There is one thing Texas is most known for the world over. It isn’t cowboys, Dallas Cowboys, or Stetsons. It isn’t even a luxurious pair of snakeskin boots. All of those staples come second to this iconic bit of state history that stands to be mentioned alongside the greatest of Lone Star hallmarks. What is it?
It’s the beef.
The Lone Star State has long held a reputation for housing some of the best cuts in the world, but it was only after the Civil War that cattle actually became a growth industry in Texas. Refrigeration and ambitious entrepreneurs helped. But it wasn’t until much later, around World War II, that a prime piece of beef began to emerge as an American symbol of wealth and opulence. While labeling steak purely as a “Texas” food is a bit of an overstatement, what is not is that the state has parlayed that reputation into some of the best steakhouses in the world.
Houston, specifically, has grown in recent years into something of a mecca for legendary beef dishes, prepared by some of the most gifted chefs around the globe. What started out as a means of livelihood for a hungry ranch-hand has emerged into a bona-fide art form; an art form that calls to mind subtle tastes, distinctive spices and incomparable combinations. And what pairing will most chefs and connoisseurs agree goes best with steak? Why, it’s wine, of course.
But the task of choosing a wine with a particular cut of meat can be daunting. Whether it is a light and fruity pinot noir, or a buttery chardonnay; there isn’t a clear answer. When it comes to these basic traditions sometimes it’s best just to ask the experts. And Chef Ken Arnone would know.
As a Certified Master Chef (one of only 61 in the country), Chef Arnone has exceeded at everything from Wall Street to fine cuisine. As a corporate chef and head consultant at Mo’s ... A Place for Steaks in Houston, Arnone’s opinions and unique perspective is a valued commodity, but his approach is as refreshing as the dishes he creates. When asked what wine pairs best with what meal, he slyly states, “Your favorite wine is best. You should never get so caught up with rules that you can’t drink what you enjoy.” The response is telling because, despite all of his success, he seems to understand pairing a dish like steak and wine can be as subjective for the customer as it is for the creator. That’s not to say that when pressed Chef Arnone’s expertise doesn’t bubble to the surface. “A good smoky chardonnay with beef tartar is excellent,” he states. When asked what one of his favorite pairings at Mo’s was, he couldn’t help but offer, “ ... The signature Cowboy Cut rib eye with a respectable Bordeaux-style wine,” was a win/win. He also mentioned an affinity for “a good bleu cheese-topped cut with a hearty merlot.”
Of course, the pairing of steak and wine has many considerations. Price level is important, as well as the occasion of the meal itself. Johnny Vasalo (a.k.a. Johnny V), owner of Mo’s, mirrored Chef Arnone’s sentiments by explaining that one must consider whether the “point of the experience is the wine or the food.” He also stressed that, when pairing steak and wine, the “level or body of the wine should generally match the body of the meat itself.” Lighter cuts demand lighter tones in the wine, whereas a heavier cut like a porterhouse or prime rib combine best with a deeper, more complex variety. Of course body and levels are only part of it. While it might be lost on the everyday patron, even the different intra-muscular fats, or IMF, levels of a tenderloin or filet mignon greatly affect the taste and consistency. The fat content also plays a part in the overall quality of some cuts. The more marbling the steak has, the greater degree of flavor and saltiness. It is this very saltiness that makes the pairing of a particular wine such a harmonious experience. According to Johnny V, the beef can be “both enhanced and cleansed by the smoky tannins in a good bottle of red.” Tannins are that particular earthy or woodsy taste that imbibers experience in red wine; and, along with the alcohol content, gives the drink that satisfying finish that clears the palate after a good bite.
It is clear these experts and steakhouse chefs across Houston are as passionate about the experience of a good meal as they are about its science, but in the end, there is no set definition of what makes a particular cut of beef sing alongside a specific wine. It is the diners themselves and their shared passion for cuisine that make all the difference. Johnny V sums up the idea that steak is forever a staple of exquisite American dining. “It evokes images of Texas cattle and Texas history,” he says. “It’s Americana, pure and simple.”