According to Danny, Oklahoma City is strong in three cuisines: deep-fried Americana, messy Tex-Mex and Vietnamese that’s better than any in the US. The Vietnamese community has enlisted aunties and grandmas and all manner of backyard gardeners to raise herbs I couldn’t find if I turned all three of New York City’s Chinatowns on their heads and shook their vest pockets empty. I learned about these herbs when we visited Super Cao Nguyen, which is probably our nation’s finest pan-Asian grocery store. It is a supermarket the size of an airplane hangar, an extraordinary cabinet of culinary curiosities: bushy bunches of the cilantro-like Vietnamese herb rau ram, mountains of blushing banana blossoms, an aquarium of sea beasts, every bottled sauce I’ve ever heard of and just as many that I hadn’t.Share
We were shopping because Danny had come up with the idea to cook a pop-up dinner at a local restaurant, Ludivine, to benefit tornado victims. The backstory: The night we arrived in Oklahoma City, a group of Danny’s childhood friends and chefs from the community (whom he’d met cooking at a prior tornado-relief dinner) welcomed him with a backyard barbecue. The next morning, over pho, Russ Johnson, one of Ludivine’s chefs, noted how many slabs of ribs were left from the party the night before. So Danny volunteered, without fanfare, to cook dinner at Ludivine that night to use them up.
At the pop-up, Danny and his Mission Chinese Food NY executive chef, Angela Dimayuga, devised two ways to dress up the already-barbecued baby backs. They smothered half the ribs in a peppery fish sauce–spiked caramel; the rest were chicken-fried, in an ode to Oklahoma City, and served with red eye gravy punched up with bacon. The hashtag was #OKChefsReliefMissionChinesePopUpRibRedux, the place was completely packed, all the food disappeared, and I’m sure there was nowhere better to be in the entire state on that Monday night.
The next day, we flitted around as Danny schooled Angela in Oklahoma City cuisine. At Tucker’s, we ate onion burgers—Oklahoma-style burgers with caramelized onions pressed onto the griddled patties. We ate wan Tex-Mex that brought Danny back to his childhood but made me wish I were in Texas or Mexico instead.
We ran out of time to visit the Vietnamese restaurant in the building that was once a Long John Silver’s. It’s where Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s reigning rock band, famously worked as a fry cook and had once been held up. (Danny saw him tell the story in a video.)
Danny had traveled without a change of clothes, possibly as an excuse to visit Bass Pro Shops, an outdoors outfitting chain. I waited in the car while he went in to shop. He came out with his catch: an aggressively patriotic American flag shirt and some high-performance camouflage shorts—perfect gear to make the scene in Okarche, a town about an hour away. There, we rolled in to Eischen’s, a legendary fried chicken parlor. Danny had first raved to me about it in New York, playing a clip from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on his phone to illustrate his point. “You start by eating the skin off the fried chicken, wrapped in white bread with bread-and-butter pickles,” he told me. “It’s almost like Peking duck.” (Read more.)