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Prime Steaks

John Mariani
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 1)

New York's Old Homestead is unique for offering Japanese Kobe (actually wagyu) beef, an incredibly rich meat from a steer that is fed on beer and gets massaged by hand every day. Even at $100 per one-pound steak, the restaurant sells plenty, although their $20 sampler portion is a much saner way to taste something that tastes closer to pure butter than beef.

Even competitors of Peter Luger admit that the porterhouse served at this Brooklyn institution is the finest in the world. Part of Luger's appeal is the adventuresome trip to get there, through some of the rougher, tougher parts of Brooklyn, where an attendant has to watch your car or hold a cab for you. Luger's waiters, who will usually dissuade you from ordering anything but porterhouse, slice the steak in thick slabs for everyone at your table. It comes with some overly sweet steak sauce on the side, good creamed spinach and crispy fried potatoes.

"We never use boxed meat [from a] Cryovac," says Luger's president and family member, Marilyn Spiera. "My mother, Marsha Forman, who is 78, and my sister Amy Rubenstein and my daughter Jody Storch still go down to the meat markets and pick out only what we feel is the absolute best. A lot of the meat they now sell as 'Prime' wouldn't even be graded 'Choice' 35 years ago. But to get the best Prime porterhouse and keep our prices reasonable, our food costs are astronomical: for every pound of meat we buy, after trimming and discarding, we get half a pound left to serve. When we were audited over sales taxes, we had to show the auditors our food costs because they couldn't believe they were so high. Frankly, if we were in Manhattan, where rents are sky-high, we couldn't survive and keep the same quality we now serve."

Ruth's Chris is famous for the sizzling platter on which your steak arrives, and the chain depends heavily on its name recognition and consistency of product so that steak lovers will know exactly what they're getting, whatever city they're in. "We know it's a big challenge for us to try to crack the New York market," says Fertel, "but we also believe that those customers who love our steaks in New Orleans or Washington, D.C., or Orlando will love them just as much when they go to New York."

There have been some other new ideas in the steakhouse field that are gaining momentum. In Houston, Michael and Glen Cordua have made churrascos--marinated beef grilled over charcoal--a namesake mainstay at their two Churrascos restaurants, and in New York, the lowly but beloved Parisian cut called the onglet (or hanger steak) has become all the rage at places like Les Halles. Other bistro-style steakhouses, like New York's Steak Frites, feature the rib eye, one of the juiciest, fattiest cuts preferred outside New York. But no matter how it's served, what it's accompanied by, who's eating it or what it costs, American steaks still satisfy a primal need. As Pat Cetta says, "Steaks are a lot like sex. Every once in a while you need a little."

A History of Steak

Beef was a negligible part of the American diet until well after the Civil War. For one thing, cattle aren't indigenous to the Americas; Native Americans depended on wild game and buffalo for their meat. Domesticated cattle didn't arrive in the New World until the Spanish introduced them into Mexico in 1540. Spanish longhorned steers were brought in 150 years later in the territory that is now Texas, but with the abandonment of the missions, the cattle went wild and bred themselves into the first American breed, known as the longhorn.

Permanent Spanish settlements in the 18th century fostered ranching, and in 1779 the French initiated cattle drives from San Antonio to New Orleans. But it was not until the late 1860s, when the railroad made the transport of cattle feasible, that longhorns were driven in large numbers from Texas and Oklahoma up the legendary Chisholm and Shawnee trails, with 600,000 head making the journey in 187I. The drives' heyday fizzled quickly: during the bitterly cold winter of 1886-'87, 90 percent of the herds were wiped out and the cattle drives were soon abandoned.

Technology, animal husbandry and barbed wire had already changed the industry, however. The introduction of British breeds like Angus, shorthorn and Hereford bolstered the American stocks and made them better beef animals. The longhorn was a breed whose namesake prongs were difficult to ship and the breed was pretty much phased out. In 1871 a Detroit meat packer named G.H. Hammond brought refrigerated railway cars west, transforming an industry that only had to set up slaughterhouses in the Midwest for shipment of carcasses back East, where a roaring appetite for beef started building. And the invention of barbed wire was revolutionary--now the range could be easily fenced off and cattle, which used to lose enormous amounts of weight on the cattle drives, stood around and quickly got fat in feed lots.

In 1894, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) summed up for all time the universal and irresistible appeal of beefsteak to an American.

In A Tramp Abroad, he wrote:

[It was] a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample country of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in place.

By the turn of the century, Americans had constant access to beef (though pork was still the more common diet staple), and the publication of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel The Jungle in 1906 led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Law that regulated the industry for sanitation and disease-free animals.

After the Second World War, beef became a symbol of American prosperity: we were gobbling up 62 pounds per person annually by 1952; 99 pounds by 1960, and an all-time high of 114 pounds in 1970. Then consumption started to slip, not out of favor so much as out of fashion (we've always eaten much more beef than pork, veal and lamb combined). Yet despite health concerns over too much animal fat and cholesterol in our diet, the richest of all meats--U.S. Prime--is selling as fast as it can be butchered. Even McLean Deluxe--McDonald's low-fat burger--was a disaster at the low end of the food scale.

Making the Grade

The grading of beef is a voluntary program that the USDA provides to meat packers who pay a fee for the service. The USDA standards include two separate designations--Quality Grades and Yield Grades--designated by a stamp on the exterior fat of the carcass. For this reason, the filet mignon, which is a cut that comes from the narrow end of the whole beef tenderloin, is not separately graded or stamped.

Quality Grades refer to a piece of beef's "expected eating characteristics" like tenderness, juiciness and flavor, and range from the lowest grade, "Canner," up to "Select," "Choice" and the highest, "Prime." Quality grades evaluate the age of the meat, color, and marbling--intramuscular fat--within the rib eye. The higher the percentage of marbling, the more likely the meat will be juicy, tender and flavorful.

Yield Grades estimate beef carcass "curability," defined as the "combined yield of closely trimmed, boneless retail cuts from the round, loin, rib and chuck." Evaluation is made on the basis of exterior fat thickness, rib-eye area and carcass weight, and kidney, pelvic and heart fat percentage. Yield grading is obviously of more interest to the meat packer than the consumer, who has probably never heard of it.

Making the Cut

What are the differences in nomenclature between cuts of beef? Back in 1973, the National Live Stock and Meat Board recommended about 300 standard names be used for cuts of meat--garnered from thousands of regional names that, to this day, confuse customers as to what they're getting. Here are the descriptions most widely used across the nation:

Beef: General term for the meat of a full-grown steer, ox, cow or bull.

Prime Rib: The meat between the primal chuck and short loin containing seven ribs. Prime rib, often encountered on menus and considered the most desirable part of the animal, is from this section, but does not always mean the meat is graded U.S. Prime.

Delmonico Steak: A boned rib roast, named after Delmonico's restaurant in New York, where it was a popular 19th-century cut. It is sometimes called a club steak.

London Broil: Usually refers to flank steak, cut from the belly section below the loin, though sometimes it may come from the hind leg of the animal.

Porterhouse: Contains the top loin, the tenderloin and the tail, retaining the "T-bone."

Filet Mignon: Also called tournedos, or Chateaubriand, this is the most tender, but least marbleized piece of meat cut from the narrow end of the tenderloin.

Shell: Generally refers to what is left of the porterhouse after the tail and filet mignon are cut away, usually retaining the bone. Without the bone it may be called a strip, New York strip or Kansas City strip.

Top Steakhouses

LOS ANGELES
THE GRILL-9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills (310) 276-0615.

WASHINGTON, D.C.
THE OCCIDENTAL GRILL-1475 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.(202) 783-1475.

TAMPA, FLORIDA
BERN'S STEAK HOUSE-South Howard Ave. (813) 251-2421.

MIAMI
CHRISTIE's-3101 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables (305) 446-1400.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA
RUNYON's-9810 West Sample Rd., Coral Springs (305) 752-2333.

ORLANDO
CHRIS'S HOUSE OF BEEF-801 John Young Parkway (407) 295-1931.

ATLANTA
CHOPS-70 West Paces Ferry Rd. (404) 262-2675.


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