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Route 66: Johnnie’s Onion Burgers

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"Eat More Beef" promotional sign on Old Route 66 outside Yukon, Oklahoma. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

In Oklahoma, you can measure a restaurant by the number of cowboy hats in the room.

Sunday noon at Johnnie’s Grill I only counted four, each one a foot taller than anybody’s head. The families walked in after church and everyone bowed over their food, barely talking. The police were there, too—also eating, and I took that as a positive sign. When it comes to small-town American food, the police usually know best.

I took a seat at the bar, next to two young men in T-shirts, jeans, trucker caps and cowboy boots.

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A favorite stop on Route 66, El Reno, Oklahoma is home to Johnnie’s Grill, probably the best burger I’ve tasted on this trip so far. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

“We’re from Moore, but his girlfriend lives up here,” the guy nodded to his silent friend who was very intently making calculated bites into his burger. “We came up last night and now we figured we’d get some hangover food.”

If ever there was an endorsement—first police, and now the hangover bunch. Behind the bar, two large men stood over the grill, busy as heck. With massive fists, the guy on the left would roll up a softball hunk of pink meat, then slam it down on the hot grill before pounding it flat with his palm. Then the other guy took over, mothering more than twenty sizzling burgers at a time.

The entire place smelled like frying onions, so savory and smoky. My stomach twisted with hunger.

“What should I order?” I asked the guy next to me, flipping through the plastic-sheathed menu.

“Well I always get the Coney Dogs,” he said, but the mess on his plate looked unpalatable—a slop of chili and melted cheese and an oversized hot dog on a soaked bun.

“How’s the burger?” I asked.

“Oh man, these are the best burgers. My family lives 25 miles away but we’ll still drive all the way up to Johnnie’s for these burgers.”

So I got the burger and watched it made four feet in front of me, the ball of meat smashed into the grill and the pile of fried onions sizzling around it.

It’s the smell of the Midwest that—that onion smell could have come right out of my own mother’s kitchen. Halfway across Route 66 and I have eaten more than my recommended yearly allowance of hamburgers, but Johnnie’s are famous, I reasoned, and I needed to try one.

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(Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

I gave up trying to take a decent photo of my meal when it arrived—Johnnie’s onion burgers are just not photogenic. If I had cooked up something like this back in the Eighth Grade, my Home Economics teacher would have flunked me, but Johnnie’s isn’t about looks, either.

It’s about taste, and sure enough, my first bite tasted like church on Sunday, sweet and wholesome and filling and delicious. No matter what happened the week before, everything would be alright now.

“It’s good, huh?” said my neighbor, who introduced himself as Lance. We shook hands, and I kept dribbling ketchup and pickle juice down my chin as we talked about Oklahoma and his silent friend stayed silent, still concentrating on his own burger.

When they finished, the waitress came over and handed Lance his bill, but then turned it quickly and leaned in.

“She wanted to give you her phone number.”

On the back of the bill, seven digits were scrawled out in bubbly letters under a single name, Caroline.

Lance nodded and turned his head back towards the kitchen, but Caroline was clanging dishes out of sight.

“Well, there you go,” I said. “You got lunch and a girl’s number!”

“I guess I did,” Lance smiled, then got up to pay and leave.

When they were gone the waitress came out to push the pie on me.

“Is it homemade?” I asked. The real problem with America today is that nobody’s baking pies anymore. It’s too much work, so everybody just buys them pre-made or frozen.

“Yeah, it’s homemade,” she said.

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Everett’s delicious lemon meringue pie, home-baked in his very own “De Lux” kitchen. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

“Who makes ‘em?” I asked, being just a little difficult. I knew my elitist East Coast food snobbery would not be at all welcome in small town Oklahoma, but I just had to know—was there a person behind this pie? And who was she?

“Everett makes ‘em,” she shot back. So it was a he—of course men can bake pies. I make pies.

“Like, he bakes them in his kitchen?” I asked, just to make sure that Everett wasn’t a truck driver for Sara Lee or something.

“Hey!” the waitress shouted to the two men cooking burgers, even though she was standing right next to them.

“Where does Everett make his pies?” she kept shouting, her head cocked back with mascara eyelashes blinking at the ceiling.

The man spoke without ever turning, so that I heard his voice but only saw his hulking back, “Everett? He’s got a Dee Lux kitchen in his house where he makes all his pies.”

When he said the last word it sounded like pah-yuz, and so I got a slice of lemon meringue pie that was so perfect and unpretentiously delicious I decided to write about it. Even crotchety old Clint Eastwood would like this pie, I thought, and then stuck another sweet and sour forkful in my mouth.

Just as I was picking up the last crumbs from my plate with my fingers, Caroline came bouncing out. She was blonde and very young.

“Whaddee say?” she demanded to know about Lance.

“Well, he smiled when I gave it to him,” answered the waitress. Caroline made a face, embarrassed and hopeful all at once.

I paid my bill and left, but a week has passed now, and I truly hope that Lance called Caroline.

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Caroline, server at Johnnie’s Grill in El Reno, Oklahoma. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

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