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Big Smokey Bar-B-Q: Possibly the most authentic barbeque experience in America

Johnny Forada / Red Dirt Report
A barbeque dinner and a chat with (Owner) Thomas Tumblin is as rare and amazing as travel in a time machine
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OKLAHOMA CITY - On any given day, tens of thousands of hungry people will drive right past Big Smokey Bar-B-Q at 1433 NE 23rd Street. At least a few of those hungry people will be seeking an authentic barbeque experience, but if they give any passing thought to Big Smokey most likely they’ll wonder if a dining establishment is even open inside that small, well-worn shell of a former gas station.

Even the more daring may wonder if satisfactory dining can be found inside such a humble place.

I wondered that myself. And then I went inside, and stumbled upon an unexpected treasure of ancient barbeque authenticity.

Mr. Thomas Tumblin, age 85, was running that little building back when it was a gas station in 1964. He can remember the building being a Shell gas station long before 1966. He isn’t sure when it was built, but a fully functioning gas furnace just inside the front door is a century old.

There came a time when Tumblin didn’t enjoy running a service station so much, partially because of gas prices and (he can remember this vividly) rationing during an oil crisis. A friend was in the barbeque business and, as Tumblin says in his polite and understated way, "I thought that was the way to go."

And he’s been doing it ever since. He married his beloved wife in 1950 that passed in 1991 and together they had a daughter who is now 62. Since the 1960s, Tumblin stuck to one thing in one place: making barbeque inside a former gas station.

Hickory cordwood is piled in the screened-in front porch, cut by a man in Seminole County. The barbeque is cooked inside an old-fashioned brick oven. If you want to eat right there, a couple of booths appear to have been reincarnated from a past life at Subway Sandwiches. The linoleum floor is well worn but a faded picture of The Poker Players by Irving Sinclair appears even older.

A sign above the counter says “ORDER HERE”, but I’m not sure how anybody could get confused in that small space about where to order. The minor friction of trays passed over that space for decades has worn a patina in the wood.

You could write the entire menu on a paper plate and have room to spare for potato salad:

Sandwich $5.95

Order $7.95

Dinner $9.95 with two sides

Half slab $10.95

The sign outside mentions links, but you can’t believe everything you read. Hot barbeque sauce resides in a plastic ketchup bottle, the milder sauce lives in a yellow mustard bottle. The sides, beans and potato salad, are not homemade but sometimes your grandmother simply opens a can as well. All of Tumblin’s energy and devotion goes into the pork ribs.

And those ribs are...perfect.

There is something so subtle and flavorful about the "Seminole hickory" and the way it slowly enhances pork inside an ancient brick oven. The cuts of meat were selected by a wise man who knows crisp, cooked fat in the right proportion tastes good and shrugs off bizarre modern notions about ultra-lean cuts of pork.

Don’t ask Tumblin about beef ribs. For him, it was a passing fad. He has no criticism of those who serve beef ribs (indeed, Tumblin is so polite that it’s hard to imagine him being critical of anything) but for him, the only real barbeque comes from a swine.

His sauce is on the thin side which is surprising at first, but it’s the perfect complement to the meat and doesn’t drown out the hickory notes. The slightly sweet sauce is humble, but it’s good, like everything else in the place.

As far as I can determine, Big Smokey Bar-B-Q has only received a few online reviews in its history, and one reviewer in 2009 fretted aloud about how long the building would be standing. But Tumblin is still standing and so is the building. This is true as I write these words. I don’t have enough faith to believe it will be true by the time of publication.

The roots of barbeque, even in the last half century, are humble. Yes, barbeque has found its way to the finest restaurants in America, but like rock-and-roll its roots harken back to hard times in places like the Mississippi delta.

That old gas station-turned meat joint will call out a while longer to 23rd Street, and yet few will choose it.

But blessed are those who do. Because a barbeque dinner and a chat with Thomas Tumblin is as rare and amazing as travel in a time machine. I went inside hoping for very little, except to get back out alive. But somehow I found what may be the most authentic barbeque experience left in America.

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About the Author

Johnny Forada
Johnny Forada is the moniker of a writer whose true identity will be revealed in good time,...
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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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