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.
Struck by the beef boom in Texas, I decided to investigate the state of our steakhouses. What are the best and most interesting ones, and how do the old standbys compare with the newcomers? Over a period of several months, I ate at more than thirty steak emporia of all stripes and price ranges, in metropolises and burgs. I checked up on some famous local names, tried the national chains, discovered a couple of unsung classics way out west, and checked out the Über clan.
The Texas picture has undergone a profound change. Steakhouses here used to be run by rugged individualists, but today chains dominate the scene. Longtime locals like Kirby’s in Dallas, the Little Rhein in San Antonio, Riscky’s in Fort Worth, and Dan McKlusky’s in Austin are hanging in there, but they find it hard to compete against the national advertising and high-volume buying power of the big boys. To be completely objective, chains fill a need; they’re readily available and come in all price ranges. For top quality, head for Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s of Chicago, and (slightly less expensive) the Palm. For moderate prices, hie yourself to Veladi Ranch Steak House or the Texas Land and Cattle Company. For cheap, there’s always the Golden Corral and its ilk. The problem with chains, of course, is that their predictability cuts both ways. When you walk into the Palm in Dallas and see that it’s exactly like the ones in Houston, Boston, and Miami, you know the meaning of cookie-cutter soul.
On my travels, I developed my own set of highly subjective criteria. I started out wanting my steaks unseasoned and pure, because the better the meat, the less help it needs. But I eventually concluded that seasoning (either a salty rub or a natural jus) is part of a steakhouse’s signature. The four cooking methods commonly used—upright gas broiler, flat-top grill, gas grill, and mesquite grill—all turned out good to excellent steaks. But the best steaks are consistently produced by the fancy upright broiler. The heat source is located above the meat and the temperature is very high (between 1,000 and 1,800 degrees), so the steak chars beautifully and cooks quickly, with juices sealed in.
I evaluated the steakhouses as I would any restaurant, not just on the meat but on the service, the atmosphere, and a certain feeling of energy and flair. For that reason, some steakhouses that serve exceptional meat—like Paul’s Porterhouse in Dallas—aren’t on the final list, whereas some that serve mediocre food but have abundant chutzpah—like the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo—are. Personally, I like my steakhouses either funky or fancy, not middlebrow bland. I’d prefer to pay top dollar at Pappas Brothers in Houston for a superlative cut of meat or to scrimp at the legendary Joe Allen’s in Abilene or the Hoffbrau in Austin for a minimal-quality but tasty steak, a relentlessly scruffy setting, and plenty of local color.
To my surprise, I wasn’t impressed with most of the famous old-time steakhouses I visited. A lot of people are going to be steamed when they read this, but many of the beloved names of Texas steakdom—Zentner’s and Zentner’s Daughter in San Angelo (and other cities), Brenner’s in Houston, the Grey Moss Inn in San Antonio, Cattleman’s of Fort Worth, and Cattleman’s of El Paso—aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, or perhaps what they used to be. At some of these the meat is excellent, at some it’s not, but the overriding problem is that they haven’t changed the rest of their menu in decades.
When I began this story I had not eaten beef at all for six months. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed making its acquaintance again. Great beef is seductive, it is naughty, and it is delicious. A superb steak—lightly charred on the outside, deep pink within, lush and running with juices—is deeply, primally satisfying, psychologically as well as physically. As a friend of mine said, “When I eat a steak, it makes me so happy.”
Best Big-City Steakhouse
Pappas Brothers, Houston
5839 Westheimer, 713-780-7352. Opened 1995. Serves prime beef that is dry aged for 28 days on the premises, seasoned with kosher salt and pepper, and cooked at 1,500 degrees in an upright broiler. A twelve-ounce filet is $23.95 à la carte.
• Posh and pricey, this triumphant venture of Houston’s Pappas family restaurant dynasty epitomizes the nineties steakhouse revolution. Does it have prime beef? Yes. A trophy wine list? Yep. A $3.7 million edifice with a dark, men’s-clubby atmosphere? Absolutely. A phone in every booth? But of course. Nothing has been left to chance, from the cleverly crowded entry (where all of the 550 or so customers the restaurant serves nightly seem to be standing when you arrive) to the postprandial pitch for vintage port or rare cognac. Under the direction of chef Michael Velardi, the menu focuses on stylish classics such as shrimp remoulade, Maine lobster, and a three-peppercorn steak—the last a fine, firm, assertively sauced New York strip. At the same time, it reassures with homey staples like skillet potatoes and the signature Moonpie, a staggeringly rich, architectural sweet with homemade marshmallow cream and Heath Bar crumbles. A final tip: Singles and duos without reservations should try for a seat at the bar—the service is excellent, and the energetic open kitchen is an engaging ad-lib show.
Best Small-Town Steakhouse
Fort Griffin General Merchandise, Albany
U.S. 180, 915-762-3034. Opened 1981. Serves choice Black Angus beef that is wet aged for fourteen days, rubbed with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powders, oregano, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and grilled over mesquite. A fourteen-ounce filet is $18.95, including potato and soup or salad.
• Here we are in the land of chicken-fried steaks, presweetened iced tea, and George Jones on the jukebox, but something is going on. Inside this small, unpretentious 1907 storefront, the Gipsy Kings are on the sound system, excellent steaks and oysters on the half shell are on the menu, and bud vases with fresh roses are on the tables. This restaurant in the windswept West Texas town of Albany is the best country steakhouse in the state. Locals sustain it during the week, and ranchers drive in from miles around on weekends. Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood ate here while shooting movies in the area; Robert Duvall liked the restaurant’s handsome bar so much he had it copied for his house. Plain folks and stars come for expertly cooked Angus steaks and Friday and Saturday specials such as veal chops, rack of lamb, or shrimp Diane, cajun-spiced and sautéed to a turn. Side dishes run to pan-fried battered mushrooms, fresh asparagus, the aforementioned pristine oysters, and fat stuffed grape leaves drenched in lemon sauce. Like the exiled chef in the movie Babette’s Feast, brothers Ali and Nairman Esfandiary have been feeding the souls of their fellow men for sixteen years. There is life beyond the chicken-fried steak.
Best Chain Steakhouse
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Dallas, Fort Worth, Denver
Dallas, 5251 Spring Valley Road, 972-490-9000; opened 1993.
Fort Worth, 812 Main Street, 817-877-3999; opened 1995. Serves prime beef that is first wet aged and then dry aged (21 days total), seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked in an upright broiler at 1,800 degrees. A fourteen-ounce filet is $24.95 à la carte.
• Want to know what a cash cow looks like? Drop by Del Frisco’s Dallas location practically any night of the week: The bar is stacked five deep, the air is foggy with cigar and cigarette smoke, and megadecibels are bouncing off the walls. Almost as mobbed, the dining rooms are filled with the muffled sound of knives slicing through prime steaks. This is the top-grossing restaurant in Texas, with sales of $12 million in 1995. Its parent company, Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon of Wichita, Kansas, is taking Del Frisco’s nationwide, opening three restaurants this year and up to fifty eventually. The winning formula combines fearless pricing (the average check is $50 to $60 a person) with hawk-eyed and down-home-friendly service. Our waitress gave a long and cogent explanation of the menu without missing a beat, all in a perfect Texas drawl. Decor matters too: Forest-green carpeting and dark wood paneling with a carved Longhorn motif conjure a classy Texas saloon. The textbook-perfect steaks are cooked exactly to order. The side dishes are fine, if not quite in the same league—the chain’s hallmark ranch-avocado dressing could have been spunkier and chunkier, for example, and the sherry-laced turtle soup proved rather salty and oily. But the pile of crisp, paper-thin homemade potato chips made an addictive alternative to the usual spuds. Maybe it’s just my Texas roots, but I felt more satisfied and at home here than at any of the other big chains. In the coming steak wars, Del Frisco’s will be a contender.
Best Steakhouse for Epicures Chamberlain’s
Prime Chop House, Addison
5330 Belt Line, Addison, 972-934-2467. Opened 1993. Serves prime beef that is wet aged for 21 days, seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked in an upright broiler at 1,000 degrees, and served with a stock-based jus. A twelve-ounce filet is $23.95 à la carte.
• Most steakhouses have cooks; Chamberlain’s has a chef—Richard Chamberlain, who made a name for himself at Dallas’ cutting-edge San Simeon and Crescent Club in the early nineties. Other steak purveyors spend millions on decor; Chamberlain’s creates a welcoming atmosphere with warm, wood-paneled walls accented with shaded sconces and oversized European art posters from the thirties. Many steakhouses make a fetish of simplicity, serving the likes of baked potatoes and wedges of iceberg lettuce; Chamberlain’s enjoys the occasional fling with complexity. Take, for instance, two condiments that normally would come out of jars: Homemade Worcestershire sauce makes a full-bodied but subtle accompaniment that enhances grilled portobellos like nothing else; and mango chutney, also homemade, is a sparkling foil for satiny baked sea scallops. Other dishes are less involved: al dente corn kernels in cream and spinach Parmesan gratin, which was too salty when I was there. The simplest offerings of all—and Chamberlain’s raison d’être—shine. The mixed grill of elk, duck, and venison swabbed with a salty, buttery sauce offers a short course in meat appreciation. And the 24-ounce porterhouse—a magnificent, sprawling slab of meat—reminded me why human beings have canine teeth.
Best Place to Do a Deal
300 Colorado, 512-495-6504. Opened 1996. Serves Certified Angus Beef that is wet aged for 17 to 21 days, seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked in an upright broiler at 1,500 degrees. A twelve-ounce filet is $22.95, including a salad.
• Watch this spot. Open only ten months, it’s already becoming one of the Capital City’s preferred places for celebrity-spotting (Sam Shepard, Jerry Jones) and wheeling and dealing. Indeed, cigar smoke is already wafting into the dining room from the cacophonous piano bar up front. Developed by Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon of Wichita, Kansas (also the owner of Del Frisco’s), and the first outpost in a projected national chain with one hundred units, Sullivan’s easily has aced the city’s other red-meat competitors. With its dark mahogany-toned paneling, plush carpet, and wall of books, the ample, discreetly divided room evokes a forties supper club. The food is basic and excellent. Sullivan’s Caesar salad was fresh and well anchovied, but the sharper spinach salad—a fine pile of tender leaves with red onion and nibbles of mushroom in a terrific sweet-sour bacon dressing—was an almost better complement to a steak. The filet, a two-inch-thick knob of meat, was gorgeously tender and superbly cooked. What else? Crisp-tender green beans and horseradish mashed potatoes made excellent accompaniments (even if the latter was oddly deficient in horseradish), and the cheesecake was simply state of the art.
Best Steakhouse for Real Texas Food
Perini Ranch Steakhouse, Buffalo Gap
FM 89 at Buffalo Gap city limits sign, 915-572-3339. Opened 1983. Serves choice Angus or Angus-cross beef that is wet aged for 21 days, seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, beef bouillon base, and oregano, and grilled over mesquite. A twelve-ounce ribeye is $13.95, including salad and vegetable.
• There’s a fire in the redbrick hearth all winter long, chile ristras hang from ancient shutters, and mesquite smoke drifts from the flagstone terrace out back. Tom Perini’s place comes by its weathered wood honestly, having been a hay barn before its reincarnation as a steakhouse. Regulars make the fourteen-mile drive from Abilene, bringing visiting VIPs and location-bound movie stars (when Duvall and Eastwood aren’t at the Fort Griffin General Merchandise, they’re likely to be here). The menu’s mainstays are its flavorful, reasonably tender steaks, but an equal if not greater draw is the spread of grandmother-quality Southern vegetables and desserts. At any given time, you’ll find some of the following: ranch-style beans; black-eyed peas; chunky, garlicky “cowboy potatoes”; cheese-topped zucchini Perini; flat green beans with bacon; and mesquite-roasted, cayenne-butter-drenched corn on the cob with the shucks pulled back to make a handle. Perini’s whiskey-spiked bread pudding must not be missed, and his great peppered filets are available by mail.
Best High-Volume Steakhouse
Taste of Texas, Houston
10505 I-10, just inside Beltway 8, 713-932-6901. Opened 1977. Serves Certified Angus Beef that is wet aged for 30 to 35 days, optionally seasoned with garlic butter or lemon pepper, and cooked on a gas grill at 500 degrees. A ten-ounce filet is $23.95, including salad and a side dish.
• Who can eat steak at four on a Saturday afternoon? A lot of people can. A couple dozen of them were milling about on the porch when the restaurant opened, and in a short while the place was full. At first glance, Taste of Texas seems to be just another middle-of-the-road steakhouse, but the appearance deceives. The Certified Angus steaks are excellent; the branding irons, plows, and carpetbags on the walls are real; and the youthful servers provide the most intelligent, punctilious service of any steakhouse I visited. This well-schooled crew can declaim about cuts of beef and pace a meal with equal aplomb. If you explain (as I did) that you have a plane to catch, they move at warp speed. My filet (ordered without either of the two house seasonings, but accompanied by a pretty decent béarnaise sauce) was superb. The four grilled spears of fresh asparagus came with a dollop of hollandaise that was also surprisingly good. True, the polenta was soggy from the steak’s natural juices and the galumphing jalapeño-and-cheese-stuffed shrimp were way overbreaded, but considering what you get for your money, I was more than pleased.
Best Steakhouse on the Coast
The Steakhouse at the San Luis Hotel, Galveston
5222 Seawall Boulevard, 409-744-1500. Opened 1996. Serves prime beef that is dry aged for three weeks, sprinkled with Lawry’s seasoned salt, cooked in an upright broiler at 1,400 degrees, and served in a demiglace-based jus. A ten-ounce filet is $18.95 à la carte.
• Galveston has never been a culinary mecca. Oh, sure, there’s Gaido’s, but generally speaking, urbanity and finesse have been in short supply. No more. The San Luis’ Steakhouse more than passes muster in the menu and decor departments and with time will surely bring its earnest but occasionally muddled service up to par. The burnished, mahogany-toned paneling and tufted-leatherette booths recall luxe supper clubs of decades past, while the prime beef and the pricey wine list whisper “expense account.” For the most part, chef Alan Blumenfeld’s kitchen delivers. Here the clichéd iceberg lettuce wedge of yore is half a head of the stuff in irresistible Roquefort dressing jauntily strewn with carrot and cabbage confetti; the huge grilled mushroom caps are stuffed with crabmeat and smothered in melted Gruyère; the lemon soufflé positively defies gravity; and the voluptuous, finely marbled steaks are a carnivore’s dream.
Best Steakhouse for Wine Lovers
Billy Crews, outside El Paso
1200 Country Club Road, in the El Paso suburb of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, 505-589-2071. Opened 1956. Serves choice beef that is wet aged for thirty days, seasoned with salt and pepper, and grilled over charcoal at 400 degrees. A twelve-ounce filet is $15 à la carte.
• Listen up, oenophiles. You want to order only two things here: a big endive salad (off the menu) and a well-marbled ribeye. Do not accept a roll, do not order vegetables, do not have dessert (well, some people swear by the butterscotch pie). Custom cut and well grilled, the red meat is fine, but the side dishes are strictly 1957 country club bordering on covered-dish supper. The main reason to order judiciously here, however, is to save room to savor one of the country’s great wine lists—a loose-leaf notebook eighty pages long with 1,500 choices at prices a mere 25 percent above retail. So amazing is this list that for ten years running Wine Spectator magazine has given Billy Crews one of its coveted Grand Awards, bestowed annually on only 96 restaurants worldwide. Consider, for example, a 1990 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) for $30, or a 1989 Grgich Hills Zinfandel for $25. And a near-mythic 1945 Château Margaux (Margaux vineyard) is a steal at $1,200. So adjust your priorities. At most places you order wine to accompany your meal. At Billy Crews you have a steak to accompany your wine.
Most Outrageous Steakhouse
Big Texan Steak Ranch, Amarillo
7701 I-40 East, 806-372-6000. Opened 1960. Serves prime beef that is wet aged for 45 to 60 days, sprinkled with Lawry’s seasoned salt, cooked on a gas grill at 400 degrees, and served with a soy-and-bouillon-based jus. A ten-ounce filet is $22.99, including cornbread, soup, salad, and potato.
• Like Las Vegas, Elvis, and Roseanne, the Big Texan is notably lacking in style and decorum, but its 300,000 customers a year don’t care. The freewheeling home of the infamous 72-ounce steak (eat one in an hour and get it free) is big, tacky, fun, and frequently packed with folks who look like they just pulled up in a Greyhound from a bingo parlor. In short, the Big Texan is a trip. Check out the gift shop and applaud the plucky local opry singers who perform on Tuesday nights. Brave the frontal system of cigarette smoke in the waiting area to play the mock slots at 25 cents a pop. After you polish off your steak (72 ounces or not) in the dining room with its Western-saloon motif, stagger to your room in the Big Texan’s handy motel next door. The point here is not the terminally average side dishes and thinnish, coarse-textured (but tender) steaks that seem more like low-level choice than the declared prime—but tradition. Let other steakhouses rush to embrace the sophistication of the nineties. The Big Texan celebrates the Lone Star State’s rough and rowdy alter ego.