Follow That Horse... Shoe!

by Stevie Zvereva

Blazing a horseshoe trail in the city of its birth…

Like many great things in life, horseshoes are ironic: they may kill you, but you haven’t lived until you’ve tried one. While “everything in moderation” may be the cause of the food addict’s demise, for some things in life, such a mantra seems obligatory. The horseshoe—central Illinois’ richest contribution to society?—happens to be one of those things.

A Dish Is Born
History buffs will love the story of the horseshoe’s invention in Springfield in the 1920s. Rumor has it credit belongs to Joe Schweska—head chef at the former Leland Hotel, one of the city’s finest accommodations of the time—or perhaps to his wife. According to several accounts, Schweska was looking to add a lunch item to the hotel’s restaurant menu when his wife suggested an open-faced sandwich with a Welsh rarebit sauce. (For those unfamiliar with this savory U.K. cheese dish, its name is the epitome of folk etymology—representing a change to a phrase over time caused by erroneous popular beliefs about its derivation. In this case, the dish did not originate in Wales; rather, “Welsh” stems from an English slur meaning “foreign.” And the original dish, actually called Welsh “rabbit,” involved no animal at all, but over the years, “rabbit” morphed into “rarebit” for reasons unknown, holding no true meaning apart from the dish.)

Falling for the idea, Schweska assembled a slice of ham off the bone—in the shape of a horseshoe—atop a piece of white bread and poured his homemade Welsh rarebit sauce over the top, with potato wedges serving as the horseshoe’s “nails.” The dish soon trickled across central Illinois, and its size continues to expand with today’s astronomical portions. The horseshoe—just “shoe” to locals—remains a quirky regional attraction; its various renditions are a point of pride throughout the city. In fact, it’s hard to find a restaurant in Springfield that doesn’t feature some take on the hometown dish.

Forging a Trail
In an attempt to blaze a reliable “horseshoe trail” for readers, this past Fourth of July weekend I bribed my husband and three of our close friends to take a road trip to Springfield to try as many horseshoes as possible in a single day.

If the challenge alone didn’t sell, my offer to serve as designated driver from pub to pub sealed the deal. Those familiar with the horseshoe may be gasping here, repulsed by the idea of five folks attempting to consume some 10,000 empty calories of food (plus drinks) in a single day. Your gasps are warranted, and these reviews should be considered within the purview of overindulgence.

Official disclaimer: Art & Society does not claim any health benefits from the consumption of massive heaps of bread, potatoes and meat smothered in cheese sauce, nor does the following reflect a position as an advocate for or against such gluttonous fare.

Ritz’s Little Fryer, 2148 N. Grand East
When we order just one to share, our waitress is convinced she knows why we’re here. Pointing to a sign on the wall, she laughs: “Vote for us!” Springfield’s NewsChannel 20 is holding its own contest, asking viewers to judge “the tastiest horseshoe” in the city, but I assure her we have other intentions, and ask for her personal favorite to start our day.

“You really can’t go wrong… when it comes to the shoe,” she claims, but recommends we try the Breakfast Shoe with scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns. All of Ritz’s breakfast shoes offer the option of gravy, traditional cheese sauce, or a combination of both—we hit the gates running with the combo.

Of its two locations, Ritz’s work-week spot on Walnut and Jefferson is a staple for state employees who pile in from the local labyrinth of government agencies; the Grand East location serves breakfast to weekend crowds. This Saturday, the casual diner is still packed a half hour before closing, its tie-dye-clad staff bustling from table to table. While there’s some charm to its dated decor, we all agree some new carpet and furniture could go a long way toward lifting the ambience. But the service is great, and our food arrives promptly.

It’s not pretty, but divvying the mass among five plates, we’re pleased by the crispiness of the hash browns and bacon, in spite of the sauce, which lacks zest. The dish resembles a hearty casserole; too heavy for one or even two people, but split amongst five, it offers a few comfortable bites and a tasty base from which to start our tour. In hindsight, the gravy mixed with cheese might have been a mistake; we recommend selecting one or the other.

Charlie Parker’s, 700 North Street
After breakfast, we book it to Charlie Parker’s for… more breakfast. We arrive at the old Quonset hut—one of some 150,000 lightweight steel structures built during World War II—greeted by a black-and-white checkerboard floor and vintage ‘50s motif.

Placed on the outskirts of town shortly after the war, this Quonset hut has gone through a number of uses—from township maintenance shed to plumbing and heating company office to bait shop and finally, in 1991, to diner. Today, Charlie Parker’s is one of Springfield’s renowned breakfast spots—known for its shoes and its pancakes. Accolades line the walls of the diner, including framed clips from The Wall Street Journal and Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

“Our four, 16-inch pancake [dish] is called ‘The Challenge’,” explains our server. “If you can eat four pancakes by yourself, then we buy it.” Only two patrons have ever completed that challenge, adds owner Mike Murphy. Sizing up the three tall guys at our table, he laughs. “They were both 6’2” and 180 pounds. You’ll have to come back and give it a try sometime.”

Today’s challenge is no less a feat as our second horseshoe of the day—another breakfast shoe—arrives at the table. The egg is folded omelet-style over the dish; paired with ham—a thick-cut steak—there’s an overall sense of less grease, more substance. And Charlie Parker’s cheese has more of a kick.

“No one would think about using a canned sauce in Springfield,” he proclaims. “The key is to make it every day.” Murphy’s recipe starts with a processed cheddar, which “melts better and is much smoother” than the real thing. The original Leland recipe called for a processed Old English cheddar, out of use today, but Murphy assures us Kraft cheddar is the next best bet.

“We jazz it up with a little Worcestershire and hot sauce, and… make the cheese sauce with milk and cheese, using a roux [mixture of butter and flour] to thicken it up.” But Murphy vetoes the traditional beer add-in; as a family restaurant, he doesn’t like the perception—even if the alcohol is cooked out. The result receives high marks all around, and with the added bonus of the fun ‘50s vibe, we contentedly conclude the breakfast portion of today’s tour.

D’Arcy’s Pint, 661 W. Stanford
The traditional Irish pub is packed, but we’re seated promptly. With two full bars and outdoor seating in addition to its main dining area, the restaurant is huge, and apparently, always crowded; according to our waitress, this is a slow day.

The menu sports a variety of Irish fare, but here, the horseshoe is king. Some four out of five orders are for horseshoes, our server attests. How an Irish pub came to be known for its horseshoe is unclear, but we soon learn how the reputation for quality stuck.

We opt for one of the waitress’ suggestions: the Irish Cheesesteak. The table next to us—a hefty family of four—has ordered four of them. We stare in quiet horror as each downs a shoe of their own, waiting for our single order, with five plates, to arrive.

“Does anyone ever bring home leftovers?” I ask the waitress. She tilts her head toward another table where two couples are shoveling hoards of cheese fries into a box. “I can’t imagine it’s that good reheated,” she admits, laughing. “But it’s a lot of food. If you want all your calories in one meal, this is what you do.”

“Only in America,” murmurs my friend, Czech accent as thick as his gaze sizing up the dish. The Irish Cheesesteak is a thinly sliced, tender sirloin sautéed with mushrooms, onions and peppers over a thick slice of Texas toast. The fries are standard crinkle-cut, but the sauce—hot and well-spread—sets this horseshoe apart. D’Arcy’s cheese is rich, with a depth beyond the caliber of sauces we’ve tried so far, this one based on a white cheddar. Though its fries lack crisp, the cheese is so delicious we’re content to eat every last sodden potato.

Boone’s Saloon, 301 W. Edwards
We’re nervous as we arrive to find this downtown restaurant and its fabulous outdoor biergarten nearly empty, but we snag a cozy table in the covered veranda and set to the menu. Boone’s horseshoe is “all about the cheese sauce,” explains our waitress. Their secret is a mix of white and yellow cheese, she shares, simmered for at least three hours with a secret blend of spices. We opt for her favorite—the traditional hamburger shoe.

With cowboy murals in the biergarten, Boone’s flaunts a fun western theme. Fans and shade make the outdoor seating pleasant, and we continue to wonder how it’s possible the garden can be empty on such a beautiful afternoon. The service is quick and attentive, and soon, we’re splitting our fourth shoe of the day: this one with crisp, straight-edge fries and a thick, well-seasoned, medium-cooked burger. We confirm with the waitress that indeed, their cheese is a winner. The light yellow sauce lacks the richness of D’Arcy’s—owed to less butter, I’d venture to guess—but it makes for a pleasant topping that’s not overwhelming and just right for the accompanying protein.

Norb Andy’s Tabarin, 518 E. Capitol
Our final stop is two blocks east, right across the street from where the Leland Hotel once stood. According to legend, two former Leland chefs split after the hotel closed in 1970, taking Schweska’s recipe with them. One went to Wayne’s Red Coach, now closed; the other headed to Norb Andy’s Tabarin.

Current owner Will Decker calls the whole history a bit contentious. “It’s one of those stories that’s morphed over time, like an urban legend. The original Leland Hotel… is where the horseshoe was invented. So, this would likely be the second or third restaurant that had a horseshoe on the menu.”

Norb Andy’s is located in Springfield’s historic Hickox Building—constructed in 1837 by Virgil Hickox. Because this story is fueled by legends, it’s only fitting I mention the possibility that Hickox had Lincoln over to the home on occasion, though he was friendlier with Stephen Douglas. The building later served as a funeral home, site of the Sangamon Club, and a speakeasy during Prohibition. Norb Anderson bought the property in 1937, and it’s been in operation as a restaurant and bar ever since.

Decker assures us their Welsh rarebit cheese sauce is close to the original, with some modern twists. Happy to oblige my every question, save the culinary secrets, we’re soon chatting with the chef himself, Collin Smith. “We start with a basic roux of butter and flour,” he confides. One secret is in the whisking: without enough stirring to get the flour out, the sauce will get gritty. “Then we use white and yellow cheddar cheese… beer, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper… It’s one of the best in town.” And huge, he warns.

Approaching the end of our day, I ask the dreaded question. “No, I don’t know what the official calorie count is, and I don’t know if anyone really wants to know,” Decker says. “It’s something you eat every once in a while to indulge… like deep-dish pizza in Chicago.”

Unable to decide on a single large shoe, we order two smaller ponies: walleye and original ham. A bite into each, we all look up—this cheese is the real deal. Deeper, richer and thicker than every other sauce we’ve encountered, Norb Andy’s is a quintessential Welsh rarebit. While it’s a bit saltier than the others, we concur that this is the most classic of shoes. We all prefer the ham; the walleye’s an interesting rendition, but can never match the matrimonial harmony of ham and cheese.

Soon, we’re rolling off our chairs and waddling to the car a few pounds heavier, some of us bloating worse than others from all the salt. If this stomachache can hold out the hour’s drive home, we’ll have survived to tell the tale of five stops and six shoes in eight hours. Here’s hoping our effort gets you to try one. a&s

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