Road Bites: Steak 'n Shake Burgers and Chili

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Unquestionably, burgers represent the quintessential American road bite, ideal for eating on the go. You can’t travel down a byway or highway without passing a burger joint. If you’re unlucky, you wind up stopping at a national chain with its predictable (often comfortingly so) national burger; it’s the regional chains that provide the perfect melding of franchise familiarity with local sensibilities. On a recent trip to Greensboro, NC, I stopped at a chain that hails from the midwest, venerable Steak ‘n Shake, famous, as they say, for steakburgers.

Steak 'n Shake Double 'n Cheese

The double steakburger with cheese didn’t quite match the beauty shot from the menu, but there’s no ignoring the smashed ground beef patty with those great crisped edges. The meat was moist and flavorful, the vegetable toppings reasonably fresh as well. I’m not a burger connoisseur, but amongst fast food offerings, Steak ‘n Shake wins the prize, and at $4 for the burger and a side of thin (though somewhat wan) fries, well, I’m glad that there isn’t one within easy driving distance of home base, else I’d be eating there quite a bit.

I spent several youthful years in the midwest, and my childhood memories of Steak ‘n Shake revolve mostly around the chili five-way. That’s all I would eat when I went there as a kid, and the thought of having it again drove me to stop here.

Steak 'n Shake Chili Five Way

Sampling it as an adult, I realize how much difference nostalgia makes. Steak ‘n Shake chili five way isn’t my beloved Cincinnati five-way — the meat here is coarser ground and on the bland side, without much spice or flavor. My dish didn’t have much in the way of onion or cheese, either. I wasn’t anticipating a Skyline abundance of cheese and ground beef, but for the price, I was hoping for a larger portion (and I thought there would be packets of oyster crackers and chili sauce in the Takhomasack). It was fine, tasty enough, but not up to the madeline of my expectations.

I’ll still stop at a Steak ‘n Shake over, well, any other regional or national burger chain, but I’ll stick with the justly famous steakburger. Certainly easier to eat on the road than the chili. Oh, and the shakes. Those are pretty damn good, too.

A Sky Lined with Cheese: Cincinnati Five-Way at Skyline Chili

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Travel has taught me to eat like a local whenever possible. Journeying to some far-flung destination only to chow down on a standardized, same-as-in-Peoria burger can only be justified in the direst of circumstances—say, an overdose of shepherd’s pie in Dublin or a surfeit of souvlaki in Athens.

Thus, armed with a desire to get to know my surroundings on a quite literal gut level, I convinced my boon traveling companion to stop in an exotic locale during a recent road trip: a fast-food strip just off the I-70/I-75 intersection in Dayton, Ohio, where the highway overpass stanchions are festooned with carvings of soaring jet fighters. All for a Cincinnati Five-Way from regional chain Skyline Chili.

Finely ground meat with a savory/sweet spice mix in a tomato-y sauce characterizes Cincinnati chili, though given the fierce regional rivalries between types of chili, a rivalry almost on par with those of barbecue aficionados, there are some who claim that it’s not chili at all. There’s meat, there’s spice, there’s a thickish sauce—close enough for me.

Traditionally, Cincinnati chili is served atop thick spaghetti with an accompaniment of oyster crackers and then garnished in some number of “ways” corresponding to the number of ingredients: three-way is your basic chili, spaghetti, and cheddar cheese; four-way adds either beans or diced onions; and five-way (which is the only true way) combines it all.

Many midwestern fast-food/casual restaurants serve either the full five-way or a stripped down Chili Mac version (just chili and spaghetti) as a menu staple, and I’ve sampled it over the years from more than a few, but never from Skyline Chili.

So, a plate of Cincinnati Five-Way was duly ordered and came out from the kitchen in a matter of moments, piled high, oh so high, with thinly grated cheddar cheese, making for a towering first impression:

Cincinnati Five-Way Chili at Skyline Chili

I’m not certain if they grate their own cheese on premises, but it lacked that usual fast-food bagged cheese taste, and it melted nicely into the hot chili beneath, an important consideration given that a Cincinnati five-way is purely an experience of all the parts at once. No solo players here—one simply does not sample a bit of spaghetti then a bit of chili.

The chili itself, the first amongst equals in this gustatory assemblage, had a decidedly sweet taste, with far more cinnamon than I’m used to in Cincinnati chili. The overall impression was savory, but the sweet bite lingered, perhaps accounting for the squeeze bottles of hot sauce at every table. The onions had a nice dice to them, allowing for good coverage of the dish, while the beans I found lacking in quantity, making the overall dish closer to a four-and-a-half-way.

As is the bane of most fast-order pasta, the thick spaghetti was on the overcooked side, but not terribly so. I imagine that if we had gone during the lunch rush we’d have fared better with the spaghetti. The pasta was well drained, though, so that the bowl was not awash in pasta water, a perennial challenge for this dish. One wants the oyster crackers to soak up the remaining chili sauce, not water.

Overall, the experience was satisfying for fast-food chili. As my traveling companion put it, not a food one would crave to an extent that an eight-hour road trip would be undertaken for it, but definitely worth stopping for on the way to something else. Not every meal can be life-altering.

Plus, they have a drive through window. I don’t quite comprehend how one would go about eating a Cincinnati five-way on the road, but the mere fact of that window’s existence makes me happy to live in this country . . .