A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 12, 2008
Fried Onion Burger (Onion Fried Burger; Onionburger)

The fried onion burger (also written as “fried onion hamburger,” “onion-fried burger’ and “onionburger") is a specialty of El Reno, Oklahoma. Johnnie’s Grill (established 1946) mashes thinly sliced yellow onions into its hand-formed hamburger patties. El Reno has held an annual fried onion burger day festival since 1989.


El Reno, Oklahoma
El Reno is a city in Canadian County, Oklahoma in the central part of the state. El Reno, part of the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Statistical Area, is 25 miles (40 km) west of downtown Oklahoma City. As of 2006, within the city limits, the estimated census population is 16,222 residents; and the zip code population is 18,777 residents.
(...)
The town is noted for its annual Fried Onion Burger Day Festival, which is always the 1st Saturday in May. Burger Day is where you can witness the cooking of the world’s largest fried onion hamburger , weighing over 850 pounds. In 2008, El Reno will celebrate the 20th Annual Fried Onion Burger Day.

El Reno, Oklahoma
20th Annual Fried Onion Burger Day Festival - May 3, 2008
This event is located in downtown El Reno. Free Admission.
The Burger Day Festival is a tribute to the fried onion hamburger, cooked daily in El Reno since the early 1900s. Witness the cooking of the World’s largest fried onion hamburger, weighing over 750 pounds! Other festivities include rides, games, live entertainment, a classic car show, craft show, cycle show, burger eating contest, The Bun Run, and more. All in celebration of 100 years of fried onion ecstasy. Event hours are 10am-5pm. Contact Codie Finnigan, El Reno Main Street, by phone at 405-262-8888 or by mail at 206 N Bickford, or email at

Fried Onion Burger Day Festival (El Reno, OK)
The Burger Day Festival is a tribute to the fried onion hamburger, cooked daily in El Reno since the early 1900’s.  In Hamburgers & Fries:  An American Story, author John T. Edge describes the history of El Reno’s fried onion hamburger.  Edge tells of Ross Davis who owned and operated the Hamburger Inn on Route 66 in Downtown El Reno.  Davis began making fried onion hamburgers in the twenties during the depression.  Since onions were cheap and meat was expensive, Davis would add a half shredded onion atop a five cent meat patty and smash the burger with the back of his spatula.  It made the burger look bigger, while adding a tremendous amount of flavor.  John T. Edge explains how a local businessman and his idea became what is El Reno’s local delicacy, “Like other iconic American dishes, the taste for burgers laced with onions was wrought during days of privation.  Eventually, acquired taste spurred localized tradition.”

In 1988, the El Reno Main Street program was established to promote downtown revitalization.  Part of any revitalization program is defining what your community is known for, what makes it special and unique.  What your community offers that no other community can offer.  The first Main Street Director, Carolyn Howard, met with downtown business owners and citizens to ask them, “What is El Reno known for”?  The response was unanimous, “Fried Onion Hamburgers.”

It was decided that this Fried Onion Burger Day Festival would revolve around the cooking of the World’s Largest Fried Onion Hamburger.  Canadian Valley Technology Center was contacted to design and construct the equipment needed to cook this monstrous delicacy.  The technology center created two major apparatuses, a twelve foot convection oven and a ten foot circular grill that could grill, rise, flip and lower a hamburger patty.  The hard part was done.  An invitation was given to all boys who had ever worked for one of the fried onion burger diners.  The invitation was to receive a free burger day t-shirt in exchange for helping to cook the big hamburger.  The event was developed and to be run by volunteer labor.

The local fried onion hamburger diners donated meat and onions and the other necessities for cooking the World’s largest fried onion hamburger.  When Burger Day began, there was Sid’s Diner, Johnnies Grill, and Robert’s Grill, all of which are still in operation today serving up their specialty fried onion delicacies.  Sid’s Diner agreed to set up a grill in downtown to cook and serve hamburgers for the first Burger Day.  A local car club arranged for a Car Show downtown, and the first Burger Day was born, May 7, 1989. 

The organizers were not fully prepared to manage their creation. There was a line of people two city blocks long all wanting a fried onion hamburger cooked in the middle of downtown El Reno.  Sid Hall, then the owner of Sid’s Diner, had brought 200 hamburgers to cook, and within an hour Sid had to go get more meat and supplies to keep up with the increasing burger line.  Festival organizers were amazed at what was happening.  Sid ran errands all day getting hamburger meat, all the while wondering why people just didn’t go to one of the diners to get burgers other than waiting in line.  When Sid drove past Robert’s and Johnnie’s Grill, he understood why:  both places were packed with hungry customers!  EVERYONE wanted to experience the ecstasy that only El Reno’s fried onion hamburgers could offer.

Around three in the afternoon after waiting in line for a burger, David Eaton, local businessman and experienced griller, asked Marty if he was getting tired of grilling.  David began helping his
childhood friend meet the needs of these hungry festival goers.  They were having fun conversing with festival goers who wanted to honor their heritage by celebrating Burger Day with their favorite local treat.

Five in the afternoon marked the close of the first Fried Onion Burger Day Festival.  The weather had been wonderful and 1,300 hamburgers had been sold.  Around 8,000 people had shown up for fried onion hamburgers and the festivities.  This year’s Burger Day marks the twentieth year, and people travel from around the world to attend.  Last year’s crowd was estimated at 25,000 people.

YouTube
Onionburger

Gil’s Thrilling Web Site
Johnnie’s Grill
301 South Rock Island
El Reno, OK
(405) 262-4721

In fact, Johnnie’s is an old town diner, established in 1946 and only recently expanded to accommodate 79 diners in relative, albeit certainly not stylish comfort. 
(...)
The aroma of grilling onions greets you as you park your car and by the time you’re ready to place your order, those grilled onions will have likely triggered nearly salacious salivating.  A spatula wielding grill man obviously well practiced in the craft mashes thinly sliced yellow onions with raw, thin, hand-formed patties, alternately grilling each side to ensure uniformity of onion dispersion.  Caramelized onions adhering to the meat patty are then placed on a bun.

Johnnie’s onion-fried burgers aren’t “two hands to handle” burgerzillas that fill you up but don’t leave you satisfied.  In fact, these burgers are almost waifishly thin yet exploding with flavor.  Standard burger condiments are available, but you might find that appurtenances are absolutely unnecessary—not even green chile and for me that’s saying something.  We wolfed down two of these wonderful burgers apiece and regretted not having ordered at least one more. 

Google Books
Words and Ways of American English
by Thomas Pyles
New York, NY: Random House
1952
Pg. 207:
...onionburger, beefburger, ...

23 August 1964, Mansfield (OH) News-Journal, “Hamburger’s 60 Years Old” by National Geographic, pg. 4, col. 4:
In addition to the familiar hamburger and cheeseburger, there are such exotic derivatives as pizzaburgers, pickleburgers, bagelburgers, bananaburgers, wineburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, soybeanburgers, lobsterburgers, Texas-, California-, and Danishburgers.

20 September 1987, Syracuse (NY) Herald-American, “Really Weird Oklahoma Hamburgers - A Taste of America by Michael and Jane Stern,” pg. AA6:
Hamburgers, a specialty of Oklahoma City?
(...)
Johnnie’s piece de resistance is an onion burger, made like this: The griddle man grabs a ball of raw ground beef and a fistful of sliced red onions, then uses a skillet to mash them down together on the hot griddle. He presses hard as the burger cooks, flipping onion and meat patty at the same time, so that by the time it’s done, the hamburger is permeated with the taste and smell of the sliced onions that are stuck to it.

The whole luscious mess is then inserted into a bun along with a sheaf of pickle chips. It’s great, especially with a spill of hot jalapeno peppers added for extra pep (20 cents extra).

American Profile
FIRST APPEARED: 6/27/2004
The Great American Hamburger
by Marti Attoun
The favorite hometown burger in El Reno, Okla., (pop. 16,212) is evident with one whiff of downtown. The Route 66 town is famous as the Fried-Onion Hamburger Capital of the World and celebrates its legacy the first Saturday in May with a 750-pound, fried-onion community hamburger.

Three downtown eateries within three blocks serve the regional burgers: Johnnie’s Grill, Robert’s Grill, and Sid’s Diner. In the early 1900s, as many as 14 hamburger stands spiced the frontier town. For this burger, a mound of thinly sliced yellow onions is flattened onto a quarter-pound ball of ground beef and sizzled into the patty.

“It’s a hometown deal and has quite an aroma,” says Steve Galloway, 47, owner of Johnnie’s Grill, in business since 1946. “We used to have one guy who’d fly his helicopter here to get fried-onion burgers.”

Roadfood.com - Onionburgers
Michael Stern
Posted - 09/08/2004 :
Here’s an excerpt from a story we wrote about Onionburgers in Gourmet magazine a few years ago. We never did get a definitive answer to exactly why, how, and where they came to be. This takes place at Johnnie’s Grill, which served one of the best we had:

The next morning, while at Johnnie’s counter eating Arkansas sandwiches (that’s a pair of pancakes layered with a pair of eggs), we finally did find what seems like an authoritative description of the onion-fried burger’s beginnings. Proprietor Steve Galloway and former proprietor (now grill man) Otis Bruce, whom we had met the day before, introduced us to nearly every person who walked in the door, each of whom had something interesting to say about their personal experience with El Reno hamburgers. After meeting Everett Adams, the pie man, as he wedged his way into the 30-seat restaurant toting a battered tray above his head on which were set the still-warm coconut meringue pies and Boston cream pie he had made that morning for Johnnie’s lunch crowd, Otis Bruce told us to talk to Bob Johnson, who, as usual, had come for breakfast.

Mr. Johnson said with certainty that it was his father along with a man named Ross Davis who opened El Reno’s first onion-fried burger restaurant, The Hamburger Inn, some time in the 1920s. About ten years later, Mr. Johnson’s uncle, Darrell Hurst, bought it; then in World War II it was taken over by a guy remembered only as Hindy. In the early 1950s, Ross Davis bought it back from Hindy. “That’s when I lost track,” Mr. Johnson confessed. “I moved to Alaska in 1957, and when I returned in ’75, Ross had opened Ross’s Drive-In (although The Hamburger Inn was still operating, under other management).”

The convolutions of burger genealogy sent our heads reeling, but we perfectly understood Mr. Johnson’s expression of what it was like to spend eighteen years in Alaska, where onion-fried burgers do not exist. “I tried to make them out of moose and caribou as well as beef, but it was never right because I only had a skillet, not a thick, seasoned grill. To make a good onion-fried burger, the grill has to be well-seasoned … and there are a lot of well-seasoned grills in El Reno.”

One other piece of history we learned pretty much for certain over breakfast that day: Morgan Stafford, who owned a town burger shop about five decades ago, was the man who developed El Reno slaw. Yes, that is right: El Reno slaw! Amazingly, this Southern Plains town of some 15,000 citizens has yet another food specialty all its own—the slaw that is used on local versions of the Coney Island frankfurter. A pickly-sweet, mustard-colored hash of finely minced cabbage, the slaw is vaguely like piccalilli or relish, but it has a taste and drippy texture like no other. Its usual place is atop the chili that adorns a weenie on a standard-issue El Reno “Coney,” transforming a tidy bunned hot dog into seriously messy fork-food.

Nearly as popular as onion-fried burgers, slaw-and-chili-topped hot dogs are available at all the hamburger restaurants, each of which has its own variation of the slaw recipe, the formulas for which have been passed down by generations of grill cooks. There are several local eaters who consider slaw El Reno’s gastronomic pride every bit as much as the onion-fried burger. “We have some so crazy for it that they get it on their hamburgers!” Steve Galloway said with sincere wonder at the aberration. (To our callow onion-burger palates, the combo is a great idea.) “And some come in and order nothing but a bowl of slaw and a spoon to eat it with!” This is a town of deep culinary passion!

Scott Hutcheson
August 18, 2006
Pride of Oklahoma: The Fried Onion Burger
Long before I adopted the alter ego of the Hungry Hoosier I was the Starving Sooner, because my birthplace was the State of Oklahoma. Like Indiana, Oklahoma does not lay claim to too many original culinary creations but has one standout. Oklahoma’s “tenderloin” is the “Fried Onion Burger.” The official FOB looks nothing like the one in the photo, but more on that later.

The FOB is a hamburger fried on a grill with loads of fried onions. These fried onions are like sauteed onions to the max. The are cooked much longer than the typical caramelized onions, and they are cooked with the burger. You can find this delicacy in lots of places, but El Reno claims to be Fried Onion Capital of the World and even holds an annual Fried Onion Burger Festival. I worked for a summer at a restaurant in Oklahoma City that served both Fried Onion Burgers and Char-Burgers (another unique Oklahoma thing).

Tonight I decided to try a variation on the FOB. I used a cast iron skillet to cook the burgers and tossed in one onion sliced thin. I started out on high heat to get a nice crisp coating on each side of the burger, then turned down the heat and topped the skillet with a lid to get the burgers to cook all the way through.

It turned out really well. I ate mine open-faced on a piece of whole wheat bread with lite mayo and A1 sauce. This is not exactly the way it gets served in the Sooner State but I was trying to make it a bit healthier. It was good, but it made be a bit homesick. My buddy Jerry spends time in Tulsa, I’ll be curious to hear from him if he has had the famous FOB. If you are ever in OK seek out on of these. 

City-Data Forum: Who Has the Best Onion Burger in Oklahoma?
Synopsis
01-20-2008, 07:24 PM

Here is a recipe! You can’t go wrong with a good onion burger..

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 lb ground round
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt

1. Heat oil in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
2. Add onion and saute 10 minutes or until tender.
3. Spoon onion into a bowl and let cool.
4. Add beef, pepper, and egg white to onion, and stir well.
5. Divide beef mixture into 4 equal portions, shaping into 3/4-inch-thick patties.
6. Sprinkle salt evenly over surface of skillet.
7. Heat salt in skillet over high heat 2 minutes.
8. Add patties.
9. Cook 5 minutes on each side, or until done.
(...)
peggydavis
01-20-2008, 08:01 PM

Here is another way.

Saute onions in a little butter in a large cast iron skillet.
Shape lean hamburger meat into balls.
Add meat to frying pan with onions and smash down with spatula into patties.
Cook onions and burgers until done. Onions should be brown, maybe burnt a little.

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (1) Comments • Saturday, April 12, 2008 • Permalink


I had a great burger at Johnnie’s Grill!
http://eatingtheroad.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/johnnies-grill/

Posted by Eating The Road  on  11/19  at  10:49 AM

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