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Quest for Prime 

Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
Alfred's Steak House
659 Merchant (at Kearny), 551-1590. Open Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; dinner served nightly 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet $6, or use Portsmouth Square city garage on Kearny and Clay. Muni: 15, 41. Sound level: pleasant hum.

2100 Van Ness (at Pacific), 673-1888. Open Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet $5. Muni: 12, 27, 83, and all Van Ness lines. Sound level: quiet hum over soft jazz; live jazz Thursday through Saturday.

House of Prime Rib
1906 Van Ness (at Washington), 885-4605. Open Monday through Friday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 4:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly advised. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet $4. Muni: same as Harris'. Sound level: moderately loud, with '40s big band jazz on sound system.

Izzy's Steaks & Chops
3345 Steiner (at Lombard), 563-0487. Open Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Reservations strongly advised. Downstairs dining room is wheelchair accessible. Parking: validated at Lombard Street Garage (lotsa luck finding a slot!). Muni: 22, 28, 30, 43, 76. Sound level: raucous in the bar, loud but bearable upstairs and in back-room booths.

A great piece of beef is a lot more than just a slab of dead cow.
Though San Francisco has never shared New York's or Chicago's near-ritualistic devotion to steakhouses, large and varied congregations attend all four of the city's favorite beef temples. Their devotion is fired by meat of a richness, flavor, and tenderness that you simply cannot buy at the supermarket: The great, flavorful, fat-marbled American beef of the 1950s has nearly disappeared from retail sources; the reason that the best cut of Safeway Select (or even the Harris Beef at Cala) doesn't taste like a steak at Harris' or the prime rib at Izzy's is that they're literally not the same animal.

"Mom would have scorned most of the beef, pork and lamb we buy in the supermarket," write Bruce Aidells and Dennis Kelly in their terrific The Complete Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). "Beef and lamb lack the succulent texture and robust flavors we remember." Today's meat is deliberately bred and raised to be far leaner (hence, dryer and less flavorful) than the great, rich Prime- and Choice-grade beef that Americans ate at midcentury. That's why, on special occasions, we go to steakhouses and wallow in scrumptious nostalgia. It may not be "good for you" -- though pleasure is surely as good for the heart as fat is bad for it -- but unlike some other indulgences, a single dose is unlikely to prove fatal.

USDA grades don't rate the wholesomeness of the meat, but the amount of "marbling" (thin streaks of intramuscular fat) in the meat, particularly in the tender, little-exercised muscles of the rib-loin wholesale cut, where the best steaks and roasts come from. The Prime grade, currently awarded to only 2 percent of all American beef, rarely reaches retail; what's left after exports to Japan is sold almost entirely to restaurants. (Prime rib, by the way, isn't necessarily Prime-grade meat -- it's short for "primal" rib, the trade name for the wholesale cut.)

The Choice grade used to be pretty close to Prime, but no longer: In 1988, responding to the public's health concerns about animal fat, the USDA changed its grading system, expanding its Choice category to include some meat that previously would have rated merely Good (a grade that was simultaneously renamed Select to make it sound better). Today's Choice grade accounts for a generous 45 percent of all American beef, and 21 percent is Select (as in Safeway Select). The rest, mostly equivalent to Select, is left ungraded to allow supermarket chains to give it their own names. The worst ungraded meat goes into canned foods, pet food, and hospital and airline meals (just kidding about those last -- uh, I hope).

An additional deliciousness-factor is dry-aging, which consists of literally hanging the rib or rib-loin primals at a controlled cold temperature for two to three weeks. The meat not only grows more tender, but shrinks considerably, condensing and intensifying the "beefy" taste -- and, of course, making it more expensive to the seller as well as the buyer.

We began our Quest for Prime at Harris', generally regarded as the city's standard-bearer for beef. Owner Ann Harris is a member of the Harris Ranch family, and ages her corn-fed beef at the restaurant -- you can see some of it in the front window.

Inside, there's a little retail counter and a handsome bar-lounge to one side. The dining room is clubby with dark red oak wood and huge brass chandeliers. Most seating is in booths, with overstuffed fabric cushions at boothlets for couples and curved leather banquettes for groups. The latter are so deep -- sized for towering captains of industry? -- that I felt like a 5-year-old seated at the grown-ups' table. Looking around, we noticed silver-haired parents with their grown offspring and thirtysomething couples enjoying an evening of meat and romance.

My little heart just broke when I realized that Harris' has dropped its perfect calf brains in browned butter -- perhaps patrons fear Mad Dogie Disease. I consoled myself with a superlative rib-eye steak ($25), about 12 ounces of beautifully charred, well-salted, well-aged, well-marbled, fabulously beefy rare beef. It's a less tender but more flavorful cut than the loin cuts (e.g., New York, Porterhouse, T-bone, or soft, tasteless filet mignon, my least favorite of all steaks. If you do love filet, Harris offers two classic preps that pump up the flavor -- steak Diane for $25, and filet Rossini, with foie gras and black truffle, for $30). Our slab of boneless prime rib ($25) was also gorgeous-looking, rare as requested, with a small outer strip of salty, delicious well-done meat. Surprisingly, though, for a rib cut, the inner meat seemed bland, lacking the expected rich beef-fat flavor. Furthermore, there's no Yorkshire pudding to go with it -- a cardinal sin (of omission)!

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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