Onion rings immortalized: Documentary features famed Michael’s Steakhouse menu item

Oct. 5, 2020

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business

A documentary about an obsessive filmmaker’s quest to draw worldwide attention to the onion rings of a regional culinary icon will be available to stream Tuesday. 

“The Ringmaster” of the film’s title is Worthington’s Larry Lang, son of Michael’s Steakhouse founder Michael Lang and longtime keeper of the family’s secret onion ring batter recipe, which helped make the Worthington establishment a paragon of southwest Minnesota dining throughout the 1990s. The onion rings were once described as the best in the U.S. by a Washington Post food critic.

The Ringmaster” chronicles the relationship between Lang and Las Vegas documentarian Zachary Capp, who sought to make a film about the onion rings he remembered during childhood visits to Minnesota but wound up becoming the subject when his crew members watched the intensity of his quest ratchet up into a bizarre compulsion.

Capp launched the project in 2015 shortly after a stint in rehab for a gambling addiction, financing it with an inheritance from his grandfather.

The film depicts Lang as a reticent participant in a project that saw Capp nabbing him a judge’s position in a Worthington turkey race, feeding the onion rings to members of Kiss with the help of Dollar Loan Center founder and Sioux Falls native Chuck Brennan, slapping the chef’s likeness on signs and snack boxes for Brennan’s Badlands Speedway, and trying to land a deal to license the recipe to the Las Vegas Raiders. All the while, the onion ring king himself grows less and less enamored with Capp’s mission, at one point ordering the filmmaker out of his life before reversing course and playing along again.

The resulting film, directed by Dave Newberg and Minnesota native Molly Dworsky, netted awards in film festival showings from New York to Los Angeles over the past year. It will be available for on-demand viewing through Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft, the Google Play store, Vimeo and Apple TV+.

The film does what Capp intended, which was to “honor a legend who served his community,” the producer said Monday. The change in focus during the production turned it into a movie that not only did that but also shines a light on themes of kindness and forgiveness through small-town human experience.

“It was definitely a tough pill to swallow when my crew turned the camera on me and made me take a look at what I was doing and some of the things in my past, but I’m really happy with how it turned out,” Capp said. “I’m so grateful with the way this film has resonated with audiences all over the world.”

The story’s inspiration is sure to bring back memories for fans of Lang’s culinary offerings. In its heyday, the Worthington steakhouse drew diners from miles around, including Sioux Falls royalty like KELO-TV’s former weatherman and “Captain 11,” Dave Dedrick.

Lang hung a shingle in Sioux Falls in the mid-2000s, serving his famous onion rings and aged steaks first on Louise Avenue and later in the Russell Avenue building that now houses a driver’s license station for the South Dakota Department of Motor Vehicles. The Russell location closed in 2010.

Sioux Falls resident Todd Heitkamp grew up in Adrian, Minn., and “honestly can’t recall” how many times his family donned its Sunday best to wait in line for a table and a taste of the Lang family’s cooking.

“The one in Worthington was the icon,” Heitkamp recalls. “It was the steakhouse everyone strived to be. Anytime anything special would happen in our family, we’d splurge a little bit, get dressed up and go to Michael’s.”

The food in Sioux Falls was just as good, he recalls, with his first taste of the onion rings sealing the deal with a rush of memories from a time when “Larry was almost a household name.”

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Heitkamp said. “And the food in Sioux Falls was every bit as good as it was in Worthington.”

Worthington resident Milo Hawkinson’s memories spanned a lifetime. He and his wife would visit Michael’s in Worthington most Friday nights from the early 1970s onward. He’d later travel to Sioux Falls to eat, sometimes making the trip for no other reason than dinner. His son worked in the kitchen in high school, as well. 

“It was the Cadillac place to go,” Hawkinson said.

The kitchen had an infrared gas grill for steaks, he recalled, which he’d sometimes come in to work on. Lang was there regardless of the time of day, he said. When the diners appeared, the chef was still there, bopping from table to table making sure no water glass or coffee cup stood empty.

“If there was anything that might be wrong (at your table), he was on it like yellow on a banana,” Hawkinson said.

That squares with April Meyerink’s impression of the Sioux Falls restaurant. Meyerink and her husband visited once a month or so but not because of any Minnesota connection.

“We were living on the North End, and there really weren’t a lot of nice places to sit down and have a great meal,” Meyerink said.

It was Lang’s attention to detail that made the restaurant a regular stop. They saw him on every visit, she said, “and we almost wondered if he lived there.” 

On one occasion, there was something amiss with a plate of crab legs, and he swept in and immediately said “ ‘oh, that’s not the way we do things,’ ” she said.

“He gave us a whole new order and didn’t charge us a thing,” she said. “That’s what brought us back every time: the customer service. He was always there to fill the water glasses, to bring you your bread basket … he wanted to make sure everything was OK.”

Lang brought his skills to a handful of other restaurants after the closure of the Sioux Falls business but never saw the kind of success he had in Worthington. He now has Alzheimer’s disease but still lives in a home just a few hundred feet from the original steakhouse. The Worthington community came together to raise funds for a birthday celebration in 2019 as a way to thank him for his contribution to the area’s history.

Part of the proceeds from the film will go to benefit Alzheimer’s research, which has captured Capp’s attention since the film finished its festival circuit.

“My focus has shifted because now I’m interested in helping the cause,” he said.

Hawkinson, for his part, is looking forward to seeing the film, which the Lang family took in at the Twin Cities Film Festival in 2019. He should have the chance for a big screen viewing. Capp intended to show the movie in Worthington last summer, but the pandemic upended those plans — for now.

“Once the pandemic blows over, I still plan to bring a special screening to Worthington,” he said.

Want to stay in the know?

Get our free business news delivered to your inbox.

Onion rings immortalized: Documentary features famed Michael’s Steakhouse menu item

A documentary about an obsessive filmmaker’s quest to draw worldwide attention to the onion rings of a regional culinary icon will be available to stream on Tuesday. 

News Tip

Have a business news item to share with us?

Scroll to top