Oklahoma's Iconic Foods
Explore the signature foods that are unique to the Sooner State
Photo by James Pratt
What makes a food iconic? It can include historical or geographic associations, personal memories or popularity. And it’s totally subjective. For Oklahoma, barbecue and chicken-fried steak are obvious choices but many other areas can make the same claims. Here are a few candidates with close Oklahoma ties.
For a lot of Okies, the name “Okarche” means “Eischen’s fried chicken.” Founded by Peter Eischen in 1896, the Chisholm Trail saloon was here before the town was incorporated. The Eischen family still rules the roost.
The business hit a dry spell during Prohibition but reopened in the 1930s. An architectural treasure—a hand-carved bar made in Spain in the 1800s and shipped to California during the Gold Rush—was added in 1950.
In the ‘60s bar business increased with the addition of Wednesday night shuffleboard tournaments. The winner received a fried chicken. The recipe, created by third-generation George Eischen, was so popular that the dish became a staple for bar patrons.
And it’s the big draw today. Eischen’s goes through an average of 3,000 chickens a week. The menu is simple. No. 1 item is the fried chicken. Other options: roast or BBQ beef sandwiches, chili, Frito Pie, nachos and fried okra.
Diners get a whole chicken (cut in pieces) in a cardboard cradle. Squares of white, slick paper serve as plates. With the chicken—white bread, onions, dill and sweet pickles.
They don’t take credit cards and don’t expect dessert.
Although the place seats 350, the lines can get long on Fridays and Saturdays. Come for the chicken; you’ll leave crowing about it.
Photo by Hayley Leatherwood
Spicy aromas of garlic, onion, and tomato greet visitors to Lovera’s market in the small Italian community of Krebs. The store, in a historic 1910 building, has been in the Lovera family since 1946.
Owners Sam Lovera and his wife Domenica are Kiamichi Electric Cooperative members. Sam grew up in the store. His job as a youngster was to stuff the homemade sausage.
Originally, Lovera’s sold cheese made by women in the community—a southern Italian-style cheese called caciocavallo. Eventually, they decided to make their own cheeses. Combining the style name with the family name, they labeled their cheese Caciocavera. Today they produce seven variations of Caciocavera and over two dozen other cheeses.
They’ll produce about 100,000 pounds of cheese this year. Over the years their cheeses have garnered top awards in national and international competitions.
While best known for the gourd-shaped Caciocavera, the store carries sausage, sauces, condiments and accompaniments under their own label plus a wide variety of imported Italian products. An internet presence makes their products accessible nationwide. But an in-person trip to the store is like a mini Italian vacation.
Photo by Elaine Warner
This Italian favorite didn’t become popular in Oklahoma until the late 1950s.
Richard Dermer discovered pizza as a teenager on a visit to the East Coast. Coming back to his hometown, Stillwater, he found a new restaurant serving pizza had opened. Trying it out with his girlfriend Marti, he commented, “This is going to be more popular than hamburgers!”
Marti laughed, but his comment was prophetic. He worked at the restaurant for three years, then he and Marti, now his wife, bought the business. Renamed The Hideaway, the pizza place soon became a favorite with Oklahoma State University students.
The Dermers, too, were favorites—mentoring and embracing hundreds of students as family. Richard was an enthusiastic man. He loved pizza, kites and kids.
Richard Dermer died in 2014; Marti still owns The Hideaway.
“I refer to it as ‘the mother ship,’” she says. Serving great pizza for 63 years, the restaurant appeals to traditionalists but keeps up with the times. “We’ve even added a cauliflower crust.”
There are 19 Hideaway locations in Oklahoma and in Arkansas; they serve the same original sauce and use the same suppliers as Stillwater. It’s all good—but for many Oklahomans, a trip to the Stillwater Hideaway becomes a pilgrimage—a trip down memory lane as well as a dining destination.
Photo by James Pratt
According to food history, the onion burger was invented in El Reno in 1926 at a little restaurant on Route 66. The most prominent story says it was created because of the Depression—that the owner of the Hamburger Inn added onions to the meat because onions were cheap.
Nonetheless, the combo meat/veggie burger caught on and El Reno gets the credit. The town celebrates every year with a Burger Festival. The 32nd annual festival will be May 1 and 2, 2020. Last year’s festival drew at least 35,000 burger fans to the town of 18,000. The centerpiece was an 850 pound burger accompanied by entertainment and food trucks.
The rest of the year, visitors can choose from three spots all within three blocks. Robert’s Grill, a tiny spot with about a dozen stools, is the oldest, dating back to the ‘20s. Edward Graham, owner for the last 30 years, mans the griddle, topping the flattened meat patty with chopped yellow onions and flipping it at exactly the right time. His customers swear his burgers are the best in town.
Johnnie’s Grill is the largest of the burger emporia. Cars quickly fill the parking lot and spill onto side streets. Multiple balls of hamburger get placed on the grill, quickly flattened with a spatula, and piled high with onions. Owned by Lacy and Kade Brickey, this place has its own loyal following.
Marty Hall owns Sid’s Diner, which has been featured on the Food Network. With its red awning and classic diner-look, Sid’s has the most appealing décor—and really great onion burgers.
Which one is best? You could probably start a fight between the fans of each of the eateries. They all serve classic onion burgers and they’re all good. The best thing to do is to try each of them; then do it all over again.
Photo by Laura Araujo
Weber's Root Beer
Weber’s serves good hamburgers, too—cooked on a grill that has a history all its own. But the biggest reason folks flock to the little orange building on Peoria in Tulsa, is for the house-made root beer. It’s been a Tulsa destination since 1933. With just a few stools inside and a couple of tables outside, your choice may be to-go or to-wait.
Created in the late 1800s by Oscar Weber Bilby, great-grandfather of current owner Rick Bilby (co-owner with his wife, Jennifer), the root beer recipe remains a sweet, dark secret. All Rick will say is that it is brewed from 14 natural, native-to-Oklahoma ingredients. Rick brews the syrup 30-gallons at a time—enough for 150 gallons of finished root beer—and ages it in birch-bark barrels for six months, just like great-granddaddy did. It’s served at Weber’s in icy, frosted mugs. For an extra special treat, try a root beer float.
You can usually buy the root beer in bottles at Weber’s—but call ahead because they run out fast. Weber’s root beer is an old-fashioned treat that never gets old.
Photo by Elaine Warner
No state fair would be complete without an Indian taco stand. Tasty, yes. Healthy, no. But the treat—fry bread topped with seasoned meat and a variety of add-ons including lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, and more—isn’t really an Indian food.
“As a Native American chef and food historian whose specialty revolves around traditional foodstuffs that were here before European contact, I can unequivocally state that none of the ingredients or cooking methods for fry bread existed in pre-Columbian times,” Potawatomi member Loretta Barrett Oden says. “It was never something we ate growing up. I tasted my first fry bread at the Oklahoma State Fair when I was 12. By the 1980s, it had spread through the powwow circuit.”
Fry bread originated as survival food for the Diné (Navajo) who made it from the meager commodities—lard and white, wheat flour—supplied by the U.S. Army during the Long Walk, their equivalent of the Trail of Tears, in the 1860s.
History not withstanding, Indian tacos are here to stay. Try one by ordering the Chickasaw Special at the Aaimpa Café at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur. It’s accompanied by pashofa (an authentic traditional dish made of cracked corn, pork and water) and grape dumplings.
Now a number of eateries in Oklahoma serve Indian tacos so you don’t have to wait until a fair opens. Indian tacos are a guilty pleasure, but, oh, so good.