When people talk about Steuben's, they usually talk about the place rather than the food. Sure, the kitchen does some dishes well (big plates of hand-cut fries drowning in gravy and topped with perfectly browned and melted white cheese) and some dishes wrong (fried chicken that, every time I try it, is missing that rough edge of crispy/greasy perfection), but really, what it all comes down to is the room and its ideal evocation not of any particular hometown family restaurant, diner or greasy spoon from the '70s, but all of them. Steuben's plays on memory better than almost any other restaurant I've been to, with everything from the music (on my most recent turn through the dining room: "Cruel Summer," by Bananarama, and Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy," a song that, for reasons long forgotten, has always torn me up) to the angular architecture, mud-on-white color scheme, jumbled arrangement of cheap mirrors on the walls and the glassware above the bar — highball sets and scorpion bowls that aren't antique, but cheesy in that shlock, thrift-store-treasure kind of way. Steuben's tacky, memento mori button-pushing is so successful, it transcends trickery and becomes reality.
Steuben's is the place to go if you want to see a '60s deviled-egg tray in action or what's perhaps the last surviving example of grooved, brown wood paneling used as a legitimate tool of interior design. And when I dropped in for lunch last week, I was reminded that it's one of the only places in town that you can find that classic of the Southwestern comfort-food canon: the green-chile cheeseburger. The kitchen crew had many examples to choose from when trying to re-create the ultimate green-chile cheeseburger, but to its credit, it decided on the best version of all, the one that's been the cornerstone of the menu at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico, for more than fifty years. Shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and green chile, roughly chopped, is all the Owl uses to top its burger, so that's all Steuben's uses, too. It's a big, juicy burger, and the side of fries I ordered was flat-out huge.
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While this green-chile cheeseburger could never measure up to the original, it's close enough that when I want one but can't stomach a seven-hour drive to New Mexico, Steuben's is the place I go.