Muskogee, OK is Barbecue Mecca

By Stephanie Stewart-Howard on May 17, 2014 at 6:00 am EST
Mahylon's BBQ in Muskogee, OK

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael D. Tedesco

Muskogee residents are very clear about dining preferences: they like barbecue. In a town with a population of around 40,000, there are at least seven independently owned barbecue restaurants. Add to that a couple of barbecue chains and you begin to understand the support and appeal it has here.

The Barbecue Game

Drawing competative barbecuers, the Muskogee Exchange Club puts on an annual Chili and Barbecue Cook-Off each spring, bringing in teams for a fun-filled weekend that draws tens of thousands of visitors (and raises money for local charities). It began in 1984 with a focus on chili, but the region’s love of barbecue quickly encouraged an expanded focus. Now, a hundred teams are on site each year, cooking for expectant audiences.

“I think Muskogee has a lot of barbecue restaurants for a town our size,” says Russell Pratt, owner of Runt’s Bar-B-Q. “We’re like a small Kansas City.” He adds that Oklahoma-style barbecue, to him, is a bit of a cross between the well-known styles of Kansas City, with its molasses and tomato-based sauce, and Texas, with its beef brisket, smoke and chili flavors.

Small Name, Big Flavor

Runt’s, a popular but small joint with just 88 seats, cooks up some excellent pork spare ribs over their wood fires. “I’ll put my ribs up against anyone’s,” Pratt says.

He began his career managing a chicken franchise, but when starting his own business, he opted for an independent barbecue restaurant. Runt’s Bar-B-Q also serves up fried catfish and a host of other proteins including chicken, bologna and ham. Pratt says he’s recently been drawn to pulled pork.

“We didn’t do pork shoulder for the first six years or so,” he says. “I’m pretty happy we’re doing it now. We’ve got a very North Carolina and Tennessee style sandwich, the ‘Sloppy Hog,’ with the pulled pork, sweet sauce, and coleslaw.” The customers definitely approve (the coleslaw gets its sweetness from Red Delicious apples). He admits he’s a bit of steak and potato man himself, and those things also sell well at Runt’s.

All in the Family 

Kenny Greer of Mahylon’s Bar-B-Que says pork spare ribs and beef brisket, cooked over hickory wood fires, dominate his best-seller list, but they’re followed closely by high-quality steaks, a bacon-wrapped eight ounce filet and a 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye.

Mahylon’s takes its name from Greer’s late father, Mahylon, a well-loved restaurateur and mentor-advisor to others in the business from the mid-1960s onward. He credits his success to his father – “100 percent.”

The menu at Mahylon’s has grown and diversified since its inception in 1995. Greer takes pride in providing a full bar, including “the best wine selection in Sterling County.” He suggests a red Zinfandel with your barbeque – and that’s a fine choice.

“I want to serve a person a product I want to eat in an environment I want to eat in, to give customers the best products available,” he says. “You know, every barbecue place thinks they have a secret recipe or sauce or something, but there’s only one secret in barbecue – it’s slow and slow.” The slow cooking makes the meat, period.

“They may slice it differently or have a different sauce, but don’t make too much out of that,” Greer says. “It’s all about cooking it slow over a wood fire.”

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Sitting outside my office right now, I can see what looks like a grandpa and his grandkids, little ones, and they’re out here on the pier fishing. And to see that every day makes me feel like we have accomplished something important to Muskogee and to Oklahoma.

Scott Robinson, Port Director for the Port of Muskogee