Inexpensive Steak Houses Serve Beef... or Something Else?

It seems like there’s one in every town. In my town (Pasadena, CA) it’s called “Steer and Ale.” Near my office in La Verne, there’s “The Tenderloin.”

These places serve large portions of steak at very low prices, lower than Sizzler, even. You always see a horde of regulars in these places, too… usually aging boomers, who swear by the food, and who proudly claim they don’t need to pay a dime more for steak, no matter how good it is. The only vegetables in sight are potatoes and iceberg lettuce drowned in ranch dressing.

Now I can appreciate the tradeoff of quality vs. price… I don’t scoff at the quality of cheap food, and I know that if I want 21-day dry-aged beef, I need to go to a $50/steak chop house. But the thing that bothers me about places like Steer and Ale is that the beef doesn’t taste like any other beef I’m served anywhere else. It’s not necessarily tough… it just tastes like, well, something else.

What is the deal about the beef in these places? Am I really eating cow, or some other animal? Why is it so cheap and why does it taste funny?

Please tell me I’m not eating horse or llama or something!

No…you are eating beef. Just different cuts, and different grades. The top places serve Prime grade beef. The cheapo places make do with a lower grade. Probably Select. Anything below Select goes to canners and such.

I have a strong suspicion that anything you could possibly use to replace beef would be more expensive. It’s like the old rumor that McDonald’s used worms in their burgers, until Ray Croc pointed out that worms cost more than three times as much as dead cow.

That odd taste (or consistency) you’re experiencing is most likely meat tenderizer. The cheap steak places (and remember, “steak” is a term that describes the cut of the meat, not the meat itself) may either use a tough piece of good beef or a good piece of tough beef and pour meat tenderizer all over it and pound it a couple of times to soften it up.

It might also be that you’re eating grass-fed beef, which is ordinarily cheaper, and has a slightly different taste, than grain-fed.

Another trick is reconsituted steaks. Yes, it’s still beef, but it’s shards and shreds that are smashed together and shaped into steak cuts. Tenderness is guaranteed - in fact, they may fall apart before you get it to your mouth.

In the U.S. at least, red-meat beef substitutes (horse, bison) are much more expensive than beef. Bison, in fact, is usually promoted as a gourmet item.

And horse can be tastier than beef. I know this firsthand.

It doesn’t have to be a cheap place. Anderson’s, Lone Star, and Outback are all national chains. Their beef is singularly tasteless to me, so I don’t frequent them (among other reasons).

We used to have a steak franchise in town and they seemed to be doing very well with their special lunch menu. Then someone looked up why they had named their hamburger a Chevron burger.

A lot of locals didn’t like the idea of eating goat without being informed first.:smiley:

I posed this question once to someone who suggested that the meat was from dairy cattle sent to slaughter after they passed their peak production years.

Is this done? Is a “retired” dairy cow fit for human consumption?

I’m going to go with cheap cuts of beef and lots o’ tenderizer. Tenderizing the crap out of beef will affect its flavor and appearance.

As for subs, as others have pointed out, any reasonable sub would be more expensive. A possible exception would be horse. Anyone know how much horsemeat is per pound?

Of course they’re fit! As long as they’re healthy when they’re slaughtered, they’re fit for human consumption afterwards.

The difference is that dairy cows have not been bred to give the best quality of meat. In other words, you won’t get prime and choice grades from them. But you can get standard, select, and commercial and utility.

The cheap places serve cheap beef. To serve something else as beef invites criminal charges of fraud, at the very least.

I just wanted to point out that at the time I clicked on this thread the one directly below it was How many times should you chew your food? and the one right below that was All-clad cookware questions
Carry on.

Anecdotal response here (thus no cite). When I was in college, a chemist friend of mine claimed to have analyzed a filet from one of the then (25 years ago) fairly new cheap steakhouses (IIRC, Sizzler).

He said it was 80% papain (an enzyme often used as a meat tenderizer). If said result is accurate, it’s no wonder that aging boomers swear by the food, as in its practically predigested state one would expect few to have any trouble with it.

The same friend also asserted that further checking into it had revealed that the restaurant chain in question used something akin to a flapjack griddle with a whole bunch of little hypodermic needles on both sides to inject the papain into the beef.

This is a “sort of” factoid stored away many pre-internet (well, for most of us) years ago. It’d be interesting if anyone could shed some light on its veracity.

Having been raised on a dairy farm, I have eaten plenty of retired dairy cow. In a nutshell: tough, but delicious.

Re the OP: Some cheap steak places serve sirloin only, rather than, say, ribeye or porterhouse. Sirloin has a different flavour - slightly “liverish” might be one way to describe it. Could that be the funny taste?

Quality and Yield Grades for Beef Carcasses

I doubt the beef itself was 80% papain – maybe a marinade or rub, but not the actual meat. Beef isn’t 80% protein, even if the water is removed – and certainly it couldn’t be 80% of one protein.

Papain is a protease (protein-digesting enzyme) derived from papaya. There’s a related protease derived from pineapple called bromelain. The presence of these enzymes explains why you can’t use pineapples or papayas in gelatin. It’s also the real reason why people put pineapple slices on baked hams. The pineapple isn’t just for decoration – it also tenderizes the meat.

Anyway, papain wouldn’t have to be injected into the meat. Simply marinating the beef in a papain solution would achieve the same effect, especially if a meat-tenderizing hammer were used first.

Last thing: I have a feeling that goat, like horse or buffalo, would be more expensive than beef in the US. Beef, and the corn used to feed cattle, are both highly subsidized and produced in such massive quantities that there’s no need to use other animals as substitutes. So I suspect the ‘Chevron burger’ wasn’t really goat, unless the menu said it was a goat burger. (Goat is chèvre in French, so the name would sound suspicious to anyone who knew French.)

Cheap steakhouses can buy their beef from distributors for less than we pay for what sells in the sypermarket. I’ve bought bulk goat from distributors for ethnic festivals, etc. (and gone with my parents to buy it, when I was a child) and it definitely cost more than the cheapest beef (in several US cities, between 1968 and last week)

Also, whenever I’ve bought or eaten goat meat, it’s been butchered very differently than beef. Basically, the goat meat (which was most often stew cut for curries and the like) was tightly bound to the bone, and the bone was cut in shards and sharp angles. I’ve mentioned this to many people who eat goat at these festivals, and in their homes, and it’s generally agreed that you simply can’t effectively slice up a 20-30lb goat carcass the way you can with a cow carcass that weighs the better part of a ton…

I don’t know if this applies to ground goat for “chevron burgers”, but it’d be ironic if it were butchered more carefully than goat steaks (Now that I think about it, I can’t recall ever seeing ground goat being sold) I can assure you that goat meat really couldn’t pass for beef at all. It’s often compared to beef (e.g. I urge skeptical friends to try goat by telling them I’ll take a goat curry over a beef curry any day) but that’s because it’s the closest common referent. You’d have to be way past drunk to say it tastes like chicken.

I have seen chevre burgers (chevre being a goat cheese, I believe) at trendoid restaurants, but it doesn’t sound like that was what you were dealing with.

Actually, doesn’t goat taste more like mutton than like beef?

KP: le chèvre (m) is goatcheese, la chèvre (f) is a goat, apparently of either gender. One other issue is that I can’t imagine goat meat being fatty enough to make hamburgers from if it was being done dishonestly in the back of a restaurant.

You have to remember that beef is insanely cheap these days, as it is produced in such great quantities. As other posters have pointed out, 'most any “beef substitute” would be dearer than the real deal.