Great Escapes

07.21.14

The Most American Pit Stop in the U.S.A.

Route 66 used to be the only way to drive cross country. While it's now an American icon, travelers are still rewarded by a trip through El Reno, where onion-fried burgers are a way of life.

Before Interstate 40 relieved travelers of the necessity (and the joys) of driving along the main streets of Southwestern towns and cities, Route 66 was the only way to go. In Oklahoma, it was the major artery between the Osage Frontier and the panhandle of Texas, with the town of El Reno smack in the middle at Highway 81. Wayfarers along The Mother Road couldn’t help but know about El Reno’s culinary specialty as they drove into town: Its prairie air was laced with the perfume of onion-fried burgers.

You’ll still get a sniff if you drive through on old Route 66, for onion-fried burgers continue to thrive in this long-standing Canadian River Valley settlement. To any carnivore with an appetite for regional specialties, the town’s aromatic fusion of beef and onions is a siren song. Known and admired throughout the state (which is undoubtedly the most hamburger-conscious state in the nation), the onion-fried burger originated in El Reno in the 1920s, and El Reno remains its primary home, with four restaurants in town that make a specialty of it. But don’t expect to find “onion-fried burger” on the menu at Sid’s, Robert’s, Johnnie’s, or Jobe’s. In El Reno, when you order a hamburger, an onion-fried burger is assumed, unless you instruct the cook to leave the onions out.

“The hamburger is scooped off the grill, with all the darkened caramelized onions that have become part of it, and is put on a bun, onion side up.”

The best way to understand what makes this burger extraordinary, other than to taste one, is to watch it being made. At the cozy little diner, Sid’s, you can sit at the counter and watch grill man Adam Hall slap a quarter-pound sphere of beef onto the hot griddle, then pile a double fistful of thin-shaved onions atop the beef. He uses a spatula to flatten the onions and the meat together, creating a broad circular patty with an uneven edge. He presses down three or four times, changing the angle of attack each time, flattening only one-half to two-thirds of the patty with every stroke. The ribbons of onion are mashed deep into the top of the soft raw meat, which assumes a craggy surface because of the uneven, overlapping use of the spatula. Once the underside is cooked, the burger is flipped. The air around the grill clouds with the steam of sizzling onions. After another few minutes, the hamburger is scooped off the grill, with all the darkened caramelized onions that have become part of it, and is put on a bun, onion side up. Lettuce, tomato, mustard, and pickles are all optional if you like them, but no condiment is necessary to enhance this simple, savory creation.

As significant as the onion-fried burger is, El Reno has another unique specialty—a distinctive style of Coney Island hot dog. It starts with a bun, a dog, and spicy chili, and is distinguished by a topping of pickle-sweet, mustard-colored slaw of finely minced cabbage. The slaw is vaguely like piccalilli or relish, but has a taste and drippy texture like no other. Sid’s Coney is especially well-balanced, made with less sweet slaw than you’ll get at the other burger joints in town, thus nicely harmonizing with the hot dog and chili. It is messy enough to be fork-food for all but the most dexterous eater.

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Michael Stern

To drink with a Coney or onion-fried burger, Sid’s offers mighty fine milk shakes. “You have to try my cherry banana shake,” waitress Trista says. Overhearing the suggestion, one of the older waitresses advises, “Put some malt in there. It makes it sweeter.” Trista goes about making the shake, mashing up a banana, adding cherry syrup, a bit of milk, and soft-serve ice cream. When she presents her creation, she whispers so the senior waitress can’t hear, “I did not put malt in it. Just cherry and banana. That is my invention.” Trista advises that the most popular of the milk shakes is chocolate peanut butter, “like an icy cold Reese’s. I have even convinced adults to try it, and they like it.” She also recommends the banana split shake: strawberry, chocolate, and a mashed banana. “It tastes like a banana split, but you can drink it!” (Barely. The shakes are really more of a flavored, softened ice cream than they are something to drink.)

Sid’s isn’t just a quick-eats joint. It is quite literally a town museum. Using 11 gallons of clear epoxy to seal some 450 images onto the top of the counter and the tops of tables, proprietor Marty Hall (Adam’s father and son of Sid, for whom the restaurant was named) arranged images of El Reno history throughout the restaurant in chronological order, starting at the far left of the room. Mr. Hall’s visual history long predates the onion-fried burger and includes pictures of Chief Black Kettle, killed west of town by George A. Custer’s forces in the Battle of Washita River, and Cado Jake, who ran a ferry across the South Canadian River. Years ago when we first came across onion-fried burgers and chatted with Mr. Hall, he pointed to a photograph of his great-grandfather, a sure-enough cowboy in Stetson hat and chaps, on a horse with rope and saddle, who homesteaded west of town in the early 1900s. “Did you know that El Reno was once larger than Oklahoma City?” he asked. “This was the western border of civilization.”

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Michael Stern

Mr. Hall had a simple explanation for the long-lasting appeal of his hometown: “A hamburger, good people, and Route 66: You won’t get more American than El Reno.”

Sid's: 300 S. Choctaw, El Reno, OK. 405-262-7757