In a city as expansive and varied as ours, the question of what makes it remarkable easily could prompt a different answer from each of the more than 600,000 people who call Oklahoma City home. Approaching the subject from their differing backgrounds and mindsets, these three noteworthy citizens focus on some of the different facets that combine to make the 405 a distinctive whole.
Painting a city portrait
A painter and line artist of Choctaw descent whose work is collected around the world, D.G. Smalling has been creating for as long as he can remember, and describes art – performing or visual – as a way of life for him and his family. That means that his Oklahoma City is a wonderland of great art, whether in galleries or painted onto buildings, as well as incredible food from every ethnicity, and people and places he loves. And make no mistake, he loves OKC.
“Oklahoma City is young,” he says. “In 100 years, this city has transformed itself. We are a city where the arts are paramount, and the city embraces art in remarkable ways. It’s almost in defiance of the idiocy of the Oklahoma Legislature, and I mean the sycophant obstructionists that I have the pleasure of never working with and always against, who are cutting and cutting away at the arts and culture of our state. Oklahoma Cityans are contrarians, so, in a way, they’re saying ‘f— you, we will have art and we will be proud in the face of insanity.’ We are seeing an increase in great food, even in schools, more diversity in our leadership, more sports, more music … because that’s what a republic is, after all.
“When I want to give visitors the full Oklahoma City experience, I drive them from Norman to Edmond on Western Avenue, and then from Nicoma Park to Lake Overholser on NW 23rd Street. That’s Oklahoma City,” he says. “You see the full spectrum: wages, ethnicity, religions, people. The confluence is wonderful. And the food is exceptional.”
Florence’s Restaurant, 1437 NE 23rd, is a great place to start our tour. The chicken thighs and collards are among Smalling’s favorite meals. It’s a coincidence, but shouldn’t be surprising, that this magazine included Florence’s in last month’s colossal guide to excellent cheap eats in the 405.
Smalling also let us in on a personally treasured secret: “OK, Cattlemen’s has the best burger in the entire world, but it’s not on the menu. First of all, the place dry-ages its meat for 33 days.” He waxed poetic about that for a minute or two and then returned to the subject at hand. “Ask for the Heart Attack Burger. It’s about $10, and it’s a half-pound, ground-steak patty. It’s served on Texas toast, and it’s topped with grilled onions, grilled jalapenos and three cheeses. It’s served medium-rare. And then, be sure to order these sides: the house dressing and barbeque sauce. These are for dipping your onion rings or French fries. There. I just betrayed myself, that’s my favorite guilty pleasure in the city.”
Murals are another big part of his OKC. “The Hunter Battery building at the southwest corner of SW 25th and Walker is covered in an incredible mural by [Jeremiah] Lovato,” he says. “It is exquisite. It’s the Stations of the Cross, beautifully rendered. Beautiful.”
Another one, at Robert S. Kerr and Classen, not coincidentally a stone’s throw from the Oklahoma County Jail, depicts “Humanity looking to God,” Smallings says. “It speaks to redemption. When you see that, that is art. That is a serious skillset. The detail on the body, the anatomical correctness … there is no slacking on this.” Coming from a man who has been a featured artist at Epcot in Walt Disney World, the State of Oklahoma Centennial Show in 2007 and Paris’ Grand Palais, and been commissioned to paint portraits of such luminaries as Sandra Day O’Connor, Tom Cole, T. Boone Pickens, and Sir Tony Blair, that’s high praise indeed.
He points out that there is a treasure trove of art, which can be seen by appointment, at the Oklahoma Judicial Center. According to Smalling, Justice Yvonne Kauger, who is like a godmother to him, believes that the center is the house of the people, and the artwork inside and on the grounds is the people’s, too.
“Sixty percent of what is in there is from the archives of the Historical Society and is on permanent loan. The rest has been commissioned from Oklahoma artists,” Smalling says.
Touchingly, in the 1980s, when the state’s veterans memorial needed restoration, it was the court that undertook the project, with the position that the Supreme Court and the military men and women who have died are partners in defending the constitution.
Down the road with Matt Goad
Oklahoma City musician and artist Matt Goad has formed a record label with Chainsaw Kittens frontman Tyson Meade, aiming to celebrate Oklahoma musicians. A sleepy-sounding Goad answered the phone at the agreed-upon interview time early on a Thursday morning, despite having spent most of the night at Norman’s Bell Labs, a recording studio owned by Kitten and longtime musician Trent Bell.
“Hey, could I call you right back?” Goad asked, a little raspy and clearly uncaffeinated. About 20 minutes later, there was a much perkier voice on the line. His natural enthusiasm for art of any ilk kicked in like matcha, and the conversation was off and running, in a decisively nonlinear direction.
“I’m really, really excited about a project I’m doing with Tyson,” he says. “We’ve started a record label. It’s called Shaking Shanghai, and it’s all about bands that we listen to and that we’ve curated. Tyson is incredibly well known in the underground music scene – and in fact, he’s in L.A. right now, hanging out with the Counting Crows guys. We’re up to some pretty big things, focusing on indie, underground and primarily Oklahoma-based bands.”
The name Shaking Shanghai is a nod to two things: Meade’s time spent as the headmaster of a boarding school in China, and Oklahoma’s thousands of earthquakes. Meade may also be a political savant. “How crazy is the fact that Trump may be our next president,” Goad muses. “Tyson predicted the whole thing, in a way, in 1993 on his album “Pop Heiress.”
“Right now, we are focused on three bands. Gum, which is an indie rock/pop group, recorded their first record with us last year. Most people don’t expect that we would have this kind of music in Oklahoma, but we do.”
Norman-based band Helen Kelter Skelter is the second of three ponies in the stable, and Goad’s own group, the Feel Spectres, is the third.
“These young guys are awesome,” Goad says. “They’re doing things that are so creative and they’re really worth seeking out and listening to.” Goad’s band is releasing its third album, and has been described as a “feel-good, spacey pop party.”
But back to the murals.
“My other big thing is art,” Goad says. He’s a regionally acclaimed painter, and his work is almost everywhere, if you look. “There’s a place called Lettering Express, and they’re kind of an artistic hub. It’s a sign company but it’s so much more.”
“It’s at Reno and Penn, and every couple of months they host art openings. It’s not just the artists who have sort of become the usual suspects around town, it’s tons of new kids who are doing all kinds of weird stuff.”
Goad has a few murals in progress, but while the rest of us are just discovering the richly muralled majesty of the 405, Goad is clearly on to the next thing. He’s not really taciturn, but he’s got the restless, never-satisfied tone of an artist who is restless and never satisfied.
“I don’t know how I feel about murals anymore,” he says. “I mean, they’re great, but everybody’s doing murals, sort of just for the sake of it. Just because you have a big wall doesn’t mean you should paint a mural on it.”
That being said, Goad’s next murals are planned for spots on Film Row and the Plaza District. Insert smiling emoji here.
Taking care of business
Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, knows the ins and outs of our fair city, as well, and he loves spilling the beans about the inherent coolness of Oklahoma City. Especially if it’s unexpectedly cool.
“Oklahoma City is one of the best cities for startup businesses. One of the Chamber’s biggest initiatives is economic development through entrepreneurship,” Williams says. “Think about the companies in Oklahoma City that are fantastic corporate citizens. They were all startups right here: Love’s, Devon, Chesapeake, Sonic and American Fidelity.
“The reality is that corporate relocation doesn’t happen. Not often. So we want to grow the next Love’s right here. And we are serious about it. We offer people with big ideas tools to help them: mentoring, early-stage capital development and incubator space.
“Here’s something not many people realize. Even now, Oklahoma City’s unemployment rate is just 3.9 percent,” he says. “We all know that there have been layoffs and downsizing in the oil sector, which is hard, but the oil industry, the energy industry only makes up 3 percent of the metro’s employment. Now, the impact on nonprofits and other things is different. But for employment, biosciences and aviation/aerospace each make up about 6 percent. But that’s different from the public’s perception.”
Another fun fact that may surprise you: The fastest-growing employment sector in Oklahoma City is hospitality. “Sports have become really big,” Williams says. “Bricktown has blossomed. Hotels are popping up all over the place. Construction is going like gangbusters.”
Williams reports that Oklahoma City is engaging in some socio-experimentation, as well, and it’s happening as we speak in two adjacent districts, now morphing into something new. An innovation district now encompasses the Health Sciences Center and Automobile Alley.
“It’s a Brookings Institute Innovation District,” Williams says. “The idea is that we want all of the smartest people to live and work and interact together. It’s a challenge from a logistical standpoint because, in the old days, everything was zoned separately: residential, retail and so on.”
Slower traffic, more biking lanes and making a place where people can walk between their homes, jobs, entertainment and shopping are some of the things a study by the Brookings Institute and the Project for Public Spaces have identified as key.
“Oklahoma City is an innovative community, and Brookings and PPS’ study will allow us to continue to realize and capitalize on our assets,” says Williams. “The continued growth of Oklahoma City’s medical center and the surrounding areas will bolster the economy and strengthen the bonds of collaboration. And equally important, the lessons learned during this project will be applicable to other areas of Oklahoma City.”
Williams points out that we’re a forward-thinking city. In the next three years alone, the face of our city will undergo further transformation with the completion of MAPS projects such as the convention center and downtown park. “Our new transit system will be done in just two years.”
Similar integrative development has happened, or is happening, organically in Midtown and the Plaza District. “Most of what is happening is being done by local developers, which is important because they’re in tune with what the city wants or needs. When out-of-state developers come into a place, they can actually damage the community by overbuilding,” he says.
“Our city is incredibly unique and diverse. Oklahomans are growing Oklahoma City, and we’re doing it the Oklahoma way.”
An Overlooked Gem
OKC’s superfood supercenter Spices of India
Here’s something you should definitely add to your own view of the city. Who could have predicted that when the doors of the iconic 66 Bowl closed for the last time, the building’s next incarnation would be as a massive international grocer and café?
I can think of just two people: Nita and Rajni Patel, who for 25 years have brought Oklahoma City, well, Spices of India – and for many, the flavors of home. They moved into the location in 2012 after occupying several locations in a shopping center at NW 23rd and MacArthur.
“Our first location was just 1,250 square feet, and when we started, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” says a smiling, soft-spoken Nita Patel. Today, the grocery side of the building is 18,000 square feet, with an additional 2,500 allocated to the restaurant Rasoi, which serves up delicious, economical curries in an unpretentious setting.
“We try to help each customer, to make special orders for them and to give them a little bit of home. We have a lot of British people, who are stationed at Tinker from overseas, who shop here. We support many communities’ needs. People from India, Pakistan and other Asian and Middle Eastern countries shop here.”
After a quarter-century, the Patels are now the go-to grocers for a second generation of clients, who grew up coming to Spices of India with their parents.
“We are always trying new things,” Patel says. “You have to take risks.”
In 2013, the pair took a calculated risk and added a café to the enterprise, Rasoi. It’s not fancy by any means – expect disposable plates and cutlery – but the food! Fragrant, perfectly spiced curries, fresh, warm flatbreads and decadent sweets are the house specialties, and they are delicious.
It would take days to properly explore all of the offerings at Spices of India. The “we can pickle that” hipsters of “Portlandia” would lose their minds: One aisle alone holds definitive proof that you can, in fact. Chiles, limes, ginger, mango, bitter gourds, lemons, onions, fish, prawns and tomatoes are all pickled and jarred, and just waiting to top your baked salmon or sassy up your hummus.
Dried lentils of every description, along with every bean you could ever want, line the shelves of one bowling lane-length aisle. In a corner, near the check stand, is a small but well-curated produce department filled with exotic and familiar offerings. Around the edges of the store are religious items and incense on one wall; frozen foods, cooking utensils and kitchenware on another.
Here’s a serious scoop, though, for health nuts, foodies and regular people: You know how at Whole Paycheck a tiny, 10-ounce box of quinoa is $6? At Spices of India, you can buy a FIVE POUND BAG of the superfood for $29.99. And that’s not the only superfood you can buy, in bulk, at great prices here. Garam masala, turmeric, sumac, fresh ginger and so much more, again $9 or $10 for a teeny jar elsewhere, are available by the pound. Grab a few friends, buy in bulk and divvy up your spoils. Your pantry and your pocketbook will write you thank-you notes.