David Knopf | Give me the charcoal-crusted steak of my youth, and hold the fancy

02/17/2014 10:52 AM

02/17/2014 10:52 AM

The expression “cheap steak house” is on par with “military intelligence and “Georgia winter drivers.” It wasn’t always that way.

When I was a kid there was a cheap steak place we went to in New York City. It was where, at a tender age, I uncorked my first obscenity.

I just asked, “Who the hell was that?” when we saw someone on the sidewalk conducting his own experiment on nonmedicated schizophrenia.

I’ve forgotten the name of the place or the price of a steak — frankly, they were all cheap — or if I had to mortgage my future to get my mother and father to take me there.

I’ll never forget the walls. They were covered with the red-and-gold textured wallpaper you saw in wild west saloons or, as my sources indicate, houses of ill repute.

The place had only one menu, and it hung over the counter. You lined up, ordered your steak and specified rare, medium, well-done, etc. — actually, kind of a formality, since all the steaks were grilled Within an Inch of Their Lives, the way I liked it.

Meals included a baked potato and a slice of “Texas toast,” an expression New Yorkers thought was synonymous with “cold, slightly burnt thick bread, just a little greasy, at some point having been in the general vicinity of garlic.”

There’s no place less like Texas than New York.

Steak houses still exist, but they’re neither cheap nor do they specialize in steak served up basic.

Today’s low-end steak houses no longer offer low quality at low prices. The cultural pendulum has swung, coming to rest on low quality served in vast quantity. It’s the buffet approach where consumers can sample everything from Jell-O salad to fried catfish to Rocky Mountains of steak, meat loaf and fried chicken, and wash it down with Triple Chocolate Double Dare Fudge Sundaes.

Red and gold wallpaper is passé, giving way to walls of decorative defibrillators, CPR instructions and do-it-yourself living wills.

The topic of steak came up while we were eating a tasty meal at a steak house where, despite our coupons, lunch cost twice what a family of four now gets in food stamps.

The place was nothing like today’s eat-till-you-explode buffets or the Gun Fight at OK Corral of my youth. For one thing, decorative bronze cutouts of cowboys and bucking broncos, framed Western rodeo posters and thematic cowboy hats and boots portrayed an upscale ranch effect. And it was clear the chefs wanted to grill steak to a hue and consistency well south of the charcoal-crusted, tenderized leather of my youth.

What threw me were the menu descriptions.

Topping the list was “roasted butternut squash risotto,” a concoction that, however delicious, violated the cowboy code of simplicity in all things, including steak and the spoken word.

In my primitive view, a steak place should use descriptions like “steak,” “potato,” “side,” “bread” and “drink,” not “winter brie salad,” “parmesan-crusted asparagus” and “hand-chopped side salads.”

Who cares how salad’s chopped?

My ideal steak place — whatever the target demographic — would uphold the straightforward language of the West. Employees would communicate with tips of the hat, a “yes, ma’am” or two and the standard “I reckon” if a waiter or waitress is asked to put butter on the side.

Clearly, it’s not something I’ll see again, unless, of course, I’m dropped down in western Montana.

I hear that’s a land where the steaks are basic, the walls plastered with red and gold, and the skies are not cloudy all day.

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