Barbecue is like the weather: Once in a while, it’s glorious. Once in a while, it’s awful.
And Oklahoma isn’t where you go to find the best of it.
Earlier this month, the Texas BBQ Posse accepted an invitation from the Chickasaw Nation to visit three of south central Oklahoma’s more popular barbecue joints:
To be honest, our expectations weren’t high. We’re from Texas, after all, the home of Snow’s and Franklin and Louie Mueller, of Cattleack and Pecan Lodge and Micklethwait, of … well, you get the idea. (Besides, no real Texan thinks anything from Oklahoma is as good as its Lone Star counterpart.)
Five of us made the 14-hour, 500-mile trip to Chickasaw Country and back: Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins, longtime mainstay Jim Rossman, professorial food critic and connoisseur Mark Vamos, along with Brad Nelson, a newcomer to the smoky fold, and the present author, known to faithful readers of this page as “Where’s Gary Jacobson?”
We didn’t find a lot of glorious barbecue on the other side of the Red, but we met some fine folks, and there were some pleasant surprises.
And one unpleasant one: The weather. For our trip into Sooner Country, we inadvertently chose what turned out to be the last sub-freezing day of 2018. There was sleet on the roads, a bitter howl to the wind, tiny icicles on the coin-operated telescopes at Turner Falls, a scenic waterfall just outside Davis, Okla.
As Rossman, shivering at the falls, so aptly put it, “We’ve never had ice on a barbecue tour before, unless it was in a glass of whiskey.”
Some things we learned in Chickasaw Country:
• Smoked bologna is a thing, “Oklahoma's contribution,” Vamos observed, “to the regional-barbecue canon, preferably washed down with the vin de pays, Diet Dr Pepper.”
• Wood isn’t much of a thing. All three joints we visited had gas-fired smokers. Sure, they may add a few sticks for flavor, but gas is gas and wood is wood, and, at least to my snobbish palate, never the twain shall meet.
• Oklahomans pride themselves on their ribs, and we had a couple that were very nicely cooked. But rub, at least the kind that imparts any meaningful flavor, is a foreign concept.
• Oklahomans aren’t afraid of heat. When they say a sauce is spicy, they mean it. If hot’s your thing, ask for the ghost pepper sauce at Pigskins. Apply it by the drop, not the dollop.
• Avoid the brisket. Just do. Trust us. “No offense to any of the other 49 states, including our neighbor to the north,” Wilkins said, “but I've never had brisket in another state that compares to ours in appearance or bold taste.” (The next time he’s in Charleston, S.C., Chris needs to stop at Lewis Barbecue. Yes, it’s run by a Texas ex-pat, John Lewis, but John has successfully exported his smoking magic to the Low Country.)
• To bring conversation to a screeching halt in Ada (yes, you, Professor Vamos), simply say: “Who’s Blake Shelton?”
Our first stop, at Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch in Davis, proved conclusively that good barbecue can be had in an RV park.
Smokin’ Joe's was the top barbecue joint in this year's Best of Chickasaw Country voting, and we could see why. “It’s a comfortable and friendly place,” Wikins said, “with a large dining room, great service, fair prices and generous portions.”
Joe Wells – Smokin’ Joe – and his son Coby put out the one meal we all agreed we would make the drive to eat: The smoked ribeye, served only on Fridays and Saturdays, and, for dessert, “strawberries on a cloud,” a concoction of berries, whipped cream, cream cheese, and an egg white crust.
The ribeye was massive -- 20-plus ounces, or 24 with the bone in -- and cooked to flavorful perfection. It’s served with two sides and Texas toast for $29.99. One regular customer, who wasn’t much larger than the plate he was attacking, told us he stops by every Saturday morning to polish one off. (For the less stout of appetite, there’s a smaller smoked ribeye sandwich for $19.99.)
The portions at Joe’s were generous. At our second stop, Jake’s Rib in Chickasha, they were positively gargantuan.
Our spread – for five people – cost $32, and it might have fed 10.
“Quantity is the key here,” Rossman said. “Just a ton of food for the money. Best sides of the trip. Good onion rings, cheesy bites, pepper puppies.”
Nelson agreed: “Sides were really kind of the star here,” he said. “Those fries were great.”
He was talking about the massive platter of curly fries we got for $3.95. As good as they were, we couldn’t finish them. There must have been three potatoes worth of fries on that plate.
Jake’s took the title for best smoked bologna of the day. “The medium-thick slices had good smoke and a nice sear,” Vamos said.
“The bologna was the best meat here,” Nelson said.
We ended our long day in Chickasaw Country at Pigskins in Ada. We didn’t run into Blake Shelton, but we did pass Billy Sims Barbecue, one in a chain of restaurants named for the fabled University of Oklahoma running back. (He was good, but he was no Earl Campbell.)
Kevin Truett, who owns Pigskins with his wife Tracy, moved into a new building one year ago, and it still feels a little too new – it has yet to acquire the patina one associates with genuine, down-home joints.
Truett, who learned the barbecue business from Smokin’ Joe Wells, made sure we got a taste of his pulled pork, which Wilkins called his favorite meat from Pigskins, along with the ribs which were definitely inspired by Smokin' Joe.
Pigskins is deeply involved in the Ada community; many of Truett’s employees are young people who’ve run afoul of the law and are trying to establish themselves in gainful jobs. The staff was friendly and attentive. I would stop back there, if only to support Truett’s good works.
2018 Chickasaw Country BBQ Tour
8:30 am: Leave Plano/N Dallas (130 miles to Davis)
11am: Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch, 3165 Jollyville Rd, Davis, OK, 580-369-2818. Open Mon-Tues & Thurs 11am-7pm, Fri-Sat 11am-8pm. (73 miles to Chickasha)
2:30pm: Jake’s Rib, 100 Ponderosa Dr, Chickasha, OK, 405-222-2825. Open Mon-Thurs 10:30am-9pm, Fri-Sat 10:30am-10pm, Sun 10:30am-8pm. (81 miles to Ada)
4:30pm: Pigskin’s BBQ, 1711 Stone Bridge Dr, Ada, OK, 580-332-3898. Open Mon-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 11am-3pm. (144 miles back to Plano/N Dallas)
Other attractions you can visit in Chickasaw Country
In Davis, there are several great attractions. Bedré Fine Chocolate, a Chickasaw-owned and made chocolate store. Turner Falls is the tallest waterfall in Oklahoma, inside Turner Falls Park, the oldest park in Oklahoma. For a thrilling adventure, visitors can fly high on 777 Zip.
Near Chickasha, visitors can check out Muscle Car Ranch, which is a unique collection of rare cars, vintage porcelain and neon signs, and folk art, along with an outdoor area for fishing, camping and hiking.
The McSwain Theatre in Ada hosts fun events from live music and comedy acts to children’s entertainment and family movie nights.