The Great Steak Hunt

Taste-testing the best real dry-aged steaks for sale locally reveals a lucky, lucky, steaky, steaky metropolitan area

The final four surprised me. I had a number of favorite neighborhood places that I figured would be in here, but in the end they just couldn't compete. In the end, you'll finally have the answer to the one question that plagues beef-loving Twin Cities cheapskates in the wee hours: How can I eat at Manny's without paying for it? You can't, of course, but you can get mighty close.

FORSTER'S MEATS AND CATERING
The best, most reliable dry-aged steaks in the metro come from Forster's, a family butcher shop that's been operating in the west metro since 1947. Nowadays, after getting booted off their family farm by the city of Plymouth, the Forster family is selling their meat from a very large storefront in an under-populated strip mall on Olson Memorial Highway (a.k.a. Highway 55) just west of 169. Please note, all you Minnetonka types, they're also right on a nifty shortcut via the Hopkins Crossroad north from I-394. These days the place is run by Cynthia Forster Cavanaugh (famous for the exotic sausages that line the freezer cases), her brother Richard Forster, and her husband Timothy Cavanaugh. The new store is where the family runs a lunch counter and catering operation (famous for pig roasts and steak fries), alongside glittering cases full of the widest selection of specialty meats in Minnesota: hanger steaks, Armenian sausage, carne asada that's marinated for a week, "viper" beef jerky that's so hot you'll be forced to plunge your head in a rain bucket, and more, including, of course, real dry-aged steaks.

In fact, the Forster family is so passionate about dry aging that they've even taken the idea one step beyond: a cold-smoked, dry-aged rib eye. Here's how it works: They start with a whole rib roast, and cold smoke it so that the interior fat turns a dense, opaque white (like uncooked bacon), the exterior turns smoky and tan, and the cherry-colored meat becomes saturated with a very, very subtle smoke flavor. Then, they hang the roast in one of their special temperature- and humidity-controlled aging rooms and let it mature. When it's ready, they cut the steaks to order.

Cynthia Forster Cavanaugh with the dry-aged wares at her family-run shop
Jana Freiband
Cynthia Forster Cavanaugh with the dry-aged wares at her family-run shop

Holy buckets.

Do you remember the first time you had really good rare ahi tuna, and how you've spent the rest of your life chasing that one perfect sensation, and never found it again? You will. The stuff is silky and sensuous.

For $14.99 a pound, this steak delivers a whiff of smoke, a breath of prairie grass, and so much of the raspberry and dark-wine thunder of beef that there are no words. None. Except, Mmmm. And also, Golly. And later, Isn't it good to be alive?

When I had my little backyard taste panel, we grilled over a combination of actual hardwood logs and hardwood charcoal, partly for the heat, partly for the smoke, but largely because I am completely insane. If you are not, and prefer a gas grill, or even a sizzling skillet, this Forster's steak is a great choice, because you get some of that essential wood-smoke flavor, without the lumber. FORSTER'S MEATS AND CATERING, 11255 Highway 55, Plymouth, 763.559.5775, www.forsters.us

 

CLANCEY'S MEATS & FISH
Clancey's is the Linden Hills butcher shop that procures all of its meat locally, from southern Minnesota family farms. Southern Minnesota family farms don't tend to have dry aging rooms or fancy lingo--but then again, dry aging is something that also just happens if you don't immediately cryovac everything to keep in the extra dollars. When I got a pair of rib eyes at Clancey's, owner Kristin Tombers exclaimed, "That's Bruce's beef!"

Bruce McNamara, of MacLane Farms, in Goodhue, that is. "It's 100 percent grass-finished, never cryovaced; they hang it in a processing plant and then it hangs here in Clancey's cooler," Tombers says. "It's got as much age as just about any other steak you'll find." True, that.

Bruce's beef was the star of my backyard blind tasting, at which I removed all identifying information from the steaks, labeled them with letters, and endeavored to experience the steaks on taste alone. Clancey's, or, rather, Bruce's, beef was easy to keep track of: It was a bright, bright strawberry-red color, and was interleaved with lots and lots of fat as white as ivory. It cost $15.99 a pound, bone-in, and tasted absolutely fantastic: It was fruity and snappy, and the fat was utterly distinct, sweet, buttery, lively, and, I swear, almost exuberant. Each bite of this steak was like hearing through your eyes: It just created one of those transcendent high points of food when you think, There is no higher.

Here's the rub, though: With a small family farm, you only get one cow at a time, and there isn't any guarantee that this exact experience will await you if you visit Clancey's. Worse, my whole "best dry-aged steaks" concept doesn't even gibe with Clancey's political and economic philosophy. "Because we buy the whole animals, we don't always have the higher-end steaks to sell," says Kristin. "I hope people don't read, 'It's a great place to get a rib eye,' and then come in here looking for a rib eye, because what we do is, we buy the whole animal, and once we section out the middle for those inch-thick steaks, they're pretty much gone. Then we have a whole rest of the animal to sell. So we try to encourage people to think about other cuts, like flat iron, skirt steak, hanger steak, and so on."

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