By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
I tried to butterfly the meat, but finally I gave up, put it on my handy Krups home meat slicer and cut it into slices about one-fifth of an inch thick. I pounded the meat very thin and seasoned it with my usual chili and garlic rub, with some Adolph's Meat Tenderizer added.
The chuck steak won the taste test. The meat market-marinated inside skirt came in second. The ribbon-cut short ribs were good, but they didn't look like fajitas. The boneless short rib meat was so tender it fell apart. In subsequent experiments I cut boneless short rib a little thicker and forgot the Adolph's. Marinated in a pineapple juice and soy sauce mixture, it was my favorite new fajita stand-in. I am going to start experimenting with flatiron steaks and tri-tip steaks next.
Of course, those aren't traditional fajitas.
Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth seats up to 1,500 people when all the patios are open. Fajitas are by far the most popular order—the tender beef served there takes no effort at all to chew, but it doesn't have a lot of flavorful char or coarse-grained character either.
"We use tenderloin for our fajitas," said Joe T.'s owner, Jody LanCarte.
I was shocked.
Christine Lopez Martinez, the manager of Matt's Rancho Martinez in Dallas, another restaurant with great fajitas, said Matt's uses the same cut. "We use beef tenderloins," she said. "We brush the meat with our Black Magic sauce when it comes off the grill—and that's it."
The tenderloin they were talking about wasn't the prime or choice stuff you eat in fancy steakhouses. Matt's Rancho Martinez uses USDA select, while Joe T.'s uses ungraded tenderloin.
Below USDA prime, choice and select, there are the USDA standard, commercial, utility and canner grades. You never see these in restaurants or grocery stores, but that doesn't mean you aren't eating them. USDA inspection is mandatory for all meat plants. Most people assume this means all meat is graded—it's not. USDA grading is a service that meat processors can elect to pay extra for. And it costs a lot of money.
A prime, choice or select grade brings a bonus price; lesser grades don't add anything to the bottom line. Meatpackers don't waste money getting older or less muscled steers graded. But the meat still gets sold. It's called ungraded beef. Ungraded tenderloin, known as cow tenders in the meat trade, is relatively cheap and very tender. Compare the price of ungraded tenderloin or sirloin to USDA choice inside skirt steak, and you begin to understand that meat quality is not as simple as the labels make it seem.
In our final day of Beef 101, we sat in a classroom eating little chunks of beef in plastic cups and rating them on a 1-to-10 scale for a variety of sensory evaluation factors including juiciness, tenderness and overall impression. We checked off flavor notes on a list that included fatty, bloody, livery, grassy, soda, salt, chemical, bitter, soapy, metallic and a taste researchers describe as "cardboard."
The first thing that became apparent as we raised our hands to vote for sample A or sample B was that we all had different tastes in beef. The class compared select to choice and prime, wet-aged to dry-aged, grass-fed to grain-fed, and Angus to Charolais and Brahma genetics. We assessed the palatability of beef—which was stripped of labels, prejudices and romantic steakhouse ambience—like meat scientists.
The results were surprising. The vast majority of the class preferred wet-aged beef, despite the exalted reputation of expensive dry-aging. And a USDA prime rib eye sample was scored lower by most of the class on overall impression than one particular piece of USDA choice.
The recession is surely part of the reason that business is off at luxury steakhouses and cheaper beef cuts are in demand. But a lot of consumers and restaurant chefs have been getting tired of steak anyway. "I love secondary cuts—choice tenderloin is boring," Mark Mavrantonis said. "There's a lot more character in brisket, short ribs, skirts and some of these other new cuts."
Tenderloin or fajitas? Prime, choice or select? I used to put a lot of faith in those names, whether I encountered them in restaurants or on the styrene packages of meat in the grocery store. Now I know better. What you are looking for is flavor.