“Grass-fed.” “Local.” “Sustainable.” “100% organic.” These are common descriptors we are starting to see in today’s high-end meat markets. In general, I fully support efforts of butchers and vendors to deliver the most natural meat products available to their customers. The meat typically is more expensive but also is healthier and tastes better. But what if it doesn’t taste better? What if you just spent a 50% premium on something you don’t like? This was unfortunately my experience at The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley.
As many of you know, I don’t offer much negative criticism on this site. I generally try to write positively about all things associated with asado and hardwood grilling in the hopes that it encourages more folks to try this style of barbecue. However, I feel it is a disservice to my readers if I don’t warn them of potentially disappointing experiences with certain vendors. My experience at The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley was one of those occasions.
For my Asado de Independencia, I procured a variety of cuts of meat from The Local Butcher Shop located in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. I spent $268(!) for the following: 12 fennel sausages (they didn’t have chorizo), 2-lb. flat iron steak, 1-lb. flank steak, 10 cross-cut beef short ribs, 5-lb rib eye roast. LBS is the most expensive butcher shop I have ever patronized, but I expected that with all their products being organic, grass-fed, and sourced from ranches within 150 miles, my guests and I were in for a true treat. I was wrong.
One could assume that “The Local Butcher Shop” is double entendre: a play on the fact that all its meat is sourced locally and also whimsical reference to days gone by–a time when most folks would patronize the local town butcher, who might know them all by name, to get his recommendations for that night’s meal. My grandfather was a butcher for 40 years and told me of his pleasure in recommending a certain chop only to have a customer return the following week and thank him profusely for his advice.
Due to the large size of my order, I pre-ordered my meat about five days ahead of time. When I got to LBS and spoke to Aaron, one the shop’s owners with whom I placed the order, he barely remembered me. I tried chatting get to know him a bit better and to let him know that I write a grilling blog and was anxious to start cooking with his products. I figured he’d be exceptionally interested in someone who might be a repeat customer, was buying over $250 worth of products, and would typically be ordering large cuts of meat would help sell off his inventory. Instead, I was greeted with a faint smile and a quiet thank you. Hardly the kind of service and attention I would expect from a place that is trying to conjure the halcyon days of local butchery.
All that aside, I could’ve given LBS a glowing review if their premium-priced meat was mind-blowing in quality. But it wasn’t. No matter how organic, local, or sustainable it might be, at the end of the day, it must taste good. And if you charge exceptionally high prices like LBS does, it’s an absolute requirement. Surprisingly, LBS’s meat had an overwhelmingly gamey flavor to it. I overheard another butcher talking about how the grass in the Bay Area had turned from it’s spring green to the summer brown and that it can affect the flavor of the meat, but that most consider it to be a benefit to the flavor. Pardon the pun, but I suspect that may be bullshit. In my mind, dried grass in the area is more susceptible to giving beef a gamey flavor. And while I like game meats (see e.g., Game of Thrones Asado), the LBS beef had a bitter, hay-like flavor that overpowered every bite. I found this to be true with all of the beef I ate, not just one cut. I’ve eaten grass-fed beef from all over the world and this was my least favorite.
The only non-beef product I purchased from LBS was their pork fennel sausage. While the links were very large, the sausage was missing the flavor and juice I’ve come to expect from chorizo. In no way did I feel the flavor of their house-made sausage warranted the $40 price tag for a dozen links.
I am an avid proponent of buying local, sustainable, and organic meats. The higher demand that consumers can drive for such products, the more the market will respond with higher supply. My caution, however, is to look through the hype and trendy buzz words and make certain that you are 100% satisfied with the taste of your meat. If you’re not, you might as well look elsewhere and spend the extra dollars on a butcher who can deliver the quality you’re looking for. I wanted to recommend The Local Butcher Shops as one of those places, but the service, price, and taste of their products were not up to my expectations.