Recently, my friend Rob Booth brought-up the subject of Night Hawk dinners on his blog. Matt B. weighed-in with his review and the whole subject has sparked some nostalgic interest in me. For those that don’t know, Night Hawk was a steak house chain in Austin, Texas from 1939 through 1994. However, I never ate a meal at one of those restaurants. Instead, I ate Night Hawk TV dinners, which are still available today. I must have eaten 1000 of them. I just confirmed with my mother that we would bring them home ten at a time from the grocery store. My father specifically requested them because he thought that even though they cost a little more than their competitors, they tasted better and were worth the extra expense. He liked the Night Hawk Taste of Texas, which was the standard Night Hawk charbroiled chopped beef patty, with ranch style beans and cornbread. My brother and I didn’t like the cornbread, so we chose from our deep freezer full of Steak ‘n Corn and Steak ‘n Taters, which according to the Night Hawk website, is one of the company’s signature items. So, after not having eaten one of these dinners in close to 20 years, I decided to pick up a Steak ‘n Taters to see if it was as I remembered it.
Night Hawk dinners are widely available here in Central Texas, so there was no problem finding one at a local HEB grocery store. I didn’t think to note the exact price (though it was under $2), nor did I think to compare the price to similar dinners of other brands. Since the sales volume of Night Hawk is much smaller than say a Swanson, I expect the price would be a little higher.
The box has changed over the years, but it is very similar to the way I remember it. The overall design and color scheme, which is handsome and does a good job of invoking a steak house feel, has stayed consistent, which I appreciate. The most obvious change in the design is the Night Hawk logo. Along with the words Night Hawk, there is a flame graphic all over the packaging. Conspicuously absent is the great old Night Hawk logo of…a night hawk! Did the mascot retire? Was there a bitter lawsuit? Did some young, overpriced consultant convince them that the mascot should be thrown into the fire, so to speak? I don’t know, but it’s wrong. Bring back the Hawk! The only other thing that I really notice about the box is that the photo of the dinner used to completely fit on the front, but has grown to be optimistically large (more on that later). The photo also shows a “side salad” of lettuce and tomatoes. Fine print tells us that this is a suggested serving. I agree that a side salad probably would be a good thing to serve with this dinner, but taken at its true scale, the photo shows a salad of a pickle-slice sized piece of lettuce and half of a cherry tomato. I think the old box just had a sprig of parsley and was perhaps more honest.
I opened the box and discovered some other changes since I had last had one of these. The old meals came in an aluminum tray covered with a thin piece of waxed cardboard, which was removed before cooking. The new meal comes in a plastic tray, covered with a clear piece of thin plastic film, which is cut before cooking. This new packaging allows the meal to be cooked in a microwave. An even bigger difference is the steak sauce, which now comes in a small condiment packet. The steak sauce used to already be on the steak. In fact, I would scrape any frozen steak sauce which had stuck to the back of the cardboard cover, back onto the steak. Like the suggested side salad, the optional steak sauce is a nod towards healthy eating and I think it was the right thing to do (though really, if you have any kind of dietary restrictions or concerns, you shouldn’t even be looking at one of these things).
I cooked the dinner in the oven, according to the instructions. Now, I would swear that I remembered that the old instructions gave different times for the desired wellness of the meat, but I admit that this could be a false memory. What is not a false memory is that I used to eat these steaks pink in the middle, or medium-rare. So, I pulled this steak out early, hoping for medium-rare, but the steak was still cold. I put it back in for just a couple of more minutes and everything came out hot enough to eat. However, the steak was cooked all the way through. No pink at all. In other words, the steak comes pre-cooked to medium. This wasn’t really that much of a surprise – such are the wimpy times in which we live. I recognize that this is chopped beef and any kind of chopped beef should be cooked more thoroughly than a cut steak, but I’m only asking for things to be the way they were.
I wouldn’t normally plate a TV dinner, but it is more difficult to cut a steak in a tray and besides, the cover photo shows the dinner on a platter (suggested serving). A normal-sized plate really shows off how diminutive this meal really is. Undeterred, I poured the entire contents of the steak sauce packet onto the steak. Yes, it’s true that the sauce is mostly margarine, but for the record, it also contains: salt, mustard powder, lemon juice powder, and garlic powder. It isn’t very good steak sauce, but some people like butter on their steaks, and I used the sauce because that is always how I had my Night Hawk steaks.
The verdict? Except for being over-cooked from the factory, it was exactly as I remembered it, which is to say – pretty good. The steak’s flavor is mostly drowned-out by the sauce, but the charbroiled flavor does come through and matched with a proper steak sauce (or with good dry seasonings), this would be a fine chopped steak. Better still are the tater tots, which could hold their own against any tot in the biz. They have a perfectly-cooked, crispy outside and good potato flavor inside, with just a hint of a meat note from being packaged with the steak. Good God, did I just say meat note? Anyway, after so many years, I was pleased that Night Hawk has mostly stuck to their guns and delivered the same locally-produced, quality experience that I remember from my youth. I could make a better chopped steak of course, but if Night Hawk sold bags of tots, I would buy them. First rate.
Since part of this exercise is about contemplating what I used to eat vs. what I currently eat, I decided to grab a TV dinner from my current stock and compare the two. So, I selected a Lean Cuisine Beef Peppercorn, which is peppercorn sauce over beef steak tips, with green beans, red peppers, and skin potatoes. In other words, steak ‘n taters. Now originally, I was going to have a little fun by comparing the nutritional values of these two meals, but that isn’t what ended-up interesting me. The Lean Cuisine, despite my preconceived notions of their portion-control sizes, and despite being packaged in a smaller box, actually contains more food than the Night Hawk steak dinner! The Night Hawk Steak ‘n Taters dinner is 172g, while the Lean Cuisine is a whopping 248g! That’s almost 32% more food and it’s not even a Lean Cuisine “dinner portion” meal. In a market where Swanson boasts of having Hungry-Man dinners with a pound of food, this is interesting.
It was fun revisiting the Night Hawk dinner, so I plan on continuing with a series of articles soon exploring other foods that time forgot…I mean, that I used to eat.
Update 07.26.05: I corrected my article, because I kept saying Swanson’s instead of Swanson. Also, on July 20, amidst this burst of discussion about the TV dinner with my friends and presumably unbeknownst to us, Gerry Thomas, father of the TV dinner, died at the age of 83.