Steak-cation is the best new road trip you’ve never taken

My summer vacation plans of photographing the Oregon coast for a week turned into a shorter, closer-to-home car trip around the Midwest recently, and while I don’t have many great pictures to share, I did eat well.

I worked my typical day in Louisville a couple of Wednesdays ago, then snuck out early and drove straight to St. Louis. There, a perfectly-cooked medium rare ribeye awaited at Annie Gunn’s, a restaurant a friend had recommended to me. He was a frequent business traveler for many years before COVID, and always has great tips for many U.S. cities.

Annie Gunn's
A medium-rare ribeye at St. Louis staple Annie Gunn’s isn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday. (Photo: John P. Wise)

I ate at the bar and made conversation with Eve, a longtime bartender there. It didn’t take her long to get into politics, sharing her takes on masks and vaccinations and so forth. Her views are different from mine, but that’s OK with me.

In addition to the steak, I did enjoy a glass of Salvestrin, a lovely Napa cab. I’m far from a wine aficionado, but I know a perfect, buttery pairing when I taste one.

Thursday morning, after an early swim at the Hilton Frontenac — a hotel I loved, by the way — I was on the road to Kansas City. I checked in to the very cool Hotel Indigo, a boutique joint with a splendid postcard view. And by that I mean the room decor actually depicted a postcard.

Down the block was a great rooftop bar called John’s Big Deck. It was the perfect place to meet a happy hour crowd just after work, enjoy a drink and talk sports with a cool bartender named Kyle (I think). Being a lifelong Chiefs fan, he talked some trash with me once I mentioned I’m a fan of the Cleveland Browns, who visit Kansas City to open the NFL season on Sept 12.

 

I was excited to try a restaurant called Stock Hill, and I am here before you to confess my sin. I went because it did a great job of marketing itself, what with glossy pictures of an upscale interior that included plush green couches and big windows facing a busy downtown street. I prefer ribeyes and filets, but considering where I was, the Kansas City strip steak made the most sense. Sadly, it was pedestrian at best.

Stock Hill
The Kansas City strip steak at Stock Hill in Kansas City was fairly pedestrian, according to our food critic. (Photo: John P. Wise)

The more I think about that dinner, even the risotto served with it wasn’t great. Dumping diced tomatoes into it gave it a texture you don’t normally expect — or want — from risotto. And while quite attentive, the service wasn’t great, mostly because I felt pressured to accept her many upsells.

As disappointed as I was with Stock Hill, the Green Lady Lounge was a great consolation afterward. The jazz bar offered a dark, speak-easy vibe and I made a couple friends at the bar.

Friday morning, I hit the road for Des Moines, embarking on my first-ever trip to the state of Iowa. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. I got in early so I took a short drive to see the state capitol building and then the downtown area.

Iowa Capitol building
The Iowa Capitol building is pretty impressive. (Photo: John P. Wise)

My hotel was just a few blocks away from the central entertainment district, so I put on the sneaks and went for a short run to see if I might discover any happy hour views.

Eventually, I made my way to 801 Chophouse. I’m not normally a chain guy, but there didn’t seem to be many great local steak options. It was everything, however, that you’d want in a fine steakhouse: Experienced servers, accommodating bartenders, lively energy, dim lighting and, well, a great ribeye. As I did in St. Louis and Kansas City, I started with a Caesar salad, which was good. At 801, I also ordered a side of sauteed mushrooms, which was great.

After dinner, I walked to Mulberry Street Tavern, a bar I passed during my happy hour run. This is an upscale establishment that offers bar, cocktail and dining-room seating on one side, as well as a much larger room with couches and street views on the other. Only when I read up on it the next morning did I realize it was part of the Surety hotel, a new luxe joint that I will definitely patronize if I return to Des Moines. In fact, I would plan to go back simply because of it.

Glass of bourbon
The bar at Mulberry Street Tavern is part of the new-ish Surety hotel in downtown Des Moines. (Photo: John P. Wise)

When I returned to my hotel, there was a full-on party in the lobby bar, and I think we can all agree how rude it would have been had I not breezed by. As hotel bars go, this one at the Hotel Des Moines Downtown actually was pretty excellent. Two young couples had a hard time with my outfit, so I joined them and we talked about it. “You must not be from around here,” one of the wives barked. No, I’m not. That’s why I’m at a hotel.

As a result of the evening revelry, I may have gotten a late start Saturday morning. I drove five hours to Chicago, where friends had been planning their annual joint birthday party the last couple of months. A day or two before I began my road trip, one friend had gotten COVID, so the party was canceled. That worked out for the better because I needed a break from the red meat and late-ish nights. I caught up with a couple friends for a sensible dinner at PR Italian Bistro — no more steaks for me — then called it an early night.

I did a little analysis during my drive back home to Louisville on Sunday:

Best steak: The ribeye at Annie Gunn’s
Best hotel: Hilton Downtown Des Moines
Best bar: Mulberry Street Tavern
Friendliest people: Des Moines

On a couple of my Facebook posts during the trip, one friend asked how the steaks compared to Jeff Ruby’s steaks. I’m here to tell you that I’ve become a steak snob and I’m no longer impressed by a Jeff Ruby steak. I’ve been making steaks consistently in my own kitchen for a decade, and for the last 18 months or so, I’ve been buying higher-quality beef from Red Hog and Paul’s, both in Louisville. There is a huge difference between garbage steaks — even filets — from your local grocer and the beef you get at an actual butcher.

Here’s how to make your next great steak:

+ Pat your steaks dry on both sides
+ Some people tenderize; I’m indifferent about it
+ Season on both sides (I keep a ramekin handy that includes a rub of sea salt, kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, rosemary, thyme and a little bit of smoked paprika)
+ Cover loosely with a paper towel for 60-90 minutes on the counter, bringing to room temperature
+ Heat a cast-iron grill pan to medium for a few minutes
+ Lay the steaks across the grooves for four minutes per side
+ The last minute on each side, spoon melted butter on top of the meat
+ After eight minutes, take the steaks off the heat and set them on a cutting board
+ Cover with a foil tent for five minutes
+ Slice, plate, drizzle remaining melted butter over steaks, then finish with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt flakes

So to sum up, take a steak-cation at some point in your life, visit Des Moines the next time you have a free weekend and make your own medium rare steak at home. Should look like this one I made over the summer:

T-bone steak
Paul’s Fruit Market in Louisville has amazing steaks, including this T-bone. (Photo: John P. Wise)