While my birthtown of Oklahoma City (specifically Edmond) is where my parents returned and dozens of my relatives live, my parents briefly lived in Tulsa in their younger years. We returned for a nostalgic road trip this spring (more on what’s great now in OKC here). Driving a portion of Route 66 on the short hour and a half drive between cities, we passed industrial plants, farms, roadside BBQ and eateries with names like Hungry Horny Toad.
Tulsa is a small city with minimal skyscrapers, neighborhoods of lovely old homes, the gorgeous gardens of Philbrook Museum of Art and the small but thriving Brady Arts District. It isn’t exactly a city of volume when it comes to quality food and drink… But when it comes to its few standouts, they rise as high, or higher, than almost anything in the state.
Here are my top drink picks for Tulsa (more on food “bests” here)… a city on the rise.
Let’s give it to them now: in my book, Hodges Bend (which turned 4 years old in February) is Tulsa’s star in food, cocktails and coffee. It is not easy getting all that right. Talking with one of the owners, Chip Gaberino (alongside Noah Bush, both behind Saturn Room and Torero), it was clear why. With understated care and humility, they’ve assembled a stellar team of people who care, including bar manager Jamie Jennings. They use quality ingredients across the board, including excellent seed-to-cup espresso drinks featuring Gaberino’s excellent Topeca Coffee Roasters.
This means they also turn out killer coffee cocktails and have a whole menu of them, ideal at brunch. Key West Breakfast was my recent favorite, a showstopper of Goslings Rum, cold brew concentrate, cinnamon syrup, grapefruit juice, grapefruit bitters and egg white.
Jennings (who is heading to St. Paul/Minneapolis to open a second Hodges Bend) turns out balanced, elegant cocktails across the board ones that shine across the state but would hold up nationally, too. He might play off a Trinidad Sour but with mezcal, a heavy dose of Angostura bitters, Blackstrap rum, falernum, lemon and salt, to beautifully spiced, smoky effect. Or there is the classically inspired Creole Colada over crushed ice, featuring Cognac with coconut, lime a pineapple rum float and a dose of Peychauds bitters.
On top of the great drinks and service, the food is also a star (more on the food here) and the atmosphere, from tan leather banquettes and Old World, wood-lined bar to their fantastic record collection, turning out soothing sounds of jazz and crooners, sets a superb backdrop for your coffee and cocktails.
After Hodges Bend, Valkyrie is another Tulsa bar that stands out in the entire state. Just over five years old, they have pioneered the Tulsa cocktail scene and recently grew to one of the biggest spirits collections in the state with over 700 spirits. General manager Tyler Schilling and the bartending team collaborate and create thoughtful drinks across categories.
Being an agricole fan for over a decade, I took to the Liam’s Neisson, a clever drink that shows off the elegant funk of Neisson rhum blanc with Green Chartreuse and a house chai blend infused in Dolin Blanc vermouth, balanced by lime, demerara sugar and a saline/salt solution. Another standout was Silver Nerf Herder, a gin-based drink lush with house pistachio orgeat, cardamom syrup, chocolate extract and the acidic balance of lemon. It was not too sweet but balanced the herbaceous, nutty notes in intriguing harmony.
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In Tulsas thriving Brady Arts District, Saturn Room celebrated its second anniversary in April when I visited over pupu platters on their patio and inside under blowfish lamp-lined booths. They have a cigar menu, Singapore Sling bowls and classic Trader Vics and Don the Beachcomber-era Tiki drinks on the menu.
There are a few changing house drinks as well, like The Lil G from bartender Gavin Wells (reposado tequila, mezcal, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice dram, grapefruit, lime, house tonic and acid phosphate, all carbonated in a Perlini), or Noah Bush’s Chairman Maos Revival, which I wrote about here at Liquor.com. Despite being a vodka drink, their Macadamia Nut Chi-Chi is a standout given their lush house coconut cream that veers lighter and fresher than the usual with the addition of coconut water.
OPEN CONTAINER at The Boxyard
Capitalizing on the shipping container trend long popular in cities like my own, The Boxyard is a complex of shops and restaurants in shipping containers, including Open Container, with its outdoor deck and view. From the same Hodges/Saturn/Torero crew, this is the more straightforward, easy drinking side of beers, highballs and drinks like Lo Life (Miller High Life with Aperol).
PRAIRIE ALES Brewery
In 2012 when I returned to the best beer bar/store in the country, Sergio’s World of Beers in Louisville, Sergio himself turned me on to then few weeks’ old Prairie Artisan Ales, a nomad or gypsy brewer in Oklahoma. I was shocked at the quality and quietly proud that something that good was coming from my birth state, when for years prior, I couldn’t find much in food and drink that could even enter the national conversation. Within months, their beers were on draft at places like Mikkeller Bar at home in SF. It became an immediate cult favorite among beer geeks.
Now I visit their Tulsa brewery and it’s all glossy and shiny, from tanks to the “packed house” brewpub (their OKC tasting room is soon to open). Though they are “big guys” now, I will always remember that moment of discovering Prairie Ales.
It was akin to tasting The Bruery from my old Orange County stomping grounds, a prior wasteland for great drink for the first time. The shock that something this world class could come from an unsophisticated suburban town.
Prairie felt of that caliber from the moment I first tasted it and has proven to be exactly so, right down to their much-deserved success.
Cirque Coffee is hipster, to be sure. But in this case, that just means some of Tulsa’s (and Oklahoma’s) best. From sourcing to roasting, with a roaster in their lofty space, they did my right on all fronts, whether classic macchiatos and cortados or house specials like The Nutty Sprofessor, a $5 espresso drink served in delicate stemware with bourbon-tangerine-vanilla syrup, almond milk and a flaming marshmallow on top. It was served cool and not too sweet, still bracing, like a great Vietnamese coffee but their own spin.
HODGES BENDTopeca Coffee
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