Above: The steak de Burgo at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse is finished with a cream sauce.
Writer: Wini Moranville
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
When I worked in the Candlelight Dining Room of the Des Moines Golf and Country Club in the early 1980s, we served two signature steak dishes, both cooked tableside: steak Diane and steak de Burgo. Later, after moving to New York City and dining out in the wider world, I would often come across steak Diane, but never once did I see steak de Burgo.
In 1991, I returned to Des Moines, and suddenly, there it was again, on the menu of just about every steak-serving restaurant in town. Why, I asked myself, was steak de Burgo such a popular dish here, yet nonexistent elsewhere? Equally curious to me was the fact that while I knew many fans of the dish, not one of them ever realized that it was a Des Moines-only thing.
I got to the bottom of the issue when I wrote my first restaurant review for The Des Moines Register, in 1997. My review included praise for the steak de Burgo at Skip’s, but wanting to know more about this dish’s provenance,
I interviewed Tom Compiano, the son of Johnny and Kay Compiano, owners of the legendary Johnny & Kay’s restaurant. He told me that his father discovered steak de Burgo while working in the Coast Guard in New Orleans during World War II and brought the dish to Des Moines when he opened the restaurant in 1946.
The younger Compiano claimed that it was such a hit that other restaurateurs, including those who had done stints at Johnny and Kay’s early in their careers, duplicated the dish at new venues as they opened. Hence, steak de Burgo became a citywide specialty.
So what is steak de Burgo? According to the 1964 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, “Famous Food from Famous Places,” Johnny & Kay’s version starts by sauteing basil and garlic in butter, then cooking beef tenderloin steaks in this seasoned butter.
Over the years, chefs have riffed on this basic recipe in many ways. Some finish the sauce with heavy cream, a version that most people attribute to that other Johnny, Johnny Stamatelos of Johnny’s Vet’s Club. You can still find this version at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse and Chef’s Corner Kitchen, among other restaurants.
The Sam & Gabe’s version calls for dredging the steaks in an herb-and-spice mixture before searing in an olive oil and butter mixture. It’s the method that former chef-owner Jerry Talerico learned from his father, another esteemed midcentury restaurateur, who owned Vic’s Tally-Ho. Meanwhile, at Latin King, a grilled mushroom cap crowns the filet, which sits in a pool of butter-based sauce.
Yet whether the rich sauce is cream-based or butter-based, the dish must bring an opulent beef tenderloin filet, basil and a healthy dose of garlic.
So who has the best steak de Burgo in town? Originally, I was partial to butter-based versions, though the cream-based sauce—as in the Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse version pictured above—has definitely grown on me.
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