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Waiting on the Wings
Fried chicken, fried okra, and beer at the legendary Eischen’s Bar add up to what just might be the perfect Oklahoma summer road trip.
By BLAIR WALTMAN
Anyone who’s been in Oklahoma awhile will inevitably be asked the following question: Have you been to Eischen’s yet?
Situated on an unassuming street in Okarche, illuminated by neon beer signs, and filled with classic country tunes like Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas” and the thick aroma of fried chicken, Eischen’s Bar is the stuff of local legend. The restaurant has garnered local and national media attention, it’s burned down and been rebuilt, and it’s been the subject of a 2009 Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode on the Food Network.
A series of heavily pincushioned maps delineates fans from every continent. Eischen’s has earned that affection and loyalty through two things it has in spades—fried chicken and history. The chicken, however, did not come first.
Peter Eischen’s family-owned saloon, opened in 1896, still stands as Oklahoma’s oldest bar.
“He ran it until statehood and Prohibition put him out of business,” says his great-grandson Ed Eischen, current co-owner of Eischen’s with his brother Paul.
Ed’s father Jack and grandfather Nick re-established the bar shortly after the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, dovetailing the business with their grocery store. A hand-carved bar dating back to the 1800s, shipped from Spain during the California Gold Rush and procured from a friend’s warehouse in Oklahoma City, was Eischen’s architectural centerpiece.
“I don’t know what or how my granddad and dad talked him into selling it to them,” Ed says. For decades, the bar thrived, but it wasn’t until 1960, when Ed’s brother George started Wednesday night shuffleboard tournaments, that fried chicken made its way to Eischen’s.
“He would give the winners a fried chicken,” says Ed. “And he started out with a black cast-iron skillet on a stove.”
The chicken was so popular it became a regular menu item, then a menu staple, and eventually the stuff of Oklahoma food legend. George’s secret breading recipe—Ed describes it as “flour, salt, pepper, and other stuff”—has been worked to perfection, yielding a crispy exterior with just enough snap and peppery pop to accentuate the succulent poultry underneath without overpowering it.
An entire bird cut into eight pieces and served on butcher paper with dill and sweet pickles, white bread, and onions, it’s the kind of dish that caught the attention of Michael Stern, renowned foodie and coauthor of Roadfood.
“My teeth enjoyed it before my taste buds,” says Stern. “With a lot of fried chicken, the crust is either soft and flabby or brittle. My feeling about Eischen’s chicken is that it’s not soft; it’s that perfect balance. It’s crisp but not too crisp.”
That’s a sentiment shared by longtime Eischen’s patron Bob Allison of Oklahoma City.
“I’m a big fan of fried chicken, and Eischen’s has the best,” he says. “When it burned down, everybody thought, my goodness, how terrible. It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to them.”
The 1993 fire destroyed the building but not the history or the food. Opening the new bar—complete with black and white checkerboard flooring, pool tables, and video games—later the same year, Ed was shocked by the response.
“By nine o’clock, they were standing in line, wanting to be there early,” he says. “We were so busy we couldn’t even plan a grand opening.”
Business has yet to let up, and customers, especially on weekends, patiently wait for up to two hours or more to grab first-come, first-served seating at the bar or at a table or booth. At full capacity, the restaurant seats three hundred.
Patrons should come prepared, cash in hand—Eischen’s doesn’t take plastic—and ready for a sensory experience. The fried chicken is served sans silverware, and it’s exactly the kind of deliciously messy experience one would expect of the restaurant’s most popular dish. It’s a good thing Eischen’s has plenty of napkins.
Ed says, “On a normal Saturday, if we’re not cooking around nine hundred chickens, it’s kind of slow.”
Get There: Eischen’s Bar is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight, with the grill closing at 10 p.m. 108 South Second Street in Okarche, (405) 263-9939.