There are some days you wake up and the decision for dinner is taken right out of your hands. It’s the craving for a steak – it makes up your mind for you. Once it hits, the rest of the day rolls by in a blur, fading off into oblivion, not even a landmark on the path to that charred on the outside, perfectly tender in the middle, juicy, slightly seasoned hunk of red meat that beckons from the depths of your psyche. For at least that day, the only thing that matters is that perfect steak to cap off the evening.
That was the case this past Friday for us and a quick trip to the website of Cowboy Star Restaurant had us lined up with reservations for prime time and, hopefully, prime meat. Cowboy Star is located in the East Village of San Diego, right on 10th as you’re heading into the Gaslamp from 163 with paid parking within easy walking distance.
The decor is what is best described as a Modern Rustic Chic style of Western, with the open kitchen a nice touch, very much in keeping with a high end steakhouse located not far from the happening, trendy Gaslamp district of San Diego. The website promises “All of our steaks are hand cut in our butcher shop to maximize quality and consistency.”
The day seriously couldn’t pass fast enough for us to get our teeth into one of those babies.
Upon arrival we were treated to an amuse bouche from the kitchen as well as complimentary bread. Cocktail service and the wine list were excellent, with affordable bottles highlighted on the list as well as wines by the glass.
Generally speaking, the service and offerings were very much in keeping with what would be expected from any high end steakhouse. The menu contained meat-centric appetizers, several salads, some seafood and a variety of steaks and cuts, including Wagyu and Kobe. The prices were, well, steakhouse prices. At a place like this, you’re charged for everything, even the steak sauce, because, the theory, I guess, is if you have to adulterate what should be a perfectly cooked steak, then you should pay for the privilege.
We started out with two appetizers that were as meaty as you could possibly get. Remember, we’d been Jonesing for steak all day. No point in beating around the bush here, so we got right down to it. The steak tartare was fabulous. Topped with a quail egg and capers, a quick swirl or two with a fork brought all of the ingredients together into the perfect meat paste to spread on the nicely seasoned and grilled baguette slices. Meanwhile, the Fried Wagyu beef tongue was maybe one of the singularly best beef dishes we’ve ever had. Melt in your mouth, buttery wagyu beef tongue encased in a crispy, seasoned crust and served with a tamarind adobo sauce wowed us with a beefy umami experience that still resonates in the memory even as this article is being written days later. We couldn’t help but start to salivate as we headed toward the steak portion of the meal with the fresh memory of these two delights still dancing on our tongues.
Years ago when we first starting dining out regularly, Dee and I decided Caesar salad was one of those plates we would try whenever it is on the menu when we are having a “special” meal. Having become a popular dish found on almost any menu of late, it has also become taken for granted, often served with half-hearted or pre-bottled dressing. This one was decent, not remarkable, but not disappointing either, with little pieces of chewy bacon added and a single white anchovy on top – perfect as a palate cleanser as we headed into Steak Nirvana…
For our Steaks (insert heavens opening and angelic music playing) I ordered the 18oz. Bone-in Ribeye while Dee ordered the Wagyu skirt steak. Both were served on a bed of house mashed potatoes with a side of broccolini. We also ordered three of their steak sauces and the creamed spinach.
Okay, here’s the thing, and it’s a personal thing, but it should be said. When we go to a steakhouse like this, it’s always about the steak. Sure, because of what we do in terms of eating, evaluating and writing, we order a cross section of items, but a trip to a steakhouse for us is always about the steak. That brings me to my first issue with these steaks. I don’t want my steak laying in a bed of mashed potatoes…ever. If I want mashed potatoes in the same bite as my steak (never), I can mix them together myself – not to mention that slicing a steak on top of a bed of mashed potatoes is like trying to play Twister on a water bed. The steak slips, slides and works its way even deeper into the slop, completely contaminating it and detracting from the pure steak experience.
Issue # 2 – Whoa…! What the hell happened there, Cowboy? All of a sudden, the wheels fell off the wagon. Both steaks were tough, chewy, undercooked and underseasoned. I guess I get it, busy Friday night, one guy at the grill – poor dude probably has 10 steaks to get out at one time. I can see where flipping the meat a minute or two early and plating as soon as the char looks decent would be a reasonable human response to a rush on the grill. But grabbing a pinch of salt and seasoning – that takes no time at all, especially if the meat is already on the grill and simply being brought up to temperature. There’s a saying in the contractor industry – you can buy the most expensive wall to wall carpet available, but if it isn’t installed right, it’s another cheap looking area rug. Same thing applies to what should be great meat, I’m afraid – it’s gotta get cooked right.
To be fair, about 4 bites into the steak, our server came by and asked us how it was. I looked down at the plate – I was half a steak in, there were mashed potatoes smeared all over the place and, really, what was going to happen if I said it was undercooked, tough and underseasoned? I was going to look like a jerk for eating half of it and they were going to parade our potato smeared 1/2 steaks back to the open kitchen in full view of a packed house, sprinkle some salt on them and slap them on the grill for another two minutes, potato coating and all. Now, I am comfortable in my own skin – don’t mind making a fuss if one is warranted and will achieve some real results irregardless of the company or the crowd, but the playing out of this scenario was not going to salvage the meal. Instead, I smiled and asked for some salt.
Normally I don’t post pictures of food that has been eaten, but this one is necessary to explain why I kept working on a steak that was not enjoyable in any fashion. First, this was supposed to be a medium rare steak. Now, if you were paying attention, we ordered the steak tartare right out of the gate. No problems with raw meat if that’s how it’s supposed to be served. That’s not how this was supposed to be served. Secondly, that little line of white running horizontally through the middle of the steak, the one that looks like a perfect little line of marbling? It was gristle, or tough fat or muscle – not sure. I kept slicing more bites thinking that it would eventually transform into that tender marbling which would add much needed flavor and texture and at least partially salvage the steak. Alas, not so. Once again, I get it. This was probably bad luck, the one steak off that cow that had some bad gristle in it. However, they do state on their website, “All of our steaks are hand cut in our butcher shop to maximize quality and consistency.” So, either this steak was not consistent with the quality they expect, or, worse yet…it was.
Anyways, we couldn’t get to dessert fast enough. While the bread pudding was not quite enough at this point to salvage the meal, it was solid, beautifully presented and enough to at least leave us with some flavor on our palates to remember for the lonely, long drive home after a Steak Day gone rogue.
Here’s the Rundown:
Ambience: Nice. The open kitchen is fun to look at for a minute. Tables in the dining room are tight, but this is a downtown space and square footage is at a premium.
Service: Good. Our server was a little stiff, but otherwise on point. Interestingly enough, our busser was a great conversationalist and, after seeing how we hoovered up the Wagyu tongue, gave us a great tip for a place not too far away that we’ll be trying soon.
Cost/Value: $350 including tip for dinner for two. Definitely within reasonable expectations for a great steakhouse with cocktails and a bottle of wine. However, given the aforementioned issues, this is not a place I would recommend to anyone looking to maximize their date night or special event budget. There are much better and more consistent options available. Cheers, my friends!
640 10th Avenue,
San Diego, California 92101