52 Fords, Fallout Shelters and the Steakhouse Review Summary

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Note: Prices for all steakhouses and the scores reflecting the revamped Ringside Steakhouse were updated in August 2011.

There are times I just can’t help myself. I could just write a boring summary of the steakhouse project, even inserted some charts and graphs – and I love charts and graphs! However, I decided to go with my heart and tell you about a memory of long ago. I eventually get to the summary, but you’ll have to work for it, or you can just click here to jump past the sentimental stuff and go right to the spreadsheet. You’ve been warned.

On a recent warm night, I stuck my head out the window and smelled summer; the odor of fresh-cut grass and brush drying, triggering memories of long ago.

I’ve talked many times about my summers on the family ranch in Texas. I’ll never forget my last trip as a kid of 16. My grandmother was getting old, and we knew she wouldn’t be able to stay there alone much longer. My visit was as much to say goodbye to the ranch as it was for anything else, as I knew I probably wouldn’t be back again.

Much like the other trips, I pretty much hung out with my cousin Paul. He was the epitome of the Brad Pitt, aw shucks type – blond hair blue-eyed, complete with cowboy hat and a piece of straw dangling from his mouth, whereas I was a gawky nerd from the big city. I had one thing on him though, the ability to rewire the old 52 Ford truck he’d spent an entire year restoring. Grandmother had a barn full of everything from milk wagons, ancient tractors and a few old pickups, and he’d picked this one out for his own. The only problem was, the wiring had been eaten by various creatures, and was completely shot.

When we weren’t loading hay on the lumbering wagons lurching across the hot fields, we spent happy evenings rewiring the truck. Though it finally started, it wasn’t street legal, so quite a bit of our time consisted of roaring back and forth down the dirt ranch roads, the rusted exhaust system providing a tympani to our adventures, dust billowing behind.

That was a glorious time, fishing, catching snakes, building huge forts complete with tunnels out of bales of hay, and chasing the girls from the neighboring town of Maypearl. That’s where I learned the phrase, “She’s just naturally horizontal.” We didn’t have air conditioning; in those days it was just the “buzz” fans like they sell now for a small fortune at Restoration Hardware. On hot nights, grandmother would shepherd us out onto the old screened porch that wrapped around the ranch house, and we’d sleep on top of blankets, listening to the chorus of crickets. Fireflies winked into the night, and if you lay near the screen, you could see the palate of stars splashed across the sky; something new to a city kid like myself.

Grandmother, cirque 1917

Grandmother, 1917

The evenings were so hot we’d go to bed early, but grandmother would regale us with stories of years past; of a time when the ranch was booming with thousands of head of cattle, an active dairy, and a full complement of cowboys to manage it all. It sounded like a glorious time, and of course we drank it in, eager for new tales with every night.

One night she made a huge mistake. Grandmother started talking about the atomic bomb, and how scared they had been during the Cuban missile crisis. There was, she said, a fallout shelter still on the ranch, buried somewhere along the long dusty driveway to the main house. She told us not to go poking around it, but being children of the “drop- duck-and-cover” days of school, Paul and I looked at each other across the porch. We had a new summer goal.

The next day we set off. My Aunt would say it was “so hot the hens were laying hard-boiled eggs”, but we were determined, packing the Ford with ropes and shovels, and canteens with sweet Texas iced tea. I don’t know why we thought we’d need these things, but they sounded like a good idea at the time. The two ranch dogs, Sue and Wingo, looked at us from the shade of an old baler and refused to go.

Half way to the gate we came across an armadillo. I hadn’t seen one up close before, so Paul put on a baseball glove and caught it as it rolled up into a ball. After we poked at it for a while, he let it go, and we sat and watched as it finally unrolled and scuttled off under some old corrugated metal not far from the dust of the road. We drove on and started working our way back from the barbwire gate, digging here and there, but finding nothing, until we got close to where we’d let the poor animal go, and realized it had led us right to the shelter. Sure enough, once we pulled back the metal and carefully checked for copper-head snakes beneath, we found a depression in the ground, and just below, a heavy round metal door secured by a large chain.

We did our best to get the damn thing open, but to no avail. That’s when grandmother showed up, “madder than a wet hen”. Paul was sent home and I spent the afternoon on the front porch shucking peas for punishment, doing my best to look terribly forlorn. Later that day, she showed up from old Mr. Jackson’s place with lugs of okra and tomatoes, and a bushel of corn. Grandmother gave me a hug and said she could never stay mad, she was just afraid of what might be lurking down there in the dark. We pulled big steaks out of the refrigerator and brought them up to room temperature before carrying them outside to the grill. Paul’s family showed up along with some distant relatives from Dallas, and we cooked up a feast. One of the men grilled them low and slow with a quick sear, medium-rare steaks with nothing but salt and pepper, from cattle that had been raised on the grass and maize grown in the fields surrounding us.

I never got to see the fallout shelter. Grandmother eventually moved to California where we often reminisced about Texas, until she died at 98 years old. Her death was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, but I managed to deal with it, until, many years later I had an urge for something different and ordered a steak a Paley’s Place – a 40-day dry-aged ribeye with creamed greens. I took a bite, and then another and everything about that hot summer barbecue so long ago rushed back like a wave. I had to excuse myself from the table and step away from the porch for a few moments to regain my composure; it was the first steak I have had since that was as good as the one on that warm Texas evening. I’ve ordered it several times since, and, though it varies from week to week, I won’t forget that Paley’s steak either. As I headed into the steakhouse reviews, it was my benchmark for all the meals to come.

I went into the project without any real idea of how it was going to turn out, but half way through my first meal at Ruth’s Chris, I turned to my companions and said, “This is going to be interesting.” I had anticipated that the food would be pretty good, but the meal clearly wasn’t meeting those expectations. Thus began a long and surprising sojourn into the steak house scene.

Take a look at the first chart:

First of all, as I finished the first meal at Ruth’s Chris, I never expected that, overall, it would score equal to Morton’s, though with the poor rating for extremely bad service backed out, Morton’s would have a higher score. It just wasn’t that great, and I expected the others to be better. For the prices, I was surprised that none of the restaurants did terribly well. It seems that none of the chains can do a really good meal from start to finish. Is it so difficult to make a good Caesar salad? A few sides? Even though both Ringside and El Gaucho had a few problems, the experience at both was good, and I would return to either, though El Gaucho would be my preference.

On the first version of this roundup, Ringside scored lower than two other restaurants. Then it moved to a temporary location in Fox Tower, and now, after a major remodel, it is back in the original location.  The score changed with each iteration, but interestingly enough, in my experience the location in the tower was best. On my final visit, the meat just wasn’t up to previous quality; perhaps they have changed to offset rising prices.

Here is the spreadsheet showing prices. I’ve added the cost of corkage, and after my speed meal at Morton’s, I looked up the length of time each meal took and added it too:

The price spread from the lowest at Ringside to the highest at El Gaucho is $64. Is El Gaucho worth the difference? That depends on what you are looking for. If I just want a good steak dinner at a ‘reasonable’ price, I’d go to Ringside. However, if it is a special occasion, especially something romantic, I will head to El Gaucho. More likely than anything else, I’ll buy some really good meat, invite family and friends, start the barbecue, and grill them myself, taking pause to smell the summer air, and think of waving fields of grass and fallout shelters.

This is the summary of a group of four steakhouse reviews. You can see the:

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. sgm says

    I love it! What a great recollection of summer memories. And this is what food is about- those mysterious, comforting and satisfying links to the past.

  2. Dave J. says

    That was great, Food Dude, really great. Reading your intro made me think of “All The Pretty Horses,” where the kid realizes that changes are coming to his Texas home, and sets off for a new frontier to avoid them.

    As for the steakhouses, I really do wish you’d add Laurelhurst Market to the list. I took my brother and sister-in-law, who were visiting from NYC, there the other night, and it was phenomenal. I had the 28 day aged porterhouse, and it was a revelation. All the other dishes — I had the sherry chicken liver mousse — were top notch. Having eaten at Ruth’s Chris a year or so ago, it wasn’t even close. Laurelhurst by a country mile.

    • Food Dude says

      I will add Laurelhurst as soon as I can afford it (and my body recovers;). However, it is difficult to compare them directly, as, looking at their menu, it doesn’t really offer the same cuts I’ve been using as the benchmark. Will do my best.

  3. bananadan says

    >>More likely than anything else, I’ll buy some really good meat, invite family and friends, start up the barbeque, and and grill them myself<<

    That's the main thing I take away from your spreadsheet and reviews – – why go to those restaurants in the first place. A very superior piece of writing.

  4. Kai says

    Good read, Dude! I know you some folks right back there with this piece, but the great thing is it makes someone like me, who never was there feel it too. For anyone who just clicked through, you missed some good writing.

  5. says

    I believe someone reported not too long ago that the local Shula’s outpost has closed (perhaps not surprising, considering that as far as I can tell, they never so much as advertised the word that the place had opened).

    I think I made the original comment, way back in the pre-survey thread, about looking at Stanford’s. What I hadn’t realized until FD pointed it out in a much more recent comment thread is that the Stanford’s menu has been considerably revamped over the years, and the most recent changes have de-emphasized steaks. Since they no longer serve the cuts FD was comparing at the other steak houses, it would have been difficult to do a direct comparison.

    Meanwhile, I — and several other commenters — have since shifted gears and suggested that Sayler’s would be worth including in the survey….

  6. Lur Kerr says

    Wow FD, picturing you at Paley’s “excusing (your)self” made me well up, and I wanted to thank you for confirming how much childhood flavor memories affect our palates as we age. I honestly wish you would post essays like this more often.

  7. Pascal says

    I love when you write those stories. Please do it more often, or start a book, it is so worth it.
    Sure beats the O!

  8. Matt Smedley says

    I agree with many of the comments so far…. the writing was the star of this recap. Nicely done. Makes me want to go home and grill a steak for dinner tonight. :)

  9. says

    Thank you for the fantastic story; so wonderfully written. And the stats of your review are very interesting. Must try Paley’s (wouldn’t really think to for a steak) and Laurel Market. Thank you.

  10. Gary says

    Great series though I’m not surprised by the outcome. I would have bet on El Gaucho anytime.

    I’d be interested in why you didn’t include Shula’s Steakhouse. I haven’t been there but I thought it was supposed to compete with the likes of Ruth Chris.

    Also, you talked about including Stanfords.

    gary

    • Good Food For Me says

      Shula’s is closed and actually I had gone there quite a few times and polled some other people that I know dine there for business both dinner and lunch – they all thought it was the best steak in Portland – but, you know they just did not advertise that they were in business. My people polled also enjoyed El Gaucho a lot but thought the quality and presentation at Shula’s was better. On the East Coast they have tons of restaurants and are big players – here – they did not even make it to first down! Makes me sad. They did the steak cart thing which is widely criticized on this site, but after several dinners there I can see the point. A lot of people simply do not know cuts of meat. Yes, they are going to a steak house and should, but the fact is the fact so if they can see it they order what they want and not something they did not. When you pay that much you want what you want. Also, they only bring the cart if it is apparent that people do not know what they want. Anyway, they are gone now so…… back to El Gaucho or Ringside for us.

  11. says

    I also loved the nostalgic story about your childhood adventures and the almost Proustian moment when you tasted that steak at Paley’s. I’ve had that steak and it is wonderful but I wish I’d had that flood of memories too. Thanks so much for such an evocative piece of writing that segues into the spreadsheet.

  12. says

    “More likely than anything else, I’ll buy some really good meat, invite family and friends, start up the barbeque, and and grill them myself”

    That’s the main thing I take away from your spreadsheet and reviews – – why go to those restaurants in the first place. A very superior piece of writing.

  13. benschon says

    I don’t get steak houses. Buying and grilling steak at home is as good or better with respect to the food, and, what, 1/4 the price? I eat out for food I can’t do myself, e.g., the cod fritters at Toro Bravo, banh mi sandwiches, pozole.

    • Papaki says

      Agreed! The steaks I get in restaurants — especially in Portland — are never as good as the ones I grill simply at home. And nothing is as easy to cook.

      Now chicken is another matter entirely; whenever I make it at home, it never seems to be quite as juicy/tender/flavorful as what I can routinely get in any good Portland restaurant.

      THAT is what Food Dude ought to be comparing: Who serves Portland’s best chicken?

  14. JandJ says

    Absolutely terrific, FD. I’ll join the chorus of folks who really enjoy this sort of piece and hope you’ll do more like it. You have a real gift for hitting an emotional chord. I’ve had a similar reaction to some wonderful dinners we’ve had at Paley’s as well… not just steak, but other dishes that somehow triggered a fond memory perhaps of something familiar from my childhood.

    One last comment on eating steak out. I suspect many of us are capable of making one hell of a steak at home. But the very best ones that I’ve had at Paley’s and El Gaucho are somehow still special and just not the same. Whether it’s the quality of the meat, some other nuance of preparation, or simply the joy of eating out at a great restaurant… it just ain’t the same. It’s not an every day thing (thank goodness… FD’s adventure would have probably killed me), but when it’s REALLY good, there’s no substitute IMHO.

  15. jimster says

    The Delmonico steaks you can get through Chop (and, likely, other butcher’s like Phil’s, I just happen to use Chop) right now are outrageously good. Thick, buttery, meaty goodness. Really, the best beef I’ve put on the grill in a long time.

  16. Ouroboros says

    Lovely summary, and serious research. Thank you!

    It would be wonderful to see reviews of some other restaurants (Paley’s, Urban Farmer, Lincoln) along a parallel line to these four steakhouses. As you yourself note, you favor Paley’s for the canonical steakhouse dinner. And other restaurants in Portland offer similar.

    • Food Dude says

      I’m always working on more reviews as $$ permit. Look for a slew of old review updates soon, as well as a few new ones.

  17. Food Dude says

    I said thanks for all the positive comments before, but that was the day of the database crash, so I want to say it again. I really appreciate the nice feedback!

  18. matt says

    Great article FD. And one more steak recommendation: I had the Delmonico tonight at Nel Centro. It’s a bone-in NY strip and the steak was heaven. The porcini butter on top and potato gratin side didn’t hurt either!

  19. Patrick says

    Too bad you didn’t include Urban Farmer. The best steak house in town. You probably ran out of money? Gaucho doesn’t even dry age their own beef. You should be more aware of your surroundings Food Dude

    • Food Dude says

      “You should be more aware of your surroundings Food Dude”

      You win the award for the dumbest comment of the week. First of all, El Gaucho does dry-age their steaks. I did go to Urban Farmer. Found it forgettable. Maybe it has changed. If you are going to make stupid comments, get your ducks in line first.

  20. DDN says

    I have to agree with a few others that mentioned some of the best steaks are coming out of Laurelhurst Market. Superb food all around including the best wedge salad I have ever had.

    With that said, a sunny day in Portland charcoal grilling my own dry aged steaks with a cold cocktail in hand is pretty hard to top.

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