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.
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.
Chances are, Tulsans of German descent didn’t come here directly. They may have traveled from eastern cities, making intermediate stops along the way. In the 19th century, most came as farmers, relocating in groups with other families. And, often, they came from previous settlements after crops failed.
In the early 20th century, Germans came to work in the mines, then the oil fields. By the 1930s, German Jews were starting to migrate.
After World War II, war brides returned with their soldier husbands, and many displaced Germans came in search of a new homeland.
Coming up is the annual Christkindlmarkt, or “Christmas market,” at the German-American Society of Tulsa (GAST), where shoppers can find nutcrackers, ornaments, stollen, wurst and kartoffelpuffer. Fine crafts and musical entertainment will be available as well. GAST also offers German language classes, taught by native speakers, for adults and children.
DeeAnn Adlung of German Gift Baskets: Unique Imports (www.germangiftbaskets.org) will ship baskets of German goodies anywhere in the U.S. or world. Favorites are lebkuchen (soft gingerbread cookies), coffees, pasta, honeys and the one must-have: chocolates with cherry liquor.
Siegi’s Deli (8104 S. Sheridan Road) features all the traditional German dishes. For the full effect, order a German beer and a brat. (See “Dining Out” on p. 120.) Siegi’s Sausage Factory has been serving fine German-style sausages and meats for more than 25 years, including 12 kinds of brats (Grobe bratwurst is the No. 1 seller).
At Margaret’s German Restaurant and Deli (5107 S. Sheridan Road), “where Oktoberfest lasts all year,” try Margaret’s Special for Two: Kassler rippchen (smoked pork loin), Polish sausage, sauerkraut, hot German potato salad and soup.
The granddaddy of all Tulsa festivals, Oktoberfest, is a fall ritual at River West Festival Park, complete with carnival rides, juried arts and crafts, bier barrel races and a biergarten.
In the spring, Germanfest gives crowds a taste of authentic German entertainment with choirs, folk dancers, a Blaskapelle musical group and polka bands.
Need a speaker for your group or organization? Call the GAST speakers’ bureau for a German-born presenter.
MIDDLE EASTERN & MEDITERRANEAN
These two categories cover a great deal of geography, but the lines are delightfully blurred food-wise and culture-wise. Who can really claim hummus? Or falafel?
Tulsa’s Middle Eastern community includes people from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Armenia and as far as Africa, who came here for education, employment and even freedom.
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (1222 S. Guthrie Ave.) is the nucleus of Tulsa’s Greek community, or “Little Athens.” Like many immigrants, Greeks came to Tulsa in the 1920s following the oil and mining booms. Many had owned restaurants or diners in small towns, not necessarily serving Greek food. Although future generations eventually did marry outside the Greek community, second and third generations did not, which is why the culture remains so strong. Today, roughly 170 households are associated with the church.
At Ali Baba Mediterranean Grill (4709 E. 51st St.), the vegetarian Mediterranean platter gives you a little taste of everything Mediterranean and Middle Eastern: basmati rice, falafel, a cabbage roll, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, tabouli, grilled pita bread and tzatziki, a special cucumber sauce.
In a downtown parking garage, Zorba’s Greek Grill (601 S. Boston Ave.) serves up such Mediterranean specialties as gyros, dolmas, spanakopita, falafel, tabouli and hummus.
It’s Greek to Me, familiar to mall food-court diners, now occupies a free-standing store in south Tulsa (10441 S. Regal Blvd.), serving mousaka, gyros, shish kebab and baba ghanoush. And hookah is available every night.
Also mixing cultures and cuisine is La Roma Gourmet Pizza & Mediterranean Food (6027 S. Sheridan Road), with a menu of Italian favorites and Lebanese dishes. The Lebanese dishes are family recipes, namely tawook and shawarma (Lebanese gyro). Regular customers know to order some of both — a pizza and cabbage rolls, for instance, or lasagna and homemade baklava.
Customers of the Middle East Market (5459 S. Mingo Road) count on weekly shipments of fresh produce, and halal (slaughtered according to Islamic law) beef, chicken, goat and lamb fresh each month. An ecumenical operation, it’s where Muslims, Christians, Jews and non-believers shop for their native foods.
The market is especially busy during the month of Ramadan, as customers prepare traditional dishes, such as soups, salads or dates, to break their daily fasts.
Rice, spices, teas and olives are popular items, as are varieties of bread: pita/lavash (flatbreads) and gata (sweet dessert breads). Like other Tulsa international markets, this one serves as a bit of a department store, offering customers everything from CDs to pipes to cookware, as well as ababyas (women’s robes or dresses) and headscarves.
Feeling the need to work off some of that great Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food? Sign up at The Belly Dance Academy of Tulsa (4622 E. 31st St.).
For something more relaxing, there’s the Arabic tradition of smoking flavored tobacco at one of Tulsa’s hookah bars.
Share a pipe at Nara Café (4840 S. Memorial Drive), where you can sit in the pit, on the covered patio or in the party bus.
Favorite tobacco flavors at Star Avenue Hookah Lounge (2625 E. 11th St.) are blue mist or strawberry margarita.
Oh, you want more of a spectator activity? Check the performance schedule for Purple Roses of Cairo Dance Company. The dancers mix tribal and authentic Egyptian-, Arabic- and Turkish-style dances, performing at private events or public festivals.
Also, Tulsa Folkloric Dance Theater teaches locals about the beauty and meaning of dances from around the world, including those of the Middle East
The Asian Indian community in Tulsa numbered about 1,700 (or 500 families) in the 2000 Census, which represents less than half of 1 percent of the area’s population. The center of Indian life is the Hindu Temple of Greater Tulsa (16943 E. 21st St.).
Indian cuisine is a favorite in Tulsa, and the options are varied. In America, “curry” is a single spice, but in Indian cooking, “curry” is a mix of as many as 20 spices in a sauce. And different regions of India specialize in different curries.
India Palace (6963 S. Lewis Ave.) features northern Indian or Punjabi dishes. It is known for tandoor, or Indian barbecue, in which food is cooked over charcoal in huge clay pots. The best seller is chicken tikka masala, with lamb vindaloo as another favorite. The restaurant also offers a variety of Indian beers and an impressive selection of Indian breads, from the traditional naan to kashmiri naan (leavened bread with cashews, pistachios and raisins).
Kolam Innovative Indian Cuisine (4844 S. Memorial Drive) is the first Tulsa restaurant to feature southern Indian cuisine, known for steamed dishes with rice, vegetables and seafood. Ghee masala dosa (thin rice crepes with clarified butter, stuffed with spicy potatoes) are bigger than the platter they’re served on, measuring 2 or 3 feet long. The idli (steamed rice cakes) are another crowd pleaser.
Desi Wok (3966 S. Hudson Ave.) promises, “When Indian and Asian come together, your taste buds will sizzle.” They make good on that pledge with Blazing Noodles (with veggies, egg and sriracha sauce). And for dessert, try the kheer, traditional Indian rice pudding with cashews.
Even before you enter New India Bazaar (6916 S. Lewis Ave.), you’ll catch a fragrant whiff of the incense burning inside. This Indian market has a little bit of everything — and a whole lot of rice, spices and lentils in every size, color and amount. Produce aplenty includes baby eggplant, bitter melon (karela), tindora (resembles a small cucumber), mangoes, Indian squash (dudhi or long squash) and turia (long, ribbed Chinese okra). Other Indian favorites include dals, breads, neem and clove toothpaste, henna, face packs (natural skin supplements, such as mud masks) and hair dye.
Laxmi Spices of India (5555 E. 41st St.) stocks the ingredients you’ll need for Indian cooking, or a variety of mixes if you’re not interested in starting from scratch.
India Fest is an annual event to showcase Indian dance, music, crafts and cuisine. The India Association of Greater Tulsa (www.iagtok.org) conducts Hindi language and culture classes. The purpose of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Oklahoma (5801 E. 41st St.) is to build business partnerships between India and Oklahoma. Just for fun, Tulsa Balloons (918-955-3060) offers henna artists for private sessions, parties or other events.
Prayers/bhajans are online at www.htgt.org. Click on “Knowledge Center” for meanings and explanations of the famous mantras of the culture, including “Aum” and “Hare Krishna Maha Mantra.”