NYC's 'Worst Steak' Is Also Its Most Thoughtful

Choosing a place for a nice dinner out can be a little nerve-wracking. You need to find someplace that has good food and good service, and if it's a special, splurge meal, you want to make sure that the money you're spending is worth it. So what would you do if you went to a restaurant and spent $65 on a dry-aged, grass-fed steak, only for it to be "hit or miss," "almost terrible...very very tough," or "chewy, awful meat"? Those are just a few Yelp reviews of the steak at Basque restaurant Ernesto's, which one professional reviewer said was rumored to serve "the worst steak in NYC" (via Grubstreet). 

But is it actually bad? The steak being served is known as vaca vieja in Spain, which means "old cow." In the U.S., cattle are usually slaughtered and processed at 30-42 months of age, according to the USDA, but vaca vieja comes from cows that are at least five, and sometimes up to 12 years old (via Campo Grande). It's a traditional food of the Basque region, and it's prized for its flavor — even in a negative review of the steak overall, the reviewer said they "noticed how much more flavorful it was than the corn-fed stuff you might get somewhere else." 

The texture, however, can take some getting used to, and that's where the chef at Ernesto's came in to share his opinion about this unique and divisive cut of meat.

Cultural confusion or cooking conundrum?

So, you just spent $65 dollars on a steak and "could not get the meat to break down" after chewing, and your "steak knife struggled to slice through the squeaky knots" on your plate (via Grubstreet). Would it make you feel better to know that this hard-to-chew meat came from an old, but ethically treated cow, which dined on grass instead of corn and soy? Ryan Bartlow, the chef at Ernesto's in New York City, shared that they get their meat from Kinderhook Farm, which specializes in grass-fed, pasture-raised meats. 

The restaurant buys a whole cow, then butchers and dry-ages it in-house. "I love every element of it," Bartlow says. "To me, it's delicious." As for how to eat it, Bartlow said "I think you have got to be strategic...We know there are people that probably wouldn't enjoy it." Is it a case of people not having experience with grass-fed meat, which is leaner than corn-fed (via Butcher Box)? Or the fact that older meat is tougher? It seems Ernesto's isn't alone in its customers finding vaca vieja a bit tough for American tastes. 

Yelp reviewers of José Andrés' Bazaar Meat said that the vaca vieja there was "a bit tough for a medium rare steak" and "more dried out" than expected. However, once again, "the flavor was great." If you've got tough teeth, a taste for ethically raised beef, and want to try something new, vaca vieja just might be for you.