As someone who grew up just a 15-minute drive across the border in Northeast Texas, I have done my fair share of shit-talking about the state of Oklahoma: “The wind blows so hard in Texas because Oklahoma sucks,” and so on. But as fortune would have it, I fell in love with and married an Okie, which has necessitated spending a lot more time in the Sooner State over the past decade — and a lot more time with the Oklahoma onion burger.
For those who are unfamiliar with the form, the Oklahoma onion burger is simple: A haystack of onions, shaved thin on a deli slicer, are piled atop a beef patty and cooked together on the griddle. As it cooks, the juices from all those onions keep the meat moist and add flavor. Once one side is cooked, the patty is flipped, and the onions are violently smashed into the burger, and it’s left on the griddle to sear until the meat is perfectly charred and the onions are lightly caramelized. It’s a truly ingenious way to prepare a burger, and it’s having a bit of a moment thanks to recent raves in publications like the New York Times.
Like many strokes of genius, the Oklahoma onion burger was born out of Depression-era necessity. Legend has it that the burger was invented at the Hamburger Inn in El Reno, a 20-minute drive from Oklahoma City, in the 1920s in an effort to keep prices down. Adding onions to the patty meant that owner Ross Davis could use less meat in his five-cent burgers. Though the Hamburger Inn has since closed, the onion burger lives on at three longtime establishments, all within spitting distance of each other in downtown El Reno.
Over the course of two grease-soaked days, I completed the ultimate onion burger crawl around El Reno, trying burgers at three of the city’s icons — Johnnie’s, Robert’s, and Sid’s Diner — plus a trip to Oklahoma City to check out Tucker’s, the new chain that’s helping keep the magic of the Oklahoma onion burger alive.
A short drive outside of Oklahoma City, there is not much to El Reno. It’s a small, sleepy town along what used to be the legendary Route 66. One of the first things you see upon entering downtown is the nondescript building that houses Johnnie’s, which has been open there since 1946. The burgers here are a little thicker than the other onion burgers we tried and improbably juicy.
The onion strings are a little more charred than grilled, but slightly burnt onion is still a perfectly welcome flavor in a burger. Hand-grated cheese melts nicely atop the char-grilled patty, and the massive onion rings that I ordered alongside my burger didn’t feel like overkill. There’s no such thing as too much onion.
Sid’s Diner is arguably the most famous of the Oklahoma onion burger slingers in El Reno, thanks in part to appearances on shows like Man Vs. Food. As its name might indicate, Sid’s serves a full diner menu, complete with omelets and chicken fried steak for breakfast, but the real draw is the onion burger.
The burgers here are thin and loaded with onions that are somewhere along the spectrum from grilled to burnt. They’re also dressed with mustard and pickles unless otherwise specified (you shouldn’t specify otherwise) and served with crispy hand-cut fries. Even in the middle of a burger blitz, I thought I had reached onion burger nirvana at Sid’s, as the assertive char on the patty blended with the sweetness of the soft, slightly buttery onions and acidity of the mustard.
300 South Choctaw Avenue, El Reno, OK 73036
The oldest burger joint in El Reno, and maybe in the whole state, Robert’s Grill has been continually slinging onion burgers since 1926. It’s almost unfathomable that this tiny restaurant survived the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and nearly 100 years of other assorted forms of chaos, but Robert’s is still kicking. Several burgers into the crawl, my excitement had waned up until the exact second that I walked inside Robert’s.
It’s a simple, tiny space, with barely enough room for a few tables. I ordered an onion burger and happily waited, somehow still intoxicated by the aroma of grilled onions. Mercifully, this burger was quite a bit smaller than its competitors, but no less delicious. This was the Oklahoma onion burger for me, due in large part to its griddled patty and ideal onion-to-meat ratio, not to mention the history that lives within those smoke-stained walls.
300 South Bickford Avenue, El Reno, OK 73036
In Oklahoma City, where the onion burger is still a common player on diner menus, I pulled into the drive-thru at Tucker’s, a whole new generation of onion burger purveyor. After first opening its doors in 2011, this fledgling chain operates three locations in Oklahoma City and nearby Norman, with another on the way. The menu is decidedly more 2022 than the other onion burger joints, with turkey and Impossible meat as options alongside beef. The fries are crispy and double-fried, perfect for dipping into a thick chocolate shake.
Upon entering the restaurant, the scent of grilled onion invades your nose — in a good way. I ordered a classic cheeseburger, dressed with pickles and mustard, and impatiently waited while it was cooked to order. Once it arrived, the reason for the hype was immediately clear. The burger was juicy, with a perfectly smashed exterior covered in char and a mountain of grilled onions sitting on top. I ate it in probably three bites while sitting in my car. It may not have had the same dingy vintage appeal as Sid’s or Robert’s, but Tucker’s will likely play an important role in keeping this 100-year-old tradition alive. It’s expanding the reach of the onion burger, both geographically and generationally.
324 Northwest 23rd Street, Oklahoma City, OK 73118
As my burger pilgrimage came to an end, I admittedly did not smell great. I had onion juice oozing out of my pores, and I thought I’d never want to see another patty between two buns ever again. But no matter how many you’ve had, no matter how much of a proud Texan you are, there is absolutely no denying the universal appeal of an Okie onion burger.