Editor’s note: With the nationwide observance of “National Onion Ring Day” set for June 22, CN+R Reporter Zachary Horner — a major fan of the hamburger joint staple — set out to sample the …
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Editor’s note: With the nationwide observance of “National Onion Ring Day” set for June 22, CN+R Reporter Zachary Horner — a major fan of the hamburger joint staple — set out to sample the finest available across Chatham County. Here’s his report.
Onion rings have been a beloved appetizer for many, but their origin is a little sketchy. In my research for this piece and experience, I did some digging and came up a little confused.
There are three possible beginnings to the onion ring, each of them unique:
• The New York Times Magazine featured an advertisement in a 1933 issue from Crisco. The ad included a recipe for onions dipped in milk, dragged in flour and deep-fried.
• A Texas restaurant chain claimed for many years that they invented the onion ring in the early 1920s.
• And in 1802, a cookbook included a recipe called “Fried Onions with Parmesan Cheese” that seemed an awful lot like the modern onion ring.
Whatever the origin, onion rings are now a staple in many sit-down restaurants, and even a few drive-thrus. You won’t find onion rings at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but Burger King, Cook Out and Sonic all feature them. My favorite of those: Cook Out. I know Chatham County doesn’t have one, but head to Sanford or Chapel Hill and avail yourself of them. Quickly.
One thing we do know is that June 22 is National Onion Ring Day. The origin of the “holiday” is also unknown, but I’m sure glad that it is one. Onions are the third largest fresh vegetable industry in the United States — the National Onion Association says each person consumes an average of 20.39 pounds of onions per year — and they’re not much better than when they’re fried. At least in my opinion.
So I undertook a journey — like Frodo and Sam in their quest to throw the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom — to find the best onion ring in Chatham County (or at least some really good ones). I stopped at five restaurants and conducted some taste tests. I also got to hear a bit about the thought process behind each restaurant’s onion ring choice and how they’re doing right now.
Elizabeth’s Pizza Italian Restaurant | Siler City
119 Siler Crossing, Siler City
Restaurant owner Hany Shreef told me his establishment is really missing their in-house service options right now, and that delivery is just not cost-effective. Elizabeth’s has had to shut down two of its dining rooms — which can be reserved and serve as an additional revenue source — due to the pandemic.
Shreef encouraged getting the onion rings as a side to the Philly cheesesteak. First of all, this man knew the way to my heart: Philly cheesesteak sandwiches are my favorite. Second, you can also get the onion rings as a stand-alone appetizer for $3.99.
Elizabeth’s onion rings are your classic no-frills, no-fuss bunch. The side I got with my sandwich had a good mix of big rings and little rings and were great to dip in ranch dressing. I’m sure they’d be good in your favorite dip as well, but I’m partial to ranch.
Shreef said he’s bought onion rings from the same distributor for a long time, that he hasn’t felt the need to change it up.
Hayley Bales Steakhouse | Siler City
211 E. Eleventh St., Siler City
Hayley Bales Steakhouse has been closed for weeks through the pandemic, but is now open for sit-down business as of Monday. Manager Chris Terry said he’s “completely ready” for all of this “to be over with.” The BestFood Cafeteria, which is in the same building and under the same ownership, has done fine during the pandemic with takeout business.
The Hayley Bales onion ring stands out in two ways: its crispiness and the homemade onion dip it is served with. They’re big, too. The onion dip has a little kick to it — Terry said it’s cayenne pepper — and customers will sometimes order the dip with as salad dressing. He added that onion rings rank below the potato family as the most popular side.
On occasion, Hayley Bales will serve a homemade onion ring, but Terry said the dish is so popular that continually making the homemade version is difficult. When they are made, it’s usually as a special appetizer or served on top of a chopped steak.
The onion ring appetizer rings up at $4.99 with the dips, or you can make it a side to your entree.
Nericcio’s Family Restaurant | Siler City
110 N. Second Ave., Siler City
Nericcio’s co-owner Mary Boyce said the first month and a half of her restaurant’s existence was “awesome.” Located in the former home of The Copper Penny, the business opened in early October, but like every restaurant has taken a hit in recent months. The menu has a mix of Italian food and your everyday American dishes — I haven’t had one, but apparently the hot dogs are very popular.
The onion rings were different than the others I had tried to that point. They were sprinkled with Lowry’s salt — enough to leave an impression on the taste buds, but you couldn’t see the seasoning. Mix the salty flavor with the sweet onion used, and you’ve got yourself a solid onion ring. A small, six-ring order will cost you $2.25, while a large 12-ring basket is $4.
Boyce said the restaurant, which re-opened to dine-in service as soon as allowed by executive order, has been seeing a lot of new people recently.
Carolina Brewery | Pittsboro
120 Lowes Drive, No. 110, Pittsboro
Did you know there was such a thing as a “colossal” onion? I didn’t, until I tried Carolina Brewery’s onion rings. The diameter of colossal yellow onions — yup, that adjective is part of the actual name — ranges between three and three-quarter inches and four and one-quarter inches, and for Carolina Brewery, it leaves the fried rings big, thick and delicious.
Marketing Manager Samantha Brykailo said the restaurant, which also has a Chapel Hill location, tried to keep things “as normal as possible” throughout the pandemic by offering takeout. In-house dining resumed as soon as allowed — Brykailo said it was “a mad dash” and “a nerve-wracking day” getting things going inside the restaurant.
For $8.99, you can get the onion ring appetizer with honey mustard. The batter is homemade — the second recipe Carolina Brewery has tried. Onion rings were on the menu at Pittsboro but were removed. They returned when the restaurant was renovated recently and, Brykailo said, continue to be “a hit.”
Town Hall Burger & Beer | Briar Chapel
58 Chapelton Court, Suite No. 140, Chapel Hill
These thick-cut vidalia onions are thick. It’s not an adjective thrown on for fun. Like Carolina Brewery, the rings were removed from the menu at one point and brought back. The thickness, along with the batter, makes these rings super crunchy.
Town Hall Burger — which also has locations in Durham and Holly Springs — continued to operate throughout the early days of the pandemic, and as David Sadeghi, one of the restaurant’s owners, told the News + Record in March, they worked to give back to the community. A customer came to the restaurant ownership offering $5,000 as a fund for the restaurant’s employees. Working with the anonymous donor, the restaurant’s owners set up a $15,000 fund — $10,000 of which went to Town Hall Burger employees to help them during the restaurant’s adjusted hours and service and $5,000 for meals cooked for front line employees at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
Visitors to Town Hall Burger can get the onion rings as a shared plate with a homemade honey mustard that has a bit of a kick to it. If you’re looking for something lighter, the onion straw appetizer or side is served with a jalapeño ranch.