Meat Locker

Your clip-and-save guide to the best specialty butchers in the metro

Last winter Anthony Bourdain, the bad-boy chef of page and screen, came through town to promote his Les Halles Cookbook. It's a book in which he makes valiant efforts to be the American home cook's own lovable French drill sergeant, bullying readers, with a nurturing heart, toward our glorious future as French bistro chefs. How's that? Well, the instructions on the frisée aux lardons salad, in addition to specifying that your salad for six will be made with a pound of bacon, six ounces of Roquefort, and a quarter-pound of chicken livers, notes about the cheese, "that's real Roquefort, knucklehead!" The idea is that you're in a real French country kitchen, mastering the blood and guts, the testosterone and sharp knives. It's a great read. However: If you want to cook from the book, you'll soon be needing pork fat and pork belly, pork liver, caul fat, hanger steaks, marrow, real demi-glace, veal neck, lamb tournedos, boneless lamb shoulder, wild ducks, wild pheasant, wild boar, beef paleron steaks, honeycomb tripe, feathered tripe, calves' feet, veal kidneys, veal tongue, and at least one pig's heart. Speaking of heart, I blow a thousand kisses to the intrepid Minnesotan who raised his hand and asked Bourdain: And where, exactly would one get caul fat? At which the author pointed at me and said, "You'd know where to get that, wouldn't you?" (I've met him a few times.) And I nodded yes. So Bourdain summed it up with a grand, "Find people that know, and ask them." Then he moved on.

This little interaction has plagued me now for half a year. I love Minnesotans. I want you to be happy. And yet, with love must come the frank acknowledgement of limitations. You've heard that statistic about how most people who die of choking actually die in the bathroom, alone, in embarrassment over making such a fuss? I've heard that statistic, and I've privately amended it with my belief that only Midwesterners die in the bathroom. New Yorkers start turning red and immediately run into the middle of a crowd and point at themselves. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish them from all the other New Yorkers running into the crowd and pointing at themselves, but they manage it. Once saved, they sign a publishing deal detailing the ordeal, or launch a campaign for mayor. Meanwhile, eight out of ten Minnesotans would never dream of bothering me, or their butcher, or anyone anywhere ever over something as personally indulgent as dinner. Most Minnesotans would simply find another recipe. Or eat what was on sale. Because that's more convenient for the market. And when you allow people to do what is convenient for them, that is polite. Ergo, asking for a hanger steak is rude. QED, put some cream of mushroom soup on that pork chop and count your blessings, Ole, people in Africa are starving.

Which is sad, because the Twin Cities are blessed with a wealth of specialty butchers. Places that have hanger steaks, but also make their own sausage, routinely butterfly legs of lamb, can make you a crown roast of pork, and, generally, know where to get that.

(I visited a number of butchers in pursuit of this story that didn't make the final cut; this list was made using a personal rule I developed, which was: "If I lived half an hour from here, would I consider it worth the drive?" and, "Is the place a general-use butcher, and not a super-specialty market, catering chiefly to the needs of a single cuisine?")

Here, then, follows your clip-and-save guide, to be tucked into the back of your most ambitious cookbook, to be used whenever you think you might not try to make something because you don't know where to buy the ingredients.

 

HUSNIK'S MEAT COMPANY
235 Concord Exchange S., South St. Paul
651.457.7076
www.husnikmeat.com

Back in the day, South St. Paul was the hub of Minnesota's livestock industry, the place where cattle and hogs went to meet their maker, and/or the railway. Now, the only very useful vestige of this history for a home cook is to be found 10 minutes south of downtown St. Paul at Husnik's, an industrial-looking butcher shop that keeps strict retail office hours (9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. weekdays, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Saturdays) and offers the closest experience someone outside of the trade can get to buying meat wholesale, as restaurants do. In fact, restaurants, retail markets, and institutional clients are Husnik's real bread-and-butter, and the fact that they stock a retail counter at all doesn't really seem worth their time--but if they want to set out the wholesale bargains and to-the-trade-only know-how, who are you to refuse?

I mean, do you need a beef side with a hanging weight of 290 to 330 pounds cut into cuts you specify? Head to Husnik's. They also sell half-hogs and entire pork loins (not just the wee tenderloin, we're talking the big 20-odd pound loin) cut into whatever sorts of chops and roasts you like; wholesale-priced boxes of every beef steak you can imagine; giant bags of frozen, cubed, beef tripe; whole, uncooked beef tongues; and everything that naturally comes from a butcher that breaks down swinging beef for the trade. (Swinging beef is the nearly whole side of the animal, the stuff you see on hooks in mob movies--rare today because most meat doesn't swing, which contributes to air-drying and improved flavor, but simply lies in pieces in Cryovac bags stewing in its own blood, which keeps it from losing any moisture, and thus precious dollar weight per pound.)

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