Oklahoma Yin & Yang: Pho Lien Hoa & Iron Starr Urban Barbecue

Here was what there was to eat in Oklahoma when I was growing up: Steak. Chicken-fried steak. Fried chicken. Biscuits. White gravy. Brown gravy. Fried catfish. French fries. Fried okra. Burgers. The occasional barbecued rib. More steak.

Yet even here, things have changed—not a lot, but enough. In just a couple of decades, for instance, Oklahoma City has become home to a significant Vietnamese population—enough to warrant notice by the New York Times back in ’07, in a piece whose author gave a nod to Pho Lien Hoa (aka Pho Hoa). ‘Twas well-deserved.

But for a couple of apps—including the taut-wrapped & sprightly goi cuon (the ubiquitous but rarely so fresh spring rolls) with a superb, thick, smoky-spicy-sweet dip (note the extra dollop of chili sauce on top) & 3 noodle-based dishes (bun), the menu’s composed entirely of soups—nearly 50 in all.

That there’s the H4 or hu tiu My Tho, i.e., pork broth with clear noodles, barbecued pork, shrimp, quail eggs, lettuce, scallions, fried onions & such a cute little cracker with a shrimp in the middle.

As uniquely comforting as noodle soups are, the work that goes into them is easy to underestimate. And while quick-witted, intensive multitasking—chopping & peeling & frying & stirring & draining & chopping & frying some more—is key, the ultimate craftsmanship reveals itself in the broth (as anyone who’s ever made stock from scratch, much less tackled, say, a double consommé, knows all too well). This one was unforgettable—light yet tealike in the complexity of its spiced aroma, & just a slight touch sour-&-sweet. You wouldn’t say it was porky in the way you’d say a beef broth tastes beefy or a chicken broth chickeny; that it was in fact porky was reflected simply in the way it enhanced the mild, chewy slices of pork itself. And beneath it all, an abundance of glass noodles to add slurp to the chew & bite of the meats & veggies.

One soup is not a lot to go on, but it’s enough to ensure that Pho Lien Hoa will be my first stop upon landing at the ever-optimistically named Will Rogers World Airport (there are about 12 gates total; as Rogers himself said, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer”).

Of course, this is still a red state, with cows & oilwells & televangelists & shit; true ‘cue can be found all over the place. But not in a former college bookstore run by a hospitality group. (Real pitmasters don’t wear their corporate values on their sleeves. Hell, they don’t even usually wear sleeves.) There, instead, you’ll find Iron Starr Urban Barbeque, whose menu consists of 1 approximately barbecue classic (ribs, brisket, pulled pork, etc.) to every 4 plates of cornmeal-dusted rock shrimp with jicama slaw or molasses-glazed salmon. In short, this isn’t a barbecue joint, it’s a contemporary American cafe. As such, it’s just fine. As I knew it would be; the way-savvy owners of terrific gourmet shop Forward Foods, my dining companions Wampus & Suzy, wouldn’t steer me wrong.

Though we all had our misgivings upon the arrival of our appetizer of bacon-wrapped quail breast.

Before they could crawl off the plate & squirt us in the eyes with their instant paralyzing venom, we just had to stab the obscene little reanimated body parts in their sore spots & rip ’em in half with our teeth. Turns out suppurating leeches taste pretty good, charred here, unctuous there & slicked with apricot-serrano jam.

Meanwhile, get a load of this “salad.”

Apparently employing mathematical formulae to determine the smallest ratio of vegetable to protein necessary to equal a salad, they actually scooped out the iceberg wedge to make room for a building block of blue cheese & pecans “spiced,” presumably, with lots of butter & brown sugar. I can’t pretend the mixture wasn’t a heady one, right down to the swirling of the pecan drippings into the bacon-blue cheese vinaigrette. The tenderloin, grilled nice & rare, was really just the icing on this guilty-pleasure cake.

As for Wampus’s rib dinner, the description of the house specialty sounds a note of warning in promising “fall-off-the-bone perfection.” In fact, the meat on perfect ribs should not fall off, a sign of overcooking; it should slide clean off. And though the St. Louis–cut pork ribs are supposedly smoked for 24 hours over hickory & pecan, they lacked a well-defined smoke ring. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t competition material. I didn’t try his mac & cheese or “slaw” of seasoned browned onions, jalapenos & I’m not sure what all else, but the latter looked to me like the best thing on the plate.

A bit dry at the edges, the cornbread was otherwise decent, studded with whole kernels. But dessert was the surprise highlight. We split the buttermilk pie  & the 7-layer chocolate cake topped with truffles, & if neither was the intricate stuff of a brilliant pastry chef, both were wholly satisfying, well-textured (I feared the cake might be a bit dry too, but it wasn’t) & clear-flavored for being so rich.

Ultimately, if it’s true ‘cue you’re craving, I’d check out this guy’s suggestions, adding my beloved Bob’s Pig Shop to the roster, & maybe Midwest City’s Mr. Spriggs, if for no other reason than to reward them for the greatest ad ever. For an easygoing bar & grill experience, however, you could certainly do worse than Iron Starr.