By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2009 Gourmet Magazine
Horseshoe sandwiches are ubiquitous in Springfield, Illinois, but no one eats them anywhere else. Like many folk foods, they’re hard to define, but all share a toasted bread base, a pile of some meat or other, a slathering of sauce, and, in place of the usual toast topper, a full spud canopy. A modern “shoe” is perhaps the most massive single-dish meal in the nation, comparable in both size and spirit to the notorious Rochester (New York) garbage plate: a kitchen-sink meal of nutritionally wicked elements doled out in awesome proportions. At breakfast time, you can get the shoes slathered with cream gravy or cheese sauce and covered with hash browns. Lunch and supper shoes are piled up with hamburgers, pork tenderloin cutlets, fried chicken, whitefish, or just about any other main course you’d find on the menu of a diner or pub and strewn with french fries. Of course, good meat is important to a shoe’s success, and some claim the cheese sauce is the key, but in our experience it is the potatoes that make or break the dish.
“You got only five or six french fries with the original shoes,” says Kurt Ritz. He learned how to make them from Wayne Combs, who, before he opened Wayne’s Red Coach Inn (now defunct), worked with Joe Schweska and Steve Tomko in the Red Lion Room of the (also defunct) Leland Hotel, where the sandwiches were first configured, in the late 1920s. The sandwich bears no resemblance to a horse’s hoofwear, but, as Ritz explains, “The scattered potatoes looked like shoeing nails. A slice of ham laid on toast was the shape of a horseshoe, and the plate was an anvil. That’s how they got their name.” From the beginning, molten cheese sauce blanketing the ham was a necessary part of the formula, but no one in Springfield can say what aspect of the farrier’s trade the cheese represents.
Ritz, whose Ritz’s and Ritz’s Li’l Fryer serve shoes for breakfast and lunch, isn’t sure how the basic hot open-face ham-and-cheese sandwich formula became so baroque, but he contends that cheese is the most important part of a shoe. Canned cheese sauce, which some Springfield shoemakers use, is easy and bright, but it cannot match the silky orange emulsion that starts with the roux Ritz makes each morning. To the roux he adds milk and Old English cheese to achieve a consistency that will cling to meat and potatoes but not weigh them down.
No restaurant we visited makes extraordinary french fries; the food-service crinkle-cuts that cover a lot of shoes get soggy fast. And we wouldn’t recommend a horseshoe-eating tour of the Illinois capital but for the high-quality griddle-fried potatoes on the city’s best shoes, especially at breakfast. (Even if it were shoeless, Springfield would be a must-visit for its cornmeal-crusted Cozy dogs, Joe Rogers’s chili with hot oil and optional beans, and the pizza-size pancake at Charlie Parker’s diner.) In lieu of uninteresting french fries on dinner shoes, and as the standard topping for breakfast shoes, Ritz’s cooks up hash browns that are thick and chunky with an abundance of crisp surface area—definitely the way to go.
There are no hash browns better than those at D&J Cafe, which is one of the most modest-looking eateries we’ve ever encountered. And yet it is here that we find a breakfast shoe with the indomitable authority—and the balance—of a great offensive lineman. When we order one with sausage, fried eggs, hash browns, and a half-and-half layout of gravy and cheese, our waitress, Ronda, coos, “Ooooh, someone’s hungry!” and guarantees that everything we’ll find on our platter will be homemade except the sausage, which comes from a local supplier.
Ronda is a dream diner waitress—a skilled veteran with name tag and rubber-soled shoes, her blonde hair fashioned doo-wop style into a ponytail and bangs. When a gent from across the room complains to her that she hasn’t brought him a check, she calls out, “No ticket for you, Harold. It’s your birthday. Your money’s no good. Now, get out of here, would you, mister?” He argues with her, but she won’t even take a tip, giving Harold a hard time about keeping her from her work, which includes not only serving meals and conversing with customers but also pouring coffee. Refilling coffee cups is an obsession at D&J; throughout our 6 a.m. breakfast, a waitress who is not Ronda comes out from behind the counter approximately every three minutes, circling the small dining room with a pot, reciting the house mantra, “Top it off?” On those occasions when we do not sip between her visits, she looks so crestfallen that we take quick gulps so she will have plenty to pour next time around. At one point we hear Ronda call out to her, “Honey, am I ever going to get the coffee?” She then turns to everyone in the dining room, all of whom, except for us, appear to be regulars, and announces, “She’s got the pot hostage again. I haven’t poured all morning!”
Ronda interrupts a chat with a table of guys so she can whisk a shoe from the kitchen’s pass-through window to us while it’s still venting trails of steam. The meal covers a broad oval plate with enough food for three or four normal appetites—a big savory mound almost fully enclosed by a red-gold net of fried shredded potatoes. The spud web is thick enough that its underside is plush and buttery; its top shatters into crisp fragments imprinted with the flavor of breakfast meats that have occupied the hot iron griddle before it. The silky cream gravy and rarebit-like cheese sauce that peek out at either end of the plate are both fine mediums for potatoes and for sausage patties, which are coarsely ground and deliver a sharp pepper kick. Rich yellow egg yolks seep throughout, and the white toast at the very bottom serves as much more than just a trivet for everything else: It is so shockingly plain that discovering its innocuous blandness in the cacophony of what’s on top is a centering experience, a tiny reminder of normalcy on a plate of otherwise unbridled plebeian opulence.
Ritz’s Li’l Fryer