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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 01:04 am

Fritz’s hits the mark on steaks and service

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The steaks at Fritz’s are juicy and tender

When our friends Barb and Tom Jackson want to celebrate a special occasion, their place of choice is Fritz's Restaurant, the Wagon Wheel. Like many regular customers, the Jacksons have decided that Fritz's is a perfect place to go for a good steak and friendly service.

Regardless of your mood, the Wagon Wheel's atmosphere can accommodate it. The restaurant is casual and friendly enough for you to stop by in jeans for a plate of pan-fried chicken gizzards but is also a place where you can dress up and splurge on a nice steak dinner with a bottle of red wine. The interior is large and roomy, with tables topped in white linen and a banquet room available for large parties.

Fritz's has been a Springfield fixture since 1939, when it opened as Louella Easton's Wagon Wheel. Over the years it has changed names and locations with the ownership. Springfield native Joe Bart has owned the restaurant since 1993.

My husband and I joined the Jacksons for dinner on a recent Saturday evening. We waited for our table in the large, inviting bar. If you like a martini before dinner, order it with a delicious blue cheese-stuffed olive, handmade each day by one of the bartenders.

The waitstaff, like the bartenders, are friendly. Our waitress explained each dish in detail, which was helpful and impressive -- Fritz's extensive menu features more than 35 daily entrées. Specialties include steaks, ribs, seafood, pasta, and chicken. Appetizers, salads, horseshoes, and sandwiches are also available.

We began our meal with an order of sautéed mushrooms, cooked in wine and topped with mozzarella, for $6.95. The spicy mushrooms were soaked with the sauce, which was rich with flavor but not overpowering. They were a good choice and a light way to start our meal. Other options include beer-battered shrimp, cheese bread, and such standards as shrimp cocktail, fried calamari, and potato skins.

Three of us ordered cuts of steak, all of them juicy and tender. I ordered filet and lobster, both of which were cooked perfectly. The lobster was sweet, the filet thick and tender. Steaks are cut by hand and trimmed in-house. Montreal-style seasoning and melted Roquefort cheese are available to add a unique taste to the meat, but the steaks here don't need the extra touches. Choices include New York strip, ribeye, prime rib, porterhouse, chopped sirloin, and tenderloin fillet. Bart suggested pairing buttered mushrooms or grilled onions with the steaks, so we ordered the onions. They were cooked to a nice consistency and provided a slightly sweet bite to the steaks.

My husband tried the beef and shrimp Wellington, a specialty dish consisting of a filet paired with shrimp and wrapped in pastry. The dish was fine but didn't live up to its billing. The pastry just didn't satisfy the taste buds as the other steaks we tried did.

Meals are served with a choice of potato and soup or salad. The salad, topped with homemade vinegar-and-oil dressing, was light and flavorful. We also tried the lobster bisque, one of the featured soups that evening. It was creamy and rich. Numerous side orders are available, from applesauce and corn to Tater Totsand hash browns.

Other specialties include calf's liver and onions; a marinated tenderloin kebab with onions, peppers, and mushrooms; and "Joe's 3 a.m. filet sandwich," which is a filet sliced in half, covered with Roquefort cheese, and served on a homemade roll. Seafood entrées -- which may be ordered broiled, fried, or seasoned with Cajun spices -- include halibut, oysters, catfish, scallops, orange roughy, and shrimp.

For a lighter meal, salads are available with shrimp or grilled chicken. specialty salads include the Caesar and the Sargeant salad, which is made with onions, celery, Roquefort cheese, and Italian vinegar and oil. Next time I visit, I'll try one of the horseshoe sandwiches. Egg, shrimp, and vegetable versions are available, as well as the U. of I. 'shoe, which comprises chopped sirloin, mushrooms, tomatoes, and bacon strips. You can even order it with sirloin and broiled shrimp for $14.95.

For dessert, the restaurant usually offers a homemade cream pie such as banana, coconut, chocolate, or Key lime. We tried the Kahlúa coffee cake, which was rich and gooey, but the winner was the butterscotch cream pie. Obviously not made with packaged pudding, the filling was smooth and buttery without being too sweet, just like Mom used to make.

Fritz's is located at 2709 S. MacArthur Blvd., 546-9888. Hours: 4:30-11 p.m. Tue.-Sun. The lounge is open until 1 a.m.

Too many tomatoes?

Up to your ears in tomatoes? Here's a quick way to use up those ripe red fruits while the weather is still warm:

Gazpacho

Ingredients:
3 large ripe tomatoes,quartered
2 cups chopped cucumber
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup water

Directions:
Combine all ingredients but water in a food processor; pulse four or five times or until desired consistency is achieved Pour mixture into a bowl, stir in water, cover bowl, and chill for at least one hour. To garnish this cold soup, top each serving with an ice cube. Yields six servings, 1 cup each.

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