Short Loin Legends
Regarding the fleeting nature of human achievement, I'm reminded of the words of that controversial icon of early cinema, director D.W. Griffith, who once stated, "Movies are written in sand: applauded today, forgotten tomorrow." Some movies more than others, I reckon. Griffith's sentiment also applies to great and not-so-great meals and the words penned after them. All the same, it remains my grand ambition to leave my lasting mark on this Earth. Well, at least on Phoenix. Perhaps there could be a marble statue erected over the rubble of some local restaurant I've obliterated with my verbiage. Or maybe an annual "Lemons Day" parade down Central Avenue. Hey, whatever the city can afford. I'm flexible.
Until they pass a bond measure to fund one or the other, I'll start with a spot on the wall of the venerable Durant's as part of its illustrious Porterhouse Club. Since 1996, this 55-year-old chophouse has offered fearless gourmands a pathway to gastronomic glory: Ingest its 48-ounce porterhouse steak in one sitting and your name will be engraved on a brass plate affixed, along with others, to one of several planks of polished wood in Durant's north room.
According to Russell Hoag, general manager and part-owner of the old-school-cool eating establishment, more than 900 diners have accepted the challenge at $67.50 a pop and prevailed over the giant slab of meat. They thereby have entered an immortal roll call of carnivores, a veritable Valhalla of victuals, where titans of digestive daring live on as long as Durant's remains. It's a hall of fame for serious fressers -- at least for those who opt to be so enshrined.
2611 North Central Avenue (near Central and Virginia avenues)
602-264-5967, web link.
Restaurant hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Bar open later.
And their names are often as colorful as their intestines were powerful.
There's "Black Jack" Stu Arthur, Darryle "King Kong" Cooper, Jim "Protein" Mullin, Fred "The Mouth" Von Steiff, and, perhaps most notoriously, one that reads simply Sammy "The Bull." Hoag assures me that this entry is in fact for Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, onetime Mafia underboss and confidant of New York's now-deceased "Teflon Don," John Gotti. Apparently, "The Bull" ate his beef in 1999, a couple of years after relocating to Arizona, and a year before being busted for trafficking in Ecstasy. Hoag had no tales to tell of Gravano, but he did recall one about a little girl who took on the porterhouse and gobbled her way to greatness.
"This 12-year-old girl came in here about three years ago and devoured the whole thing -- even gnawed on the bone!" exclaims the restaurateur. "You get a free strawberry shortcake when you finish one, and she ate most of that, too."
Paul Bunyan-like legends abound when it comes to those who've downed the porterhouse. Some tell of sumo wrestlers, while others claim that whole parties of merry monks have tackled these massive steaks.
Ernie Canez, Durant's night kitchen supervisor and the fellow who cooks up all the porterhouses in the evening, states that there are some diners who even order it blue, or so rare it's grilled for a mere 30 seconds on each side.
"Actually, most people order it well-done, though to me that ruins it," explains Canez, a small, jovial man who estimates that he prepares 20 to 30 porterhouses a week. "The best way to order it is medium rare."
For the record, a porterhouse is cut from the short loin, something Canez does on-site, by the way. It's sort of a jumbo-size T-bone three and a half inches thick, with filet mignon on one side of the bone and New York strip on the other. The cut originated in the 19th century when there were taverns called "porter-houses" where travelers could obtain a mug of porter or some other malty beverage and a bite to eat. Some sources trace the first porterhouse steaks to Boston, while others make the same claim for New York. Far be it from me to serve as referee between Beantown and Gotham. All I want to do is eat the bloody thing.
My fascination with Durant's Porterhouse Club began on my very first visit. Eventually, it became a sort of jest between me and my pal Julie, who until recently was a server there. We vowed that we would one day inhale the porterhouse together and so earn our space on the wall. After she left the employ of the eatery, where she was one of the most beloved staff members, we decided the time had come to fulfill our oath. A date was set, and the whole deal soon took on the trappings of a competition to see who would finish the porterhouse first.
Though I outweighed my opponent by more than 150 pounds, I was taking nothing for granted. I mean, some skinny little Asian chap always wins those Coney Island hot-dog-eating contests, and if a 12-year-old girl could wolf it down, so could Julie. Plus, Julie is tall and athletic, and as far as I knew, had a pair of hollow legs. So the day of the feast, I consumed nothing but one apple and two pieces of toast for breakfast. By dinnertime, I was weak, but ready.
I chuckled inwardly once Julie admitted to lunching on pad Thai that afternoon. I even allowed myself to nibble on the relish tray while the two of us and our witnesses waited the 20 minutes or so for Canez to cook the porterhouses to medium over mesquite with only salt and pepper added to the meat. My preference was for medium rare with the bone in, but I opted for medium with the flesh removed from the bone so that my order would match Julie's and there would be no factor in her favor.
Let's just say that, with the help of a bottle of Pinot Noir, I came, I saw, I quaffed, I snarfed. On the whole, the steak was quite tasty, crisp and blackened on the exterior, with the strip side pink, fatty and flavorful, and the filet side tender and satisfying. Within half an hour, nothing was left of that porterhouse but the bone and the whiff of charcoal on my breath. Julie finished far behind, and even then only with the assistance (I suspect) of one witness next to her. Victory was as sweet as the free strawberry shortcake before me, and I confess that the following day, food did not pass my lips again until supper.
The last few bites were the toughest, and yet I'm already plotting an encore. You see, each time you down a porterhouse, you get a space on a plaque that holds more than a dozen names. I have dreams of an entire plaque on the restaurant's wall repeating the title chosen for me: Stephen "Hoover" Lemons. You've got to admit, it has a ring to it. And who needs a statue or some old parade, anyway, when honored in such a grand fashion?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.