We headed north out of Dallas and rolled up towards Oklahoma City. We stopped short in a little town called Norman for our first destination. The Diner is a quaint little restaurant in a charming little downtown area. It’s a shotgun affair with an open kitchen on the right, booths on the left and a ten stool counter up the middle all disappearing towards the back. The place has a lot of character and as well it should since the building is over 100 years old. It was built in 1892 and was formerly a chili parlor. Unlike other older restaurants that are small and tight, this one has a clearly defined walk-way/aisle up the middle. There’s no clashing of faces, elbows and cabooses.
The first thing you notice when you walk in (besides the smell of all the great food) is the grill, which requires the care and skill of a masterful short-order cook. Our cook was none other than the owner’s daughter, Bonnie. She was a total pro and made sure she cooked everything exactly the way we like it. Can’t complain about that. In the mix was our waitress, Lindsey, who was a kick in the pants and took great care of us. We also got to meet the owner, Claire, who was busy working in the back. She stopped and talked to us for a few minutes and answered our questions about the place. She was friendly, warm and gracious. The Diner has been in the family for almost twenty years now, and her husband, Mark, (who did the show with Guy) had recently passed away.
They’re open for breakfast and lunch, get this, seven days a week. They have a great menu and it was no easy feat trying to figure out what we should order. They let us sample their championship chili, which was excellent. We didn’t know if we wanted breakfast or lunch, and we ended up ordering both. We didn’t quite get our chicken fried steak fix covered in Texas, so we ordered that with eggs, hash browns and an English muffin. It was all cooked to perfection, and I couldn’t have done it better myself (which makes me a happy guy).
We also ordered a signature burger called the Santa Fe; which turned out to be lip smacking goodness. With the care and precision of a surgeon, Bonnie whipped up a concoction of New Mexico chiles, onions and tomatoes cooked with 15 spices. That mixture topped a perfectly cooked burger with cheese (and fries on the side). I can tell you that I will not long forget that Santa Fe burger. In fact, it was so good, it was better than some of the burgers we had in Santa Fe.
So, you can be sure that they’re doing everything right at The Diner. The chicken fried steak breakfast was excellent and good to the last bite. Come to think of it, I’m surprised there wasn’t a line out the door and down the street. Go see the hard-working lovely ladies at The Diner in Norman,Oklahoma and sample their great food and hospitality.
We ate till we were stuffed, and after waddling out to the car, we drove the rest of the way up to OKC. We got settled into a room for two nights and knocked around for the rest of the afternoon. For dinner, we set out to the west for El Reno and the home of the famed onion burger (a preview of the next day’s main event).
El Reno is a little town right off the I-40 and there are three little burger joints that are all famous for the onion burger. Legend has it that this burger was born of necessity during the great depression. They could stretch the meat by mixing it with thinly sliced onions. The flavor was so good, it caught on in the region. We went to three places, all within a block or two of each other. Apparently, there is no rivalry whatsoever between these three places. No one is claiming to be the best.
We first stopped at Robert’s grill, the oldest place in town (since 1926). We ordered the onion burger with cheese and sat back to watch the show. The young man there on the grill was friendly and offered us a sample of their chili with Cole slaw on the top (another regional dish). It was tasty. The burger came out and it was delightful. I really enjoyed the onion flavor, the moistness of the bun, the gooey melted cheese, and the whole thing was piping hot. Just one little problem. He didn’t season the meat. I just wanted to have it the way they make it, but apparently they only season meat on request. It was still yummy, and it would prove to be the biggest of the three burgers as well as the least expensive. We thanked the young man and told him we would let him know if we liked any of the other burgers better than his. He must have asked us to do that, because I sure wouldn’t have volunteered to hurt his feelings.
We next went to Sid’s Diner, and ordered an onion burger with cheese to go. The owner, Marty, invited us to sit down at the counter and eat our burger right there. Marty is the original owner’s (Sid) son, and was a consummate pro on the grill. He had a very pleasing and calm manner about him, as well as being articulate and friendly. He invited us to sign their guest book, which we were happy to do. I mentioned to Marty that they didn’t season the meat at Robert’s Grill and it didn’t look like he was planning to either. He promptly reached for a shaker and seasoned our meat, and said that they normally don’t unless it is requested. Most likely, they know all their regulars and know how everyone wants their food. Marty served up our burger and it was a real taste treat. I liked his style, and it was hands down our favorite place.
We last went to Johnnie’s Grill, which was well lit and seemed to be the busiest place. It struck us as maybe a high school hang-out, and no one seemed to give us a second glance. We ordered our burger, ate it, and left. Although it was piping hot, the burger lacked flavor and it was not seasoned. No one cared if we liked our food or not. It was like we had big signs that we’re radioactive (or from California). Didn’t hear any banjos.
We went back to see the young man at the first place, and I told him that his burger was great, but we liked the burger at Sid’s better because it was seasoned. It would have been easier to lie. Both burgers were made with the most important ingredient of all—love. The young man told us that he would have seasoned our burger for us too if we had asked him for it. Live and learn. He was a good sport about it and it didn’t seem to phase him in the least. Obviously they all know each other and they’re probably all friends. I probably will drop back by and see Marty for a onion burger with cheese the next time I roll through Oklahoma on the 40.
Thursday morning: The main event. As promised, I told Justin at Nic’s Grill that I would arrive for lunch on a Thursday, nice and early, and ravenously hungry. It was over a year in the making.
We drove over and got in line just outside the door. The little place was packed and it would stay packed the whole time we were there. Of course that’s not our bag, but that’s where the food is. I was happy to see Justin again and wondered if he would remember me. Justin was sporting a nice beard and had let his hair grow out. He was slammed on the grill, but he did remember me, and thanked me for the letter I had sent him. We finally got a seat at the counter and ordered our onion burger with cheese and the Thursday special, Fried Chicken.
It was fun to watch Justin work. He was cooking about six burgers at a time, in addition to everything else. He was way too busy to talk, so we just settled in and watched him work. He goes so fast it’s hard to keep up. He went so fast, I couldn’t even get a good picture of the burgers. He sets up the bottom buns with your choice of mustard or mayonnaise, as well as lettuce, tomatoes and pickles (or however you like it.
At just the right moment, the rest of the burger is snatched off the griddle and placed on top. Justin cuts the burger in half and voila. It’s a giant goopy mess, but it’s a total delight to the senses and piping hot. This giant burger with double cheese and onions grilled in butter is still less than five bucks. I don’t know how (or why) he does it. Maybe he’s getting his beef for .29 cents a pound or something. I’m just glad that I was able to get it fresh off the grill this time. It was a year and a half, almost to the day, since the last time we made it to Nic’s Grill… woefully late. Justin saved the day.
Our pan-fried chicken dinner was cooked in the back, and plated up just the way I like it. A thigh, breast, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and grilled bread. Perfect. The chicken had a great fry on it, and was cooked to perfection with the meat staying super moist. The flavor of the meat was the best I can remember having anywhere, and the flavor went all the way to the bone. I asked Justin if he brines the chicken, but he wasn’t talking. He does a spice rub, which was featured on the show, but maybe he lets that set up overnight. However he does it, it’s better than finger-licking good.
After leaving Nic’s Grill, we drove over to Bricktown, and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the river walk and surrounding shops. We were hungry for dinner by the time we arrived at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. We had to wait for nearly an hour. We finally got a booth and drew a great waitress named Tabitha. Before I share the dining experience, let me warn you that I almost never order a steak in a restaurant. I can’t handle the disappointment, which is most of the time. I make a great steak at home, and I’m happy to leave it at that. I made an exception for the Cattlemen’s because of its tradition and long history (since 1910).
We ordered the Rib Eye steak, medium “Pink hot center” and the half pound sirloin steak burger, medium-well “Hot center; trace of pink” which is how Anna likes it. Tabitha was off and we settled in for the wait. The place looks like they haven’t changed the decor since they opened. Lots of brick and old art work. The place had a nice atmosphere in terms of everyone having a good time. The large table next to us was keeping the bartenders busy. In terms of decor, Anna and I joked that this is the kind of place where Robert Irvine and his crew would come into a failing restaurant and bash the place before they gut it.
Our salad came out first. Although the salad was little more than rough chopped iceberg lettuce, it was topped with their signature salad dressing that takes two weeks to make. It was featured on the show. Tabitha described it as a creamy garlic dressing with longhorn cheese. They serve it with a little basket of stale bread pieces in lieu of croutons. The salad dressing was good, and it would turn out to be the best part of our dinner. Ouch.
Our food was brought out by a runner, who stood over us and insisted that I cut into the steak and check its temperature. The temperature was fine, but the steak was so thin I don’t know what difference it would make. I was disappointed that Tabitha didn’t serve our dinner. The steak was served in a puddle of jus, and wasn’t anything special in terms of being aged or having great flavor. It was adequate at best, and I was greatly disappointed. I really didn’t even want to eat it, but it had been a long wait and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of an alternative. The baked potato, which was turning soggy from sitting in a pool of jus, wasn’t anything special either, and they served it with margarine!
Even worse was the burger. It looked dry and the bun was undressed. By the time I got some mayonnaise on it, it wasn’t hot anymore. We built the burger, took the pictures and then cut it in half. It was rare! By their own definitions it was medium rare at best. Tabitha took a look at it and said, “Yeah, that’s our medium well.” I felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone. The cheese wasn’t melted and the vegetables were dripping wet. In terms of a quality burger, it was a very poor showing.
I still hadn’t tried the steak yet, but I knew I was going to be disappointed. I was getting more upset by the minute. We were going to send the burger back, but it was so disappointing and upsetting, we just told her to keep it and take it off our check. Tabitha brought us some butter for the potato and we shared the steak. We had also ordered a side of broccoli because the steak doesn’t come with vegetables. The broccoli was steamed and topped with a little melted cheese, which was good. The steak was a pisser. Technically, it wasn’t dry. But it didn’t have the mouth feel of a juicy steak, and it was sorely lacking seasoning.
A manager type came up to the table and insisted that they would like the opportunity to make us happy with the burger. By then, we felt like the whole experience was ruined and they had their chance to get the burger right the first time. We politely declined. I wasn’t upset so much because the burger was undercooked; I was upset because it just didn’t look like much of a burger. I thought it would be a great idea to have a burger at a famous steakhouse, and my plans were dashed against the rocks. I’m sure the manager meant well, and I’m sure they would have cooked a fresh burger to perfection for us, but the poor guy just didn’t have a clue about all the fantastic burgers we’d been eating over the last few weeks. I guess I’m becoming a hamburger snob.
Although we thought Tabitha was great, we didn’t care for much else. We just wanted to finish eating and go. Tabitha brought our check, and instead of taking the burger off the bill, the manager left it on there as though it had been comped. They wanted us to pay the sales tax on it. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t want to pay it as a matter of principle. She took the check back and rather than fiddle with the sales tax, they took the broccoli off the check. Fine. We left Tabatha a nice tip, and just shook our heads in disbelief that a place could be so busy and so popular for so long and put out that kind of food.
Anna and I have learned, from much experience, that a lot of people just don’t know what good food is supposed to taste like. It really is amusing sometimes, and then at other times it’s disappointing. We’re not food snobs or anything, but we’ve learned to be skeptical. I don’t mean that as a put down. I’ve had some aha moments myself. For example, I will never forget how tender and succulent the brisket was at Texas Pride Barbecue. It literally melts in your mouth, and now I know what it means to have great brisket.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get close to that high level of righteous brisket doing my own at home, but it will certainly be a worthy goal. I’m kind of torn right now whether to buy a full metal rig, similar to the smoker at Pecan Lodge only smaller, or build something out of bricks. I’m even considering a Traeger because of the convenience (it automatically feeds and burns wood pellets). It’s more goof proof than tending a real fire for 18 hours. I need to find a pitmaster closer to home and learn more about it before I make any big decisions. All I know for sure is that I won’t be able to live without brisket. Stay tuned.
Next DDD Destination: Santa Fe (DDD Count: 253)