A Cut Above
Practicing the butcher's craft in the old-fashioned, neighborly way
"What do you think?" Jose Silva asks.
The meat is a little gamey, but the fibers nearly melt in the mouth; garlic on the yellow-orange skin seeps into the steaming fat.
"Good!" I say. "What is it?"
"Goat," Silva announces with relish.
Silva practices his trade as the owner of Carniceria el Paisano, one of the newer manifestations of the ancient art of preparing animals for consumption. In years past, nearly every community had a corner meat market. Most of those have been absorbed by the local Safeway or Albertsons, but a few independent businesses still serve neighborhoods. No one knows exactly how many of these survive; an association of independent retail butchers closed up shop years ago. But those that remain are trading on a tradition of personal service and a reputation for quality products. Some of the shops serve specialty markets, such as jerky and sausage lovers. Carniceria el Paisano caters to the Latin immigrant community in White Center.
In business three years, Silva has already outgrown his space next to an Asian restaurant. He greets his customers softly in Spanish, offering them styles of meats they'd find back home. His store also stocks the canned and dry goods a tienda de comestibles in Mexico would carry. Silva says Mexican cooks prefer thinner slices of beef, compared to Americans. And they want some heat.
"Mostly Americans, they don't like spicy foods," he says. "Our customers, they like spicy."
Flavorings are a hot topic at A&J Meats & Seafood in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. The meat market has served customers for 52 years, and has local roots going back more than 100 years. Owner Rick Friar was 11 when he started working at A&J for his father, Jerry, stacking bacon and cutting hot dogs. He took over from his dad in the mid-1980s. Rick says the emphasis on quality and customer service helped him succeed where others failed.
"We still do things the old-fashioned way from start to finish," he says. That includes processing whole carcasses of beef, which he gets from suppliers in Eastern Washington. He says he treats his beef differently than supermarkets, which depend on volume sales and speed to make money. For example, while many supermarkets age their beef 14 days or so, Friar ages his a minimum of 30 days. "It'll feel like velvet after it's aged real soft."
High-quality velvet can be expensive, and Friar wants his customers to get every ounce of value. His staff will explain exactly how to prepare and cook his meats. Friar says the most frequent mistake is over-cooking; your mother's advice to cook all meat well-done is not a good thing. Instead, Friar says, use a meat thermometer and wait until the internal temperature is just right for the cut you have.
Friar handles all kinds of meat. On one day, he's in his brown, fat-flecked, chest-to-knee apron working with what he calls an "oven-prepared lamb loin." Friar is a big man, with muscled hands. The cylindrical cut he works on is basically boneless lamb chops before they're chopped. The meat is a deep pink and handles like soft clay. Friar turns it over to show a strip of fat a quarter-inch thick. He takes a loose flap with his fingertips, and slowly tears the fat strip off the cut. With a boning knife, he makes a number of smooth cuts to remove the remaining fat, then ties the meat with sterile string, weaving a web that holds the lamb together while it roasts.
"They don't teach this art anymore," he says.
Another of the almost-lost butcher's arts is smoking, but as long as Dianna Carek is working, the art will stay alive. She runs Carek's Meat Market out of a 90-year-old storefront on a back street in Roslyn. There's a whiff of alder smoke in the air when you walk into the tiny building. Inside, a few glass cases display sausages and five flavors of jerky: original, black-pepper, teriyaki, Cajun and garlic-honey. Tacked to a shelf is a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Carek is an ample, no-nonsense woman who would tell you exactly what she thought of you if you crossed her. She's the daughter of a man she describes as a "character." John Carek once drank the blood of a slaughtered animal from a cup, which shocked even his meat-packing chums. In the early 1990s, Dianna took over the business from her father, who himself inherited it from his father, Mike. Dianna recalls her dad's system of record-keeping:
"He kept all his recipes written on flippin' pieces of cardboard."
Dianna has added to her father's collection with some of her own, notably garlic-honey. She's cagey about the exact recipe, but her process is clear: Experiment and follow your instincts.
"I'll never forget the day I first smoked it," she says. She put the mixture into her grandfather's smokehouse, which is layered with decades of flavor-magnifying soot. The metal door is locked in place by a 6-foot length of half-inch pipe. Customers send meat from as far away as Alaska to smoke in this brick-and-concrete building, no bigger than a shed. "Some people came in, tasted my garlic-honey, and ever since, it's been one of my best sellers."
"I'm so lucky with my customers," she adds. They keep coming back "and they bring in their friends."
No wonder. This is the kind of smoking that'll send you straight to heaven.
Joe Follansbee is a Seattle-based free-lance writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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