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Beef! It’s expensive for dinner

Before I get to the main purpose of this post, I’d first like to address this, which was cited by Atrios.

CHANGE OF MENU. Jeffrey’s at the Watergate, a restaurant that served Texas cooking, has closed its doors, reports The Washington Post. The restaurant, which claimed to be a “‘hot spot’ of the First Couple,” served such meals as “Secretary Evans Roquefort and tomato salad” and “Condoleezza Rice lemon meringue tart with raspberry sauce.”

The restaurant has returned to its old name, Aquarelle, which was a popular spot during the Clinton administration; it now serves Mediterranean cuisine. The Post writes that this is “not a symbol or a sign or a portent.” Ever the optimists, we beg to differ.

“Secretary Evans Roquefort and tomato salad” and “Condoleezza Rice lemon meringue tart with raspberry sauce”??? What the hell kind of “Texas cooking” is that? That’s the sort of frippery that faux-populist Texas politicians (of all stripes, I might add) mock about places like Washington and New York.

Look, it’s very simple: There are many restaurants in Texas at which one can find a wide variety of cuisines (see here for a sample of what’s available in Houston, for example), but there are only a few styles (such as barbecue and Tex-Mex, to name two) that can be correctly called “Texas cooking”. The examples cited are not among them.

Now then. According to this front-page Chron story, the high price of beef is giving restauranteurs heartburn.

“It’s killing us,” Sambuca Jazz Cafe chef Carl “C.J.” Johnston moans. “It’s gotten to where every time we sell beef, we lose money.”

[…]

“When you come to my restaurant, the waiters are going to push the fresh seafood specials,” Johnston confesses. “If we sell equal amounts of seafood and equal amounts of beef, we’ll be OK. We’ve got to get creative because it’s not economically sound right now to raise prices.”

Six months ago, a 10-ounce beef filet cost Johnston $8. Today, he’s paying $10.60, and by December, he expects to pay $12 or more for the same cut.

“It’s scary,” he said. “But can we not serve beef and stay open as a restaurant? I don’t think so. In Houston, Texas, you’ve got to have beef.”

You can blame Canada, at least partially, for the problem, but there’s an even bigger factor at work.

The United States shut down cattle imports from Canada after a lone cow was diagnosed with mad cow disease in May. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Canada provided 7 percent of our beef supply prior to the ban. Although the U.S. government has partially lifted the embargo, the amount coming in is shy of earlier levels because live Canadian cattle are still barred.

“But that’s just a small part of it,” said Rick Hamilton of Chicago-based Allen Bros., which supplies beef to high-end restaurants nationwide. “This has actually been going on for several years. There’s been a steady decline of cattle because of drought conditions (in Nebraska and Kansas). The ranchers have nothing to feed them on. The number of cattle on feed has dropped by 8 percent. Right now, they’re holding back heifers to build up stock. But it’ll take 30 months before we really start to see results.”

While cattle production has slackened in the last decade, the demand for beef has increased.

Casual steakhouses saw a 12 percent rise in consumer spending over the past two years. And U.S. demand for beef has increased 10 percent since 1998, Texas Beef Council marketing manager Russell Woodward said.

The reason?

“People are very confident in the safety of beef,” Woodward said. “Now they’ve got permission to consume it.”

Blame Dr. Atkins.

“We did a little survey,” said Texas Land & Cattle Steak House President David Franklin, “and it indicated that 30-40 percent of our customers are on the (high-protein) Atkins diet.”

So far, restaurants here have not raised prices, but that may not last. You’re getting a bargain when you order that porterhouse, so enjoy it while you can.

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8 Comments

  1. Randy Paul says:

    Charles,

    There are a couple of Brazilian style all you can eat grills in Houston (Fogo de Chão comes to mind). I wonder how they are faring.

  2. Randy,

    I know of one such place that went belly-up a few months ago (Rodizio), but as far as I know Fogo do Chao is doing fine. (This review of the Emporio Cafe, which features comida caseira instead of churrascos, indicates why Rodizio may have failed – the Brazilians here didn’t think much of it. Here’s a review of Fogo de Chao from 2000 – looks like their prices have gone up since then. ) They tend to serve all kinds of meats, so they ought to survive. Fogo in particular is a high-dollar place, so perhaps they’ve got enough of a margin to handle the price increases.

  3. Kuff, let me tell you about the painful absence of Texas cuisine in DC. Lots of place say they serve Tex-Mex, for sure, side-by-side with Salvadoran cuisine–which is in fact what they serve, and is in fact nothing like Tex-Mex. Plenty of restaurants offering enchiladas and yet I haven’t had true enchiladas since I left. And the state of margaritas here? Abominable.

    There’s nothing clever about being a Texpatriate.

  4. UncleBob says:

    Let me add a few words that I hope die-hard Texan barbecuers will not consider treason: pork ribs and loins.

    The price of brisket hasn’t risen as spectacularly as steak, so the old standby is still there. And pork prices are way more reasonable than beef right now. So stock up on baby back ribs and pork tenderloin. Done right, they will stack up against any plate of beef, I guar-on-tee.

    The trick is in doing them up right.

    I’d also consider Gulf-Coast Italian a true Texas cuisine. Get down to the Blue Oyster Bar off I-10 east of Chimney Rock and order up some crawfish raviola. Dang!

  5. Kriston, I have no doubt what you say is true. Almost everyone I know who’s left Texas complains about the lack of good Tex-Mex everywhere else. All I’m saying is that if this is what “Texas cooking” is thought to be, it’s no wonder y’all are in such dire gastronomic straits.

    They do a pretty fine crawfish ravoli at Auntie Pasta’s on Bellaire at Chimney Rock, too. My wife doesn’t even consult the menu any more when we go there – “why bother, I know what I’m ordering”, she always says. I’ll have to try the Blue Oyster, though – it’s closer to where we live. Thanks!

  6. Amy says:

    One of the things I love about living in NYC is I truly believe you can find anything. Including REALLY good Tex-Mex – even margaritas. Sure, what I can get in Houston or San Antonio is better, but what I get here is pretty damn good. And now there is a great little Mexican place around the corner from my apartment, which DELIVERS, which does some pretty good food. Some of it crosses over to the Mex side of the border in style, but I’m not going to complain about that. There’s another place around the corner from my school with an honest to goodness tequlia list and scrumptious tasty margaritias. AND they have huitlacoche, one of my favorite Mexican food ingredients, that even folks in Texas rarely know about. (Very central Mexico kind of thing.)

    Don’t know about the barbecue around here, since I don’t eat it, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t found a great version of every kind of cuisine I’ve looked for in this city.

    And I just gotta say – I love the idea of Condie Rice as a lemon meringue tart. Indeed.

  7. William Hughes says:

    The best BBQ places in NYC tend to be more Southern than Texan (dry rub on pork ribs instead of beef), Tennessee Mountain and Virgil’s BBQ to name two. As for Tex-Mex, Tio Pepe in the Village seems to be the best place.

    Now, I’m hungry! 🙂

  8. Charles E says:

    Texas beef? Bah, it’s vastly inferior to the real product. No shortages of real beef here in Iowa.
    I do note, however, that the general quality of beef has seriously declined in the last decade. It’s all tough as shoe leather, and nicely marbled steaks have vanished off the market. I talked to the local butchers, and they say it’s because customers wanted lower fat, so all the farmers raise cattle for lower fat in the muscle tissue. Perhaps with the Atkins influence, this will change.