The “Depression Burger” AKA Fried Onion Burger: An Oklahoma Culinary Delight

Upon stumbling upon the term “depression burger,” you might expect a patty with a side of therapy or fries seasoned with existential crisis.

However, the reality is far more positive (and delicious).

Let’s delve into the backstory of the depression burger, also known as the fried onion burger, a culinary gem beloved in the heart of Oklahoma.

What is a Fried Onion Burger?

At its core, a fried onion burger is a savory creation featuring a juicy beef patty infused with caramelized onions, all encased within a flat, toasted bun.

What sets this burger apart is its unique cooking method, where the onions are pressed into the patty as it cooks on a griddle. This process not only imparts a rich flavor to the meat but also creates a distinctive caramelized crust that elevates the burger to gourmet status.

The simplicity of its ingredients belies the complexity of its flavors. A well-executed fried onion burger offers a harmonious blend of savory beef, sweet caramelized onions, and the satisfying crunch of a perfectly toasted bun.

"Depression Burger" AKA Fried Onion Burger

A Brief History

The origins of the fried onion burger can be traced back to Depression-era America.

Oklahoma was particularly hard hit during the Great Depression. In the western portion of the state the dust bowl destroyed thousands of farms. Plummeting crop prices left many farmers unable to make ends meet and the region also suffered from severe drought conditions, leading to widespread poverty and unemployment.

It also created one of the biggest migrations in the history of the United States. Oklahoma alone lost 440,000 people to migration.

Just before the outbreak of the dust bowl, during the late 1920s, Ross Davis and his father opened the Hamburger Inn in El Reno, along the brand-new famed Route 66 highway. But it didn’t take long for them to face economic hardships like so many other people in the region at the time.

And this presented real challenges for the new burger joint, as the supply of beef began to plummet.

Davis sought ways to stretch their limited resources while still providing hearty meals to their patrons. So he ingeniously devised a solution that would revolutionize the burger scene.

Faced with a shortage of beef, Davis began mixing sliced onions into the meat patties to extend their volume. To ensure that the onions stayed in place during cooking, he and other cooks would press them into the beef as it sizzled on the griddle.

And we’re not talking about just a few onion slices, more like half a bulb. After all, onions were cheap during the Great Depression which is why they were found in so many other items. Peanut butter filled onions, anybody?

What emerged from this poverty-inspired innovation was a burger unlike any other – the fried onion burger.

Where to Find the “Depression burger?”

While the fried onion burger originated in El Reno, its fame has since spread far and wide, making it a sought-after delicacy in various corners of the globe. However, for those eager to experience the authentic taste of this culinary gem, a pilgrimage to its birthplace is in order.

After weathering a tense night in Oklahoma City amid alarming tornado warnings, we sought refuge and sustenance in El Reno, about 30 minutes west of Oklahoma City.

Our quest led us to Sid’s Diner, a cozy Route 66 eatery brimming with eager patrons—some waiting patiently in line outside, others enjoying their meals at the scattered outdoor tables.

Photo taken when we were leaving and the crowd died down.
sids diner

When it came time to place our orders, I opted for the classic burger, complete with pickles, mustard, and cheese.

And how could I resist complementing it with a decadent chocolate malt, embracing the true spirit of Route 66? My own feelings of anemoia — which is a profound sense of nostalgia for a bygone era you’ve never experienced firsthand — were vividly apparent.

Navigating the snug confines of the diner, adorned with a gallery of photographs and decor, we eventually placed our orders and ventured outside. Within a few minutes our buzzer went off and it was to time to give these burgers a shot.

sids diner

As someone who typically shies away from onions, I was pleasantly surprised by the delightful interplay of flavors in the burger.

The crispy texture of the fried onions melded perfectly with the savory beef patty and the sweetness of the caramelized onions added a nuanced contrast to the richness of the meat. The tangy mustard and crisp, fresh pickles balanced out the richness of the burger.

As a seasoned burger aficionado who has traversed countless eateries nationwide, I must admit that this particular burger was one of the more memorable ones.

Sure, there’s the distinct flavor profile to savor, but there’s also the intriguing historical narrative woven into each bite—a tale of indulging in a dish born from the hardships of the Depression era.

route 66 el reno, ok

Other fried onion burger options

Sid’s Diner isn’t the sole purveyor of these delectable onion burgers in El Reno.

Along the bustling streets, you’ll also discover Johnnie’s Hamburgers and Coneys, offering their own spin on the iconic dish, as well as Robert’s Grill, renowned for their Depression Burgers.

Venturing beyond El Reno, the onion burger scene extends its reach to Tucker’s Onion Burgers, with multiple locations dotting the landscape of Oklahoma City. HD’s Onion Burgers also looks like it will be worth a stop next time we’re in town.

Fried Onion Burger Day Festival

The burger holds a special place in the hearts of locals, evident every first weekend of May when the El Reno Main Street Association orchestrates Fried Onion Burger Day.

Drawing an impressive crowd of approximately 30,000 attendees, the event transforms the streets into a bustling celebration of this beloved dish.

The fire department takes charge of grilling an enormous 850-pound fried onion burger, made up of 350 pounds of juicy beef, a homemade bun weighing another 350 pounds, and a generous topping of 150 pounds of onions, complemented by a plethora of pickles and mustard.

Guests are treated to a taste of this colossal creation, making it an unforgettable experience for all who join in the festivities.

Hearing about this reminded me of the Moxie festival in Maine, and I absolutely love how local communities celebrate culinary traditions in such quirky and unconventional ways. I’ve got to start marking my calendar for these events.

Final word

The fried onion burger is more than just a culinary delight. Born out of necessity during a time of economic hardship, this humble dish has evolved into a beloved icon that continues to captivate food enthusiasts worldwide.

Whether enjoyed in its birthplace of El Reno, Oklahoma, or savored in locales across the state, the fried onion burger remains a timeless classic that delights the senses and nourishes the soul.

So the next time you find yourself craving a taste of culinary history, sink your teeth into a juicy, flavorful fried onion burger – and savor the sizzling stories behind every bite.


  1. Every time we travel through OK City we stop at Tucker Burger. Our favorite.

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