Features
The Horseshoe Sandwich Is the Meaty, Cheesy, Potato-y Pride of Springfield, Illinois
And according to this Illinois native, it deserves a spot among the great Midwestern dishes.
04-26-2021
Jacob Crosetto

Some of the best-known Midwestern dishes come from Illinois. While I love deep-dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches as much as the next Illinois native, I believe there’s another dish that’s not as well-known but nevertheless deserves a spot among the greats: the peculiar sandwich known as the horseshoe.

If you grew up around Springfield, you are undoubtedly familiar with this open-faced "sandwich." (Really, there should be three quotation marks on either side of """sandwich""".) While not for the faint of heart, the horseshoe is a special treat and, like many foods born from the Midwest, is welcomed in moderation.

Here’s a rundown of the components, working from the bottom up, along with traits I seek out.

  • Toast: Typically Texas toast, but the choice of bread isn’t the most important part—toasting is the key.
  • Protein and/or Vegetables: The classic is a hamburger patty, but this is where the true creativity is found. Anything goes, including ham (which was, according to the dish’s origin story, the original protein), sausage, bacon, pork tenderloin, fried chicken cutlets, or thick slabs of tomato.
  • Fries: The crispier, the better. Again, you can get creative with tater tots and hash browns, but I’ve found that crinkle-cut fries are optimal.
  • Cheese Sauce: This is the true test of a horseshoe’s quality. The cheese sauce is always homemade and varies from restaurant to restaurant. Most restaurants’ versions are proprietary and well guarded, but they almost always feature yellow or white cheddar with a hint of nutmeg, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce.

(All that sound like more than you can handle? Don’t worry—in most restaurants, those with smaller appetites can also opt for the half-size “ponyshoe.”)

How this sandwich came to be is something of a mystery, but most Springfield residents agree that it was invented in the 1920s at the Red Lion Room in downtown Springfield’s Leland Hotel. The first to make it? A chef suffering from the cooking version of writer’s block.

The details vary, but the story goes that head chef Joe Schweska was at a loss for new menu items when his wife, Elizabeth, told him about Welsh rarebit, an 18th century United Kingdom–based dish consisting of melted cheese on toast. Inspired, Joe began developing his own recipe for a cheese sauce to use for his version. Legend has it that Joe topped his toast with a horseshoe-shaped slice of ham cut from the bone, giving the sandwich its name. He then cut a potato into eight wedges, and these became the nails of the fabled horseshoe.

Both the reputation and the components of the horseshoe have changed in the decades since. Back when the dish was invented, the Red Lion Room was one of the fanciest spots in town, so it debuted with a certain level of sophistication. These days, it’s more of a casual (and excessive) affair, ubiquitous on restaurant menus and representative of Midwestern hospitality.

As for the actual ingredients, you’re now more likely to see a hamburger patty than a slice of ham, and the potatoes have been replaced by a pile of fries in most versions. Most cheese sauces also now use beer, while Schweska was limited to “near beer” because of Prohibition. (Schweska was also famously generous with his cheese sauce recipe.) But that’s the beauty of this dish: It’s meant to be messed with.

My personal favorite—the buffalo chicken horseshoe—comes from a wonderful pub in Springfield called D’Arcy’s Pint. It features Texas toast topped with a fried chicken breast that’s drenched in buffalo sauce, followed by crinkle-cut fries, and then doused with a spicy cheese sauce. In true Midwestern fashion, it’s served with a side of ranch dressing.

D'Arcy's Pint is known for creativity when it comes to the horseshoe. Their daily menu includes anything from the simple hamburger or turkey horseshoes to more extravagant shoes that they rotate weekly. Some of their more colorful creations include a Philly cheesesteak version with chopped steak and sauteed onions and peppers and a "state fair" shoe that is topped with miniature corndogs.

What new spin will Springfield’s chefs come up with to continue the evolution of this beloved dish? The next time you’re in the area, skip the pizza, hot dogs, and beef sandwiches and find out for yourself.

Photo: Brent Hofacker, Getty Images

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