The great fast food hamburger debate has so many sides: loyal Texans stumping for local Whataburger, west coast transplants singing the virtues of interloping In-N-Out, those squares who like Wendy’s. These sides have their merits, but I found my favorite fast food burger to be the midwestern-style steakburger, smashed flat with crispy edges, the cheese melted into the thin patty so completely that the two are practically an alloy. Specifically (and with apologies to Kansas-based Freddy’s and their many Houston-area locations), I came to love the steakburgers from Illinois-founded Steak N Shake.
While it has long been an institution in the midwest, Steak N Shake has a short and checkered history in Houston. An initial expansion into Houston in 1976 saw 9 locations open, all of which were closed in a little over two years. The second move into Houston came in 2008, with the chain under the ownership of San Antonio entrepreneur Sardar Biglari. This move saw a slower (and eventually stalled) rollout of locations, ultimately 4 in total. Three of these locations operated into 2020, with COVID dealing the final blow to them after several years of struggling, much to my dismay… but now, Steak N Shake is back!
Steak N Shake’s first hiatus in Houston lasted three decades, but their second thankfully clocks in at only around two years. This is not quite the same Steak N Shake that left town in 2020, though. This new location, the only one presently in the Houston area, is located in the Now & Forever convenience store at Westheimer and Joel Wheaton Road, a short distance from the Now & Forever Plus that recently opened in the former Walgreens at Westheimer and SH6 (documented extensively here at HHR). Nationwide, Steak N Shake has undergone significant changes in the last two years, paring down its menu and dropping table service (one of the particularly unique elements of Steak N Shake as a fast food restaurant, as well as an expensive one to maintain).
This location provided my first experience at a Steak N Shake that did not involve table service. I never used the drive-thru at the former Houston-area locations and never actually ate at the few Steak N Shake locations I encountered in food courts. With no seating area in the Now & Forever store, this location is carry-out only (despite the “dine-in” option on the ordering kiosk). This location also does not have a drive-through, as the Now & Forever store was not built with one, and the property does not have room to add one. The lack of a drive-thru makes this a curious location for any fast food hamburger restaurant, I would think.
This was definitely a different Steak N Shake experience for me, but a pleasant one. The ordering kiosk worked perfectly and even prints out paper receipts. My food was made when I ordered it and was ready pretty quickly. The open kitchen behind the counter allowed me to watch my garlic steak burger being made, which I did (I’ve explored the remainder of this Now & Forever location before). The Steak N Shake and the entire Now & Forever store is clean and well-maintained (consistent weaknesses of the previous iteration of Steak N Shake in Houston), though they are also quite recently constructed. Every employee I encountered was friendly and helpful, but it is odd to see the Steak N Shake crew wearing red polo shirts underneath their aprons instead of the trademark white shirts and ties. The food itself was pretty much as good as I remembered it, though eating it freshly served on a plate is, of course, preferable to eating it out of a carry-out bag.
I was surprised and a bit disappointed that this location does not offer chili, a favorite side of mine and a long-time staple of the Steak N Shake menu. Chili, as well as the Chili 5 Way and Chili Mac options (very midwestern dishes featuring chili on top of spaghetti), remain on the recently reduced menu at most locations. The rest of the menu posted on Steak N Shake’s website, including the selection of milkshakes, appears to be available here, though. This location did have cans of Steak N Shake brand chili on display and presumably available to purchase, though this was not an option on the ordering kiosk. Having your order delivered through the strange little airlock box is kind of a neat novelty, I thought, though one necessitated by the fact that the entire Steak N Shake counter (as well as the Now & Forever cashier) is encased behind safety glass. Unfortunately, this feature is not unique among businesses along this stretch of Westheimer. The glass is not terribly obtrusive, though it did make conversing with the folks working behind it difficult (a section does slide away over by the register, to make person-to-person ordering easier).
I’m thrilled to see Steak N Shake back in Houston, and I hope that this location is the first of many and the beginning of a long run here. At the very least, it will prove an interesting experiment for both Steak N Shake, as it tries to once again crack the Houston market, and for Now & Forever, as they build their unique convenience store chain across the region.