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.
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I enjoyed reading your article on the Night Hawk frozen entres…I LOVE, let me say that again, LOVE, the steak sauce that comes with the Night Hawk frozen dinners. Yeah, ok, so its mostly margerine..if I could find a way to duplicate it, I’d make it in large batches so I could smother all kinds of meats in it. If you have any ideas toward this end, please feel free to email your suggestions to me. Thanks.
I have been visiting this site a lot lately, so i thought it is a good idea to show my appreciation with a comment.
PS: I am a single dad 😉
can you still get Night Hawk dinners?? I haven’t seen them in the last few months. Usually shop at WalMart, Publix, Albertson’s or Winn Dixie. I am in the Central Florida area…
Ken, according to the their website FAQ, Night Hawk dinners should be available at “most Wal-Mart Supercenters nationwide.” Thanks for reading and good luck!
I went to my local Wal-Mart yesterday, and unfortunately, that Supercenter no longer carries the Night Hawk dinners. Which was really disappointing. I loved those dinners, especially, the “Steak ‘n Taters”, and would shop at Wal-Mart specifically for them. 🙁
I really loved the flavor of the steaks. They tasted better than most restaurant steaks I have had. Just really loved the steak sauce. 🙁
I also really loved the Michael Angelo’s Chicken Piccata, which my local area Wal-Marts stopped carrying several months ago. As it is, all they carry now are the family size Michael Angelo dinners.
I really enjoyed the Nighthawk Dinners but our Walmarts in York, PA stopped carrying them. None of our other stores carry them either. The Walmart had only carried them for a few months with them tedning to sell out quickly. Tried asking why they were dropped but got no answer.
Craig, it was probably because the Night Hawk is a “Texas” thing. The
Night Hawk Steak House in Austin Texas years ago were fantastic. The
steaks and chopped steaks were the best. But they’re all gone now.
Ahhhhhhhhh just the memory remains.
Like Sam said, I dearly love the sauce although it is very simple.
But the sauce with the classic flavor of the Night Hawk restaurant
quality chopped steak is fantastic. If anyone finds out how to duplicate
it I would really like the recipe.
As a native Austinite now living in Memphis, I too grew up eating both the frozen dinners and an occasional meal at one of their restaurants. Unfortunately, the Walmarts around here also stopped carrying the Night Hawk dinnrers some time ago, even though, as Craig posted, they seemed to sell very well.
They were kind of small, but for the low price I would normally eat two of them. I’d put a “Steak and Taters” and a “Steak and Corn” in the oven along with a couple of slices of frozen Texas-style garlic toast. Three or four green onions on the side and VOILA! A big tasty dinner with two sides and bread for around five bucks.
Check out Arnold’s Hamburgers in Amarillo, TX and the Health Camp in Waco, TX. Both have been around for years. Also, Diamonds in Waco, TX.
I am a former Night Hawk restaurant manager, Night Hawk # 2 on Guadalupe @ 20th St. and the Frisco Shop on Burnet Rd., both in Austin, Texas. One correction: Harry Akin opened Night Hawk # 1 on Christmas Eve 1932. Also, the Night Hawk Steak Butter is a slight variation of Maitre ‘d Hotel Sauce, leaving the fresh chopped parsley out and instead putting a parsley sprig on the steak.
I had realized as early as 1975 that Night Hawk was going to fail. They were so proud of being a Texas tradition since 1932 that no one was paying attention to the fact that the base clientel was dying off and nothing was being done to replace that clientel base with one that was younger. Also, when the profit wasn’t sufficent, Night Hawk’s solution was to raise prices rather than attempt to reduce expenses, further detering a younger clientel.
It is possible that Night Hawk might still be in operation had the management progressed with the times.
Boy, I ate a LOT of late night meals at Nighthawk! During College they were a favorite hang out. Eventually they closed and I had to get my chicken-fry fix at Jims or Threadgills. But the TV Dinners are great. My dad lives off of them. He is retired and not all that interested in cooking from scratch anymore, even though he is a good cook. Its easier t pop a Nighthawk in the micro and call it good with a glass of $3/bottle wine from Wal-Mart. Keeps him going!
They used to have an entree called the Texas Sirloin which was excellent. But they discontinued it. What a shame.
Love nighthawks dinners
These are making a comeback. I had the Taste of Texas meal the other day. It comes with steak, beans and cornbread. It’s awesome as long as you cook it in the oven
These are the best TV dinners of all time, Marie Calders is next but Night Hawk wins by a 6-lengths..I am not a frozen food fan, but Night Hawk dinners are the best. I started eating they first came out, I wish I could have eaten at the restaurant before the fire. After eating these dinner for a couple of years, I was in Austin & was going eat there but there was a fire & the restaurant was gone & never re-built… Just My Luck !!! but we are so glad the frozen food market has your product….You ought to have a weekend portable restaurant weekend serving it freshly made for us loyal Texans to buy & eat fresh…..
Hi, Don. Thanks for the comment. I also wish I had eaten at the original restaurant, but like so many other places it’s just a part of Old Austin that’s gone forever. To your point, at least we have the TV dinners and we can still eat at The Frisco. Maybe I should review The Frisco. That would be fun.
I love when people think frozen dinners are going to be like a five star restaurant and when they aren’t they complain. Pretty much crap reporting just for views.
Thanks for the comment, Lauren! I couldn’t agree more. I hope you enjoyed my nostalgic review in which I tried to have fun with much more realistic expectations from this delightful frozen dinner.
Love these! I remember them from my childhood!
“Pretty much crap reporting just for views.” Non sequiturs touch the cheek of the pine cone.
I wished I could order them and have them delivered.