Legend has it that the onion burger was concocted — people argue whether it originated in Ardmore or El Reno — to help stretch out beef during the Great Depression by mashing onions (shredded, sliced or diced) into the patty before grilling it on the flattop. It’s accompanied by little else, but that’s because extra ingredients detract from the powerfully pungent, but pleasant aroma of the sweet, steamy creation.
“When you fry the onions in the burger, they kind of caramelize and give them a sweet flavor, a good seasoning to the flavor of the burger itself,” said Marty Hall, owner of Sid’s Diner in El Reno. “It’s just a whole other experience.”
And no one does it better than Oklahoma.
The self-appointed mecca of onion burgers lies 30 minutes west of Oklahoma City in El Reno, where a holy triumvirate of diners has been serving up the scrumptious sandwich for decades. It’s serious business in the city of about 17,000, where you could ask any three citizens his or her favorite and get three different answers.
They can all agree on an unconditional love of onion burgers; it’s memorialized once a year at the town’s annual Fried Onion Burger Day festival, capped off by the cooking of a monster onion burger — it can weigh up to 850 pounds — that is promptly consumed by the festival patrons.
The diner trifecta — each one located on three adjoining blocks — fries up remarkably similar and delicious burgers that El Reno citizens most efficiently pick apart. Must be something in the water.
Robert’s Grill is the oldest; it’s been open since 1926. It’s also the smallest, and it can be a little difficult to snag one of the 15 or so stools around the counter. People pack it in, with patrons eagerly waiting for their own onion burger, crisp fries and chili coney.
Johnnie’s Grill opened 20 years later, but with more than 60 years of experience, it definitely knows what it’s doing. Johnnie’s has the biggest dining space, and people fill it up craving tasty burgers, but also a full breakfast menu and Frito pies. Customers also love the sweet and tangy mustard slaw that accompanies many of the items.
Sid’s Diner is the youngest of the three — it opened in 1990 — but it’s made the most of its 20 years, even making it onto an episode of “Man v. Food.” Hall, the head cook, actually learned how to cook his stringy onion burger while working at Johnnie’s Grill before opening his own spot, which is named after his father. People seem to love the milkshakes just as much as the sweetly charred burgers.
Of course, if you aren’t up for the trip, you can find plenty of good ones closer by, although the people of El Reno think you should be warned.
“I’ve been around to other places that said they served onion burgers, and I’ve never found any that are comparable to what we do here, as fine as we slice them and cooking them in the meat,” Hall said. “No place seems to duplicate the manner we make them in El Reno.”
The most colorful in the metro is the adorable Bunny’s Onion Burgers. It’s been hopping since 1991, opening a second location down the road in 2009. Instead of mashing the onions into the patty, Bunny’s heaps a pile of steamy, fried onions on top. Patrons don’t seem to mind that technique and often pair the sandwich with the grill’s tasty, hearty chili.
West of Lake Hefner you’ll find Little Mike’s Hamburgers. Although it sticks with the El Reno style of fried onion burgers, Little Mike’s distinguishes itself with the use of diced onions. It’s aimed at a neater eating experience for those who don’t want their chins dribbling in onions. The little things make Little Mike’s special, like the cherry and vanilla syrup bottles by the fountain and full pickle bar.
HD’s Onion Burger is also located in northern Oklahoma City, but specialty items like beloved gyros and the Top Dog make for a great support to the star of the show. HD’s also cooks its burgers with onions separately, but it does give them a more caramelized flavor. Adding the tangy slaw only sweetens the deal.
For those looking for something more centrally located, there’s Bricktown Burgers. You can order the juicy burger with or without onions (blasphemy!), or you can really break tradition with the Eidson, which brings ham and Swiss into the mix.
You can’t really go wrong with onion burgers, and every metro joint seems to have its own special twist on the Okie favorite. A true foodie will make his or her way through all of them, dissecting every nook and cranny of the sweet creation to find burger bliss.
Good luck getting that smell out.