Nebraska's king of beef


April 14, 1991|By MICHAEL AND JANE STERN | MICHAEL AND JANE STERN,Universal Press Syndicate

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- Five years ago, Dreisbach's burned to the ground and lovers of steak and potatoes all across America wept. This venerable eatery had become one of the best and most cherished steak houses in the Midwest since it opened in 1932.

People came for square meals par excellence, the big steaks surrounded by fixin's served family-style to groups of four or more people. For us Roadfooders, always on the prowl for meals with powerful regional flavor, it was hard to imagine a trip west along Interstate 80 without planning the itinerary around a major feed at Dreisbach's.

Lucky us, we didn't have to wait long for Nebraska's king of beef to return. Dreisbach's was rebuilt and going strong by mid-1988. Alas, the new place is all clean and sanitary, nearly as tidy as a franchised food restaurant; and it has none of the ramshackle charm of the original eatery, which was a windowless bunker with cow's face crests on the outside. But the good news is that despite the makeover, the food is exactly the same, which means it is inspired.

Beef is the only thing you want to consider eating: T-bones, sirloins, New York strips and filet mignons at least 3 inches tall. This is blue-ribbon meat, charbroiled so it has a savory, blackened crust and tender pink insides that pocket loads of juice, ready to spurt at the first incision of a sharp knife. Along with the beef, there are excellent biscuits: air-light, served by the basketful. And potatoes: real-mashed with good gravy, crusty hash browns or the specialty of the house, sunflower potatoes.

Sunflower potatoes have been the hallmark of Dreisbach's meals since the 1940s, when owner Frank Dowd (who bought the steak house from Fred Dreisbach in 1944) invented them. They are designed to look like a Great Plains sunflower, with a sunny yellow center (melted Cheddar cheese) surrounded by a burst of petals (crisp cuts of cottage fried potatoes).

Don't save sunflower potatoes only for when you have steak dinners. Think of them also for breakfast or brunch. And it is possible to customize them all sorts of ways and turn them into a whole meal. Simply scatter a layer of cooked and well-seasoned ground beef (infused with taco sauce, perhaps, or hot chili seasonings) around the center of the potato pile before pouring on the cheese, and you have a sloppy, one-dish, potato-based meal. The only trick is arranging it all in a sunburst pattern for presentation.

Sunflower potatoes

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

6 medium-size, thin-skinned potatoes

1 clove garlic

6 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon diced onion

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup melted yellow cheese of choice (we like Velveeta)

Scrub potatoes and boil 10 to 12 minutes until partially cooked but still quite firm. Drain. Slice into 1/4 -inch segments, cutting on an angle to create petal-shaped pieces of potato.

Cut garlic clove in half and rub it hard all over the bottom of a large, heavy (preferably non-stick) skillet.

Melt half the butter in the skillet over medium heat. Add onion, and when it begins to sizzle (don't let it brown) add potatoes, stirring them around so they get coated with butter. Cook about 10 minutes without stirring until potatoes are nicely browned on the bottom. Flip and rearrange them into a circular, flowerlike pattern. (Some will break; don't worry -- that's normal.) Dot pattern with remaining butter and cook until bottoms are crusty brown.

Slide potatoes onto serving plate, season with salt and pepper to taste and pour cheese onto the center of the pile.

Dreisbach's, 1137 S. Locust, Grand Island, Neb. 68801; (308) 382-5450.

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