Layers of delicious barbeque identity peeled back at Bubba’s Bub-Ba-Q
OKLAHOMA CITY - I’d passed by Bubba’s Bub-Ba-Q at 715 NW 23rd Street dozens of times in recent months, not quite willing to believe in the reality of "Bubba."
I am cynical of corporate symbols in human form, so I figured Bubba was like Ronald McDonald, Taco John or that vampire on the cereal box who is obsessed with chocolate instead of blood, or so he claims. I figured there was no substance to this so-called "Bubba" or, best case scenario, Bubba was a faded reality like the girl who represents the Wendy’s hamburger chain.
If I found the real Bubba, would he have the authentic barbeque equivalent of red hair in pigtails and a gingham dress? I doubted it and so I always steered a wide path, refusing to be lured by a corporate symbol mimicking human form.
How many "Bubba" joints were there? I remembered my experience with Rudy’s Redeye Bar and Grill, a chain that mimics unique authenticity so effectively that when I stumbled upon one of its many clones, I was shocked like a sailor lured by a siren song to his death upon the rocks. And then I shrugged and dug into their delicious, highly affordable Sunday brunch offering. But I digress...
During the late March Open Streets OKC festival, I was driven into Bubba’s out of necessity. A place right down the street had been giving away free hamburgers to festival goers but didn’t bring enough meat to accommodate the sizeable crowds.
"We’re all finished right after this family," said an apologetic burger flipper, drawing a line with his hand two people in front of me. Famished and frustrated, I walked down the street to Bubba’s, prepared for WHATEVER as long as it satiated my disappointed and slightly angry hunger.
Walking inside, I did a double take. This didn’t feel like a restaurant so much as somebody’s home.
Nestled inside a historic house, the dining room was actually the former dining room of the house. Antique cabinets lined the walls and I could sense, faintly, the first steps of little children upon those dark and warped hardwood floors, children who marched away to America’s wars decades before I was born. And, right there in plain sight, working to keep an oversize crowd fed with food instead of empty promises, was a man whose likeness matched, exactly, the smiling image of "Bubba" on a the "To Go" menu. True, the man wasn’t wearing glasses like the image of "Bubba" on the menu, but it was so hot in the kitchen, sweat would have pooled up on the lenses.
Still feeling keenly the loss of a free hamburger, I only ordered a smoked bologna sandwich. Could I be imagining things, I wondered, or was that real wood smoke on the humble bologna? Did somebody add special touches to those beans? I began to scrutinize the menu closely and kept comparing the likeness of the man in the kitchen to the dude on the menu.
Oh, my word, I thought. I could detect a distinct aura of actual authenticity. I vowed to return to ask probing questions and unravel the mystery of Bubba.
"Bubba" is actually David Farris, who has been in the restaurant business 38 years. Or is "Bubba" really Farris at all? Therein lies a complicated tale of identity, assumed identity, and assumed identity which becomes actual reality and identity.
Going right for the jugular (like Count Chocula would have you believe he doesn’t) I asked Farris how he came to be associated with the name "Bubba."
Farris made no pretense. He did not spin a false legend. He laid it on straight. In college, Farris was an admirer of Mike Vaughan, an OU football legend whose nickname is "Bubba." Decades ago, Farris made an offhand remark, "Man, if I ever have a barbeque place I’m going to call it Bubba’s."
Thus the prophecy was spoken. And in mountains of brisket and pulled pork, the prophecy is fulfilled year after year. A big, autographed picture of Vaughn hangs in a place of honor, and in Vaughn’s own handwriting the name "Bubba" is formally shared and bestowed upon David Farris. And so the maker of barbeque has actually become "Bubba," even though he’s a man named "David" of Lebanese heritage.
Only after Farris tells me he’s Lebanese can I detect a subtle Mediterranean influence in what otherwise appears to be straight-on Okie barbeque. There is a "ribs and humus basket" offering on the menu and Farris claims the Mediterranean green beans are his mother’s recipe. If you know the Lebanese influence is there, you can see it, but it’s wedged between saucy, enthusiastic offerings like "fork in the pork" which is "sloppy pork, coleslaw and blue cheese crumbles" ($8.99) or jumbo hotlinks with grilled onions ($7.69).
Few kinds of barbeque miss being represented on the menu. You’ll find pork ribs, smoked ham, chicken breast, turkey, and brisket. The most expensive meal on the menu would be smoked pork ribs at $13.99, served with two sides, like all the BBQ dinners. Sides include fried okra, thin cut French fries with barbeque seasoning (including a hint of white sugar) and roasted corn on the cob when in season.
Most importantly, Farris serves "old school barbeque" which is cooked with real wood and doesn’t see the inside of a commercial smoker. Farris understands big barbeque operations can’t avoid using commercial smokers. But, for him, quality comes in small batches with hickory and pecan wood. The ultimate mark of barbeque authenticity is that burnt ends and pieces are available for sale "when available." In soul food joints, I’ve enjoyed these offerings served up under the name "Scraps and Thangs."
When you enjoy your Bubba barbeque, also enjoy the way your table might be a little unsteady on the warped historic floor. If there is a list of top ten items that mark a restaurant as authentic, rather than mimicry of authenticity, a warped wooden floor is surely in the top three.
The house was built in 1918 and Sarris says the historical designation of the building meant a lot of extra work with demanding building codes. He purchased the building with an idea his son Zachary ("Zac") would go into the restaurant biz, but instead Zac went to law school.
Farris doesn’t mind. His son has chosen a good path in life, and Farris loves the location on 23rd Street in a part of Oklahoma City he feels is "up and coming." Previous locations of Bubba’s were at NW Highway (circa 1989 to 1996) and Portland (2009) but a health crisis forced Farris to take a little break. Now he’s right back in the game, and in the very epicenter of neighborhood revitalization along 23rd Street which has been remarked upon by the whole country.
Some would use the word "gentrification," but I say if those are rich yuppies moving in they’d have enough hamburger to give away at the street festival. I’m glad the way things turned out, because while Bubba’s doesn’t have tattered layers of humble history and a cook in his 80s like Big Smokey Bar-B-Q (see my previous review) Bubba’s does have enough authenticity to satisfy those seeking a down home-y dining experience without - dare I say it - wandering too far into the tenderloin.
Bubba is real. I’ve met him. And if you meet him, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
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