Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, May 30, 2002
Back to the Future

Blow the diet with the classics at Steak ’n Shake.


Steak ’n Shake

2205 E Grapevine Mills Circle, Grapevine. 972-724-2260. 24 hours, seven days. No credit cards or checks. A 69-cent fee applies to debit cards.

If business could bottle the current Americana craze, manufacturers would mine the raw ingredients at Steak ’n Shake. This Midwest moneymaking machine may sound like that other Illinois-based burger chain with the big golden arches, but there’s a big difference.

Texas’ first Steak ’n Shake opened in January at the southeast corner of the behemoth parking lot of Grapevine Mills Mall. Only in Texas could you buy Neiman Marcus leftovers, then drive a quarter mile directly across the parking lot and sit down to an Indiana/Illinois-style meal that might make it tough to fit into the stylish duds stashed in the back of your pickup.

Steak ’n Shake was birthed in 1934 when Gus Belt, who should be referred to as Gus “loosen up your” Belt, decided to shake things up in the nondescript town of Normal, Ill. Belt, according to the company’s official history, waited until every swivel stool in his combination diner/gas station was full and strode in with a wheelbarrow full of steaks, which he immediately ground into hamburger. Rather than cry over chopped steak, customers clamored for the “steakburgers.”

The restaurants have changed owners many times since Belt died in the 1950s (too many steakburgers?). But his original menu and company concept hasn’t changed much. That means the Texas Steak ’n Shakes are clones of those that have been servin’ it up in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio for decades.

You can belly up for a steakburger with one, two, or three meat patties. Average appetites can put away a double. Don’t be deceived at the site of these petite patties. They are packed with tender meat that provides more beef flavor in a small sandwich than you might think possible. You can add cheese to your steakburger for an extra 30 cents. Strangely enough, tomatoes will set you back a dime.

The servers here don’t just ask if you want fries with your burger — there are a few other choices. That’s good, because the shoestring-thin fries were completely flavorless. Baked beans served in individual crocks are extra sweet, like what your aunt might bring to the family potluck dinner. Other side dish choices are as retro as the surroundings — coleslaw, soup, salad, onion rings, cottage cheese topped with canned fruit. (Tomatoes, incidentally, don’t cost extra on the salad.)

If you want to try another kind of sandwich, it might help to bring along a senior citizen to translate the choices. “Melt” is a popular word on the menu. There’s the patty melt (grilled cheese and onions on rye) and the Frisco melt (two kinds of cheese, sourdough bread, Frisco sauce, lettuce, and tomatoes — at no extra charge). The turkey melt was a gloppy layering of turkey, Swiss cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and Frisco sauce on grilled sourdough bread. The sauce, according to one manager, is a tangy version of thousand island dressing. It tasted more like Catalina French dressing, straight from the bottle, to us.

If you order the chili, remember the restaurant’s roots and don’t expect a bowl of Texas red. What you’ll get may pass for chili in some places, but not here. The biggest sin in the bowl is that it’s heavy with kidney beans, light on hamburger. The spicy-sweet thick broth that holds it together has a lingering filmy texture and downright unpleasant taste.

The milkshakes are part of the restaurant’s name, so naturally we had to see what all the talk was about. In some respects, they’ve earned the bragging rights. The 22-ounce shakes are served in glasses so tall you have to sit up real straight to get your mouth around the straw; kids may have to stand on their knees in their chairs to get a sip. These shakes are indeed Texas-sized.

“Our milkshakes are hand-dipped to order,” says manager Mark Sartain. “They don’t come out of a machine.”

Making shakes by hand does take time. We waited more than 15 minutes for ours. While the vanilla shake was smooth, creamy, and perfect, the chocolate shake was a disappointment. It was made from vanilla ice cream, simply flavored with chocolate syrup.

The restaurant’s décor seems to be a nod to the chain’s corporate offices, which are now in Indianapolis. The white-and-black tiled floors, black booths with red accents, chrome counter, and racing stripes all scream “Indy 500.”

There’s also a full breakfast menu — but we would recommend sticking with a burger and a shake. Just be sure to bring along cash. Credit cards are not welcome, and there’s a 69-cent fee for anyone bold enough to whip out a debit card.

If you’re not up to the drive to Grapevine, 14 other Steak ’n Shake locations are in different phases of construction throughout Fort Worth and Dallas. Soon there will be a hefty new slice of Americana on every congested corner in Fort Worth — just what we need. Top us with whipped cream and a cherry and roll us out to the car.

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