By: Jason Perlow
A few weeks ago, my wife Rachel and I happened to be at Aldi’s Coral Springs location, after several hours of errands and shopping. We were hungry, and wanted to bring home something for the two of us that we could prepare quickly, was high-protein, and that we would enjoy.
‘Lo and behold, we saw a package of seemingly tender bacon wrapped “beef filet”, with extremely attractive pricing. Despite our experienced foodie sensibilities, in our weakened state of extreme hunger and reeled-in by the rock-bottom price, we were suckered in.
Unfortunately, this product was not filet mignon or beef tenderloin as we thought it to be, as the labeling and the presentation are highly deceptive. It was a perfect example of getting exactly what you paid for — chewy, sinewy, not at all tender. Aldi’s Chuck Filet is nothing like the real article of beef tenderloin, and it is from an entirely different part of the cow.
Buyer beware: never again.
It dawned on us, however, that there are many stores in Coral Springs that do sell the genuine article. But who sells the best product for the money — value and meat-quality wise?
Real beef tenderloin is not at all cheap. It is one of the most expensive proteins you can buy. The best steakhouses mark it up like crazy. When it’s good, it’s beefy and juicy; the most tender and most desirable cuts of steak that’s available. When it’s not, it is overpriced and disappointing. We endeavored to find out who in our city had the best.
What stores we chose and what we bought
We decided to buy beef tenderloin products only from retailers in the immediate Coral Springs area and not in other towns, such as Boca Raton or Margate, so no Western Beef or Penn Dutch. We realize these are both very popular stores, but we had to make a call as to the realistic grocery shopping radius of an actual Coral Springs resident, so we drew a hard line keeping our sampling within the city.
We also chose not to include discount clubs such as Sam’s, BJ’s, or Costco. While we’ve heard many good things about the beef products at those larger discount stores, we wanted to approach this the way a busy couple or a small family might decide to cook dinner one evening at the spur of the moment, which we felt was the most realistic way typical families and couples tend to shop for food.
Discount clubs normally sell beef tenderloin/filet mignon as entire uncut primals, and while this is a less-expensive strategy for feeding a larger family or cooking for a dinner party because the price per pound is significantly lower than buying individual steaks, we didn’t think this was a normal scenario for cooking a typical beef tenderloin dinner for a few people.
Plus, we didn’t have the budget for buying entire beef tenderloin primals from each place. This is Coral Springs Talk, not Consumer Reports.
For the purposes of this article, we visited Whole Foods Market, The Fresh Market, Publix, Lucky’s Market, Walmart, Doris Italian Market, and Wild Fork Foods.
Although we did not include it in the rankings since we didn’t sample their filet, we also visited Danny’s Meat Market, an independent butcher shop on Sample Road. Unfortunately, Danny only sells tenderloin as whole primals ($11.95/lb for Choice). We did want to try something from the shop, so we bought one boneless ribeye ($5.99/lb). This fattier cut was cooked first to both season the cast iron skillet, rendering some cooking fat, and to give a textural comparison for the filets to come.
If possible, we bought the highest-end example of what beef tenderloin was offered, whether it was USDA-graded Choice or Prime, non-USDA-graded Organic, Grain or Grass-Fed, aged or not aged. We also tried to buy one beef filet portion from each store of approximately the same size, around half a pound each, and of similar thickness depending on what was available, although we encountered a lot of variance in how the pre-cut steaks were actually sold, cut and portioned. In the case of Wild Fork, since it is a brand new store and the first we visited when shopping, we bought both their Choice and Organic Grass-Fed filet to sample.
How we cooked and judged
All of the steaks were seared in a cast iron pan on an electric range, using beef fat from the sacrificial ribeye as well as bacon grease. The thicker cuts were finished in a convection oven as needed. This was done for consistency and also to simulate the flavor from bacon-wrapping, typical of a filet mignon dinner.
For all of the steaks we attempted to hit medium-rare target doneness using timed cooking and a digital temperature probe, but because of the variance in steak thickness and also wide differences in fat marbling between the products we bought, as well as carryover heat during the resting of each tenderloin steak, we ended up with steaks cooked in a range between rare and medium, which was accounted for during the actual judging.
The steaks were seasoned simply with kosher salt and black pepper, and we did not use any kind of sauce. The reason for this was to taste the natural flavor of the meat without anything that could possibly cover up any imperfections in the beef itself.
In addition to a tannic red wine, (Bonny Doon Old Telegram) we had a simple salad and steamed asparagus on the table to refresh our palates between tastings. This allowed the best examples to shine through and the worst ones to really show how bad they actually were.
All of the steaks were sampled blind by three of the four judges — only Rachel, who did the actual cooking, was aware of which steak was presented. This allowed three of us to taste them without any preconceived notions or biases.
The steaks were judged on a scale of 1 to 10 on the basis of three factors: Beefiness (flavor), Texture and Juiciness.
The scoring was done using an average of these three factors; so if a steak received a 5 for beefiness, a 7.5 for texture and a 9 for juiciness, the aggregate score for that steak was a 7.2. Each judge then ranked the steaks in their order of preference. The judging panel re-tasted steaks as needed after they had additional time to rest and absorb juices, to confirm our findings. One of the judges, a local teacher, then added up all the points for each steak to give them a composite score.
Overall, among the four judges, there was a strong consensus on which steaks were ranked the best as well as which steaks ranked the worst — there was only a significant variance in what was deemed to be in the middle because of the very small perceived differences in the quality of those products.
The top performers by straight-up quality and value per dollar
Our top performers by meat quality were both a surprise and also not so surprising. Wild Fork Foods took first place — by a wide margin — for their less expensive Choice, 17-day aged Beef Filet ($20.98/lb) and third place position for their premium Organic Aged Grass Fed Tenderloin ($25.98/lb). Doris Market’s Prime tenderloin ($26.99/lb) took second place, but it was only a couple points ahead of third.
It should be noted that Wild Fork’s portioning for a half-pound cryovac package is sold as two quarter-pound medallions — we believe this is to accelerate defrosting in the refrigerator (we defrosted ours in the fridge as recommended on their website). A 2-3 minute sear per side on high heat is sufficient to cook each medallion to medium-rare, allow to rest for a few minutes before serving. All of the judges were stunned that a flash-frozen product took first and third place, and it just shows how far meat freezing technology has actually come along. One of our judges described the first place Wild Fork steak as “extremely tender, finest grain and melting away” and “fine restaurant quality.” whereas the third place Wild Fork steak, the Organic Aged Tenderloin was described as “rich, smooth flavor, not quite melting away.”
The second-place Doris Market Prime Beef Tenderloin ($26.99/lb) was described as “Fine grain, tender, very slight fat content” with “strong beef flavor and good salt retention” and a “steakhouse standard”.
Overall, the grain-fed steaks fared better in judging than the grass-fed ones because they were juicer and had a much softer texture. Most of the grass-fed steaks were noted to have a stronger, almost gamey, flavor.
The Wild Fork Choice, 17-day Aged Beef Tenderloin was not just our first place winner in terms of beef quality but it was also the winner in value per dollar. It should be noted that Wild Fork also sells a Prime version of their tenderloin ($23.98/lb) which for the purposes of this judging we were unable to try because it is only sold as an entire large beef primal. Wild Fork also stocks a Choice Chateaubriand roast ($19.98/lb) which might be a more affordable option for a small family cooking dinner for one evening.
Our fourth-place entry in terms of meat quality was actually second place in value per dollar — the Walmart Grass-Fed Beef Tenderloin under the Marketside Butcher brand ($19.97/lb), in a sealed cryovac packaging. We did not get to try Walmart’s regular Choice packaged tenderloin as there was only one portion left since it was on clearance and appeared ready to expire.
The lowest performers by meat quality and value per dollar
In addition to seeing a frozen steak take first and third place in our overall judging, the biggest surprise of the evening was seeing the most expensive steak, the Whole Foods Organic Grass-Fed Australian Beef Filet ($32.99/lb) take dead last place in both meat quality and value per dollar. It was an absolutely stunning upset, we expected the meat department of Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s most recent retail acquisition to fare much better in this contest, especially for the price.
The Fresh Market also did not do very well overall in the rankings with their Grass Fed Filet Mignon ($19.99/lb). It was described by some as “gamey” and “chewier” with a “tougher and denser” mouthfeel. Whole Foods’ steak was described by one of the judges as “livery” taste, and while it was clearly fresh and unspoiled, it was noted to have “an off flavor I do not like” whereas another simply wrote “NO!” in their notes. This was unanimously the most disliked steak of the entire evening and ended up going to the poodles. To poodles, there is no such thing as bad steak!
Publix, the supermarket that is the most prevalent in South Florida, fared only a little bit better than Fresh Market with their Choice Beef Filet ($21.99/lb). One of our judges described it as “Fine grain with very low-fat content” and “Longhorn steakhouse special”. It was essentially dead-middle of the pack in overall rankings.
Lucky’s, also a high-end supermarket, did slightly better than Fresh Market and Publix in our rankings with their Choice Filet ($18.99/lb) which was on sale for $16.99/lb at the time of this writing.
However, we very surprised how poorly Lucky’s performed relative to the top performers, given that most of us have had a good experience with this supermarket overall in terms of their house brands and prepared food products. One of the judges ranked it as their #3 steak overall and noted “Very good, but not as good as the others”. Whereas another wrote “coarse for a filet, almost chewy” but “earthy and beefy” and “not restaurant quality”. It was a controversial steak, to be sure.
The end result of this exercise is that we learned that Wild Fork Foods, a Florida company, has some of the very best proteins to offer with their flash freezing technology. Their beef tenderloin is so much better than the other players on the list in terms of meat quality that it really doesn’t make sense to shop for this expensive protein anywhere else as long as you are able to defrost it in your refrigerator.
Based on our experiences with their beef tenderloin, we’re really looking forward to trying other things they sell, such as their pork, lamb, seafood, and other beef products.
Have you tried Wild Fork’s beef tenderloin or other products yet? Do you have any other local favorites selling filet? Log on to our Facebook group Foodies Who Review South Florida and join in on the discussion.