Looking for a Bull Market
Our USDA Prime, dry-aged, bone-in strip was bright red and rare along the bone, and medium-well toward the thinner edge. It averaged out to the medium-rare we requested. The variance in doneness common in a bone-in cut worked out perfectly. Two of us were splitting the steak, and I like my meat rarer than my dining companion.
The dry-aged meat had a dense but tender texture. It wasn't as juicy as a wet-aged steak, but it had a fuller, nuttier flavor. My only complaint with the 16-ounce bone-in strip was that the steak wasn't very thick.
When you order steaks based on their weight, sometimes you get thick steaks and sometimes you get skinny ones. In Beef 101 class at Texas A&M, I learned that a pound of steak from a small steer is thicker than a pound of steak from a bigger animal, which is why small steers sell for a premium price. At a top-notch steak house, the best idea is to ask to see your steak before it gets cooked. If it isn't very thick, you can ask for a different one.
Killen's steak list provides some of the clearest explanations I have ever seen on a steak house menu. The steaks all come from Allen Brothers in Chicago, arguably the best steak house supplier in the country. The most expensive steaks on the menu are Kobe beef. There's Texas Akaushi Kobe — you can choose a filet, a rib eye or a strip for $85. And there's a dry-aged 32-ounce Kobe bone-in rib eye that sells for $95.
At the relatively affordable end are six wet-aged USDA Prime steaks starting at $29. There's a filet-and-shrimp surf-and-turf combo and a chicken-fried sirloin, too.
Then there are the dry-aged USDA Prime steaks. A 16-ounce dry-aged bone-in rib eye goes for $46. The 16-ounce bone-in New York strip we got was $50.
We started our meal with creamy Buffalo mozzarella-topped tomato slices garnished with fresh basil leaves — which the menu described as an "Insulata (sic) Caprese." (The Italian word for salad is insalata, Platymantis insulata is a species of frog.) The Caprese salad was bland compared to the outstanding beefsteak tomato salad I had on my first visit.
Killen's beefsteak tomato salad is actually a buck cheaper than the Caprese salad and twice as flavorful. Instead of the delicate fresh mozzarella on the Caprese, the Beefsteak tomato salad is topped with bold Danish blue cheese, aromatic red onion slices and both balsamic and ranch dressings. It's a luscious blend of flavors.
Along with the Caprese, we got an order of Killen's giant onion rings. The crispy batter covering the thick onion slices was fried to a perfect golden brown. The rings came with ketchup. We sent the waiter back for some ranch dressing to dip the onion rings in. It wasn't until we were nearly finished that he advised us that the perfect dip for Killen's onion rings is actually their honey-mustard dressing. "I don't even like honey-mustard dressing on my salad, but it's an incredible dip for the onion rings," he said.
For our sides, we almost ordered au gratin potatoes and creamed spinach, until the waiter pointed out that that was an awful lot of cream. So we went with the skillet potatoes instead. The crispy fried potato chips were topped with onion crisps and bacon bits. They were the perfect foil to the rich spinach. Personally, I like creamed spinach made with chopped spinach leaves and blended into a casserole that looks like saag paneer. Killen's uses whole fresh spinach leaves, which tend to float around in the cream sauce without combining.
When the maitre d' brought the first bottle of wine I ordered to the table for my inspection, I noticed red stains on the label and a faint line of dried residue running down the bottle from under the foil. It was an Argentine blend, and the maitre d' said he thought the bottle was fine. I told him it looked like it had been cooked in the back of a truck on a hot day and sent it back.
My second choice was the 2001 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva, a Spanish Rioja with a delightful plum flavor and woody aroma. It was a little light-bodied for a steak wine, but a bargain at $32. We finished off the wine with a slice of boring chocolate cake.
"Don't let our building fool you. We are an upscale steakhouse..." read the first words on Killen's Web site. On my first visit to Killen's, I found the squat little building near the lumberyard utterly charming. I loved the lack of decorating. And I smiled from ear to ear when a customer walked in wearing khaki shorts, flip-flops and a well-worn camouflage T-shirt.
I went out to Killen's intent on championing the down-home Texas steak house in suburban Pearland over the stuffy national chains that are popping up in Houston like toadstools after a flash flood. But I should know better than to bring an agenda to a review.
Our waiter used to work for several of the big national steak house chains, and he gave us a monologue about their inferiority. A baked potato sells for $15 at some of these places, he scoffed. Killen's charges low prices for its homemade sides and uses higher-quality ingredients, he said.
"Excuse me, but what's this?" my buddy Bebout asked the waiter when he was done with his pitch. Bebout was pointing at the pale piped floret in the curved spoon next to the bread basket.
"It's butter," the waiter said, as if Bebout were a dolt.
"No it isn't," Bebout replied. "Please go ask the chef if he has any real butter."
The waiter insisted the product was pure butter that the chef personally whipped for easier spreading. After an embarrassing "yes it is — no it isn't" schoolboy exchange, the waiter stomped off to the kitchen. Then a busboy came out to our table with several square pats of real butter on a saucer. The busboy said the spread in the fancy curved spoon was a mixture that contained margarine. Bebout harrumphed.
With the butter imbroglio finally concluded, I looked forward to eating a big steak. We split the 32-ounce wet-aged porterhouse. A porterhouse has strip on one side of the T-shaped bone and filet on the other, and since Bebout likes filet and I prefer strip, it was easy to split the giant steak.
I had eaten one big bite of the strip when Bebout leaned over his plate and spit out a piece of the filet. His face was ashen, and he looked like he was going to be sick.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
Bebout asked for my fork, then cut a little piece of meat from the spot at the bottom of the filet. "Hey Robb, try this," he said, handing me back my fork. I held the meat up to my nose and felt my stomach turn. The meat was putrid. Needless to say, I didn't taste it.
I laid the fork down on the plate and called the maitre d' over. I asked him to take the steak back to the kitchen and have the chef smell the piece of meat on the fork. When the maitre d' returned, he told us that due to the downturn in the economy, the meat wasn't moving as fast as it used to, and that you were always walking a fine line when you sold aged meat.
This was the first time I had ever been served a piece of spoiled meat in a steak house. I couldn't believe the way the maitre d' was shrugging the whole thing off. It made me wonder if he had given this speech before.
I ordered another steak, a wet-aged New York strip. I sniffed it carefully before eating any. It was crusted with a lot more seasonings than the porterhouse. It tasted excellent. Bebout couldn't bring himself to eat any more meat that evening. He had some onion soup and some bread with real butter.
So much for my hometown steak house cheerleading. I am sure all the wonderful things I have heard about Killen's over the years have been true. And I am looking forward to eating there again.
But I think I'll wait for another bull market.
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