Closed

By on July 6, 2012

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.

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

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.

15 Comments

  1. Keith Gable

    July 6, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Pete’s still exists – it’s called Oklahoma Style Barbecue and it’s located on Harvard just south of Apache next to Family Dollar.

    • Brian Schwartz

      July 6, 2012 at 9:54 pm

      It’s not Pete’s, but it’s run by the niece of Pete’s owners, who worked at Pete’s for 15 years.

  2. Misty

    July 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I share in this aadness…I only moved here in 2005 from Tennessee, but coming from a place where there isnt enough of well anything to support locally owned businesses you are lucky to even have your typical fast food joint, only one or two family owned places exist. Since being here I have fallen in love with the food and yet I have grown to be so sad by it, that seemingly every place I fall in love with ends up gone for one reason or another….Rubicon, Ellas, Chicory and Chives, Fire Rock, Bali Fusion, the above mentioned Caramel, I know they were sort of chains but I loved Smoky Bones, and the Elephant Bar on 71st, my husband LOVED Casa Bonita…I know there are LOTS of great places here with history many I have still yet to experience, but it saddens me that so many great places just dissappear and their “replacements” not always nearly ass good:(

  3. Tulsa Zephyr

    July 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Great post, Brian…We’ve seen some legendary establishments along the way, and with a little luck, and patronage, we’ll have more to come.

  4. Jeremiah

    July 6, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    It’s because Oklahomans are fickle and finicky when it comes to food.

  5. shredder

    July 8, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Nelsons has re-openned at 44th and Memorial across from Ehrles Party Goods….

    Same Chicken Fry and potatoes to die for, and OMG the mac and cheese!!
    Not for the calorie counters…

  6. Matthew

    July 8, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    I will never understand all of the love for Caramel. We went there once and the place was totally empty. Bad sign #1. Their response to us walking in was a mixture of shock & annoyance. Bad sign #2. My wife was told she couldn’t have any grilled chicken for her salad because “the chef wasn’t there”. Bad sign #3. After order our food, it took an extremely long amount of time to come out (remember, with no one else in the restaurant but us). Bad sign #4. I remember thinking, “this place won’t last long.” It didn’t.

  7. Belinda

    July 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I’m so sad about Hmong Cafe. Bali Fusion was our stomping ground for a long time before it closed, but then I found Hmong. I LOVED their boba tea and my husband loved their yellow curry.

    Does anyone know of anywhere in Tulsa that makes boba tea?

    • Misty

      July 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      Please please please let me know if you find anything similar to bali I loved everything I had there and miss it soo much

      • Brian Schwartz

        July 13, 2012 at 11:39 am

        Not much chance. Bali Fusion had the rare and wonderful Perinakan cuisine (Chinese people in Malaya.) There are a few restaurants like that way out in weird neighborhoods in New York City. But they aren’t better than Bali Fusion!

        Read more about Perinakan cuisine:

        http://tulsafood.com/asian/bali-fusion-restaurant-tulsa

        Here’s one of my favorites in New York City:

        http://www.ilovenyonya.com

  8. Bryan P.

    July 16, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Add Blue Dome Diner to the list. They just announced they’re being forced to close as the owner of the building refused to renew the lease :(

    • Janet

      August 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      Blue Dome had the BEST pancakes…all their breakfast dishes were great….perfect for downtown diners….whatta we do now????

  9. Laura

    July 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    So sad to hear Hmong cafe is gone!

    I usually get my boba tea from a store next to my workplace. It’s called OK Asian Market at 71st & Lewis. It’s in the same center as Panera Bread. Their taro flavor is really yummy ;p

  10. Lee Brennan

    July 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Great read Brian!

  11. Terri

    August 19, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Great post Brian! My father and grandmother lived in Redfork so as a little girl I remember the Crystal Bowl(Back behind the Arbys on SouthWest Blvd) Bowling and a cafe inside. Little bowls of salad with french dressing, is all I can remember,but it made an impression 40 years later. My Great Uncles owned B&B grocery with the old fashioned butcher shop (Behind Ollies and the overpass) There was also a family Q spot where my Dad would take us to play pool, I think the building is now a plumbing supply store. Pizza hut is now a liquor store I think. Thanks for the memories!!

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