“I used to be a piece of shit,” a Tim Robinson character named Shane says in a sketch from I Think You Should Leave’s second season. “Slicked-back hair, white bathing suit, sloppy steaks, white couch.” At first, it seems like he’s just listing things that sound funny. But he fixates on the steaks, circles back to them, and doubles down: “Big rare cut of meat with water dumped all over it, water splashing around the table.” Finally, we see past-life piece-of-shit Shane, out with his boys ordering sloppy steaks at Truffoni’s. The earnest, beleaguered server begs the table, “No sloppy steaks guys, please — I mean it.” But they slop ’em up, pouring glasses of ice water all over their T-bones, and the waiters are helpless to stop them. An original Ezra Koenig song about sloppy steaks plays. It is the night of their lives.
Robinson has a fixation on douchebags and the meats they eat throughout his work. There’s the hot-dog car from season one and the hotdog-choking incident from season two, the stinky plastic meatballs, and something called a “cherry chuck salad.” He often presents us with dudes acting terribly in restaurants, from the starstruck choking man with a wallet chain and the “nuggets of meat” nachosplainer on a bad date in season one to John Early telling the three hilarious waiter brothers to quit it and the hungry professor who wants to eat Robinson’s burger in season two. Restaurants are public theaters of socialization, where you perform according to a set list of unspoken mores, and Robinson consistently finds the humor in characters who didn’t read the rule book and can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong. Sloppy steaks at Truffoni’s is different, though. It’s proud, joyful, reckless. The sketch is about how babies know that people can change; just because you were a piece of shit doesn’t mean you have to still be one. But could the reverse be true? Could the siren call of sloppy steaks turn me into a real piece of fucking shit? I decided there was only one way to find out: I’d make a reservation at the nicest steakhouse in Manhattan and slop some steak myself.
But first I had to talk to some experts. I emailed New York restaurant critic Adam Platt to tell him that I was going to Keens, the nicest and most traditional Manhattan steakhouse I could think of (for lack of a Truffoni’s), to dump water all over a steak. I asked if there was any possible culinary appeal or advantage to this. “What kind of misguided madcap blasphemy is this?!” he answered via email. “It sounds to me like a perfectly good way to ruin a not very good steak, let alone an excellent one.” But then he gave it more thought and analysis than the concept deserved and sent a follow-up email. Maybe it could serve as “a purist’s quirky, ritualized attempt to enjoy the cow in its original, pre-salted, pre-seasoned, pre-carcinogenically sizzled form. A kind of baptism, if you will, which also robs your steak of its classic steakhouse flavor.” Perhaps Platt was right and those pieces of shit were on to something whether they knew it or not. Maybe a sloppy steak was a symbolic rebirthing of the cow before placing her under the knife, both birth and death by your own hand. Or maybe it was just sloppy steaks, a nonsense food for the sort of men who blow all their money at Dan Flashes.
I then reached out via email to fourth-generation butcher Cara Nicoletti, the sausage whisperer behind Seemore Meats & Veggies in Brooklyn, to ask what on earth the benefits of a sloppy steak could be. Nicoletti, who as it turns out is a huge Tim Robinson and ITYSL fan because she is a woman of taste, prefaced her analysis by warning that “I want to go on record first as saying there’s no justification for doing this.” Still, she ended up explaining the science behind sloppy steaks and even offered recommendations for which cuts of meat to slop up at home:
The only time you’re adding water to meat is when you’re brining it or braising it. In general, I would always recommend a dry brine over a wet brine, though, because a wet brine is just pumping water into your steak, whereas a dry brine helps meat hold its own flavorful juices. And I wouldn’t necessarily recommend water as a braising liquid — stock or wine is better.
It looks like Tim is pouring water on a T-bone steak here, and honestly I’m not mad at that. I hate T-bone steaks. Get a strip or get a filet. Don’t get them both together, they cook at different rates. Also a T-bone is a rip-off because you’re paying more for the bone than the tiny sliver of filet.
If I were going to pour water on a steak, I’d probably pour water on a really lean, very over-cooked steak. Maybe something from the leg, like an eye of round, that’s just so dry and desiccated and tough that you’ll actually choke if you don’t lubricate it first.
So Robinson had the right idea in using T-bones, never mind the fact that a T-bone is always a very comedic cut of meat — it’s the one they throw to dogs in cartoons. Now that I was armed with professional guidance, it was time to try slopping up some steaks in a public establishment.
I showed up to the venerable, old-school Keens Steakhouse in midtown for a mid-afternoon sloppy delight. I imagined myself breezing into the joint like Robinson, hair slicked back, sliding into a booth. Really, I was overly polite, compensating for the disgrace about to be inflicted on the establishment’s lovely meats. I sat in a booth in the main dining room, “just like in the show,” my friend and accomplice Dana noted. I took a sip of New York tap. “Save some of that,” Dana reminded me. It had a higher purpose.
I immediately understood what makes sloppy steaks such a quintessentially piece-of-shit move. Here I was in a nice place, a special place, a place diners save up for and staff take pride in. And we were using it for a spoof and a goof, our own little prank show where the joke would be on us only, a couple of glib idiots. There were a few larger parties seated in the room, including an intergenerational table of eight that toasted “Salud!” to their grandpa’s 80th birthday. They were celebrating milestones. I was celebrating being a dum-dum who likes a funny show a bunch.
It felt like we were doing something that would get us picked up by the ruffs of our collars and booted out. But as Shane says in the sketch, “They can’t stop you from ordering a steak and a glass of water.” The slabs of steak in the sketch look like T-bones, and Shane specifies that you gotta get ’em rare, so that’s what we did. The steak arrived on our table with a gorgeous char on the outside, looking super tender and moist even without water dumped on it. An important-looking man in a tuxedo — maybe the general manager or the maître d’ — was walking slowly through the dining room, hands behind his back. Because I’m still a POS in training, I was deeply scared of getting caught in the act of the slop. I waited for when his back was turned and our server was preoccupied at another table, and I did the deed. I dumped it. I gave my “USDA prime-grade, hand-picked, and dry-aged” steak a whore’s bath.
There was splashback. Water pooled over the plate and dripped beefy brown wet streaks onto the crisp white table cloth. Shane and the boys really mow down their steaks in the sketch; eating quick is part of the game. “Waiters coming to snatch ’em up — we had to eat as fast as we could,” he says. I forked a wet hunk into my mouth for the culinary judgment that only someone who used to have a desk near the Grub Street writers can give …
… And it was so fucking good!
It’s not as fun or as funny when something that looks funny and bad is actually just really good, but at the end of the day, a good steak is a good steak, even when you take months of careful dry-aging and a charred Maillard preparation and lube it up with a big dump o’ agua. Our server, Joey, had explained that Keens rests its steaks for something like six minutes after cooking them rare to get the juices circulating and then slices along the T-bone before serving them. This ended up giving us a tactical advantage over the sloppy steaks in ITYSL because our water made direct contact with the inner rare steak juices the moment it splashed down, and the sloshy-splashy pool ended up taking on the flavor profile of a good au jus. It still looked insane though, and, stifling our giggling, we made a little barrier out of drinks and salt-and-pepper shakers to block other diners’ view of our wet plates and the water splashing all over. It reminded me of that scene in Succession where piece of shit Tom takes piece of shit in training Cousin Greg out for a meal of deep-fried songbird and they ritualistically eat it with napkins over their heads: “The exact purpose is debated. Some say it’s to mask the shame, others to heighten the pleasure.”
The shame set in again when a busser came to pack up our leftovers. “Sorry the plate is wet,” I told him. “There was an accident. I spilled.”
“We’ll drain it for you,” he said with such pure lack of judgment that I realized that a century-old restaurant — a century-old restaurant in midtown, no less — has certainly seen its fair share of unspeakable things done to steaks. So I told our server Joey what we had done and why. He wasn’t an old mustachioed man like in the sketch, so he didn’t run us out of the restaurant, but he was from Jersey, and that feels spiritually close enough.
“That sounds like milk steak from Always Sunny,” he said, and he was totally right. But where Shane and his buds eat sloppy steaks because they’re pieces of shit, Charlie eats milk steak because he is the ultimate naïf and has brain damage.
“I feel ashamed because it just seems like a really rude thing to do to a good steak in a nice restaurant,” I told Joey, unable to keep the piece-of-shit act up any longer. “I wanted to come clean.”
“Girl, dip yourself in a river and wash off. You’re good,” said my new best friend Joey.
Dana had to get back to work, so after lunch I walked around midtown in a post-sloppy-steak fugue state for a while. My tummy was channeling Karl Havoc, saying “I don’t want to be here anymore” in Morse code. The water made too much steak slide down my gullet too easily, and now it was sitting there, weighed down by slop.
In the sketch, after the steaks, Shane sits on a beach, looks out over the water, and reflects on his dangerous life. I went to Bryant Park and reflected on my choices while I watched a middle-aged man sort of shuffle around listlessly ankle-deep in a fountain. I had made my body feel like a piece of shit, but had I become one? I looked at the finance bros walking in and out of the buildings surrounding the park. At the end of the day, on I Think You Should Leave, Robinson is depicting a fairly low-status piece of shit doing low-level stuff. High-level pieces of shit take their corporate expense accounts for granted and do coke in the Keens bathroom. High-level pieces of shit take their steaks well-done and slop them up with ketchup. They ride private rockets to space. So what if you like a sloppy steak? It doesn’t have to define you. People can change. Now go dump water on a steak and look a baby in the eye.