Even though NE 23rd Street is one of the most historical streets in Oklahoma City, many locals tend to forget that it’s also home to some of the most grassroots and homegrown eateries in town, the best having a specific focus on soul food, barbecue and old-fashioned Southern cooking. NE 23rd Street restaurants are OKC’s culinary history all in a few blocks and really should be revered as such.
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Swadley’s Bar-B-Q’s original theme song plays when you open swadleys.com. Complete with manly man vocals, mustang snorting and spaghetti Western whistling, the lyrics in part tout their catering: “If there’s a crowd you need to please / We’ll grab our meat and haul our buns.”
Hearing that, we hauled ass to the one of four Swadley’s locations nearest our ranch. What other restaurant has its own song? Swadley’s freestanding building is easy to spot in front of a strip mall on the corner of the busy intersection at S.W. 89th and Western. Once an A&W Root Beer stand, it still has the covered carports in the rear, and there’s plenty of parking all around.
Inside, friendly employees greeted us as we walked in the door. The decor is rustic Western, with cowboy hats hanging on a hewn log pillar, a saddle in one corner and a nook designated as a “Sheriff’s Office.” Overhead, the ceiling is steel roofing material and in the center of the room is a black iron fireplace. Oldschool country music was playing in the background.
above Waiter Willie Deleon delivers two brisket and sausage specials during a busy lunch at Swadley’s on S.W. 89th.Swadley’s menu is a large lighted board behind a counter where orders are placed. When asked what the “True Sampler” ($13.99) dinner plate selection includes, the employee taking our order pointed out a colorful picture of it on the board. Then she helpfully explained what’s on the plate. Her T-shirt had the word “Grumpy” on it, which I took to be a cute nickname like one of Snow White’s dwarfs. It turned out to be the name of one of Swadley’s sauces. She didn’t know why.
Besides barbecue, there’s also a catfish dinner ($10.99) described on the menu as a “whole mess of catfish” served with coleslaw, fries, hushpuppies and tartar sauce. Other meals not involving smoked meat include a chicken-fried steak dinner ($9.99), loaded “spuds” ($6.89) and a grilled or crispy chicken salad ($7.49). If a vegetarian were to stumble into this carnivore palace, there are 15 side dishes, such as “campfire tators” and “smoked corn cobbette” that could be cobbled together into a meal. The fried okra was crunchy, gold-green goodness.
“Ribs and brisket are our top sellers,” said David Helseth, assistant manager. “We smoke the meat right here on-site.”
They do a bang-up job of it, too. The enticing aroma of burning wood and expertly charred beef was wafting across the parking lot as we approached this cowpoke paradise.
Swadley’s ribs, brisket and pulled pork are competitive with any of the best barbecue joints in Kansas City, Memphis or Dallas. This is a matter of sacred faith with opinions strong as whiskey for many, and these words were not written capriciously. It is damn good barbecue.
Giving chicken a stout hickory smoke taste without drying out the meat is difficult, but Swadley’s manages to do it. They also work the smoldering wood magic with sausage, turkey and hot links. But it’s the ribs and brisket that make the place. A full slab ($18.99) is more expensive than average, and same with the four-rib dinner ($12.99). But unlike some poseur joints, the quality is definitely there in spades.
Also, there’s no skimping on any of the portions. These are Okie-size servings, the kind that have helped make this state great big. Happily, no one held a sixshooter to my head making me eat an entire meal at one sitting. These portions are take-somehome-for-lunch-tomorrow huge.
Along with the mysterious Grumpy barbecue sauce are three other varieties: thick, sweet and spicy. The spicy version is intriguing because it has a slight Thai flavor and appearance to it. I suspect they may be adding some Asian sweet chili sauce to the mix. None of Swadley’s four sauces taste much different from each other, except the spicy has a bit more kick to it.
The peach, blackberry and pecan cobblers ($2.99-$3.99) looked tempting.
Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or service when appropriate.
Photo by Mark Hancock