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Save Our Steak

The mad cow scare might be over, but is it too late to save the chopped steak from extinction?

11:00 PM, Feb 22, 2004 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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EVERY SO OFTEN, an item on a menu that has been a constant for years will suddenly vanish. You might still be able to order it by special request, but sooner or later you will ask yourself, Whatever happened to the Waldorf salad? What happened is it became extinct. In "Kitchen Confidential," chef Anthony Bourdain remembers such dishes from his days in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) circa 1975, including "cauliflower in Mornay sauce, saddle of veal Orloff, lobster thermidor . . . chicken Hawaiian, grilled ham steak with pineapple ring and old-style lumbering classics like beef Wellington." All of which have been relegated to the ash heap of culinary history. Could a true American classic like the chopped steak be next?

So far as we know, the first recorded case of mad cow disease in the United States is also the only case. And while Congress will continue scrutinizing the USDA's surveillance system, the general public can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that for now, nothing will stand between them and a juicy steak. But what about ground beef? After all, the one cow with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow") found its way into eight states plus Guam as hamburger patties. Wary consumers may opt for steak sandwiches rather than chopped steak--a choice that could ultimately lead to its extinction from the menu.

THERE WAS A TIME when ground beef was feared. A century ago, it bore the stigma of being "poor people's food." Back then, according to "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser, "restaurants rarely served hamburgers; they were sold near lunch carts near factories, at circuses, carnivals, and state fairs. Ground beef, it was widely believed, was made from old, putrid meat heavily laced with chemical preservatives." Not until the 1920s and the arrival of White Castle, which enforced stricter and healthier standards, did that perception change. Nevertheless, before World War II, the most popular meat in America was pork. Today, that is no longer the case, as Americans, on average, consume roughly 64.4 pounds of beef per year (compared with 49.8 pounds of pork and 50 pounds of chicken).

Even so, ground beef may be in jeopardy. For instance, if you go to site that boasts "The World's Greatest Recipe Collection"--you will not find a single entry for the phrase "chopped steak." (Type-in "sea bass" and you get 85 hits.) Go to a restaurant and odds are you will not find it on the menu there, either. But what about a great steakhouse?

THE CAUCUS ROOM is located between the Capitol and the White House in Washington, D.C.--a fitting spot since it aims to bring together politicians in a nonpartisan setting. (Two of the restaurant's partners are Democratic insider Tom Boggs and Republican governor Haley Barbour.) In a dark, wood-paneled barroom, I meet with general manager Ed D'Alessandro and executive chef Richard Beckel. I point out that a chopped steak is featured on the Caucus Room's website. D'Alessandro admits that the online menu needs to be updated. "Chopped steak has been gone from the menu for some time," he says. "When we redo our menus, we check the menu mixes that will tell you what's selling and what's not. The chopped steak was not one of our more popular items."

But just when all seemed hopeless, Beckel, a hulk of a man with a boyish face, chimes in, saying, "We do it by request." A customer simply needs to ask for it--and what he gets is worth the wait. According to the chef, "We use ground Kobe beef, broil it, cook it to whatever temperature you like, then cover it with onions, mushrooms, and a sauce similar to gravy that we make here." How often has he had to do this? "Just once." The CIA-trained Beckel doesn't recall having to prepare the dish in class but both he and D'Alessandro grew up in the New York area and are familiar with the old war horse.

Beckel, originally from Rockland County, New York, remembers the old diners that served it "with a dark gravy and a side of mashed potatoes. It was a hamburger that offered the vegetable of the day or salad and fries. But it was also bigger. It was like two hamburgers, oval-shaped." He also reminds me of the distinction between chopped steak and Salisbury steak, "which is usually made with a filler in it. It's not grilled but sautéed or braised." (As far as regular steaks go, Beckel enjoys the bone-in ribeye, medium rare to medium, simply prepared with salt and pepper. "And no steak sauce," adds D'Alessandro. "Don't ever put steak sauce on the table.")