Quaker Steak and Lube, New Berlin, Wis./Sharon, Pa./Pittsburgh
That’s easily the longest list of cities in a blog post, because this is easily the place with the most locations of any to show up on this blog. Most of the places that show up on this blog are either one location or a couple locations within one geographic area. Very rarely, one or two will show up with a location that’s well outside of its city, but generally speaking, that’s about as big of a chain as it gets here.
But Quaker Steak and Lube isn’t an ordinary chain. It’s a chain with a genuine story, a genuine personality and some creative sauces and dishes available at its soon-to-be 62 restaurants across the country. Seriously, as I write this blog, Quaker Steak and Lube has opened a new location in Janesville, Wis., also known as the hometown of 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Two more are planned to open this year in Pennsylvania, and if you haven’t guessed by the name, that’s the home base of Quaker Steak and Lube.
As you might have guessed, the name is indeed a play off of the famous Quaker State oil that came from the aptly named town of Oil City, Pa. (as opposed to Pennzoil, which is based in Houston rather than the Keystone State and now owns Quaker State. Go figure.) and remains in stores to this day. The name was directly caused by the 1973 oil crisis, which led to several gas stations closing and muscle cars disappearing as America moved into the 14-year 55-mph speed limit era. However, two men named George Warren III and Gary Meszaros weren’t exactly ready to let go of that era.
Instead, their idea was to turn gas station into restaurant. A year after the oil crisis began, Warren and Meszaros put up a shrine to some of the muscle cars that were no longer on the roads and constructed a cook-your-own steak restaurant out of an abandoned gas station in Sharon, Pa., a town of about 14,000 people a mile east of the border that separates Pennsylvania from Ohio. The nearest sizable city to Sharon is actually Youngstown, Ohio, a fact that annoys me because I spent 14 years going to family reunions in that area and never once made the 45-minute trip from our hotel south of Youngstown to the original. Oh well.
Anyway, the cook-your-own steak concept was eventually dropped in favor of chicken wings and sauces, a decision that proved to be a stroke of genius. Since making the switch, Quaker Steak and Lube has won over 100 awards for its wings, and it refers to itself as “Best Wings USA” at all of its locations, each one designed to look like a full-service gas station. The other reference they make to their wings is their array of 24 sauces, complete with a Scoville rating for each one so diners know exactly what they’re getting themselves into when they order. At the bottom of the scale is the Ranch, which has almost no heat at all and comes in at a mere 90 Scoville units (about a tenth as much heat as a banana pepper). At the top is the Triple Atomic, which checks in at 500,000 Scoville units and requires you to sign a waiver before you’re allowed to order it.
To put that type of heat in perspective, that’s anywhere from two to five times as hot as a fresh habanero pepper, and if you want to attempt the challenge, you’ve got to eat six of these things. One contestant who has completed it said they use ghost chilis in the sauce, which should scare you even more because ghost chilis can go as high as 1 million Scoville units, which means the advertised heat might actually be lower than it really is. Frightening thought, but on the other side of the coin, that’s still only half as hot as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper.
Getting back to our visit, I knew for sure that Amy and I would be ordering some kind of wings on this trip as soon as we made the decision to step inside to the Quaker Steak and Lube in New Berlin, Wis. The only questions were what we would be ordering along with those wings, because Quaker Steak and Lube is so much more than just chicken wings. Plenty of appetizers and sides dot the menu, along with burgers, chicken sandwiches, steaks, seafood and other great creations. Just about all of them have some kind of car theme to them, even the sodas. They’re referred to as “unleaded fuel”, which I have to admit is pretty creative, although I’m not sure why unleaded fuel gets a long and bendable straw.
Being in Wisconsin, once our drinks were ordered, we had to start with some Stickshifters, which are the term here for mozzarella sticks, covered in Parmesan cheese and made with real Wisconsin mozzarella. As we’ve seen many times before, the fresher something is, the better it’s going to taste. The rule was again proven true by these cheese sticks, which were melted perfectly and had all the flavor one would want from the famous appetizer. Easily an excellent start, and kind of a requirement in the Badger State, given the ridiculous multitude of dairy options.
With the state requirement fulfilled, it was time to move on to the main reasons we came. Amy, who absolutely loves boneless wings, knew that she wanted to get that as her main order, and after finding out that she could get two different sauces on her order, she opted for one order of golden garlic wings and one of the ranch. Normally, she has no qualms about ordering spicy meals, considering her high spice tolerance, but with the numbers in front of her, she wanted to be absolutely sure that she was going to be able to withstand the heat.
She didn’t have any reason to worry. The golden garlic is the second-hottest of the medium sauces, but really, it’s not that powerful of a punch of heat. It’s an excellent flavor, combining a good buffalo wing sauce with the garlic taste that works so beautifully, but as far as heat goes, it’s only a little bit of a kick. Amy actually couldn’t feel the kick of it at all, claiming she didn’t notice any heat. I noticed a little, but again, my spice tolerance is substantially lower than hers.
Her second choice was the ranch, and the best description here is that it tastes as if the wings bathed in a straight ranch dressing. The flavor penetrates the entire wing, and that results in a wonderful taste that is as mild as can be. We both loved these wings, and it was pretty clear why these are considered some of the best wings in the nation. Along with her wings, she added a cup of baked potato soup filled with bacon and cheddar Jack cheese, which was pretty darn excellent.
As far as my meal was concerned, I knew that I had to get wings of some kind, but I also wanted to try one of the many burgers that dot Quaker Steak and Lube’s menu. The reason was simple: the burgers come with one of the 24 wing sauces on them, and it’s totally up to you which one you go with. So I decided to go plain on the wings and get creative for my burger, opting for a sprintster (a six-wing order) of mild wings and a Lubeburger topped with Arizona Ranch sauce, which is actually the seventh-hottest sauce on the menu. Strange, I know, but it’s usually served with hot.
I’m never going to find out what it’s like with hot, though, because the Arizona Ranch sauce is heaven on the Lubeburger. The burger comes with American cheese, mushrooms, bacon and a blue cheese sauce that is perfection in a packet. The tempered heat from the presence of the ranch made for a wonderful combination sauce, and when paired with everything else on the burger, the result was beyond incredible. This burger ranks pretty close to the best ones that I’ve ever had, and considering all the places I’ve been to that serve great burgers, that’s saying something. The blue cheese sauce absolutely must be poured onto this burger. I cannot stress this enough, because it took me until halfway through the burger to figure this out, and when I did, I could not believe what I had missed. When blue cheese is added, the Arizona Ranch Lubeburger has to be considered one of the best burgers there is.
The wings weren’t as epic, but that’s not to say they weren’t good. The mild sauce is good and does have some flavor to it, but the problem is that its flavor pales in comparison to the others on the menu. When you have this many sauce options, it’s really much better to try one of the special ones rather than the straight buffalo wing sauce. You’ll still find good flavor, but a regular sauce is not what this place is really about.
What it is about is high-quality wings and creativity, both of which show that this place knows its identity and will try anything that’s within it to have success. It’s pretty crazy that a national restaurant chain came out of a service station and a love of cars, but every successful thing’s got a story. This one just happens to be one of the best.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. This is a great spot to visit for either meal, given that wings can be eaten all day.
Wait during my visit: None. Amy and I had a table very quickly.
Location: The original one is located at 101 Chestnut Street in Sharon, Pa., while Amy and I visited the one at 4900 South Moorland Road in New Berlin, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.
Cost: Not bad. Most meals will run about $10 or so per person.
Parking: Shouldn’t be an issue at most locations, and it wasn’t for us.
Seating arrangement: Booths, tables and chairs are abundant.
Website: Quaker Steak and Lube
Specialty items: Wings, sauces, Lubeburger