High Steaks Game

Where's the beef? It's on our plates at local restaurants, but it's costing us more, particularly for the prime, dry-aged cuts of cow Valley restaurant diners so treasure.

Americans suddenly can't get enough of the fleshy food, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association reporting that the nation is undergoing a record-breaking binge of beef consumption. Part of the rush on beef is because of our robust economy -- steak is status food for most of us. Part of the increase comes from our growing appetites -- more people than ever before are ordering enormous cuts of meat, with single diners even ordering cuts meant for two. A spokeswoman for the Valley's newest steak house, Angelo and Maxie's at 24th Street and Camelback, says two of its most popular cuts are the gut-busting 28-ounce prime rib and the blackened rib eye.

To meet the demand, restaurants are increasing prices, and, according to some reports, cutting back on the aging time, a process that lends added flavor and tenderness to cuts.

In Phoenix, Harris' chef David Battersby says that while he hasn't had difficulty keeping his beef orders filled, he has seen a dramatic price increase over the last month -- from $3.85 a pound to $4.50 a pound for Certified Angus Midwestern Omaha steak. A menu from the fall lists the best-selling 24-ounce porterhouse for $32; currently it sells for $34.

Even select and choice grade beef has nudged up in price locally, commanding a dollar more on this year's menu for Chili's eight-ounce tenderloin and 12-ounce strip, Bill Johnson's nine-ounce sirloin and 12-ounce ranch cut, and Don & Charlie's prime rib.

The good news is that while we're anteing up more pounds of flesh for meat, some local steak houses are planning ahead to retain quality. Harris' dry ages its beef for three weeks, and goes through about 1,000 pounds of meat a week. To ensure that Battersby doesn't have to raid his aging cases, he's been laying in larger quantities, with his most recent order for 32 short loins, double that of the summer. Next week, he plans on stocking 38 loins.

"The more aging, the better the flavor," says Battersby. "But it's really expensive for the restaurant. Over the process, I can expect to lose 20 to 30 percent [of the meat's weight] in shrinkage."

It could be worse for local beef lovers. Over the past few months, Mexico has begun to run out of cows of any kind. So has Zimbabwe. France, Ireland and Germany are being forced to destroy hundreds of thousands of cattle plagued with mad cow disease.

Order now, or forever hold your beef.


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