Explaining a horsehoe to an outsider -- i.e., someone who doesn't hail from Springfield, Illinois -- can be a wee bit humiliating. Mention a detail such as "golden French fries smothered in white cheese sauce" and you automatically turn off half of the population (the un-fun half). The rest of us settle into a greasy, carb-filled fantasy made in fat-kid heaven. It's one of those regional dishes that locals go wild for while outsiders scratch their heads, failing to grasp what the fuss is about (Provel much?).
Let's get it out of the way: two pieces of Texas toast, a hamburger patty, a few handfuls of fries and the crowning glory, white cheese sauce you'll contemplate bathing in. Sure, the first thing that comes to mind is artery death, but it's 2011, we're living on the edge.
Though the precise history of this gustatory delight is a matter of passionate dispute, the originator is believed to have been a bloke named Joe Schweska, who was head chef at the Leland Hotel in the late 1920s. The traditional horseshoe was made with a slice of ham steak (which has more of a horseshoe shape than a burger does), served on a hot metal plate (anvil) with fries (nails). The cheese sauce was of the rarebit variety.
Horseshoe House (6100 Delmar Boulevard; 314-862-6700) opened a few weeks ago on the eastern edge of the Delmar Loop, in the old Modai Sushi spot. They do two things here: horseshoes and hookah. (Knee-jerk remarks about the St. Louis hookah renaissance aside, hookah houses like these give those who can't imbibe legally a place to hang out that isn't a Starbucks). H2 is a family operated establishment, run by the Jabbar family of St. Louis and Springfield native Helen Quaisi, whose family owns Maid-Rite, home of the famous loose meat burgers and the purported nation's first drive-thru window, which has been operating a few blocks from the Illinois state capitol since 1927.
Now, that's a pedigree.
Horseshoe House offers several options for horsehoes, the ever-popular hamburger option, Buffalo chicken, turkey, a Greek version served with gyro meat on a pita, and a Philly cheesesteak version. The Buffalo rendition features three chicken strips doused with hot sauce and finished with pale blonde fries, the magic sauce and an aesthetically pleasing sprinkle of cayenne. The white cheese sauce lacks the silky sharpness you'd find at say, D'arcy's Pint, the Springfield institution considered by many locals as the ne plus ultra of the genre (and liquefied processed cheese in general).
Linda Jabbar highly recommended the brownie horseshoe, a truly ridiculous combination of caloric killers: cake fries -- fat fingers of funnel cake -- riding atop a chunk of gooey butter cake from Park Avenue Coffee, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and drizzles of caramel and chocolate syrup on top.
The housemade root beer isn't likely to convert Fitz's fans (a tad heavy on the vanilla and light on carbonation), but if you have ever fantasized about inhaling the contents of a vanilla bean, then this brew is for you.
The verdict: Words cannot convey the life-changing magnitude of having our own Horseshoe House. (Well, imagining having never heard of, much less indulged in, a slinger and then having a restaurant open right down the block that specializes in them.) But the 100-mile trip up Interstate 55 to D'arcy's Pint (or Corner Pub and Grill) to experience this delicacy in its native habitat should be high on your to-do list. And when you get around to to-doing it, be sure to arrive early, because there will be a line.