To be totally honest, Steak ’n Shake wasn’t one of my “I-gotta-try-it” places.
Over the past few months, we’ve often driven past the shiny, brightly lit building – and the crowds discouraged me even more from going. Plus, I thought, “Ho hum, another fast-food burger place.”
I had lots of friends tell me otherwise. In fact, I even remember hearing rumors about Steak ’n Shake coming to Augusta 10 years ago – and it was always someone grabbing my elbow and sharing the news in a reverent and excited whisper – “Steak ’n Shake is coming, finally!” – with heavy emphasis and weight on the name.
The franchise, founded in 1934, has nearly 400 outposts massed on the right half of the U.S. (with two random locations in Las Vegas and Centennial, Colo.). It’s famous for its milkshakes and its burgers made from – you guessed it – ground steak. In fact, it’s said that founder Gus Belt used to wheel a barrel of round, sirloin and T-bone steaks into his original restaurant and grind up the meat right in front of his guests – launching their slogan, “In Sight It Must Be Right.”
A few weeks ago, on a whim, we decided to drive past once again just to check it out. It must have been fate that there were no crowds (even at 7 p.m., typically primetime!), so we made the turn.
Both outside and in, the restaurant was clean and bright and graphic – nearly everything red, black or white. The cheery hostess sat us at a small, metallic table and handed us a glossy menu.
Sean quickly put dibs on The Original Double ’n Cheese – Steak ’n Shake’s most popular burger, according to its menu – with a topping of lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup and mayo, opting out of the mustard relish, mayo and Frisco sauce (which our waitress, Alvina, described as similar to Thousand Island dressing).
It made my choice harder. “What’s most popular, besides the steakbur-ger?” I asked Alvina. “How are the hot dogs?” The Carolina Slaw Steak Frank caught my eye, an all-sirloin dog with mustard, onion and coleslaw.
Alvina nodded. “It’s good,” she said. “I like the chicken melt, too.”
That, too, had caught my eye, grilled chicken with Frisco sauce, tomatoes, bacon and swiss on grilled sourdough. “I’ll have that,” I said confidently. Mine came with fries, as did Sean’s – and he also asked for a side of chili after Alvina mentioned that it was also a popular item.
We had planned to order our obligatory milkshakes as dessert, but after seeing the tables on either side of us get their giant glasses of creamy deliciousness, Sean caught Alvina’s eye as soon as possible and we placed our orders. His was the classic chocolate, while I opted for the mint cookies ’n cream.
Meanwhile, we flipped through the tabletop menu for fun. Maybe it was just that we were really hungry, but everything looked delicious. I laughed as I pointed out to Sean that shakes were half-price from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 2 to 4 a.m. And, on another card was a gloriously golden stack of pancakes – all you can eat for $3.99 – from 6 to 11 a.m.
“I didn’t know Steak ’n Shake had breakfast,” I exclaimed as Alvina set down Sean’s chili.
“We’re starting Jan. 24,” she said. “We’re training right now.”
As Alvina bustled away, we dug in. It didn’t look like anything special – a small cup of dark reddish-brown chili with beans, with an edging of deep orange grease – but that first bite took me back to childhood. It was a taste I hadn’t tasted in years – reminiscent of canned Hormel chili, my favored after-school snack, heated with diced onions and a handful of sharp cheddar cheese.
Maybe it wasn’t the finest chili in the world – but for that flash of nostalgia, I would have paid top-dollar for that chili. (Happily it was only $2.29!)
Our entrees came next. I had thought because I was ordering chicken that it would be somewhat healthy, but this definitely wasn’t. It came on grilled sourdough, with just a hint of tomato, but heavy on the Frisco sauce, which indeed was like a slightly tangier and thinner Thousand Island dressing. I missed my vegetables, but consoled myself with the crisp and delicious fries – exactly as pictured on the menu.
I was, however, incredibly jealous of Sean’s steakburger: two thin, thin patties of moist and crumbly beef, melded together by a slice of American cheese, topped with the fresh veggies, and tangy ketchup and mayo. After my low expectations of a typical fast-food burger, this definitely surprised me in a great way.
Our milkshakes arrived mid-meal and were super thick, barely able to travel up the straw. Sean’s had a few pieces of ice, but my pale green minty chocolate shake was as pretty to look at as it was good to drink. Which I did, without stopping, over the next five minutes.
Sean went to the register to pay, but when he came back, he ushered me up there to watch how they cooked the burgers. “They’re small patties, like sausage patties, then they flatten them on the grill,” he said.
One of the chefs, catching sight of us, gave a fleeting smile and, using his spatula, lifted up one of the small round patties so we could see.
All in all, Steak ’n Shake was a pleasant surprise. It was great friendly service across the board – and its popular items such as the steakburger, shakes and chili are definitely popular for a reason.