While guzzling beer and Polish delights at Dom Polski (1714 18th Ave, 322-3020) with friends, somebody ordered beefsteak tartare ($8), a dish reaching way back to Russia's medieval Baltic provinces, where Tartars shredded raw meat with a knife and ate it raw. (These are the roots, via 19th-century German sailors, of the beloved American hamburger.) Straight shots of warm vodka fogged up my food-poisoning radar, and there I was, scraping raw ground steak and a raw egg spiked with Worcestershire sauce onto saltines. There is probably some sort of rule about not eating beefsteak tartare off paper plates.
While I hold Dom Polski in the highest regard, snacking on raw meats is playing Russian roulette with intestinal health, according to MDs and scientists. Emboldened by alcohol, and apparently ludicrously lucky, I discovered the indescribable texture and taste, and lived to tell.
When I began researching this article, I put out a query on Chowhound.com, one of the Northwest's most interesting foodie chat sites, asking where to find local restaurants that serve raw beef. Within moments, the site exploded with an array of outraged and ravenous voices, firing back and forth statistics, facts, anecdotes, and recipes. In particular, the specter of mad cow disease loomed, wagging a righteous finger at all the carnal carnivores. Not to make light of all the scary, scary shit that goes on with meat processing (I've read The Jungle and My Year of Meats), but if we want to get all heebie-jeebied about mad cow, we should all just completely eschew delicious cow's milk cheese for sad, sorry soy products. Yes, we should. But not all of us always do what is entirely best for us.
Sure, there was a reason your mama wouldn't let you lick all the raw beef grease off your hands after shaping hamburger patties, or sneak nibbles of pre-cooked meatloaf. Ground beef in supermarkets is cheap because it ain't good: Fecal matter, organic bacteria, etc. is all ground up in there sometimes--hence, undercooking ground beef can result in some nasty E. coli. Don't ever buy a graying steak oozing in its Styrofoam pad at Safeway and eat it raw (or at all!). Americans' preposterous beef consumption has forever altered the wholesomeness of our retail beef, but it is still possible to eat safe, high-quality, hormone-free beef, if you've got the bank.
Besides the risk-taking tingle, raw is the best way to enjoy the taste of fine cuts of beef. Most raw beef dishes do nothing to mask their uncooked state: no marinating and pseudo-cooking in citric acid like ceviche; no beautiful seaweed-and-rice artistry as with sushi; no long, garlicky marinating as is required for nem chua (Vietnamese raw pork). There is no mistaking a mound of red-pink flesh, shimmering in its plain splendor, unabashed and incredibly delicate in both flavor and texture. There is nothing like it.
Take the Ethiopian dish Kitfo. Assimba (2722 E Cherry St, 322-1019), consistently the best Ethiopian restaurant in the city, will serve Kitfo ($8) traditionally raw upon request. Due to American tastes and assumptions, the beef in Assimba's Kitfo is usually cooked. There is no competition between which version is tastier. I have never experienced anything quite like the tender, delicate texture of the beef paired with the kind of deep, rich, sweet, full-body burn of Ethiopian seasonings. Kitfo is so rich and powerful that a full order easily feeds four or more. There is something about raw meats that discourages overeating--I simply can't stuff myself. It is not that it becomes repulsive; instead, there is a more immediate satiation that occurs.
Most raw beef dishes are traditionally served as appetizers. Perhaps there is some ancient wisdom in raw beef being relegated to the land of hors d'oeuvres. One stops eating carpaccio, for instance, long before one might put down the steak knife. I generally lapse into a food-induced coma after consuming American-sized portions of overcooked beef (the Dick's Deluxe, the Keg's head-sized steak). In eating raw beef, do we become more attuned to our instincts and our real hunger, rather than our commercially lubricated, disembodied appetites?
I felt as if I were levitating after tasting carpaccio for the first time at Toscana (1312 NE 43rd St, 547-7679), a tiny Italian fine-dining joint snuggled up behind the Ave in the University District. Complete with a saucy Italian chef who brims with chianti and a heartful of appreciation for the ladies, this place offers cozy tables and candlelight that encourage you to cut loose, hold hands in public, and drink too much Montepulciano. I had no intention, my first time there, of ordering carpaccio ($7.95). (I confess to complete ignorance--I didn't even know carpaccio was raw at first.) But our loquacious chef sidled over, and we could not resist trusting our order to his discretion. One look into his eyes and you knew this man would not steer you wrong.
Just as shocking as it is to stumble across this buried treasure in the chronically seedy U-District, carpaccio jarred me into rethinking beef. Paper-thin shavings of raw beef fillet drizzled with a little olive oil and lemon juice, festooned with capers and slivered onions... what could be simpler, and further from the childhood hunks of cow I forced down with swigs of milk and eventually slipped under the table to Moses, the cat-who-would-eat-anything?
Monsoon's (615 19th Ave E, 325-2111) brilliant chefs Eric and Sophie Banh have recently added glorious Vietnamese beef carpaccio with rau ram and lime ($8) to their menu. This dish is spiced similarly to Monsoon's renowned beef la lot; it is indescribably delicious--a sort of warm, sweet flavor you want to find again and again--paired with highest quality tenderloin, sliced thin and prepared to order. The lime zips without overpowering the silky slices of translucent meat, and the traditional Vietnamese spices really know how to complement a fine cut of beef. Served with light, crisp, house-made rice cakes, this phenomenal dish catapulted to the top of my raw beef experiences. The next time I crave raw beef, I will proceed immediately to Monsoon--nothing could top the appetizer trinity of their carpaccio, alongside bo mo chai ($6, sweet onion wrapped in grilled beef, wrapped in caul fat) and frog legs in spicy lemongrass coconut sauce ($11). Sigh.
I prefer to leave preparation of raw beef dishes to people in the know, which is why I take myself out to El Gaucho (2505 First Ave, 728-1337) if I want to revisit beefsteak tartare. While the el gauge-oh in my wallet is substantial ($21), the beef is so clean and fresh and tender, prepared tableside with cognac and capers, served with ripe tomatoes and thin slices of crusty bread, that I become quite giddy with carnivorous pleasure.
During my latest visit, the maitre d' was delighted with my unusual request. "We usually do not get many young ladies ordering beef tartare, unless they are from Europe!" he noted in his Swiss accent, eyes aglow with moist, beefy affection. I told him that I could not trust myself to prepare this precarious dish at home, and felt that $21 was worth the peace of mind and ease of participation in my oh-so-European tastes.