SEELEY LAKE - No matter how many times you may ask, or how nicely you may phrase it, Lindey's Prime Steak House only serves steak.
No chicken. No fish.
The menu features just three kinds of steak: prime, prime and prime. Even the latter - hamburger by any other name - is nonetheless designated by agricultural nomenclature as "prime" beef.
It's been that way since the first Lindey's Prime Steak House opened in Minnesota in 1958, and since the Seeley Lake location opened in 1980. Save for a winter menu crab leg add-on, it's still that way today.
Set up at table's end like a home-school chalkboard primer, the menu placard at Lindey's begs no laborious decision:
Lindey's Special Sirloin
Prime Chopped Sirloin (16 ounces, ground to order)
"Special is a finer cut, and is more tender, but they're all prime," says head waitress and co-owner Jenny Lindemer. "It's the question people ask most often here."
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights - prime nights - each of those steaks come off the broiler, courtesy of Karl Zurmuehlen.
Owner Mike Lindemer cooked in this kitchen for years. Today, he runs the business with wife Jenny, and relies upon Zurmuehlen to work his magic cooking steak the way it's always been done - on the double broiler that his dad Lewis "Lindey" Lindemer installed 30 years ago.
Like many lifelong Seeley residents, 36-year-old Zurmuehlen grew up snowmobiling, riding motorcycles and skimming the lake's glassy surface aboard a Jet Ski.
Lindemer remembers days when he had to flash a light affixed to the building to beckon the teenaged dishwasher to work from across the bay.
"At 4:30, I'd see the light from the house, throw my shoes over my shoulder, hop on the Jet Ski, and buzz on over to work," he says. "In July, it stays light until 10:30, so I'd be able to ride home that way, too."
After four years washing dishes and prepping potatoes, at 18, Zurmuehlen stepped up and took the reins as cook - the logical progression for an upwardly mobile dishwasher at Lindey's - after four years of watching 5,000 steaks peeled off the grill.
"I had an advantage because I didn't just come in and jump on the broiler, I watched people cook for four years, so I picked up the technique relatively quickly," he says.
When chefs come in, they typically come with no cooking experience at all, according to Lindemer. It's what his dad preferred - cooks that favor formula over flamboyance. It's also why no one at Lindey's ever addresses the man in the kitchen as "chef."
"We have broilers here. They aren't formally trained in culinary school, they're ‘Lindey's trained' - right here - and each does things exactly the same as the one before him," says the owner.
Like his father before him, Mike Lindemer isn't bashful about attributing the family's successes to "formula." From salad dressing and sauce recipes, to steak aging techniques, to the way a steak is cooked, everything comes down to modus operandi.
"From the time you give the waitress your order, to the time it arrives, and is cut and served tableside, it will rarely exceed 25 minutes," he says. Even when the restaurant is packed.
In an age of "Top Chef" contestants and flash culinary technique, it may not seem much of a galley challenge for a man to master three entrees - all of which are steak. But even the best chefs, in the biggest cities, have botched a good piece of meat now and again.
That rarely happens at Lindey's, says Zurmuehlen. Not often, anyway. What's promised on table postcards - "rare" with a red cool center, "medium rare" with a red warm center, "medium" with a pink hot center, and "medium well" broiled throughout - is what comes to the plate.
That's because preparing a perfectly cooked steak, complete with a side of the restaurant's signature "greaseless hash-browned potato platter" is a science, he says.
Each year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, less than 2 percent of all graded slabs of beef are given the "USDA Prime" stamp.
The Lindemers serve nothing but prime cuts of steak in this lakeside dining room.
Where diamonds are graded by cut, clarity, and color, beef is graded by marbling and maturity. The higher the ratio of fat marbling in a young piece of beef, the higher grade it will receive during the complex inspection process staged in the days before market.
"Prime is simply the most flavorful meat you can eat," says Lindemer. But grading is only the half of it.
Long before Zurmuehlen begins slaving over a hot broiler on a Friday or Saturday night, Lindemer has painstakingly 'wet aged' slabs of sirloin in building's belly. He then hand cuts every oblong chunk to specification, before it finds its way onto dinner plates.
On average, steaks at Lindey's cost $27.95. If another butcher were to age and cut the meat, he says, customers would be paying a heck of a lot more. An 18-ounce dry-aged Chicago-cut top sirloin at Seattle's Metropolitan Grill, fetches $48. A 13-ounce filet mignon, $75.
"We offer prime steaks at great prices and we always promise you the same quality meal each and every time, with hopefully no deviation," he says.
And that's precisely what "Lindey" Lindemer intended when he designed this family business he hoped would pass from father to five sons, and subsequent generations.
Not a night goes by at Lindey's that someone doesn't broach a well-worn subject.
"What exactly is in your ‘finger-lickin' sauce?" asks an unanointed 30-something woman at a lakeview table.
Like a page from a Sopranos script, family recipes here are shrouded in mystery, and guarded well. At all costs, the litany of "secret ingredients" that characterize these concoctions are kept far from prying eyes and ears.
"Karl and I, and my wife Jenny are the only three who know how to make the ingredient mixes we use for salad dressing and sauce," says Lindemer. "We keep them a secret because that's what makes us successful, unique and a one-of-a-kind restaurant."
Oh, they'll throw out a teaser from time to time: Finger-lickin' sauce, a coined phrase owing a slight nod to Kentucky Fried Chicken's secret spice recipe, is made from a base of Blue Bonnet margarine.
Years ago, when Lindemer's father was developing recipes, he tried butter, but the fatty acids stuck to the roof of his mouth like peanut butter.
"That's why he went with margarine," he says. "Saliva dissolves those fat polymers."
The secret sauce recipe includes many more expensive ingredients to help bring out its savory flavor but, so far, no one has guessed its full arsenal. Plenty of customers routinely ask for a pour of dressing or sauce into a personal container though.
"We do that with our salad dressing, but not our finger lickin' sauce," Lindemer says.
But in the end, it's steak that is the restaurant's biggest secret, Lindemer says, and why customers flock here, and why postcards herald it as "The Place for Steak."
"From the aging process, to how it's cared for in the kitchen by Karl before being brought to your table - that's the secret," he says.
One customer flies clients in from Great Falls twice a week to wine and dine them. A pilot for United Parcel Service says he's eaten steak the world over and still prefers it here. Even little old ladies fawn over the steak, saying it's the best they've eaten in seven decades.
"Our percentage of pleasing people is fairly high," says Lindemer.
Writer Lori Grannis can be reached at 360-8788 or at email@example.com.