Tuesday, June 27th 2023, 10:24 pm
A special taste of the Mother Road can be found in the heart of Oklahoma in the small town of El Reno. It's the home of the Onion Fried Burger, considered "the burger capital of the world."
"The burger has really kind of put El Reno on the map," said Sid's Diner Founder, Marty Hall.
It's the original crossroads of America where Route 66 and Highway 81 meet in El Reno, Oklahoma.
"Every corner on Route 66 here through town has a burger place. How cool is that?" Canadian County Historical Society President, Vicki Proctor said.
It's on this stretch of The Mother Road that the iconic onion burger was born in the late 1920s and it's still making mouths water nearly 100 years later.
"They're great hamburgers," said Chuck and Tonya Herndon who make a 25-minute drive at least once a week from Mustang to eat an El Reno burger.
The dish is so in demand, El Reno is home to three onion fried burger joints: Sid's Diner, Johnnie's Burgers and Coney's and Robert's Grill. They're staples of the small town that are so satisfying some might go to all three in one day.
"I like Sid's in the morning time. And I come here [to Johnnie's] in the afternoon and sometimes [I go to Robert's for dinner]," said El Reno Resident, Bill Lackey.
They’re sometimes referred to as "depression burgers" because they were created during the Great Depression.
"The History of Hamburger Places" by Carolyn Baker said a man named Ross Davis who owned the Hamburger Inn in El Reno started making onion burgers in the twenties when meat was expensive, and onions were not. He piled on onions and smashed them into the meat to make the burger look bigger while keeping the cost down.
The Hamburger Inn has long been closed, but the creation caught on and has kept folks coming back to El Reno for close to a century.
"I don't think you could ever get tired of eating a fried onion hamburger," said Former Robert's Grill and Jobe's Drive-In Owner, Robert Sanders.
"But you know, those old greasy hamburgers, they'll kill ya. Robert's 83, I'm 82. They're gonna kill us," former Johnnie's Grill Owner, Otis Bruce, said with a laugh.
Otis Bruce and Robert Sanders are two El Reno burger legends. They both started working at Johnnie's when they were barely teenagers, back in the heyday of Route 66.
"It was about a half mile deep at every stop sign and just constant traffic," said Otis.
When they got their start was around the time McDonald's showed up in the state.
"Nationwide they were bragging they'd sold their millionth hamburger, well we were selling hamburgers seven for a dollar to go and we would have farmers come in from mostly west of town and they would order anywhere from 100 to 125 every day at noon," said Otis. "It didn't take us long to figure out we had way more than a million."
"Oh yeah. Close to 2," Robert added.
"But we didn't brag about it, we didn't brag about it," said Otis.
Otis went on to own Johnnie's and Robert is the name behind Robert's Grill. He also ran the successful Jobe's Drive-In for nearly 50 years.
They're both retired from the burger business now but like to hang out at Sid's these days to eat, visit, and lend a hand when they can.
"I miss the people. And not having nothing to do now. That's why I come up here and work. wash dishes or do whatever," Robert said.
It's also a good time for them to catch up with Marty Hall, the man behind Sid's Diner. Marty also got his start at Johnnie's. Otis hired Marty when he was 14.
"Flippin' since '69," Marty said. "I've cooked over 5 million [burgers]."
Marty built Sid's, named after his dad, almost 35 years ago and his little diner has been gaining worldwide notoriety ever since.
"Food Network picked [Sid's} number four in the nation. New York, Chicago, San Fransico, little El Reno and then somewhere back in California. We was picked number four in the nation by Food Network. That's amazing. It's really amazing," Hall said.
Marty has now passed his homemade spatula on to his son, Adam, who said the famous El Reno fried onion burger is often replicated, but never duplicated.
"El Reno knows a little bit more about how it's really done," said Adam. "All across Oklahoma and a lot of the United States, you might find you an Oklahoma Hamburger, but you're gonna get the real thing in El Reno."
Maps, photo albums, and notes from customers show visitors from all over the world stop in for taste, which brings a sense of pride to the burger boys of the past and present.
"Trying to fill these other guys' big shoes, trying to keep the history going. There's a lot of history behind it and I'm proud to be trying to do that," said Adam.
El Reno's history doesn't end with the onion burger. It's also home to the Heritage Express Trolley, Oklahoma's only rail-based trolley which takes folks on tours of the historic downtown.
It was built in 2000 through grant money, honoring the old Interurban Railway that once made its way through El Reno.
“They wanted to bring El Reno's heritage and history back to life because El Reno kind of died after the Rock Island left,” said Canadian County Historical Society President, Vicki Proctor.
But somehow, the burgers have a way of stealing the show.
"There's Robert's Grill. What are we famous for? Those amazing onion fried burgers," said Proctor as she conducted the trolley through an intersection along Historic Route 66.
Robert's Grill is the smallest stop of the three. It seats just 14 and has an owner who's also spent almost his entire life behind the grill.
"I started working here when I was 12 in '79 and I bought in '89, so I've been here 44 years almost," said Robert's Grill owner Ed Graham. "Simple. Good food. Kind of a hometown deal, you know everybody. Kind of like Cheers."
That's the case across the board. No matter which place you pick, you'll be met with good food and even better people.
"We make them feel at home. And I think that's what a lot of El Reno is. It makes you feel at home here," said Johnnie's Hamburger's & Coney's Manager, Larry Funck.
To celebrate its burger heritage, El Reno hosts a Burger Day Festival the first Saturday of May where folks line up for a bite of a 750-pound burger known as the “world’s largest fried onion burger.”
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