Robert’s is El Reno’s oldest hamburger shop, a museum-piece town café that opened in 1926. Starting at six in the morning, its fourteen-stool counter is occupied by regulars who come for coffee and eggs and home fries or – even at dawn – a brace of onion-fried burgers.
Onion-fried burgers are the signature dish of El Reno, and the grill man at Robert’s knows how to make them right.
He slaps a quarter-pound sphere of beef onto the hot griddle, then piles a double fistful of shaved-thin onions atop the beef. He uses a spatula to flatten the onions and the meat together, creating a broad circular patty with an uneven edge. He presses down three or four times, changing the angle of attack each time, flattening only one-half to two-thirds of the patty with every stroke. The ribbons of onion are mashed deep into the top of the soft raw meat, which assumes a craggy surface because of the uneven, overlapping use of the spatula. Once the underside is cooked, the burger is flipped. The air around the grill clouds with the steam of sizzling onions.
Finally, the hamburger is scooped off the grill with all the darkened caramelized onions that have become part of it and it is put it on a bun, onion side up. Lettuce, tomato, mustard, and pickles are all optional if you like them, but no condiment is necessary to enhance this simple, savory creation.
Coney Islands in this part of the world are nearly as distinctive as the hamburgers. They come smothered in moderately spicy beef chili and a great, goopy spill of sweet slaw. They are served with a fork, which is necessary.