Happy Chinese New Year! How about celebrating by going to eat at some of my favorite spots in OKC’s Asian District?
Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup, usually served piping hot with noodles and meat and vegetable garnishes brought separately to be added at the eater’s discretion.
The first time I was introduced to pho, I was underwhelmed. I really wanted to like it and kept trying it intermittently. But my experiences of meat served in a greasy and tasteless broth just didn’t help. That is, until I had pho at Pho Lien Hoa.
Here the broth is savory and delicious. The wide range of beef cut choices for the soup includes a lean brisket, which I prefer, though there is tripe and such for a more authentic experience. The place isn’t fancy, but it stays busy, as people of all backgrounds come to get their pho fix.
Fill your bowl with your preference of fresh Thai basil, sprouts, or lime and add spice or sweetness with sriracha or hoisin sauce. You can’t beat it on a wintry day or when you have a head cold. Or really anytime.
The portions are quite generous; I can hardly finish a small bowl of pho (and I have a good appetite)! Be sure to bring cash, unless you want to use the ATM machine there.
If you want an appetizer, try the fresh spring rolls with shrimp, pork, and vegetables wrapped in translucent rice paper and served with a peanut sauce. These rolls aren’t fried and are quite refreshing.
So start your foodie celebration of Chinese New Year at Pho Lien Hoa, one of many pho places that line the streets of the area (but my personal favorite). I’m not the only one who enjoys Pho Lien Hoa – it got a great review in the New York Times back when it was called Pho Hoa!
It’s appropriate to start our culinary trip with Vietnamese food, as OKC actually ranks in the top 20 cities in the US for the highest population of Vietnamese. In fact, our Asian District has often been referred to as “Little Saigon.” After the Vietnam War, refugees flooded into America and many came to Oklahoma City, settling in the Classen area that is now the Asian District.
One of those refugees, Minh Nguyuen, opened Lee’s Sandwiches in 2008, now a popular lunch stop and a great place for dessert. You can see the workings of their bakery machines inside that showcase the French influence on Vietnam, as the place sells baguettes, croissants, and other fun bakery items. One of my favorites is their raisin and coconut croissants, so flaky and light.
Lee’s uses their fresh baguettes to make delicious and cheap banh mi sandwiches of all varieties. Another special item is Deli Manjoo, little South Korean cakes molded to look like corn in its husk and filled with custard.
Lee’s also makes their own ice cream. I enjoy getting their raspberry smoothies, with its chunks of fresh raspberry from the ice cream, and adding boba.
Bubble Tea and Chè
Bubble or boba tea, first created in Taiwan, is a drink that includes black tapioca pearls that do indeed look like dark bubbles at the bottom of the drink (though the name bubble tea actually originally referred to the bubbly foam on the top of the drink).
The tapioca balls are often soaked in honey or sugar water, but also take on the flavor of whatever tea or smoothie they are added to. Some people don’t care for the chewy texture of the tapioca, but I like how the boba transforms a drink into a longer-lasting dessert.
A great place for boba tea and other Asian drinks is Bambu, a national chain that has opened their first location in Oklahoma in the past year.
Their specialty is chè, Vietnamese dessert drinks with coconut milk or water as their base. I tried their drink called Bambu Favorite, which included red tapioca, grass jelly, pandan jelly, and coconut milk. It was sweet and had great coconut flavor.
Bambu also uses fresh fruit for their smoothies, teas, and juices. You can add different jellies or boba to your heart’s content. For example, we had their Passion for Love smoothie with fresh passion fruit and added mango jellies and boba – so good!
If you want to try more than one kind of tea and can’t decide, they have an option where you can get a “split cup,” where the two halves of the cup are divided so you can get two different drinks. Quite innovative!
Plan ahead to come to the Asian District on a weekend and you can enjoy dim sum in one of the Chinese restaurants like Grand House or Fung’s Kitchen. Dim sum literally means “to touch the heart gently” and is a special treat!
Small plates of all kinds of specialty items are pushed around on wheeled trays and you can pick whatever you like. Your table’s card is stamped with your selection and you have to be careful to not incur a substantial bill by the end!
Dim sum is a great way to try many things not usually on the regular menu. My favorites are the steamed buns, or bao, filled with BBQ pork. The sweet egg custards are also fantastic, as well as the sesame balls filled with red bean paste for dessert.
Make sure to try dim sum classics like shrimp and pork dumplings. Feel adventurous? Get chicken feet or lava (salted egg) buns. The carts are filled with many other meat and vegetable and noodle dishes, as well.
This is especially fun with a larger group of people, as you can share many items without breaking the bank. Traditionally dim sum is meant to be shared with friends and family over tea!
The same family that owns Fung’s Kitchen has opened Kwan’s Kitchen off of Memorial and they have also started serving dim sum. This is good news for those who live on the north side of OKC and don’t want to always make the drive to the Asian District.
Chinese food can be categorized into 8 different modern cuisines, based on the region of origin, including Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan, Shandong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Fujian.
Grand House and Fung’s Kitchen both serve primarily Cantonese food, which is the most well known internationally and the first type of Chinese cuisine to be widely accepted in America.
The Asian District also now has a Sichuan (or Szechuan) restaurant – Tsubaki Szechuan, owned by couple Peter and Mandy Liu, as well as Henry Yang. The Lius are originally from the Sichuan region, where the cuisine is known for being spicy and flavorful.
OKC Chinese New Year Festivities
In addition to enjoying the wonderful Asian cuisine in OKC, you can also join others in bringing in the Lunar New Year with dragon dances and more!
This year the supermarket Super Cao Nguyen and the Myriad Botanical Gardens are hosting a Lunar New Year Party! Go this Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 (tonight) from 6-9PM at the Myriad Gardens to experience lion dancers, calligraphers who’ll write your name in Chinese, crafts for kids, and more! You can expect live music and food vendors to top off the event!
Super Cao Nguyen will also be holding their annual celebration at their supermarket from 11AM-2PM on Sat., Feb. 9 and noon-1PM on Sun., Feb. 10. Come for fireworks and lion dances!
Happy Year of the Pig!
What’s your favorite spot in OKC’s Asian District? Let us know below in the comments!
Update from March 2019: Unfortunately Tsubaki Szechuan has closed indefinitely. We can only hope that they reopen soon!
Update from August 2020: Kwan’s Kitchen and Bambu are sadly now out of business. You can still find many places for boba in OKC, though!