Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Erik Sather of Lowry Hill Meats in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Erik Sather, of Lowry Hill Meats.
There’s never been a better time to buy a pork chop in the Twin Cities. Of course, there was never an era when it was difficult to buy a pork chop in the Twin Cities. But in the stairstep of butcher shop–declining years trailing World War II, pork chops got ever dryer, as hogs were redesigned as the other white meat. Thus, the once lard-saturated, outdoor-dwelling animal became a thin, shivery thing whose meat is frequently tasteless (fat is flavor) and indistinguishable from bad turkey (weeps softly). Yet trends are not destiny. Around the turn of this century, the local farmers who had resisted the switch to industrial production found the chefs, customers, and the one butcher, Kristin Tombers of Clancey’s, who wanted to go in a different direction. That direction was low-tech, farm-to-consumer, and based around animals that lived their lives outdoors in pre-War ways. This small, splinter movement chugged along reliably until last year, when two more farm-to-table butcher shops opened: Lowry Hill Meats in the last weeks of the year and, earlier, St. Paul Meat Shop. Thanks to these three shops, we may well be looking at the foundation of this return to butchery, not the apex of it.
Lowry Hill Meats
Opened by Erik Sather, the former chef de cuisine of Bar La Grassa, Lowry Hill Meats is the Tiffany’s of local butcher shops—if Tiffany’s had a hand-hewn, resolutely local focus. Let’s drop everything and marvel at the headcheese: It’s the color of new red wine, fragrant with the nutmeg and ginger of quatre épices. It quivers in the gelatinous bits, is tender and yielding in the porky bits, and glimmers with tiny mirepoix jewels of carrots and onion. It’s a beauty, and it neatly sums up what goes on at this 100 percent locally sourced whole-animal butcher shop: four-star cheffy restaurant magic, all in meat.
The fatty red wattle pork chop was equally beautiful but intimidating. Its rosy skin was still intact, and between that skin and the meaty part of the chop was a good two-and-a-half inches of pale, cream-colored fat. Seeing me gawking, the guy behind the counter explained in detail how I could hard-sear this monster chop in a pan, finish it in a hot oven for crackling skin, and preserve the fat for tamales, pie crusts, or the very on-trend pork-fat cookies that top pastry chefs are making these days. I thought I might faint over Minneapolis’s porky destiny suddenly realized. But then he handed me the burger I had ordered and I couldn’t well let it go to waste. Served on a sort of pork-fat brioche, golden as the sun, it was chewy and meaty, a nugget of good beef swimming with melty cheese, pure and innocent of stupid and fussy additions. Lowry Hill also makes a notable grilled cheese made with focaccia and that same melty, gooey, drippy, undeniable cheese. But show me someone who goes to a butcher shop for a grilled cheese and I’ll show you a vegetarian sliding towards sin.
The shop is a pretty place for sin: white-tiled, high-ceilinged, and offering a picture-postcard view of downtown Minneapolis through the enormous windows. Certainly Minneapolis has never had a lovelier butcher shop.
After opening Bar La Grassa, Sather spent five years learning to butcher at Minneapolis’s first farm-to-city-slicker butcher shop, Clancey’s, and went on to run the meat program at the Seward Co-op. The local farmers he met during his culinary rise are now his suppliers, including Altura’s Pork and Plants and Pequot Lakes’ Wild Acres—the latter a supplier of high-end restaurant chicken, pheasant, and duck. Sather opened Lowry Hill Meats with his wife Tiffany (she manages the shop) and business partners from Madison, Wisconsin’s, much-lauded Underground Butcher Meats.
The shop also has a notable cheese case with two-dozen mostly local cheeses, including nationally awarded cult all-stars like Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese. More shocking were the veal chops, also from Uplands, in the adjacent case. “We get a lot of cool orders,” Sather says. “An older fellow just left, he bought all the veal sweetbreads we could get, and the veal kidney, and a calf’s liver.” Most everyone who works behind the counter are former restaurant chefs, and can appreciate such special orders, he adds. “It’s pretty nice to be able to bounce meat ideas off of cooks.”
Sather says the shop gets a lot of young renters in apartments who come in and get a sandwich, and something to take home, like salami, along with old-timers who come in and buy head cheese, blood sausage, and all the bits and pieces. That blood sausage, by the way, is an update of the traditional Spanish sort, here made with African berbere spice and lots of cloves. What kind of Minnesota butcher shop makes Spanish blood sausage with African spices? This one.
1934 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-299-4200, lowryhillmeats.com
St. Paul Meat Shop
St. Paul Meat Shop
In 2009, France 44 opened the St. Paul Cheese Shop, right off the corner of Snelling and Grand avenues, in the heart of Macalester College territory. Last June, another block or so west on Grand, it opened the St. Paul Meat Shop. All white tile and big windows, the spot sells fresh meat, such as marinated Kadejan chicken, some very pretty pork chops, and a beautiful sausage called the Luganega, made with citrus and cheese. It looks like a scratch butcher shop, but everything in the cases, from quarts of to-go soups to delicious housemade bacon is made across the river in the basement of the liquor store France 44. That wine shop makes a mean pastrami, and it’s only available at St. Paul Meat Shop, pliant and peppery, beefy and rich, succulent and sensuous. Many of the sandwiches are too rococo for my taste—e.g., a turkey club overpowered by sriracha and loads of sweet pickled onion and bacon jam. Still, the 20-somethings behind the counter are sweet and eager to serve all, there’s a free parking lot out back in this tough-to-park part of town, and the chance to sit in the storefront and eat an excellent pastrami sandwich as compensation for the errand of picking up pork chops makes life feel very generous indeed.
1674 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-698-2536, stpaulmeatshop.com
Clancey's roast beef sandwich
With two newcomers in the butchering fold, it seemed good sense to revisit the pioneer in the field: Clancey’s, which is Minnesota’s first small-farm-to-consumer butcher shop in the modern era. Opened in 2003, it remains one of my favorite spots. Its roast beef sandwich—built on Rustica baguettes and piled high with house-roasted meats and butcher Kristin Tombers’s signature fresh horseradish and pickled vegetables—is a perfect creation. And my annual splurge on a garnet-colored rib-eye as thick as an egg is a banner day of summer. Yet I probably take Clancey’s for granted. To try to see it with fresh eyes, I stood in one spot and tried to identify everything there was to buy within my gaze: green porketta (with dill seeds), red porketta (with paprika), Surly beer bratwursts, meatloaves, honey-mustard pork chops, Korean-marinated hangar steak, Italian sausages. . . . I soon gave up, realizing I hadn’t begun to number the boxes of crackers and spices crowded above the case, along with several unlabeled items in the case and numerous products in the freezer.
I asked Tombers how many foodstuffs Clancey’s has crammed into every nook and cranny these days: She guessed about 500 products, but says she fulfills an infinite number of special requests. Surprisingly, Tombers got into butchery not for a love of meat, but for a love of community. “For me, it was more about creating common space based on that old-time market feel,” she says.
Tombers pioneered the practice of working with specific farms outstate and bringing in whole animals and figuring out what to do with the less desirable bits in a culture used to cooking only premium cuts. Now she has notebooks filled with names of people who want a phone call when skin-on pork comes in, or when veal arrives, or when there’s enough beef tallow for soap-making.
How does Tombers feel about the new butcher shops opening these days doing what she does? “I think it’s awesome, just fantastic,” she says. “I always wished there were more places for more farmers to have access to.” Tombers is so happy about the new crop of butcher shops that she wants in on the action herself: She has started to look for a site for a second Clancey’s location. Here’s hoping it serves that roast beef sandwich.
4307 Upton Ave. S., Mpls., 612-926-0222, clanceysmeats.com