SIGNATURE DISH: Des Moines’ Iconic Steak

When describing this icon, here’s what we can all agree on: It’s called steak de burgo.  And when it enters the dining room, it steals the show.

“You can smell that steak de burgo smell!” says restaurant critic, Wini “W.E.” Moranville, formerly known as the Des Moines Register‘s Datebook Diner.

“When that de Burgo sauce hits that hot plate, you can smell it throughout the entire restaurant,” says Pat Morris, head chef at Tursi’s Latin King Restaurant.

That smell has hooked many an Iowan and never let them go…

“They’re a de burgo cult like thing!” laughs Boby Tursi, owner of the Latin King.

“That’s the only thing they ever eat!” adds Steve Little, chef and owner of Chef’s Kitchen in Beaverdale.

It’s Des Moines’ signature dish, and it always begins the same way.

“It’s a great quality piece of tenderloin,” Tusi says.

“Tenderloin is the most tender cut on a steer,” Morris adds.

“You’ve got this really velvety, wonderful piece of meat,” Moranville goes on.

“But…flavorful it is not,” smiles Jerry Talerico, owner of Sam and Gabe’s Restaurant in Urbandale.

“Yeah, you need to add something to it,” says Little.

That’s where the harmony ends.  Nearly every other aspect of steak de burgo is up for debate.

“Most dishes that are regional specialties have good stories,” Moranville says, “and most of those stories are told in many different ways.”

One story says it started at one of Des Moines original restaurants and its imaginative owner…

“Johnny Compiano!” Tursi interrupts, speaking of the esteemed chef and owner of one of Des Moines’ foundational restaurants, Johnny and Kay’s.

“He’d started cooking that down in New Orleans when he was in the Coast Guard,” says Johnny’s son, Tom Compiano, “and trying different foods and he always did.”

At Johnny and Kay’s on Fleur, Compiano cooked his steak de burgo in olive oil…Italian style.

“He had a lot of ideas on food, he loved to eat, food was everything,” Compiano says of his father. “That’s why he died, I guess, when he was 64 years old.”

Years later, it was adopted by another Italian across town.

Bobby Tursi brought it in not long after he took over The Latin King from founder, Jim Pigneri, in 1983.

“It was just like, ‘Hey, how come you don’t have steak de burgo? Where’s your steak de burgo?” Tursi says.

Chef Pat Morris gave The Latin King its own spin on the dish. Out of the pan, and onto the fire.

“I think that charbroiling will help give it a little extra flavor,” he says, placing a 9 ounce piece of tenderloin in the center of his grill.

The Latin King’s de burgo is seasoned with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt just before grilling, but  doesn’t get crowned with its signature garlic butter and spices until just before it heads out to the dining room.

At Jerry Talerico’s Sam and Gabe’s Restaurant, spices go on right away and the steak is cooked in butter, just the way his dad did it.

“This was the recipe that my father used in his restaurant,” says Talerico.

While Johnny and Kay’s opened in 1946, Vic Talerico opened his first place in 1939.  De burgo would become a staple at his Vic’s Tally Ho on Douglas Avenue.  The recipe was his, says family, though no one’s sure how he got it.

“My father passed away when I was 19,” Jerry says, “and that is just one of the many questions I would have liked to have asked him before he passed.”

So does it belong to the Talericos or the Compianos? Time to bring in a third party! Chef Steve Little, you make the call, man!

“Ha ha!” Little laughs, staying out of the controversy.

Little learned his version working at Johnny’s Vet’s Club–John Stamatelos’s beloved West Des Moines restaurant.  Little had bought the place by the time the flood wrecked it in ’93 and would bring de burgo to his new restaurant, Chef’s Kitchen in Beaverdale.

“We add a little bit of basil and oregano,” Little says, standing over a cast iron skillet at Chef’s.

That part is standard, but here comes the curve ball…“There’s garlic and butter and heavy cream.”

Chef Bob Bianchi first added the cream back at Johnny’s…now many places serve it that way.

“And there you have the Steak de Burgo, ala Johnny’s Vet’s Club and Chef’s Kitchen,” Little says, holding a lucious plate of steak de burgo, covered in a bubbling cream sauce flecked with basil and black pepper.

Purists decry the cream, but few would pass this up.  After all, de burgo–like most house specialties–is alchemy more than it is science.

“It’s just so good,” Moranville says, eyes wide, “and then you taste it and you’ve got this velvety, velvety steak that just melts in your mouth and then that butter just adds all that extra flavor.”

Alright, ‘nuff said! It works.  A salute to the proud men who gave us our own flavor…still sizzling… linking our humble past with our dressed up present day.

We’re divided on how to spell it and cook it…how to serve it and where it came from…but on this we’re all together…it’s ours and any way you like it…bring out the steak de burgo and call it an Iowa Icon.


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