way into my apartment at all.

Palates, palates, always something to be praised on Top Chef and even Hell’s Kitchen. I’m not convinced I have much of one. I know which flavors I enjoy and dislike (sweet, powerfully fiery, shrimpy nam priks vs. cloying, dirty, perfumey melons) but subtleties can be lost on me.

Dueling salts

So, the best head-to-head taste test would have to pit the most haute with the lowest-brow of contenders. That would be Añananko Gatza from the Añana Salt Valley in the Basque county, a parting gift from Mugaritz, the third best restaurant in the world, and the $3.99 glass jar of Pepper Creek Farms Mayan sea salt from Marshalls, a Christmas gift from James’s mother (to him–she doesn’t buy me strip mall presents. I wonder if she’s aware of Home Goods, the offshoot devoted to all the balsamic vinegars, bath salts, and Keith Haring-themed cleaning supplies falling off the shelves at Marshalls?).

Originally, I thought I’d give the two salts a go on vegetables. I put together a haphazard salad using produce on its last legs: wrinkled grape tomatoes, browning mint, squishy cucumbers and  half a jalapeno. Bad idea. (Also a bad idea: doing a salt taste test the night before going to see a specialist about my blood pressure that doesn’t respond to medication.) The chile dominated everything and rendered the salt practically unnoticeable. I added in a can of chickpeas try and temper the heat and gave up on distinguishing the sources of saline.

Meat seemed like a better vehicle, so on to the Wegmans flank steak. After all, the label on the Pepper Creek Farms’ bottle said it was good on the “finest beef tenderloin” (and margarita glass rims).

Salted meat

Though not that clear from my so-so photo, the textures are what set the two apart most obviously. The fine, snowball powdery Marshall’s salt (on the right) disappeared immediately. After the first few bites, which produced an initial salt blast, I was left with meat juices and salty water. The jagged Mugaritz salt crystals remained distinct, and added not just crunch but a savory quality that made the meat meatier.

It wasn’t exactly a contest to compare extremes. What I could barely tell apart was the Mugaritz salt and the La Paludier Fleur de Sel de Guerande (with a $8.75 price tag) that that I normally use to finish dishes that could use a boost.  The two were more or less on par with the fleur de sel coming across slightly less salty.

I don’t know what the Añananko Gatza  salt costs; obviously it wasn’t free when you account for airfare to San Sebastian and the cost of a meal at Mugaritz. I would say you could save a few hundred euros and no one would know the difference. I’ll  keep the Basque salt as a souvenir until I know I can replace it easily, and stick with the widely available French sea salt I was already using. The Marshall’s salt? A perfect candidate for re-gifting.


Anything and Everything

RanchKraft made Cooking Cremes a reality, and if the company can get moms to put cream cheese in tacos and spaghetti why not invent more use cases for salad dressing? The new campaign is called "Anything Dressing," and their Facebook page has videos demonstrating a Balsamic Beef Dipped sandwich and  Cheese Stuffed Chicken drizzled with roasted red pepper vinaigrette, among others.

In college, I discovered the genius of pepperoni pizza with blue cheese dressing, so I'm not against the practice in theory.

It's also no shock that Ranch is the most popular salad dressing. Hidden Valley, too, is on the versatility bandwagon. Their initiative is called "Hidden Valley for Everything" and they are making a thicker Ranch for dipping and creating a Ranch Salsa for the same purpose. One would imagine that Ranch hummus is just on the horizon. (And indeed, folks who go by monikers like Vegan Dad, Handicapped Chef, and Food Bitch, have all gone there.)

We just got a similar story about French's mustard that produced this gem: “When you’re trying to reframe the way you think about mustard, you have to play with all the semiotics.” That translates to Edamame-Avocado Dip and Shredded Pork Tacos with Spicy Mustard Salsa.

What other condiment is ripe for repurposing? I'm still traumatized by the kid in middle school who brought mayonnaise cookies.  Then again, that's no Hellman's Molten Chocolate Lava Cake.