Today I am going to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart and stomach – steak. There are only two qualities necessary to assure the preparation of a great steak: high quality meat and one hell of a hot place to cook it. I have eaten steak all over the U.S. and Europe, and all of the really good steaks shared these two qualities.
There are a host of really good places to get a steak. I personally think Ruth’s Chris is the best of the chain steakhouses. I’ve enjoyed a good steak at Folk’s Folly in Memphis and Peter Lugar’s and Smith & Wollensky’s in New York. I once had an outstanding steak in a very small French village cooked in a huge open fireplace. I do not hesitate to eat a steak at the Crescent City in New Orleans, The Como Steakhouse in Como, Mississippi or The Hunter’s Pub in the middle of nowhere Georgia. All of these establishments offer a really fine steak.
I was introduced to the best steak I have ever eaten over 60 years ago in an old wooden store in a run-down neighborhood in Greenville, Mississippi called
Doe’s Eat Place. We lived in Cleveland, Mississippi, about 40 miles north, and my Dad loved steak. We would drive over to Doe’s a least once a month. My first trip was in 1951 when I was 12 years old. I have been back every chance I get. When I lived in Memphis, which is 160 miles away, I would make the 320 mile round trip for dinner. No kidding, leave at 4pm and get back after midnight.
What is it about Doe’s that would engender that sort of loyalty? I’ll try to explain it. As I mentioned, Doe’s is located in a pretty rough neighborhood. Rough enough to require an armed guard to escort the guest in and out. There is no parking available other than street side, and on a busy night, i.e., almost any night, you may have to park a block or so away. To the first-time visitor this can be a little intimidating. Once you’ve conquered parking, the next hurdle you will face is Doe’s itself. The restaurant is housed in a small, squat clapboard building that had been a corner grocery prior to 1941. There is a very small ground level covered porch with the obligatory wooden benches flanking the front door. The entire building might be 1,500 square feet. It is painted white and has a simple sign that proclaims Doe’s Eat Place. The exterior does not suggest confidence.
You enter Doe’s through the two-room kitchen. The first is dedicated to cooking the steaks, as the entire left hand wall is devoted to a huge gas fired oven that has been measured at over 1,000 °F. I say over because the heat gauge stopped at 1,000 °F. You will see one of the owners, probably Little Doe Signa, working the oven. This room also houses the hand cranked hot tamale machine and meat coolers. As you walk across the sagging wooden floor, you soon discover there is not a right angle in the whole joint.
The second room is dedicated to a work table for preparation of the Doe’s salads, a large hooded gas cooking area for the french fries, a small table that serves as the hostess stand and about a dozen cooks, Signa relatives, waitresses and food preparers. All are milling about in an area the size of your average walk-in closet. Oh, by the way, there are a couple of four top tables for guest in there as well. It is a bright, friendly room that smells like the kitchens of heaven. There are three additional rooms crammed with oil cloth tables and mismatched wooden chairs. You may be directed to a long table with another party; just say hello and get over it. Once you are seated the magic begins.
Doe’s does not have a menu. The prices are based on the current cost of U.S. Prime beef. Most of the guest come in knowing exactly what they want to order and don’t care what it is going cost. I’ll say right here, I have found the prices at Doe’s to be uniformly fair for the product supplied, however, I don’t recommend Doe’s if you are on a strict budget. If you are a first time guest, just ask questions and you will receive cheerful and helpful assistance. This is a steakhouse. I have heard they will also serve shrimp, but I have never witnessed this first hand. It’s like Sean Connery asking the assailant with a knife, “Why’d you bring a knife to a gunfight?” This was just before he shot him. Why would you order shrimp in a steakhouse? Moving right along.
I am going to share how I do it at Doe’s. First I order a Diet Coke. They also have iced tea, beer and water. You can bring anything else from Wild Turkey to a 1947 Mouton Rothschild. They don’t give a hoot and will provide a glass and some ice. They have Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi. Pepsi is still considered a drink for effete Yankees in some parts of Mississippi.
The next thing I order is a dozen hot tamales and a Doe’s salad. The hot tamales are made on the premises by hand. They are wrapped in paper rather than corn husk. The Mississippi Health Department (Yes, Virginia, Mississippi does indeed have a health department) decided about 30 years ago that Doe’s could no longer use the imported husk because of the insects and little critters that came in with the husks. No amount of arguing could convince them that cooking the tamale killed the varmints, so it’s been paper ever since. I always felt the critters added a little flavor, but what do I know. This is the only evidence that the Health Department has ever come around Doe’s. The tamales have cores of well spiced finely ground meat encased in a tube of masa de harina mixed with lard or shortening and boiled in a paper wrap. Be sure and ask your waitress for a little of the tamale cooking juice to come with your order. Add a couple of dashes of Tabasco to the cooking sauce and enjoy.
Let’s spend a moment on the Doe’s salad. Because I called it the “Doe’s salad” you might think they offered other salads, they don’t. The salad is simple. Iceberg lettuce, onions and tomatoes tossed in oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper. I have watched the lady that has been making salads at Doe’s since forever. I see what she does, but I have never been able to exactly duplicate it. It is my favorite salad and I usually order two servings; one with my hot tamales and one with my steak. This brings us to the steaks.
From 1941 until Big Doe’s retirement in 1974, they offered three steaks. All were porterhouses: a small weighing about 32 oz., a medium at about 48 oz. and a large coming in nearly 64 oz. You could have them cooked to your pleasure. That was it. In recent years they have offered a large, maybe 24 oz., bone-in rib eye and a filet ranging somewhere between 12 to 16 oz. The latter, done as an accommodation for the ladies, Yankees and fainthearted men. When I was much younger, I would order the medium and never need a doggie bag. Today I generally order the small and need the bag. The steaks come out of the kitchen having just left the 1,000 °F ovens. They are cooked to perfection. If you ordered medium rare, the steak will be medium rare throughout. How they do it without timing or meat thermometers is a mystery to me. The sizzling steak will be sitting is a pool of its cooking juices and accompanied by the best hand-cut french fries you will ever encounter. Forget the baked potatoes, there aren’t any. The steak itself is absolute perfection. Every bite is pure bliss and you will end up eating more than you thought you could. I promise you this will be the best piece of meat you have ever eaten.
I always top off my meal from Doe’s extensive dessert menu. I will have one of the Blue Bell Ice Cream novelties that are the sole offering. The little bit of ice cream tops off the meal perfectly. The only trepidation that I ever have about Doe’s is that they may close before I die.