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Steak is on the menu in all sorts of restaurants, but the best place to savor one is a dedicated steak house. Some notable steak houses are ranchland outposts, others expense-account palaces in downtowns across the land. Cities that are or were crucial to the cattle business tend to have grand ones: in Omaha, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Kansas City.
In the best steak houses, luxury reigns but frills are few, and dinner is a ritual with clarity of purpose. There will be other things on the menu, and fine ones at that (some of the choicest lobsters in New York are served in Manhattan’s prime steak houses); but steak is the focus and the reason customers pay a high price for the privilege of easing a sharp knife into hot, pink beef, inhaling intoxicating mineral perfume, and savoring ultimate carnivorous joy.
An exemplary steak house procures prime cuts that ordinary supermarket consumers never see and it cooks them at temperatures home grills do not attain. Plus, it serves all the good and proper companions, which can include (but are not limited to) crystalline martinis and cool seafood cocktails to start, heaps of well-seasoned hash brown potatoes to push through puddles of steak juice, creamed spinach, superb breadstuffs, and a block of cheesecake white as alabaster for dessert.
Compared to New York strips, filets mignon, and chateaubriand, chicken-fried steak is at the other end of the red-meat status scale. From the lower Midwest through Texas and beyond, it is served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in truck stops and diners. A typically sad one is a gristly tile of beef cased in batter that is sodden with frying oil and smothered with gluey white gravy. But at its best, chicken-fried steak is elegant, wrapped in shattering-crisp crust and gilded with peppery cream gravy, easily sliced with the edge of a fork – cowboy wiener schnitzel.
Some restaurant specialties that go by the name of steak are indeed made of beef, but really don’t fit the knife-and-fork definition of steak: Philly cheese steak, Chicago Italian-grocery breaded steak, steak pie, and steakburgers.
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