Though the last remaining herd of cows in Orange County may have stampeded toward the greener pastures of Scottsdale, we remain steak country. Our appetite for gloriously grilled hunks of red meat has produced excellent homegrown steak houses like Fleming's and the Steer Inn and also keeps alive such culinary warhorses as Chris 'n Pitts, the Arches, Bungalow, even Norms. Steak is so popular around here, in fact, that regional and national steak chains bypass the rest of California in the fight for our aortas; recently, the renowned Mastro's Steakhouse opened a fish house in Crystal Cove and plans to open its second California steak house near South Coast Plaza early next year.
The largest of these outsider steak chains is Lone Star Steakhouse (24231 Ave. De La Carlota, Laguna Hills, 949-951-8687; 6575 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, 562-594-8999; 1222 E. Irvine Blvd., Tustin, 714-508-9053). This North Carolina-based company runs more than 200 restaurants, but only four in California—and three are in the Orange County-Long Beach area. At first, their light penetration into the area seems for the better: Lone Star eschews serious eaters in favor of a family-friendly atmosphere where kids ogle murals, memorabilia, plank wood floors, Longhorn paraphernalia and flags.
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But for a place that relies so much on a theme, Lone Star's meat preparation is shockingly serious. All the steaks are moist and burnished with little more than char marks and the beef's lean, smoky essence. About the fanciest platters Lone Star offer are the five-star fillet—filet mignon wrapped with bacon, a combination of crispy fat and supremely tender cow—and a Cajun rib-eye with a rub that's south of the border. Old-timers, meanwhile, can feast on the chopped steak stirred with onions and mushrooms, a meal more befitting Walter Brennan than the yuppie cowfolks of South County who wait in line for a good hour at the Laguna Hills branch.
Lone Star Steakhouse is for the people who voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger; Morton's (1641 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, 714-444-4834) is for the people who made it happen. But the chain is doing its darnedest to entice folks who don't have the patience to lounge as waiters navigate a classy dining room with carts of raw, plastic-wrapped cow. Lunch is now available, where you can bulk up on the same dinner menu of monster porterhouses and all the classic steak cuts along with lighter entrées like pastas, salads and a juicy prime sirloin burger. It's only during happy hour, however, that diners can feast on a $3 filet mignon sandwich, the best lowbrow offering of haute cuisine since salmon caviar.
Any conversation about great meat minichains must include Lawry's, the Beverly Hills-based prime rib institution that owns Five Crowns in Corona del Mar. Lawry's doesn't operate a fancy Orange County eatery à la its Beverly Hills shrine, but we are the first location for its most recent gustatory foray, Lawry's Carvery (3333 Bristol St., Ste. 2601, Costa Mesa, 714-434-7788). Located in South Coast Plaza, Lawry's Carvery is a Subway for the Rivieracrowd, with sandwiches and small lunch plates dominating the menu and a gorgeous booth-lined interior. The prime rib original sandwich is worthy of the mother shop: pink, multifolded meat soaked with a harsh, grand horseradish. Also fine is the crown roast beef, redolent of red pepper and chives, and a prime rib plate that, while not as large as the massive meals Lawry's in Beverly Hills feeds to Rose Bowl teams, is just as epic in flavor.
My favorite outsider steak chain was Pinnacle Peak in Garden Grove until it closed earlier this winter after more than 30 years of grilling meat on Soviet-style furnaces. Now it's the Cask 'n Cleaver(186 N. Atchison, Orange, 714-532-2660) near Old Towne Orange. This restaurant combines all the aspects of a great steak house under one historical-building roof near the Amtrak tracks. Like Lone Star Steakhouse, the Cask 'n Cleaver steak is deceptively simple—the most complex thing here is the smothered bleu steak, reeking of pungent, chunky blue cheese. Like Morton's, this is a place meant to impress, with private booths, low lighting and the rumble of trains providing a convenient excuse to make earthquake jokes. Like Lawry's, great sandwiches are also available. But unlike the other three, Cask 'n Cleaver offers great sides—crumbly crab cakes doused in a strong wasabi tartar sauce; sturdy, non-greasy fries; and a corn chowder steaming with multiple kernels and a thick, hearty broth. Steaks are fine, but man does not live by meat alone—at least that's what Jesus said. Such a lamb.