Friday, October 19, 2007

Steak Wars

I like steak. I am not supposed to eat it, but I really like it. In my opinion the best steak is restaurant steak - for some reason, it has a different steak than any steak that can be made at home, inside on the stove or in the oven, or outside on a charcoal grill.

When I go to a buffet I seek out what steak they may have. Some like buffets for the crab legs. I like to try the steak. A good steak needs a flame, chargrill. Steak cooked on a flat grill - frying the steak - is no match for a steak that has been charred on an open flame. To my taste, the best steak is charred black on the outside, but inside it is red and juicy - not raw but red before it turns to pink. Some like their steak medium some like it burned through to the center. It is all a matter of taste, but to get to that taste takes some skill on the part of the chef. So what buffet has the best steak.

Looking at a single location buffet, the steak at the buffet at the Wild, Wild West Casino in Atlantic City,New Jersey is the best. The steak there is cooked to order on a chargrill with flames shooting high - right there behind the serving counter. The raw steaks are taken from a butchers case facing the diners and placed on the grill as you get up to the counter to give your order. The steaks are cooked just right and rival any steak in the best steak houses. This buffet limits each diner to one steak by a ticket given to you when you pay to enter, but you are given a whole steak.

But, unless you are in, near, or travel to Atlantic City, you want to know which of the chain buffets located across most of the US serves the best steak. Steak is popular at buffets. Old Country Buffet added steak to their buffet just a few years ago and they still do not serve it every night - no steak on Sundays at OCB. Unfortunately, as I am sure you have read here before, the steak at Old Country Buffet is terrible. They are not cooked to order and you get whatever has come out from the kitchen off the broiler and sits until it is well done. To be fair, some OCB's are getting grills but I have not been to one that has this and they seem to be few and far between. In looking at which buffet chain serves the best steak, I am not going to include Old Country Buffet. The two large chains that we will look at are Ryans and Golden Corral.

A year ago I would have told you Ryan's but I am not so sure any longer. This summer I dined at several Ryans and several Golden Corrals across the US Southeast. I had a chance to compare sometimes night to night. In fact the idea for this article came to me at that time. I will say that for the most part each chain is pretty consistent from location to location on the taste and quality of the steak. I cannot say this about the cooking of the steak, but we will get into that more later in this article.

Before parent company of Buffets, Inc. (the owners and operators of Old Country Buffet, Hometown Buffet, etc) bought Ryans about a year and a half ago, the steak at Ryans was the best. It had the best taste, was tender, and had (and still has) the best cooking. Since the buy out, the meat has changed. Rancher's Select Choice steak was introduced to Ryans at the same time that it was put into Old Country Buffet. This steak is often tough and is seasoned. I still go into Ryans expecting those great steaks of a year ago - they pretty much look the same, they are cooked the same, but biting into a piece I remember immediately that this is not the same steak. It has a bite to it- the seasoning- a little bit spicy and peppery. Tender? Sometimes, but not consistently now. The method that it is cooked does remain the best.

At Ryans there is a flame grill apart from the rest of the buffet servers. There is a window above the serving counter with just enough space to give your cooking preference and pass a plate through. Adjacent to the flame grill is a fry grill - sometimes used to keep the steaks hot. The steaks are cooked on the flame. The chef usually has several large steaks that have been cooked from rare to well and when you tell him/her how you would like the steak, he/she will cut into a steak and show it to you. You decide if it is cooked the way you like it or it needs to be cooked more - or another rarer piece needs to be found. The system works fairly well and there are not long lines to get the orders filled. I have had a few experiences where there were no rare or medium rare steaks and the cook has offered to cook one special for me - even coming to find me when it was ready. These have been the best of the Ryans steaks that I have had. Some cooks really understand the difference between rare and raw, rare and medium, medium rare and well done. Some do not. It is hard in any of the chain buffets to find a properly cooked rare steak - rare usually is interpreted as raw and is barely cooked outside, much less inside. To get rare, I now ask for medium rare - usually I get what I expect as properly cooked rare. At Ryans you are served a piece of steak - usually about an eighth to a quarter of the whole steak.

At Golden Corral there is a flame grill, smaller than at Ryans, set into the center of the main buffet server. There is also a fry grill next to the chargrill. There is a cook again behind a glass window. Here there are large, thick steaks cooked on the flame grill - usually. I have seen Golden Corral cooks close down the flame grill early in the evening and then cook the steaks on the fry grill. This is one of the problems at Golden Corral. Some need better management supervision of the grill area and some Golden Corral grill chefs want to "rule the roost" despite customer needs with a what you see is what you get attitude - if you ask for something I will say no. In fact with a better system for grilling their steaks and with grill chefs who were more motivated to please the customers, Golden Corral would have the best steaks of any buffet chain - hands down! The flavor and the cut of the meat is very good. The meat is tender and juicy. The "steak house" ad campaign that Golden Corral ran translated well to practice and the steaks are like those in a steak house. BUT - and this is a BIG BUT - the cooking and chefs need a lot of improvement. I want to say they are hit and miss, but the grill cooks have tended to be more miss than hit. I can remember really good ones in North Carolina and Virginia - not just this past trip but over the years. But I seem to remember a number of bad ones too. Here are some things I recall. A diner comes up and asks for medium rare. He is told there are none, come back in ten minutes. Ten minutes later he comes back and is told the same thing again. At two locations the chargrill was closed down at 7 pm - the restaurant is open for another three hours. The steaks were then fried on the fry grill. Not right! Another - I asked for medium rare. The cook cut a piece off that was more than well done and put it on my plate. I said, no, medium rare. He looked at the steak and said, medium rare and passed it over to me. (I was not going to argue - I was going to write about it instead!) Anyway, you get a piece of the large thick steak at Golden Corral - it is thick enough so that even a small piece is as much as larger pieces elsewhere.

So who has the best steaks -Ryans or Golden Corral?

Is the steak good at Ryans? It is very good - despite the spice. The cooking method and grill chefs, for the most part, are excellent.

Is the steak good at Golden Corral? It is excellent. The cooking grill chefs, however, are so inconsistent that it drops the experience from excellent to very good.

Do the steak wars end in a draw? (How disappointing that would be after reading all the way to here!) No, there is a winner (for the moment) and it is Golden Corral. The meat tastes better. When there is a good chef who serves you what you want, this thick steak is properly charred and crispy on the outside while still red/pink and juicy on the inside. It has been good that it has brought out a verbal, "hmmmm!"

This is how I have experienced these steaks and tasted them. If you disagree let us know what you think by leaving a comment. But if you do, you have to state clearly why - if you like something or dislike something be specific as to why.

One more thing -

Just after I wrote this article I went to OCB. I was passing up the steak and then I saw it - a piece (pre-cooked, pre-cut, and sitting under the heat lamp on the cutting board - of course) that looked like the "perfect" piece of steak. I could not believe what I was seeing. It was red-pink on the inside, it was crispy charred on the outside (not sure how they did it because there is no grill), and there were red clear juices sitting on the top. I took it. I brought it to my table and showed my wife. I said that I could not believe it - it looks like the perfect steak. How did it get here? Ahh, I put my fork in and started to cut a piece to eat and my plate moved back and forth with my knife. Still not cutting, I almost pulled the plate off the table as I tried to cut through the tough meat and side grizzle. Finally, I ripped as I forced the knife through. I put the piece into my mouth and then... tasteless. The rest was just as hard to cut, tough, and not really worth the effort. So - Golden Corral and Ryans has nothing to worry about from OCB steak!


Anonymous said...

FYI about Ocb's and Ryan's steaks- they are the same grade beef! Ocb is now using the type that Ryans has been for years- the only difference is Ryans cuts all of their meat in house. They marinate it the same way, too.

Also, within the next few months every Ocb will have those chargrills, some in the kitchen and some for display.

Robert A said...

I believe that the infamous Levittown ,NY OCB now has a grill in the kitchen. Steaks are still not grilled to order and come out just as overdone, dried out, and inedible as when the made them under the broiler.

Still nothing like a Ryans steak!