How Now Mad Cow?

For Texas cattle ranchers, "What's for dinner?" is a touchy question

Has prime beef gone to pot? To find out, we visited six Dallas prime steak houses with a Texas Culinary Academy graduate who did boot camp at The Mansion and Abacus before taking a post as senior chef instructor and meat specialist at Aims Culinary Academy. His name: Johannes Pot.

Kirby's Steakhouse, 3408 Preston Road, Plano. Established in 1954, Kirby's bills itself as "Dallas' original Steakhouse!" So our anticipation was high. The New York strip and sirloin had the goods at first blush. The meat was perfectly prepared with beautifully charred crusts and alluring rosy interiors. Lots of juice flooded the strip, while the sirloin was barely damp. "Watery, no texture, no fat," Pot says. The flavor evaporated with the final swallow, leaving no rich contrails to linger in the mouth. Flavors were one-dimensional without the sweetness one might expect with a beautifully caramelized crust. Prime conclusion: mime prime.

Stone Trail Restaurant, 14833 Midway Road. Stone Trail brags shamelessly. "Finest Quality Prime Steaks...Not just ordinary, it's extraordinary," swaggers the restaurant's Web site. We sniffed and ordered a rib eye and a New York strip, which arrived on a simple white plate. Juice dribbled from every fiber. Meat behaved like silk in the mouth, smudging it with a pronounced, sweet richness that lingered on and on. Both steaks flaunted exquisite charring and expert seasoning. "Oh, that's pretty," Pot says. Prime conclusion: Stone-cold hottie.

"Life's too short to eat cheap beef," says Richard Chamberlain of Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House.
Mark Graham
"Life's too short to eat cheap beef," says Richard Chamberlain of Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House.
Cattle aren't stupid, says Texas rancher James Fuqua, with wife Lisa and son Reason.
Cattle aren't stupid, says Texas rancher James Fuqua, with wife Lisa and son Reason.

Dunston's Prime Steak House, 5423 W. Lovers Lane. Dunston's has been serving steaks for about 35 years, and it prides itself on prime value. Steaks are cooked on an open mesquite grill. Smoke blankets the place. It swamps the steak, too. Our prime tenderloin and sirloin strip offered little else. No juice. No tenderness. No richness. Just fume. These are true hollow wonders, void even of grill bar stripes. "It's like they were steamed," Pot says. Prime conclusion: Smoking is hazardous to your prime.

Dakota's, 600 N. Akard St. Dakota's is one of the few venues offering dry-aged beef, though we didn't notice the anticipated extracted flavors in our bone-in cowboy rib eye and our Kansas City strip. Though well-charred and expertly seasoned, the steaks were tough, gristly, tepidly flavored and, in the case of the K.C. strip, riddled with pockets of soapy flavor. Prime conclusion: Put it on a rope.

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, 10477 Lombardy Lane. Pappas has its own dry-aging locker on the premises, which is ostensibly loaded with the one thing missing from most prime steak houses: the one bite that removes all doubts. "Prime ought to be just out there with the succulence, the robust flavor that you'd expect; a smacking-you-in-the-face type thing," Pot insists. After sampling the small rib eye with its bittersweet char crust and the New York strip with its exceptional tenderness and rich nutty flavors, doubts flocked off. This was special. Juices gushed. The flavor spectrum was broad, right through to the lingering finish. Prime conclusion: Turn the other cheek.

Paris Vendome, 3699 McKinney Ave. Other than rich flavor, the primary expectation of prime is tenderness. One thing you don't expect from prime is a need for power tools. Paris Vendome might want to consider offering them. Both steaks, a rib eye and a sirloin, were beautifully prepared to the casual glance. But the rib eye was infested with gristle, and the sirloin was so hard to cut that we boxed it up so we could finish it at our work bench. Flavors were bland, with that watery weakness we discovered at Kirby's. Prime conclusion: Order the freedom frites and oil up the Black & Decker.

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