A Chef's Tour of Oklahoma City
Danny Bowien is the world’s only Korean-born, alt-Chinese-inspired, 100 percent Oklahoman chef. On a trip to Oklahoma City, writer Peter Meehan discovers the ribs and burgers Danny loves.
New York can be famously unfriendly to outsider chefs. Just ask Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Susur Lee, who have all had to close Manhattan outposts. Danny Bowien is a rare exception. As I’ve gotten to know Danny since his arrival in Manhattan more than two years ago for the opening of Mission Chinese Food—an offshoot of his groundbreaking San Francisco restaurant—it’s been fascinating to watch his arc. He arrived beaming and openhearted, and forged goodwill with good food and kindness, showing up at his future competitors’ staff meals with gigantic bags of mapo tofu and sinus-searing wings. His Chinese food is resolutely inauthentic; what would be outré in a typical Chinese kitchen is de rigueur in his. (No actual Chinese chef has ever cooked with so much Pecorino Romano.) His seasoning is exuberant, all exclamation points where others would settle for periods. His idea of portion control is piling food so high, you can’t leave without a white takeout box or two for the next day. “He came to New York in the right way,” chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune told me.
Since then, Danny, his wife, Youngmi Mayer, and their new son, Mino, have made New York their home base. Danny was named an F&W Best New Chef 2013. He launched Mission Cantina, where he serves his psychedelic take on Mexican food (sliced beef-tongue tacos topped with roasted peanuts and beer salsa), and he turned Mission Chinese Food into a Brooklyn pop-up while he searches for a new space. Throughout this period, Danny—who cooked in Manhattan at the outset of his career, with a formative turn at Tribeca Grill—has remained one of the nicest people in the business, with ever-changing menus that are always exciting.
Why? How? The answer lies west of the Hudson River and east of the East Bay, in Oklahoma City, just about the bull’s eye of the USA, and Danny’s hometown. I traveled there with him recently to experience firsthand his you-won’t-believe-how-amazing-this-place-in-Oklahoma-City-is tour. In the span of 48 hours or so, we scoured the city for good food, and he cooked a spontaneous fund-raising dinner. Mission Chinese began as a pop-up; Danny’s willingness to risk failure (he had never cooked Sichuan-spiked Chinese food before) and his desire to find and feed a community, even if he’s flying by the seat of his pants, aren’t qualities you find in most chefs.
The reason we were in Oklahoma City is because that’s where Danny’s father, Jim Bowien, lives. Jim and his wife, Jeannie, adopted Danny from South Korea when he was a baby. After Jeannie passed away, Jim took care of Danny and his two siblings, supporting the family by working long days at an automobile manufacturing plant. When Danny and I arrived in Oklahoma City, we visited the modest house he’d been raised in, standing outside our rental car on a stranger’s lawn while the sun blasted down on us. Danny reminisced, telling stories about his first jobs (largely in optometry) and about how, during the summer, his dad used to drop him and his teenage friends off at a nearby lake on the way to work, leaving them with a Jet Ski and some beers and food, then picking them up when the day was done. Danny also talked about how he got into cooking. “Football and food are the two big things in Oklahoma,” he told me, “and I don’t play football. The other kids would go throw around a football after school, and I’d go home and watch my mom cook.” He says the influence of Oklahoma City is not about directly lifted flavors or techniques: He likes smoky Oklahoma barbecue but can’t cope with too much chicken-fried meat. “I think the reason I got into cooking is that it brought my friends and me together. You know, there’s not a lot to do here; cooking dinner and eating together were two of those things.”
Most of Oklahoma City is suburban sprawl, but there’s a downtown at the heart of it, with a bustling little river district and a number of handsome buildings from the 1970s, when OKC was one of the major gateways to the West. We met Danny’s dad for lunch at Mandarin Garden, on the city’s East Side; it had been Jim’s preferred takeout lunch spot during Danny’s childhood. The restaurant is trapped in amber; it’s a physical and philosophical time warp to the 1970s, when it opened, and judged on that scale, it was good. The fried rice, the General Tong chicken and the egg rolls were all on point. Cold leftovers of pork fried rice, stained brown with all the soy sauce his dad added, shaped Danny’s earliest conception of Chinese cuisine. He told me that when Mission Chinese Food opened in San Francisco, it had pink tablecloths, with menus pinned under glass, in homage to Mandarin Garden—until the unruly hipsters broke too many tabletops.
Pixar couldn’t put more pride in a man’s eyes than you can see in Jim’s when he’s with his son. He spoke in simple declarative sentences: “I am so proud of Danny. It’s just really unbelievable what he’s done.” Danny’s bleached hair and tattoos are the sort of signifiers that would, in a sitcom, pit a son against his dad, a stolid and solid Oklahoma man, and earn the pair glares. But they are impervious to that.
The next morning, at Pho Lien Hoa, I met the Vietnamese family that was a huge part of Danny’s upbringing: Chafee, his best friend; Anh, Chafee’s sister; and their mom, also named Anh, who quietly presided over breakfast. The pho was light-bodied and beefy, strongly scented with star anise and cinnamon bark with a tangle of herbs on top. The subject of spring rolls came up: Everyone agreed that Teresa, a seamstress at the bridal shop of Danny’s de facto Vietnamese mom, makes the best ones. After multiple rounds of texting, we were able to make an appointment for a demo at Teresa’s house.
Although Danny had eaten hundreds of her spring rolls in his life, he’d never seen Teresa make them in person. Using a little frying pan and cooking oil, she fried up tightly wrapped rolls, stuffed with ground pork, glass noodles and her secret ingredient: sweet, crunchy taro root.
According to Danny, Oklahoma City is strong in three cuisines: deep-fried Americana, messy Tex-Mex and Vietnamese that’s better than any in the US. The Vietnamese community has enlisted aunties and grandmas and all manner of backyard gardeners to raise herbs I couldn’t find if I turned all three of New York City’s Chinatowns on their heads and shook their vest pockets empty. I learned about these herbs when we visited Super Cao Nguyen, which is probably our nation’s finest pan-Asian grocery store. It is a supermarket the size of an airplane hangar, an extraordinary cabinet of culinary curiosities: bushy bunches of the cilantro-like Vietnamese herb rau ram, mountains of blushing banana blossoms, an aquarium of sea beasts, every bottled sauce I’ve ever heard of and just as many that I hadn’t.
We were shopping because Danny had come up with the idea to cook a pop-up dinner at a local restaurant, Ludivine, to benefit tornado victims. The backstory: The night we arrived in Oklahoma City, a group of Danny’s childhood friends and chefs from the community (whom he’d met cooking at a prior tornado-relief dinner) welcomed him with a backyard barbecue. The next morning, over pho, Russ Johnson, one of Ludivine’s chefs, noted how many slabs of ribs were left from the party the night before. So Danny volunteered, without fanfare, to cook dinner at Ludivine that night to use them up.
At the pop-up, Danny and his Mission Chinese Food NY executive chef, Angela Dimayuga, devised two ways to dress up the already-barbecued baby backs. They smothered half the ribs in a peppery fish sauce–spiked caramel; the rest were chicken-fried, in an ode to Oklahoma City, and served with red eye gravy punched up with bacon. The hashtag was #OKChefsReliefMissionChinesePopUpRibRedux, the place was completely packed, all the food disappeared, and I’m sure there was nowhere better to be in the entire state on that Monday night.
The next day, we flitted around as Danny schooled Angela in Oklahoma City cuisine. At Tucker’s, we ate onion burgers—Oklahoma-style burgers with caramelized onions pressed onto the griddled patties. We ate wan Tex-Mex that brought Danny back to his childhood but made me wish I were in Texas or Mexico instead.
We ran out of time to visit the Vietnamese restaurant in the building that was once a Long John Silver’s. It’s where Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s reigning rock band, famously worked as a fry cook and had once been held up. (Danny saw him tell the story in a video.)
Danny had traveled without a change of clothes, possibly as an excuse to visit Bass Pro Shops, an outdoors outfitting chain. I waited in the car while he went in to shop. He came out with his catch: an aggressively patriotic American flag shirt and some high-performance camouflage shorts—perfect gear to make the scene in Okarche, a town about an hour away. There, we rolled in to Eischen’s, a legendary fried chicken parlor. Danny had first raved to me about it in New York, playing a clip from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on his phone to illustrate his point. “You start by eating the skin off the fried chicken, wrapped in white bread with bread-and-butter pickles,” he told me. “It’s almost like Peking duck.”
When we descended on the place—a party of 14 to 16 people, including Danny’s friends and family with cooks from Oklahoma City—Danny dragged me over to the merchandise (“Oh, man, I gotta get a T-shirt”), then over to peer in on the fryers (“Oh, man, look at the system they’ve got down”), and then we sat under the Guy Fieri plaque and ordered a powerful amount of fried chicken (“Oh, man, this place is the best”).
At the end of the meal, our waiter came over and asked if Danny was Danny Bowien, the chef. While he was posing for a picture with the Eischen’s kitchen crew, grinning ear to ear, he was Danny Bowien, the chef from New York and San Francisco, but he was also Danny Bowien, the kid who used to go out to Okarche for amazing fried chicken with his dad.
Peter Meehan is the editor of the quarterly magazine Lucky Peach.