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A lot at stake when ordering a good steak
209-ERNIES CHEF2-10-25-13
Ernies executive chef Michael Midgley ladles sauce over a filet mignon. - photo by HIME ROMERO

ISLETON – People get territorial when you talk about steak. 

And it gets complicated. 

When you throw out other food groups – the best hot dog or the best slice of pizza or the best deli sandwich – there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to be forced to a certain city or part of the country where that style of food originated. 

Yes, there are people who picked up the old-style recipe and brought it out to pay tribute – it’s something that you see quite often when city names like “New York” and “Chicago” get tossed into the name of a pizza restaurant that usually caters to a neighborhood crowd. You can get a Philly-style cheesesteak sandwich at a San Francisco Giants game that isn’t all that uncommon from the one that you’d get at Pat’s or Geno’s in South Philly – down to the Cheese Whiz sauce and the hot and sweet peppers.

But a steak is different. It’s just a cut of beef along the muscle that sometimes still comes with sinewy attachments and flavorful flat. It might seem, on the surface, like a steak that you order in Stockton is the same as the one your order in Visalia, but anybody that knows their meat can explain, in detail, why that isn’t the case.

There are varying degrees. 

You can walk into a chain steakhouse and order a New York strip steak that’ll probably taste the same there as it does in any restaurant in the country – a good sirloin, sure – but there are a few places out there that take the quality of the beef that they serve seriously. The kinds of places where the breed of the cattle come into play – the 50/50 breed between an angus and a charolais and the USDA Prime marbled beef that comes as a result of that impeccable breeding. 

If you’re okay with just ordering a “steak” then these things probably don’t matter to you. But if know the difference between a Porterhouse and a T-bone, then here are some places that cater to your exquisite tastes. Get ready to drive, though – Prime cuts of meat, and the restaurants that prepare them, are tough to come by. 

•  Wool Growers Restaurant, Los Banos – Yes, it seems crazy to think that you’d drive all the way to Los Banos just to get something to eat. But if you need an endorsement, try this one on for size – when John Madden was traversing the Western United States in his Outback Madden Cruiser to get from places like Seattle to San Diego in a hurry, he made this basque haven a routine stop. The lamb chops are popular, but it’s the New York strip steak (a tender shortloin cut) that will leave you satisfied. You’re not going to have to mortgage the house to eat here, but you are going to pay for the quality. Bring your wallet. 609 H Street. Take Highway 99 to Highway 152. 

•  Peter’s Steak House, Isleton – You know those big, multiple-story Delta houses that you see when you decide to take a drive on a mundane Sunday? Peter’s Steak House is inside one of those. And it’s been keeping a steady stream of customers coming back for years – people who love the prime rib and the creamed corn and the out-of-the-way dining approach that’s a stark contrast to the “hey – look at me” restaurants less than half-an-hour away in Downtown Sacramento. You don’t just stumble into Peter’s Steak House. This, like any good restaurant, is a destination. And when you factor in that it’s accessibly by boat, it gives you a whole new set of options when you’re navigating the waterways. Get the prime rib. 203 2nd Street, Isleton. Take I-5 to Highway 12 west and make a right on Jackson Slough Road. The restaurant is right on the water. 

•  Harris Ranch, Coalinga – This place needs no introduction. As one of the largest cattle brokers on the West Coast, Harris Ranch knows what it’s doing when it comes to taking care of beef. And you better believe that you’ll get every flavorful drop of that experience in whatever it is that you choose to have carved up at the flagship restaurant deep in the heart of California’s Central Valley. The drive down can be a little bit unappetizing – thousands of head of cattle, especially during the summer, give off their own unique smell. But aged USDA Prime beef, especially when it’s prepared the way that God intended, is heavenly. Sit. Listen. Learn. You might just pick up something that you can take home and wow the guys with the next time they come over and play poker. A nice little nugget like this – you should let the steak cool after you pull it from the grill so that the juices soak back into the meat. I learned that from Harris Ranch. And it was worth every penny. Try the 24-oz. bone-in Ribeye. Your dog will thank you for bringing it home. 24505 W. Dorris Avenue. Take I-5 South to the Dorris Avenue Exit (Highway 198). You can’t miss the massive sign. 

•  The Westley Hotel, Westley – Save the best for last, right? Right. So get in your car and drive there right now. You should be able to get a table tonight, and if you order earlier enough, you might be able to savor Leo’s mouth-watering Prime Rib. It’s amazing. Simply. Truly. Amazing. Most people live their entire lives in places like Manteca and Tracy and never know that this unique little Greek haunt is ever there. It’s the perfect place to grab a waistband stretching dinner followed by some cocktails and maybe even some dice with the chef when he finishes everything up. Go. Now. 8615 Highway 33, Westley. Take Hard Road south to Highway 132 west to Highway 33 south. The restaurant will be on the right.