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Five or six years ago at Speedy Chef, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Mount Airy, I laid my eyes on a ground steak sandwich for the first time. Frankly, I

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Five or six years ago at Speedy Chef, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Mount Airy, I laid my eyes on a ground steak sandwich for the first time. Frankly, I

Five or six years ago at Speedy Chef, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Mount Airy, I laid my eyes on a ground steak sandwich for the first time. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to lay my mouth on it. On that day, we — my wife, Becky, our youngest daughter, Caroline, and I — had sought out Speedy Chef for Caroline’s and my formal introduction to the aforementioned ground steak sandwich, a supposed delicacy that I’d heard Becky and her late father reminisce about for years.

Honestly, the second glance wasn’t much better than the first. Fully unwrapped, the sandwich lacked any semblance of appeal — it was basically a mound of loose ground beef mixed with flour and seasoned with salt and pepper between toasted hamburger buns. We’d driven an hour from our High Point home for this?

“Oh well,” I remember thinking, “at least I can wash it down with fries and sweet tea.” One tentative bite later, though, I was hooked … and I wasn’t even sure why. The otherwise nondescript sandwich was, well, delicious. I glanced over at Caroline, wondering what her picky palate thought of this new find. She was already about three bites in, which more than answered my question.

• • •

Prior to that day, I had never even seen a ground steak sandwich, much less eaten one. That’s gastronomical blasphemy in my wife’s native Surry County, where she grew up eating ground steak cooked by her grandmothers — or at one of several eateries around town — without realizing that countless North Carolinians, including her future husband, were oblivious to what we were missing out on. Now, I consider myself a ground steak connoisseur. After that initial bite, we’ve made several trips to Mount Airy each year, ostensibly to go shopping downtown, but in reality to satisfy our ground steak cravings.

Classic model cars surround the Dairy Center in Mount Airy, NC

The crowd of regulars cozy their cars together in the lot surrounding the Dairy Center.  photograph by Revival Creatives

To the uninitiated, ground steak is a mystery you can’t solve without trying it for yourself. A loose-meat cousin to the hamburger and a less-spicy distant cousin to the Sloppy Joe, the whole of this tasty sandwich is greater than the sum of its admittedly ho-hum ingredients, which consist of crumbled ground beef, browned and thickened with flour and water (or milk), then seasoned with salt and pepper. It’s most often served on a hamburger bun and topped with coleslaw, onion, and a slice of tomato — that’s the “all the way” version — and/or a slathering of mayonnaise.

• • •

What’s unique about the ground steak sandwich is its hyperlocal identity. Not only is Surry County ground zero for ground steak — dating back to its creation there nearly a century ago — but it’s also holy ground, because it’s the only county in North Carolina where it’s served. “Go outside Surry, and you won’t find restaurants or many folks that have even heard of it,” says Travis Frye, tourism coordinator for the Surry County Tourism Development Authority, who organized a Surry Ground Steak Trail last year to highlight local restaurants that serve the sandwich. “It’s one of our hidden treasures.”

The ground steak sandwich is believed to have originated in the 1930s at the old Canteen Restaurant in downtown Mount Airy. Eventually, it spread to diners and burger joints in nearby Pilot Mountain, Elkin, and Dobson.

“When the lunch whistle blew at textile mills in Mount Airy, workers would walk to Main Street for sandwiches, and one of those was ground steak,” Frye says. “It was an affordable sandwich for blue-collar workers. It quickly spread, and people around the county started enjoying ground steak.”

Even before that, though, many Surry County families cooked ground steak at home as a way to stretch their beef and make it last longer during the lean days of the Great Depression.

The ground steak sandwich at Cousin Gary's Family Restaurant is served on Texas toast

Ground steak at Cousin Gary’s Family Restaurant in Pilot Mountain is piled high on Texas toast. The restaurant’s recipe comes from owner Gina Erickson’s grandmother. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Gina Erickson, owner of Cousin Gary's Family Restaurant

Gina Erickson photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

A perfect case in point is the late Alpha Collins, whose granddaughter Gina Erickson owns — and serves ground steak at — Cousin Gary’s Family Restaurant in Pilot Mountain, one of the restaurants on the Surry Ground Steak Trail. “My grandmother had 18 children, and making ground steak was a cheaper, easier way to feed her family,” Erickson says. “When she cooked a meal, she cooked in bulk, and ground steak was something she cooked often. The recipe was handed down to my mom — she owned this restaurant for 30 years — and then it was handed down to me.”

At Cousin Gary’s, you can get ground steak on a bun or on Texas toast — that’s Erickson’s preference — or you can get a ground steak plate with just the meat and a couple of vegetables. “When my grandmother made it, they would get it in a bowl,” Erickson says. “They didn’t get it on a fancy bun — they might get pinto [beans] and a biscuit with it, or mashed potatoes and a biscuit. When my mom made it, we’d have mashed potatoes and a biscuit with it, but [here] you can get it however you want it.”

A full dining room at The Dairy Center in Mount Airy, NC

The Dairy Center in Mount Airy has served ground steak for 70 years. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Freddy Hiatt, owner of the Dairy Center in Mount Airy, NC.

Dairy Center owner Freddy Hiatt loves sharing a sample of the Surry County delicacy with out-of-towners, who always return for seconds. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Another stop on the trail, the Dairy Center in Mount Airy, has been cooking ground steak for 70 years. The sandwich is served many ways, but owner Freddy Hiatt says that some of the most popular offerings are the ground-steak-and-egg sandwiches and ground steak omelets on the breakfast menu.

As popular as ground steak is in Surry County, Hiatt is surprised that it hasn’t taken off beyond county lines. “We get people from out of town coming in here all the time, telling us they were referred here and told to try a ground steak sandwich,” he says. “They look at you like a deer in headlights and say, ‘What’s a ground steak sandwich?’”

Hiatt gives them a sample and then offers to fix them a sandwich.

“If you don’t like it,” he jokingly tells them, “I’m gonna charge you double.” He insists that he’s never had to charge a customer double, though, because everyone loves ground steak.

• • •

For more than half a century, ground steak sandwiches have also been served every year at Mount Airy’s popular Autumn Leaves Festival, courtesy of the Flat Rock Ruritan Club. And last year, ground steak got its own celebration — the North Carolina Ground Steak Festival, held in Dobson on the second Saturday of June. The Ruritans served sandwiches there, too, along with Dobson’s Central Cafe, as the town welcomed more than 7,000 people, many of whom tried ground steak for the first time.

Mark King, president of the Ruritans, remembers one particular family’s introduction to ground steak that day.

“The dad bought a sandwich and took a bite, and then he gave his little girl a bite,” King says. “He still had it in his hands and was about to take another bite, but she wouldn’t turn loose of it ’cause it was so good. I laughed and gave him another sandwich — I figure there’s no better advertising than that.”

The Ground Steak Trail

Map of the Ground Steak Sandwich Trail in Surry County, including Elkin, Dobson, Mount Airy, and Pilot Mountain

illustration by Erwin Sherman

1. Aunt Bea’s Barbecue of Mount Airy
452 North Andy Griffith Parkway
Mount Airy, NC 27030
(336) 789-3050

2. Dairy Center
407 West Lebanon Street
Mount Airy, NC 27030
(336) 786-2349

3. Snappy Lunch
125 North Main Street
Mount Airy, NC 27030
(336) 786-4931

4. Speedy Chef of Mount Airy
1516 South Main Street
Mount Airy, NC 27030
(336) 789-2396

5. Martha Sue’s
885 Holly Springs Road
Mount Airy, NC 27030
(336) 415-5253

6. All Sauced Up BBQ
425 East Highway 52 Bypass
Pilot Mountain, NC 27041
(336) 444-8300

7. Cousin Gary’s Family Restaurant
626 South Key Street
Pilot Mountain, NC 27041
(336) 368-1488

8. Aunt Bea’s BBQ of Pilot Mountain
642 South Key Street
Pilot Mountain, NC 27041
(336) 368-2300

9. Central Cafe
304 North Main Street
Dobson, NC 27017
(336) 356-2100

10. Rockford General Store
5174 Rockford Road
Dobson, NC 27017
(336) 374-5317

11. Speedy Chef of Elkin
685 North Bridge Street
Elkin, NC 28621
(336) 835-4403

To learn more, visit groundsteaktrail.org.

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This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

Jimmy Tomlin

Jimmy Tomlin is a Statesville native now living in High Point, he has written for Our State since 1998. He has been a feature writer and columnist for The High Point Enterprise since 1990. Tomlin has won numerous state, regional, and national writing awards.