Five years ago, Dreisbach's burned to the ground and lovers of steak and potatoes wept. This venerable eatery had become one of the best and most cherished steak houses in the Midwest since it opened in 1932. People came for big steaks surrounded by fixin's served family style to groups of four or more people. For us Roadfooders, always on the prowl for meals with powerful regional flavor, it was hard to imagine a trip west along Route 80 without planning the itinerary around a major feed at Dreisbach's.

Lucky us, we didn't have to wait long for Nebraska's king of beef to return. Dreisbach's was rebuilt and going strong by mid-1988. Alas, the new place is nearly as tidy as a franchised food restaurant, and it has none of the ramshackle charm of the original - a windowless bunker with cow's face crests on the outside. But despite the makeover, the food is exactly the same, which means it is inspired.Beef is the only thing you want to consider eating: T-bones, sirloins, New York strips and filet mignons at least 3 inches tall. This is blue-ribbon meat, charbroiled so it has a savory, blackened crust and tender pink insides that pocket loads of juice, ready to spurt at the first incision of a sharp knife. Along with the beef, there are excellent biscuits: air light, served by the basketful. And potatoes: real mashed with good gravy, crusty hash browns, or the specialty of the house, sunflower potatoes.

Sunflower potatoes have been the hallmark of Dreisbach's meals since the 1940s, when owner Frank Dowd (who bought the steak house from Fred Dreisbach in 1944) invented them. They are designed to actually look like a Great Plains sunflower, with a sunny yellow center (melted cheddar cheese) surrounded by a burst of petals (crisp cuts of cottage fried potatoes). You can use a fork if you want to be polite, or you can pick up the hunks of spud by hand and scoop them through the cheese.

Don't save sunflower potatoes only for when you have steak dinners. Think of them also for breakfast or brunch. And it is possible to customize them all sorts of ways and turn them into a whole meal. Simply scatter a layer of cooked and well-seasoned ground beef (infused with taco sauce, perhaps, or hot chili seasonings) around the center of the potato pile before pouring on the cheese, and you have a sloppy, one-dish, potato-based meal.

1991, Jane and Michael Stern

(Universal Press Syndicate)

Sunflower Potatoes

6 medium-size, thin-skinned potatoes

1 clove garlic

6 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon diced onion

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup melted yellow cheese of choice (we like Velveeta)

Scrub potatoes and boil 10 to 12 minutes until partially cooked but still quite firm. Drain. Slice into quarter-inch segments, cutting on an angle to create petal-shaped pieces of potato.

Cut garlic clove in half and rub it hard all over the bottom of a large, heavy skillet.

Melt half the butter in the skillet over medium heat. Add onion, and when it begins to sizzle (don't let it brown), add potatoes, stirring them around so they get coated with butter. Cook about 10 minutes without stirring until potatoes are nicely browned on the bottom. Flip and rearrange them into a circular, flowerlike pattern. Dot pattern with remaining butter and cook until bottoms are crusty brown.

Slide potatoes onto serving plate, season with salt and pepper to taste and pour cheese onto the center of the pile.

Serves 4 to 6.