Our waiter is an older man in a white waiter's jacket, a black tie and a long white apron. He recommends the USDA Prime New York strip, a specialty of Palm restaurant on Westheimer. We get one strip and one porterhouse, both medium rare, with the required chop-house sides: fried potatoes and creamed spinach. The New York strip is dark brown, its edges hard and crispy. Inside, it is pink and dry along the sides, turning juicier and redder toward the middle. It's a little tough, but flavorful. The porterhouse tastes much like the strip on the broad side of the bone; the little medallion of tenderloin on the short side is cooked closer to medium, but it is so tender you can cut it with a fork.
The original Palm on Second Avenue in New York opened in 1926 and remains the quintessential chop house. The waiters are gruff, and the floors are worn wood. The menu is as abrupt as the waiters -- steaks, chops and lobster with fried potatoes, fried onions and creamed spinach are about it. The walls are covered with caricatures of celebrity patrons, most of them no longer identifiable, done by cartoonists from major New York newspapers, most of which are now defunct.
Legend has it the famous name was a complete accident. Palm (the cognoscenti don't say "the") was supposed to be an Italian restaurant called Parma, but because of the owners' thick Italian accents, the bureaucrat who issued the permits inadvertently changed the name. When customers ordered a steak, the original owner would run down the street and buy one.
When the steak-house craze hit the American restaurant scene, famous chop houses like Morton's, Palm and Ruth's Chris began to open multiple locations. Houston has one of each, but the Palm location on Westheimer has a lot of special memories for Houstonians. When it opened in 1977, it epitomized the spirit of the oil boom, a boisterous joint with big steaks, big Bordeaux and few inhibitions.
The Houston restaurant's walls are covered in caricatures, just like the original, and it's fun to see how many faces you know. The steaks are splendid, too -- and yet I am disappointed. While they may be the best steaks in town, they can't compete with those in my memory. I still recall my visit to the original Palm on Second Avenue 28 years ago. The steak I remember was the absolute pinnacle of perfection. A mountainous cut that gushed juices with every bite, it was meltingly tender with a bold gaminess that I seldom encounter in a steak anymore.
Someone once said memory is a liar, and that may be true. No doubt time has embellished my memories somewhat. But I can't help but wonder how much objective change has actually taken place. What is going on with American beef? I've heard the standards have been lowered over the years, but is the steak here at the Houston Palm in 2001 really all that different from the one I remember at the New York Palm in 1973?
"There's a huge difference," says Tony Tammero, Palm's corporate chef. Tammero started working at the New York Palm in 1964. "I should know, I used to buy the meat."
Tammero laughs about the battle he fought every day with the buyer from Peter Luger's steak house in Brooklyn. Both would race to pick through the day's USDA Prime at the same meat market. "They would stamp the meat after I bought it, and if the buyer from Luger's came in later, she would offer them ten cents a pound more for it," he laughs. "It was beautiful meat."
"Cattle were corn-fed in the old days," Tammero remembers. "The fat was almost yellow, and the marbling was incredible. Ever since they lowered the standards on USDA Prime, the quality has gone down. You can barely tell USDA Prime from Choice anymore." Tammero is talking about the changes in the USDA grading system that went into effect in 1987.
Up until then, the three main categories in the grading system were Prime, Choice and Good. In 1987 the beef industry shifted its marketing focus to leaner beef, and the Good category was renamed Select. It seemed a rather inconsequential change to consumers at the time, but the effects on the quality of American beef have been far-reaching.
"The downgrading of American meat is a major scandal, a venal conspiracy," writes Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer at Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything. Steingarten has studied USDA files and photos that document the various grades of American beef through the century. The year 1987 wasn't the first time standards were lowered. They were dropped repeatedly at the behest of the cattle industry from the 1930s through the 1970s, Steingarten reports. But the changes in 1987 were different; they represented not just a shift in grading standards but a shift in thinking.