Mistilis Restaurant was so much more than hamburger steak

Published 10:34 pm Saturday, September 10, 2016

Legacies don’t always tell the full story, engaging as they may be.

Take Oxford’s Angelo Mistilis as an example.

He made the hamburger steak famous in Oxford and that’s become his legacy people still talk about.

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For good reason, too.

For almost three decades we ate hamburger steak at the old Mistilis Restaurant on College Hill Road on Friday evenings, smothered in onions. We ate it after church, smothered in onions. We fed it to first dates, smothered in onions. We ate it after heartbreaking losses, smothered in onions.

Choking down entire Rebel losing seasons was easier, with Mistilis’ hamburger steak, smothered in onions. Often, patrons got a slice of American cheese thrown on to take it all the way.

Angelo did the cooking, wearing a white apron smeared around the waist with the day’s drippings wiped from his busy hands. His wife, Jo Dale, checked us out at the counter.

“Yes ma’am,” we said, “that was terrific.”

And it was.

These early September days were the busy season at Mistilis’ restaurant. Ole Miss alumni didn’t visit Oxford in the spring and summer like they do now so by the time football season rolled around they had dreamed of hamburger steak for so long they could hardly wait to get there and taste it. That, and there weren’t but a few good restaurants in town trusted to deliver the goods.

So September was celebrated as the beginning of football season in Oxford, but it was also the beginning of hardcore hamburger steak season.

Legacies can get smothered by their own lore, however. And Angelo’s hamburger steaks had an accomplice worth remembering.

The potato is a simple vegetable of mostly starch, but it can be addictive when treated right. And Angelo Mistilis had a special relationship with the potato. He served hand-cut steak fries on those hamburger steak plates that were fried lightly brown, with just enough sheen to grab the hand-dashed salt he hurled on with a quarterback’s sidearm passing motion.

Mistilis Restaurant opened on College Hill Road in the early 1960s, which coincidentally was the era when others began to betray the potato, opting for pre-cut and packaged crinkle cuts rather than home fries. But Angelo bought about 1,200 pounds of potatoes a week in his restaurant’s heyday, and every pound got the same personal treatment in his kitchen.

Those hand-crafted fries from fresh potatoes were served piping hot, and with the right accompaniments adorning tables including A1 Steak Sauce and ketchup, making those Mistilis hamburger steaks good enough to live in Oxford legend still today.

But somehow they get lost in the legacy story, mostly likely because it was the entrée we had to order from the menu. The fries had second billing, but only until the order arrived at tables.

The first bite was always a fry, even it it was too hot to eat. The slight grease burn to the tongue was a small price to pay.

And speaking of price, those hamburger steaks and tasty home fries cost just $3.00 for many years, with a 60 cent add-on to get it smothered in onions.

Mistilis Restaurant closed in 1988 and Oxford hasn’t been the same since. Our food scene is flourishing, yes, but those of us reared on hand-crafted home fries can get misty remembering so many tasty meals at Angelo’s table.

Especially when hamburger steak season rolls around.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. You can reach him at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.