Hunters 1, gatherers 0

At Kirby's, stick to the meat of the matter

Along with the return to mythical "family values," an old-fashioned emphasis on the three "R's" in school, and, of course, the Wonderbra, comes another look backward through rose-colored glasses: the renaissance of that original American meal, steak and potatoes.

Even back before the Revolution, there was a "Beef-Stake Club" in Philadelphia, according to The American Dictionary of Food and Drink, where I turned for a little insight into the history of the American passion for bloody beef. Skipping right on over the part about Upton Sinclair, I found that by the 1920s Europeans called us a "nation of beefeaters," which I thought was an English term and had something to do with gin. Anyway, by the Seventies, Americans ate about 114 pounds of beef per person per year, but in the past few decades, that's declined sharply--in 1980, down to only 78.2 pounds, or a little less than a Quarter-Pounder--le royale--a day.

Leaving history and resorting to pure speculation, I would guess that we're inching back up again, at least in Dallas, where steakhouses are the only kind of restaurant that seems sure to remain solvent. In fact, they seem such a good bet that we're reviving the dead ones, and one of the most-anticipated dining events of the year is the reopening of Kirby's Steakhouse on Greenville.

Some significant things happened in 1954--I was born, for one thing. And B.J. Kirby opened a steakhouse on Greenville Avenue--the first specialty steak restaurant in Dallas, according to both (local) legend and the new owners of Kirby's. For a lot of Dallasites, Kirby's was like a church; they marked important family occasions--births, graduations, first dates, jobs, anniversaries --with a sacrificial steak. B.J. retired and closed the restaurant in 1987. He died this past February, but not until he had passed the Kirby's flame to a neighbor, Jim Ingram, who opened the current Kirby's two blocks down from the razed original. The whole touching story, including the part about the birthdays and anniversaries, is printed on the back of the menu, and there's a display of memorabilia about the old Kirby's to fan the flame.

Well, nostalgia will get 'em there once, but the beef has to bring them back.

Steak is definitely a "guy thing," as Phoebe from "Friends" would say. It's the hunter's, as opposed to the gatherer's, meal. I guess that's why steakhouses tend to look like men's clubs--their decoration calls for nailed leather, dim lighting, dark wood. Certainly I remember the old Kirby's as a dark place--lit, probably, by those votive candles encased in plastic fishnet. The new Kirby's is very Nineties, very designed, very good-looking, with a Texas accent. Gorgeous etched glass panels top the room dividers, the bar which separates the dining rooms is of dark carved wood, and there's a big painting of James Dean--the poster picture from Giant--on the faux brick wall at the back. Of course there are horn fixtures--that's the "guy" thing again, and plenty of lone stars around.

It's the kind of place where you should start dinner with a strong cocktail, so we did. Spirits are required before meat. And we were tempted by the shrimp cocktail, which used to be the correct appetizer for a steak dinner. Instead, adventurously, we tried the new-sounding grilled salmon tostada appetizer and probably made a mistake. I had pictured big flakes of fish with a slightly smoky taste from the grill and some creamy avocado dice; instead I got a plate of grocery store chips, round, yellow and coarse, piled with little chips of salmon in a lime-cilantro bath with a little mushed avocado. In other words, I think I could have prepared this dish better myself. Our other appetizer, stuffed red chilis, probably arrived at Kirby's frozen; the stiff red-crusted footballs broke open to reveal a perfectly white runny cream cheese interior.

The famous pink garlic salad dressing is a "must" for Kirby's cognoscenti--it's hard to say why, exactly, except that it's probably better than the bleu cheese. The stuff is slightly gelid, definitely pink (not a good color over green) and I suppose this dressing was appealing when garlic was still an ethnic flavor in middle-American cooking. But U.S. salads have come a long way in my lifetime and I see no reason to step back into the dark ages for nostalgia's sake. I like iceberg lettuce just fine, but a cold bowl of it doesn't make a good salad, primarily because it doesn't taste like anything, especially when it's been chilled into submission.

But face it, at a steakhouse nothing much matters but the meat itself, and in the meat department, Kirby's was all you could wish for unless, like me, you wished for a smaller strip. Still, I know that enormous portions are another given at steakhouses, along with waiters who don't understand salad dressings and rich desserts, so I ordered the extra-cut strip (a full pound) and it was juicy, rich, red as ordered, crusty on the outside, a totally indulgent, beef-eating experience. My friend ordered the middle-sized (12 ounces--there were 8 and 16 available--Goldilocks would have been happy) serving of prime rib and it was a thick raspberry-pink slab of fat-edged meat. In reference to another deceased restaurant, it was done "Randy Tar" style with seasonings stuffed under the rim of fat, so the meat was self-basting. We tried one non-beef item, the green chili shrimp: they were good, firm things curled under a coating of tart salsa verde over pecan rice.

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