WORTHINGTON - Many try but few can resist - onion rings, that is.
A steaming, tangled, golden stack of delectably crispy onion rings, leaving “ah” in one’s mouth and a slight sheen of finger-lickin’ grease on one’s fingers…if that fits your memory of the “world famous” onion rings served up for decades at Michael’s Restaurant on the east edge of Worthington, then Drew Johnson wants to hear from you.
Johnson, a 1997 Worthington High School graduate who has spent the bulk of his adult years embarking on one creative adventure after another, is currently peeling back the layers of notable onion rings for an “American Food Legends” documentary series.
Working with Capp Bros., a Las Vegas-based audio and video production company headed by Zach Capp (the grandson of Worthington resident Esther Anderson and the late Emory Anderson), Johnson is coming to Nobles County with a Capp Bros. crew next week.
To film Larry Lang, son of Michael’s Restaurant founder Michael Lang, in action and to gobble up a jumbo-sized plate of memories from area residents about Michael’s onion rings.
“Larry [Lang] is a legend in himself, and he has a great story centering on onion rings that maybe hasn’t yet been told,” said Johnson.
“The ‘American Food Legends’ is a possible series, and we’re starting with onion rings-the legend behind the food,” Johnson continued.
“Three different people claim to have brought onion rings to America, but there’s very little validation, and as a researcher I’ve been following these onion ring trails.”
Johnson noted he’s found a Crisco ad in a 1933 New York Times that features onion rings, though a location in Texas has laid claim to being the originator of onion rings, and “there’s a guy in Nebraska, too,” Johnson added.
But Johnson and Capp, both bursting with Worthington connections, were well versed in the history of mouth-watering onion rings at the former Michael’s Restaurant.
Perhaps unbeknownst to some locals, Larry Lang has continued deep-frying quantities of the savory treat for the past two years at Lynn Johnson’s Wilmont Saloon No. 7.
“When I started there, we talked about the onion rings and putting them on the menu,” explained Lang, the restaurant’s cook.
“People come in and have a drink and a plate of onion rings, or a dinner with onion rings; they seem to enjoy them,” Lang said modestly.
Lang credits his father, the late Michael Lang, and the first Michael’s Restaurant head chef, Margaret Thiner, with concocting the Michael’s onion rings’ special batter - a recipe he continues following to this day.
“That was back in 1949, when a lot of food was prepared by hand rather than purchased from a purveyor,” Lang clarified.
“Margaret and dad worked out a lot of the recipes, including the onion ring batter - I can’t take credit for the onion rings because I wasn’t born yet,” he quipped.
But Lang has kept the onion ring tradition alive, even as Michael’s closed some years ago and Lang took the golden wonders with him, first to the Worthington Country Club, then to a restaurant he operated in Sioux Falls, S.D., and now back to Wilmont.
“We have quite a few people who come in [to Wilmont Saloon No. 7] who say, ‘We were trying to find where these onion rings were,’” commented Lang.
“Some customers have moved away from the area, heard we were up here and we fixed them [the onion rings] some,” he continued. “One night, Muggs Shield’s wife came in and took six big orders of onion rings with her.”
That’s just the kind of response Johnson and Capp are hoping to capture when they arrive with a cinematographer and director in a few days.
“I’m curating stories right now, and we want to reach out to those who have something to share and try to tell the story of the onion rings, and Larry, the best we can,” said Johnson.
Onion rings happen to be a personal food of choice for Johnson, adding to his enthusiasm for the work-in-progress.
“Oh man, yes, I’ll take onion rings over French fries any day,” confessed Johnson, recalling his own family’s trips to Michael’s Restaurant for special occasions, and the way he and his sister fought over who would grab the first clump of hot onion rings from the overflowing plate.
“The crazy thing about Larry’s onion rings is how vivid the memories of them are,” said Johnson, pointing out that the “American Food Legends” project is apropos because food is something everyone has in common.
“Everybody eats, so everybody is potentially interested in this,” Johnson said.
As for Lang, he’s now an enthusiast for the “real nice menu” he’s cooking daily at Wilmont Saloon No. 7.
“We have steaks, seafood, a real nice line of sandwiches, a Tuesday burger night, a Wednesday wing night - that’s really taking off - and onion rings,” he listed.
“There are so many things we have to offer here, and it’s a fun place to come - there are a lot of options.”
Above all, Johnson is hoping area residents’ lingering taste for and memories of Lang’s onion rings will lead them to contact him - and the sooner the better.
“I’m excited this documentary gets to highlight Worthington, because it’s a special place for us,” emphasized Johnson. “I’m glad we can draw even more attention to it in a positive, respectful way.”
Johnson requests that people with memories or stories centering on onion rings from Michael’s Restaurant contact him as soon as possible, preferably in the next few days, either by calling (507) 407-0740 or emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org.