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.
Winning big can be hungry, thirsty work. We scoured Oklahoma’s casinos for your best bets on sustenance whether you are on a winning streak, holding, folding, walking away, running, or just down to your last five bucks.
Van’s Pig Stand
320 N. Porter, Norman
What worked: outstanding hickory smoked barbecue that rivals any of the best in the country
What needs work: The baked beans need bolder flavor.
Tip: tried-and-true Oklahoma family recipes at a reasonable price
From the name alone, you wouldn’t mistake Van’s Pig Stand for a kosher deli or Middle Eastern restaurant. But Oklahomans not in the know might not realize the place, which originally launched in Wewoka, is a bastion for barbecue. The Van clan has been hickory smoking ribs, pork and brisket in the state for more than 80 years
Van’s boasts a Norman location on the eastern edge of a fun neighborhood, the downtown arts district. Hipster haven Gray Owl Coffee is right around the corner, with Anty Shanty Vintage Clothing in the other direction. The family-owned-and-operated business also has spots in Shawnee and Moore.
The Norman restaurant is in a former 1930s’-era service station with art deco-style architecture now highlighted with blue and pink neon signs. The interior is decorated in rough chic with corrugated steel trim, solid dark wood booths and vintage auto posters.
The main attraction, the Van’s pig sandwich ($3.65), is a registered trademark name.
“Because of our history and secret family recipes that haven’t changed over the years, we take a lot of pride in the food we serve,” said Mark Shuman, who runs the Norman eatery.
There’s a lot to be proud of. Van’s sells more brisket than pork, and it is top-notch barbecue. Not too dry or lean and not too fat, the brisket was just right. The beef is moist and tender, and hadn’t been overwhelmed by hickory smoke flavor. That occasionally happens when a pit master is overzealous with his smoldering art, but not at Van’s.
“Most of the meats are smoked here on site for 12 to 14 hours, which makes them tender,” Shuman said. “Ribs take less time than that. They’re all different, and we know how to adjust as necessary.”
Van’s pig sandwich ($3.65) is a staple. The meaty rack of ribs (market price) is prime eating and, similar to the brisket, rivals the best barbecue in Kansas City, Mo., Memphis or Dallas. A big rib dinner ($13.55) comes with six ribs, two side dishes and bread. It’s a feast. Chicken, sausage, turkey, hot links and pork are also smoked, and you may order dinners with any combination.
“Make it a Van” means adding curly fries ($1.25) to any sandwich, such as the large pig sandwich ($5.69). Side orders are typical of barbecue joints in this part of the country. It has fried okra along with potato salad and green and pinto beans.
The baked beans were disappointing. They had obviously been doctored up with spices, probably bell pepper and shredded meat. But the dang beans were just insipid.
They lacked bold flavor and demand a stronger hand with the seasoning. Next time, pintos will get a try instead because it’s just not barbecue without beans. The coleslaw with pretty red cabbage slivers was tasty and had a well-balanced vinegar-and-sugar kiss.
Van’s sauce is a rich, red Kansas City style that comes in mild or hot versions. It’s a carnivore palace, but a vegetarian could order the big salad ($4.65) with a slice of carrot cake ($3.85) that’s baked in-house from the old Van family recipe.
Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or service when appropriate.