DEER SEASON I’VE HEARD OF. DOVE SEASON I’ve heard of. And of course duck and goose season, even javelina, nutria, and skunk season. But never until last year had I heard the term “steak season.”
That phrase was introduced to me one balmy fall evening at a steakhouse in Fort Worth, when, waiting for our dinner to arrive, someone in our group remarked to a waiter, “This place is really busy for a Wednesday.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, “and it isn’t even steak season yet.”
A restaurant-biz coinage, the phrase does not refer to an arcane period during which anyone with a steak permit can bag his legal limit of T-bones and sirloins. Rather it designates a time of year, sparked by cool weather, when people descend upon restaurants in famished hordes for the express purpose of consuming red meat. The phrase isn’t particularly new, but never has it seemed more timely.
Steakhouses are booming because all over the country, and especially in Texas, people are being seized by a lust for beef that has been in abeyance for nearly twenty years. The first glimmerings of this reemerging meat mania appeared three years ago, when American annual per capita beef consumption slowly began to rise; it had hit a record low of 63.8 pounds in 1993. At latest count, in 1995, Americans were eating 68.8 pounds a year. At the same time, parallel phenomena were occurring in the restaurant industry. First, the number of moderately priced, so-called family steakhouses began to grow, following the lead of the incredibly successful Outback Steak House. Then, in the mid-nineties, sales at upscale beef palaces began to rocket. To be sure, chicken, fish, and lower-fat meats did not disappear, but beef was posing a challenge and, in the process, causing a major conceptual change in one of our most cherished institutions: the steakhouse.
Once upon a time, a Texas steakhouse was a whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking stronghold of meat and potatoes. If it was located in a city, it had a clubbish, masculine look—no froufrou, no servers with nose rings, no effete colors like aubergine or taupe. If it was out in the hinterlands, it might be a little more informal, with ranchy touches and some mounted deer heads on the walls. Whenever something worth celebrating occurred—a birthday, a promotion, or just an excellent day—someone was likely to say, “Let’s go get a steak.” Concerns about cost and health were not deterrents. True, a steak dinner was not cheap, but it was manageable, and red meat was genuinely considered nutritious. After all, protein was good for you because it built muscle, and everyone agreed that the best part of a steak was that crisp half-inch of fat around the edge.
Today a new steakhouse zeitgeist is upon us, as an emerging category of upper-crust meateries has cannily sized up the way we regard beef. This new sort of establishment does not have a name as yet, but it could be thought of as the Übersteakhouse. Represented in Texas mainly by Pappas Brothers (Houston), Del Frisco’s Double Eagle (Dallas and Fort Worth), Chamberlain’s (Addison), the Steakhouse at the San Luis Hotel (Galveston), and Sullivan’s (Austin), the Übersteakhouse doesn’t simply serve the finest meat. Rather, it creates the ultimate steakhouse experience. You go to an Übersteakhouse to make a declaration of taste (“I prefer to eat steak in the glow of a silk-shaded brass lamp rather than the glare of a neon beer sign”) and a subtle discretionary-income statement (“I’ve made it”). To this end, mood and expectation are choreographed to near-cinematic levels by everything from the sensuous curve of the lighting fixtures to the typeface on the menu. You expect credits to roll when your bill arrives.
The gleaming decor of the majority of Übersteakhouses recalls the sleek supper clubs of the thirties and forties or the exuberant saloons of the cattle-drive era, buffed for present-day tastes. The appointments are sumptuous—gleaming brass and lustrous dark woods accessorized by trendy props such as martinis and cigars. About the only thing that isn’t in a time warp is the check: a quite contemporary $30 to $60 a person. And despite the caveats about beef, people are going for it. After nearly two decades of trying to be good, they have rebelled. “I may not eat red meat every day,” they are saying, “but when I do, damn the cholesterol, full speed ahead.”
You are in for a mammoth piece of meat at an Übersteakhouse. Eight ounces is considered minuscule; 16 ounces is average; 24 ounces and up is large. You are also in for the best meat obtainable in the U.S., meat in such demand that it is not available in grocery stores except by special order, and maybe not even then. The most exalted category of beef is, of course, prime, followed by the upper reaches of choice. (The newly popular Certified Angus Beef comes mainly from selected top choice animals.) The quality (that is, tastiness) of your steak is determined essentially by one thing: fat. Marbling—defined as streaks of intramuscular fat—gives a good steak its scrumptiousness factor.
The other thing that most affects quality is aging. It used to be that most beef was dry aged, which means (are you sure you want to know this?) it was held in a low-humidity refrigerated room while its connective tissue slowly deteriorated. After two to three weeks, five at the most, the crusty exterior of
the carcass was trimmed away, leaving a core of velvety meat that was as tender as flan and had an intense, nutty, almost gamy flavor. But dry aging is an expensive pro-cess, and today more than 99 percent of restaurant beef is wet aged. It is cut up and vacuum-sealed in plastic, where it sits in its own juices at a low temperature for two or more weeks while natural enzymes tenderize it. The flavor that develops is less distinctive than that of dry-aged meat, but many customers have come to prefer it.