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Quest for the Best: Steak 'n Shake

Our summer-long series continues with a visit to a Midwestern darling, Steak 'n Shake?

For the first time since beginning my quest I am patronizing an establishment I have never eaten at before. This is exciting for me because I will not enter with pre-conceived expectations that may alter my honest opinion. With Five Guys I already knew what I liked and disliked about their burger and pretty much had the summary written before I even placed the order. Fuddruckers was surprising in that my memory of the burger was far superior to the burger itself and I confessed last week that In 'N Out was already among my favorite places to eat. So this week's review of Steak 'n Shake was a refreshing change of pace.

Ironically Steak ‘n Shake's roots, much like my own, are planted in the Midwest yet I never knew the franchise existed until they opened one close to my office. I'll give myself a moderate pass considering their only current locations in Iowa are in the eastern reaches of the state along the I-80 corridor. I spent a good portion of my life as an Iowan avoiding that particular part of the state.

Las Vegas's lone franchise, one of only five locations west of Colorado, is located in a popular locals' casino situated some miles south of the famed Las Vegas Strip. Chances are unless you are an avid equestrian fan, have visited Las Vegas so many times you know all the properties both on and off the Strip, or have friends or relatives who live close by you have never heard of the South Point Casino but I'll go ahead and plug it as a quality more affordable alternative for those who don't feel a constant need to be surrounded by bros trying to out-party the gang from The Hangover movies.

The restaurant is tucked away in a far corner of the main casino floor, close enough to the movie theatres to allow the buttery smell of popcorn to briefly overpower the dense smoky haze customary to our gaming establishments, but strangely the familiar aroma of grease known to scent the air surrounding most burger joints was absent as we waited briefly to be sat.

I'll be honest, I was not expecting to eat at a full service restaurant during my research, but four establishments in and here I was. I'm not sure what I was expecting for Steak ‘n Shake, but it certainly was not this. If you have never been, their décor has a 50's/60's malt shop theme to it complete with a constant stream of do-wop songs blaring from every speaker. Sadly, the wait staff did not complete the period piece with poodle skirts and obnoxious bouffants. Not saying that would be historically accurate, but it would fulfill my stereotyped image of the era. Instead the workers wore the plain black and white uniforms standard of most dining establishments as they darted busily from table to table.

Although this was my first visit here, I was joined by a friend who was not quite a regular but hardly a stranger to this location. Since he offered to pay I was kind enough to let him choose this week's test subject but strictly forbade him from sharing his opinions and previous experiences with me to prevent tainting the purity of my virginal voyage.

Our waitress was neither rude nor hospitable, efficiently taking our order before moving on to her next collection of customers that were shown to their booth shortly after us. Having worked my way through college as a waiter I admit to having a little sympathy for her having been double sat, but the lack of personality was somewhat off-putting. Then again, I came here for a burger, not smiles so I quickly moved past the point.

While we waited, my friend walked me through his post-delivery food prep routine which included applying a seasoning mix from a plastic shaker that adorned each table. Apparently this concoction is wonderful on top of their fries and is also excellent on burgers; or so the label said. I questioned why it would be necessary to enhance the food once it left the kitchen, but he assured me it wasn't necessary, just suggested. I was unaware then of the importance this would bear later on.

Our food was delivered some five minutes after we ordered. Typically this would be a good thing considering the dining area was filling with a mixture of vacationers, convention attendees and locals alike, and I had breached the geographic boundaries of a timely lunch hour. But I was wrong.

This is, Steak ‘n Shake


Steak ‘n Shake originated in Normal, Illinois back in 1934. The founder, Gus Belt, pioneered the concept of premium burgers by grinding up actual steaks, often in front of his customers, and forming them into burgers he then served his salivating audience. This practice brought about the slogan "In Sight It Must Be Right". I did not witness any steak grinding during my visit, so I must assume the practice was outlawed at some point during the past 81 years for violating who knows how many current health and safety codes. And, having caught a glimpse of the kitchen staff on my way out, I am very thankful for this.

Today, Steak ‘n Shake Operations, Inc is owned by Biglari Holdings Inc which also owns Western Sizzlin Restaraunts; apparently a popular steak and buffet chain in the Oklahoma/Arkansas region.

I have never eaten there, either.

The Menu:

Being a fully functioning restaurant, Steak ‘n Shake's menu is vast and variable. Everything from breakfast items to a kids menu can be ordered if you so desire know what, just look at the damn thing yourself this week.

The Order:

Admittedly there were a few items on the menu I would have tried first under different circumstances, and I may return one day to explore further, but I am committed to maintaining the integrity of the Quest and therefore ordered the Original Double ‘N Cheese Steakburger. According to their self-promoting menu, it is the most popular of all their Steakburgers. So, I had that going for me.

Cheese - It should be a crime, punishable with mandatory jail time, to serve a double cheeseburger with only one piece of cheese. There is a reliable culinary equation that states for every patty there must be an equal or greater number of cheese slices. It's science, and anything failing to meet that required ratio is still a god damned hamburger.

Had I not separated the two patties prior to taking my first bite I would not be convinced they didn't serve me a burger with some sort of cruelly engineered cheese dickey instead of a full slice of American goodness. Seriously, where's the cheese?

Cheese Score - 2/10

Meat - The meat did little to sooth my growing angst. Although the patty had the thin crisp texture, crisper perhaps than all previous entries, I desire, the flavor came in somewhere around 0 on a sliding scale to 10. I've tasted water that had a more interesting palette than this. It was also served barely lukewarm as though the patties had been cooked hours before and sat waiting under some flavor sucking heat lamp until it was time to be assembled for my lunch. This would explain the quick service.

Unlike last week's Double Double, this burger was unable to hide its blandness behind the curtain of an ensemble cast. The lettuce, tomato onion and pickles that came as standard toppings were limp and did little to increase the overall taste value. I reached for the Seasoning Mix and applied a liberal amount to what remained of my meal, fries included, which helped some but left me wondering why they didn't put this on their meat to begin with.

I gave In-N-Out a score of 6 for their meat last week, and cannot honestly say it was significantly better than the ground steak I was supposedly eating here. So, to maintain scoring integrity, I begrudgingly give this burger only one point less.

Meat Score - 5/10

Bun - Thankfully the bun did not compound my displeasure. As with all the buns so far, it did its job well enough and I truly appreciate a bun that gently collapses under the pressure of my grasping fingers indicating a light and airy texture.

Unlike Fuddruckers, however, this bun was not good enough to salvage the experience.

Bun Score - 6/10

Overall - As my friend was settling the tab, I saw a flyer pronouncing you can now purchase Steak ‘n Shake in your local Walmart's freezer section, allowing you to enjoy your favorite Steakburger any time you want to in the comfort of your own home.

Maybe my burger wasn't waiting for me under a heat lamp after all.

Overall Score 13/30

Bonus Burger Coverage - The Chipotle Shooter:

I allowed for one small deviation this week when I noticed the menu had a section of small burger options they call Steakburger Shooters. As you know, the perfect complement to beef is more beef and so I ordered one of these mini-burgers as an appetizer.

And both bites were fantastic.

The patty was thin and crispy and occupied the air space well outside of the mini -burger bun. The chipotle sauce, while not very smoky nor spicy, which honestly should be expected given the name, ended up being more mayo than spice yet worked perfectly. The picture in the menu showed cheese - and I really want to believe there was some cheese somewhere on something in this godless establishment - but if there was it did not leave much of an impression on me. Thankfully, mini-burgers are not judged the same as their full scale cousins, so I will not subtract points for it. Although, you have been warned, Steak ‘n Shake.

At $1.75/Shooter, I'm not sure the value is great, but I'll be damned if I didn't enjoy that little bastard enough to come back and try some of the other flavors.

If I'm in the area.

And starving.

And someone else is buying.

Shooter Overall Score 22/30

Up next: To be decided later. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments.