St. Elmo’s Fire
At Indy’s most classic steakhouse, the incendiary shrimp cocktail steals the show
St. Elmo Steak House is an essential fine-dining establishment in downtown Indianapolis, with valets at the curb and career servers dressed in black vests and bow ties. The 118-year-old restaurant’s claim to fame—more than its dry-aged steaks or its 2012 salute from the James Beard Foundation, which deemed it one of America’s Classics—is its notoriously fiery shrimp cocktail.
The shrimp cocktail has graced the menu since the restaurant opened in 1902, when it sold for ten cents. Today, the kitchen typically goes through nearly 400,000 gallons of sauce per year. Under normal circumstances, St. Elmo sends out hundreds of orders nightly—a good number of them to unsuspecting first-timers who could not possibly predict the incoming meltdown.
You can often identify people in the throes of a St. Elmo shrimp cocktail by the way their faces turn blotchy red, and sometimes by their screams. No ordinary chalice of iced jumbos and mild red sauce, this deceivingly dainty appetizer consists of four tiger shrimp per $16 serving under a blanket of house cocktail sauce thick with coarse-cut, military-grade horseradish.
First, an explosive sucker punch, straight to the sinuses. The horseradish blazes its way into your tear ducts and backflashes toward the frontal lobe. You panic, sputter, look into the face of God, and swear you can feel your eyeballs begin to sweat. It hurts. It hurts! It hurts!
For the sake of good storytelling, I wish could remember my first St. Elmo shrimp cocktail. But the scores of napalmed crustaceans that have passed my lips over the years have merged into a single fever dream: the squirt of lemon, the scoop of sauce, the suspense of chewing, chewing… and pow! First, an explosive sucker punch, straight to the sinuses. The horseradish blazes its way into your tear ducts and backflashes toward the frontal lobe. You panic, sputter, look into the face of God, and swear you can feel your eyeballs begin to sweat. It hurts. It hurts! It hurts! And then it’s over.
Faster than you can reach for your martini glass, the pain subsides, which is the beauty of horseradish, and you’re ready to finish your shrimp. If you’re like most people, you’ll be back for more. Conveniently, St. Elmo started selling its famous cocktail sauce by the bottle a few years ago, stocking shelves from Kroger to Whole Foods with 12-ounce doses. It’s not quite the same out of context, but it’s a taste of the tradition. The sauce is also available through various online suppliers, including, for the true fanatic, Goldbelly, which sells a $99 gift box that ships with 16 Black Tiger shrimp and can be on your doorstep within days, ready to eat. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.