Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler: Benchmark in Burgerdom
When I moved to Oklahoma City in the summer of 1988, the first burger joint I was directed to was Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. Rick Bayless told me when he comes home every year for Thanksgiving, he is driven directly to Johnnie’s from the airport.
The place is an institution. Period.
In the last two decades, the Johnnie’s brand has expanded. Drive-ins have popped up around the metro and across the state. They’ve expanded the menu to include salads, deli sandwiches and entree platters. But there’s no expansion of the brand or broadening of the menu without great burgers.
Ever since Johnnie Haynes left the Split-T in 1971 to make a go of it alone, that’s just what’s the restaurant that bears his name has done.
Whether Johnnie’s is your favorite burger in town or not, it’s a quality product. Somewhere between the thin burgers of a Whataburger and the thick burgers of Red Robin is where Johnnie’s patty lies. Cooked over real charcoal, the result is consistently juicy and flavorful. The signature burger is the No. 1, which comes slathered in Johnnie’s Sauce — a smoky hickory sauce. A fine burger, but I’ve got to go with the Theta burger, which is essentially the same with the addition of mayonnaise. Each comes with grated cheese, which is another plus. There’s something about that grated cheese that I love — kinda like the broader straw McDonald’s uses. Because they don’t use cheese slices, the grated American cheese is added after the cooking and the residual heat from the burger leaves it stuck between melted and solid. It’s unique and it works.
My favorite Johnnie’s burger is the Caesar. It was the first burger I got at Johnnie’s that hooked me. The mayo-based Caesar dressing is rich and garlicky. The recipe is such a closely guarded secret that co-owner David Haynes personally prepares each batch. Lettuce is mixed in with the dressing, and result is a sort of Caesar slaw that’s piled on high and falls freely about the burger as you eat it. This, too, is a positive. It’s hard for me to discern whether I like the dressing best on French fries, onion rings or the burger. The fresh cut french fries are exemplary, but the onion rings are the jewel of the sides.
As much as I respect Johnnie’s burgers and rings, the best thing they make is pecan pie. The pecan pie is so ridiculously delicious that I have to give myself a yearly quota. Thankfully, my mother’s Web surfing skills haven’t brought her to this remote outpost so I can safely divulge that Johnnie’s makes better pecan pie than mom. I’m sure Johnnie’s other homemade cream pies are fine desserts, but I can tell you in all honesty that my love for the pecan pie is so strong that I’ve never been able to bring myself to order any other slices. I don’t need the crew from “Cheaters” ambushing me over a dalliance with coconut cream pie.
Johnnie’s recently joined the trend toward sliders. For $6.95, you can get three mini burgers with any of Johnnie’s signature toppings. This solves a dilemma I faced over the years, choosing between the Theta and the Caesar. I also like the Caesar as one my sliders because it’s a tad rich, making a whole one hard to finish sometimes.
The only knock against Johnnie’s is its prices. But I compared it’s prices to other burger joints and found Johnnie’s prices are indeed high compared to Sonic or Whataburger. But Johnnie’s is a hybrid restaurant. I like to think of it as a diner that happens to excel at to-go orders. The burgers range from $4.19 to $6.95 for the sliders, which is in between what you’ll pay at say Irma’s or Flatire on the high end and Big Ed’s on the low end. Fries are $1.99 for small order, which is certainly more than you’re going to pay for frozen french fries trucked in weekly. Onion rings are $2.59 and $3.99, which is as much or more than a Six-dollar burger at Carl’s Jr. But I’ll take an order of Johnnie’s rings over anthing Carl, Creepy Plastic Burger Monarch, Mayor McCheese or any of the other corporate mascots have to offer.
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