By: Joe Lofranco
In the latest edition of Eat These Words, our intrepid food columnist Joe Lofranco reviews the best $25 and Under steak options in Toronto while discussing his love of western films and the genealogy of his Grandpa’s Steak and Eggs recipe.
When I was a kid, my father made a point of introducing me to the greatest films of the western genre. Maybe he knew it was a type of movie that just wouldn’t be made anymore; they were of a certain place and time. And maybe he knew what kind of an effect they would have on me. Maybe. Maybe Not. Either way, he passed them along like a cherished heirloom, the way some fathers might a straight razor and horse-hair brush. And I found out that’s exactly what they were: heirlooms, because my grandfather had passed them along to him.
I remember the first time I saw one. It was on TVO during Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies. We would watch SNATM regularly, the 8pm movie, followed by the 10pm, which I was never allowed to stay up to watch. I remember being in my room and my father coming in, visibly excited, to tell me Elwy Yost had a great movie for us tonight. I’d never seen him that excited about a film before.
And that night I saw my first Western. It was called Shane and I loved it. Partly because the little boy’s name was Joey, like me, but mainly because it was just a great story. When the movie was over I sat frozen. I wanted to watch it again. And again. I was so immersed in that world that I didn’t hear my father’s words at first. I got up to make my way to my room, being so content with the film that I knew I’d be dreaming of six-shooters and cattle rustlers soon enough. My father looked at me like I was crazy and said “You can’t go to bed yet” because the next movie was going to be even better than Shane. He seemed almost like he was trying to sell it to me, worried that I might not have appreciated the first film enough and that he might have failed in passing the baton that had been so lovingly passed to him by his father. I stayed. For the first time, I stayed for the late show. My mother was certain I’d fall asleep during it, but I was so riveted by the story to follow that sleep would’ve been next to impossible.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was my first exposure to John Wayne. And it was John Wayne who would introduce me to steak. The movie itself is wonderful and excellent and all that, but it’s important to me because it is the film that opened the floodgates for all the other John Wayne movies: The Searchers, Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, The Fighting Kentuckian, all of them. My father appreciated John Wayne, but my grandfather loved him. It was my grandfather’s John Wayne boxed-set that introduced me to my all-time favourite greatest western ever, and it was that film that made me see steak in a new light. Seems silly, but it’s true.
In Red River, John Wayne takes his herd of cattle from Texas along the Chisholm Trail to the Stockyards in Abilene, Kansas to be shipped out to the eastern states after the civil war. Near the start of the film, he gives a speech that struck me. Now, the speech itself isn’t anything special. It isn’t Braveheart or Pride of the Yankees. Some might even say it was classic hackneyed Western writing, and they might be right. But for some reason, it hit me.
“Ten years and I’ll have the Red River D on more cattle than you’ve looked at anywhere. I’ll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make ’em strong and make ’em grow.”
He delivered that speech with such conviction and passion, that after the movie I went directly to my mother and asked her for steak for dinner. “You don’t like steak!” she countered. Which was partly true. What I didn’t like was my Mother’s steak: Broiled in the oven until the last vestiges of tenderness and flavour had been dried out of it. What remained was closer to John Wayne’s cowboy boots than it was to his beef. (To her credit, my mother has been open to constructive criticism and recognizes that meat tends to be better on the moist-er side of things, but remains adamant that she personally prefers her steak over-done). But the speech made me realize that maybe there was more to steak than I’d been led to believe. My father cottoned-on quickly and took matters into his own hands, introducing me to steak from realms other than my mother’s broiler. And I quickly realized that I did, as a matter of fact, like steak. I liked the steak I’d tried in restaurants and at my grandparents’ place. I liked the steak my Dad made on the barbeque.
Steak is still something I love. I went to Barberian’s for my Bachelor Party Dinner. I like Rib Eye, T-Bones, New York Strips, Filet Mignons, Top Sirloins, all of it! And Toronto is full of great Steakhouses. But they’re all expensive. Prohibitively expensive. Who goes to Harbour Sixty without an expense account?
The two best places in town for a cheap steak that’s still tender and delicious are: The Purple Onion in the west-end and its sister The Tulip in the east-end. While some of their cuts hover just above the $30 mark, there are still plenty of awesome pieces of meat under $25.
I went to the Purple Onion the other day with a teacher buddy of mine who’s off for the summer. It was Tuesday and the place was not super busy. I got the 6oz Steak & Eggs. I asked for medium-rare and that’s what I got. It was perfect. Delicious, juicy, not too much of the chewy tendons and gristle you get from your standard all-day breakfast places like Sunset Grill or Fran’s. The décor is not like Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris. It’s definitely a bit more brightly lit and a little more plastic, a little less wood. But if you’ve got a hankering for some meat and not for the whole steakhouse ‘experience’, at least you’ll leave the Onion with your stomach full and your bank account still intact.
Steak is a tricky thing. Sometimes even intimidating. There’s so many different cuts to buy, and to what temperature should I cook them? And HOW should I cook them? BBQ? Pan-Seared? And of course, our society has inextricably linked one’s ability to properly cook steak to one’s general level of masculinity. If you’ve got the cash, do yourself a favour and head down to Barberian’s, and if you know nothing of steak, ask. Tell the waiter you know nothing and want the chef to prepare them as he would for himself. If you don’t have the cash, go to the Purple Onion and order anything off the menu and get it medium-rare.
And if you don’t want to leave the house, here’s my Steak & Eggs recipe for you.
My Grandpa’s Steak & Eggs
Take your sirloin out of the fridge and let it sit out for 30 minutes to get to room temperature or thereabouts.
Season with kosher salt and pepper.
Get your cast iron skillet nice and hot, then toss in a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Lay your steaks in and listen to them sizzle.
Flip the meat after 30 seconds first time, then every minute.
Add in some diced shallots/smashed garlic cloves.
After that, toss in some sprigs of rosemary (or an herb of your choice).
Around minute 2, toss in a half stick of butter, chopped up into pats. Once melted, baste your steaks with the butter/olive oil.
Around minute 4, pull the steak out and let it sit for at least 10 minutes.
Slice against the grain.
Heat a separate skillet on medium-low, melting a generous amount of butter in it.
Add a crushed clove of garlic and a dried chilli pepper.
Once the butter’s melted, slide two eggs into the pan and fry ‘em, slow and low, until the white’s have hardened and the yolk is to your liking (I like ‘em runny!)
Use a spatula to drape the eggs over your sliced steaks.