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McNellie's takes burger concept out on the Mother Road
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McNellie's takes burger concept out on the Mother Road

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Jim O'Connor tells us about the new Howdy Burger on 11th street

Most of the food vendors that fill the Mother Road Market are the result of years of work and effort to bring their culinary dreams to life.

An exception to that rule is Howdy Burger, which went from idea to opening in just a couple of months.

“Well, we do have something of a track record with opening restaurants,” Jim O’Connor said.

O’Connor is the chief operating officer of the McNellie’s Group, whose holdings include such restaurants as McNellie’s Public House, Yokozuna, The Tavern, Dilly Diner and The Wild Fork, among others.

“We actually had been toying with the idea of a burger concept when the people at Mother Road Market approached us,” he said. “They had a little spot in the market they wanted us to fill, and they said we could bring in anything we wanted.

“It’s the perfect place to incubate a new concept, and we thought the burger idea would work well there,” O’Connor said. “Mother Road Market reached out to us in July of 2019, and by September we were open.”

The idea for Howdy Burger took some inspiration from Route 66, as the Mother Road Market sits adjacent to a stretch of that fabled highway, namely 11th Street. It would offer the sort of burgers travelers along the route in its heyday might encounter at the myriad roadside eateries.

Howdy Burger proved to be a success, O’Connor said, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most restaurants had to rely on carryout sales. In fact, he added, Howdy Burger performed so well that the company began looking for a second location for the concept.

They found such a place just up the road from the original site — in a restaurant that was one of the several Lot-A-Burger outlets around Tulsa, most of which were shuttered this year.

“We liked the whole idea of being on Route 66,” O’Connor said, “and with the city of Tulsa’s grant program for installing neon signs on Route 66, it just seemed as if everything was coming together. We really like the whole eco-system here in this neighborhood, and are just happy to be a part of it.”

The second Howdy Burger opened in October, serving up a menu slightly different from that available at Mother Road Market, which remains in business. In addition to the signature Howdy Burger, which can be ordered with one, two or three patties, the new place offers two versions of a fried chicken sandwich (regular and spicy), as well as chicken nuggets for the kids, and several options for the vegetarian crowd.

“Some of the items we have at the 11th Street location were things that we just can’t do at the Mother Road Market space, like the chicken sandwich,” O’Connor said.

The standard Howdy Burger ($7) comes with two 4-ounce beef patties that are cooked on a flat-top griddle and topped with green leaf lettuce, thinly sliced onions, thicker-sliced tomato, and a mayonnaise-based condiment known as “rodeo sauce,” on a potato bun that is cut almost in two, so that the top and bottom halves are still connected.

O’Connor said it was a way of making the burger manageable with one hand, so it could be eaten while driving. It also has a way of pushing the contents of the bun forward, so that the first bite can include everything except the bun.

We paired it with an order of Rodeo Fries ($7) and a lemonade ($3). The Rodeo Fries is a double order of fries, topped with melted cheese, crumbled bacon and the Rodeo sauce; the plastic fork accompanying came in handy, as navigating this pile of potatoes by hand could quickly get messy.

The burger has a lot going for it — the patties have a slight crust around the edge, the vegetables are fresh and crisp, the cheese properly gooey — but both it and the Rodeo Fries were incredibly salty. I’ve nothing against salt (much to the chagrin of my doctor), but even for me, this was too much.

At another visit, we sampled the Wag-Gouda burger ($13), and a spicy chicken sandwich ($8), this time with an order of unadulterated fries ($3). Other than it having a single, thicker beef patty, and a slice of lightly smoked Gouda cheese, I really could not distinguish a great difference in flavor or texture between this and the regular Howdy Burger.

The chicken sandwich gets its spice from a habañero mayo dressing, which packs a substantial kick of heat that overwhelms the mild chicken. The pickles cut through some of the richness and heat, and the breading on the chicken remained crunchy throughout.

The plain fries were a highlight — this second order was purchased through the drive-through system, and the fries were still warm and wonderfully crisp even after their relatively long trip home.

For those eschewing meat, Howdy Burger offers a burger with an Impossible Meat patty called the “All Hat,” and they take the “mushroom and Swiss” sandwich to a logical conclusion, using a grilled portobello mushroom cap as the patty and topping with cheese and the usual augmentations.

O’Connor said that the restaurant needed little in the way of renovation to get it ready for Howdy Burger. The dining area has about a dozen bright yellow metal tables with black plastic chairs, echoing the restaurant’s color palette.

“The big thing we had to do was replace the roof,” he said. “And we had to bring in some new equipment. But for the most part the kitchen was in good shape; most of the work we did was cosmetic.”

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