Where We've Been: Obed & Isaac's
Microbrewery serves up prime example of Springfield's specialty: the horseshoe
By Ted Cox
It's the signature dish of the state capital, and you can consider yourself lucky if you've never had to face one down and still need it explained to you.
It's the horseshoe, and it's a carb-loaded, meat-pounding, cheese-slathered, intimidating, open-faced heart attack on a plate.
The horseshoe as it is known today is a towering monument to Midwest cuisine. It starts with a thick slab of toast, slaps a burger on that, drowns it in cheese, and covers it all with a mound of French fries.
Somewhere in there is a lamb burger just waiting to be found and eaten.
Yet that's just the thing: this is the relatively elegant and fairly famous version of the horseshoe served at Obed & Isaac's, a microbrewery in a preserved mansion in downtown Springfield. At this point, it's the restaurant flagship of Conn's Hospitality Group, a multi-generational family-run business with a history going back to when Abe Lincoln was living in Springfield. It also has an Obed & Isaac's outlet in Peoria.
Court Conn, proprietor of the company, is the great-great grandson of Obed Lewis, who built a Springfield home at 7th and Jackson streets a block from the Lincolns. The Obed & Isaac's site boasts that their children played together.
Just over 10 years ago, Conn and his wife, Karen, bought the home, which had long since passed to other owners. Their dream of restoring it, however, proved impossible, but they found another historic mansion a few blocks away, previously owned by Isaac Lindsey. They bought that and had it carted over to the original Lewis property, and a few years later they brought it all together by building a microbrewery and restaurant there. Ergo, Obed & Isaac's, located at 500 S. 6th St.
If you've never had a horseshoe, it's probably the best introduction. There's a choice of meats, and I had mine with a lamb burger. (You can also go veggie, but a veggie horseshoe would be oxymoronic.) I also had the relatively modest "pony"-sized serving. Digging in, I found the fries crisp and seasoned, the lamb burger delicious, the toast almost an afterthought, but — most important of all — the cheese was exquisite.
This, I believe, is the distinguishing characteristic of all horseshoes: the sauce or gravy. Obed & Isaac's cheese sauce had the consistency of a refined greyere, but according to the waitress it was white cheddar. All by itself, it turned a cuilinary joke into a dining experience. I paired it with the house Hefenator Hefeweiss beer and enjoyed. (Although I will discreetly add that a horseshoe is the gastrointestinal equivalent of construction along I-55.)
The importance of the sauce extends back to the surprisingly humble origins of the "sandwich." As Julianne Glatz explained in a lovely piece in the Illinois Times several years ago, it was born in the Red Lion Room in Springfield's since-lost Leland Hotel.
"Those horseshoes were made with two slices of homemade-type white bread not more than a half-inch thick," Glatz wrote. "The ham was thinly sliced from a bone-in ham, which provided the horseshoe shape from whence the sandwich’s name came; other meat choices were also thinly sliced, and the chicken or turkey was roasted in house – never (Heaven forbid!) from highly processed chicken or turkey 'roll.' The cheese sauce covering the meat and toast was tangy, and the handful of crisp fries that topped it were made from fresh potatoes. The sandwich was served on a preheated steak platter just slightly larger than the two pieces of toast."
The critical cheese sauce has been described as something befitting Welsh rarebit, and Glatz's story includes the recipe, which calls for sharp cheddar, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and beer.
Somewhere along the line, however, the horseshoe became a testament to Midwestern dining excess. It can be found in various forms, most of them gargantuan and somewhat daunting. There's even a breakfast version substituting sausage as the meat component.
But some do it better than others, and it's worth noting that Charlie Parker's Diner (no relation to the bebop saxophonist) at 700 North St. has been proclaimed "National Grand Champion of Thomas's Hometown Breakfast Battle," winning a national contest sponsored by Thomas's English Muffins with a "breakfast horseshoe" recipe including eggs, bacon, cheese sauce, gravy, hash browns, and of course Thomas's English muffins.
Let me also add one last detail that recommends Obed & Isaac's as a horseshoe restaurant: it has outdoor bocce courts, and after eating one a little light exercise is definitely called for.