Great steaks are expensive. Period. There’s no way around it. If you want a truly special USDA prime steak, you’re going to have to pay dearly for it. Unfortunately, high prices don’t always guarantee a great piece of meat. I’ve been on a quest to find Orange County’s best steak for more than a year now.
“That’s going to come with a warm red center. Is that what you’re looking for?” asks my waitress, confirming that I do want my steak to be somewhat bloody.
I’m at the original Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Newport Beach, and I’ve ordered my New York strip medium-rare. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than receiving an overcooked steak, especially when I’m paying $58 for it, as I am for this dry-aged New York strip.
“That’ll be perfect,” I say. And then she surprises me by asking, “And would you like your steak cooked under the iron press to give it a little extra char?”
I’ve been eating steak my entire life. I was raised on a 6,000-acre cattle ranch (mostly Angus and Chianina, but also Charolais, Brahma and Gelbvieh). And this is the first time anyone has asked me that in a steakhouse.
My initial instinct is to say no, because I fear the extra weight of the press might squeeze too much of the blood out of the steak while it cooks. I believe steak should always be slightly charred, but I’ve learned to stop asking for it that way because more often than not it ends up being overcooked, or else it arrives black and blue, which is raw in the middle and burned to a crisp on the outside, caveman-style. That’s not what I’m looking for. I say yes.
When the steak arrives, I feel a wave of comfort wash over me. The steak is masterful: a full pound of loin muscle as thick as three decks of cards, ever-so-lightly charred around the edges, with a ribbon of fat running along one side and just enough caramelization on top to give the meat a subtle crispness as I cut into it. I watch as juices begin to slowly puddle on the plate. The steak is perfectly cooked. More importantly, this is a great piece of meat, dry-aged for 21 days, something new for Fleming’s, which only began serving dry-aged beef a few months ago.
I can tell with just one bite that this is top-tier beef. The fullness of the flavor. The suppleness of the flesh. How easy it melts between my teeth and the way the fat coats my tongue. There is no question that what I’m eating is USDA Prime. This comes pretty close to being the steak to beat in Orange County.
I’ve dined at every major steakhouse, and all sorts of other restaurants known for their meat. I’ve consumed plenty of beef that was advertised as USDA prime but was clearly something less.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, beginning with 17 years on a cattle ranch, and more recently via conversations with USDA graders, butchers and premium-beef purveyors, is that not all beef is created equal.
The truth about prime
Truth is, there is prime, and then there is prime. When buying beef, the consumer sees only three USDA grades: prime, choice and select. Select is poor quality. Choice is mediocre to decent, and that’s what most restaurants serve. Prime is the best and the most expensive, and it accounts for less than 2 percent of the beef supply, and shrinking.
The key thing that differentiates these grades is something known as marbling, which is the amount of tiny fat globules that are speckled throughout the muscle. Meat with the greatest prevalence and uniform distribution of this internal marbling – not to be confused with streaks or ribbons of fat – gets graded prime. Meat with mediocre specking becomes choice, and so on. It’s a fairly rigid process that involves both high-tech computers and human intuition.
But what the consumer doesn’t see and isn’t supposed to know is that there are actually two tiers of prime and three graduated levels of choice. Even most chefs don’t know this because generally the only people who get to see the finer gradations are the wholesalers and purveyors who buy the meat directly from the slaughterhouses where the meat is sourced and graded. Before anyone else gets to see it, the most elite beef gets gobbled up by ultra-high-end steakhouses in Las Vegas that are willing to pay top dollar and operate at a loss for the casinos, but that’s another story.
Bottom line: Great steaks are expensive. And they’re going to keep getting even pricier because U.S. beef herds are at their lowest count since the 1950s, and the cattle are eating less corn, which also has become expensive, thanks to the same ongoing droughts that are affecting the livestock (not to mention the fact that corn farmers now get more money from ethanol than they can from the feed lots).
It’s impossible to buy a truly amazing steak in a restaurant these days for less than $40, and when a restaurant does sell steak for less than $30, you’re definitely not getting prime. There are plenty of restaurants serving what they claim is prime, but they are either deceiving their customers or they themselves are the ones being deceived by their beef suppliers. Park Ave in Stanton comes to mind. The steaks I’ve eaten there, priced at $45 a pop, taste no better than what Ralphs sells as USDA choice. I come to similar conclusions about the steaks I’ve eaten at Tavern on the Coast in Dana Point, Five Crowns in Corona del Mar, Early Bird in Fullerton and Urban Grill in Lake Forest, all of which claim to be serving USDA prime, but the meat I’ve eaten there just doesn’t measure up.
Where’s the beef?
So, where are the best steaks in Orange County? I’ve generally had the best luck with the steakhouses. And this makes sense because the more meat a restaurant buys, the more sway it will have with its purveyor, which means the supplier will start showing them a better product.
Aside from the original Fleming’s at Fashion Island, I’ve enjoyed excellent USDA prime steaks at Hanna’s in Rancho Santa Margarita and at Ruth’s Chris in Irvine. And the porterhouse at Mastro’s is epic. Meanwhile, one of my favorite discoveries over the past year has been EnoSteak, a wonderfully romantic little steakhouse hidden inside a tiny wine-cellar-like space at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, where the meat is superb and always expertly cooked.
But that doesn’t mean all steakhouses get it right. I dined at Savannah Chop House in Laguna Niguel the other day hoping for a great steakhouse-quality rib-eye. Instead, what I got was sorry piece of meat, the tough, dry, chewy sort that I would expect from Outback. And it cost me $50. I got played.
I encountered an equally disappointing steak last year at Capital Grille in Costa Mesa. Oddly, I found the steaks at Stubrik’s in Fullerton to be better than either Capital Grille or Savannah, and Stubrik’s proudly admits to serving USDA choice, not prime.
I dined at the newly renovated Morton’s and ate two different steaks, a rib-eye for $55 and a bone-in filet for $59. Unquestionably, Morton’s serves prime meat. But I have to question the kitchen staff’s technique. They doused the steaks with so much au jus that both were left with an unpleasant texture that more closely resembled steaming instead of grilling. What a dumb thing to do to such great beef. (The only thing worse would be to bury a steak beneath a mound of seafood. Seriously, who wants a steak that tastes like fish?)
I’ve written previously about the nearly 2-foot-long, 58-ounce tomahawk rib-eye at The Ranch in Anaheim, and I still rank that behemoth among the area’s best. In the absence of the late Diamond Jim Brady, or the fictional Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” – you know, the guy who eats so much he explodes – this steak is rather meant for two people to share. For such a gigantic steak, it is remarkably tender and sophisticated. And there are other stratospherically priced Flintstones-style steaks to enjoy, like the off-menu Delmonico at Arc, the Lord Stanley cut at Selanne and the carved-tableside T-bone at Andrea, all of which hover around $100.
But the most perfect steak of all? I’m not done searching. But for now that honor goes to the 30-ounce chef’s cut bone-in rib-eye at Mastro’s. It’s everything I could ever want in a steak. Unfortunately, the dining room at Mastro’s is so dreary and dark that you can barely appreciate what this steak looks like. But you can smell it coming. It smells so musky and smoky and sexy. It’s intoxicating. It’s a massive hunk of beef, with a heavily charred, thick ring of fat around the edges, the kind of fat you’ll want to ration wisely in order to enjoy a sliver of fat with every single bite of meat. The rib rises 3 inches from the plate, and there’s no way to eat it all in one sitting, which makes it all the more worthwhile. I can’t think of anything I’d rather eat for breakfast than a really good leftover steak.
O.C.’S TOP 10 STEAKS
The steak: 30-ounce “chef’s cut” bone-in rib-eye, $63
Where: 633 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
2. The Ranch
The steak: 58-ounce bone-in rib-eye tomahawk chop, $89
Where: 1025 E. Ball Road, Anaheim
The steak: 16-ounce, 21-day dry-aged, iron-pressed New York strip, $58
Where: 455 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
4. EnoSteak at Ritz-Carlton
The steak: 14-oz. rib-eye, $54
Where: 1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point
5. Andrea at Pelican Hill
The steak: 22-ounce. T-bone, $110
Where: 22701 Pelican Hill Road, Newport Beach
The steak: 30-ounce, 20-day dry-aged off-menu Delmonico, $100
Where: 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa
Phone: 949-500- 5561
7. Selanne Steak Tavern
The steak: 32-ounce. Lord Stanley cut Australian Wagyu, $96
Where: 1464 S. Coast Highway Laguna Beach
8. A Restaurant, Newport Beach
The steak: 12-ounce block-cut New York steak, $44
Where: 3334 Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach
The steak: 14-ounce bone-in filet mignon, $52
Where: 22195 El Paseo,Rancho Santa Margarita
10. Mastro’s (yes, Mastro’s is on this list twice)
The steak: 24-ounce porterhouse, $57
Where: 633 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.