It’s officially cook-out season now, so did you eat grilled-out steak over the Memorial Day weekend ... or just wish you had? Yep, there’s something incomparably satisfying about ripping into a seared and juicy steak. Of course, DIY-ing them is problematic — building a fire is hot and dirty work, and what if you burn or undercook the dollar-heavy things? But relegating the kings of beef to restaurant professionals usually means eating them only on rare and celebratory occasions — plus “I’m gonna regret this tomorrow” tabs. Well, operating on tips and hints, I recently tried several great-priced and damn good steak dinners — in shorts-casual, saloony settings— costing less than half what you generally spend for an a la carte piece of meat in an expensive steakhouse.
Obviously my eat-it-on-the-cheap budget wasn’t gonna buy me filet mignon. But it did purchase flavorful New York strips and lean, perfectly cooked sirloins. Here are six CheapSteaks definitely worth a try. Note: I highly advise you order them all medium rare and “crusted on the outside.”
DIAMOND IN THE TENDER
Non-Steakhouse: Little Palace
Most people know this ’60s-esque, retro-hip hangout with the good jukebox and mod Downtown clientele as a great place to go for drinks and re-thought, versatile diner fare like inspired sliders. But Little Palace — almost covertly — also grills a damn mean steak. So whether you cop a squat at the bar, where sports unobtrusively play on afterthought TVs, or you sink into a roomy booth or utilitarian table, LP is a surprisingly excellent place to belly up to some serious beef.
Meat of the Matter: Strip Steak with Polenta Fries and Red Pepper Aioli, $16
Diamond-shaped grill marks might clue you in that this is a gem of a steak dinner. If not, one bite of the large and smokily charred strip on its pool of inviting juices will seal the “ooh that’s good” deal. It’s a strip, so it offers a characteristically “dense” chew whose co-pilot is a blanket of flavor, but the neatly trimmed-of-fat steak is still wonderfully fork-tender. On the side are huge bonuses: four big and beautiful, golden-brown logs of grease-free polenta fries crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside — plus a vibrant red-pepper sauce.
Non-Steakhouse: Flatiron Bar and Diner
Urban and urbane, jazzy and casually sophisticated, Flatiron somehow manages to fly just under the radar of heatseeking trend-o-nauts. But make no mistake, this fantastic place — easily one of the best bars around the Arena District — draws in a cultured crowd that frequently includes art- and food-world movers and shakers. They show up for Flatiron’s easygoing nature, killer happy hour bargains (like $5 plates of sublime fried oysters and/or Bombay Sapphire martinis), great tunes, secluded patio and comforting-yet-bold, often-Southern-inflected dishes, which include excellent smoked-here barbecue and often-ambitious chalkboard specials.
Meat of the Matter: Grilled 6-ounce Sirloin Steak Frites with Chimichurri Sauce, $15
Here’s a sensational, bought-for-a-song steak dinner that’s inspired by a French classic, accessorized in racy South American style and cooked by a New Orleans-leaning kitchen. Talk about your melting pot. Only there’s no pot, because this strip-cut sirloin gets a smoke-infusing high-heat, peppery crusting on Flatiron’s flame-spouting grill. The succulent, campfire-scented beef arrives on a mountain of killer handcut and crispy-not-greasy shoestring fries. Its finishing touch, and the plate’s richness-offsetting crowning garnish, is Flatiron’s chimichurri sauce. Rustically chopped, onion-flecked and ticklishly acidic/almost-pickle-hinting, Flatiron’s dynamic version of chimichurri — the parsley-based condiment that’s an Argentine favorite — appropriately dances a tango on your tongue.
IT’S A HIT!
Non-Steakhouse: Brick: An American Kitchen
This relaxed, sports bar-esque newcomer occupying a Columbus landmark, i.e. the amicably eccentric old Handke’s space, makes the most of its modest aims. Proof that Brick knows better than to screw up royally is the decision not to meddle much with its vintage, time-tripping environs. Food-wise, though some will inevitably measure Brick’s straightforward grub against Master Chef Hartmut Handke’s former glory — isn’t that about as unfair as comparing a new paramour to old flames? — this friendly newbie always errs on the good and honest sides of flavor.
Meat of the Matter: 7-ounce Baseball-Cut Sirloin with a side, $15
The “baseball-cut sirloin” is a sadly underplayed game of steak. It’s actually an extremely lean, rather ingeniously sliced piece of top sirloin whose impressive thickness and roundness give it its nickname, and whose tenderness and flavor earn it a well-deserved reputation as an inexpensive pinch-hitter for filet mignon. Brick’s version fills that bill perfectly. Though bluntly plated, Brick’s baseball faux-let is diamond grill-marked, thick, juicy and probably slice-able with a spoon. For your side, try the loaded potato casserole — skin-on, hashy spud cubes jacked-up with cheese, bacon and scallions.
Non-Steakhouse: Press Grill
While the Short North has morphed into a tourist-buzzing, see-and-be-seen-drinking neighborhood, the cool and clubby Press Grill just keeps chugging along as a less-frenzied, yet-ever-popular alternative to all those next big things. But the Press’ veteran watering-hole personality and bubbly, checkerboard-floor-flaunting narrow space aren’t the only draws — its reliable cooking and man-that’s-cheap! daily food specials bring in hungry hordes who recognize a great bargain when they taste it.
Meat of the Matter: Sunday Steak Dinner, $10
For six days a week, the Press’ 10-ounce “handcut” strip steak meal — it comes with an old-fashioned baked potato and corn — is a helluva deal for $15. But when Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! rolls around, that same meat (minus the do-you-really-need-it? corn) goes for an even better 10 bucks. Since the juice-dripping, grill-marked cut is sort of a ’tweener height-wise (neither-thick-nor-thin), and it delivers simple but right-there flavor, this one reminds me of the kind of steak someone might make in their own backyard ... if they knew what the hell they were doing. The salt-crusted and buttered tater is another simple pleasure, but if you don’t enjoy about a pint of sour cream on your tuber, get it on the side.
Non-Steakhouse: The Old Mohawk
This rich-in-history and just quirky enough classic German Village establishment epitomizes “neighborhood haunt,” and has since the 1930s. Rumored to have been a speakeasy during the ill-conceived prohibition era, today it offers all that GV stuff people expect and want — brick walls, local art, wacky tchotchkes and endearing whimsicalities such as an indoor gas pump and been-there-forever, horseshoe-shaped bar. The Mohawk also offers cuts-above pub grub and lots of regulars-attracting daily specials.
Meat of the Matter: 8-ounce Sirloin Steak Sunday Dinner Special, $10.25 (served all day)
Steak at the Mohawk is only available on Sundays, and then it only costs a sawbuck. The menu describes it as a sirloin, but the (flavor-infusing) fat-wreathed length of beef I got could easily pass for a good strip. Naturally, it had all the requisite attributes — seared right, not-a-bit-tough, showing pink and leaking red. Plus, it comes with cooked-into-submission, grandma-style green beans enhanced by pork and onions, and buttery mashers puddled up with dark gravy. And hell, why not spring for the sauteed mushrooms and onions option? It’s only one more buck.
RED SAUCE, RED MEAT
Non-Steakhouse: Villa Nova
Defiantly old-school Villa Nova seems like an all-but-vanished echo of Columbus’ past, yet it’s perpetually slammed. That tells you there’s still a ravenous audience for an unironically retro red-sauce palace where portions are whoppingly large, but prices are decidedly not. Friends and families crowd the rambling main dining room — as does an obsessive proliferation of brass teapots. In the popular bar area, where it’s preferable to sit with a frosty-mugged liter of suds, it’s marine pressure gauges that hog the walls.
Meat of the Matter: Nova Steak Dinner, $11.50
Ounce for ounce, this is probably the most bulk for your buck. Though advertised as a half-pound of sirloin, my hulking slab of nearly fatless beef — exterior-crusted, perfectly cooked-to-order and sliceable with a dull butter knife — seemed about twice its reported size. But wait, there’s more! See, Villa Nova’s steak-out starts off with puffy, soft and garlicky blast-from-the-past breadsticks, plus a first course (a big bowl of chicken-y Italian wedding soup or ho-hum salad), and it’s served with thin onion rings, plus a side — which oughta be spaghetti with red sauce, if you know what’s good for ya.