It’s the weather’s fault.
The lovely, clean-smelling folks at “Oklahoma Today” needed a reporter for a story waaaaaaaaay out in the panhandle. And they had one. A good one.
It wasn’t me.
But it was a weather-dependent story and the weather wasn’t cooperating with the other reporter, so they were in a bind. And when you’re down to your last choice, that’s when you call Greg Elwell and ask if he knows anybody who could help. But even that guy was busy, so they told me to do it.
So I’m driving out to the panhandle. This being I Ate Oklahoma and not I Ate A Very Concentrated Part of Oklahoma City, I decided this would be a great chance to eat some new food from someplace new. The problem is that it’s the panhandle. I don’t know anything about the panhandle except that it’s roughly six hours away.
That is why I asked the good people of Facebook (go here to like the page and be part of my food network in the future, please) where I ought to go.
Okay. But Oklahoma Smoke is closed on Thursdays, when I was traveling through.
“I bet if you chose to come by I know a guy that could fix up a meal or two,” said Oklahoma Smoke owner David Ray.
Well, how could I refuse? (I couldn’t.) And why would I want to? (I didn’t.)
Rolling into Hooker at just after 5 p.m. meant I could not stop at the town’s Chamber of Commerce office to purchase any Hooker memorabilia. And if you think I’m kidding, you have never been to Hooker, Oklahoma.
David opened his restaurant to me on cleaning day. Oklahoma Smoke BBQ is, first and foremost, a food truck. The brick and mortar store in Hooker pays for itself and the kitchen it houses by being open just two nights a week.
There’s not a ton of competition in that town, but even if there were, Oklahoma Smoke would have no trouble. That’s good barbecue.
Ray used to own a Napa parts store and sold Traeger grills. Occasionally he’d use one to cook on for the customers and employees. When a drought hit the area in 2009, he opted to get out of the business and everyone encouraged him to start selling barbecue instead.
Working on a pair of hickory-powered cook shacks he can prepare about 150 racks of ribs at a time.
Let’s talk about these ribs, by the way. These are ultra-tender. The consistency was almost creamy. And I hope that doesn’t sound bad to you, because it’s not meant to be. It’s just that the meat and the fat and the collagen all melted together into this gorgeous little treat that is so tender you barely had to chew. It was more like pushing it against your teeth with your tongue.
The bark is delicate, with a taste that is mildly sweet and smoky, and a feel that reminds me pleasantly of beef jerky.
Sadly, there was no brisket available. But that’s what happens when you show up on a day a restaurant isn’t open.
There was pulled pork, however, and it was pretty wonderful. As with most pulled pork, the bulk of the flavors came from the crust. (Some places actually remove the crust, which begs the question: What do they want pork to taste like?)
If you’re looking for a meat on which to feature any of Oklahoma Smoke’s three barbecue sauces, the pulled pork is the best. But without sauce, it’s mild and a bit smoky. The texture is silky, breaking into tender strands.
The sausage and hot links come from Texas and the char of the grill really brings them to life. The sausage is a little sweet with nice spicing, but the texture is pure grill. The skin on the slices tightens into crispy jackets you get to crunch through as you eat.
As you might guess, the hot link is quite a bit more assertive. Dyed a deep, brick red, there is definitely some spice waiting for you in each bite. It’s not overwhelmingly hot, but it might catch a few folks off guard.
I was very impressed by the sides, which is a place many barbecue shops get lazy. I was especially a fan of the baked beans. They opened with a burst of sweet smoke before you feel the tickle of heat climbing up the back of your tongue.
The french fries are real and made fresh, sliced thin and fried crisp. But the real prize is the okra.
Sad but true: finding a restaurant that fries its own okra is increasingly uncommon. Oklahoma Smoke does and the difference between fresh and frozen is startling. The battered crust is thin, crispy and flavorful. It’s tender like a good apple pie crust.
This was a lot of food, but David was not done yet. He went in back, dropped a big piece of tenderized beef into a deep fryer and brought out a chicken-fried steak that was magnificent. No knife necessary.
Like everything else, it gets made by hand. The restaurant also has burgers, steaks, etc. The truck only serves barbecue. But there are no shortcuts. That’s what makes Oklahoma Smoke special. That’s why you need to seek them out if you’re anywhere near the panhandle.