Updated: Sep 14, 2021
One of the worst kept secrets about Oklahoma City is how sensational our Asian food scene is.
It was one of the things that surprised me the most about this weird flat town in the middle of America when I moved here a few years back. I mean you’d probably have to go to Vietnam to get Pho that was significantly better than what you can find up and down Classen. And we’ve got Goro and Tamashii Ramen, and we’ve got Fung’s and Lee’s. There’s Panang 1, 2, 5 and 7 for when you really just want to whip yourself with hot peppers. You can get Indian buffet to-go from Taj on 23rd. There’s Korean BBQ spots for celebrating big occasions and there’s the warmest restaurant in America, Tokyo Pot up in Stillwater, for when the weather outside is truly frightful.
As my education of Asian cuisine has increased, so has my interest in being able to cook my favorite dishes at home. That’s why I love going to the two large Asian grocery stores, Chinatown Supermarket and Super Cao Nguyen. They’re basically right next to each other, very similar but Super Cao is a bit larger. They both often have some of the best deals around, and they carry ingredients you won’t find anywhere else. Where else could you find fresh lemongrass, Shaoxing wine or a bulk bag of whole Sichuan peppercorns? A word of advice though, if you’re going to shop for specific imported ingredients, it’s helpful to know exactly what they actually look like. There’s not really a guarantee any labels or signs will be written in English.
Groups from various Asian nations have been coming to Oklahoma since before statehood. Most of the earliest were Chinese. They came seeking to escape racial persecution and indentured servitude on the west coast. Later, hundreds of Vietnamese people ended up here after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They left professional jobs in their home country and became laborers, laying brick and working in warehouses. In time they learned English and became lawyers and medical professionals. They also opened successful businesses and restaurants. And they sent word of the prosperity they found in OKC to their friends and family both across the US and back in Vietnam, so more continued to immigrate to the city. And now, Vietnamese is the third most commonly spoken language in Oklahoma, behind English and Spanish.
Decades before the Vietnamese started moving into what became the current Asian district, OKC actually had an earlier “China Town.” When I was doing some research for this post, I came across this old Oklahoman article about a subterranean tunnel city underneath what’s now the Myriad Gardens and Devon campus. It was inhabited for 30-40 years by hundreds of Chinese immigrants who headed east from the west coast. They largely came to America during the Gold Rush, but ended up working on the railroad in California. They were held as indentured servants, in debt to the companies that employed them. Forced laborers. They endured horrific and deadly working conditions. The were hated by the general white populations, because the whites blamed the Chinese for taking their jobs since they would work for such low wages. Of course, they didn’t have much of a choice, since the railroad companies were literally treating the Chinese laborers like slaves. The companies held their debts over their heads, forcing them to work with the hope that one day they would clear their debt and be able to bring their families back in China across the Pacific.
When lines were completed ahead of schedule, massive layoffs only increased public resentment towards the Chinese. President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting further Chinese immigration, and banning Chinese people already in America from becoming citizens. So these people were in debt to the railroad companies, they couldn’t afford to return to China, they couldn’t bring the rest of their families over to America, and the majority white population violently hated them. So they moved east. And when they got to Oklahoma City, they decided they’d be better off living underground, out of sight from the white people in their new home.
And now everybody in America loves eating Chinese food, and Asian Americans are one of the most widely successful and powerful ethnic groups in our country. Talk about starting from the bottom.
The Asian District is a wonderful place to find an abundance of the best kind of food. The delicious kind.