Photo by Jack GouldThere are as many styles of barbecue as there are places to throw meat over coals. Santa Fe barbecue (mesquite wood) is as different from Santa Maria barbecue (oak) as Texas barbecue (cow chips?) is from Korean (charcoal). Even within regions, debate rages as to which is best: beef or pork; juicy or crispy; hickory, apple, maple or alder.
While we've been fortunate to have firsthand barbecue experience in classic Kansas City dives and elsewhere in the Midwest, much of our current rib-gnawing experience is of the transplanted sort: Memphis-style barbecue in Costa Mesa, St. Louis-style in L.A., New Mexico-style in Irvine and Texas-style in Van Nuys. While it's hard to judge regional authenticity without firsthand experience, it doesn't take a native to tell when the eating is good.
Judging from the menu at the Tulsa Rib Company, the good folk of Tulsa, Oklahoma, must be an open-minded bunch, with wide tastes and even a sense of adventure. Baby-back pork ribs rule here, and you can get them in traditional, hickory-smoked and spicy styles, as well as with Caribbean or Cajun spices. Then there's the boneless, melt-in-your-mouth "country" style of ribs, as well as boneless-beef short ribs; club-size beef ribs; and the usual grilled chicken, sandwiches and sides. They even do a cheese steak and offer fried clams and mozzarella sticks as appetizers. And the Tulsa Rib Company is the one barbecue joint we know that offers a choice between coleslaw and tabouli.
The place isn't easy to find. The only barbecue harder for us to track down was that long-gone shotgun shack in a pine swamp outside Houston, where barrels of thin, fiery sauce boiled on the back porch in something that resembled a still. The entrance, despite the given address, is off Collins Avenue in a strip mall next to a drycleaner. On our most recent visit, we had no trouble picking it out by the knot of folks at the door waiting to get in.
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Tulsa is an undistinguished slot of booths and tables, although its knotty pine paneling, decorated with the restaurant's signature cattle skull and other frontier memorabilia, give it a bit of a bunkhouse feel. On the way back to the restrooms, you'll see more posters for old movies with the word "Tulsa" in them than even Roger Ebert could name.
We first came here for country (or, as we like to call it, "chicken")-fried steak and were rewarded with a well-breaded, toothsome piece of beef, nicely fried, served with a generous heap of beautifully steamed vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower and carrots—thick fries, and a cream gravy that was out of this world. Though it was late in the afternoon, we couldn't help but notice the stream of folks coming in to order or pick up baby backs. That and the excellence of our steak put a return trip on the agenda.
The place was packed on a Sunday return, but even as a single, I was soon seated and digging into the spicy baby backs, the meat smoky at the ends, tender enough at the center to kiss from the bone. Described on the menu as "medium"-hot, the sauce was subtle in flavor but smoldering with heat like a banked fire. The sides were uniformly good, the baked beans firm and tangy, and the Tulsa potatoes (half-dollar-sized, crinkle-cut slices) were crisp and hit with a touch of spice. Even the creamed corn, that blandest of dishes, had some character. And then tabouli, the couscous clinging to a generous chop of tomato and cucumber! Talk about a healthy way to finish off a rack of ribs!
The Tulsa Rib Company, located at 954 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, is open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; and dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m.; Fri., 4-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 3-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 3-9 p.m. (714) 633-3760. DINNER FOR TWO, $22-$30, FOOD ONLY. Beer and wine. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.