Sunday, July 01, 2018

After Bourdain: The Steak Issue

El Churrasco in Cordoba

As I reflect, the appearance of red meat in my food memories is prominent. I am an unabashed carnivore though beef no longer plays a big role at home. But when dining out, especially during travel, the steak looms large. So much so that I’m compelled to list my all-time best steaks and the place and circumstances thereof.
While I was still in college on the vaunted eight-year program there was a cowboy steak emporium called Pinnacle Peak way the hell northeast of Scottsdale. The joint is still there but is very pale iteration of its old self. By the late sixties the steak had become more Sizzler than Pinnacle Peak but, apparently, the cowboy scene keeps it afloat.  Anyway, I had a buddy, Jim Walters, whose wife Sandy was a waitress there. She introduced me to the place. I wound up singing and playing guitar in the “Sweet Tooth”, the adjacent saloon. Pinnacle Peak, a sprawling open-air affair, was renowned for two things:  a 32-ounce porterhouse steak and that they’d cut your tie off and staple it to the rafters if you had the temerity to wear one. As to the mammoth steak cooked over a mesquite fire, I can report that it was big.
We moved to Minneapolis from LA in 1971 when I began operating a small chain of family restaurants called Betty Crocker Pie Shops. Yes, that Betty, the mythic exemplar of 1950’s family life. But, more importantly, there was a steak. And what a steak it was. Lindey’s Steakhouse in Arden Hills northeast of Minneapolis had a simple beef centric menu led by the stellar Lindey’s Special Sirloin. The thick cut steak that had been aged and butchered in house was at that time and maybe still, the best steak ever. I’ll get back to you when I complete my steak research in approximately never. Is never too soon for you?
Lindey's Special Sirloin

The Special Sirloin came with a forgettable salad but with savory home fries that are worth an article. Lindey’s was the first place where a menu described what properly cooked steak is and the veracity of its descriptions have stayed with me since. It said, and I paraphrase liberally, we don’t do well-done. If you do order that offense to God and womanhood, we’ll drop it in the deep fryer and you can take your hockey puck home for breakfast. As to rare, Lindy’s was equally emphatic. Rare means red and cool in the center. That steak could make a grown man weep. It was brought out on a sizzling iron platter then cut in half and fanned before your eyes, so you could approve of its doneness or, ideally, the lack thereof. That was a steak.
One time we took Harold Bissner, a southern California visitor, to Lindy’s on a forty below night. We drove our brand new yellow Volkswagen Beetle.  It was our first new car and cost a princely $2,600. We expected the restaurant to be quiet since it was a blustery February Tuesday, but being Minnesota, it was as busy as a Saturday in July. Those Minnesotans are hardy folk and they do love their steak. On the flip side, you couldn’t buy a fresh vegetable in the Twin Cities in 1971.

In 1976 I became a vice president of a national fast food chain. I won’t say the name, but its spokesman had white hair, wore a white suit and sounded like he was from Corbin, Kentucky. There are many stories to be told about that heady time in my life. Some of them true. We led an idyllic life in muy rico New Canaan, Connecticut. I had an office in Greenwich, and another at Herald Square in Manhattan. I was king of the world or as close as I would come. 

My boss, Jim Willey, the president of KFC, visited my New York market on occasion and on his second visit he took my fellow vice presidents and me to Peter Luger's in the very sketchy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The neighborhood was a rich blend of Hasidim and hoodlum. Back then you risked losing your car if you parked it in Williamsburg. If you did have the, umm stones, to bring your wheels you had to duke some kid a ten spot to watch it.
The hard drinking, chain smoking Willey had the presence of mind to have an account at Luger’s and it's a good thing since they didn’t accept credit cards. Even now they take just one card, their own.
Peter Luger’s had been there since 1887 and so had some of the waiters. It was last redecorated in 1952. I’ve noticed that in a lot of the classic steakhouses, that the more dated the decor the better the steak. Of course that's just a theory.
Family style at Peter Luger in Brooklyn

Everything was served family style by graying lifers wearing starched white aprons that hung below the knee.  Platters of sliced New Jersey truck farm tomatoes and onions, scrumptious home fries and sliced porterhouse steak made the groaning table sag. It was a quintessential New York dining experience. I remember it so vividly that eating at Peter Luger's again is high on my bucket list.
Lomo de Buey at El Churrasco.

Nearly forty years passed by before another steak joined Lindey’s and Peter Luger’s atop my best steakhouse list and it was in Cordoba, Spain. It was April of 2014 when we chanced upon El Churrasco. We picked the restaurant by its welcoming appearance and because it had, well, steak. On the left in the small lobby were three grills where the steaks were cooked over charcoal. Under the front counter was refrigerated case where the beef was being aged. To the right of the grills enormous slabs of meat leaned against the tile wall. When we took our first tender juicy bite of the “Lomo de Buey” we exclaimed in unison, “This is best steak I ever had.” Loosely translated “Lomo de Buey” means back of the steer or oxen. New York Strip to me. When I spoke to the manager as I was leaving I learned that El Churrasco bought all its beef from a ranch an hour north of Cordoba and had done so for decades, that it was aged for two weeks at the ranch and another two at the restaurant. It was melt in your mouth tender and the fat, of which there was plenty, was sweet and soft as a kiss. I was so in lust that I made another trip to Cordoba just for the steak.
There’s a back story to visiting Spain twice in a year. It has something to do with the computer eating three weeks of images while we were in Madrid. The culprit shall remain nameless. When we were in France in October I convinced myself that I had to retrace my steps through Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Cordoba to replace the irreplaceable photographs, I was, after all, so close. I quickly learned that you can’t replicate 5,000 moments in time. But at least I got another Lomo de Buey.


Anonymous said...

The only thing better than the steaks is this article! Thanks for the memories Bub.

Steve Immel said...

You're welcome, toots.

Blacks Crossing said...

There is so much meat in your blog that it will be necessary to write you an email. Needless to say, this was another lovely blog, and we should probably never have a steak together since I would order the hockey puck. That said, Bobcat Bite, previously located south of Santa Fe and now, under the name Santa Fe Bite, has an incredible burger that is hard to beat. No decaf coffee, no vegetarian, hardly a salad in site. But you savor every bite, just like you did and will in all your steak adventures. Thanks for the brilliant writing and wonderful images!

Terry T. said...

I'm finally catching up on emails!
Good story Steve, makes my mouth water for some of that pink meat and blood to read all this. Yes, nothing like a good steak now and then. These days it is mostly “then” as we lean closer to fish and poultry it seems. But that makes it a real treat come steak time. This article takes me back to some of my own carnivore memories. Looking forward to the next chapter…

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