“Beef: it’s what’s for dinner,” say the cattle lobby’s TV ads, and I sigh in agreement. I daydream about the zaftig heft of R.F. O’Sullivan’s hamburgers; the sticky-glazed satisfaction of Union Bar and Grille’s cylinder of braised short ribs; the crunchy, smoky charms of Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q’s burnt ends; the tango of tendon and tripe in Pho 2000’s pho gân sách. In these pages, I’ve swooned over tacos de cabeza (beef cheek) at Taqueria El Amigo, pondered the mystery of Persian spicing in Pita Kabob’s kubideh kebab, and lauded the delirious richness of Jasmine Bistro’s beef gulyás. I’ve called the beef bánh mì at Pho Viet the best sandwich in town.
And that’s before I even get to steak, the cut of beef that I, like most Americans, equate with affordable luxury, even though it’s an increasingly guilty pleasure. I’ve read Schlosser (Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal) and Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals). I know that how we currently produce and consume beef is unsustainable, that it’s pillaging the rainforests and making us even fatter. I tiptoe toward a greener way of eating by avoiding fast-food burgers — that’s a start, right? — yet I trumpet my love of beefsteak and order it often, even as I acknowledge the complaints of my vegan friends, who call it unhealthy and socially irresponsible. I know it’s bad for me and the planet, but I can’t forsake my steak.
What I also can’t do is sing the praises of Boston’s luxury chophouses, those temples to excess where waiters in crisp white shirts serve $50 dry-aged Porterhouses and trophy wines to guys in Armani suits. It’s not that I object to that kind of conspicuous consumption in the face of global recession and famine. I just think those posh expense-account venues aren’t a great value. Granted, a piece of artisanal prime beef transformed by a skillful line cook in the hellfire of an 1800-degree broiler can be a thing of beauty, but on my own dime, I find the tariff awfully steep. For the kind of money those swank chain outlets charge for one steak dinner, you can enjoy several meals at some of the following alternatives. If eating steak is prodigal with the Earth’s precious resources, the least you can do is be frugal with your own.
Salt-cruster sirloin at Midwest Grill
1124 Cambridge Street, Cambridge | midwestgrillrestaurant.com | 617.354.7536
To get a sense of how much Brazilians love their steak, travel back with me a few years to my first visit to a churrascaria (grilled-meat restaurant) outside of São Paolo. The server hands me a little ping-pong paddle, red on one side, green on the other. “Hold it up like this,” explains my host. “Show red if you don’t want whatever the waiter is serving, green if you want some. That way, you don’t ever have to stop chewing to speak!” I quickly see the practicality of this, as servers procure a seemingly endless procession of sword-like skewers loaded with beefsteak and every other meat under the sun, most benefiting from some tasty marinade, all rotisserie-cooked over a charcoal fire. These people are serious carnivores.
The same drill (sans paddles) holds today at the Midwest Grill, where the meat jukebox pumps out an endless string of hits with a well-charred crust: dripping sirloin, beef short ribs, garlicky lamb loin, bacon-wrapped chicken breast, various sausages like kielbasa, and slightly cartilaginous but liverishly tasty chicken hearts. You’ll begin with a visit to a buffet for hot and cold salads and vegetable sides. Do get some white rice, beans, and plantains, but remember you’re here for the animal protein. Now sit down: the infinite rotation (rodizio) of churrasco will come to your table. Keep an Atkins-like focus on the grilled meats, especially that wonderful salt-crusted sirloin. That will help you make the most of the all-you-can eat price ($18.95/lunch; $24.95/dinner).
You might even do something healthy for your cardiovascular system by ordering a bottle of red, such as the 2006 El Portillo malbec ($22), a pleasant quaffer from Argentina’s Mendoza region. Leave it to Brazil’s similarly beef-obsessed neighbor to deliver wallet-friendly wines that beautifully complement steak.
Bone-in prime tenderloin at Prezza
24 Fleet Street, Boston | prezza.com | 617.227.1577
I’ve long admired Prezza chef/owner Anthony Caturano’s Southern-Italian ability to allow good ingredients to shine in unfussy preparations, as well as his judicious application of more refined Northern techniques and sauces. Caturano, who spent a stint in the Piedmont, clearly learned a thing or two about beef. A big chunk of his menu is devoted to premium wood-grilled steaks and chops, such as wood-grilled prime Angus sirloin ($42) served with classic steak-house accompaniments of chunky mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. But the real knockout here is bone-in prime tenderloin ($46) with a fine char redolent of wood smoke, a steak to rival any filet from Boston’s platinum-card steak houses.