Oklahoma’s Better Original Burger: The Theta

Last Updated: July 15, 2024By

Filmmaker, burger genius, podcaster and restaurateur George Motz announced recently that he has chosen to feature the Theta Burger from Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler – #9 on the menu to all who celebrate – at his NYC joint Hamburger America from July 11 through August 6. The decision comes on the heels of a New York Times article about Motz introducing the Oklahoma onion burger to NYC. It’s fair to say Motz has done more for Oklahoma’s culinary reputation this year than anyone else not from Oklahoma.

The announcement has generated a couple questions around here: Where did Theta burgers come from, and since we can’t make it to NYC over the next four weeks, where can we find delicious versions now in the metro? The Theta’s origin has been disputed, an occasion that afflicts many classic drinks and dishes, including Oklahoma’s very own boozy Sprite, the Club Special.

Rick Haynes, co-owner of Johnnie’s, our beloved local chain of burger joints founded by his father, the original Johnnie, in 1971, said his vote is for the Town Tavern in Norman. The dispute circled around two possibilities: Town Tavern and Split-T. Johnnie Haynes opened the Split-T in 1953 (some sources say ‘52, but Rick Haynes said ‘53) as general manager, and worked there until 1971.

“My father always said it was Town Tavern,” Haynes said. “It was too long ago for me to know for sure, but that’s what he believed, and he opened the Split-T.”

Ralph Geist opened Town Tavern in 1933 (or thereabouts) and sold it in 1957. According to Betty Maffucci, the owner from 1976 until it closed, Geist is the creator of the Theta. She said: “The original owner had the barbecue recipe from owners of a restaurant in Florida that eventually moved to Oklahoma City. He had lots of calls from sorority girls wanting certain hamburgers (with specific toppings), and he would get irritated from time to time, and this one occasion, after listening to the girls’ description – he had work piling up – so told her, ‘Ok, we’ll call that the Theta Burger.’ The original recipe was a single with mayonnaise and barbecue sauce on a bun and possibly with a pickle.”

No one remembers exactly what year he created it, but it’s fair to assume it was sometime in the 20 years before Split-T opened, especially given Johnnie Haynes’s certainty about its provenance. The original recipe as described by Maffucci has undergone some changes, though, especially with respect to cheese. The Johnnie’s recipe has American cheese, specifically Kraft American cheese. Others use cheddar. Chef Patrick Morris told us about the importance of Kraft.

“Not all American cheeses are the same thing,” he said. “James Kraft invented ‘American Cheese’ in 1903, but Swiss food chemists Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler created a slightly different process in 1911 to sell to Kraft’s competitors, so if you aren’t eating Kraft, you’re technically not eating American American Cheese. If I remember correctly, by the ‘40s Kraft’s American cheese accounted for 60 percent of all American cheese sales in the U.S.”

So the burger that Motz chose is the original variation on the original recipe as near as anyone can tell. Maffucci also told us that several other sororities tried to get Geist to name other burger builds after their houses, but he never did. That’s why the two OG burgers for which Oklahoma is famous are the Depression-era onion burger and the Theta, and my vote has always been for the Theta as our best burger. (It’s not the Great Depression anymore. You can choose our own onion content rather than using it as a filler. Can you imagine an Okie lettuce burger? Nope.)

For the sake of constructing a list, we limited the possible variations considerably. Johnnie’s doesn’t use barbecue sauce. They have their own proprietary Johnnie’s Sauce, and they shipped dozens of cases to Hamburger America for this month’s featured burger. That sauce is a hickory sauce build with ingredients the Haynes brothers aren’t divulging. But since the original recipe apparently relied on a barbecue sauce, either hickory sauce or other barbecue sauce is good, and American and cheddar are both allowable, but no cheese blends. One local chain uses cheddar-jack, and that’s a disqualification, as is the addition of bacon. That’s a hickory bacon cheeseburger or some other variation. Finally, mayo, yes mayo. Not Miracle Whip or aioli or some other sauce to avoid using mayo. The Theta has mayo. 

  • Burger Punk
  • Classic 50s Diner
  • Charcoal Oven
  • Deep Deuce Grill
  • InterUrban
  • Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler
  • Land Run Grill
  • New State Burgers
  • O’Connell’s Irish Pub
  • S&B’s Burger Joint (NW 59th and May)
  • The Mont
  • The Press (They acknowledge it’s an -ish, but it’s a good ish.)

Enjoy, eat local, tip well, be nice!

One Comment

  1. Chris Robbins July 10, 2024 at 11:32 am - Reply

    I grew up with both Split-T and Johnnie’s and my favorite has always been the #9! The original Johnnie’s was on Britton Rd just around the corner from my high school (the original John Marshall HS) so we were there all the time. It moved to it’s present location farther West on Britton (where the Puddin’ Lane IGA used to be) and we still visit every time we’re visiting family in OKC. Gimme a #9, large rings, and a tea, please!

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