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The Best Barbecue in Tulsa isn’t in Tulsa
Used to be, back when politer people called the area Coloredtown, you could walk down around Apache from Dirty Butter Creek east and find stellar barbecue at every corner. Michael Wallis, bard of the Oklahoma highways, wrote that some of the finest pitmasters in the nation hailed from that part of town, but the names that just roll off the tongue when you read them — Latimer’s, Reese’s, Ben’s, Reed’s, Al’s — are little more than ghosts and memories today. When I first got to Tulsa, I spent hours walking through Northside. In those days it looked like my vision of a tiny deep South hamlet. Wood shacks, lots of swampy trees, sluggish streams. I’d seek out tiny nameless joints, eat a rib, move on to the next place. Pete’s and Wilson’s were just fine, but then Mr. Wilson died and Pete’s is just plain gone. (So, by the way, are the shacks.) Today, while I tip my hat to Knotty Pine and Reba Dale, Stutts and Oklahoma Style, if you want a rib that could hold its own in Nashville or Kansas City, you’ve got to go farther north.
Drive north on Peoria past schools and muddy lots and you cross the city line at 56th Street. A straggle of low-slung shops and junked cars is Turley, maybe a bar or two (one had a big painting of a frog on the outside wall, with the legend “It’s always hopping!”). At some point Peoria — basically a country road by then, with a lot more cows than houses — becomes Highway Eleven, and just after you come to the Sperry town line there’s a Daylight Donuts shop and in the parking lot of that donut shop you see this.
Out of this trailer comes the best barbecue in Tulsa. Donny Teel devotes his life to barbecue competitions and if there’s a big competition anywhere in the U.S.A. he just hitches up his trailer and drives there and chances are he’ll win first prize. He’s won dozens of awards and once or twice he’s won the BBQ equivalent of the World Series. But if there’s no contest, you have the chance to buy those award-winning ribs here. You should always phone to make sure he’s in town. It was lucky I did because though it was early in the day his daughter told me, “you better hurry we have only one rack left.” She said she’d hold them for me.
I saw Donny Teel at the trailer but he didn’t talk much. He looked tired. I’ve read that he gets to the trailer by 7 AM to chop the wood and start the smoking. (Ribs have to smoke for 4 hours.) So we got our ribs and went to the nearby picnic table which is where you eat unless you take it home. (There’s also a tree-shaded park with lots of tables that you’ll see when you’re driving just before you hit Sperry, and I guess you could have your picnic there.) This is what prize-winning ribs look like.
They looked so good I got impatient during Grace and as soon as it ended I snagged the meatiest rib. “This is the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted!” I screamed through the mouthful. So incredibly juicy, so full of flavor. And it seemed to break all the rules. A great rib has 3 layers. First, a crust, turned sweetly caramel by the long heat and smoke. Then, a pink layer, not pink from undercooking but from smoke (or, some say, from a chemical reaction in slow-smoked meat). Finally, beneath it all, succulent, moist, juicy pig meat. Donny’s ribs didn’t have much of a crust (though they were rubbed in great spices), and very little of the pink smoke ring (though the ring was definitely there). But I just didn’t care. I’ve never had meat so rich, so bursting with flavor (literally bursting, with pig juices running down my chin). A fine complex smoky flavor. I didn’t even think of putting any sauce on that meat, that would have been as much of a crime as dousing the world’s finest prime steak with ketchup. And I barely touched the sides (we got a pint each of potato salad, beans, cole slaw), though I did pay enough attention to know that they were all exceptionally good, especially the spicy smoky beans.
Those were some of the meatiest ribs I’ve seen, so though I’d only had 4 or 5 I was full. (“This is the best meal I’ve had in a long time!” Cathe said.) But we still drove just down the street (the left-hand fork just across the highway from the barbecue) to see what’s left of Sperry Main Street and have a fine slice of homemade coconut pie in the Sperry Cafe (which has about ten kinds of homemade pies and also serves a daily entree for around six bucks)
Then I stopped next door to look at the used goods store. Donny Teel was there, chatting with the storekeeper. His family have lived in Sperry for generations, so he knows everyone in town.
201 N Oklahoma 11 (which basically is the north end of Peoria Av)
Telephone: (918) 288-6200
Address: 201 N Highway 11, Sperry, OK 74073
Usually open Monday through Friday, usually till 6 PM, call ahead to be sure. Ribeye steaks available Wednesday.
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.