The Phoenicia Diner's Skirt Steak
Skirt steak with balsamic onions from the Phoenicia Diner. (Johnny Autry)
By Evan Bleier / April 1, 2020 7:00 am

Located on a New York state highway that bypasses the village of Phoenicia a little way up the road from Woodstock, the Phoenicia Diner has been operating in the Catskills since the early 1980s.

Now owned by Brooklynite Mike Cioffi, the Phoenicia Diner is known for dishing up locally sourced dishes that range from meatloaf and fried chicken to biscuits and gravy and buttermilk pancakes served with local maple syrup.

The man behind many of those culinary creations, chef Chris Bradley, previously worked at Union Square Hospitality Group in NYC before coming to the diner to work for Cioffi.

Bradley brought a lot of things with him to the Phoenicia, among them a desire to make sure the eatery served a steak that wasn’t pulled from the very back of the freezer as many diners seem wont to do.

Though it isn’t always on the diner’s regular menu, Bradley now makes a skirt steak at the Phoenicia that is a regular addition to the restaurant’s specials board and has become a staple of the diner’s catering menu.

As Bradley explains, his decision to go with a skirt steak for the upstate New York diner traces its roots back to an underground North Carolina bar and restaurant officially called Ram’s Head Rathskeller (but affectionately called The Rat) that had to be entered through a wooden door down a narrow alley which he used to frequent with his father prior to attending UNC basketball games in Chapel Hill.

“It had been around since the 1940s and the only two dishes anyone ever ordered were the lasagna — aka the bowl of cheese — or The Gambler (the skirt steak),” Bradley tells InsideHook. “It was served in single, double, or triple portions on a hot skillet with fries. Marinated with herbs, oil, and vinegar, its charred crust held within it a deep beef essence and rich ribbons of fat with an ever-so-slight hint of liver, topped with a scattering of caramelized onions.  When I sought to recreate the dish I found that marinating it would often “pickle” the meat so I added the herb, vinegar, and oil flavors to the onions to keep the beef flavor pure and in full force.”

A favorite among butchers, skirt steak offers a lot of bang for your buck.

“It packs a lot of flavor at a price point that is approachable,” Bradley says. “It takes some work to trim properly but it is so worth the effort. Butchers everywhere love skirt steak. And more than the French, Central and South Americans do wonders with the cut.”

The taste of skirt steak reminds Bradley of summer grill-outs, but it also transports him back to being a high schooler going to watch UNC hoops.

“It reminds me of transgression,” Bradley says. “Of eating the ‘lesser’ cut in a dark subterranean room where people smoked and drank and laughed and played music loudly and debated in voices bordering on shouting. Let Proust have his madeleines. Skirt steak transports me to a time when the world lay ahead and all was possible.”

Bradley has gotten compliments about his skirt steak recipe, but he’s never actually heard the best ones.

 “The best compliments for me are never spoken,” he says. “It’s the look: eyes closed, mouth pursed, mind traveling through space and time that people sometimes get. Often they’ve had skirt steak while traveling abroad, soul searching and hungry for home and find in the steak something familiar and foreign in the same bite.”

Along with 84 more comfort-food recipes, the recipe for Bradley’s skirt steak (which is down below) can be found in the recently released Phoenicia Diner Cookbook: Dishes and Dispatches from the Catskill Mountains.

As Cioffi explains, there was never really a plan to release a Phoenicia Diner cookbook.

“It just happened that while we were discussing the possibility of getting our recipes out to the world from our little corner of it,” Cioffi tells InsideHook. “We were contacted out of the blue by a great publishing company in Clarkson Potter. We already had a great writer, Sara B. Franklin, and a top-notch chef [Bradley] on board, so it was easy to take the plunge and move forward. /the result is an accurate reflection of our diner in book form.”

The below recipe for Bradley’s skirt steak with balsamic onions serves four.

For the balsamic onions: 2 large red onions, each cut into 8 half-moon wedges, ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil, 1 packed tablespoon dark brown sugar, 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 1 garlic clove, grated.

For the skirt steak: 1½ pounds skirt steak, divided into 4 (6-ounce) portions, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Directions

  1. Position a rack at the lowest setting and preheat the oven to 400°F. 
  2. Make the balsamic onions: Spread the onions in a 9 by 13- inch baking dish. In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, and garlic. Spoon the vinegar mixture over the top of the onions and cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil. Roast the onions until they’ve softened but still hold together, 25 to 30 minutes. 
  3. When the onions are done, carefully remove the foil. Add about 2 tablespoons water and give the pan a good shake. Then return the onions to the oven—this time uncovered—and cook for another 5 minutes. They will be glossy and have softened a bit, and the layers will have pulled apart some. Set the onions aside. 
  4. Heat a grill or a grill pan over high heat. 
  5. Prepare the steak: Season the meat well with salt and pepper. Cook the steaks for 3 minutes, undisturbed, then flip, cooking 3 more minutes on the other side for medium rare; the steaks will have deep charred grill marks. Using tongs or a fork, pull the steaks from the heat, set on a platter, and let rest. 
  6. By now, the onions will have released some liquid. Give all the contents of the baking dish a good stir. Top the slices of steak with the onions and some of their pan juices, and serve. 

Recipe reprinted from The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook. Copyright © 2020 by Catskills Diner Holdings LLC. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.

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