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Sometime in the late 1970s, a young man ran along the jungle trails of Laos, an assault rifle in one hand and a baby in the other, fleeing from the Pathet Lao. He crossed the Mekong by swinging on a vine and ended up in Thailand. A few years later, reunited with his wife, he was in Tulsa. Later, he and his family opened Hmong Cafe. Until last week you could drive down 31st Street and meet them. But now it’s closed.
Tulsa isn’t always kind to brave new chefs, even if they have a touch of greatness about them. Lava, Caramel, Gemma’s, all on one tiny block of Brookside, all fabulous, all gone. I’m not thinking about that now. I’m thinking about places with stories, places with history, places that leave a gap behind and sometimes it comes to be filled with legend. Like Jamil’s, not closed but moved, forced to abandon its old, rambling, ghost-filled landmark building. A waiter who started work there in 1946 later recalled that on his first night at eleven PM things slowed down and he told his colleague, guess we’ll be going home soon, and the coworker said, just wait. And then the real business started and at seven in the morning they were still moving passed-out drunks off the tables. When I first came to Tulsa I saw a lot of bars like that. Not quite as wild but still a similar crowd, and now they’re mostly gone.
Gone like Woodland Lounge, in my view the best of them (but everyone has a personal favorite), as tiny as a postage stamp and always packed. Here I am at Woodland 5 years ago and as you can see it’s too jammed to even think of moving.
You’d walk in and there’d be perhaps a table or two of ladies with beehive hair, happy and loud loud LOUD. Some college kids maybe around the dance floor, a few cowboy hat guys scattered around the place, one or two slick-talking businessmen smoking big cigars. The usual mix. Music so good that by the end everybody and I mean EVERYBODY would be dancing.
Gone like the original Ron’s on 15 and Harvard. It looked like a tiny shack but Ron made the best burgers ever so it would be jammed with people waiting for a seat. Rich lawyers sitting next to construction workers on lunch break.
Gone like Nelson’s on Boston downtown. Or (not a restaurant and long before my time) Crystal City in west Tulsa which featured an enormous roller coaster, a dance hall, and a lake for boating. And then there’s Northside barbecue. 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 — and so, by the way, are the shacks.
I’m more sensitive to all of this because I come from New York, from islands of long forgotten buildings old beyond time, abandoned to ghosts and memories. Some of my friends used to take me walking late at night through the hushed streets of their old Brooklyn neighborhood. There used to be a bar at every corner, each with a different and strangely unique clientele, owner (always very eccentric) and history. All gone. But they’d tell me all the stories and the neighborhood would come alive. So for those thinking, “why bother open a restaurant at all, it’s bound to close”, the answer is the same as to the age-old “why bother living”? You do the best you can and with a bit of excellence and luck, you live on in legend. And legends can be immortal.
Brian Schwartz: Author
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.