October 21st, 2010 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (9)
White River is the kind of place you hope to find when you visit an old East Coast seaport, and never do. It’s the kind of place you might have run into in 1940s New York, but probably wouldn’t. Bare, with stripped-down decor, and very crowded, it’s the kind of place that shouts “serious eating here!”
It’s a whole new game at White River. The place finally lives up to its potential. I used to stop by quite a lot in years gone by — it’s a Tulsa landmark after all — and was always disappointed. Drooping, dead, lackluster fish crammed into a dingy glass case. But those days are gone. Walk into White River now and the gleaming beauties that greet you (and I’m referring to the fish on display) behind the spiffy glass display case are worthy of the best fishmonger. Check it out.
As in any old, traditional eating establishment, there’s a procedure here. You inspect the fish, step up to the counter, and order your meal. They have just about anything you can think of that swims in the sea and isn’t a submarine. Tuna, halibut, swordfish, salmon, snapper, mahi mahi, shrimp, oysters, scallops, crab. Pick any one of those, and if you want, you can pick your fillet. You can have it broiled, grilled, or fried, and that’s it. No fancy frills or fripperies; no sesame-glazed ahi tuna with daikon coulis avaliable here. You also select two sides. If you’ve got even half a brain, one of those sides will be onion rings. They’re that good. Then you pick a table — if you can find one. The place is packed, even on a weekday night.
We were lucky and found an empty booth in the sea of long communal tables, next to a party of firemen from Inola and across from a raucous birthday party. It wasn’t that long a wait, considering how many orders were ahead of us. (About 80, I’d guess.) And then the waitress brought our food. Behold mine!
This is Broiled Whole Flounder ($15). Back in 2007, Gourmet Magazine did a two-page spread on White River. One page was text. The second page was a huge photo of that flounder. I had ordered flounder back in 2006; I remember a few juicy morsels and not much else. But today, every bit of that huge fish is as good as it looks in the photo. Firm, succulent, and very fresh; just what you want white fish meat to be. (Maybe a bit too much of that red seasoning salt, but the spicing wasn’t bad.) Lots of bones, though, but worth the extra effort to peel them off and discover a whole other layer of firm fish flesh underneath.) Gourmet Magazine said the flounder is “at the top of our must-eat list”. I do agree.
Betty got the broiled trout ($14.45).
That’s basically a whole fish there. Lovely firm flesh, the flavor different of course from the flounder, and maybe as good. Broiling seems the way to go here. Lots of bones, though. In the back of the photo you can just see the onion rings. They are, as I’ve said, divine. Perfect batter, and not too much of it. For my second side, by the way, I ordered gumbo. Yes, they make a fine gumbo, and it counts as two sides, but they let me have onion rings for only $1.75 extra. In former visits, the gumbo shone but last night the fish was so good I barely noticed it. And also, perhaps, in the intervening years I’d been to Chicory & Chives and Hebert’s. (Note that you can get gumbo to go for $3.75 a pint. I got a quart as we left.) Oh and I mustn’t forget the Hush Puppies, which come free with every order. They are just perfect fried cornmeal with a bit of jalapeno to spice it up. Talking of fried, Cathe got the Fried Catfish ($11.45).
That’s a fine choice too. It’s also available with fried shrimp for 50¢ extra. The cornmeal breading was nice and crunchy, and the fish was fresh. Still, I think the trout and flounder far outshone it. There are several places around where you can get catfish as good or better. But I can’t think of anything to compare with that flounder. Or with White River. Even if you were born within hailing distance of Fisherman’s Wharf or South Street Seaport, it’s worth a pilgrimage to the flatlands around Tulsa Airport to find a real old school fish house.
White River Fish Market and Restaurant of Tulsa
1708 N. Sheridan Road
11 AM to 8 PM daily but closed Sunday
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.