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From an ancient Italian meat market in the Bronx to a San Francisco boucherie specializing in hard-to-find French cuts, today's butcher shop takes many forms. The old-guard shops are carrying on tradition, cutting meat the same way their grandfathers did, in many cases in the same location, on the same block, and are unfortunately a dying breed. The new wave is committed to building relationships with local farmers and educating the public about sustainability and the benefits of whole-animal butchery. Both are equally commendable, and are indispensable parts of the American culinary landscape.
In order to determine which butcher shops are America's best, we considered several factors. Do they offer all-natural, sustainable meat? Do they practice whole-animal butchery, sourced from hand-picked local farms? That's not to say that butcher shops that don't practice this were automatically disqualified, but it's something we took into account. We also considered whether they offer classes on simple butchery, sausage-making, and the like; if they offer unique cuts of meat and could cut those to order; and if they offer "extras" including sausage, charcuterie, and sandwiches. One other aspect we couldn't overlook was historical relevance. Some of America's best butcher shops don't sell local pastured meat, but they've been neighborhood fixtures for decades, generations of the same family selling expertly cut, high-quality meat. We made sure to take both new wave and old-world legends into account. We started with a list of more than 150 shops from across the country, and narrowed it down to the top ones.
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One question that's worth exploring is why, exactly, butcher shops are coming back into vogue after years on the sidelines. For decades, walking into a supermarket and seeing rows and rows of individual plastic-wrapped steaks was considered the height of convenience and modernity. But today, in a time when it's fairly common knowledge that one 4-ounce ground beef patty could contain meat from more than 1,000 individual cows, it's comforting to be able to walk into a shop where you not only know the person who's trimming your steak (or grinding your hamburgers), you know exactly where that steak came from and what the cow ate during its life. Meat purchased at a supermarket is also rarely, if ever, grass-fed, locally-raised, and antibiotic-free, which is to say it doesn't often meet the high standards of today's meat-buying consumer. In a "Slow Food" era when we're desperate to get back to the land and learn as much as possible about the food we put into our bodies, the trusty butcher shop is there, ready to make sure that the meat we eat is of the highest possible quality.
Flisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, Kingston and Brooklyn#5) Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, Kingston and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Joshua and Jessica Applestone are renowned in the world of butchery, and have done more to spread the gospel of local, grass-fed, pasture-raised meats than just about anyone else since opening their shop in 2004. From their shop in upstate New York (and their newer one in Park Slope, Brooklyn), they sell locally sourced (from within 50 miles of the Kingston shop), antibiotic- and hormone-free meat raised on a pesticide-free, vegetarian, grass-based diet, purchased whole and butchered nose-to-tail. Along with just about any type of cut you want, they also sell some ridiculously good bacon, rotisserie chicken, homemade ham, cheeses, a wide variety of sausages, and heat-and-eat items like shepherd's pie and Texas chili, along with dog food and reduced stock. They also have a world-class training program that's spawned some of the country's top butchers. Above all, Fleisher's is a neighborhood butcher shop where you can drop in, browse, chat with the butchers about the different cuts, and be a part of a community, and that's exactly what the Applestones set out to create, by carrying on the legacy of Joshua's great-grandfather, Wolf Fleisher, who opened the original Fleisher's not far away from the Brooklyn shop in 1901.
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The Meat Hook, Brokolyn, NY#4) The Meat Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 2009, Tom Mylan, Brent Young, and Ben Turley, former butchers from Brooklyn's renowned Marlow & Daughters, struck out on their own and opened The Meat Hook. Committed to rewarding the hard work of their farmers, every month they visit the farms to hand-pick which animals will be slaughtered, broken down whole, and sold nose-to-tail. Beef is grass-fed and grain-finished, raised without hormones or antibiotics, allowed to graze on 1,000 acres of land, and dry-aged before being sold. Lambs are slightly older than what you'd usually find for better marbling and flavor (without being at all gamey thanks to the breed). Free-range and pastured heritage pigs are predominantly 100 percent Berkshires, bought when they're at least 200 pounds for the best marbling from small family-owned upstate pig farms. Nearly 50 different types of sausages are also produced here, in varieties ranging from "Classics" like toasted fennel and garlic, agrodolce, and red wine and rosemary to "Trashy" options like French onion, baked potato, and chicken Parm, as well as a host of charcuterie, cold cuts, and other ways of making sure nothing goes to waste. Their classes are also indispensable for anyone who's interested in the craft.
The Local Butcher Shop#3) The Local Butcher Shop, Berkeley, Calif.
The Local Butcher Shop was opened in August 2011 in Berkeley by Chez Panisse alum Aaron Rocchino, and has since become the town's go-to spot for all things meat. The secret to its success is the fact that almost all of its butchers are also trained chefs, able to not only offer cooking tips and tricks but in-depth knowledge about everything they sell (they can also whip up restaurant-quality pâtés, sausages, deli meats, soups, sauces, stews, and sandwiches). The animals are bought whole and intact, so literally any part of it, if you want it, just ask for it. Beef, pork, and lamb all come from two local farms each, and they're some of the country's finest, focused entirely on animal welfare and all-natural practices that allow the animals to live happy lives and eat only real, natural food with no hormones or pesticides. Classes include lessons in sausage-making as well as harder-to-find ones like holiday cooking, pork-leg butchery, and stock-making, and their daily rotating sandwich is consistently outrageously delicious.
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The Butcher and Larder#2) The Butcher and Larder, Chicago
Every visit to Chicago's first sustainable whole-animal butcher shop, The Butcher and Larder, is an adventure. Opened eight years ago by Rob and Allie Levitt, the shop sources all its meat from small, Midwestern family farms, and really showcases the finest the country's heartland has to offer. Like all shops that purchase their animals whole, not every cut is available every day, but it's cut to order and they'll be able to get you any part of the animal you need as long as you call ahead. But at this shop, it's best to leave yourself in Rob's hands. Give him an idea of what you're looking for and he'll give you a tour of the case, proudly showcasing what's available. Housemade sausages and charcuterie also change daily. You'll most likely leave with something exciting and delicious, and can be assured that it's going to be hormone- and antibiotic-free, pasture-raised, and of the highest quality possible.
Lindy & Grundy, Los Angeles#1) Lindy & Grundy, Los Angeles
What makes Lindy & Grundy America's best butcher shop? In short, its owners, Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura, also known as Lindy and Grundy. They've forged close relationships with the area's finest farmers, and source all their meats from within 150 miles of Los Angeles, except for the lamb, which comes from Santa Rosa, Calif. They hand-select the meat, use the entire carcass, and nothing goes to waste. (Want a pig spleen? All yours.) All beef, pork, lamb, and chicken are 100 percent pastured, hormone- and antibiotic-free, raised organically, and allowed to graze throughout their lives, leading to happy animals and delicious meat. They could simply butcher the meat, put it in the display case, and call it a day, but Posada and Nakamura go above and beyond, rotating through about 25 different types of sausages weekly, making stocks, rillettes, dog food, and specialty burger grinds, and a cherrywood smoker wafts the smell of smoking bacon and guanciale out into the street all day long. They also offer a world-class apprenticeship program and some of the West Coast's best butchery classes (they'll even teach you how to roast the perfect Thanksgiving turkey), they deliver your order right to your house, and also sell a daily-rotating sandwich that's always a sellout. And guiding it all are Posada and Nakamura, who somehow also have the time to give each customer individualized attention. There's no other butcher shop quite like Lindy & Grundy, and it's America's best.
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-Dan Myers, The Daily Meal