In a big, red barn at the top of the Grapevine, just uphill from the steaming cars and the runaway-truck ramp, the Okie Girl B-B-Q Restaurant stands as a self-styled monument to dustbowl culture in Lebec, a little town as driven by the towing-service industry as Pittsburgh is by steel.
There are Oklahoma travel posters on the wall and Tom Joad anecdotes printed on the menu, small-town Oklahoma newspapers heaped on a table near the bar and dusty farm tools on a shelf near the ceiling, and free Okie-saga coloring books for the kids. (Depression-era Oklahomans passed through the Grapevine on their way to the Central Valley, you are given to understand.)
The specialties are Oklahoma-style catfish and barbecued ribs: You can get a combination plate called “pasture & pond.” Okie Girl may be a little hokey, but it’s probably the best place to eat on the interstate between Stockton and Mission Hills, and positioned exactly where your radiator needs it most. Truckers get a discount on lunch.
The first thing you see of Okie Girl is a little sign alongside the freeway, decorated with a stacked Daisy Mae-type lounging against bales of hay, and with its lettering painted to look as if it had been hammered together out of knotty pine. Caltrans had initially banned Okie Girl’s highway sign because officials felt the term “Okie” was derogatory to Oklahomans--the restaurant got letters of support from everybody from Bakersfield country-music fans to biker clubs to the governor of Oklahoma--and then banned it because the cheesecake country girl on the sign was derogatory to women. The letters are on display. So is the Okie Girl herself, owner Mary Lynn Rasmussen from Broken Bow. The restaurant is more famous for the sign than it is for its food.
It’s also more famous for its homebrew, served in Mason jars, which comes in gradations ranging from a brisk lager to an inky “River Bottom Stout.” If you’re undecided, the waitress will bring you a free half-ounce of each in those little plastic jiggers they use as pill cups in in the hospital--the assertively hoppy “Condor Ale” is especially nice. Okie Girl is located smack in the middle of the massive umbrella installation that Christo is putting up this October, and the restaurant is brewing two special “Umbrella” beers for the occasion.
I have my own ideas about the food here--deep-fried catfish fillets are outstanding, mild and juicy, encased in a well-seasoned, sandy-brown crust; ribs, whether spareribs or baby-back or brisket-end, are sort of flabby, undersmoked and mined with blobs of fat, bathed in a sweet, gritty sauce--but I dragged along a Tulsan last week for sort of an Okie Girl perspective.
She liked the loaves of fresh bread, which were definitely commercial but were brought to the table hot and glistening with butter. She thought the salad was too authentic--iceberg lettuce all the way--but loved the ranch-style baked beans, stewed with bacon and beer, and admired the lumpy mashed potatoes. But she was not altogether uncritical.
“This chicken-fried steak is o- kay ,” she said, “not the best, but why is there brown gravy on the mashed potatoes and white gravy on the meat? They’d never do that in Broken Bow. It should all be white gravy. And there’s supposed to be fried chicken on the menu. We ate a lot of chicken in Oklahoma.”
If you’re trying to stay sober for the highway, Okie Girl brews its own root beer. Second-graders’ testimonials to the product are posted on a wall just inside the door:
“Dear Okie Girl,
“Thank you for the rootbeer. The rootbeer was good. I liked the rootbeer. It was good. The rootbeer was good.
“From Adam, Jake, Julio.”
A lot of root beer companies would give their eye teeth for that kind of testimonial.
Okie Girl, 658 Lebec Road (off I-5 at Frazier Park exit), Lebec, (805) 248-6451. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridy-Saturday to 10 p.m. Beer, wine and low-alcohol cocktails. Lot parking. Children’s menu. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $13-$25.