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