The Importance of Burgers

Can frugal carnivores eat locally, humanely, and well? Dear Dara finds out.

Dear Dara,

I look forward to your column every week, but find it frustrating that although there are many restaurants I'd like to patronize, as a card-carrying carnivore (okay, I don't actually have a card), I also insist on what I refer to as "proper" meats (you know, no antibiotics or hormones, organic, and local if possible) and so I find myself reticent to try out many places for fear I'll be subject to freaky mystery meats. Perhaps an idea for a future column: American casual (and cheap) without fear of Schlosserian nightmares.

My mom bought a [factory-farm produced] pork tenderloin (she lives in Wisconsin and does not share my critical eye) and it actually smelled like piss! I couldn't believe it—my family was just chowing down. I couldn't say anything, of course (my family already thinks I'm unbearable when it comes to food, ah, issues when I visit), so I had an extra helping of mashed potatoes.

The Dakota’s winning--and defensible--Cobb burger
Kris Drake
The Dakota’s winning--and defensible--Cobb burger

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Barbette

1600 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

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Thanks,
Christian, of Northeast

 

Dear Christian;

I know, right? Once you read Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's exploration of fast food that shines a particularly queasy-making light on American factory farming, you get all problematic, don't you? Well, that's what they get for teaching you how to read. Now you're all, I don't want to eat poo, or eat things that smell like poo, or live in a landscape gone to poo, or have a poo economy. Well aren't you Mr. Fancy Pants?

And yet, Christian, I'm glad they taught you to read, because you raise an extremely relevant point, on the importance of burgers and barbecue. Because unless local, thoughtfully raised meats are available for everyday prices, the organic revolution is going nowhere fast.

Did you know that local farmers can't raise a whole steer, charge $500 a pound for the tenderloin, and drop the rest of the meat off a bridge? It's true. I learned this from Todd Lein, who, after spending the first part of his career working for the Land Stewardship Project, now works in marketing at Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a business based in Cannon Falls that works with local farmers to sell their grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised beef. "On a 1,200-pound live steer, you end up with 400 or 500 pounds of meat—2 percent is tenderloin, 40 percent is ground beef," Todd Lein explains. "If you can't sell the whole animal, you can't stay in business."

Thousand Hills is a great example of the next wave beyond organic: Not only are they local (all their farmers are within an hour's drive of the processing plant in Cannon Falls), and not only are the animals raised humanely, mostly outdoors, on non-scary feed without antibiotics (you can read their protocol yourself at www.thousandhillscattleco.com), but the whole company is based on the idea of promoting perennial grassland. Perennial grassland, of course, is also known as a prairie, and is what much of the land around here is meant to be, and it's a good, good thing. It's what prairie voles, owls, hawks, moths, foxes, and all need to survive. It's what prevents our soil from washing away, first into our rivers, thereby ruining them, and eventually ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.

But I do go on. What's important to know for today is that studies show grass-fed beef is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids and healthier than grain-fed beef. And so you can help our local environment, our local economies, and yourself by simply making your meatballs, burgers, sloppy joes, and meatloaves with Thousand Hills meat, which is available in most of the co-ops, at Kowalski's supermarkets, and through Simon Delivers. (Check the producer's website for a full list of retail locations.)

Meanwhile, as it goes for beef, so it goes for pork: Neither can hogs be hidden under doormats after the 25 percent or so that accounts for tenderloins, chops, and such is extracted. Niman Ranch is one of most visible marketing companies representing local farmers committed to good land stewardship, humane animal rearing, no antibiotics, and such. Today they represent about 50 Minnesota farmers, as well as dozens of other farmers in 11 other states. You can find Niman Ranch hot dogs, sausages, and bratwurst at Byerly's, and you can find some of their salamis in gourmet markets like the Buon Giorno in Lilydale or Clancey's Meats in Linden Hills.

I talked to Paul Willis, a farmer from Thornton, Iowa, and a manager with Niman Ranch, who told me how important the "middle" and "end" meats are to a farmer. "Niman Ranch was the first [company that] understood you had to buy the whole animal to support the farmer. In the old days you didn't throw anything away," when you butchered an animal, Willis told me, which is really the economic principle that underlies farming. Now that small farmers are finding a market for their non-confinement pork, "We're actually seeing some resettling of depopulated areas," down in Iowa, Willis told me. "There are more farms, but smaller farms. It used to be get big or get out, but we're seeing some change now."

One place you can get Minnesota, non-Schlosserian-nightmare pork is in a Chipotle burrito. Pork shoulders are shipped right from the processing plant in Iowa to Chipotle. Yes, that Chipotle. I talked to Ben Mattson, the local farm kid (originally from Luck, Wisconsin) who is in charge of Chipotle's Minnesota marketing, and he explained to me that he took the job with Chipotle because of his commitment to local farms. In Minnesota, says Mattson, 100 percent of Chipotle's pork and chicken is raised without antibiotics, without growth hormones, on 100 percent vegetarian feed without any animal by-products, in humane and free-ranging situations.

"We're not at 100 percent with our beef yet, but we're trying to get there," Mattson told me. "We're a big operation, and it's hard to find suppliers who can keep up with us, but our goal is to get to 100 percent for beef. For instance, two years ago 10 percent of our black beans were organic. Now 20 percent are, and we have this thing called a Food Integrity Program, where our goal is to lead the revolution for sustainable, responsible farming."

Now, I know there are some food snobs out there who think that Chipotle is somehow contemptible because they're partly owned by McDonald's. But this really strikes me as the worst sort of knee-jerk stupidity, like refusing a life raft from someone because you don't like her pants. If you like burritos and you like Minnesota family farmers to thrive while humanely raising free-roaming hogs, what's not to like?

But now that you know that Minnesota-family-farm-supporting, non-Schlosserian-nightmare foods are available on the cheap all around you, let's get back to your question: Which local restaurants have the cheap, casual, tasty, and ethically acceptable foods you crave? What follows is the list of the best ones I know of.

(I know this list isn't comprehensive, so if you have a restaurant, or know of a restaurant that is working with local farmers and isn't on this list, mail or e-mail me, and I'll publish a more thorough update in the future.)

 

Bryant-Lake Bowl & Café Barbette
You might know these Lake Street legends, both owned by Kim Bartmann, as, respectively, an old-man-adorable retro bowling alley with one of the best beer lists in the state, and Minneapolis's most beloved all-day café. But did you know that every single animal product at the Bryant-Lake Bowl is local, organic, sustainable, and ethically as good as can be? If you knew, you had one over on me. I had no idea. All the beef is bought from local Moonstone Farms. The two restaurants buy three steers at a time, send the prime bits to Barbette, and use the rest at the Bryant-Lake Bowl for burgers and various daily specials. Pork comes from local farm Pastures A Plenty.

"I took over the kitchen at the Bryant-Lake Bowl two-and-a-half years ago and we've been trying to make this happen ever since," chef Al Potyondy-Smith told me. "All the beef and pork has been local, organic, and sustainable for about two years now, and we just got all the chickens and eggs fully local, organic, and so forth. Kim is really conscious of the fine points of keeping local economies strong, and we also wanted to get the finest ingredients for our scratch kitchen, so we could offer a product that customers can easily tell is really good. We realized a long time ago that health, product quality, and economic strength are all things that create one another, so we went to a lot of trouble to make this happen."

I stopped in at Bryant-Lake Bowl recently and had a Moonstone burger (from $7.50) and the Pastures A Plenty barbecue pork sandwich ($8.75), and they tasted real, meaty, clean, simple, and good. When I looked around the room I got a particularly funny feeling. By golly, all these happily drinking hipsters and families were participating in the most radical of all possible economies: the knowable one their grandparents had. (Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.825.3737, www.bryantlakebowl.com; Café Barbette, 1600 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.827.5710, www.cafebarbette.com)

 

Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Meanwhile, in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, the Dakota uses beef from Creekstone Farms, a Kentucky cattle company that specializes in humanely raised, vegetarian-fed animals raised in an environmentally conscientious way. I stopped in recently and had a burger fit for the local burger halls of fame: It was delicious, scrumptious, and truly craveable. I speak here of the Cobb burger ($10.50), an avant-garde creation whereby a fist of well-charred, extremely tender beef is set in the midst of a plate adorned with all the good bits of a Cobb salad—the avocado cut into precious cubes; the bacon scattered in rich, twisty salty bits; the creamy, perky blue cheese lolling in wee lobes. Every bite was rich, deep, and extremely satisfying. The fries were crisp, fresh, and just right. My lunch buddy and I also tried a beautiful blood orange and watercress salad ($9) and a fine, light, and herbal peeky-toe crabcake sandwich ($11).

"Why have you been hiding the Dakota from everybody?" demanded my lunch date. "People need to know!"

I talked to the Dakota's sous chef, Brian Linehan, who explained to me that ever since chef Jack Riebel took over the restaurant they've been doing most of their own butchery in-house. Part of the reason that Cobb burger is so good is because it is freshly made from the second cuts that remain once the steaks and tenderloin are reserved for the dinner crowd. "Generally, Jack or myself will take down all the protein in-house, from fish to meat, which allows us to put together products we wouldn't be able to do otherwise," says Linehan. Like what? Like from the pork that they break down, house-made chorizo with lots of cider vinegar and cinnamon, potstickers filled with Kahlua-marinated pork and shrimp, and so forth. The poultry too, says Linehan, is something you can eat with mindful peace. But back to that burger. If you want one that's both ethically responsible and completely delicious, this is my pick. (The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.332.1010, www.dakotacooks.com)

 

W.A. Frost
Chef Russell Klein at W.A. Frost also has a commitment to both scratch-butchery and nightmare-free meat—but don't think chefs are doing this solely to try to get into heaven. When I spoke to him on the phone, Klein was quick to point out that the quality of the product and the thoughtfulness with which it was raised usually go hand in hand. I stopped by Frost for a fantastic and inexpensive lunch a few weeks ago. I tried the restaurant's pulled pork sandwich ($7.99), a mahogany-deep, achingly tender, beautifully sweet and spicy concoction made with Fischer Farms pork, raised in Waseca, Minnesota.

I talked to Klein to find out why that pork is so good, and he told me that making it takes the full force of a big French-style kitchen. They take the pork shoulder, braise it with the vegetable mixture known as mirepoix, cook it down in veal stock, shred it, and finally combine it with the spicy barbecue sauce they make in-house. "We love it," he says. "It's one of those things that would still be good if you made it with any old meat, but with the Fischer Farms pork it just becomes fantastic. It will definitely be on the menu all summer."

Good, because it might take a while for local barbecue fanatics to believe that some of the best barbecue in the state is being served in the genteel, pretty Frost gardens. Of course, you can order this sandwich, which comes with charming crispy French fries, in the bar if the flowery gardens are too much for you.

I also tried Frost's garlic-deepened lamb burger ($9.99), a tender but spicily feisty joy. I think it was the best lamb burger I've had in my life, which is probably due in part to the fact that it was made with the second cuts left over from Klein's favorite free-roaming, grass-fed Colorado lambs, the pricier bits of which are showcased at dinner. (W.A. Frost & Co., 374 Selby Avenue, St. Paul, 651.224.5715, www.wafrost.com)

 

Birchwood Café
Phillip Werst took over the kitchen at the Birchwood Café last year, and has recently been introducing more locally sourced, sustainably raised meats into the restaurant's vegetarian-heavy repertoire. "When I showed up we were getting things like organic chicken breasts from Sysco, but the quality was awful," Werst told me. "Now we're going local, with the Southeast Minnesota Food Network, and the quality is just so much better."

I stopped by the Birchwood for this story and tried out the locally farmed special of the day, which happened to be a turkey burger served on a Birchwood-made potato roll with sautéed apples and a walnut-cheddar cheese spread ($8); it was a hearty, comforting creation.

Speaking of the Birchwood, did you know they're offering all kinds of specials nowadays? Tuesdays and Wednesdays are half-price wine nights, and on Mondays they offer a cheap date night of $45 for a bottle of wine and a four-course meal for two. The Birchwood kitchen is now serving an array of more adventurous, non-Birchwoodian items, such as three tapas-sized plates of ever-changing daily specials, for $15. When I was there I tried good Maine mussels, served in an onion-soup-like broth further amplified with fresh ramps and fava beans, cubes of tofu grilled on skewers and served in a nutty red miso sauce alongside a watercress salad, and finally a wilted spinach salad topped with slices of well-cured chorizo and roasted crescents of potato, paired with a lively lemon and Spanish pimentón mayonnaise. Doesn't sound like the bread pudding and tofu-pizza Birchwood of yore? The place is definitely going in some new and interesting directions; I'm going to keep an eye on it. (Birchwood Café, 3311 E. 25th St., Minneapolis, 612.722.4474)

 

Clancey's
No story on sustainable meats is complete without a mention of Clancey's, the Linden Hills butcher that works exclusively with local farmers raising animals in humane and sustainable ways. In addition to meats for you to cook, however, Clancey's also offers ready-made sandwiches using meats they roast in-house and tuck into crisp, beautiful Rustica baguettes. I tried a wonderful turkey sandwich (made with Wild Acres turkey from Pequot Lakes), a delicious roast beef sandwich (made with Hill & Vale round rubbed with thyme and garlic), and a dreamy ham sandwich (made with Hidden Streams Farm hickory-smoked ham).

Regular readers know I'm a sandwich stickler and fanatic, and these sandwiches, which run around $7 and are huge, are the best plain subs I've ever had in Minnesota. However, Clancey's is not first and foremost a sandwich shop, and it takes them forever to make them, and sometimes they run out of bread. So now you know. I'd call ahead before heading over. (Clancey's Meats & Fish, 4307 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.926.0222)

 

The Rest of the Story
Okay, I've run out of room. Here's a quick, by no means exhaustible, list of other restaurants that have ethical and affordable burgers, meatloaves, barbecue, brisket, and whatnot:

The Corner Table, 4257 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.823.0011, www.cornertablerestaurant.com

Muffuletta, 2260 Como Ave., St. Paul, 651.644.9116, www.muffuletta.com

Lucia's Bakery and Take Home; 1428 W. 31st St., Minneapolis, 612.825.9800, www.lucias.com

Heartland, 1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul, 651.699.3536, www.heartlandrestaurant.com

Café 28, 2724 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis, 612.926.2800, www.cafetwentyeight.com

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