The OKC Charcoal Burger
One of the enduring memories of my childhood is the sharp tang of charcoal smoke gently floating by on a calm and hot summer evening. My father is a charcoal man, and the idea of using propane to grill was unknown to young me.
You will no doubt eat a grilled hamburger at a backyard cookout sometime this summer, and hopefully you will be lucky enough to come across a burger with local roots: the charcoal burger. If not, you can surely pick one up.
Whether you want a homemade burger, or whether you want to buy one from a local spot, a brief history of this Oklahoma City original is in order.
While the hamburger is of course available nationwide, the charcoal broiled hamburger (especially the Theta variant) is not. The charcoal burger may not be unique to Oklahoma City, but it has a long history here.
The charcoal burger differs from other hamburgers just as you might expect: it is cooked on a rack over charcoal, rather than being cooked on a gas grill or on a flat-top grill (the province of another Oklahoma specialty, the fried onion burger.)
An OKC charcoal burger is relatively thinner than other burgers, usually a quarter to three-eighths of an inch after cooking, and is traditionally topped with hickory sauce, with the other toppings up to the customer’s discretionary tastes. But the Theta burger, and to a lesser extent, the Caesar burger, are Oklahoma specialties.
A Theta burger traditionally includes mayonnaise, pickles, cheese, and that crucial ingredient: hickory sauce. Hickory sauce is similar to barbecue sauce, but is typically thinner, with a pronounced tomato/ umami character. A Theta burger is something you just have to try for yourself, as it’s difficult to properly describe the marriage of smoky, sour, savory and sweet flavors.
The story of the invention of the Theta burger may be lost in the mists of time, but there is no doubt that, like the Split-T, its origin is likely bound up somewhere with the University of Oklahoma.
While the Theta burger may not have been invented in Oklahoma City, (more on that later) there is no doubt that the ancestral seat of the Theta burger in Oklahoma City is the famous (and now closed) Split-T.
Vince Stephens opened the Split-T on north Western Avenue in 1953 to serve charcoal broiled hamburgers, naming the restaurant after the successful offensive formation employed by Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners, who promptly embarked on an NCAA record 47-game winning streak in appreciation of the nod. Legend has it that Stephens used his mother’s recipes for the hickory sauce and for the Caesar dressing at the Split-T, and the success of the restaurant followed the success of the football formation.
The Split-T was the spot to see and be seen for Oklahoma City high school students in the 1950s and 60s. The manager of the Split-T during these salad days was Johnnie Haynes.
After a successful 18-year run as manager at the Split-T, Johnnie left to open his own well-known restaurant, Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler, off of Britton Road. Johnnie took with him the knowledge that customers loved a charcoal burger, particularly the Theta burger and the Caesar burger.
Johnnie’s sells its version of both the Theta burger (with or without cheese) and the Caesar burger at all of its locations in Oklahoma City, and the Theta burger and the Caesar burger are also on the menu at Urban Johnnie Bar & Grille located in the Level building in Deep Deuce.
The venerable Charcoal Oven sits on another branch of the charcoal burger tree (if only…). Charcoal Oven has been serving charcoal burgers drive-thru style since 1958, and is located on NW Expressway between Penn and May.
Charcoal Oven of course has a version of the Theta burger, which is available with a choice of cheeses. Eating a burger in the car at Charcoal Oven is a ride on the way-back machine.
Happily, following the closure of the Split-T, Oklahoma’s own Sonic Drive-In picked up the broiler as it were, and preserved the iconic Split- T sign at the Sonic located just south of the original Split-T, at 5701 N. Western. Along with the sign, Sonic preserved the tradition of the Theta burger at this location. You can order a Theta along with your favorite summer drink.
Although the Split-T is closed, Split-T hickory sauce is reportedly available at local meat markets and grocers.
Johnnie’s Sauce (hickory sauce) is also sold on Johnnie’s website: johnniesburgers.com