The spice of life
Tulsa has become a smorgasboard of cultures and ethnicities. Here, we offer a guide to the myriad ways to eat, meet and enjoy.
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How much of a worldview can you actually get living in Tulsa? For those willing to venture beyond their neighborhood boundaries, to open their pantries to new foods, to expose their taste buds to new sensations and to take part in activities outside the usual, Tulsa has plenty to offer. You just have to know where to look. And the more you explore, the more you’ll learn that people of different backgrounds are eager to share information about their cultures and to invite others to experience their customs.
Many members of Tulsa’s Asian community have roots beyond the borders of China and Japan. One of the oldest local groups of Asian descent in Tulsa is Vietnamese, having come here following the Vietnam War, while some of the newest refugees fled Burma/Myanmar and Malaysia to escape religious persecution. Tulsa is host to a growing Hmong population, too, arriving from the mountainous regions of Laos.
Tulsa’s Asian restaurants go beyond the typical Chinese buffets and Japanese knife-wielding chefs at your table.
At Korean Garden (12773 E. 41st St.), diners choose yook-gae-jang (soup with spicy beef strips), L.A. kalbi (prime short ribs) and ohsam bul-go-gi (spicy marinated calamari and pork).
If you can find Ichiban Teryaki Japanese at 7982 E. 41st St. (there’s no sign, windows are papered over and the hours and days they’re open vary), you’ll enjoy the beef and chicken combo, miso soup and sashimi.
Routinely voted Tulsa’s best Thai restaurant, Lanna Thai (7227 S. Memorial Drive) offers such faves as tom kha gai (tart and spicy chicken soup) and Yum Yum salad. Binh-Le Vietnamese (5903 E. 31st St.) is known for its bun cha gio, but spring rolls and peanut sauce are also favorites.
Asahi (7831 E. 71st St.) claims to have the “Best Sushi with the Lowest Price,” but it takes a group of four to tackle the Titanic Special, which includes lots of sushi rolls, soup, edamame and tako salad (that’s no misspelling — here, “tako” means “octopus”).
You’re sure to see people of Asian ethnicities and other cultures grocery shopping at Nam Hai Oriental Food Market (1924 S. Garnett Road).
Ducks hang on hooks near the entry, right by the mooncakes — pastries made for the moon holiday. But the big draws are the well-stocked produce department and fish market. Expect to find whole rabbitfish, mackerel, milkfish, bonito, smelts, belt fish and grouper. The lobster, tilapia and catfish are so fresh, they’re swimming in the tanks.
Rice and noodles fill one whole aisle, and there are plenty of Asian spices. This “super” market is also part department store, with jewelry, bamboo stalks, chopsticks, clothing, party decorations, kimonos, steamers and incense.
Top sellers at the Asian Mart (12919 E. 31st St.) are (No. 1) rice, either sweet, jasmine or brown; (No. 2) produce, including watercress, baby dill, ngo gai (cilantro), lemongrass, banana leaves, fresh mint, yellow ginger, bok choy, dragon fruit and aloe leaves; and (No. 3) shrimp. Plenty of choices at the fish case, too: pompano, Argentine squid, milkfish and tuna. Great supply of woks, industrial-size steamers and rice cookers, too.
The Korean Oriental Food and Gift Market (12771 E. 41st St.) stocks a selection of rice and noodles, plus red ginseng energy drinks (the Korean equivalent of Red Bull). Among the Korean ice creams are muskmelon frozen pops, which taste like fresh honeydew on a stick.
For a novel Asian culinary experience, plan on dim sum at Keo (3524 S. Peoria Ave.) for Sunday brunch. You’ll like the small, individual portions of food, served in steamer baskets or on small plates.
Fuji Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar offers sushi classes at its 8226 E. 71st St. location. You can create rice, maki (rolled) sushi, nigiri (fish on rice) sushi and sashimi (fish by itself) sushi. Also at Fuji: sake and wine tastings. One price includes a special five-course meal, two wine parings and two sake parings.
Dillon International, based in Tulsa, is one of the most respected international adoption agencies in the country. The agency was founded to meet the needs of homeless Korean orphans, and helped establish a model foster care program in Korea. The organization also includes adoption programs in China, Korea, Haiti, India, Hong Kong, Nepal, Ethiopia, Honduras and Russia.
Beginning Chinese language courses are offered at Tulsa Community College (918-595-7068), as employers are recognizing the need for employees with Chinese language and cultural skills.
Tulsa’s Hispanic immigrants came in two waves, both for economic reasons. The first group came after the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to work in the mines and on the railroads. They settled in West Tulsa in an area, bounded by two railroads, called “The Y.”
The second wave of Mexican immigration came in the 1980s, following the NAFTA free-trade agreement.
The last census puts Tulsa’s Hispanic population at approximately 28,000, 75 percent of which is Mexican, the rest split among Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Central American and South American residents.
There are no official borders for “Little Mexico,” but most agree that it’s located around East 21st Street and South Garnett Road. The sign at Supermercado Morelos (2119 S. Garnett Road) says it all — “Grocery, Meat Market, Bakery, Tacos” — and the loud Latin music piped into the parking lot provides the soundtrack. Inside, the store sells a huge amount of carnitas (fried pork). Meat selections include goat, beef, pork, lamb and rabbit. Conchas, bolillos and Guatemalan breads are a few of the homemade bakery items. And the chicharron (fried pork skin) is beyond big, much closer to huge.
Across Garnett at 21st is the hub of Hispanic commerce in Tulsa: Plaza Santa Cecilia, part mall/part community center. There, Carapan (2160 S. Garnett Road) sells ceremonial clothing — togs for christenings, first communions and Quinceañeras. Restaurants include Las Tortas (2160 S. Garnett Road) and Michoacano’s (2160 S. Garnett Road). Other shops feature toys, gift baskets, clothing, athletic footwear, boots and hats. There’s even a shoe-shine stall. At that same intersection, you can find a butcher, herb store and tortilleria with fresh, hot tortillas coming off the machine, as well as a billiard hall, where “carambola” (pool) is played.
Tulsa has a ton of Mexican restaurants, from franchises to free-standing, one-of-a-kind eateries.
At El Rio Verde (38 N. Trenton Ave.), forget Tex-Mex; this is true Mexican fare. The top choice is the wet burrito, soaked with salsa, covered with cheese and topped with sour cream and guacamole.
The new La Flama Mexican Grill (6746 S. Memorial Drive, Suite 2) serves classic, upscale Mexican dishes, including authentic tacos from scratch, and it’s the only place in town to feature grilled cactus.
The Cancun (705 S. Lewis Ave.) burrito is legendary, but you have to get there early to claim one of the few tables.
For a variety of South American dishes, Mi Tierra (6703 E. 81st St.) offers pabellon and empanadas, representing Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil.
The Hispanic community has access to a weekly Spanish-language newspaper, Hispano de Tulsa, plus two radio stations (Que Buena KXTD, 1530 AM, and La Preciosa, 101.5 FM) and a Hispanic television station, KXAP, also known as TeleTul.
Tulsa Community College operates the TCC Education Outreach Center (2201 S. Garnett Road), offering English as a Second Language classes, as well as Spanish language, computer and general education classes.
Further down the road, the Martin Regional Library (2601 S. Garnett Road) houses the Hispanic Resource Center, which offers bilingual and Spanish story times and Spanish-language books, DVDs, CDs, magazines and newspapers. Computers have Spanish-language software and keyboards. The center is a key resource for recent immigrants and an inviting destination for Tulsans to learn more about the Hispanic community.
For something with a beat, Flamenco TULSA (firstname.lastname@example.org) offers dance lessons, guitar lessons, percussion lessons and dance performances. Almost weekly, a Latin dance party is going on somewhere in Tulsa. Monthly, the Latin Cine Club meets at Circle Cinema (10 S. Lewis Ave.) for popcorn and a Spanish-language film.