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Pauline Austin is frying up some delicious dough at her Lexington restaurant.
By Whitney Bryen
Published July/August 2018
In Lexington, fry day is six days a week. That’s because at Red Earth Indian Tacos and Fried Pies, owner Pauline Austin bakes, assembles, and serves Indian tacos and fried pies every day but Sunday.
The seventy-eight-year-old had been making Indian tacos at home for more than a decade before she began preparing them for the local community center. They were a hit—senior diners, friends, and family gave rave reviews—so when she spotted a tiny, empty brick building for rent on U.S. Highway 77 last year, she didn’t hesitate.
“I’m an impulsive person,” Austin says. “I knew I could do it, and there was a building available, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Red Earth opened in July 2017 with just one entrée on the menu.
The key to a great Indian taco, says Austin, is in the fry bread—a dish that originated in the 1860s when the government forced tribes off of their native lands. They had to improvise with rations including white flour, processed sugar, and lard, so cooks had to keep things simple. Austin uses a traditional base but says the addition of yeast helps the bread retain moisture. She makes the dough by hand every morning and afternoon to ensure a fresh foundation.
“Fry bread is delicious, especially when it’s covered with everything else,” says Larry O’Dell, director of special projects for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
O’Dell wrote about Oklahoma’s increasing fondness for fry bread for the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. He mentions the first national fry bread contest in Anadarko in 1993 and Dan’s Indian Taco stand, which serves the meal at regional fairs and festivals all over the state, including the Oklahoma State Fair. But his enthusiasm for Indian tacos began long before he became their chronicler for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“We had a cafe that cooked them once a week in Newcastle where I grew up,” O’Dell says. “It’s a lot of work to make that fresh fry bread. That’s probably why they aren’t as common in restaurants, because they’re kind of labor intensive.”
Austin layers heaping piles of slow-cooked pinto beans, ground beef, sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion on top of the airy, crispy bread and serves it with salsa, sour cream, and pickled jalapeño slices on the side. Toppings can accommodate diner preference like the popular vegetarian version that highlights Austin’s slow-simmered pinto beans.
For dessert, fried pies with various homemade fruit fillings cover a tabletop display in the diner. Apricot is the most popular, but blackberry, apple, cherry, peach, and old-fashioned cocoa regularly appear. Austin uses her mother’s recipe as a base for her homemade pies, but she is generous with spices to give them a personal touch and extra flavor.
“I use a lot of spices—more than recipes call for,” Austin says. “I want to taste every little bit of it.”
A lull during the holidays inspired Austin to expand the menu to include additional Southern comfort foods like burritos filled with shredded roast beef and sautéed vegetables; meat pies made with her fry bread; satisfying chili; and a classic Reuben sandwich on rye, which is one of Austin’s favorites.
She also posts specials—including Frito chili pie, grilled cheese, and bread pudding made from cinnamon rolls—on a handwritten note on the front door depending on what she’s feeling inspired to prepare that week.
“I make what I like to cook and what I like to eat,” Austin says. “That’s my business plan, and it seems to be working, because it turns out a lot of other people like the same things I do.”
Red Earth Indian Tacos and Fried Pies, 201 U.S. Highway 77 in Lexington, (405) 527-6915.