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The Best Steakhouses In the West

The Best Steakhouses In the West

WHERE’S THE BEEF? GO TO ANY OF THESE MEAT-LOVING RESTAURANTS,
AND YOU’LL HAVE YOUR ANSWER-AND A GREAT MEAL BESIDES.

by John Mariani

A great steak is not a subject Americans take lightly.

In the John Ford Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance John Wayne almost gets into a duel at a restaurant with Lee Marvin, who trips waiter Jimmy Stewart, sending a slab of beef onto the floor.

“That’s my steak, Valance,” growls The Duke, putting his hand on his pistol. “You pick it up.” Marvin snarls back, but he does pick up that steak.

Okay, that’s a little extreme, but men-and I do mean men, because women love steak but don’t make a fetish out of it-will argue endlessly over which steakhouse serves the best sirloin, tenderloin, T-bone, or porterhouse, and debate which serves the perfect martini, the crispiest hash browns, the ripest tomato salad, and the creamiest cheesecake. Steakhouses are a genuinely American genre and examples of our exuberant largess when it comes to eating out.

Guys want the best beef and are willing to pay for it-never even shrugging at $35 sirloins and a $20-a-pound lobsters-without potatoes or vegetables. But try to get them to pay $30 for sea bass at a French or Italian restaurant. Sadly, they may not actually be getting the best , or at least not the kind of superior prime beef that New York steakhouses like The Palm and Peter Luger once monopolized. The problem is that prime beef is in short supply these days (its’ never been more than about 5 percent of the beef market), and the preferred dray-aged carcasses nearly impossible to obtain at any price. Nearly all the prime beef in the market now is cut up and placed in Cryovac bags (called “wet aging”) to be shipped around the country.

The chains have tried to dominate that market, so you’ll find a Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, Plam, Capital Grille, and Smith & Wollensky in dozens of American cities. The argument might be made that their buying in volume guarantees they get the best meat. But that just isn’t so. The market is so tight that the best beef is more likely to be found at individually owned steakhouses whose owners fight, connive, and plead to get the best beef, and pay top dollar for it. The independents also seem to purvey a far more personal style, both in decor and service, because the owner is often the first and last guy you see in his restaurant, and he wants you back soon.

I’m a red-meat man and proud of it. Of course I’ll eat a nicely prepared sea bass, but I’ll never turn down a medium-rare steak. I’ve enjoyed them all around the country, but maybe never more so than in the West, which, being cattle country, is rich with wonderful steakhouses. Here then are what I consider the best in the West:

JESS & JIM’S

Opened in 1938 as a bar-and-grill and at its current location since 1957, Jess & Jim’s is so damn lovable in the best sense of Midwestern hospitality that it’s worth the 30-minute drive from downtown K.C. It’s set right next to the railroad tracks, so you get to hear that K.C. locomotive when she moans on by. You can’t miss it, since there’s a larger-than-life-size statue of a steer on the roof.

They proudly hang their meat in the window to dry and intensify the flavor, and you’ll be happy you waited in line for a table. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but you can all an hour ahead and get put on a list. Tuck into the 25-ounce K.C. Playboy Strip or the 30-ounce porterhouse and a twice-baked potato, itself tipping the scales at a pound, weighed down further by sour cream, bacon, and cheese. Skip dessert, which you definitely will not need to starve off hunger for the next two days. There is now a wine list, but it’s not what you’d call a connoisseur’s selection. On some Fridays there’s a lounge singer who croons “Sinatra, Dean Martin, Neil Diamond, and more.” And J&J’s is getting fancy. They now take credit cards.