There’s something heartwarming about a city’s favorite food. It’s like, no matter how bad things can get, a whole population center can band together around this one thing: food.
Everywhere I’ve lived, there’s been a food that’s exclusive to that town. Whether it was the Steak-On-Garlic sandwich in Wichita Falls, or the burger on a sourdough bun in Abilene, there’s always been that beloved food that a town cherishes.
When I moved to Oklahoma City almost five years ago, I noticed a regional chain everywhere I went in town: Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. I never ate there, but I heard about it from the locals. The original “Johnnie” was a manager, way back in the day, at the Split-T drive-in. The Split-T sign still exists, but the building has been long gone. Anyway, Johnnie left Split-T and started his own restaurant, but he carried over a sandwich to his new joint—the Theta burger—and its popularity took off.
Allegedly, a sorority from OU (Kappa Alpha Theta) used to always order cheeseburgers with mayo & pickles only. Somehow that evolved into the present-day Theta burger, an OKC relic in the food industry. You’ll find it everywhere: from O’Connell’s on Campus Corner in Norman, to The Garage in The Village, to S&B’s on the northwest side of town.
So what is a Theta burger? Well, it’s really simple, actually. It’s a hamburger, topped with a tangy “hickory” barbecue sauce, thick chunks of shredded cheddar cheese, dill pickles, and mayonnaise. I always order mine without mayonnaise because I feel like that is an abomination pairing with beef. It’s still absolutely wonderful, and if a place sells Theta burgers, I’ll usually buy one.
With the Theta burger on my mind, I decided I had to make my own version. I’m shocked that no pizza joint around here has made a Theta pizza! What kind of conspiracy is that? It has all the markings of a great pizza: hamburger, copious amounts of cheese, barbecue sauce…what could go wrong?
I had to healthify mine up a bit, since we don’t really eat much beef anymore. So, I swapped the ground beef for some ground turkey (seasoning it heavily makes it so much better). I found a hickory sauce made by another classic Oklahoma company, Head Country, and set to work on my mini-pizzas.
I have an aversion to grating my own cheese. It really is a pain in the behind. I wanted those thick chunks of grated cheddar cheese for my pizza, but I really did not want to grate a block by hand. I managed to find a bag of *slightly* thicker chunks at the grocery store, but man—when did companies decide that grated cheese should only be sold in tiny grated form? Geeze. Finding a bigger grate was way more difficult than it needed to be.
Cheese: check. Hickory sauce: check. Meat substitute: check. All I need were a jar of dill pickles and a pizza crust. I decided to use a pita, because it’s the perfect personal pizza size and it’s easy to use. Did you think I was going to make my own crust? Hah. I’m all about that easy cooking.
After building my pizzas, I cooked them for about 10 minutes in the oven. They came out like little magical discs of Oklahoma City goodness. I topped them with chunks of dill pickle (I don’t like cooked pickles, hence why I didn’t bake them onto the pizza), and all was right with the world.
I’m sitting here, in Oklahoma City, eating an Oklahoma City favorite that I created. Thank you, Johnnie!
Theta Burger Pizza
An Oklahoma City favorite, made into pizza form.
- 2 whole wheat pita pockets
- 2 TBS. olive oil, divided
- 2 TBS. hickory barbecue sauce
- 1-2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 1/2 lb. ground turkey
- 2 tsp. steak seasoning
- salt and pepper
- dill pickles, chopped, for topping
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add one tablespoon of olive oil. Add turkey and steak seasoning, salt and pepper. Cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until turkey is no longer pink, about 5-6 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Build the pizzas: Place pitas on a baking sheet. Brush both pitas with remaining olive oil on one side. Add barbecue sauce and spread out to the edges. Sprinkle a little bit of cheddar cheese on top, then add cooked turkey. Sprinkle more cheese on top of that.
- Bake pizzas for 10 minutes in an oven set to 350 degrees, or until cheese is melted. Take out and let cool. Top with chopped dill pickles and cut into slices.
In a large skillet over medium high heat, add one tablespoon of olive oil. Add turkey and steak seasoning, salt and pepper to skillet and cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink—about 5-6 minutes. Drain and set aside
Build your pizzas: Place pitas on a baking sheet. Brush remaining olive oil on one side of both pitas. Add barbecue sauce and spread out and around toward the edges.
Sprinkle a little bit of cheese on top of the sauce, then add turkey. Add more cheese on top of the turkey. Bake pizzas for 10 minutes in an oven set to 350 degrees, or until cheese is melted.
Let cool and then sprinkle with chopped dill pickles. Cut into slices and then serve. Enjoy this little piece of my Oklahoma home to yours!