Johnnie’s Grill – El Reno, Oklahoma

The 2005 edition of Roadfood–Don’t dare leave home without it or you stand to miss out on some of America’s culinary treasures as deliciously described by Jane and Michael Stern, revered restaurant reviewers nonpareil. Through fantastic food-finding forays, the Sterns have blazed a path through the highways and byways of America, chronicling their visits to restaurants heretofore known to and enjoyed only by locals. In the process, the Sterns have created an “eatin’ path” savvy diners eagerly travel.

One of the culinary treasures we experienced courtesy of the Roadfood tome is Johnnie’s Grill in pastoral El Reno, Oklahoma, an Oklahoma City suburb at which we had previously spent a few nights, unknowingly within a couple of miles of one of America’s best hamburger stands. That was before we availed ourselves of the Sterns’ savory sagacity and learned that El Reno is famous for onion-fried burgers, the preeminent practitioner being Johnnie’s Grill.

More than nondescript, Johnnie’s has the outward appearance of an old town diner that time forgot–in other words, it’s unadorned by the garish neon and grating signage of modern restaurants. 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.

Youthful fifty-something Steve Gallery is only the restaurant’s third owner and along with his son epitomizes the graciousness for which small towns are known. With pronounced homespun drawls they engage all their customers in conversation even as they ensure orders are taken and promptly filled. They were genuinely impressed when we told them we came all the way from Albuquerque just to partake of their famous onion burgers and more than curious as to how we knew so much about their modest establishment.

Since taking over the restaurant, the Gallerys had heard from several patrons how famous their restaurant was, but didn’t know the source of that fame until we showed them the Roadfood book which has logged thousands of highway miles during our own travels. They beamed as they read each word the Sterns penned and graciously signed the page on which the review of their restaurant was published (alas, misspelling my name as “Gail”).

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.

Had we ordered one more burger, however, we would not have had room for the Coney Island hot dog, yet another El Reno specialty. Although this crimson wiener hot dog is usually ordered with chili, a nearly pureed coleslaw might provide a more focused taste experience. As sweet a coleslaw as you’ll find anywhere (even though cut a little by mustard), this slaw is better than the slaw served on burgers in other parts of the fruited plain. The hot dog was something special, too, an innovative and memorable version of what can be a banal entree.

Johnnie’s Grill has its own pie man, a local baker who furnishes–if the pecan pie is any indication–primo pie. Concocted with a light corn syrup instead of the more common dark corn syrup, this pecan pie isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, has a generous amount of pecans and a light, delicate crust.

Johnnie’s has a full American breakfast menu. Regrettably those outstanding onion-fried burgers aren’t on that menu.

Johnnie’s Grill
301 South Rock Island
El Reno, Oklahoma
(405) 262-4721
LATEST VISIT: 18 November 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Pecan Pie, Onion Rings, Coney Dog

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