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.)

Because they process these big swinging beef sides, Husnik's almost always has available massive specialty beef roasts that will take other butcher shops a week to order--like the dinner-party splurge of a prime rib roast, or a decadent-for-grilling top round roast. (It's hard to quote ever-changing meat prices in a newspaper article, but in this critic's experience, most of the beef and pork at Husnik's is priced at about two-thirds to half of what you'll find elsewhere--for instance, as of this writing, prime rib roast was $6.59 a pound and rib-eye steaks were selling at $7.99.) Basically, anytime you need big meat, think Husnik's.

Since Husnik's has real, trained, skilled butchers and a wood-smoker on the premises, they can actually accomplish a lot of very rare upper-level butchery. This is why they've made a particular specialty of custom big-game processing: Need your bear turned into roasts, breakfast sausage, and teriyaki bear sticks? Here's where. (Ditto for elk, moose, and, of course, ho-hum, deer.) In addition to all of this, Husnik's specializes in roasting whole hogs, bringing them to your graduation, wedding, or other event, and serving them on buns, with barbecue sauce and all the coleslaw and what have you. If you want to get involved with the cooking of said roast hog (or giant section of beef) yourself, Husnik's will deliver the roaster and meat, or you can pick it up yourself. So ask yourself: Just how ambitious are you, as a cook? Care to try your hand at feeding 500? It's just a phone call away. Husnik's doesn't do much outside of the realm of beef, pork, and conventional poultry, but they are a resource of such depth and upper-level professionalism when it comes to beef and pork that it's fairly mind-blowing.

 

FORSTER'S MEATS AND CATERING
11255 Highway 55
Plymouth
763.559.5775
www.forsters.us

I wrote fairly extensively about Forster's and their cold-smoked dry-aged beef steaks, which are beyond compare, earlier this year, so I'm going to try to keep this fairly brief. Which will be difficult, as Forster's is basically, in addition to Clancey's, the premier resource in Minnesota for the weird stuff European chefs go wild for--anytime you need a sheep's stomach, hog caul fat, pigs' feet, calves' feet, veal shoulder, alligator roast, a whole hog and roaster, or 40 pounds of beef marrow bones, Forster's should be at the top of your call list. They make 100 varieties of sausage and generally have 50 in their freezer cases on any given day. They always have hanger steaks, homemade Tasso ham, and just about every specialty meat cut I know of, on hand. Furthermore, Joel Haessly, the retail manager, has been cutting meat for 29 years and knows perhaps everything there is to know about specialty cuts: He can make a crown roast of pork in 20 minutes, a task that would take most cooking school graduates half a day. Every Christmas he makes about 75. "We have so many different ethnic cultures in Minnesota now, we cut whatever the customer needs, and a lot of times there are very different traditions for butchery," explained Haessly when I spoke to him on the phone for this item, "so I've learned a lot from our customers--Norwegians, Hispanics, Russians, and basically all the people who need something you can't find in the grocery store. Our struggle as a specialty market is making that second stop [when customers are grocery shopping] worth it, so we'll bend over backwards to get whatever they need. I feel real bad for the younger generation; they don't know how to cook the things that got their grandparents through life, so instead they've got two or three jobs, they're mortgaged to the hilt, and they're going out to restaurants every night." Restaurants where, this critic can faithfully report, they pay $20 a portion for beef short ribs, which any real butcher could tell you is one of the least expensive cuts there is--if you can find it. Which you can at Forster's, where they sell 70 to 100 pounds of the stuff a week.

 

KRAMARCZUK EAST EUROPEAN DELI
215 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis
612.379.3018

Would it be ridiculous to call Kramarczuk the Michelangelo of European sausages? In many ways, no: This Nordeast collection of meat maestros make their various smoked and fresh bratwurst, knockwurst, bockwurst (delicate, lace-pale veal sausages with chives), Polish, Ukrainian, wieners, curry brats (popular in modern-day Germany), Italian, andouille, kishka, blood sausage, head cheese, and more (and more) sausages with a level of attention, finesse, skill, delicacy, and, yes, artistry, found nowhere else. While the sausages are famous, one lesser known fact about this longstanding, classic butcher shop is that they also carry Wild Acres poultry--Pequot Lakes, real free range birds that many chefs, and this critic, find to be some of the best birds in the state. Chickens (or, as they're often called on local menus, poussins or young range hens) are regular stock, but Kramarczuk only needs a few days' notice to get any of the rest of the Wild Acres choices, including smoked or fresh ducks, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, free-ranging domestic turkeys, and such: If you've ever thought to yourself that there are no good chickens in Minnesota, now you know where they are. While Kramarczuk doesn't do much in the realm of lamb, caul fat, crown roasts, or specialty butchering of that ilk, they do a lot of Eastern European home cooking, to go: The same thick, rib-sticking soups; meaty, caraway-studded sauerkraut; and dense, lovable pierogies they sell in their famed sit-down restaurant are available to-go in the butcher shop. Look, too, for the breads they bake: rye, caraway rye, egg twist, pastries, tortes, and more--this means that since they're open till 6:00 p.m. on Monday, 8:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., anybody coming out of downtown Minneapolis looking for a quick dinner requiring little but assembly at home has another option in her quiver.

 

BROTHERS MEAT AND SEAFOOD
13545 Grove Drive, Maple Grove
763.416.1901

There comes a time in every modern cook's life when you begin to think that every year brings a further diminishment of resources and quality, and that, in the farthest suburbs especially, American food culture is going to a place where, say, it will be Thanksgiving in the year 2089, and families will gather around a special holiday edition 14-pound Quaker Oats Chocolate Dipped Rocky-Road Clusters Hi-Protein Cereal Bar. But then comes something to restore your faith in the future of actual cooking: Here, I speak of Brothers Meat and Seafood, a practically brand-new (opened in 2002) real family-run butcher shop right in a third-tier suburban strip mall, just at the junction of I-94 and I-494. Enter this giant, spic-and-span store and you find all the best parts of a rural butcher shop (the copious freezer and grill-packs, the inventive beef sticks, the so-cheap-you-could-feed-a-whole-Bible-camp burgers, the deer, bear, moose, and elk processing) as well as enough domestically raised top-shelf stuff to keep a real cook interested (lamb, elk, and venison are commonly stocked; they also have a large seafood counter.) Best of all though, the Brothers' butchers are happy to butterfly a leg of lamb, trim a crown roast of pork, grind up dog food to your specifications, double-smoke a turkey, or do any of the labor-intensive, high-skill jobs that butchers are supposed to know how to do, but which are ever more difficult to get done. If you take 94 to your lake cabin and find the resources up there lacking, keep in mind that a stop at Brothers is a far better use of your time than sitting in traffic on the highway--and that they have a dozen varieties of snack-sticks to keep the kids quiet in the car.

 

HACKENMUELLER MEATS
4159 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale
763.537.4811

Gordy Lindenfelser estimates that there has been a meat market operating in his Robbinsdale building continuously since 1882--if so, this means that Hackenmueller Meats might just be the longest-operating butcher shop in North America. Lindenfelser himself has been running the place since 1979; he bought it after working his way up in the meat industry, starting in a slaughterhouse and moving from there into a grocery store. What does that kind of deep know-how get you? Thirty different kinds of sausages, smoked onsite in one of Hackenmueller's two smokehouses, including the signature "yard sausage," a Swedish sausage variation that is, literally, a yard long. I brought one to a barbecue this summer, having secured the dinosaur-sized thing crosswise with skewers, and everyone stood around gaping. It tasted great, too--sweet, with a little bit of those Christmas Swedish spices and a beautiful density, not unlike a steamed pudding. Hackenmueller's also smoke their own hams, and make their own liverwurst, head cheese, bacon, and such, and specialize in fresh-ground hamburger. Lindenfelser says that the meat in his case is ground fresh daily, and frozen for the cases every day if it doesn't sell. "We go through the whole case every day, everything's fresh, every day," says Lindenfelser. While they don't get too much call for lamb or the various specialty cuts, they will do their darndest to help with special orders. If you are a recent transplant to the North Side and have wondered where all your neighbors are, stop into Hackenmueller's on a Saturday sometime: They're all there, making it one of the busiest meat markets in the city. Heck, even if you don't live on the North Side, stop in: The bustle before the sparkling cases is enough to bring a tear to the eye of any dedicated scratch cook.

 

ANOKA MEAT & SAUSAGE
478 W. Main St., Anoka
763.421.5580

People talk a lot about giving 110 percent, taking it to the next level, and thinking outside the box, but they rarely pull it off. Which is why I was so impressed with Anoka Meat & Sausage, a butcher shop that looks fairly modest from the outside, but inside takes sausage to the extreme. They've got 20 types of beef sticks, a dozen varieties of jerky, a dozen sorts of bratwurst (including pineapple and pizza), breakfast sausages to surprise the most jaded bruncher (including blueberry and raspberry), and, surprisingly for a butcher shop with Polish roots, some very good Swedish meatball mix. The folks behind the counter are bend-over-backward sweet, and while they don't necessarily have the more esoteric cuts on hand all the time, they are happy to order what you need and will then do the specialty cutting. Any long-haul truckers or beef-stick fanatics should know that the Anoka Meat & Sausage beef sticks might just be the best in the metro: not too fatty, not too dry, not too coarse and not too lean, they strike just the right balance of spice, meat, sweet, and salt.

 

CLANCEY'S MEATS & FISH
4307 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.926.0222

I've also written extensively about Clancey's, which works with southeastern Minnesota farmers so that every cut of meat can be traced back to the sustainably run real family farm that produced it. If you know anything about contemporary meat production, with its manure lagoons, watershed degradation, gruesome feeding practices (including this one, which was new to me: chicken feathers pelletized and fed to cows!), subtherapeutic antibiotics to create antibiotic-resistant bugs for people, and hormones to bring on menstruation in children, this will mean everything to you. Beyond that, though, if there is a beyond that, Clancey's is a premier chef's resource, for many reasons. First, they are in daily contact with their producers and are committed to selling the whole animal for their farmers, so they always have access to the icky bits that define Western cuisine--lamb kidneys, raw pork bellies, caul fat, bison hearts, you name it. Second, the butcher at Clancey's is chef Greg Westergreen, who helmed the kitchen at the Nicollet Island Inn for many years, and knows how to do all the fancy kitchen butchery. Butterflying a leg of lamb is just the tip of the iceberg here; Clancey's commonly slices and pounds thin beef for carpaccio, readies a flank steak for stuffing, Frenches lamb racks, and does all that good stuff. Third is everything else: Look in the refrigerator cases and you'll see Westergreen's own actual, real, honest-to-god demi-glace, that chef's trick for thickening and enriching sauces, which he makes from real bones. Clancey's also makes and freezes their own fish fumé, chicken stock, veal stock, and such. They carry the best poultry you'll find outside a farmers' market: Minnesota-raised foie gras (and the ducks the foie came from) as well as the whole line of Wild Acres pheasants, wild turkeys, and the like. Westergreen is also one of the only people I've ever met--chef, butcher, or candlestick maker--who is familiar with the different ways the French have of butchering beef, for bavette steaks, paleron, and such. While most butchers will tell you (off the record) that they dread nothing so much as a customer clutching a volume of Escoffier, Westergreen has generally already made all those things and can coach you through it. If that's not enough, he also likes to play around with fancy sausages: Recently Clancey's has had options like a roasted and raw garlic with shallot and white wine (perfect for cassoulet); lamb with balsamic vinegar and fresh oregano; bison with blue cheese and dried cherries; and pork with preserved lemon, fresh thyme and shallot--yes, you read that right, they are fancy appetizers ready to cook. Because Clancey's is across the street from the Linden Hills Co-Op, with its excellent produce, and only a few blocks from France 44, with its wine shop and deli full of fancy cheeses, imported charcuterie, chocolates, and the like, there's a good argument to be made that if you want to cook something wildly ambitious in the European tradition in the Twin Cities, the most efficient way to do that is with a trip to Linden Hills.

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