Cowboy Star is not your father’s steakhouse. Sure, it’s got some of the telltale hallmarks — the leather booths, the smell of grilling meat, the expense account – holding guys in suits — but there’s enough whimsy to keep the restaurant from seeming stodgy or stiff. Waiters wear western-style shirts, and the music playlist is programmed with country hits — thankfully stacked with more Willie Nelson than Shania Twain — but the aw-shucks, Wild West theme is not overdone or kitschy. Cowboy hats are hung sparingly as decoration, not worn, and the use of cowhide fabric is kept to a minimum.
The adjacent walk-in butcher shop, though small, also helps Cowboy Star from coming off as too rarefied. Instead of declaring itself an exclusive bastion of meat cookery, it encourages customers to buy the same steaks served at the restaurant for cooking at home. But steaks of these proportions should be once-in-a-while indulgences — double-digit-ounce helpings of meat can’t be claimed as sensible eating — so when the hankering comes, I like to leave the steak-sizzling to the capable cooks of this East Village eatery.
Before you get to the meaty main event, there are appetite-whetters that go beyond steakhouse standards like shrimp cocktail and iceberg wedges. A squash soup made from farmers’ market produce is smooth and belly-warming; garnished with crème fraîche, it’s free of the sweet pumpkin-pie spices that can leave these soups tasting too akin to dessert. Sweetbreads, which can turn spongy when cooked incorrectly, are executed to near-perfection here. A coating of buttermilk batter, followed by a quick fry, results in a greaseless, crunchy coating around the creamy, delicately flavored organ meat. It’s sauced with a sticky glaze of bourbon, with accompanying tart green apple and Savoy cabbage slaw that keeps the plate from feeling too heavy.
More substantial options include lamb short ribs, braised until the meat collapses into tender shreds, glossed with a whiskey-currant sauce and served with a pan-fried potato dumpling. If you’re used to mild, lean lamb chops, the short-rib meat will taste a little on the wild side.
Steak sizes range from a petite 8-ounce filet mignon to a massive 40-ounce porterhouse for two. The meat originates from ranches across America, from Idaho-raised Wagyu beef to prime, corn-finished Nebraska cattle — but Cowboy Star distinguishes itself from other steakhouses by consistently offering 100 percent grass-fed, pasture-raised beef from the Bay Area’s Marin Sun Farms, though the selections vary daily. There are special cuts, too; one night’s was an iconic bistecca alla fiorentina, a T-bone from a prized Pietmontese breed.
They’re all cooked precisely to order, first on a grill and then under a scorching broiler where they’re basted with herb butter. The steaks come with basic sides, a starch and a green vegetable, as wel as a rotating house-made steak sauce, from classic Béarnaise to bourdelaise. But meat this fine needs no extra gilding. Salt, pepper and a good char create savor, as does careful dry-aging, done in a special Los Angeles facility. The nearly 3-inch-thick, 20-ounce bone-in strip steak, dry-aged for 35 days, proves that patience leads to payoff in intense, concentrated beef flavor and a juicy, meaty chew. It was tender enough, though my tablemate’s “Cattleman’s Cut,” a 22-ounce rib-eye, was a bit more melting and soft due to its inherent fat content.
The thickly bound wine list has plenty of not unreasonably priced bottles, mostly from California. I prefer to pair a beer with notes of roasted malt, like AleSmith’s Nautical Nut Brown, with the flavors of caramelized meat.
Red-meat alternatives at steakhouses tend to be simply prepared afterthoughts — grilled chicken or broiled fish — but Cowboy Star’s are more fully realized plates. One fine meat-free option is the line-caught Alaskan halibut, a deftly seared fillet served with a sunchoke purée, asparagus and a mustard beurre blanc.
For variety and a live cooking show, book a seat at the countertop that overlooks the open kitchen. With a day’s notice, executive chef Victor Jimenez will put together a $60, five-course tasting menu. And if you still have room for dessert after all this food, there are plenty of sweet choices. But after a meal such as this, all I’d order is a nap.
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640 Tenth Avenue, San Diego
Hungry for More: Beyond the Butcher Shop
Cowboy Star’s adjacent, full-service butcher shop retails some of the beef, poultry and game on the menu, from hand-cut steaks to homemade venison sausages and the bison patties found in the bison burger, a lunchtime favorite that tops the meat with a smoky combo of roasted Anaheim peppers and toasted cumin mayonnaise. Beef burgers are also available at lunch, both ground-in-house corn-fed and grass-fed varieties.
But for some of the freshest locally raised meat, head to an area farmers’ market. At Saturday’s Little Italy Mercato, find Descanso Valley Ranch with pasture-raised chickens and eggs and Dave Heafner of Da-Le Ranch, who sells a variety of hormone-free meats at his market booth, including beef, pork and lamb — even the occasional duck or rabbit.
Curtis Womach of Womach Ranch Farms was among the first ranchers to provide locally raised pastured poultry to customers, at restaurants and to shoppers at his stand at the Sunday farmers’ market in Hillcrest. Though he raises heritage pigs, goats, turkeys, rabbits and more at his East County ranch, only his tasty chickens and eggs are available at the market.
Phil Noble of Sage Mountain Farm, located just east of Temecula, is already known for his stellar produce, but his row crops now share space with a number of steer, who roam freely on the property, drinking well water and grazing on organic grasses, wheat and the farm’s fruit and vegetables. Noble sells the meat by the quarter-steer but often has individual cuts at the Hillcrest market, including flavorful ground beef that cooks up into a very tasty burger.