In search of the 405’s best barbeque
Photos by Scotty O’Daniel
It is a truth universally acknowledged (I’ve always wanted to open an article that way) that people like to talk about food. It’s one of the prime topics of general conversation, along with the weather and the fortunes of local sports teams. And this is not my first rodeo in discussing some of the metro’s culinary highlights for this magazine – I’ve written about breakfasts, pizza, cheap eats, consulted on burgers – but this topic is a little touchier than most. I learned very quickly that while people like to talk about food, Oklahomans love to talk about barbeque.
See, you can chat with people about Caesar salads or club sandwiches or paella, but they aren’t exactly conversational dynamos. Ribs, are the other hand, genuinely are bones of contention. There’s a lot of pride tied up in the barbeque process (including among customers, apparently), and for the duration of this project, we have had intense, prolonged interest from everyone to whom we’ve mentioned it, inside the office and out. At one point I was on the phone with my dad, who lives three hours away, and as soon as I casually mentioned that I was researching a barbeque article, his immediate response was to lament that County Line BBQ closed a few years ago.
I honestly found it a trifle intimidating to tackle a subject so near and dear to people’s hearts (and stomachs), so we cast a wide net – fueled by a love for quality meats and many emphatic suggestions, Scotty O’Daniel, Brian O’Daniel and I traveled farther than we have for any feature before. From Guthrie to Chickasha, Yukon to Shawnee, we put together a list of truly outstanding sources for meat-filled meals; read on to follow along, and plan a trip of your own.
► The Butcher BBQ Stand
Caveats: It’s only open Friday/Saturday/Sunday. It’s well away from the heart of OKC, along Route 66. It has only picnic tables under a roof – no walls, no indoor plumbing. And it sells out regularly, because it is fantastic. We arrived and ordered as it opened at 11 a.m. one Friday; before noon there was a line 30 people deep. The burnt ends (which they call “meat candy”) are amazing, although the brisket is plenty thick, tender and savory on its own. And for that matter, the glazed crust on the ribs is noticeably, marvelously sweet. The only thing I can complain about is its inaccessibility, and if it were any more convenient it would probably implode from the press of customers. Must, must-try.
3402 OK-66, Wellston | butcherbbqstand.com
► Van’s Pig Stand
There are five total locations and even two in Shawnee, but come on: This is the oldest family barbeque in Oklahoma, so you want the almost-original location, in a brick building that’s been standing since the ’30s. There’s a cozy feeling from the wood paneling throughout, much of which has been amply graffitied over the years, and if you get a chance, peek downstairs into the Charcoal Room dining area. The pulled pork and chopped beef are both excellent; try them in a baked potato if you’re not too worried about starches, because the mac and cheese is divine.
Multiple locations, including 717 E Highland, Shawnee | pigstands.com
► Swadley’s Bar-B-Q
This is another local place I had known about forever and am glad to finally try. There’s a sign in the Bethany location referring to “Swadley’s Grand Champion Hogs,” which if it’s of the same lineage as the restaurant, might help explain why this was one of the only places we encountered ham, and also why the sausage was so rich and delectable. Pretty much everything in the Oklahoma Sampler’s collection of turkey, ham, sausage, brisket and a rib was good, but when I come back on my own it’ll be for the sausage and the creamed corn.
Multiple locations, including 4000 N Rockwell, Bethany | swadleys.com
► Texlahoma BBQ
Finding and adding places like this to my repertoire is why I look forward to this kind of story so much. Tucked into a strip in north Edmond, a space you could drive by a dozen times without noticing, it’s home to some completely spectacular flavors. The atmosphere is spare but comfy – the mismatched chairs are a nice design touch, and I appreciated the blues soundtrack while we were there. The pulled pork is great, the brisket is cut from Iowa Premium beef and the ribs are amazing, especially if you make the trip in on Saturday for beef ribs. Highly, highly recommended.
121 Waterloo, Edmond | Texlahoma FB
► Mr. Sprigg’s
Robert Frost wrote that “Nothing gold can stay,” and sadly this Midwest City destination is no longer at 1017 S Air Depot; it moved down the street a little. The good news, though, is that it’s always tender and meat still falls off the bone. (If that doesn’t ring any bells, search for “mr spriggs bbq” on YouTube and enjoy.) The ribs are a pleasure, especially with some potato salad and okra.
700 S Air Depot, Midwest City | mrspriggsbbq.com
► Beef & Bun
From the name, you might be expecting a burger place – but finding this little repurposed fast-food restaurant on the east side of I-35 will put you in front of some wonderful brisket, as well as what is easily among the best fried catfish in OKC. If you’re early enough, you might even be able to get some cobbler before it sells out, as it perpetually does.
2741 NE 23rd, OKC | Beef & Bun FB
► Back Door Barbecue
First-time visitors might feel a touch of spatial dissonance, given that the owners have put a lot of design effort into making this ample space on the bustling 23rd Street look rustic. I especially like the wall map of famous OK barbeque locales, including the old Wild Horse Mountain in Sallisaw – as a Poteau native, it was my go-to example of excellence for decades. Back Door’s variety of sauces helps put whatever flavor spin you’re in the mood for onto the meats, which are very good across the board, especially the black-peppered beef sausage and smoked turkey. Keep an eye on the specials board when ordering, as the rotating combinations of ingredients that go into the daily Beastwich often pay delicious dividends.
315 NW 23rd, OKC | backdoorbarbecue.com
► Bedlam Bar-B-Q
Its location a straight shot up Lincoln from the Capitol might be a factor, but Bedlam is quite popular – we encountered a full house with a line out the door on a random Wednesday – and comfortably crowded inside, where the plushly appointed décor is a far cry from the rows of cafeteria tables that filled its earlier incarnation. The menu ranges a bit farther afield than some others on this list, including combo sandwiches, smoked chicken and sides such as broccoli rice and Vietnamese egg rolls. The Bedlam sandwich is a mélange of pork, chicken, beef and hot link all chopped together and served on a bun, and this might sound hyperbolic but I kinda want to eat it every day for the rest of my life.
610 NE 50th, OKC | bedlambarbq.com
► Roy’s Bar-B-Q
Jake’s Rib (pg. 52) may be a Chickasha institution, but Roy’s is even more venerable – this side-street stop is about to hit its 45th anniversary, in a building we were told is pushing 80. It is unmistakably, perfectly old school … down to its inability to accept credit cards. Try the delicious-looking smoked chicken or chopped brisket sandwich, with the house special of waffle potatoes, which are basically giant, thick-cut, ridged chips with a little seasoning. First-time customers get to try them for free, so you can’t miss.
309 W Missouri, Chickasha | Roy's Bar-B-Q on FB
► Leo’s BBQ
You can’t fake Leo’s feeling of long-lived authenticity or buy a reputation like it has, and we loved all of it. The ribs are less sweet and more smoky than several we tried, but right up there in the uppermost tier, the chopped brisket was lean and tender with a scattering of near-crispy black tips (so pretty much perfect) and the hot links and smoked bologna disappeared almost immediately. Through it all, the sauce is sneakily addictive, with a little vinegar up front and slight but palpable heat in the back. I’ve lived in central Oklahoma for 20 years now and just set foot in Leo’s for the first time; learn from my mistake and don’t deprive yourself.
3631 N Kelley, OKC | Leo's BBQ on FB
► Iron Star
It’s hard to believe this OKC staple is merely 15 years old; it feels like it’s been around a good deal longer. The atmosphere is perfect (as can be expected from a Good Egg Dining Group project), and you’ll probably want a combo plate because the meats are all stars, perhaps especially the pulled pork and brown sugar-cured brisket. Don’t forget the cornbread, mac and cheese and, potentially, pie.
3700 N Shartel, OKC | ironstarokc.com
► Bad Brad’s BBQ
I’m a fan. It has a little more of a “full-service restaurant that happens to specialize in barbeque” feel than most of the other places – there’s an appetizer section on the menu, and 100 percent more fish tacos than we found anywhere else – but they really do specialize in it: The Saddle Buster’s pile of pulled pork, brisket, hot links and ribs is tasty all the way through, especially with some cornbread and coleslaw. Plus, the fried triangles of batter-coated macaroni and cheese from that appetizer section are outstanding.
700 W Main, Yukon; 3317 E 6th Ave, Stillwater | badbrads.com
► George’s Happy Hog
If you’re approaching from the west, don’t be thrown by driving through the residential area of Lincoln Terrace – you’ll find the small shopping center that houses this restaurant, which has the vibe of a spot that’s been a favorite neighborhood hangout for a long time. The counter service gives you an opportunity to watch the expert wield a cleaver, and the results are worth it: Try the ribs (or rib ends, but they’re a little more effort to navigate), smoked bologna and homemade potato salad.
712 Culbertson, OKC | George's Happy Hog FB
► Steve's Rib
First of all: I don’t know what the scribbly cartoon mascot is supposed to be. Secondly, Steve’s is a sports bar that has barbeque on the menu, so someone could easily eat here all the time by sticking to burgers, salads or club sandwiches. Third, that hypothetical person is missing out on the enticing red chili honey glaze that’s basted onto the baby back ribs; he needs to get with the program. Finally, the real tragedy would be for this imaginary guy to forego the cobbler. It’s spectacular.
1801 W Edmond, Edmond | stevesrib.com
► Earl’s Rib Palace
I don’t know how much I can tell you about someplace so ubiquitous on the OKC barbeque scene, but here’s a quick piece of trivia: We’ve done a Best of the 405 poll for five years now, and this local landmark has won Best Barbeque five times. Its name might be Earl’s, but around here it’s the King. You’ll do fine with about anything on the menu – they even do a quality bacon cheeseburger – but we opted for the two-meat sandwich called the Big Earl. Actually, speaking of trivia, the lady at the register said we were the first party to order a double Big Earl (Great Big Earl?), the better to enjoy the pulled pork, sliced brisket, hot link and turkey, as well as the visual.
Multiple locations, including 216 Johnny Bench, OKC | earlsribpalace.com
► KT’s Smokehouse
Up on a hill overlooking the beautiful countryside on the outskirts of Blanchard, KT’s feels a bit like a banquet hall, very spacious and comfy and clean but convincingly rustic thanks to corrugated tin cladding on the walls and old license plates and taxidermy scattered around. I urge you to get the ribs (sweet, sticky and great) and catfish special – I know catfish isn’t barbeque, but it is a house specialty here, and you’d be crazy to miss it. This is another place I’d love to revisit in the future.
8329 N Council, Blanchard | ktssmokehouse.com
► Jake’s Rib
I get the impression that the word of the day at Jake’s is “big,” and I mean every day. I am not making this up: At the table behind us, the waitress advised a woman against ordering the curly fries as a side, because someone else at the table already had “and they’re ginormous.” They are; multiple potatoes’ worth in an order, and one example of how determined Jake’s is that no one will leave hungry. We had plenty of leftovers from our enormous, savory pork ribs (they achieve a really nice crackle on the skin) and mound of hot links. And to my friend Sarah, who recommended it when we were at OU 20 years ago: You were right all this time.
100 Ponderosa, Chickasha | Jake's Rib on FB
► Billy Boy
More than 30,000 people live in Shawnee, not to mention the major interstate that serves to ferry untold thousands more into and through town … yet this bustling café manages to hang onto a faint small-town community vibe. As we were perusing the menu, a lady at the next table paused on her way out to praise a couple of dishes and recommend the proprietors’ family steakhouse (Paul’s Place) nearby, for when we got hungry again. It would have taken a while, especially since we elected to augment our ribs with the house specialty of the chicken bite basket – the owner told us they serve around 400 pounds of chicken bites a week.
120 W MacArthur, Shawnee | Billy Boy on FB
► Oklahoma Station BBQ
It’s celebrating its silver anniversary this year and feels older than 25, what with the train theme – it’s not very luxurious, but it’s also not very expensive, and the options are legitimately worthwhile. Try the pulled pork, or better yet, the tender sliced brisket replete with smoke flavor paired with thoroughly wonderful fried potatoes. And don’t leave without trying the apple cobbler.
4331 NW 50th, OKC | OK Station BBQ on FB
► Railhead BBQ
Now this is legitimately rustic. A gravel lot, tables on a concrete floor with metal folding chairs, plastic utensils – it feels even farther out in the wilderness than it is, to the point that you might have trouble getting cell service. The food is really good, especially the ribs. We had planned to order, take a few bites, get some to-go boxes and move on to the next place; I’m still a little vague on the details, but we cleaned our plates down to the bones and I’m not sure all the bones were left afterward either. I’m fairly certain I ate part of my napkin. Be sure to avail yourself of the multitude of sauces … if you can avoid slipping into some kind of meat-fugue.
13978 S Douglas, Guthrie | railheadbbqok.com
Bosses of Sauce
I was a little surprised at how many places either have one sauce or two (regular and hot), the end. Some of them are quite good – Leo’s and Jake’s, for example – but you have to appreciate the range of Railhead’s six varieties and Back Door’s five. In the end, despite Railhead’s tip-top molasses and honey sauces, I’d give the nod to Back Door for the trifecta of classic, XXX2 and espresso.
Barons of Brisket
Central Oklahoma does damn good brisket; there are no losers in this race. With that said, The Butcher BBQ Stand outdid Van’s, Oklahoma Station and even Leo’s and Texlahoma in what we had. And they’re all spectacular! But Butcher’s brisket is the kind of great that makes your nostrils flare, your eyelids flutter and your inner monologue tell you that everything’s going to be better from here on out. Yup, it might actually change your life.
Pulled Pork Paragons
Good: Oklahoma Station. Better: Bad Brad’s. Best: Probably due in part to sourcing it from the renowned Seaboard Farms in Hennessey, Okla., you’re not likely to find anything to top Iron Star.
The best provider of this occasionally underappreciated protein is a close race to call – the gold easily could go to Earl’s or Iron Star. Full disclosure: My naming of Back Door as the victor might have been influenced by adding strips of crispy pork belly, basil mayo and espresso sauce. Further full disclosure: I regret nothing.
Sultans of Sausage
The black pepper variety at Back Door is truly excellent, but the moment my teeth broke the skin to sink into that rich, juicy and succulent Swadley’s sausage, this contest was over.
As much as we loved the smoky savor of Leo’s and tender sweetness of Butcher’s, my favorite ribs reside at Texlahoma. Head honcho Brian let us take a peek inside his smokehouse one Saturday morning while describing the process (it includes 12 hours in the smoker and a finish in the oven for texture), and speaking of Saturdays, that’s the only opportunity to lay hands on the massive size and impeccable bark of their beef ribs – consider that a strong suggestion.
Stars Among Sides
Get the fried potatoes at KT’s. I’m not burying the lede here, go do it. I love the curly fries at Earl’s, Iron Star’s mac and cheese and Swadley’s creamed corn, and Butcher BBQ puts apple pie filling in its baked beans, which is crazy enough to be completely great. However, this serving of seasoned potatoes lightly fried with onions and green peppers was the single best side we had, hands down.
Dukes of Dessert
The cobbler is delicious at both Oklahoma Station and Steve’s Rib, and KT’s makes their own fried pies in cherry, chocolate, peach and other flavors. But Leo’s strawberry-banana cake is justly renowned; a light, sweet, delicate palate cleanser to send you out into the world with a smile.
► Further Reading (and eating)
One of the best parts of this endeavor wasn’t the experience itself of eating so much goodness, but the pleasure of anticipation in knowing not merely that so many of these places are eminently worth eating at again; there are also so many more places to try that eluded even our (fairly exhaustive) efforts. Once our cholesterol levels subside a trifle, it might be time to give these a test taste:
Billy Sims | multiple locations | billysimsbbq.com
Blake’s Barbecue | 2100 N Eastern, Moore | blakesbarbecue.com
JT’s Barbeque | 505 S Sunnylane, OKC | jtsbarbque.com
Ken’s Steak and Ribs | 408 E Main, Amber | kenssteaksandribs.com
Maples Barbecue | 318 NW 11th, OKC | maplesbarbecue.com
Ray’s Smokehouse | 1514 W Lindsey, Norman | raysbbqok.com
Robb’s Smokehouse | 2321 Kickapoo, Shawnee | Robb's Smokehouse on FB
Rudy’s | multiple locations | rudysbbq.com
Spencer’s Smokehouse | 9900 NE 23rd, OKC | spencersbbqokc.com
► Simply the Best
But when all is said and done, you want to know which spot is the best of the best, right? So we kept track as we traveled hither and yon, then sat down and made top-five ballots and scored them Heisman-style (five points for first place, four for second, etc.) – and we reached a near-unanimous decision.
5. Oklahoma Station (2)
4. Back Door Barbecue (5)
3. Leo’s BBQ (10)
2. Texlahoma (12)
1. The Butcher BBQ Stand (14)
That’s one second-place and two first-place votes, which you’ll have to admit is pretty impressive. Wellston is a bit of a jaunt, but the trip is worth it. Just remember to bring a Pikepass or some change for the tollbooth.