Double Onion Burger with Cheese at Johnnie's Grill in El Reno Oklahoma

Johnnie’s Grill: the great OKC onion burger tour, part one

by | August 29, 2008 | 21 Comments


Johnnie's Grill

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301 S. Rock Island Ave.
El Reno, OK 73036

Johnnie's Onion Burgers in El Reno

Ahhhh … the smell, the taste. If you’ve ever made the short trek west of Oklahoma City to partake of an original El Reno onion burger, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t leave with your hands, hair and clothes reeking of fried onions for the rest of the day, you’ve missed it. El Reno is the onion burger capital of the world, and they even host an annual burger day festival every May where crowds swell up to 25,000 people.

Legend (actually, internet lore) has it that the first onion burger was created back during the depression, when meat was expensive and onions were cheap.  By smashing half an onion into a small meat patty, one got a larger-looking burger along with a phenomenal taste.  And the rest is history.

The first original onion burger joint was known as Bob’s White Rock.  In 1946, W. J. Siler opened Johnnie’s Grill (the J. stands for Johnnie) in El Reno.  The original restaurant had only nine bar stools.  Johnnie ran it until 1967 when Otis Bruce bought the place.  Steve Gallaway took over in 1995 when the place seated up to 29 people.  In 2005, he expanded to seat up to 100, and he still owns it today.  Gallaway was more than happy to talk history with me.

The atmosphere is one-of-a-kind. I’m talking the kind of place Hollywood directors dream of — with crusty ol’ Oklahomans fresh off the farm and Route 66.

Plus, the food is terrific. Onion burgers are traditionally smaller than the usual big-mouth restaurant burgers, but the taste they pack beats anything you’ll get from a chain. I’ve had onion burgers made two ways — with sliced onions and with diced onions.  I prefer sliced onions because they look better and you get more taste.  They’re usually served on a small, real plate (not paper) with one onion slice hanging over the plate’s edge.  And when you bite into it, you need to have onions hanging down your chin to get the full effect.  That’s why I started my great onion burger tour at Johnnie’s — I knew I would get the atmosphere I wanted and the onions hanging out of my mouth.

The only other thing on the traditional onion burger is pickles.  Then, you can add your own mustard, mayo or ketchup.  Personally, I like to add so much mustard that the meat usually ends up sliding out of the bun.  But talk about a knock-out taste!  You can also order your burger with the other standard veggies, but if you’re a beginner onion burger student, just start with the pickles and onions for $2.70.  A half order of fries, tots or rings is an additional $1.95.

For an onion burger joint, Johnnie’s has quite an extensive menu.  If someone in your party is not in the mood for an onion burger (gasp), then there are also salads (chicken or ham, $4.75), coneys ($2.70), dinner specials ($6.50), frito pies ($3.75) and a variety of sandwiches ($4).  They even offer a breakfast menu in the mornings.  Another specialty I noticed at Johnnie’s was a really tempting dessert display.  Steve said that Everett Adams makes fresh desserts for the restaurant every day.  Adams is a retired cook from the local prison, and boy did his coconut pies look tasty!  You can even purchase whole pies for $11 if you’re in the mood to take one home.

I love it that part of our state is known for onion burgers.  I was in a local restaurant last week and the owner said her Philly cheese steaks were the best in town.  I told her I’d never had one, and she about fell over.  I said, “We’re not in Philadelphia! You wouldn’t go up to Philly and order an onion burger, would you?” She said that made sense, and I tried one of her pizzas instead.  When you’re in Rome …

Anyway, that does it for part one of the great OKC onion burger tour. Johnnie’s is definitely a must-try if you want to experience onion burger history. We’ll see how it stands up against the others to come on the tour.  I plan on reviewing the other two famous places in El Reno as well as several in OKC.  If you have been to Johnnie’s please leave us your thoughts in the comments.  Or, if you have your own favorite onion burger place, let me know!

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More Photos from Johnnie’s Grill

Onion Burgers at Johnnie's Grill in El Reno OklahomaDouble Meat Onion Burger with Cheese at Johnnie's Grill in El Reno OklahomaHot dog at Johnnie's Grill in El Reno OklahomaThe Grill at Johnnie's Grill in El Reno OklahomaConey with Chili and Slaw at Johnnie's Grill in El RenoCoconut Cream Pie at Johnnie's Grill in El Reno OklahomaExterior of Johnnie's Grill in El Reno Oklahoma

This article was posted by Sarah Sutton on Friday, August 29th, 2008. It is filed under:

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  • Tim says:
    August 29th, 2008 at 7:24 pm   

    I grew up going to Johnnie’s with my dad who grew up going there with his dad. So, Johnnie’s has always been the true onion burger place for me, though I know there are others. I often run into people who aren’t even aware of these places in El Reno and if anyone out there falls in that category, I highly recommend getting out to try an onion burger.

    My only complaint is that they’ve sort of reached icon status now and their prices have gotten high. Granted, it’s only $2.70 for a burger, but cheese is at least 30 cents extra and honestly, I usually eat two burgers plus a coney (also very, very good) and some fries or rings. The burgers aren’t big so most people eat more than one. That can make the bill pretty hefty, for a diner.

    But hey, people are willing to pay it and the taste is definitely there so I don’t fault them.

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts and comparisons to other onion burger places.

  • David says:
    August 30th, 2008 at 1:16 am   

    Sarah – I can’t wait for the rest of your reviews on the onion burger tour… Since moving to Oklahoma, this is truly an Okie specialty my family loves! I hope you will stop by our favorite, Little Mike’s on NW Expressway. Be sure to get the rings! Your next series needs to be a Chicken Fried Steak Tour!

  • Matt says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 2:54 am   

    Having seen more of Johnnie’s history than you’d normally guess, it kind of undermines the review when you get the names of the last two owners wrong: Otis Bruce and Steve Galloway.

    (And I know it’s been this way for over 20 years, but there will only ever be one thing at 301 S. Rock Island in my mind, and Johnnie’s isn’t it. Johnnie’s will always be at 310 S. Rock Island in my mind. That’s just how that goes.)

  • Sarah says:
    September 3rd, 2008 at 8:31 am   

    Hey David – glad your family discovered an Okie specialty when y’all moved here! And yes, actually Little Mike’s is next on my list to review. I went in a couple of weeks ago and talked to Mike’s kids, but missed him. They wanted me to come back and get some quotes “straight from the mouth”. ha ha. And I just haven’t done it yet – but keep watching!

  • Sarah says:
    September 3rd, 2008 at 8:35 am   

    Hey Matt – thanks for some good history on the original location of Johnnie’s in El Reno. Regarding the spelling of the names – I called back out there last night and asked again for clarification since Steve watched me write down the names during my interview with him. I did indeed misspell Otis and it is now corrected in the review above. But they did tell me Steve Gallaway’s name is spelled like I have it above. Thanks for calling my attention to that! :)

  • Marilyn says:
    September 3rd, 2008 at 9:29 am   

    MMMM now I know what I want for lunch. The best Onion Burger I’ve had in OKC was from a place off of May next door to Eppersons Photo. Sorry, I can’t remember the name but I will always remember the onion burgers.

  • Matt says:
    September 3rd, 2008 at 2:42 pm   

    I argued enough with Gallaway when I was in junior high and high school, so I’m content to let him have his way now. :-)

    (I wish I had more pictures of the 301 S. Rock Island that I will always remember.)

  • Megan says:
    September 21st, 2008 at 9:06 pm   

    When I first moved to Oklahoma, I started hearing about onion burgers. At that time, I wasn’t an onion fan, but someone finally convinced me to try one. It was amazing! There are three places to get onion burgers in El Reno — Johnnie’s, Sid’s, and Robert’s. It’s so funny to hear people literally argue over which is best! To me, though, Johnnie’s is simply amazing…great burger and even better hand-cut fries. You just can’t go wrong at Johnnie’s!

  • John says:
    September 26th, 2008 at 10:11 pm   

    I have been all over the world. Trust me, this is the best burger you will ever enjoy.

  • kurt says:
    October 2nd, 2008 at 3:38 pm   

    My dad and I ate there a few days ago for the first time and the burger I had was excellent! I don’t think the prices are too high, I’ve had more expensive burgers that weren’t nearly as good as Jonnie’s.

  • Richard Sullivan says:
    February 18th, 2009 at 10:18 am   

    I remember going when Johnny Siler owned the place and I guess I am showing my age! I also remember when the coneys and hamburgers were 20 cents a piece!! Steve is doing a great job with the place and the tradition continues. Hello to everyone in El Reno!

  • Andrea says:
    April 26th, 2009 at 7:11 pm   

    I’ve now had the legendary onion burger, and it was… neato! I am a big fan of caramelized onions and pickles, so this was a good late-brunch stop on a Sunday.

    The burger “tour” continued, however – we were on the way to Meers for the famous longhorn burger. Yum.

  • Doug says:
    June 29th, 2009 at 3:54 pm   

    I’ve been a fan of Johnny’s burgers and coney for over 50 years. I lived used to live on the street behind Johnny’s and walked down the alley for breakfast (short stack…3 pancakes $1.00) supper (3 hamburgers $1.00). Johnny Siler was there mornings and Otis was grill man after school. Otis, Robert, Johnny…9 stools and always a line. Johnny had his hamburger and chili meat specially ground at Acie Bryants IGA (I worked in the meat market). I now live 1,000 miles away and NEVER go down I-40 or El Reno and fail to get my fill. Prices have changed…more seating…different staff…SAME GREAT FLAVOR…DON’T EVER TINKER WITH SUCCESS!

  • Donald says:
    July 22nd, 2009 at 11:44 pm   

    David says the next series should be on Chicken Fried Steaks I agree and that will take us back to Nics his are the best you’re going to find and his onion burgers are great too!

  • Wimpy says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 7:11 pm   

    Good but if I’m in El Reno I’ve got to go with Roberts I like the burger better a little more meat and better value!!

  • Jennifer says:
    November 11th, 2009 at 10:34 pm   

    Throughout my childhood we would drive to Johnnie’s from OKC for lunch after church on Sunday. This was back when there were 9 or 10 stools in fromt of the grill and that was it. I remember sitting out on the curb and waiting our turn for what seemed like forever. My Dad went to Johnnie’s with his Dad every time they came into town to sell grain…so Dad shared the tradition with us. To me, there is NOTHING like a Johnnie’s burger. And the Coney’s WITH slaw are just as good as the burgers.

  • Tim says:
    November 12th, 2009 at 1:32 pm   

    I’m with you, Jennifer. Johnnie’s is where we always went when I was growing up because it’s where my Dad went when he was growing up.

  • Eating The Road says:
    November 19th, 2009 at 10:44 am   

    I had a great burger at Johnnie’s Grill!

  • Ed Davis says:
    March 4th, 2010 at 7:15 pm   

    i work at johnnie,s grill in 1983 i wish i had pictures of the original johnnie,s grill the one that had only nine bar stools

  • Peregrinations « Why Evolution Is True says:
    June 15th, 2011 at 6:26 pm   

    [...] The onion burger—an indigenous specialty of Oklahoma [...]

  • Donna says:
    April 15th, 2012 at 4:06 pm   

    We use to live in Yukon, OK and made weekly trips over to Johnnie’s for their onion burgers. They use to run a special of “5 burgers for $4.00″ or maybe it was “4 burgers for $5.00″ so we always got a big bag of those wonderful burgers. It was so long ago that I can’t remember the price special but I have never forgotten the taste of those simple, yet delicious, treats.

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