THEY SAY THAT FOR every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, so it’s no surprise that, countering the rising tide of fish and chicken eaters, growing legions of diners are clamoring for food they can sink their teeth into. Beef is back. Steakhouses are opening instead of closing and those heavy slabs of beef are returning to restaurant menus. Tired of exotic fish dishes with names a paragraph long, jaded foodies are returning to simple, recognizable cuisine, and ordering entire meals with three words: “steak and potatoes.”
Beef was pushed from its number one position in the meat marketplace by health-conscious Americans who turned to low-fat chicken in the belief that their fat and cholesterol levels rose with every succulent bite of beef. But beefs returning popularity is not just nostalgic folly in favor of flavor, it’s a reflection of today’s more balanced attitude toward eating and a recognition that beef these days is, quite literally, a different animal.
Beef has health benefits as well as flavor. Red meat offers a lot of nutrition in a small package: a three-ounce serving of sirloin has twenty-six grams of protein, as well as large amounts of vitamin B6, B12, niacin, thia-mine. and loads of trace minerals like zinc and magnesium. Perhaps most important, beef is a great source of iron. Meat protein is high quality; beef provides all nine of the amino acids the body cannot produce on its own. And the iron in beef is about 40 percent heme iron-the form most easily absorbed by the human body. (Iron from grain and vegetables is entirely non-heme, and so less absorbable.) Two or three ounces of beef mixed with grain and vegetables can make all the iron up to eight times more absorbable. So a little lean steak makes a sensible choice for a power breakfast or lunch, especially for women, who need more iron.
Higher saturated fat and cholesterol levels gave beef a reputation as a health hazard to a country threatened by heart disease and cancer. But while Americans have been educating their palates and tuning their taste buds to appreciate the subtle flavors of fish and fowl, beef breeders have been busy slimming down the fatted calf. Today’s beef has been bred to be thinner, with a higher ratio of lean to fat, than beef in the past. Breeders are streamlining their animals by crossbreeding them with a more slender European stock. Not surprisingly, much of the experimenting has been done right here in beef country.
Grand Prairie cattleman Jim MacMor-ries’s wife underwent two open heart surgeries; she was advised by her physician to severely curtail her intake of beef. “If it didn’t have fat in it, red meat would be fine,” the doctor told MacMorries, which set him thinking about how he could have his steak and eat it, too. His solution was to cross his Angus and Here-fords with Italian Chianina beef cattle. In 1984 MacMorries founded Chianina Lite Beef Inc., producing what he calls “the first light beef in the world,” Keylite Beef. These cattle, currently raised west of Fort Worth and grain-fed for a minimum of a hundred days, are slaughtered when they’re still young-not more than fifteen months old-and weigh from 1,200 to 1,250 pounds. Studies have shown that Keylite Beef has 25 percent less fat and 36 percent fewer calories than typical beef; the opinion seems to be that the new beef sacrifices none of the robust flavor that makes meat eating worthwhile. (Keylite is currently on the menu at several top-notch Dallas restaurants, including La Tosca and Beau Nash.)
The fight against fat doesn’t stop at the stockyards-butch- ers are trimming cuts more closely tor con-sumers who demand less visible fat on their meat. And customers are also questioning traditional ideas about quality beef. The USDA grades meat according to tenderness, which is a function of marbling-streaks of fat running through the muscle. So, traditionally, the best beef, Prime, has also been the fattest beef. Almost all Prime beef goes to restaurants; Choice, the next highest grade, is the top grade available for home consumption, followed by Select and Standard. (On November 23, 1987, the USDA bestowed a new name-Select-on the former Good grade beef, to give this leaner grade a more positive image.)
From a nutritional standpoint, the lower the grade, the better the beef, and some consumers are buying this idea. Such beef takes more care in the kitchen, because overcooking will toughen it, but it allows you the hearty taste of beef with less undesirable fat. Steve Robbins, of Preferred Meats in Dallas, points out, “Prime beef is too rich for today’s tastes; choice beef, which has a little less fat, actually tastes better to most people today.”
“Natural,1” a food concept more closely associated with bean sprouts than steak, is another new idea in the beef business. Beef cattle are fattened in feedlots sometimes holding 100,000 head per pen; the heavy traffic and close quarters necessitate daily doses of antibiotics in addition to hormones administered to aid weight gain. Many people are concerned about the possibility of health problems from the residues of these chemicals, though there’s no clear evidence to support these fears. Some breeders-among them Marylou Bradley of the Bradley 3 Ranch in Childress County-prefer to avoid the possibility of health risks and raise their beef without chemical aids. Bradley’s family has been raising cattle for thirty-five years; they feed their beef on all-corn rations, relying on genetics, not hormones, to help achieve the desired weight, and they process their beef right there on the ranch. Instead of slaughtering 2,000 cattle a day, like the big producers do, the Bradleys only process eighty to one hundred a day. But Bradley feels that B3R beef benefits from the smaller scale and slower pace. “Just because it’s smaller, it’s better.’1 she explains, “We can oversee every aspect ourselves, so the quality of our product is higher.” B3R beef is beginning to show up on local restaurant menus, but since production is limited, it’s not widely available.
Natural, light, or regular beef can fit in with today’s ideas about health if you serve it right-that is, small. A three- to four-ounce serving is about right, though big-name steakhouses will probably never catch on to the idea. Beef is packed with nutrients, but when it makes its comeback in your kitchen, it should be the sidelight, not the focus, of the plate. And the fat-rimmed T-bone sizzling in butter is no dinosaur yet, as we found out when we sampled beef about town. Some of our favorites:
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAKHOUSE
You get real Southern hospitality at this New Orleans import. The service is attentive and cordial without being chummy, and the pleasant room’s big-paned windows look out, amazingly enough, over a little patch of woods, giving the restaurant a relaxed, countrified feeling. Drink orders and selections of cut and side dishes were noted with dispatch and we settled down to the business of beef. The thick porterhouse steak arrived, sizzling in a pool of butter and parsley. It was flavorful and cooked exactly to order, but a little chewy. The lyonnaise potatoes were delicious and more than enough for two people; the steak was supposed to feed two, but we took home plenty for Fido. 5922 Cedar Springs Rd., 902-8080.
THE PALM RESTAURANT
Garish caricatures of the famous and infamous cover the walls of the noisy Dallas branch of this New York steakhouse. The place is a circus, but the food is serious, though almost absurdly abundant. The gargantuan servings of meat and potatoes defy all rules of portion control; however tasty the food, it’s hard to believe anyone could finish a meal here. 701 Ross Ave., 698-0470.
MORTON’S OF CHICAGO
Behind an underground speak-easy style door at the southern edge of the West End is this modern steakhouse, serving some of the best beef we sampled. The top prime, dry-aged beef and other menu selections are wrapped in plastic and displayed on a cart that is wheeled to the table for your selection, Then the food is cooked to your specification in the gleaming open kitchen. After a satisfying salad of beefsteak tomatoes with blue cheese, we cut into our porterhouse and found it just about perfect-dark and crusty on the outside and rosy and juicy on the inside. 501 Elm, 741-2277.
LAWRY’S THE PRIME RIB
The Edwardian interior, with its gilt-framed portraits on pilastered walls, a cloud-painted ceiling, and high-backed, throne-like chairs, lets you know you’ve arrived at the temple of beef. Everything you eat at Lawry’s is accompanied by elaborate ritual, beginning with the semi-bizarre spinning salad, in which a plastic bowl of greens is set whirling in a bowl of cracked ice as it is anointed from on high by bottled Lawry’s dressing. When the beef arrives, you expect trumpets to herald the beef cart, which looks somewhat like the QE2 as it lumbers down the aisle. The cart is laden with six roasts in varying degrees of doneness, available in different size cuts; once the beef is on your plate, accompanied by unexceptional buttered peas and mashed potatoes, you understand what the hoopla is all about. No one bothers to cook prime rib like this anymore. The tender, marbled slice was raspberry-red, rimmed with fat, and tender and flavorful to the last bite. 3008 Maple Ave., 521-7777.
The setting is like an old-fashioned men’s club and the food is just as traditional-from an iceberg and romaine salad with homemade croutons to steaks served James Beard-style, on hot plates with butter and parsley. The rib-eyes were delicious, peppered on the outside and rare inside. And for the heartiest appetites, there’s dense, country-style bread pudding with Jack Daniel’s sauce for dessert. 4300 Lemmon, 526-2101.
CATTLEMEN’S STEAK HOUSE
Right around the corner from the historic stockyards in Fort Worth, Cattlemen’s seems like a real cowboy relic, from the saloon-style swinging doors to the waitresses who call you “honey.” Portraits of heavy heifers from the glory days of Texas beef line the walls. Nothing to eat here is notable except the steak, which is fine, but the atmosphere is the best in the West. 2458 Main St., Fort Worth, 262-8787.