A few years ago, the Steak ‘n Shake chain, which has 500 stores in 22 states in the southeast and midwest and is, by my definition, large enough to be called national, decided to introduce a terrific promotion which my daughter and I used to enjoy greatly. They have a “happy hour” with half-price milkshakes from 2 to 4 every weekday afternoon, and again from 2 to 4 am overnight. When I took a job that left me with a couple of weekday afternoons free, and my daughter was in elementary school, this meant that I could take her by the Steak ‘n Shake nearest us on Barrett Parkway – said to be the busiest and most profitable in the whole chain – and join the mob for a daddy-daughter milkshake treat.
Those days are actually gone for us, since she started middle school and no longer gets home until close enough to suppertime to make a milkshake “ruin yer dinner” impractical. I slightly resent the loss of quality time, but then again, that’s just one of the many downsides to having your kids grow up.
The milkshakes here are terrific – my particular poison is a mix of their banana and orange cream – but the food is only slightly on the preferable side of average. The beef is okay, albeit pressed into sadly small and weedy patties, and the fries are thin enough to make you wonder whether there’s any potato in there, but the chain does offer a dish which is actually worth a second look. It’s not the same as what you can find in Cincinnati’s chili parlors, but Steak ‘n Shake does offer their version of a 5-way.
I’ve only been through northeastern Kentucky four times, but on each of those occasions, I’ve made it a point to stop at either a Skyline Chili or a Gold Star. I imagine that people more familiar with Cincinnati would be pleased to tell me about a better, more humble, non-chain restaurant to get chili made in that city’s style, and perhaps the next time I’m in that region, I’ll give that a try. In these restaurants, you get the area’s particular chili recipe – very finely chopped ground beef served in a light stew containing (as Wikipedia terms it) “unusual ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice or chocolate,” but without the traditional chili peppers or chili powder like you would expect from other regions.
This chili is intended to be eaten over noodles or on a hot dog, and not in a bowl on its own. Over time, some traditions developed about how to order this dish in area restaurants. A two-way is simply the chili poured over spaghetti noodles, and a three-way adds a giant mound of shredded cheese. A four-way adds either beans or diced onions, and a five-way contains the lot.
Steak ‘n Shake’s version can’t be characterized as a proper Cincinnati 5-way, because the beef is not spiced the same way, nor is it chopped as finely as what you would see in a Skyline. It’s just average canned chili beef in a “special” sauce of ketchup and Worcestershire. At any rate, I got to thinking about it after reading an amusing thread about the chain’s chili over at Roadfood.com, and it made me peckish enough to want to get back over there. In a bit of nice timing, my daughter had early release last week for parent-teacher conferences and so we had an early supper together. With milkshakes, of course. It wasn’t bad at all. It was no Gold Star, but it will do until the next time I can get to Cincinnati, anyway.