OKC: Of Steak & Po Boys, Cocktails & Pizza, Hot Browns & German Delis

Hillbilly Po Boys-Virginia Miller
Quirky & fun: Hillbilly Po Boys

While OKC is not a dining destination, each year I find a few more signs of promise, even if many look better on “paper” — their menus — than they are in execution. Here’s the latest, from high to low points, from my recent holiday visit to see my parents and extensive family in OK.

Killer Steakhouse: The George Prime Steakhouse

George Prime steak tartare
George Prime steak tartare

Though steakhouses are a dime a dozen in OKC, newer steakhouse-with-a-view (in the Founders Tower with a 360 degree view), The George, is not only the best of the many I’ve been to over the years, it’s the best all-around restaurant I’ve been to in OKC to date. The quality of the food from executive chef Chad Willis even beyond steaks, the strong wine list, knowledgeable sommelier, small batch American spirits and proper, well-crafted cocktails offer an Oklahoma rarity: the whole package, one that will please the city person and traveler as it does locals. Don’t miss the dreamy house burger ($18) laden with pimento cheese and bacon.

Hit & Miss Modern-American: Packard’s

Packard's sandwiches
Packard’s sandwiches

Packard’s is one of those places I want to love. It looks like the whole package and does it right in terms of a solid wine and craft beer list, classic cocktails (an affordable $7-9), a sunny, open space and appealing menu. Execution is another thing. For example, their cocktails look the part in lovely glassware, but play a bit too sweet or too soft, as with a rose hip-thyme margarita mixing blanco tequila, local rose hip jam, thyme, lemon, lime and agave syrup. A straightforward Cinnamon Whiskey Sour got closer to balance (though still a bit too sweet) with bourbon, lemon, cinnamon syrup and egg whites. I’d stick with wine or craft beers, like stellar, local Prairie Ales rotating on tap. They also serve quality Eote Coban Cold Brew Coffee.

Cinnamon Whiskey Sour
Cinnamon Whiskey Sour

Their popular fried lasagna ($12) tastes more like a mediocre, old school casserole. At lunch, they make a Hot Brown ($12), Louisville, Kentucky’s wonderfully decadent, signature dish. It’s a solid sandwich, with turkey, cheddar mornay sauce, bacon and tomato on open-faced sourdough. But it doesn’t much recall the Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel in Louisville where it was created or even the excellent version at Fog City in SF, which is closer to the spirit and richness of the original. Still, compared to other nearby spots, I’d give this one another chance.

Misguided Asian “Fusion”: Guernsey Park

Guernsey Park
Guernsey Park

Guernsey Park is another one of those newer spots (opened in 2013) that looks better on paper than it is in actuality. Friendly service and a sunny upstairs dining room start things off on the right foot but despite the fun-sounding Asian fusion menu, including some decent sushi, it falls in line with mediocre (or worse) Asian food one generally finds in OK (Vietnamese food is the one strong category with OKC’s dense Vietnamese population).

Guernsey Park attempts the Asian fusion one sees now in many cities across the country: think kimchee burgers or duck confit steamed buns (bao). But whether a bland (despite the kimchee), overcooked burger or somewhat dry chicken lollipops ($7), much of it falls short in flavor and execution. There is a nice sake selection, while dish highlights, though few, came in the form of understated but more authentic dishes, namely the salt and pepper pork ($9).

It’s hard not to be spoiled on Asian cuisine in the areas I’ve lived (NYC, LA & SF) where Asian is the best it gets outside of Asia and Asian fusion was birthed. But sadly, Guernsey Park, which I had hoped would be a sign of good things to come in OKC, doesn’t keep up with the best of its category in Denver or other mid-sized cities in the US, much less with big cities.

Cheap Eats

Fantastic NY Pizza-Inspired: Empire Slice House

Empire Slice House OKC-Virginia Miller
Empire Slice House

One of the most rewarding OKC newcomers in the last couple of years (opened in 2013) is Empire Slice House. The bustling, low-key space is packed with locals filling up on thin crust pizza and a strong selection of craft beers. In the winter, even with heaters, the expansive patio — with lots of communal seating — is still drafty and chilly. But that is the biggest problem.

Friendly servers and gratifying, large pies makes this by far the best pizza I’ve had in Oklahoma, a place where typically pizza is not just subpar to many US cities but can be downright bad. I particularly like the Fat Tony ($21) laden with house Italian sausage, red onion tomato sauce and ricotta, but there are fun iterations, such as the Foghorn Leghorn ($22), covered in asiago cheese, chicken, bacon, jalepenos, sweet marinara and a Sriracha drizzle.

I would return to Empire each time I’m in town. Note: there is a top-notch craft beer bar next door, Oak & Ore.

Good Times with Po Boys: Hillbilly Po’Boys & Oysters

Hillbilly Po Boys
Hillbilly Po Boys

My other favorite new-ish spot (opened 2013) is Hillbilly Po’Boys & Oysters. In a charming old house right next to the train tracks, Johnny Cash’s infamous middle finger picture and Merle Haggard records line the wall, setting a laid-back, hipster-redneck, front porch vibe. Pleasingly, the food is quite good and cheap: one can easily fill up for a mere $7-8.

Hefty, dripping po boy sandwiches may not exactly recall New Orleans, but they definitely feel Southern and decadent. Heartwarming Shannon’s Reuben ($6) delights, as does Uncle Jesse’s crispy whitefish po boy ($7), laden with tangy slaw and cider sauce.

There are craft beers on order — like New Orleans’ Abita beers and local, Oklahoma brews. The cocktails feature moonshine, although they tend towards the slightly too sweet side (think gummi bear-infused moonshine), served in mason jars. Overall, Hillbilly is now one of my OKC favorites.

“Skip It” Fried Chicken: Drum Room

Drum Room
Drum Room

As is typical in Oklahoma, service here is friendly and laid back, but from the dive bar setting to the mediocre food, Drum Room was a disappointment.

The fried chicken is actually quite good. But the somewhat dry waffles (whether as classic chicken & waffles or as a sandwich, pictured) leave a lot to be desired compared to countless excellent versions of the classic southern dish around the country.

Other dishes I tried included a potentially promising pimento cheese burger ($13), which was, unfortunately, overcooked despite requesting it medium rare, while an “old school salad” ($7) was downright limp and sad.

Cocktails & Bites

The R&J Lounge & Supper Club

R&J Lounge
R&J Lounge

R&J Lounge is essentially a retro cocktail bar that feels like a dive bar with hipster spirit. It’s a quirky, fun little OKC spot.

The food is actually stronger than you’d think, though dishes are hit and miss. The lamb burger and catfish entree ($15.90 each) are misses, while chicken and dumplings ($13.90) are unexpectedly heartwarming and a starter of cheesy crab toast ($8.90) is a treat with drinks.

The cocktails are blessedly affordable, most $5-8, with a few in the Tiki section at $10-12. There is a Highball (tall drinks on the rocks with soda) and a Tiki section of the menu, as well as a range of classics, from a solid Ramos Gin Fizz to a Brandy Alexander. It’s refreshing to even find these cocktail classics on a menu in OKC and, more importantly, executed solidly.

The George's
The George’s Hibiscus Sour (left) & Harvest Moon (right)

The cozy, wood-paneled bar is dim and sporting a couple booths, as if you stepped straight into the 60s/70s. The larger, AstroTurf patio feels like a lawn party at a friend’s house. However, even in the winter with a roaring fireplace and heat lamps, the covered patio is still unbearably freezing, making it a pretty uncomfortable space for eat or drink.

The George Prime Steakhouse

At the aforementioned George, cocktails ($11-13) are among the most well-crafted you’ll find anywhere in OKC — and sometimes featuring a refreshing range of small batch spirits you won’t often find in the state. Harvest Moon is a lovely fall mix of Germain Robin brandy (from my home region of NorCal), Snap (gingersnap liqueur from Pennsylvania), Strong Tonic, Granny Smith apples and cinnamon. A Hibiscus Sour is a frothy-bright mix of Bulleit Bourbon, fresh lemon juice, Strong Tonic, hibiscus juice and egg white.

Old School OKC

German Bakery & Dive: Ingrid’s Kitchen

Ingrid’s Kitchen looks stuck in the ’70s, which is just fine for a classic German deli and bakery. The dive-y restaurant/bakery/deli was featured on Diners, Drives-Ins & Dives, so locals and crowds flock in all day long.

They sell out of their German-style loaves of bread and their perennially popular rolls. They also serve sausages and salumi in-house, although beware that some of it is a frozen (not a good sign) — but a mortadella-like, pistachio-laden German salami stood out. House potato salads and sides are tasty, their bread is “real deal” Germanic bread, while other house items, like pies, are utterly disappointing (think gummy cherry pie, more fake-tasting jelly than fresh cherry filling).

It was ideal bringing home their bread, meats, cheese and sides to make sandwiches at home with my family. Particularly on weekends and holidays, there are long lines so call ahead if you want a certain bread or item on their extensive menu to ensure it’s not sold out.

R&J Lounge patio
R&J Lounge patio