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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

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December 27, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

Real urban steakhouses are becoming rare in Central Los Angeles: places where a fellow can get a decent slab of protein without crossing the border into Beverly Hills, two-fisted meat-and-martini joints where an account executive can blow his Pritikin thing with massive hunks of well-aged sirloin. The steakhouse belt just west of Downtown has mostly gone over to pupuserias and small Guatemalan restaurants, a bad thing for fans of the Chandleresque. Edward's, Vince & Paul's, the Cove and the Bull n' Bush, among other old places, have shut down just in the last couple of years. The Pacific Dining Car prices its steaks out of the reach of anybody but six-figure businessmen and Japanese tourists. Where are the steaks for the common guy?

In the burbs, there are those vast, dark steakhouses decked out with stained glass and mirrored beer signs in the Rotary neighborhoods of Pico Rivera or Pittsburgh. Those places have Lincolns in their parking lots and hideaway corners in their dim, smoky bars, dry Manhattans and soggy slabs of garlic cheese toast. A traveling district sales manager knows their floor plans the way an 8-year-old instinctively grasps the layout of a new McDonalds.

But Taylor's Prime Steaks--which is located at the point where Koreatown and Little Central America collide, across the street from a raucous Asian poolhall, close to Salvadoran bodegas , a block away from Mr. $1 Store--is a real urban steakhouse, one of the last of the dimly lit breed, decked out with red-vinyl booths, horsey prints on the walls, and a pickle-nose guy at the bar who laughs like Thurston Howell III. Prime, dry-aged steak dinners, complete with soup or salad and spud, run about $12 to $16, which is about half of what the Beverly Hills places charge. In the '60s, Taylor's was what passed for high-style cuisine in Los Angeles, and the entryway is hung with rave reviews that are mostly 20 years old.

Holiday times are festive at Taylor's, even beyond the tinsel that spills over the bar. Tripping up the stairs into the banquet room, coiffed and lacquered Hancock Park matrons look straight ahead, flawless in their full-length minks, grimly facing their husbands' office parties. Groups of businessmen float toward the door, ties loosened, vests unbuttoned, wearing the sheepish look on their faces that says they've been drinking since early afternoon. (During the day sometimes, Taylor's seems like the male equivalent of the Bullocks-Wilshire Tea Room.) Prep-look nuclear families, headed by ruddy men wearing college sweatshirts, slouch on banquettes. A gaggle of arty East Hollywood types seems pleased to be drinking martinis in a place like this. I like the bartender's way with an Old-fashioned.

Taylor's used to be famous for its wine card; it's a thin, eccentric pamphlet listing things like '28 first-growth Bordeaux and ancient vintages of La Tache alongside bottles of '78 Gallo Cabernet and well-aged generic California "Burgundy," mini-verticals of Jordan Cabernet and BV Private Reserve, but the wine service is a little unorthodox--a waitress keeps the tiny wine glasses filled right to the rim, and the maitre d' periodically comes by to top them up whether you want him to or not. This may not be the place to try that special bottle of Latour.

This may not be the place to try shrimp cocktail, either--the last time I tried it, the shrimp hadn't quite thawed in their horseradish-spiked catsup. The bread's no good, the clam chowder's gluey, the pea soup has all the charm of military rations. The chicken entree is a joke.

The thing to get here, obviously, is steak--steak and good cottage fries (some swear by the baked potato) and an iceberg lettuce salad, which is crisp and cold and globbed with just enough blue cheese dressing. The filet-mignon is soft, buttery, as rare as you order it, crusted with char; a New York steak is beefy and rich. T-bones and Porterhouses come sizzling on metal trays; London broil, kind of stewy tasting, comes sliced, with a horseradish-sour cream sauce on the side. (You can get horseradish on the side with any steak--do.) Lamb chops are thick and juicy as a Jackie Collins novel.

But the glory of Taylor's is the culotte steak, a softball-shaped prime thing cut from the top of the sirloin. All the steaks here may be aged, but the culotte is profoundly aged, so much so that the outside can be unpleasantly gamy, like high meat. If you order it rare, the interior is scarlet, dripping juice, salted with morbidity, marbled with fat, full of the tremendous mineral sourness of great meat. It's the steak that time forgot.

Taylor's Prime Steaks, 3361 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles, (213) 382-8449. Open Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 4 to 10 p.m., Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$36.

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