When I reached the register to pay for my lunch, I explained to Barry Rogers that I was writing a piece about Nelson’s. He smiled and said, “Oh, really? Well, let me tell you all about it.” It’s his place, after all.
He came around the counter and started parading me past the restaurant walls, pointing to the photos and articles proudly mounted. “Have you read this? You should really read all these.” The photos are black and white and grainy. He pulled out a Nelson’s sign from behind the counter, a photo of the original cook. He wanted to show me the history of the place, the long story, and then he wanted me to have about five slices of pie. I welcomed the former, but had to politely and repeatedly decline the latter. As he unearthed relics and explained the décor, it became very clear very quickly that my day’s lunch wasn’t simply the home-cooked chicken fried steak I came for; it was generations of owners and cooks,nwait staff and patrons. Nelson’s, to those who can remember, is a dynasty of comfort food. So, lunch was much more than my plate. It was a tribute to a tradition—one in transition.
As any connoisseur knows, good chicken fried steak takes a lot of abuse. You start by selecting a no-nonsense round steak and pounding the hell out of it. Use any weapon at hand. When you think you’ve tenderized the protein to a pulp, take it another round for good measure. In their book Texas Home Cooking, cookbook couple Cheryl and Bill Jamison advise, “You must pound the round steak as if you’re training for a night of S&M.”
Now that you’ve assaulted that sad, stringy, washcloth piece of meat, alternate dredging and dunking. First flour, then egg, then flour. It’s a culinary tar and feathering of sorts. The poor steak, punished and demoralized, will now masquerade as a chicken. You place the meat into bubbling fat—Crisco is a Southern favorite— for a nice, golden-brown fry. After removing and draining, spot your steak on a plate and drown him in gravy, for the proper humiliation.
The oily, creamy, crunchy result is vaguely steak, recognizable mostly throughout the South. Oklahoma claims chicken fried steak as its official state meal along with black-eyed peas, cornbread, corn on the cob, okra, strawberries, sausage and gravy, barbecued pork, squash, grits, biscuits, and pecan pie.
Those who care to debate whether good CFS descends from cowboy chuck wagon grub or German Wienerschnitzel might find themselves short an audience. Either way, chicken fried steak has become a way of life in Oklahoma and, at Nelson’s, a livelihood. Their version routinely comes up in debates about the best CFS in town and can be credited for carrying the Nelson family restaurant dynasty.
Nelson Rogers Sr. opened the original Nelson’s Buffeteria at 13 W. Fourth St. in 1929, the year of the crash. Patrons of this first Nelson’s waited out the door and entered to hollers of, “Hello, chicken fried!” This location enjoyed the imaginable success of a good Southern restaurant in Tulsa’s “Oil Capital of the World” era. Twenty years later, the restaurant moved to 514 S. Boston Ave., and Suzanne and Nelson Rogers Jr. took command of the cafeteria-style kitchen. In 2004, the Boston location closed. Jody, Suzanne’s daughter and Nelson’s family mouthpiece, said that the closing resulted from waning traffic downtown. People simply weren’t lining up out the door like they once did. While the wind is once again in its sails, downtown Tulsa had deflated, and fewer
offices and businesses meant fewer eaters. This simple numbers game works to explain the closing, but the family rushes through this part of Nelson’s history. They treat the subject like a bad taste in the mouth, rushing to say, “But we’re back open now!” through pasted-on smiles. A member of Nelson’s staff relayed her suspicion of outside investors forcing Nelson out, a detail that could explain the family’s guardedness. If the closing was nonconsensual, Jody’s not talking. Either way, the fry oil went cold and Nelson’s said, “Goodbye, chicken fried.”
The family couldn’t stay away from the restaurant business long. If chicken fried steak runs in the Nelson blood, closing the restaurant felt like losing a limb. In 2009, Nelson Barry Rogers III, Jr.’s son, opened Nelson’s Ranch House at 1547 E. Third St., in the shell of the old Debby’s Ranch House. Jody said, “That was Barry’s thing, Barry’s the one who got that all going.” Tianna Glass has waitressed at Nelson’s Ranch House for three years. When I stopped by to talk with Barry at our arranged time, he was a no-show. Tianna called to see where he was, and they both agreed that she could act as a worthy authority on all things Nelson’s. In between pouring coffee and rolling silverware she proudly assured me, “I probably know all the answers to your questions anyway.”
As we spoke, Tianna stressed two things about the new Nelson’s: the meat and the makers. She boasted that the restaurant still processed its own cube steak for its noteworthy CFS, and that I could see the machine if I wanted. In Nelson’s kitchen they start with fresh cow, cubing the chunks of beef and running them through a press repeatedly to tenderize the meat, until the steaks reach the desired thinness and tenderness. Tianna jumped to tell me about the scandal of Brothers Hooligan beating Nelson’s for the best chicken fried steak in town. “They use frozen patties!” she yelled, although she didn’t mention how she had that information. In truth, Brothers has won the Chicken Fried Steak “Absolute Best in Tulsa Award” from Urban Tulsa for at least the past 3 years that Barry has been in business—hardly a scandal. Melissa Mitchell, a manager at Brothers happily gave me the “low down” on their CFS. She cited freshness as the key to their blue ribbon steak. She said, “Everything is freshly made to order, nothing pre-breaded or anything like that.” Th eirs is the best, she explained, because it’s so tender, “they beat the crap out of it and you can cut it with your fork.” She omitted anything about frozen patties and cheerily listed off the years Brothers has claimed the title over places like Nelson’s.
Yet, as with most everything else, Nelson’s holds onto accolades of the past.
To conduct my own trial, I ordered Nelson’s CFS with the customary go-withs: mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans. I paraded through the signature buffet line, grabbed my loaded plate, and headed to a barstool where I received paper napkin-wrapped utensils and a Styrofoam cup. No one’s trying to be fancy at the Ranch House. With the fi rst bite of steak, I taste the grease before I can even chew. The oil is warm, and the steak tender and juicy. It’s one of those bites that reminds you of your carnivorous heritage. The battering is crispy and crunches with the requisite chomp. I can cut the CFS with the side of my fork—a good testament to its pulverization. The gravy is salty and creamy—neither lumpy thick or watery thin. It’s everything chicken fried steak should be.
I move clockwise to my potatoes, again slathered with cream gravy. Smooth and light white, the potatoes are a bit soupier than I like them. I like mine to have a little more altitude, more Everest than Ozark. So that when they plop, they retain some shape. Nelson’s fall into pool of potato. Not wrong, just not my right. The green beans are soft and floppy and, again, salty. Nelson’s has a way of doing vegetables that wrings every ounce of life from them. I opted for cornbread, rather than a roll, and loaded it with butter. This is neither the time nor the place to skimp on butter. By the time I put down my fork, my stomach is warm, my fingers oily. I’ve just eaten a family heirloom. I feel sated and warm yet strangely enlightened. Somehow, Nelson’s has made an honest dish out of disguised beef.
The breaded steak has always been the Nelson family trophy. Frankly, I can’t imagine ordering anything else on the menu. And to think there was a time you didn’t have a choice.
The original Nelson’s served up one dish per day on a scheduled rotation of specials. If you craved CFS on Monday, too bad. You would have to wait until Thursday. The eatery drew a devout congregation on, say, meatloaf Tuesday, but on chicken fried Thursday patrons crowded the rafters. Despite the success, Grandpa Nelson refused to make the most popular special a fixture on the menu, Tianna said, on account of “superstitions or something.” No longer keeping CFS a daily special, Nelson’s superstition has evolved into religion and you worship by way of the buffet line, where a CFS comes at a $8.69 tithe.
When Tianna started working at Nelson’s, she didn’t understand what she calls the “Hello, chicken fried thing.” “Nobody told me,” she said. She’d hear people yelling salutations to chicken fried and cream gravy and green beans. She said, “I thought they were nicknames. I thought someone was ‘Chicken Fried,’ and somebody else ‘Gravy,’ and somebody else ‘Wheat Rolls.’ ” She finally picked up on the Nelson’s lingo, where “Hello!” is synonymous with “I need.” Now, patrons have joined the choir and walk into the restaurant singing out, “Hello, chicken fried” or “Hello, waitress.” This fosters a restaurant of familiarity, where front-of-house and back-of-house are combined to just house, and the regulars are as comfortable at these tables as they are their own.
Yet, there is a certain missing protocol to the place. If someone on staff is unhappy, you’ll know about it. On my recent trip for lunch, a man in an orange shirt stormed out of the kitchen and said something to the effect of, “I can’t work with him!” Barry, stern but casual, offered, “Well, I’ll fire one of ya.” He does that: babysits, manages, threatens, reminds. He seems calm, but he looks tired. The whole place is kind of sleepy—the wood-paneled walls, the low bar and lower stools, the singular buffet line, the lone cash register, the yellowed pictures and articles on the walls, the staff . The profit margin can’t be much here. The line out the door simply doesn’t exist like in the good ol’ days downtown. The day I dined, the lunch rush came and went within the noon hour. I overheard one waitress say, “It’s been a pretty good day.”
“Oh, God,” Tianna said when I asked how many chicken fried steaks they sold a day, then yelled my question back to one of the line cooks. Three hundred on a slow day, five hundred when they’re busy. If we do the math and allow the Ranch House a very generous three hours of solid lunchtime business, it comes out to dishing around three chicken fried steaks a minute to sell those 500. With only an hour rush on a “good day,” there’s no way Nelson’s puts three steaks on a plate per minute. There’s usually no wait in the buffet line. The server stands idle and waiting, tongs in hand.
The steaks the restaurant does serve, though, feed a crowd that spans the tiny universe that is Tulsa. At Barry’s House, the unemployed sit next to the district attorney. Women in pant suits and patent leather pumps stand in line behind dirty construction workers. The business types are the ones that keep the place running, Tianna told me. She said that some mornings she comes in and there might only be two people in the restaurant paying for their breakfasts. The rest Barry won’t turn away. Their meals are on the house and that’s the way it’s always been. When he can, he puts them to work. During the summer, the sweat-drenched souls toting the Nelson’s lunch board at Third and Peoria and 11th and Utica with varying levels of enthusiasm are working for their meals. If they can get 10–20 people to come in, they’ve paid for those not paying. Tianna said it’s Barry’s way of “stimulating the economy.”
The Rogers folks are just like that. Jody came into Barry’s one day and Tianna complimented her Coach bag. She said she’d never owned one. Weeks later, a package arrived at the place addressed for her. Inside were Coach purses from Jody. Tianna mused, “I think I pawned one.”
Not to be outdone by Barry, Suzanne and her son, Barry’s brother Steven, decided to open their own Nelson’s, which Jody later joined. The new Buffeteria started serving in January at 4401 S. Memorial Drive, even farther from the original downtown birth. Moving away from tried-and-tested Nelson’s territory to reopen may not be a conventional business strategy, but Jody said “it felt right.”
They’d like to go back downtown, Jody and Steven said, but for right now they’ve dressed up Nelson’s and headed south. They talk about the Memorial location as if it’s the “south” of south Tulsa. But really, 44th and Memorial is less minivan suburbia and more Saturday night street races flanked by Mexican restaurants. Jody asked her cashier to describe their clientele. He doesn’t blink. “Senior citizens. Definitely. They always ask for a senior citizen discount.”
Which got me to thinking: Nelson’s is serving the same 1920s heavy cafeteria food in today’s calorie-conscious world. It’s not an everyday place to Tulsans anymore. Women lunching aren’t going to Nelson’s for CFS, mac ’n’ cheese, and meringue pie; they’re picking at salads or wraps and skipping dessert at some airier cafe. Today’s workday lunch is less often the full meal of 30 years ago and more likely eaten at a desk or in a car. Regardless of trends and demographics, both Nelson’s locations serve the same recipes as Grandpa Nelson’s downtown joint. So the seniors flock back to their revered mainstay. But I can’t believe that the clientele is expanding.
Both Nelson’s places offer basically the same food. They boast the original recipes and descendants of the original cooks. A description of the Memorial site’s CFS would be all but indistinguishable from Barry’s. It’s a strange scenario: two different owners from the same family, two different areas of town, two different decors, different managing philosophies … but the same food. Diners aren’t choosing what to eat, but where and how.
The Memorial store is certainly shinier. The black booths look new, and there’s fresh paint and décor and brighter windows. The staff looks busier, but the room strangely quieter. While somebody mops, Suzanne’s in the back, probably making pies or rolls. Jody’s 8-year-old niece is a junior server. The patrons are all 60-plus but the place sure tries to feel young. The environment inches toward hip and cool and current in the newness of the inside space, while the location, menu, clientele, and idea hold it back. There’s a weird tension between old and new here. I finally put my finger on it; it reminds me of a neo-retro diner, the type serving food like gourmet lamb sliders and dark chocolate milkshakes on super high-polished counters. Except you won’t find foodie grub on Nelson’s menu. It isn’t trying to have a twist or be retro. Nelson’s is trying to be the diner, the new original, without really recognizing the change in time.
Jody and Steven’s talk of restoring the original Nelson’s Buffeteria sign somehow says it all. This Nelson’s is fresher than the original and the buffet servers are less testy. They probably won’t tell you to leave if you hesitate seconds before ordering. But, isn’t that part of what made Nelson’s? With the new, something is lost. Like with the sign, Nelson’s is attempting to make the the Memorial location the idea of the original, two things not necessarily the same.
Suzanne, the matriarch, seems to understand the limitation. She said of the original location, “It controlled the business. We couldn’t change anything because the clientele had built it up to what it was. We knew everyone. We knew everyone’s drink. That couldn’t be duplicated. You can’t create that. It takes time and personality.” At some overwhelming point the original Nelson’s restaurant became a character bigger than the authors of the Nelson story. If the current Nelson’s spots feel any bit insincere, it’s because they lack that key ingredient—time. Yet, both locations try to operate as if that old-time familiarity exists in their adolescent ventures, producing a strange irresolution between the past and present.
Both new Nelson’s locations hold the original Nelson’s popularity and success in a death grip, but is it time to let go of the past? Has Tulsa, sadly, become too evolved for Nelson’s? Is downtown too cosmopolitan for beloved gravy-drenched food, and how long will even southeast Tulsa embrace comfort food? What began as a search for good steak became an entry point for considering legacy.
I left the Ranch House and the Buffeteria wondering: Can a dynasty, an institution, a tradition, maintain its success and transcend time and culture, or, like Nelson’s, will there inevitably be decline? Can an idea of the original ever replace the original? Big thoughts for battered steaks, admittedly.
Maybe Nelson Rogers Jr. has figured it all out. I ask where her father is in all this. Jody grinned, “Oh he’s retired; he’s out playing golf.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 8. April 15, 2013.