In the world of side dishes, it’s a widely accepted fact: French fries are nothing but divas.
They hog all the attention. They get all the dress-up love. All the add-ons, from gravy to chili to cheese sauce, want to be seen on fries.
And what for? A rectangular piece of potato that gets dropped in a fryer? It’s an affront to the onion ring.
You don’t see movie-trailer type ads for Taco Bell onion rings. No, the onion ring is second fiddle for many. It’s the everyman actor, the one that doesn’t stand out as much and toils in relative obscurity, just ready for that big break while the French fry just gets starring role one after another.
All the while, the onion ring has to jump through hoops just to make it to your plate. They have to count on a human or a machine making the perfect cut to keep their shape intact. They have to share top billing with fries in a half-and-half order just to get attention.
Most of the time, fries are in the top left of the menu featured in the apps, while the onion ring or straw is relegated to the small-print, lower-right corner, lumped in with all the other fixin’s.
Well, no more. I believe onion rings have gotten a raw deal, simply because they are a harder dish to truly get right. You have to nail the thickness, find the perfect cook time, and create a batter that is tasty without overpowering the onion and being too heavy in the diners’ stomach.
We typically shy away from giving chain or chain-adjacent restaurants much love here, but truth is, they are the ones giving onions the most love. They are the star at Outback, and Josh Hight and his crew never disappoint with their Bloomin’ Onions. Longhorn does a very tasty take with their Tonion slices, as does Jim ’N’ Nicks with their fully breaded rings.
I will admit a bias upfront. There are two camps among onion ring lovers – the breaded and the battered. I am in the breaded camp.
For me, it’s very hard to distinguish a fresh battered onion ring. When it’s breaded, the ring doesn’t look like it’s sopping in grease – plus, I think the flavor of the breading pops more than batter ever could.
Whether you are a ring, a straw or a Tonion strip, there is one paramount characteristic to making this best-of list: Your batter or breading and onion best stay intact when I bite into it. And the entire onion better not come out of its covering in that one bite.
Just because too much of the world doesn’t value the onion ring properly doesn’t mean I can’t hold my onion product and the chefs behind them to the most discerning standards.
Our “blue ribbon panel” nominated a strong contingent of contenders for this list. I came into this exercise with a leader-in-the-clubhouse favorite and, as much as there are some excellent contenders, my No. 1 was not displaced.
I don’t usually order the picks here, but for my money, Street Meet (95 Mathews Drive, Hilton Head Island) is far above the competition. The spot is known for its selection of hot dogs, but the real draw for me is their onion straws. It is so easy to overcook straws, to botch the frying of the straws, but Street Meet has uncanny consistency in the product they deliver. The seasoning combined with the light but scrumptious breading give the onion the starring spotlight it deserves.
From here, I leaned heavily on our panel and their repeat recommendations.
One spot that was mentioned time and again was R Bar (70 Pennington Drive, Bluffton). This spot behind the Sonic in Sheridan Park is known for so many other dishes, including its Beef on Weck and mouth-watering burgers, but the onion rings are exquisite. They are fresh cut and cooked to order and, though it’s a thick-cut onion, it’s tender through and through so the batter stays together bite after bite.
Mixx on Main (87 Main Street, Hilton Head Island) also won multiple raves from our foodie crew. Think thin and crispy here. It’s a bold combo, so easy to go miserably wrong. But our diners say that their approach translates to a winning formula.
Okatie Ale House (25 William Pope Drive, Okatie) go the battered route, but it’s easy to know from the first bite that this is not a food service product. These babies are fresh and delicious and are gobbled up by my usual party of six in about 4.6 seconds.
I have to give special accommodation to Bacon Diner (4 Oliver Court, Bluffton). I really whiffed in leaving their thin, fresh-cut fries off my Hot Spots fries list. They are consistently amazing. My only wish is that they were available for breakfast as well. As great as the burgers are there, the fries are almost worth making their own meal with two or three orders worth. I’m not as vehemently drooling over their onion rings, but they were tasty enough to earn some love here.
A trio of Bluffton restaurants also deserve above-and-beyond recognition. Grooby’s Too (12A Sheridan Park Circle, Bluffton) is the newbie of the group, but their onion entry won repeated praise from our panel to make them worthy of singling out.
And we give Lifetime Achievement awards to Cheeburger Cheeburger (108 Buckwalter Parkway, Bluffton) and Squat ’n’ Gobble (1231 May River Road, Bluffton). You can order the Cheeburger rings in a combo with the fries, but in this pre- or post-movie ritual, I always order the rings separate. They’re that good.
And as for the Old Town fave, we had a number of panelists say that while the S&G rings are outstanding, combining them with a honey mustard dipping sauce makes for a game-changing sensation. And a shoutout to “Little Star” Wozniak, who is in her second week of recuperation from cervical disk replacement surgery.
If you’re up for a drive, our panel recommends Fiddler’s Seafood (7738 West Main St., Ridgeland). Hats off to owner Donna Rowell and her staff for making a delicious onion ring. You really want to give the ring some love, try the Trey’s Bloomin Onion burger with BBQ sauce and cheese.
Best of the Rest
In Bluffton, there are a quartet of gated community faves that earned kudos. The clubhouses at Rose Hill and Hidden Cypress both won much love, as did Al’s Pub and Pizzeria on the “new side” of Sun City at Argent Lake. And the rings at Bar & Chill in Margaritaville are also worth the trip.
Other B-Town haunts earning love include Old Town Dispensary, One Hot Mama’s onion haystack, May River Grill’s tobacco onions, Kelly’s Tavern and Katie O’Donalds.
On the island, Callahan’s off New Orleans Road is a legendary sports bar with rave-worthy rings. Other cross-the-bridge locales that won honors from our panel include Char Bar, Up the Creek, Santa Fe Café and Top Dawg Tavern in Shelter Cove. Captain Woody’s and Giuseppi’s have Bluffton and Hilton Head locations with top-shelf rings as well.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.