The refrigerator shelves were almost empty. My middle-aged brain couldn’t concoct a breakfast from leftover chili, half a dozen eggs, kidney beans, two day-old rice, diet Cherry Dr. Pepper, and a jar of strawberry jam. Until I realized the meager pickings held everything I needed to jump-start my day with a Denco Darlin’.
Denco’s Cafe anchored the corner of East Main and South Jones in Norman, Oklahoma for over 35 years. Rumor has it the original Darlin’s satisfied men’s cravings of a different sort in the upstairs rooms of the commercial block tight to the railroad tracks. But by 1972, when my high school buddies and I frequented Denco’s after a long night, Darlin’s were a legitimate menu item.
Main Street Norman swells to 100 feet wide where the street grid shifts to accommodate the crick in the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe tracks. The rest of town aligns with a compass grid and the University of Oklahoma campus. Forty years ago the grid shift separated downtown’s gun shops, pawn shops, and boot shops from the campus’ malt shops, head shops and fern bars. Working cowboys had no business near OU, and vice versa. Except late a night, when everybody showed up at Denco’s.
Neither laborers nor fraternity boys, we were oddball high schoolers better at math than football. We opted out of Norman High to attend University School, a pair of Word War II outbuildings on OU’s neglected North Campus; misfits in a town where football rules in the generation before Big Bang Theory made geeks cool. We didn’t drink or smoke much; still our heads nurtured a rebellious buzz. We grew our hair long, tried to grow beards, listened to American Pie, and played bridge ‘til dawn several nights a week. Around four in the morning, hungry and giddy, we drove through blinkered lights and angle-parked my parents’ Torino wagon between mud-caked pick-ups and flashy GTO’s.
Denco’s was open twenty-four hours, though I don’t believe anyone frequented the place in daylight. Wee morning was prime time; daybreak men in working jeans cradled mugs of hot coffee, late-night partyers in paisley shirts nursed burgeoning hangovers. We found a booth and ordered our Darlin’s. The food was cheap. The air, laced with cigarette smoke and stale beer, was free.
A Denco Darlin’ with Two Looking Atcha came in a shallow metal plate, like a miner’s pan, filled with elbow macaroni, a ladle of chili, a handful of shredded cheddar, and two sunny-side eggs. The food was piled high but never overspilled the edge. Grease held the assembly in place. One morning I tried to extract a unique noodle from my meal without success and therein grasped the principle of covalent bonding.
Just before swallowing the last of my chili and slurping my Coke I realized that sleep had slipped off my agenda. I’d motor straight through to my 11 a.m. shift at Safeway. Sacking groceries for eight hours on no sleep wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t hard either. My buddy Mark’s eyes were half-closed; he was expert at sleeping through the day. Larry was wide-eyed as me. Konrad, our quartet’s philosopher, retained an inscrutable look. He extracted a toothpick from the jar on the table, inserted it along his upper gum and pronounced, “My teeth feel like they’re wearing sweaters.”
Denco’s closed a few years after we graduated from high school. Attempts to recreate Denco’s have failed. The streets of downtown Norman still run at an odd angle, but these days that’s the only thing unique about them. There’s not much cow town left.
University School closed in 1973; my graduating class was the last. I’m Facebook friends with my high school pals, but only Konrad stills lives in Norman. We went on to college, then graduate school. Two of us became physicians. We married, raised children. Two of us divorced. The renegade spirit that led us to Denco’s proved more rebellious in our imaginations than in our deeds.
Back to my refrigerator circa 2014. Although I was missing two key ingredients for an original Denco Darlin’ – no noodles, no cheese – I could toss together a reasonable facsimile. Instead of eating nutritionally appropriate poached eggs on dry toast, I got out the skillet, poured too much oil in the bottom, scooped in chili, beans, and rice, and mixed it with a spatula. On a separate burner I greased the griddle and fried two sunny-side. When the whites bubbled, I glided the eggs over the chili. Two bright yolks shimmered atop the oily stew. The entire mass slid onto my plate. I ate it up fast.
Fried food is like memory; its distinct flavor has a short half-life. I sopped up the last of the grease with bread. It tasted as good as I remembered, though I couldn’t feel sweaters on my teeth. Some insights are only available to young men who’ve been up all night.
And it was REALLY tasty! I shared it with Mark, Larry, and Konrad – still in touch after all these years.
Just came across this blog. It was one of many hits from googling ‘Denco’s.”
I started at OU in Jan. ’69 after serving 4 years in the USAF. Met my wife-to-be (an about-to-graduate senior) that spring . She and her coterie of friends introduced me to a Denco Darlin’ after a night of partying and I was hooked!
We married a year later and remained in Norman until 1975. She taught math at West Jr. High and Norman High while helping put me through OU. We then moved to Tulsa and will celebrate 48 years of marriage next month.
During those six years in Norman, I probably ate at “Denc’s” at least 40 times. If you ever needed a late-night place to sober up, this article should bring back fond memories. Note that it appeared in “The Daily Oklahoman” in 1981.
Here are some of my own memories:
• The heavy chain that only let the front door open about 90°. Why?
• Waitress Pat, often with a badly-bruised face and arms (from beatings by her husband?) I don’t think I ever saw her smile. It was nice that she got mentioned in the article.
• Homemade, hot, greasy tortilla chips eaten with Green Goddess dressing while awaiting your order. I admit, I never had the guts to try the black(!) salsa in the Gerber’s Baby Food Jars.
• In the 6 years I frequented it, at least one song on the jukebox never changed. It was A23 — Hank Williams singing Hay (sic) Good Lookin.
• Having to go outside, around the building, and down the alley to use the (only?) bathroom. The Norman Police arrest more than one guy who outraged public decency by not waiting for the bathroom to become unoccupied.
• Mr. Flowers, the owner, wearing a pistol on his hip. He walked with a limp and if he ever had to come out of the kitchen or from behind the counter to quell a disturbance (and I saw many), his gait just exaggerated the gun’s presence. A mere walk toward a “misbehaving” table was all it usually took to bring on immediate silence.
• To this date, the best damned enchiladas I’ve ever had anywhere, consistently, and I’m not saying it just because I was ‘occasionally’ inebriated. The first time I ordered them marked the end of my ordering Darlins. In my opinion, they were that much better!
The enchies consisted of tortillas cooked to precisely the correct degree of “leathery” and stuffed with only cheese and onions. But what made them so fantastic was the thick, spicy, beefy chili con carne which totally covered them (with lots of red grease floating on top — ewwwww!)
Now, admittedly, the grease didn’t look all that appetizing and many people laid 10-12 paper napkins atop the platter to soak it up. This left you facing “What to do?” with the now crimson napkins. But if you still had some degree of fine motor skills after your night of drinking, there was a really cool way to drain the grease.
The enchiladas were served on a sizzling hot, oval metal plate. It was set into a slightly-larger black ceramic trencher. With just the right amount of finesse you could wedge your fork under one long edge of the metal plate and your knife under the other. By gradually lifting one side higher and higher, the grease ran into the trencher while the chili and enchiladas stayed relatively stationar. You then let the metal plate slide back into place. Ta Da! Such a feeling of accomplishment when four sheets to the wind.
The “Oklahoman” article is correct that business people also frequented Denco’s. It served great blue-plate specials, chicken fried steaks, homemade pies, etc., and I would go there for lunch at least 4-5 times per year. That was when I worked for OU’s Merrick Computer Center on North Base from ’71 to ‘75 while (and after) getting my degree. Gotta admit that, even in broad daylight, I often succumbed to “3 enchies with 2 lookin’ at me” and washed down with “a tank o’ tea.”
Phil Graham, Tulsa
Thanks for all of your memories. No place like Denco’s —anywhere.
Ahhhh – so that’s where your talent for turning leftover fraternity reunion baked potatoes into breakfast home fries came from!
My cooking is basic – I only fry and bake.
I am still an expert at sleeping through the day 🙂
Thanks for stirring up lovely memories!
Denco’s has never been a damn law office. You
‘re dreaming about a block north on Gray Street. There is a law office there.
Here’s a link to Google Earth – Pierce Law Firm. 105 East Main Street Norman, OK
we bought dencos about 25 years ago. The original occupied 102 w main street. When Bob Moring and Charlie Newton/Interurban redid it, they added 104 west Main street. We added 106, 108 and 110 west main street. 106 was a hair salon in front, and a auto repair in back. 108 and 110 was sizzles. Coach’s occupied all 15,000 sq ft until we sold restaurant (kept buildings) to Jim Burke’s company. They operated as Coach’s for a while, closed Coach’s Edmond a couple of years later, Coach’s Bricktown a few years later, and Coach’s Norman. We moved our brewing equipment over about 30 feet to keep brewing the Coach’s brewhouse beer.
Thanks for your concern!!
Thanks for the chronology update. The law firm must be across the street – it is at 105. I revised the article to be more accurate.