It's hard to tell if we have made progress in the last 40 years or so when it comes to meat. There was a time when there were actually butcher shops and even grocery stores had butchers on staff. I am not talking about the people who stand back behind the counter and hand you the same boneless skinless chicken breasts available wrapped over in the meat case 30 feet away, I mean people who actually could take apart a half a beef carcass back there using a knife and a band saw and use those skills to hand you exactly what you want.
For a few brief shining moments we had such a place here in Sioux Falls a few years ago- Tom's Specialty Meats located on N. Weber Avenue by the Falls. If you wanted a T-Bone steak, you told Tom or one of his able staff members how thick you wanted one and they cut it on the spot and wrapped it up. If you wanted a nice 4-bone bone-in rib roast for Christmas dinner- call Tom. Tom also sold a pretty fair amount of goat. Yes, goat. Kind of an ethnic item, if you catch the Fork's drift, but available nonetheless. I bet a leg of goat would cook pretty well on the old grill.
Anyhoooo . . .
Let's talk about the state of the meat buying experience here in Soo Foo. And to be clear, when the Fork is talking about meat, we're talking mostly about beef.
Hy Vee. Look, as far as big, nice, features, and a variety of inventory, Hy Vee has to be at the top of the chain food store food chain around here. Hy Vee has had full service, butcher shop-style meat counters for some time. They have a nice selection of packaged meats. Everything looks great. Who could want more? The Fork, for one.
If the Fork had a dime for every time the Fork has about lost it while trying to compare prices on meats between the counter and the case, the Fork could blog full time and lose the super stressful day job. If you are going to walk into Hy Vee and pick up what you want without giving a thought to cost, then you're in good shape. If you want to compare some labels and feel like you are making a good economical purchase, good luck. It's confusing. And, the Fork thinks it's confusing on purpose. Here's an example. Say it's a nice summer night and you want to fire up the grill and make a little steak for you and yours. You go to Hy Vee and walk over to the case and find 18-22 oz of sirloin in one big steak for, let's say six bucks a pound. Or you can go over to the meat counter and ask one of the helpful smiles to wrap you up two 8oz charcoal steaks or whatever they're called (they're sirloins), two for 8 bucks. That's 8 bucks a pound. That's an insult to the Fork's intelligence and really bends the tines. Hy Vee does the same thing with pork and they do the same thing with sausages- brats 5 for $3.00 or $4.00. Go look in the packages, find one with five in it and see if it costs more or less than the ones in the case. If you think a friendly smile is in the back room stuffing seasoning cuts of pork and veal and stuffing casings, you got a cart with two wobbly wheels. Fortunately, the Fork's mother smelted all the dumb silverware, so the Fork doesn't fall for Hy Vee's little price stunts.
The other problem the Fork has with Hy Vee meats is the packaged meat that is in the little trays sealed with clear plastic. That stuff ain't being cut up behind the counter by a butcher and being placed in the case. It's coming from a central location where that meat is put in the little tray and some sort of gas that keeps the meat looking rosy red is injected before the plastic is sealed. At least with the old-style packaged meats that were wrapped on the little foam tray, you could pick it up and kind of look at it to see if its what you wanted.
To leave Hy Vee on a good note, they do usually have a selection of steaks that are cut for people who really like steaks. You know, those puppies that are at least an inch and a quarter thick and are called things like Sioux Falls Cut Strip. As long as they don't price those suckers individually, they are a decent enough deal. But, as mentioned below- you can do better if it's a big beefy steak you long for.
Sunshine. Sunshine prides itself on its meats. Definitely not as flashy as Hy Vee, but they keep guys behind the counter who can help you out. The meat in the case is wrapped and not all of it is sealed up in those mini gas chambers. That's good. One might conclude that the stuff is at least processed in town or closer than West Des Moines. The Fork doesn't know what the deal is, but Sunshine's meat seems to be a bit better than Hy Vee's. The Fork had a real decent porterhouse from Sunshine a few weeks ago. It was good and flavorful, but it would have been nice if it had been thicker. The Fork thinks Sunshine would really have something going if they had some steaks in the meat case that look like those nice honkers they have at Hy Vee.
Sunshine also seems to have a selection of some very locally raised pork and beef. The Fork might like to try some sometime, but it only comes in individually wrapped in vacuum packaging and frozen hard as a rock. The Fork doesn't generally buy meat by the cart to fill up the deep freeze and the Fork doesn't buy meat so it can thaw for two or three days before hitting the grill.
Cleaver's. Nice commercials for these guys lately. It's kind of a neat little store and there is some good stuff in the freezer cases. It's nice to be able to get a Hutterite chicken or some Kuchen from Eureka. The service at the meat counter is great.
You're gonna pay more for meat at Cleaver's than you are at Hy Vee or Sunshine. So, is it worth it? In the Fork's humble opinion: no. Personally, the Fork thinks they picked up the fresh meat at Sunshine and are just cutting it themselves. If you want the real meat counter experience and are willing to pay a premium price and want better meat, head up the hill, a little further south on Western Avenue and go see Nick Heineman and the crew at Look's.
Look's. The Fork wouldn't necessarily stop into Look's to pick up all the protein needed for a week or two (cha ching $$), but when the Fork and the rest of the Secret Utensils get a hankering for a good umami experience Look's is the only real choice. Granted, you're going to pay a higher price, but you are going to get superior meat.
The secret behind Look's is simple: they carry higher quality beef than anyone else in town. In terms of beef, Look's is the only place in town that sells USDA Prime beef. Look's also sells some dry-aged beef. Best of all, Look's basic, run-of-the-mill grade of beef is CAB- that's Certified Angus Beef. It just so happens the Fork knows just enough about how fresh beef is sold and graded to be dangerous, but that knowledge comes in handy when it's time to buy meat. The Fork is not prepared to offer an opinion as to whether Angus is better than Hereford or Limousin or Charolais breeds, but the Fork can tell you that, by and large, in order to qualify as CAB, there is more grading involved. That puts CAB closer to USDA Prime than some of that Amana Beef you are buying at Hy Vee. The pay-off is good flavor.
The customer service at Look's is also excellent. Don't see what you want in the case? Ask the fellas to go back there and cut it exactly the way you want it- like inch and a half thick bone-in ribeyes. They are only too happy to oblige and they actually have meat back there.
Besides, McNally's is right next door and a pint of Guinness sure goes well after meat shopping.
Sam's Club. I know, I know. It's Wal-Mart and the Fork HATES Wal-Mart, but Sam's Club does have a couple of unique advantages over every other place in town when it comes to meat. Actually, it's two advantages: (1) they actually carry some stuff you cannot get elsewhere in town and (2) quantity. And at least the meat at Sam's isn't coming from China. Yet.
So, what can you get at Sam's that no one else has? How about a big ol' packer cut brisket? Bone in pork shoulders, generally in 6-8 pound chunks. These are real barbecue meats- full of fat and connective tissue, tough as hell if not cooked for hours and hours at low temperatures and dirt cheap. Not the kind of thing you throw on that big stainless steel propane fired thing sitting on the deck. Real BBQ- like smoke, a temperature of about 235 degrees and 12-20 hours worth of cook time. Tastes like somebody "famous" made it BBQ. Ask one of the 17 year old friendly smiles at Hy Vee for a packer cut brisket and see if he knows what the hell you're talking about. One other interesting thing at Sam's that no one else seems to have and that is decent racks of lamb. No kidding. It's odd, but Sam's has them- only place in town I'll buy them.
Sam's is also a pretty good place to buy things like pork loins and racks of pork ribs. These meats come straight from the processor to Sam's. They are in cryovac packaging. In other words, they are the same thing that someone at Hy Vee or Sunshine cut open, dried off and stuck in the meat case where you are gonna pay a lot more for it. Buy some freezer paper, a roll of tape, a Sharpie marker and sharpen a knife and you can turn one of those whole loins into chops, chunks of pork for stew, a small loin roast or two- you get the idea.
There are some other places in town the Fork needs to check out. The Franklin Market is reputed to have pretty good meat and a trip up to Renner might be in order one of these days.
So, what's the verdict? If you want a decent deal on meat and aren't afraid of doing some of the work yourself, Sam's might be the ticket. Sam's is definitely the ticket if you want authentic meats to use for a real deal low and slow BBQ experience. Don't want to make a special trip to Sam's for a few pork chops? Well, then it's Hy Vee or Sunshine, but don't fall for Hy Vee's little pricing games. Want a special treat? Look's.
Want veal? Skirt steak? Blood sausage? Really good handmade Italian sausage? Duck breasts? Too bad. Everyone in town could do a better job with variety. I know some of this stuff is out there, but it's probably at some of the very small ethnic groceries around town- more on those in another post.
Until next time, eat more beef. The West wasn't won on salad.