Red meat, in particular the great American steak, has been battered, slandered and thoroughly demonized in recent years. Cardiologists warn us of the dangers of consuming it on a regular basis. The health-conscious tend to shun it altogether.
But to quote the main character in one of my favorite movies ("Mississippi Masala"): "This is America, Ma; no one cares."
Certainly few people are overly concerned in Orange County, where a proliferation of steakhouses affords a wider-than-ever choice for exercising the red-meat option. The main questions overheard in our steak joints aren't focused on nutrition. Instead, they tend to be about gin, vodka and the best cuts of prime beef, a sure sign to killjoys that civilization is in decline.
In doing this piece, I concentrated on restaurants that specialize in steak, and I didn't have enough room to list all the fine dining establishments that serve great beef. A few places to remember are Five Crowns, the Quiet Woman, the Arches, the Cove, the swank new Savannah Chop House and the king of Orange County's sophisticated dives, Sid's.
First, a word or two about beef. Beef is graded either Select, Choice, Top Choice or Prime, according to the visual discretion of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. That distinction is a function of marbling, specifically the way in which fat is distributed in the flesh. Steak loses about 25% of its weight during the cooking process, more if one is having the steak well done. That means when a steak is listed on the menu as 12 ounces, you can expect around 9 at serving time.
According to USDA figures, 9 ounces of cooked, choice sirloin is about 500 calories. Tenderloin is slightly higher, about 550. The fattier, choicer cuts are, if we believe the naysayers, the ones most hazardous to health. I say fiddlesticks, and make my martini a double.
Here are 10 local steakhouses:
Ruth's Chris Steak House
I'm a huge fan of Irvine's classically handsome Ruth's Chris for the simple reason that I like the way the beef tastes. But I realize this is a restaurant best suited to a big spender or to someone on an expense account. Dinner will cost about $50 per person before wine.
The restaurant uses only Prime beef that has been specially aged, and when the steaks are brought sizzling to the table, they also are swimming in butter, a touch not popular with everyone. The steaks are cooked on a broiler that reaches 1,800 degrees. This has the effect of sealing in natural juices, resulting in meat that is amazingly moist.
I am partial to the buttery filet mignon, simply the best steak around. I'd rate the huge T-bone a close second. Side dishes are a la carte, and they don't come cheap. A few of the better ones are shoestring fried potatoes; rich, buttery creamed spinach; and fresh asparagus spears, properly crisp and begging for Hollandaise. For dessert, don't miss the wonderful chocolate pecan pie.
2961-A Michelson Drive, Irvine. (949) 252-8848. $$$$.
If the food and the company don't make your evening at Trabuco Oaks, the surroundings--a beautiful wooded canyon near O'Neill Regional Park--probably will. This western-style steakhouse has the most rustic location in the county. It is a dark, clubby cavern with cute denim table settings and ties cut off from customers who came too formally dressed.
The restaurant is justifiably proud of its salad dressing and barbecue sauce; both, bottled for sale, are displayed at the front register. Steaks are Choice, aged, hand-trimmed and mesquite-grilled. A voice on the telephone assured me that even though the steaks weren't Prime, they tasted like it. My reply to that is: No, they don't.
But they are attractive on their sizzling platters, and they do taste good. The best deal is to split a Cowboy ($34), the restaurant's delicious 32-ounce top sirloin. I also recommend the Cowgirl ($18.50), a nicely tender 16-ounce porterhouse. Each dinner includes bland garlic toast, western-style beans and a green salad tossed with the restaurant's vinaigrette.
20782 Trabuco Oaks Drive, Trabuco Canyon. (949) 586-0722. $$$.
The Outback chain, which now numbers in the hundreds, began as a single restaurant in Tampa, Fla. If you've guessed that they must be doing something right, give yourself a gold star. In my opinion, this is the best mid-priced steakhouse around.
I confess that I find the Aussie theme a bit silly, but they had to come up with something. There is nothing even remotely Australian about Outback, other than the names of dishes and the cheerful team of servers who greet all their customers with a friendly "G'day." What I'm most cheerful about is a kitchen where nothing is frozen--the food is about as fresh-tasting as the law allows.