Neighborhood Guide: The Asian District

by Colin Newman, Photos by Helen Grant and Lynne Rostochil

Between the gold geodesic dome, the giant milk bottle, the distant spires of a neo-gothic church, the giant LED palm trees flickering in the distance, and the cell phone store shaped like a Buddhist Stupa,  you could be forgiven for asking “Where the hell am I?”

The intersection of NW 23rd St. and Classen is also the intersection of national cultures, religions, architectural styles, and history- local, national and international. The neighborhood is a beautiful mess, alternately stately and garish, ramshackle and manicured, care worn and shiny. The center of the Vietnamese community in Oklahoma is a colorful testament to the effort and resilience of a community that arrived here as refugees only a few decades ago but have since established themselves as an integral part of the local culture.

 

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History

 

The distinctive yellow and red flag of South Vietnam flies all over the neighborhood, as it does in Vietnamese neighborhoods all over the country. This is a community of refugees in a state founded by refugees.

The first wave of Vietnamese immigrants arrived immediately following the fall of Saigon in 1975. These were people for whom the end of the Republic of Vietnam was not simply a change of government, but a matter of life and death: US embassy staff, officers in the military, merchants and professionals, ethnic Chinese, Catholics.

 

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These first refugees were housed near Ft. Smith in Arkansas before being absorbed by communities across the country. Catholic Charities settled the first families in the ramshackle Central Park neighborhood. The neighborhood, anchored by Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral, was built in the 1920s and 1930s. The working class Irish, Polish, and German neighborhood fell into decline in the 1960s as suburbanization ravaged the inner city. The influx of immigrants saved it from vacancy and neglect.

A second, much larger wave of refugees began to arrive in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most settled on the west coast, but the ethnic islands across the country established by the first wave of immigrants were beacons on the map for those who sought out a piece of the American Dream. Nothing succeeds like success, and Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese community grew through the 1980s as Vietnamese immigrants, who had initially settled in smaller communities throughout the great plains, relocated to Oklahoma City. Later, as tensions eased between the US and Vietnam, a third wave of immigrants began to arrive in the 1990s, mostly relatives of those earlier settlers who first staked their claim here in the Southern plains in the 1970s.

Of major U.S. cities, only San Jose, Honolulu, Oakland, and Houston have a larger per capita population of Vietnamese Americans than Oklahoma City. In 2000 Oklahoma was third in the nation for the number of Vietnamese students enrolled in higher education.

 

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The demographics of the neighborhood are quite diverse, but it is mostly Asian and Hispanic. Many of the professionals in the neighborhood are trilingual, speaking English, Vietnamese, and Spanish.

 

SEE

 

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Towering above the neighborhood is the Price Tower inspired Citizens Bank Tower, now a complex of apartments and condos called The Classen. Next door is the Citizens Bank Building, known affectionately as The Gold Dome. One of the first geodesic domes in the country, the Dome has been a landmark in Northwest OKC for decades. The dome, once in danger of demolition and box-storeification, was saved by local business woman Irene Lam and now functions as an office building and event center.

 

dome Neighborhood Guide: The Asian District

 

Across 23rd is the famous Milk Bottle Building. It’s a building with a milk bottle on top and delicious sandwiches inside. Military Park, across the street, adds a needed patch of green space in the glut of strip malls, as does the tasteful streetscaping in the median (where the streetcar line once ran in the days before rubber wheeled buses).

 

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On the west end of the street is another local landmark, the belated Kamps Grocery, founded at the beginning of the 20th century, which now, for reasons I don’t quite understand, is at times an EDM club (Robotic Wednesdays anyone?) and indie rock venue of some sort. Nearby on the east side of Military Park is the amazing Super Cao Nguyen supermarket.

 

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Super Cao Nguyen, the successor to the original Cao Nguyen supermarket next door (Cao Nguyen refers to the mountainous midlands of Vietnam) is a sort of one stop Chinatown. Easily one of the largest supermarkets of any kind in the metro, and indisputably the largest specialty grocer in the state, Super Cao Nguyen draws shoppers from as far away as Wichita and Denton to shop their vast assortment of imported food, fresh produce, consumer goods, and some of the best seafood available this far inland (flown in from the gulf daily, I’ve been told).

 

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The neo-gothic First Presbyterian Church is an imposing structure on the east end of the district, it’s iron spire reaching to the sky like a beacon. The adjoining Fairlawn Cemetery is the final resting place of many notable Oklahomans, including Ralph Dunjee (civil rights leader), Thomas Gore (US Senator and grandfather of Gore Vidal), Kate Barnard (the first woman ever elected to statewide office in the United States), Oscar Ameringer (the “Mark Twain of American Socialism” according to Carl Sandburg), and many others.

 

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At the north end of the district is Memorial Park, home to the Boys and Girls club and many festivals and gatherings throughout the year. The funky yellow concrete fountain was memorably featured in the video for Waiting for a Superman from the Flaming Lips’ 1999 masterpiece “The Soft Bulletin.” As well as the Central Park Community Garden, where neighborhood people grow their own veggies and fruits.

 

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And the funky, mural covered costume shop Masquerade.

Anybody know the artist who did these? I want them to come paint my house.

 

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EAT

The main reason that most non-Asian Oklahomans will find themselves in the neighborhood is to eat at one of its many restaurants. The sheer density and variety of of good restaurants here is striking. Let’s run through some of the favorites.

Pho Lien Hoa

901 NW 23rd St
Oklahoma City, OK

 

 

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One of very few Oklahoma restaurants to merit a write up in the New York Times (Editor’s note: this write appears to be when the restaurant was known as Pho Hoa), Pho Lien Hoa is the best noodle shop I’ve ever been to. I have been to many of them, all over the country, and Pho Lien Hoa is the best. If you’ve never had Pho, it’s a savory beef noodle soup. That is really under-selling the whole experience. Pho Lien Hoa is always bustling and busy at lunch, so come early.

Grand House Asian Bistro
(405) 524-7333
2701 N Classen Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK 73106

Well known for their Sunday morning Dim Sum, Grand House is something of an OKC institution. Everything about the place, from decor to menu, screams classiness. It is perhaps not the best Chinese restaurant in the metro (that honor goes to Golden Phoenix) but the atmosphere and service can’t be beat.

Lido

2518 N Military Ave
Oklahoma City, OK

One of the longest continually operating businesses in the neighborhood, Lido has a deep menu of Vietnamese and French cuisine (the French were uninvited guests in Southeast Asia for many years and left much of their culinary tradition behind.) Lido differs from many of the other options in the neighborhood by offering more of a high cuisine experience and consciously avoiding pho and other street food. The pork and rice vermicelli bowls are a classic choice, as are the frog legs.

Someplace Else Deli & Bakery
2310 N Western Ave

If it were not already The Asian District, North Classen could be re-branded as The Sandwich District due to the large number of good indie bakeries and sandwich shops in the neighborhood. Someplace Else is a stalwart anchor across from the Dome, well known for their fresh baked bread and top quality meats and cheeses. This is the sort of restaurant that is not super showy, not usually packed, but is well liked by almost everyone.

Mr Pho
1133 NW 25th St

Located in the adjoining annex to Super Cao Nguyen,  Mr. Pho is about as user friendly as noodle shops get; if you are introducing someone to pho for the first time and don’t want to intimidate them, this is a good starter pho restaurant. They also have a variety of American style chinese dishes on the menu and a decent lunch special, so you can take even the least adventurous people in your life.

Banana Island Restaurant
1117 NW 25th St

At the other end of the spectrum is the reborn Banana Island. Their mind bogglingly long menu is full of things most Americans have never had, with a heavy emphasis on Thai and Malay cuisine. See our review of the previous location here.

Saigon Baguette
2426 N Classen Blvd

 

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North of the bank, the Milk Bottle Building (a trapezoidal building with a milk bottle on top) is a Route 66 landmark that now houses Saigon Baguette, which has been serving delicious Banh Mi sandwiches since long before East Coast hipsters discovered them.

Banh Cuon Tay Ho
(405) 528-7700
2524 N Military Ave
Oklahoma City, OK 73106

Bánh cuốn (sounds like kwon, intoned like you’re asking a question: kwon?) is a much beloved traditional Vietnamese breakfast dish, and these are the best in the metro. They are a sort of savory rice crepe, usually stuffed with pork and mushroom. You know that you’re in a real Vietnamese neighborhood when you can order these in more than one place.

Pho Saigon
(405) 525-1110
2800 N Classen Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK 73106

While the pho at Pho Saigon is pretty good, the real attraction here are the Thai dishes, especially the curries.
Underground Bistro
(405) 778-8469
2915 N Classen Blvd Ste B10
Oklahoma City, OK 73106

Hidden away in a government office building, the Underground Bistro lives up to it’s name; I personally had no idea that it existed, because I have never had any business with the Department of Mines or the State Nursing Board. That being said, it is actually worth a visit on it’s own merits. The menu is imaginative (not many cafes think to serve indian tacos, but I wish they would)  and the bakery goods on offer are quite tasty.

Pho Cuong
(405) 524-5045
3016 N Classen Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK 73106

Second to only Pho Lien Hoa in the annals of storied and esteemed local noodle shops, Pho Cuong is a slightly more intimate experience, and it hasn’t been quite  discovered outside the neighborhood, which means it’s generally easier to get in and out at lunch. I haven’t had them back to back, but my general impression is that this is the only noodle shop that can stand up against Pho Lien Hoa in a serious way.

The Red Cup

 

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(405) 525-3430
3122 N Classen Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK 73118

Hey, wanna go get some vegan food for breakfast? Me neither, but I will definitely stop in for some hot tea or coffee. Red Cup is another one of those “Local Institutions”, known for their funky, friendly, crunchy charm. If you are currently dating a girl with a dress made of hemp or a guy who looks vaguely like a Victorian era lumberjack, you probably met them here.

Fung’s Kitchen
3231 N Classen Blvd

Fung’s Kitchen has something for everyone, especially if by “everyone” you mean “people who grew up in china”, which is actually a pretty good generalization of humanity by sheer numbers. Anyway, Fung’s Kitchen is Authentic. Ever since Golden Phoenix burned down, it has moved up one or two rungs on the ladder of most authentic local Chinese restaurants. I’ve been to several wedding receptions here, which have gone a long way towards convincing me that Chinese culture is basically perfect. Red is a more romantic color than white, and the food just keeps coming. It’s amazing.

Lee’s Sandwiches
(405) 601-2161
3300 N Classen Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK 73118

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I sang the praises of Lee’s earlier this year in this review.

 

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Neptune Submarine Sandwiches
3301 N Classen Blvd

 

Another stalwart Sandwich District institution, Neptune is not only unpretentious, they are anti pretentious. If you go to Neptune expecting to experience fine dining, you will be sad and disappointed. If you go to Neptune expecting a damn fine sandwich, chips and a drink for under $6, you will be happy and satisfied. The lovely mid-century modern building is a nice bonus.

 

Cafe Kacao
(405) 602-2883
3325 N Classen Blvd.
Oklahoma City, OK 73118

cafekacao Neighborhood Guide: The Asian District

 

Do I really have to add anything to this photo? As mentioned earlier, you are just as likely to hear Spanish spoken in the neighborhood as Vietnamese or English. Cafe Kacao is one of the best Guatemalan restaurants in the city, one of the best breakfast places in the city, one of the best restaurants in the Asian District, and one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Get the Tikal Breakfast. I dare you.

Getting There and Around

The neighborhood is roughly bounded by 23rd Street on the South, Western on the West, Classen on the East and 36th Street on the North. There are bus stops all over the place, especially on Classen, and the recent streetscaping has contributed greatly to the walk-ability of the area. I can say this with authority because I walked the three miles from our office to my house the other day, much of the way through this neighborhood. The new sidewalks, benches, and signals on Classen are all fan-freakin’-tastic.

 

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m4s0n501
7 Comments
  1. Pho Hoa was written in New York Times, not Pho Lien Hoa. Pho Lien Hoa was originally Pho Hoa but Pho Hoa @phohoa.com had them change their name.

    Pho Lien Hoa has served it’s time as a pho restaurant and has slipped away from being one of the best. As they are now, they are mediocre and other pho restaurants pass them in quality, quantity, service, and/or overall cleanliness.

  2. They are Pho Lien Hoa now, but yes, they were the ones written about in the New York Times article. Their address and info has not otherwise changed.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/04/travel/04frugalweb-1.html?pagewanted=all

    That said, if you’re going to make comments about this specific Pho place, as someone who had to read your “views” to approve your “comment” on this site, I would suggest you offer up specific examples of how it’s done properly elsewhere, otherwise your comment comes off less informative and more like someone who has an axe to grind or thinks their taste on the matter is the end all, be all on the subject of Pho places in OKC. Which gives me a major case of the “eye rolls,” because I know Pho places that other people love and I dislike, and vice versa.

    Summing it up, I rather know more about the alternatives than how one specific place fails to provide an adequate product.

  3. hi me and my family use to live in the asian district. my grandmother and her two childran came to america during the second wave they went to fortsmith, arkansas which is also where i was born. i have eaten and know all the wonderful things in the asain district. this place is truely a great place!!!

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  6. Saturday July 12, 2014 the Army Special Forces Association (Green Berets) Chapter 32-50 will meet at the El Reno VFW 1200 hours. We would like to invite the LLDB and Rangers veterans to socialize with others veterans.
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    Glenn Thurmond
    Secretary Special Forces Association ch 32-50

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