"Are the steaks USDA Prime?" I ask.
"Yes, they are all prime steaks, the very highest quality available," he says. He has an odd, disengaged way of speaking, as if he were talking to the wall just behind my head.
"That's not what I asked. Are they USDA Prime?" I repeat.
"Yes, sir," he says.
"All of them?" I ask.
"Absolutely," he says.
"Even the filet?" I persist.
"Yes, sir," he says.
I conclude the waiter is either lying or clueless. Nobody serves USDA Prime filet anymore. It's practically impossible to come by, and not really all that desirable anyway. Only about 2 percent of beef makes the USDA Prime grade, and meat packers can make much more money by including the tenderloin (from which the filet comes) in T-bone and porterhouse cuts. Besides, a USDA Prime filet would be so tender it'd taste downright mushy.
I've been using this trick question for many years to gauge the scruples of steak houses and the training of the waitstaff. It may sound cynical, but I have learned the hard way that it's easy to get burned in a steak house. Employees are sometimes taught to play word games when customers ask about meat grades. The misleading statement "All of our steaks are prime" seems to answer the question, but in reality it means little more than "All of our steaks are just swell."
If your waitperson says something like "The porterhouse, strip, rib eye and T-bone are USDA Prime, and the filet is Black Angus," he probably knows his stuff. In which case you can proceed to the next question: "How is the meat aged?"
Dry-aging is the old-fashioned process. In this process, carcasses are hung for up to five weeks in a cool, well-ventilated meat locker at 85 percent relative humidity. During aging, natural enzymes break down proteins in the muscle fibers, resulting in improved tenderness. The meat also acquires a unique flavor. But dry-aging is costly, as the meat loses something like 6 percent of its weight every week.
In the last 20 years, wet-aging has replaced dry-aging. In wet-aging, the meat is simply sealed in Cryovac and set aside for a while. The same enzymes break down the same proteins, but without any loss in weight. Wet-aged steaks are often just as tender, and because they retain more water, they're juicer than dry-aged steaks. But when the steaks are sampled side by side, most people describe the taste of wet-aged steaks as "bloody" or "metallic," compared to the "dry" and "nutty" flavor of dry-aged beef.
The T-bone at Greenbriar Chophouse turns out to be simultaneously nutty and juicy. Owner Robert Martinez explains the pleasant paradox when I call him the next day. Martinez acknowledges that the filets at Greenbriar are not USDA Prime, and he apologizes for his waiter's misstatements. "I'm going to have to have a talk with the staff," he says.
"The rest of our steaks are USDA Prime. The meat is dry-aged for 30 days and then marinated and sealed in a Cryovac bag for an additional 15 days of wet-aging," Martinez tells me. I had never heard of both dry- and wet-aging before, but it's a clever idea. After picking up that nutty flavor during 30 days of dry-aging, the meat is sealed with a marinade containing salt and other spices. "The meat reabsorbs the liquid," according to Martinez. It becomes juicier, without the bloody taste, and absorbs the salt and spices deep into the steak.
The dry-wet aging technique used by Martinez's butcher in Nebraska is one of many innovations hitting the beef business lately. Consumer complaints about declining quality in the high-end steak market have triggered a push for higher standards. This is a major change in the cattle industry.
At the 1996 National Cattlemen's Beef Association convention in San Antonio, cattlemen were shell-shocked by the public's continuing aversion to beef. "According to the latest consumer research, 56 percent of Americans say they are eating less red meat," past president Bob Drake told attendees. "We simply must unite in our efforts to regain market share and improve our profit opportunities." Producing leaner beef was their focus at that time. It was also the focus of the USDA, which had changed the name of its USDA Good, the third grade after Prime and Choice, to USDA Select. (See "A Matter of Fat," August 2.)
The change in philosophy brought on a change in ranching techniques. To produce more USDA Select to meet consumer demand for leaner meat, ranchers began to feed their cattle differently. "We felt the [USDA] changes were positive," says Dr. Dan Hale, extension meat specialist at the Texas A&M Meat Science Center. "But they brought on the demise of the higher grades of beef -- well, not directly, but the demand for leaner beef put pressure on cattlemen."