By David Minsky
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By Laine Doss
In my next life, I want to be a bigtime football coach in South Florida. Sure, the job has its challenges, but if I can tough out the two-a-days, the media scrutiny, and my players' nigh-inevitable encounters with the criminal justice system for a couple decades, I'll get my own steak house!
Yes, if local sports history has taught us anything, it is that coaching greatness and big ol' slabs o' beef are inextricably linked. You know you've made it as a revered sports figure along the lines of Don Shula (Shula's Steak House, Shula's Steak 2) and Jimmy Johnson (Jimmy Johnson's Three Rings) when the food fashionistas come looking for you. No doubt that's how erstwhile University of Miami and current Florida Atlantic University footballcoach Howard Schnellenberger felt when chain-restaurant mogul David Toole, who launched the Roadhouse Grill concept in 1992, came knocking. He and partner John Y. Brown, the former Kentucky governor who was the moneybags behind Kentucky Fried Chicken and Kenny Rogers Roasters, wanted to open ten locations of a steak house bearing Schnellenberger's name from Miami to West Palm Beach. All Schnellenberger had to do was contribute his image, the goods he's collected since he started coaching at the University of Kentucky in 1959, and his occasional presence for media ops. In return? Royalties, plus a place to broadcast Monday-night radio shows during football season -- not a bad way to publicize the FAU squad, which plays its inaugural season this fall.
I do wonder, though, if Toole and company revealed just how they'd brand the new steak house, which premiered its first location on Cleary Boulevard in Plantation three months ago. If they did, the coach should have had second thoughts, because Coach Schnellenberger's The Original Steakhouse & Sports Theatre is quite a mouthful -- and I'm not talking about a pair of choppers coping with a big bite of ground beef. To be saddled with a surname no one can spell or pronounce is bad enough (and I should know), but putting it on a restaurant marquee is like a quarterback begging to be sacked in the end zone with no time left. Don't believe me? Try getting a phone number or address for this place from 411. Chances are, even if you say and spell the name exactly right, the operators will still be so puzzled they'll look up Smellin' Burgers and then deliberately lose your connection.
Fortunately the restaurant itself is not nearly as leaden as it sounds. Nor is the sports-bar stuff too obtrusive. Yeah, framed articles and photos hang on the walls, but their placements are more restrained than you would think. The fabric of the banquettes features little uniformed figures playing all kinds of sports, but you have to peer closely to determine which ones. The most notable décor feature turns out to be the echo of the title: a theater-in-the-round comprising seven big-screen TVs hung over a bar area, each tuned to a different game or sporting event. However, if you are not a sports fan, you can sit in the dining room, which is surprisingly quiet for such a venue and where the servers are both jaunty and well informed.
I was also relieved to find that the menu had not been bogged down with cutesy terms like field goal to describe a salad or extra point to designate desserts. Rather the list is straightforward, strictly steak house, with offerings ranging from burgers to rib eyes. The steaks, the menu notes, are USDA choice beef, cut in-house every day by a professional butcher. We were impressed with both the honesty (lots of steak houses falsely claim to serve only the higher-grade USDA prime meat) and the quality. A ten-ounce filet mignon was supple but not soft, offering just a little resistance. Paired with a side of buttery béarnaise sauce, the filet was big enough to satisfy but not too big to finish; a petite seven-ounce version is also available for anyone who has an appetite smaller than that of a typical linebacker.
If you possess restraint, take advantage of the downsized portion, because every entrée is preceded by a salad and accompanied by the choice of a baked potato, fries, rice, or coleslaw (among other options). But even the lighter-sounding items, such as the house salad, were filling, given the plethora of bacon and cheese that drifted on top of the lettuce like so much snow on Lambeau Field's frozen tundra. In fact bacon seems to be a favorite ingredient at Schnellenberger's, garnishing everything from a rather bland cheese-based soup of the day to a delightfully chilled wedge of iceberg lettuce.
When beef isn't what you want, pork is a tasty substitute. You can enjoy a half- or full rack of baby-back ribs, redolent with mesquite and hickory. Or opt for the barbecued pork chops, two eight-ounce chops that, as with the steaks, are cut to order. Marinated for 24 hours, the pork retained a precious juiciness despite a hearty char-grilling.
Noncarnivores have only a couple fish options, which became even more limiting when we realized that the filet of mahi-mahi we'd ordered was on its way to spoiling. Rotisserie chicken can be an alternative main course, but real fans of the bird might want to focus on appetizers. We savored some zesty Buffalo chicken wings to start, even if the presentation of wings over a bed of French fries was a trifle odd. Barbecued-chicken potato skins were another rather sinful venture, the skins loaded with strips of chicken, barbecue sauce, Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses, sour cream, and of course the ubiquitous bacon.
Schellenberger's honors college partyers by offering a drink (if you have the stomach for it) called Kentucky hooch, comprising Hawaiian Punch, Sprite, and grain alcohol. Not especially desiring a retrospective of my freshman year, I passed on both the hooch and the "adult milkshake" (Kahlúa, Baileys, and Malibu rum blended with ice cream) in favor of a more intoxicating substance: the substantial, gooey brownie sundae. It may not have quite the same punch as grain alcohol, but you can bet that a good dose of brain freeze will have the same effect as the hooch or for that matter a couple of head-on tackles: The surprising desire to return to Coach Schnellenberger's The Original Steakhouse & Sports Theatre -- even if you can't remember the whole name.