The Quintessential American cheeseburger
I could never have have anticipated the profundity of my first Steak 'N Shake experience. Sure, I had heard good things about the chain, which got its start in the unusually (abnormally, even) named Normal, Illinois, in 1934 under the ownership of Gus Belt. The chain's name was derived from the two principal menu items: burgers made—then, as now—from ground round, sirloin, and T-bone; and hand-dipped milkshakes. Three quarters of a century later the chain has more than 500 locations in 22 states and continues to serve burgers using the "smash" technique, which dates back to the origins of the hamburger itself. A Steakburger—primal in architecture and elemental in its preparation—captures the essence and the spirit of the hamburger more than any other that I have had.
Steak 'n Shake doesn't serve fancy beef blends from top flight butchers that we enjoy in New York City. It doesn't have the name of some fancy chef affixed to it, nor does it have the cult status of a chain like In-N-Out Burger or the air of authenticity of the independently owned mom-and-pop stands that dot the landscape. What it does have is an everyman appeal, a universal availability by virtue of its extraordinary value and an adherence to a decades old ethos and technique that has stood the test of time.
"If it's in sight it must be right" was the original motto of the Steak 'n Shake, which referred to the fact that the meat was ground in the front of the store. These days that is no longer the practice, but the burger are cooked on a griddle in plain view. Here you can witness the smash technique firsthand. Pucks of fresh, never frozen beef are pressed down on a searing-hot griddle until they are impossible crispy and served on perfectly sized white buns. The buns are toasted in butter on a separate griddle; planks placed on top of them to ensure that they come out deeply burnished. Cheese is added after the patty is scraped off the griddle—the heat from the beef and bun are enough to melt it.
The resulting cheeseburger is simply ethereal. The buttery, spongy bun, robust enough to hold the patty and cheese, is perfectly proportioned. The sliver of beef is crunchy and salty, but also unexpectedly juicy. The flavor is bold and beefy, the result of the Maillard reaction occurring in spectacular fashion under the pressure of spatula coupled with heat from the griddle. The cheese, which is just heated past the melting point, adds creaminess and tang. You could add pickles and onions, along with the condiment of you choice, but I think that they interfere with the Zen-like simplicity of the basic cheeseburger.
Other burgers might have better beef, bolstered by expensive cuts and fancy butchering, and they might be bigger or come loaded with all sorts of toppings and sauces, served on fancy buns. While there are plenty of burgers that do one or more components of the cheeseburger better, no place I have tried gets the combination of cheese-beef-bun quite as right—in terms of synergy and balance—as Steak 'n Shake does with their single.
I tried a double with lettuce, tomato and onion: It was a cruel hoax. The papery lettuce and other superfluous additions detracted from the simplicity of a single with cheese. The additions just don't feel right, as if tacked on decades after the plain cheeseburger was perfected. Even a double seems too much despite that a single defies modern expectations of beef-to-bun ratios.
The fries and shakes and commendable, but I am so enamored with the burger that I would rather just order an extra single.
Eating my first Steak 'n Shake cheeseburger was a revelatory experience—it was one of those moments when I had to put down the object I was consuming and marvel at how wonderful it was. The single with cheese at Steak 'n Shake succinctly encapsulated everything that I love about hamburgers in terms if texture and flavor. To me it is the quintessential example of the American cheeseburger.