Perhaps to distance myself from the attitude that underlies my NYC roots, I try hard not to think in a narrowly provincial way about where one might find the best restaurants. Sure, NY and Chicago have some of my favorites, but so do St. Louis, Indianapolis and Greensboro. That said, it was with relatively little hope that I started researching what to eat on my recent travels to Oklahoma City, OK and Wausau, WI. After these trips, I realized that I still have work to do to widen my NY-mindedness.
As skyfullofbacon, who knows a thing or two about both meat and Oklahoma, twitted during my trip planning, Oklahoma City is “the burger capital of the galaxy”. As I drove around the expansive city it indeed seemed hard to go far without seeing a sign for “Onion Burgers” that dozens of places have been cooking for decades. Onion burgers in OKC apparently started as a way to make meat go further when times were tough –onions were smashed into beef patties to extend their volume. As with many great classic dishes, this is an example of humble, necessity-based cooking that ends up producing something downright fantastic in its own right.
I tried a couple of the old time places that have been doing onion burgers for generations, including one popular and delicious stand that’s located in a gunshop, but I could not resist the appeal a recently-opened place called Tucker’s.
These guys are preparing things the classic way, but unlike their counterparts, Tucker’s is sourcing local, grass-fed beef, artisanal buns made down the street, and other quality, local ingredients whenever possible. The setting is hardly fancy though, and Tucker’s fits in well among the “real” old school places.
More importantly, the Tucker’s double onion burger was fantastic. Onion burgers are pressed with a heavy spatula on a flat grill, and cooks have differing opinions about how hard and how long to press. This is one of the things that makes going from place to place to try these things an interesting adventure. Hard, long pressing leads to super-crispy, tasty lacing on the exterior of the patty (this was the way of the gun shop cook), while lighter pressing logically keeps more juices inside. Tucker’s falls into the relatively-light-pressing camp – there’s still good, crispy lacing on the outside, but most of the meat is juicy and loose. It probably doesn’t hurt that they use a slightly larger patty than most places – about 4.5 ounces vs. the more typical 3-4 ounce patty. Also at Tucker’s, the onions took on a darker, more naturally sweet caramelization than at the other places. I think this was because they kept the grill at a slightly lower temperature, leading to a slower cook. The double was a delicious monstrosity; I polished off the whole thing, but on my next visit I’ll go with a single, which should be big enough to stand up to the super-fresh, local potato bun.
Burgers in Oklahoma are one thing. In retrospect it’s not hard to understand why that’s a thing. But what about pizza in Wausau, Wisconsin? Is there really anything better than the Papa Rococco or Papa Milano or Papa Napoli or whatever other middle of the road chain and chain imitator that’s all over the place. It turns out there is, and it’s located in a place that also serves something less surprising to find in the parts: great beer. Redeye Brewing Company is a snazzy looking place that’s hopping every night of the week. I had to wait 20 minutes for a seat at 5:30 on a school night!
The best beers here are the hop heavy American-style IPA’s, and they’re very good indeed, but the star of the Redeye Brewery show is what comes out of the pure-wood-fired 850 degree oven that’s the center of an open kitchen. The crust has great chew to it, and they use very high quality toppings, including a peppery fennel sausage that was among the best I’ve tasted.
Tucker's Onion Burgers
324 Northwest 23rd Street Oklahoma City, OK 73118
612 Washington Street Wausau, WI 54403