Who is Tony Bruno? And why the blame? Let’s answer the first question first.
Tony Bruno was a morning drive-time talk radio personality whose gimmick was the spaghetti breakfast. He would set up in a shopping center parking lot and feed spaghetti to commuters looking for a free breakfast or the chance to have a “brush with greatness.” When that station underwent a sudden format change, Tony moved to the sports talk station and co-hosted a morning show with Angelo Cataldi, Al Morganti, and Joe Conklin. The latter is a Philadelphia-based comedian/
impressionist/song parodist. The season that everyone knew that Rich Kotite would be fired as the coach of the Eagles, Conklin issued a Christmas album with a song entitled “It’s Beginning To Look Like Unemployment” sung to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas."
Why am I talking about Tony Bruno? Because he maintained that the best hamburger that he ever ate was at a Steak ‘n Shake outlet somewhere in the Midwest. So we find ourselves in Springfield with multiple Steak ‘n Shakes and finally have the chance to put Tony’s judgment to the test. But our cousin Dora was somewhat skeptical, not being a fan of Steak ‘n Shake herself, and suggested that Culver’s was a far better choice. Hence, the franchise hamburger face off.
We started with Culver’s, armed with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for a Double Deluxe Butter-Burger with cheese. “Restaurants are a way of life for the Culver family: Craig Culver, his wife, Lea, and Craig’s parents, George and Ruth, who owned and ran several supper clubs, including the Farm Kitchen Resort in Baraboo, Wisconsin.... From the start, Craig was drawn to the restaurant business. During college, he worked summers at the Farm Kitchen, where he met his future wife, Lea Weiss.
After graduating from UW-Oshkosh in 1973, Craig worked for four years at McDonald’s, gaining many insights that he yearned to apply to his own business.... That dream came true on July 18, 1984, when Craig, Lea, George and Ruth converted a former A&W root beer stand and christened it “Culver’s Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers” (from the Culver’s website). Today there are Culver’s in nineteen states, and while we have seen them on our travels, we have never visited one.
Culver’s is an “order at the counter” type of restaurant, but according to their website, your meal isn’t cooked until you place the order. You are given a number on a stand and someone will bring your meal to you. The restaurants are decorated in white and deep blue and, unusual for a semi-fast food outlet, has carpeting on the floor.
Using our coupon, Chuck and I both ordered the Double Deluxe Butter-Burger (so called since they are served on a buttered and toasted bun) with double cheese, mayonnaise, pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomato and shared an order of fries.
Dora’s choice was the kid’s meal which comes with a full-sized single hamburger, a kid’s sized portion of crinkle fries, and a beverage. And, on the serving bag is a coupon good for a free single scoop of the frozen custard. Later Dora parlayed this coupon into a small sundae for only the extra cost of the toppings.
The fries were your standard issue crinkle fries. The burger, on the other hand, was a surprise. Culver’s says that they only use Midwest beef, and I believe them. And close examination of the patties revealed a good coarse grind to the meat rather than the mushy almost pureed product found in too many fast food restaurants. Chuck would have been happier without the mayo and pickles; I would have been happier with only one slice of cheese. Still, this is a hamburger a cut above the typical chain hamburger stand.
Time for frozen custard. Dora used her coupon and got a single scoop with caramel and pecans. I got the single Turtle sundae (left) (frozen custard, caramel, hot fudge, and pecans) and Chuck, the Oreo frozen custard sandwich. According to Wikipedia: “Frozen custard is a cold dessert similar to ice cream, made with eggs in addition to cream and sugar…. The Food and Drug Admi-nistration requires products marketed as frozen custard to contain at least 10 percent milk fat and 1.4 percent egg yolk solids.” While Culver’s has a “flavor of the day” for each day in the month, all of their desserts started with the basic vanilla. The custard had a velvety smooth texture and a richness that was surprising.
Off to Steak ‘n Shake for the second round in the hamburger wars. (Well, not immediately. We did take time out for some sightseeing that will be covered in future blogs.)
“Steak 'n Shake was founded in February, 1934 in Normal, Illinois. Gus Belt, Steak 'n Shake's founder, pioneered the concept of premium burgers and milk shakes.... For over 75 years, the company's name has been symbolic of its heritage. The word ‘steak’ stood for STEAKBURGER. The term ‘shake’ stood for hand-dipped MILK SHAKES. Gus was determined to serve his customers the finest burgers and shakes in the business. To prove his point that his burgers were exceptionally prime, he would wheel in a barrel of steaks (including round, sirloin, and T-bones) and grind the meat into burgers right in front of the guests. Hence arose the origin of our famous slogan, ‘In Sight It Must Be Right’” (from the Steak ‘n Shake website).
Unlike Culver’s, Steak ‘n Shake is a full-service restaurant. A host shows you to a table and a server takes your order. Culver’s is all blue and white. Steak ‘n Shake is all red, white, and black.
Dora, not being a fan of Steak ‘n Shakes ham-burgers, ordered the Chili Mac Supreme—spaghetti topped with chili beef, cheese, onions, and the restaurant’s special chili sauce—with an extra cup of the chili sauce. While I have never had Cincinnati chile, I suspect that this is similar and was really quite good. I was particularly impressed that the meat in the chili wasn’t ground beef but actual chunks of steak.
My sandwich was the single Steakburger with cheese and bacon to which I added mayo, onion, and pickle. The burger came with a side of fries.
In order to make a fair comparison with Culver’s, Chuck ordered the Original Double ’N Cheese—two Steak-burgers with American cheese on a toasted bun, also with a side of fries.
To start, I loved the fries. These were even thinner than the “golden arches” and the portion was huge.
But the hamburgers—or Steakburgers, to be precise—were really disappointing. I thought that they were dry and had a flavor that you don’t usually find in a hamburger. These are Tony Bruno’s favorite burgers in the country? Trust us. Dora is a better expert than Tony Bruno. The only good quality was the crispy edges.
To make this a fair comparison, we also added dessert and shared the brownie hot fudge sundae. Under this enormous mound of ice cream and toppings lies a very good chewy brownie. The ice cream was of good rich quality, and they didn’t skimp on the hot fudge. But, by this time, we were all too stuffed to really enjoy it.
So the results of this “burger-off.” I liked Steak ‘n Shakes fries more than Culver’s. Chuck felt just the opposite. We both preferred the custard and cheeseburgers at Culver’s. But,… the leader in the clubhouse for our favorite cheeseburger is Chuck’s from Cozy Dog.
And to answer, finally, the second question that started this blog, Tony Bruno is to blame for your having to read this blog about chain restaurant hamburgers.