The Great Steak Hunt

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

So, Bunky, you think you're the king of summer, do you? You splashed out for one of those grills with the gas flames that plume like fighter-jet exhausts up to the tippity tops of the highest elms. Now you've got infrared bratwurst sensors, a ruby-coated laser driven rotisserie, and a hologram of James Beard that hops out to dance on the solid gold grill while dispensing last-minute tips. Which has convinced you you're gonna grill up the best steaks in the neighborhood, just like at those $100 steakhouses. But guess what, Bunky? It doesn't matter if your grill's got more pep than a peewee hockey team hepped up on Milk Duds, great steaks aren't made, they're sourced.

That's right, I said sourced. Bought. From guys who spend their whole entire lives making backroom maneuvers so you can get the good stuff. You know those plastic-wrapped steaks in the big-box grocery store, the ones in the Styrofoam tray, the ones that lift up to reveal a little wet diaper of goo? I don't care if Julia Child herself comes to you on a shimmering cloud and offers to cook the thing with heavenly bolts of fire; that thing can never be made good. Never. It is wet and decaying; it's probably been wet and decaying for the last several weeks before it got to you, as it spent its recent life in a shrink-wrapped plastic bag of blood. You know what they call that? Wet-aged. You know what wet-aged is? It is a lie. A lie wrapped in misinformation wrapped in profiteering.

Here's what dry aging is: You take a piece of beef. You hang it up in a temperature- and humidity-controlled place where the air is moving. It starts to dry out. It gets denser and more concentrated. Enzymes and the wee little beasties of decay break the beef down a bit. If this sounds gross to you, then you need to know you have been betrayed by the hidden food systems of our 21st century. Dry aging is one of the basic ways that humans make foods taste better. You know what else is dry-aged? Prosciutto ham, Parmesan cheese, and a million other things. You know what foods are improved by steeping them in a plastic bag of blood? Exactly.

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

Here's why very, very few butcher shops will sell dry-aged beef today: As things dry out, they weigh less. And less. And then even less. If the thing in question is beef, then parts become funny-looking, hard, and jerkylike, or even moldy. So these funny-looking parts have to be cut off and thrown out. Remember, we're talking about something that people buy by the pound. With wet aging, the soaking-wet beef in question doesn't lose a gram of weight. Get it? Wet stuff weighs more than dry stuff, and there's more of it. So it costs less per pound. And all the suckers run in to catch the bargain.

Personally, when I think about this myth of "wet aging" I feel like we live in a culture of nothing but the trustful blind leading the busily clueless. I've read that dry aging was the universal norm until slaughterhouses were corporatized, centralized, and efficientized in the 1960s. I've also read that since many people were raised on the soppy, spongy, cut-it-with-a-fork steaks of wet aging, many people now prefer it. I don't care. Many people prefer Domino's pizza, the musical stylings of animatronic silicone teens, and a life of quiet desperation. I'll tell you what, when Diamond Jim Brady or Louis Armstrong ate a steak, they weren't messing around with wet-aged slop. Makes me mad.

Then I go into a real butcher shop, and I feel better. And you know what? We are richly blessed with real, traditional, excellent butcher shops in the Twin Cities area. I don't have any hard data here, but I'd bet a cat that we have tons more than cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. You know why? Because our local butchers are ornery and refuse to be shunted into the dustbin of history. When the Forster family had their farm and store taken from them by the city, they relocated to a dingy strip mall on Highway 55. I picture them walking along with sides of beef on their shoulders singing, "I will survive!"

My original thinking for this story was that I would go to the best butcher shops in the metro, purchase aged rib eyes from all of them, grill them all together, and through a blind-taste panel with friends, would discover the one single best aged rib eye in town, and tell you all about it. Halfway through my experiments, my luscious, fantastic experiments, I realized that my logic here was somewhat spurious. Individual cows are individual cows, and some will be better than others through no fault of the butcher shop at all. So I did have the backyard blind tasting, which in fact revealed the top dry-aged steaks, but in the end I decided it would be more useful to you all to hear about the top four spots to get dry-aged steaks around town, instead of just reading me rant and rave about a single experience that may or may not be replicable.

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.

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."

Point taken. But on the other hand, I'm never going to forget Bruce's rib eye, and I can see a certain logic to just constantly circling Clancey's, waiting for another magic steak to appear. (CLANCEY'S MEATS & FISH, 4307 Upton Ave S., Minneapolis, 612.926.0222)

 

VON HANSON'S MEATS
This newish chain of specialty meat markets has been growing incredibly fast. How fast? I took home a flyer from their Highland Park store that said they now had 16 locations, but by the time I got to the website they had 18. Fast!

I have to confess I initially went to Von Hanson's for one reason and one reason alone: a lingering sense of fair play and inclusiveness. I went to a lot of other mom-and-pop butcher shops for the same reason, but you're not going to read about them, because they aren't worth your time. That said, I'll further confess that my misgivings about Von Hanson's stemmed from sheer, shallow looksism; I figured the kinda cheesy exterior would reveal an interior where they sell lasagnas of quiet desperation.

Well, score one for the great American spirit of fairness; Von Hanson's has some of the better dry-aged steaks you'll find in the metro, priced at significantly less than you'd expect. I tried their boneless premium Black Angus aged rib eye, which was, the butcher told me, "choice aged" on the premises for at least two weeks. It was the cheapest of all the aged rib eyes I tasted, at a low, low $11.99 a pound, and scored very, very high in taste. To look at raw, the steak was a really deep strawberry-wine color, and had the least fat on it of anything I tried--meaning, of course, more meat per dollar. The taste was classic top-tier steakhouse: winey, smoky, well concentrated, and classically meaty, in that sort of essentially beefy, well-knit way. "It tastes expensive," concluded one of my friends, and the steak was called "the expensive one" for the rest of the tasting. Oh, irony, why must you follow me everywhere I go? (VON HANSON'S MEATS, www.vonhansons.com)

 

LUNDS AND BYERLY'S
Lunds is one of the only places where you can get prime beef, that rare two percent of beef that the USDA has decided is so gorgeous, in terms of its marbling, and is superior to all other beef. (Marbled, marbling, etc: The white streaks of fat that run through the red beef and create flavor as they melt.) Most other beef is labeled "choice." Worse than that? "Select." And somewhere, someone is eating beef graded "Utility." Sigh. But not us in this paragraph. Here, we are eating the best there is, prime.

Almost all prime beef is sold exclusively through restaurants, and everyday Joes never get a chance to cook it themselves. Except here. See it to believe it, folks. Marbling? Good God. The rib eye I got from Lunds had more marble than a Kohl's bathroom showroom--spiderwebs of white threaded through every bit of the bright-orange-tinged cranberry exterior. This thing was the Gisele Bundchen of looking at steaks. When I unwrapped it at the barbecue, there were literally whistles and sharp intakes of breath.

And at $18.99 a pound, there better be. This was by far the priciest steak I found, but it had so much eye appeal that two of my friends at the barbecue declared it the winner before it was grilled and tasted.

After it was grilled and tasted, though, not so much. It quickly became known as "the hammy steak," after one of my friends declared, "It weirdly tastes like ham. In fact, I'm prepared to say it's bizarrely porklike."

Remember how I mentioned that another dry-aged meat is prosciutto? Well, the Lunds prime dry-aged rib eye we tasted had that sort of intense taste of ferment, with a distinct edge of acidic red wine, like a Chianti, and to my palate, a fairly strong note of liver. It was a sweet, livery, bacony steak. According to the butcher I bought it from, at the Edina Lunds, this particular steak had about 18 days of age on it. I'm glad I tasted it beside the others, and if you've got the dough, you might splash out sometime this summer just for experiment's sake.

After trying this, I feel far more confident in declaring that a good choice steak can be better than a very expensive prime one. Then again, if I was making some kind of teensy super-chef kind of appetizer with, say, a little cube of steak on top of a square of oven-dried tomato, I would probably use a prime aged steak from Lund's, because it makes quite an impression.

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