Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
What would you do if you were responsible for the long-awaited expansion of a Midwestern legend into a city densely populated with Midwestern transplants? If it were up to me, I'd err on the side of "don't mess with a good thing."
Too bad that didn't happen this time.
I'm referring, of course, to Steak 'n Shake, one of the most vaunted hamburger joints in the eastern half of the United States, which just recently opened its first Arizona outpost on Tempe's Mill Avenue in a space formerly occupied by Borders. Known for its classic black and white diner décor, skinny cut fries, hand-dipped milkshakes, and "Steakburgers" that were smashed on the grill long before Smashburger stole the idea and gave it marketing cache, Steak 'n Shake has been one of the last holdouts on Arizona expansion.
Hell, we even have not one, but two, Portillo's. The Scottsdale Portillo's opened to lines snaking around the block.
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Not only has Steak 'n Shake's debut barely registered with this town's sizable Midwestern constituency (it was empty when I went for lunch last week), but the franchisee has tampered with the tried-and-true Steak 'n Shake formula and delivered something far different than the restaurant that many Phoenicians have waited for since they migrated here from the hinterlands. The location on Mill is a shadow of the restaurant that millions of us have grown to love.
Can you tell that I'm woefully disappointed? It gets worse.
Steak 'n Shake is more than a burger joint. It's a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner with table service. For nearly 80 years, it has served burgers that are smashed on the flat-top from hockey-puck sized chunks of beef into slim patties with crispy edges. They perfected the idea of the Patty Melt, calling it a Frisco Melt. The shakes are thick and creamy. If you want a Cherry Coke, they make it on-the-spot. But the real star of the show is the Chili Mac: spaghetti noodles topped with Steak 'n Shake's own chili recipe and a ketchup-y like sweet sauce. It is a Steak 'n Shake classic. Steak 'n Shake is a classic American diner. One would think that the original Steak 'n Shake concept, situated in the heart of Sun Devil Country, would be the preferred hangout of Midwesterners, drunk college kids, and stoners with the munchies.
Except that Chili Mac is missing from the menu at our Steak 'n Shake. Apparently, the franchisee responsible for the Arizona launch decided that things needed to go upscale. We don't get Chili Mac, but we do get Pinot Noir, Red Bull, and -- get this -- the option of an "Organic Burger." Cherry Coke? You can make it yourself with one of those automated soda dispensers. And the fries? Not even close to the original formula. Someone at corporate must have thought that Steak 'n Shake "Lite" was more apropos.
We don't get table service either, not that I particularly care. We get an order-at-the-counter concept. No breakfast, no Turkey Club Sandwich or the Cheesy Cheddar, dripping with Cheddar Cheese "sauce." And the chili seasoning that adorns every table at a "real" Steak 'n Shake? I asked the person taking my order for it and she just shrugged her shoulders.
This isn't Steak 'n Shake. It's a fast food joint called Steak 'n Shake serving a Steak 'n Shake-style burger without any of the character traits that made its namesake something more than just another burger joint.
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So it's no wonder that there was no line when I went today. No one even seems to know it's there. An elderly woman sitting next to me, who hails from Springfield, Illinois, asked me if I was from the Midwest also. When I said "yes" she said, "This isn't really like the one back home." And she's right. A lot was lost in Steak 'n Shake's expansion.
Give your valuable brand to someone that doesn't relate to it as part of their heart and soul, and it will inevitably be lost in translation. You might as well go to Smashburger. It's basically the same burger, and probably closer to home.
I still want my Chili Mac.