Though he’s been able to retire it since opening his brick-and-mortar joint Hamburger America in the West Village last year, George Motz still has the “burger slide” he used to deliver fried onion burgers from a kitchen window in Brooklyn to socially distanced customers on the street below during the height of the pandemic. It’s fitting that the burgers Motz chose to make to provide comfort as COVID-19 wreaked havoc in NYC were fried onion burgers, as the simple sandwiches trace their roots back about 100 years to another bleak point in American history, the Great Depression.
First served by Oklahoman Homer Davis and his son Ross at the Hamburger Inn in El Reno, the fried onion burger was invented as a way of giving customers more bang, but not more beef, for five cents. To keep his food filling and affordable with beef prices on the rise, Davis began stuffing his so-called “Depression burgers” with shredded onions and cooking them into one side of the fried meat before slapping the combo between two steamed buns. The stripped-down smash burger was a hit and El Reno soon became, and still is, a Mecca for fans of Oklahoma’s fried onion burger.
Approximately 1,500 miles away in Manhattan, born-and-raised Tulsa native Patrick Griffin has his take on the regional favorite on the menu at Au Jus, his trio of restaurants specializing in Okie-style barbecue. There, Griffin, who refers to Oklahoma BBQ as the “Sweden of Barbecue” because it blends influences from Texas, the Carolinas, Kansas City and Memphis, serves two smashed beef patties that’ve been smothered in fried onions and grilled in a cast-iron skillet on a toasted brioche roll and tops it all off with yellow mustard, garlic dill pickles and melted American cheese.
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For Griffin, who grew up working in restaurants and has been associated with the food business for most of his life, the fried onion burger offers a taste of home.
“The Oklahoma burger is something I’ve been eating since I can remember I was eating. My father made them all the time,” Griffin tells InsideHook. “I strongly believe it was the first smash burger because I was eating them 65 years ago. At one time, it was considered to be the signature sandwich of Oklahoma. I don’t think it can be beaten if you like a good burger with onions. It’s something you’ll start craving once you’ve had one or two of them.”
Available at Au Jus alongside other Oklahoma favorites including smoked bologna, Tulsa pulled pork and spicy beef “hot-links” sausage made from a family recipe, the fried onion burgers are one of the restaurant’s most popular items — to the point where Griffin has put a plant-based version on the menu.
“It’s just part of the fabric of growing up there,” he says. “If you grew up on the Upper West Side, you had brisket. If you grew up in Oklahoma, you had a Depression burger. It’s so juicy when it’s made right. You have to open your mouth wide to get a good bite, and then it’s this mishmash of burger flavor, yellow mustard, pickles and cheese. It makes me remember my childhood and where I came from. It just tastes good.”
In a development that’s the polar opposite of depressing, here’s Griffin’s recipe.
Au Jus Fried Onion Burger
Servings: 1 burger
- 1 4-inch brioche bun
- 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for buttering
- ½ pound 80/20 good quality ground beef, preferably chuck brisket blend. Best out of the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to hit room temperature.
- 1 large Spanish onion, ½ diced, ½ thinly sliced
- 2 slices yellow American cheese
- 1 garlic dill pickle, sliced into thin chips
- 1 tbsp. canola oil
- French’s yellow mustard
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Heat a cast-iron griddle or large cast-iron skillet over medium to high heat.
Slice brioche bun in half, butter top and bottom, then toast on hot griddle or in skillet then set aside.
Loosely form the beef into two 3-4 ounce balls, approximately 1 ½-2 inches in size (do not compress too tightly or it will be difficult to smash properly).
In a sauté pan set over medium heat, melt butter and add canola oil and sauté sliced onions until soft and beginning to caramelize, stirring occasionally.
Place 1-2 tbsp. of chopped onion in two spots about 4-5 inches apart on the hot griddle or skillet; slightly flatten each ground beef ball and place one over each portion of chopped onions.
Using a short, firm spatula, mash each patty firmly over chopped onions until very thin, and top with additional 1-2 tbsp. of chopped onion.
Sprinkle freshly ground black pepper generously over top of each smashed patty.
Cook smashed patty until surface of meat is well-seared, browned and crisp. Then turn over and again sprinkle generously with freshly ground pepper and season with kosher salt to taste.
As soon as smashed patty is turned over, place one slice of American cheese over top of each patty so it melts.
When the onions are cooked and cheese melts, remove patties from heat. Place top half of bun top down on the griddle or skillet and let it sit for a few seconds to become moistened with pan juices. Don’t skip this step, but take care not to over-soften.
Spread a generous amount of yellow mustard over the surface of both the top and bottom half of the brioche bun.
Remove cheese-covered patties from heat and place one on top of the other on the bottom half of the toasted brioche bun.
Cover with fried onions then top with 3 to 4 dill pickle slices.
Cover with the top half of the brioche bun and serve immediately.
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