The dozen blocks of La Brea Avenue north of Wilshire Boulevard are full of restaurants--big ones, like Campanile and Sonora Cafe, and little ones that look a bit like the art galleries that also crowd the street. Tulsa, one of the little ones, is sort of an art gallery crossed with a diner.
The idea makes a weird kind of sense. A lot of diners are so sparely decorated they could already pass for galleries if you just threw some paintings on the walls, as Tulsa's blue walls are full of works by L.A. artists such as Laddie John Dill. The Coke napkin dispenser on every table might, in this context, be some convoluted reference to Pop Art. On some nights there's a jazz duo, which is not very diner-like, though art gallery-like enough.
The owner actually comes from Tulsa, Okla., and the food served here, as in much of Oklahoma and Texas, is basically Southern with a bit of plain old Midwest about it. But since this is La Brea Avenue, Tulsa's take on diner food is usually punched up a bit. The iced tea is made with jasmine tea.
Tulsa is open all day, starting with a pretty conventional breakfast lineup (including huevos rancheros and steel-cut oatmeal) served until 4 p.m. Lunch consists of salads and sandwiches, including a beef or turkey burger.
The most distinctive lunch item is the blackened catfish sandwich, which rather resembles a burger. The fish filet is mildly blackened, attractively seasoned with the familiar Cajun spices (the remoulade sauce mentioned on the menu is mayo plus green onions) and served on a tall brown hamburger bun barely sprinkled with sesame seeds, with lettuce, tomato and red onion on the side, burger-fashion.
This is fine if you're spending an afternoon checking out the neighborhood's galleries, but there's stronger stuff on the menu at dinner, starting with the soup of the day, which might be black-eyed pea, a rather liquid soup with a strong flavor of black-eyed peas and ham.
One of the best dinner entrees, which you might have met in sandwich form at lunch, is the meatloaf. It consists of several broad, low-rise slices, very soft and moist, as if extended with mashed potatoes, with soft chunks of onion in it. It has a tomato tang, like barbecue sauce with extra cumin, and it's hard to resist.
Naturally there's Southern fried chicken. It belongs to the school that emphasizes moist meat above crisp crust, and it's certainly excellent, juicy and full of chicken flavor.
The chicken-fried steak is something like an extra-thick, extra-chewy milanesa: pounded steak fried in rather thick, crunchy breading. It comes with the rich and tangy cream gravy that also accompanies mashed potatoes whenever they appear at Tulsa.
The most expensive thing on the menu is the grilled fish of the day. I've had the salmon, and it was a generous portion, perfectly cooked. Grilled fish comes with a bit of mild horseradish sauce.
Even liver and onions is good here. The liver is sliced rather thin and cooked a point, so it has nothing in common with the leathery, overdone liver that has created so many liver-haters in this world. It's mixed with a decent amount of browned onions.
In fact, all the entrees I've had were quite good, with the exception of the pork chops. By shocking contrast with everything else, they were dry and tough and a little cold.
In the Southern style, you get a choice of two side dishes, and you can add more for a buck apiece. The mashed potatoes are practically smooth and come with that good cream gravy. The macaroni and cheese has a loose texture, rather than coming as the more familiar solid cube.
But the best side dishes are the succotash and the Southern greens. The succotash is fresh--fresh lima beans, corn kernels, peas, carrots and tomatoes, crunchy and full of flavor; a revelation. The greens are a sort of nouvelle version, cooked al dente rather than soft, mixed with pieces of bacon and crunchy, pungent chunks of garlic greens.
For dessert, naturally, peach cobbler: a low-rise model with a thin pie crust, the fresh-made restaurant style, rather than the deep-dish. The apple pie is similar, with a strong whiff of cinnamon. And the chocolate bread pudding comes with big puffs of whipped cream--and a devastating, caramel-rich Bourbon sauce as thick as grease from a lube gun. It's worth ordering just for the sauce.
Tulsa, 112 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; (213) 938-6335. Open 8 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Street parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $29-$48.
What to Get: fried chicken, meatloaf, liver and onions, Southern greens, succotash, peach cobbler, chocolate bread pudding.