Not only was it my first time, but I had to do it with Elvis’s blue eyes peering down at me. Of all the songs he ever penned and swooned, the one that stuck in my mind that moment was “Love Me Tender.” I was about to get my hands on a basket of deep-fried Idaho finger steaks at Boise’s Westside Drive In.
Finger steaks are shrimp tempura for the landlocked, and more a finger food than country-fried steak; you’ll equally find them on menus under appetizer or main course. Guy Fieri graced The Westside Drive In with his presence on his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and his personally signed poster, like the several unsigned of Elvis, adorns the interior of the place. The restaurant was originally opened in 1957 by the late Ralph Caskey, but even this newer location on Parkcenter features every Art Deco nuance of a 1950s All-American drive-in, complete with neon lighting, a soda fountain, and Rockabilly icons in every corner. It’s the kind of place that serves prime rib one day and lasagna the next. But I came for an Idaho specialty, finger steaks.
“One thing is certain,” says Josh Aaron, son of Chef Lou Aaron, Westside’s current owner. “Finger steaks were created in Boise, Idaho, in the late 1950s. They are unique to Idaho.” That was as close as I was going to get to finding out the exact genesis of this Gem State dish.
Urban legend, and more than one citation, links its creation to Milo’s Torch Café between 1946 and 1957, which during that time changed from family restaurant to “Idaho’s Premier Gentleman’s Club.” It’s more likely that the finger steaks were created for family dining than as strip-club fare, but who’s to say? The lore makes for a good story.
Today, however, the renamed Torch Lounge no longer serves food. The owners of Westside Drive In claim to have that original recipe from The Torch, specifically for the batter, because the owners of The Torch, Westside Drive In, and a few other restaurants all went to high school together and had them on their menus since the 1950s.
On the Westside Drive In menu they’re listed as “Boise’s Best Finger Steaks.” They come out of the kitchen in a red plastic basket with sides of homemade fry sauce and horseradish cocktail sauce, scattered over an order of “gems,” commonly known as tater tots, adjacent to a buttery slice of garlic bread and a fortune cookie. There’s enough golden-brown in front of me to make me forget vegetables ever existed.
I dove in and never looked back. Finger steaks are about three to four inches long and a half-inch wide. They come with a tempura-style batter, traditionally. What shows they are made-to-order is that no two are uniform in shape or size. Westside Drive In uses shoulder cuts of beef and serves more than 7,000 pounds of finger steaks a year between its two Boise locations. Wine Enthusiast even offers up Westside’s original recipe, courtesy of the restaurant’s owner.
As the cuts of beef are specific to each restaurant or dive bar that serves finger steaks, so is the batter (its flavor, thickness, and crispness). I was about to see the ways they vary across southwest Idaho.
As a semi-professional beer drinker—I write a lot about beer—I was told I should go to Boise’s Sockeye Brewing for both beer and finger steaks. Here I got a basket of them and a pint of Hell-Diver Pale Ale.
“We use beer as a marinade and in the batter, because we’re a brewery,” says Sockeye Brewing’s chef Frank Hemstreet. The beer used in the recipe was Hell-Dive Pale Ale, so I was already on track with my pairing.
“And most places use chuck, but we use tri-tip,” says Hemstreet. After soaking cuts of beef in beer marinade overnight, they’re drenched in flour and beer batter and fried for several minutes, then served, expectedly, with a side of house-made cocktail sauce.
What I learned to be the hallmark of a good finger steak is you can take a bite and not pull the meat away from its breading. The trick to this is to have tender beef inside. The beer bath at Sockeye Brewing is a tenderizer and would be similar to what happens when your grandmother made her famous fried chicken, soaking the meat in buttermilk first.
Moving north into McCall, Idaho, I found Lardo Grill & Saloon. McCall has a tie to finger steaks’ fabled history because it’s where Milo Bybee worked as a butcher and for the Forest Service in his younger years. Bybee later moved to Boise and opened The Torch Café.
Lardo’s opened in 1973 and has had finger steaks on the menu since day one. These finger steaks were not battered tempura-style, and were more pepper-seasoned than anything else I tried. They were served with a spicy steak sauce. It was easy to channel my inner Forest Serviceman and find these particular morsels quite satisfying after a long day in the woods.
To round out a proper study on finger steaks, I was told I had to check out one particular place in Boise, Dutch Goose. It’s one part sports bar and one part restaurant, with a long reputation as one of the diviest of dive bars. It has since cleaned up, a few locals assured me.
I ordered my basket of fried beef with beer-battered onion rings (Idaho has a $47.5 million onion industry. It’s not all about the potatoes.). And to my surprise the basket came with something green -a fresh salad! I could tell immediately these finger steaks were different. Instead of the long, finger-style everywhere else, these were more like nuggets. As I picked one up its coating slipped away, revealing tender, medium-rare red meat. I learned quickly to eat these with a fork.
Wondering if I should dock it points for the separation of beef and breading, I dismissed that idea when I bit into it. The lighter coating brought out richer beef flavors, and along with the spicy cocktail sauce, they had me by the waistline and pulled me in. I do love them tender. They had what all Idaho finger steaks have—a personal touch, a sense of regional pride, and the satisfaction of getting your hands on something that makes you feel good.