"What the hell is a horseshoe?" asked far too many people when Horseshoe House recently opened with a menu based on central Illinois' signature dish -- the horseshoe.
The basic premise of the horseshoe is a big plate with some form of bread piled with meat, fries and cheese sauce. The original was simple: horseshoe-shape ham with potato wedges that looked like nails, drizzled with Welsh rarebit sauce. It was created in 1928 at the Leland Hotel in Springfield, Illinois. Since then we've gotten a bit sloppier, putting the horseshoe deep in the Big Pile of Food With Cheese Sauce category.
Last year the Wall Street Journal saw fit to explore the history of the sandwich, which over the years has managed to remain unfamiliar to most St. Louisans. Never mind that if you drive across that large strip of muddy water east of downtown, you'll find small towns with diners that have always served horseshoes.
Like, for instance, Moore's Restaurant in Belleville.
So who does horseshoes better? A classic Illinois diner or the outlier upstart in the Delmar Loop?
Moore's Restaurant (7309 Old St. Louis Road, Belleville, Illinois; 618-397-8271) opened in 1935 and has locations in Belleville and Mascoutah. The Belleville location, in a squat brick building across a bumpy street from a used-car dealership, deals in simple diner fare. Old-timers share Formica counter space with young artsy types looking for Sunday-morning hangover cures.
Moore's horseshoe is a good one. It's a full dinner plate with crumbled ground beef as the base, topped with medium-cut French fries, nacho cheese sauce and chili, with slabs of Texas toast on the side.
Serving the toast on the side reduces the meal's considerable bulk, which is not a bad thing. Why fill up on bread with all those chili-cheese fries in front of you? Now that Gut Check mentions it, that's really what Moore's horseshoe boils down to, thanks in no small part to the crumbled ground beef. While the dish loses some of its open-face-sandwich qualities, it doesn't suffer in the flavor department. The chili's made in-house, loaded with rich spices and not cooked to the consistency of paste like so many substances that pass for chili in far too many diners. There's a good balance of flavors between the chili and cheese, neither of which is heaped so deep as to render the fries too soggy.
Want some variety with your Moore's horseshoe? You can top it with fried eggs for a slinger horseshoe -- a perfect convergence from both sides of the Mississippi River.
Horseshoe House (6100 Delmar Boulevard; 314-862-6700) looks much like its predecessor in this space, a mod sushi bar. Here your horseshoe arrives on a heavy, square china plate, but that's where the trendy façade falls away. This sandwich is classic: a layer of Texas toast topped with two well-seasoned hamburger patties, piled with fries and smothered in nacho cheese. For a dollar more, you can add a ladleful of chili. For the sake of an apples-to-apples face-off, we did.
Horseshoe House's version felt more like eating the original because of the distinct layers. The burger patties were beefy enough to be served on a bun without being buried.
Like Moore's, the chili was superior to what's found in most restaurants. However, a lot of its flavor was masked by the lake of cheese sauce. The shoestring fries, which could have added a nice hit of crispiness, were no match for the sauce. While all the components of the sandwich were fine, it suffered from the heavy-handed cheese.
Too much cheese sauce ... who knew there was such a thing? But there is. Less cheese would have made Horseshoe House's version a perfect example. Maybe the other horseshoe varieties on the menu - Philly cheesesteak, Buffalo chicken, fried chicken, and several vegetarian varieties - have more balance.
The Verdict: Both sandwiches were tasty and could kill a hangover dead. The burger at Horseshoe House beat Moore's meat, but for overall balance and flavor, Moore's wins this round of horseshoes with a ringer.