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America’s favorite protein, in the year of COVID

By Jim Duncan

“We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” Charles Dickens’ lens on the French Revolution was “so much like the present time that some of the nosiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or evil.”

The French Revolution birthed horrid evil, but it also created the modern restaurant. Robespiere’s gang murdered so many nobles that their cooks became a burdensome class of unemployed vagrants. Napoleon helped put them to work for the common man.

Restaurants in today’s recent reign of terror were amongst the hardest hit institutions. Government shut them down, then it handicapped them, then it made labor and supply line shortages so severe that it became a struggle just to keep the doors open.
Among the great food lessons gleaned from the ravages of COVID-19, one of the most interesting was that there is no one way to predict how people will respond to inflation or terror. Just within the category of beef, the most susceptible meat to inflation, two utterly opposite reactions manifested themselves. Even as the price of USDA prime cuts of ribeye, filet and prime rib rose by more than 50% in a little more than a year, demand did not slack as expected.

Des Moines’ three totally USDA prime, aged steakhouses were full again during visits in late 2021 to Fleming’s, AJ’s and 801 Steak and Chop House. One waiter explained it by paraphrasing Jerry Leiber’s lyrics to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”

“I think people have decided that, if this is how the world ends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze.”

This attitude manifested in many forms. No period in the last 50 years saw the extravagance of wagyu become so popular in Des Moines. Fareway, the small-town chain that represents the common man, sells it now, even at prices close to $100 a pound. Fresh Thyme has wagyu weekends. Hy-Vee finds it if you want it, too. B&B now custom ages prime beef cuts, and they have a long line on special occasions like Christmas Eve.

At the same time, people who could not afford to pay the piper looked for new, less expensive cuts of beef to satisfy their steak lust. Chuck steaks, hanger steaks, coulotte, tri tip, round steak, flank, flap and short ribs all popped up on menus, even in the best restaurants in the metro.

Tenderizing technology has developed considerably the last 20 years. That makes it possible to buy cuts like round and chuck that are easier to chew than they used to be. Hanger, coulotte and flank all have followings that did not exist a quarter-century ago. Hanger used to be known as butcher’s steak because butchers would often save it for themselves. Cut from the high part of the short loin, it gets its name from the fact that it hangs over the diaphragm just behind the last rib. It’s a remarkably tender cut, some think second only to the filet. It is well marbled, too, but its relationship to the diaphragm interferes with its popularity.

Europeans have historically been fonder of this cut than Americans. In Britain, it is referred to as “skirt,” which is not to be confused with the American skirt steak. In France it is known as the onglet, in Italian the lombatello, and in Spanish as solomillo de pulmón or entraña. Django serves it in Des Moines. So does Mulberry Street Tavern, as butcher’s steak. Proudfoot & Bird grills it over wood fire and serves it with a charred tomato chimichurri.
Coulotte is cut from the same neighborhood as the hanger. It is also sometimes called “cap” steak because it comes from the cap muscle, which is one of three that make up the top sirloin butt. It has a lot of marbling for an inexpensive cut and is popular in South America, where it is also known as picanha. George Formaro of Orchestrate says he plans to introduce it soon at one of that company’s restaurants. Flap steak, also from the sirloin butt, won an Iowa Restaurant Association contest for odd cuts of steak.

People sometimes think that hanger and flank steaks are interchangeable. Not in America where hanger is the best marbled of all secondary cuts and flank is the leanest. Flank comes from under the loins and behind the plate. It should never be cooked more than to medium rare. In France, where it is often braised for extra tenderness, it is called bavette. Flank steak in America is used most often in beef jerky and London broil. At Centro it is made exclusively for steak salad. At Terra Brazilian Grill, it is called alcatra.

The heart of beef is a muscle like most all steaks. Unlike most organ meats, it does not have a strong mineral flavor. Wrapped in fat, it cuts like a steak. Anyone who prefers a heavily marbled cut, like ribeye, will likely love grilled hearts. In Des Moines, I have enjoyed them at farm dinners and sometimes find them at Mexican and Asian supermarkets.

Round steak has been popular in the U.S. longer than these other secondary cuts of steak, yet it’s harder than ever to find in Iowa restaurants now. Usually pounded to tenderness, dipped in flour, then an egg bath and then Panko, it is best known as chicken fried steak, an almost regional dish today that is beloved in the South, particularly Texas and Oklahoma. Bubba’s is the king of the dish in Des Moines. Good versions can also be found at Cracker Barrel and Machine Shed where it is called country fried steak. Drake Diner serves it for breakfast as well as for dinner.

Chuck steaks, sometimes large enough to be called roasts, and tri-tip are becoming more popular in Mexican applications. The meat has enough marbling that it can be seared and then braised to lend tender fillings to tacos, burritos and barbacoa. Malo uses chuck in its barbacoa.

Tri-tip is another cut relatively new to Des Moines. It’s long been a favorite of California, where it is best known in barbecues. It comes from the same part of the sirloin as flank steak, and Gateway Market Café uses it in both their burritos and market tacos. Terra Brazilian Grill serves it as maminha.

Short ribs are catching on fast in Des Moines. They come from a part of the cow that borders brisket and the ribs. They are crazy tender when cooked slowly enough to break down their connective tissue and collagen. They also differ from “beef ribs” in that short ribs’ considerable flesh is on top on the bone while beef ribs’ minimal flesh is between the bones.

Short ribs are rather seasonal in Des Moines, meaning it’s a winter food. I have enjoyed awesome plates at Trostel’s Greenbriar, but only as a special. They are more consistently found at Little Brother and Django, where they are the beef in their famous Bourguignon.

Salisbury steak, one of America’s original “health” foods, is also coming back but not so much in Des Moines. When the famous 19th century doctor J.H. Salisbury advocated a meat centric diet, he invented this steak because it was much easier to digest than whole muscle meat. Today it is usually served with a heavy gravy that does not look all that healthy.

Des Moines steakhouses offer many classic European sauces — Bechamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and Creole and Provencal — plus de Burgo. Noah’s has a cult audience for its steaks in Colbert sauce.

Vegetable steaks are becoming popular in steakhouses, too. One of the most frequently seen is the cauliflower steak, called “steak” because its thick parts look like bones. Gordon Ramsey has done a lot to popularize this dish. It’s usually drizzled with olive oil and red pepper flakes and sometimes Parmigiano-Reggiano. It should cook at least half an hour to tenderize. Proudfoot & Bird makes a fabulous cauliflower steak with saffron couscous, golden raisin, pine nuts, and a sherry glaze.

Portabello steaks looked like they might become a thing about 10 years ago, but most steakhouses gave up on them in favor of smaller baby bellas, which are often stuffed. Eggplant remains the most commonly grilled vegetable steak.

Star fruit and jackfruit have been promoted by supermarkets here as steaks the last few summers. Rare among fruits, they have a solid enough texture to stand up to a hot grill.
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