Saturday, October 24, 2009

Beef... It's What's for Dinner

If there is one item in America that symbolizes success and wealth it's steak.  Because of the abundance of cattle lands in the midwest, it's the very heart of America's "meat and potatoes" cuisine.  While places like the Big Texan in Amarillo are the workin man's feast, the finer steakhouses like Keens Steakhouse in New York, are the equivalent of America's gentleman's club.   They conjure images of  black and white photos of political powerhouses and old boy networks, gathering to plot the future of government and business in America over a big bloody piece of meat, a glass of hard liquor, and only an unappetizing wedge of ignored iceberg lettuce as the only green in sight.   There is nothing more red blooded, two fisted, American than having a huge dripping slab of of red meat on your plate.

In the islands during my Po Po's time however, having a whole big steak all to yourself was practically unheard of.   It's true that Hawaii had our own cowboys.  People from the mainland are always surprised when I tell them that Parker Ranch on the Big Island is the largest independently owned ranch in the country (including Texas).   They're even more shocked when I tell them that our cowboys, the paniolos, who were originally taught by the gauchos of South America, frequently out-roped the Texas boys in competition back in those days.  However, while we did have access to the cattle, times were tougher then, and plantation workers were often on the poorer side.  My Po Po would tell me how when they were lucky enough to be able to buy a small steak, it would need to be split up amongst the whole family (which for her was like a dozen people).   You were lucky to get maybe a few small pieces.   Both my dad and my father-in-law will tell you, that's why gravy made from the steak was so important, because a little bit of the gravy over the rice meant that you could have some of the flavor even if you weren't privy to much of the actual meat.  But, as farmers from Asian countries weren't used to having so much meat in the first place, it wasn't such a stretch to slice the steak very thinly, so that even though you don't have much, everyone could enjoy a little with their rice and vegetables.    I think that's the concept that is what makes Blazin' Steaks so successful these days, and how they are able to serve a steak, rice, salad, and drink for their famous $6 price tag.  

What about when you finally did come into some money, and wanted to eat at a nice steak place?  My dad likes to tell the joke about the young man who all his life grew up eating only hamburger and never knew what a steak was, so when he was a bit older and finally saved up some money he went to a restaurant and orders a salisbury steak, and is dismayed when he's served another hamburger.  But Hawaii did have some nice places to go when he was just starting to be able to afford a steak.   My favorite place when I was a little kid was called Victoria Station.  I was too young to remember the food exactly (although my dad always considered theirs among the best), but as a little boy I could never forget the thrill of eating dinner inside of an actual railway boxcar parked on Kapiolani Blvd.  Not only has Victoria Station disappeared from our shores, but the enitre chain went bankrupt decades ago, and all that's left are memories even on the mainland.

Teppanyaki Chef at Kobe Steakhouse
Though a fine steakhouse may be the epitome of mainland cuisine, in the islands we of course would add our own island flair to our steakhouses.   Having such a large Japanese population, teppanyaki style steakhouses are of course very popular.    However, while audiences on the mainland thrill to the knife weilding, juggling acrobatics made famous by Benihana,  I always prefer our own local Kobe Steakhouse to the big mainland chain.   Images of Frank De Lima's old "Adventures of Kobe-San" commercials always come to mind, when I sit there and watch the teppanyaki chef work his magic.   Naturally, they've got all the gimmicky tricks, like the flaming onion volcano (a natural must being in Hawaii), but having the chef slice your steak perfectly and grill each individual piece ensures that each piece is perfectly cooked througout.   This is a sharp contrast to western steakhouses, where often the outside can get overcooked and the inside underdone.  Of course as a child of my generation, I can't help but associate teppanyaki steakhouses with that fateful scene from Robotech (or Macross in Japan) when Ben Dixon orders and begins eating his giant steak, just before getting called to scramble and being killed in combat.   The symbolism of the uneaten steak and the fragility of life is something I'll always carry with me. 

Flaming Onion Volcano at Kobe Steakhouse
Of course being in Hawaii, even our most famous mainland steakhouses will have some kind of local touch.  If you've ever walked into Hy's Steakhouse on Kuhio, you'll know that they are famous for their big broiler hidden behind a wall of glass and brass right in the middle of their old library themed dining room, like a big romantic fireplace.   But what is really memorable about the steaks at Hy's is that the fire upon which they smoke and broil their aged steaks is comprised of kiawe wood.   Kiawe as you may or may not know, is our own variety of mesquite.  Just as the volcanic soil and tropical climate make Maui onions and Kona coffee unique to their mainland counterparts, so does kiawe have its own unique smokiness.

My favorite steakhouse in the world however, would have to be Ruth's Chris Steakhouse at Restaurant Row.  They are originally a cajun/creole restaurant from New Orleans, and as such many of their dishes have a distinctly Southern flavor to them.   Their crabcakes, macaroni and cheese, and bread pudding all directly remind me of the style I had while visiting New Orleans.  But again, being in Hawaii, there are hints to our local flavor as well.   Ahi poke as an appetizer for example, is probably not something that you would find on the mainland.   But most significantly, they use Hawaiian salt to season all of their steaks here.   From the days when the old Hawaiians would pour ocean water over the lava rocks to let them dry, Hawaiian salt has given all of our local food it's unique taste  (exactly the same way New York water makes their pastrami unreproducable anywhere else).  So seasoning their steaks with Hawaiian salt, makes them taste completely different and local.

Cowboye Ribeye Steak at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
The best thing about Ruth's Chris is how they serve your steak on a sizzling 500 degree heated plate.  The one thing that I hate most about eating a steak, is how halfway through it gets cold, and the fats within it congeal making the entire thing totally unappetizing. With the heated plate, your steak stays warm and succulent throughout the meal.  Just walking in to Ruth's Chris, the butter that they brush over the plates (and steak) fills the air with an intoxicating, saliva inducing aroma.

Creamed Spinach at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
Even their side dishes are extremely rich at Ruth's Chris.   The creamed spinach is perhaps the most decadent vegetable you will ever eat.   Sure it's a leafy green, but with that much butter and cream, it becomes a completely sinful delight.  Their asparagus may be simply par boiled and crisp, but the fantastically creamy hollandaise sauce that accompanies makes it another guilty pleasure.   It may break the bank (and the waistline) to dine there, but I really love the place and can scarcely think of a more genuinely haute and oppulent venue for a celebration.

The sheer hedonism of enjoying such a huge steak often makes me wonder what my Po Po would've said if served one of those giant cowboy ribeyes.  Would she have enjoyed finally having one all to her own?  Or, coming from an era when she would have to share something less than a quarter of that size with a dozen other people, would eating the entire thing have just made her nauseous?  I wonder too if my son will ever really understand and appreciate how hard his family worked to get to the point we can afford to buy the steak he's enjoying.

1 comment:

  1. NO WAY would popo have finished that steak. She'd carve off a tiny piece and say "hoah, i'm just one tiny wahine. i no can finish all that". Then, she'd give the rest to dad.