Steak Night: Under the Volcano
Last week, in my review of Dharma Cafe, I wrote that it was my dharma to eat steak. This week, I further fulfilled my carnivorous destiny by exploring the Houston phenomenon called "steak night." It's odd that I have missed out on this tradition for so long.
My interest was piqued when music editor Chris Gray wrote a "welcome back" column explaining the many reasons why he didn't consider returning to his former hometown of Austin, self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," during his brief period of unemployment. Among the attractions he listed that kept him in Houston was "steak night."
I had to ask Gray what "steak night" meant exactly. I knew P.J.'s Sports Bar used to have a free steak promotion on off nights. But while I have hoisted quite a few brews at P.J.'s, I never took it very seriously as a dining venue. I was unaware that the "steak night" thing had caught on elsewhere. Gray explained that lots of bars around Houston now offer steak night promotions.
The standard come-on is a massive 16-ounce steak with salad and potatoes for 12 bucks. He said he often hit two a week, greatly reducing his food expenses. When I asked him about his favorite, he said he liked steak night at Under the Volcano on Monday nights the best. We arranged to meet there one Monday so I could check it out.
We got a table near the door a little after seven. The bar was ominously empty. Gray ordered a draft of Saint Arnold's Oktoberfest, and I got a draft Guinness Stout. There were two varieties of steak available that night — Gray ordered the strip steak cooked medium, and I ordered the rib eye, medium-rare. The waitress delivered some wilted tossed salads to start us off.
My expectations, which had started out pretty low, sunk a little lower after the soggy salad. "Steak night" was starting to feel like one of those come-ons for people who had been drinking heavily and didn't much care what they ate. After all, if the unpretentious Dharma Cafe was charging $37 for a steak, what could you hope to get at a bar for a third of that price?
When our steaks arrived, I was impressed by the sheer heft. Sixteen ounces is a lot of meat. Gray confided that he could only eat about half, and that by taking some home, he could stretch his food budget even further.
In the relative darkness of the bar, I couldn't tell much about the doneness of my steak by looking at it. But my first bite told me it was cooked perfectly to medium-rare. And as the meat melted in my mouth, I was also astonished by the juiciness and the flavor. I took several more bites from the outside and then from the fatty interior of the rib eye. I was convinced that I was eating USDA Choice steak. Which is pretty amazing, considering the price and the size of the portion.
I also sampled Gray's strip steak, which was a little too well done and dry for my tastes, but still an excellent cut of meat. Both steaks came with a large pile of tasty garlic mashed potatoes and a plastic cup full of the olive oil, garlic and parsley pesto called chimichurri, a popular steak accompaniment in South America.
I was still raving about the quality of the steak and the excellent chimichurri when we were joined by the music critic William Michael Smith, a frequent contributor to the Houston Press. Smith told me that the Volcano's owner, Pete Mitchell, was married to a woman from Argentina and that the couple had recently returned from a trip there. That explained the chimichurri. Since Smith seemed to be well acquainted with the owners, I asked him if he knew where Mitchell bought his meat.
"He buys it at Sam's," Smith told me. "He gets great big roasts and cuts them into steaks himself."
The explanation made perfect sense. I do the same thing whenever I want to serve steak to a crowd. Sam's and Costco both sell USDA Choice beef in large cuts at bargain prices. The meat is on a par with the Black Angus you get at second-tier steakhouses. But on steak night at the Volcano, you get a larger portion for a helluva lot less money.
The Volcano, at the corner of Bissonnet and Morningside, takes its name from the highly acclaimed 1947 novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. The novel takes place in Mexico over the course of one day — November 2, 1939, El Día de los Muertos. At the end of the book, the alcoholic main character, Geoffrey Firmin, former British Consul to Mexico, meets a disturbing death. It's awfully brave for a bar to take its theme from a tragic novel about a chronic alcoholic, if you ask me. But that's part of the eccentric charm of the place.
I read the hauntingly moving Under the Volcano on the honeymoon of my first marriage. Maybe that was prophetic. Like Firmin and his ex-wife Yvonne, my first wife and I ended up getting a divorce. I also ended up visiting Mexico during Día de los Muertos and commenting on the holiday for National Public Radio and a variety of publications. I developed a personal connection to the holiday, and I have constructed a Day of the Dead ofrenda in my home every year for the past decade.
So when I first walked into the bar called the Volcano and saw Lowry's novel ensconced in a display case along with Day of the Dead artifacts, I felt an immediate and somewhat spooky connection with the place and its owner. I don't know how the novel and the holiday came to affect Pete Mitchell, but they obviously meant a lot to the guy.
Full disclosure requires that I point out that the Houston Press has held company events at this establishment from time to time. Several members of our editorial staff, including John Lomax and Chris Gray, are friendly with Pete Mitchell. I have never met the man myself.
But when I introduced myself to William Michael Smith, I was glad I hadn't. Smith informed that he and Mitchell had a bone to pick with me. Based on my glowing review of Danton's Seafood, Smith and Mitchell had both gone to eat there and were sorely disappointed. Smith was still furious about a badly cooked piece of fish he was served and recommended that I re-review the place and take back anything good I had previously said. I was about ready to offer the angry music critic a refund of whatever he spent on the fish to get him off my case, but he suddenly remembered a previous engagement and got up and left. (And I remembered why I make it a practice to stay anonymous.)
The Tavern on Waugh has a steak night on Wednesdays. Griff's is on Tuesdays. Little Woodrow's and Big John's Icehouse have steak nights, too. The Hideaway on Dunvale has steak night on both Tuesdays and Saturdays, and they won "Best Steak Night" in our Best of Houston® issue last year. So, for the sake of comparison, I went to the Hideaway on Dunvale and ate another steak the following night while sitting at the bar watching the Astros with a lot of fellow sports fans. The 16-ounce rib eye I got at the Hideaway tasted oddly similar to the one I had just eaten at the Volcano.
"Where do you get your steaks?" I asked the bartender.
"He gets them at Sam's," he said, pointing to the Sam's Wholesale Club right across the street from the bar. "He gets great big pieces of meat and cuts them up in the kitchen." Based on this admittedly small sampling, I am willing to bet that most of the bars offering steak nights get their meat at a wholesale club.
"We don't make any money on the steaks," the manager of the Volcano told me while I was eating there. "But it brings people in on a slow night." He had stopped by our table to see if we were happy, and I took the opportunity to quiz him. He confirmed they made their own chimichurri and cut their own meat.
By around 8:30, as I was getting ready to leave, the outside patio at the Volcano was nearly full. Unlike the scene at the sports bar, where a lot of guys ate their steaks at the bar, at the Volcano, lots of couples were seated at the tables. At first I wondered why so many people were sitting outside while the tables in the air-conditioned interior sat empty. Then I realized that they were probably smokers. What a great deal for them — where else can you get a one-pound USDA Choice steak with a salad, garlic mashed potatoes and excellent chimichurri for $12 bucks and smoke at the dinner table?
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