The Roast Beef Roast

If you frequently hunger for roast beef sandwiches, you need to read this. If you cut meat behind a full-service meat counter, you probably also need to read this.

I adore a good roast beef sandwich. One with horseradish and mayo and lettuce and pickled beets, or sliced tomatoes, or hard-boiled eggs, shaved fennel, and pickled onions. But procuring the meat to make such a sandwich is way harder than it should be. I stand at the meat counter and shuffle my feet with indecision, hem and haw, wonder if I could just step back there for a brief minute, make a few deft gestures at the subprimal, and guide him through the process. But no. I just order, and wait, and hope for the best, and almost invariably end up disappointed. This last attempt was the very last straw. I am going to unleash the full power of the internet and Sketchbook to try to make sure that this never happens to me again. A three pound roast isn’t the same as just three pounds of meat. If that were the case, we would just let very primitive machines, built by a collaboration of General Motors and Microsoft, do all the work.

A dry-roasted round needs to be relatively free of major veins of connective tissue, needs to be tied well, and it needs to have the grain running the length. That last is the essential, elusive quality of any great roast because when the cook, the consumer, the customer upon which this entire retail paradigm depends, goes to slice the meat they need to have a fighting chance of getting it right.

Here’s how they’re not going to get it right:

Sorry Mel E. Mel, I jacked your photo. Send a takedown notice.

Sorry Mel E. Mel, I jacked your photo. Send a takedown notice.

That is a London Broil, possibly the worst cut of meat in the case. It’s actually a hate crime against cows. At least it will be when I’m called upon to fill the Attorney General position for the (Barney) Frank administration. It’s bad because it gives top round a bad name, while allowing supermarkets to move massive quantities of this unpopular cut. I imagine the reasoning is that the London Broil, being an enormous steak, appeals to the barbecue bro crowd. Roasts are stodgy.

This also isn’t going to cut it:

how-to-cook-a-top-round

I can’t even play like that, mail-order meat purveyor.

Especially not with your boner, mail-order butcher! The face of that looks like a craggy geological feature.

Uneven face aside, the main problem here is that the cut is diagonal to the grain, rather than directly perpendicular. Here’s what I would show him if I came behind the counter at the massive warehouse where he works in an enormous refrigerated room in Pittsburg:

How-to-cut-a-top-round.

This is your first lesson.

The curved line pointing down runs the direction of the grain. That’s where, if you want to make a roast, you should bisect it. The straight line that cuts across the perpendicular is the direction to run the knife. Preferably a bigger knife than that one.

Now, let’s look at another hideous example of roast-hate:

Another-bad-top-round-roast

Dont panic, its organic!

I’m not really sure why you would use this image to advertise your organic beef—it’s a terrifying frankenroast. First, it’s got two separate flaps of meat. With a roast, this isn’t what you want. So just leave that nasty old thing at the club. Not only is the grain running wrong, it’s running wrong on both pieces of meat, in two separate directions.

evil-hipster-roast

I gave it an evil hipster mustache.

See, to cut your cooked roast across the grain, you’ll need to start at an angle perpendicular to this line I’ve drawn. Does the average consumer know this? No, they do not. So it’s up to the meat purveyor to cut the roast so that it can be intuitively sliced against the grain. Most people look at a roast and they think, I should slice that across the short way. And they are absolutely right. It’s easier to slice it across the short width, and one isn’t left with a gigantic chunk that just flops over on the cutting board when you get halfway through it. Furthermore, as any roast beef aficionado can tell you, you need to slice it thinly, for maximum tenderness, and into reasonably-sized slices, to fit it onto the bread. Top round, as the bros-and-hoes-barbecue crowd can probably attest, ain’t the tenderest cut under less-than-perfect conditions. This is because there’s a lot of very thin connective tissue that… well let me show you:

muscle-fiber-anatomy-tender

I love learning with you guys! You’re the biology study buddies I never had!

See how the muscles’ connective tissues run the same direction as the fleshy muscle fibers? We want to cut those things with our tools, not wear out our teeth breaking them down into a digestible mass. When you slice the meat across the grain, you’re slicing the connective tissues as well. The thinner you slice, the smaller they get. This is how you can cook a top round of beef to an internal temperature of 130°,  perfect for rareish medium-rare roast beef, but far below the 160° threshold at which the connective tissues begin to melt, and still chew the damn thing. How will you slice your Flintstone steak across the grain? On a bias? Oh, good luck with that.

So when you head to the meat store, or to your job at the meat store, here’s what you need to know about cutting top round, and really all dry roasts:

  1. Get that thing down to one muscle mass. Management wants to save time and money by including that flap meat as part of the roast. Fuck that. Seam it out. Grind the rest or find some other use.
  2. Create a long piece of meat along which the grain runs. Sometimes this means bisecting it in the same direction as the grain.
  3. The first cut is often the best. The “front” of the top round, bottom round, and top sirloin are generally the densest in muscle fiber and sparest in connective tissues.

Here, I’ve used my newfound powers of graphic design to illustrate all of this in one handy image:

buying-a-good-roast

Print it out; take it to the store!

Wow! That is a beautiful image! The arrow shows the direction of the grain, and where the roast should be bisected. The lines crossing it show where most butchers like to cut, and where they actually should cut! Print it out, take it with you.

If all turns out well, and experience shows it rarely does, you’ll end up with something like this:Top-Round

Oh god, I’m sorry about that. I’m just really enthralled with this new drawing program. I’m also sorry to all the bloggers whose content I stole. But lets face it, you prolly stole it too.

 

 

 

 

Slumming Around the Carcass

As a meat-cutter trying to save money to travel, I took full advantage of my special position to make sure I could get my steak at least once a week. What kind of meat cutter doesn’t get his steak? For example, I could cut the flatirons out of the shoulder and wrap them up priced as ten percent grind, since that’s what the shop would do with them anyway. Eventually though, flatirons got popular, and management figured they were too valuable to grind, even though none of the other cutters could actually clean them up well enough to be worth grilling (except you, Kent). I don’t mean to be a braggart, that’s just a fact.

It was like having a decent little one-bedroom in the bad part of town, and they jack the rent. Now I’m eating pot roast and potatoes instead of rare beef and tomatoes. The price of off-cuts and what they used to call butcher’s cuts soared compared to the rest of the cow. Meanwhile, over in the poultry section, wings climbed to over three a pound, while management was falling all over itself to keep the price of boneless, skinless breast down. It’s the definition of gentrification, which is really just a dysphemism for trendy.

This “food gentrification” briefly became a hash tag a year ago after Whole Foods—in their stilted, white-people’s-overbite style of awe-shucks marketing—starting saying “Collards are the New Kale.” The mille feuille of absurdity inherent in this claim went largely unremarked upon, but collards seemed to strike a nerve with social media activists, probably due to their their race class connotations. Now, I know it sucks to see your old neighborhood—the place where you got your ass kicked on a regular basis growing up, where you learned to watch your back out of the corners of your eyes in the shop windows—being overrun first by a bunch of earnest and unafraid hipsters, and eventually by a bunch of Toyota yuppies, but you can’t gentrify a hardy, weedy, widely distributed green leaf. You can’t even gentrify pot (well, I suppose we’ll put that to the test here soon). But you can gentrify meat.

A cow only has two hanger steaks, two flanks, two outside skirts, two tri-tips, and four flatirons—and let’s be generous and say all that weighs twenty pounds trimmed—and you can’t just harvest cows like lettuce, on a cut-and-come-again basis, to get more trendy butcher’s cuts. The real tragedy though, has been for people who used to eat near the bottom of the price floor. Oxtails are like eight dollars a pound at the natural foods store now. Short ribs, six-fifty. Even beef bones, which I used to buy on the regular to fill up the freezer with stock, have been sucked up into the maws of pampered yuppy dogs and paleo dieters, to over three a pound. Never mind, I just use shank nowadays (three-fifty or so), while I still can. The boneless and trimmed rounds meanwhile, languishing from unpopularity, weigh about eighty pounds total. They don’t even stock half the cuts anymore.

I watched an old woman come into the store every other week or so for a couple of years, who always bought nearly all the wings we had for a buck-sixty-nine a pound. Expensive to her already, but she really liked our chicken—Petaluma Poultry free range at the time. She came in once after the price broke two a pound, got mad then laughed it off, bought some drumsticks for one-fifty-something I believe, and never came back. What I don’t think she noticed was that the boneless skinless breasts had stayed the same price: $5.99/pound.

Class Conscious

Back in November, the New Yorker reviewed a newish pizza place called Emmett’s, which has the audacity to serve Chicago deep dish in The City. Without apparent condescension, incredulity, or scorn, they offer this detail about the life of the charming, Midwestern rogue, Emmet Burke: “Taking a few years off from Wall Street to tinker with a recipe he came up with himself, Burke has devised a very savvy replica of the real thing.” We’re used to hearing this sort of thing all the time anymore—restaurateuring being the new yachting— but this sentence catches my eye every time I pick this rag up.

A few years off—from Wall Street—to “tinker with” his pizza recipe? Sounds cute but, what the fuck was he doing? Trying to hit on just the right grind of his proprietary artisan salt blend? Distilling the New York tap water in order to chemically recreate Lake Michigan’s distinctive blend of pharmaceuticals, herbicides, hexavalent chromium and lead? The proletarian mind boggles. I want to hate it. I need to hate it.

Where’s the impetus to work one’s way up from the line to restaurant ownership when every other new restaurateur is a guy who’s taken a step down from his career litigating corporate buyouts, or negotiating derivative sales? Career management cannot be beat, and this Emmet Burke is a real marketing genius besides.

I don’t mean to impugn the guy’s Midwestern “aw shucks” credentials, but this website is just too self-ignorant to be believed. That hokey font, the info box, the customer reviews proudly displayed right on the front page! This guy worked on Wall Street, and his website looks like a couple of not-too-bright bro dropouts from Peoria decided to open a sandwich shop: “I ain’t too savvy but….” No, I do not buy it sir.

Stop cooking guys. Go to college and study finance or economics. There’s nothing for you in this world anymore. If a Wall Street guy is taking years off of work to “tinker with” his pizza recipe, how will you ever get ahead? I call on the cooks at Emmett’s and every other management-professional/white-collar-dropout-owned restaurant to call in drunk. Shit, call in hungover.

Say it’s the wealth inequality that’s got you down. Say: “Hey, check that RGM watch of yours. I think you got just enough time to maybe hop into the LS, race down to the old offices, and round up a few interns to come in and cook those pizzas today. No problem bro, dial up some Dave Matthews on the in-dash mp3, and you got this.”

Then, go enroll in college. Take on a fuckload of loan debt and live on campus. If you can skate through economics with a c+, you’ll have a place in 10 years or less. That is, if the thought of a 5% profit margin in a good year doesn’t make you sweat too heavy in your new suit. This is called bootstrapping, and America will make sure that there are enough finance and management positions for everyone who is willing to stay the laborious path of cram sessions and cheap pizza. Also, there is no shame in being “college poor,” unlike the workaday version of poverty under which you currently suffer.

 

Yelp and the Art of Marketing

Poor Saint John’s still doesn’t have any businesses worth going to, except bars. This is hardly an exaggeration. They’ve got weird old Patty’s Home Plate—one-half retro lunch counter, one-half flea market—a Mcmenamins, a vegan market/lunch spot, a couple of brewpubs that serve little food, and a hippie, crunchy, punky restaurant. The only place I can ever think of to go is The Fishwife, which always seems to be closed, but which is the best seafood restaurant in town.

One amongst their number, a woman of apparently heroic ambition, would like to rebuild a historic hotel called Central Hotel, and she’s bought the building and put a sign outside that says Central Hotel, but it’s pretty confusing since it still just looks like the old Dad’s Lounge, a dive. They allow kids now, and they’ve put together a menu that includes latkes with lox, and a lamb burger, and a cocktail list with Punt y Mes, Weller bourbon, and nocello, which are some of the preordained ingredients for restaurant success. But man, that interior, and exterior, and the doorway with the cracked glass, and the video crack with the neck tattoo dude who needs a spit cup for his chaw—these are liabilities. Have these people heard of brand damage? I’m a hillbilly with a nine-year-old laptop and a website called Gangster Of Food, and I’ve heard of brand damage.

The idiots over on Yelp (not the ones who’ve kindly granted me permission to use their photos, the other ones) they’ve probably heard of brand damage, and they are doing their very mightiest to inflict it upon this hapless real estate agent who dreams of turning her property into a bona fide hotel and family-friendly restaurant. Yelpers have given the Central Hotel an average of 3.5 stars, and have made some very critical remarks besides. Oh my god! The fries are from a bag! Get over it Yelpers; you’ve sung praise to greater indignities.

I don’t know if you know this, but 3.5 starts on Yelp is pretty bad, except in the cases where it’s great, and it’s only great when it’s obvious that the entitled little honkies just don’t get it, which is fairly common. This time I’d say that the Yelp system worked out perfectly despite itself. The place deserves an honest 3.5 (okay maybe three) stars considering what a disjointed fucking mess it is. I like the neck tattoo dude. I like the carpet, and the paneling and the stained drop ceiling. I love the cut out piece of cardboard on the soffit over the bar listing the draft selection. These are check-check-check in my little book. The drinks are good! Weller with nocello—I’m into it. The food is…problematic, but fine. I don’t expect people with a background in property sales to understand food like I or my readers do. They’re like: “Hummus…check. Burger…check. Sausage…check. Chicken sandwich…check. Alright, the menu looks great; I think you guys are ready to move into the kitchen. Congratulations!”

But the food—despite some obvious flaws like the chicken sandwich whose actual chicken component is suffocated by the ciabatta sandwich component, and the pigs in a blanket, whose pigs have the savor of Hebrew National, while the blanket is little more than than a sage-laden cracker—isn’t really too bad. It’s at least as good as the overhyped, marketing-driven slop that Yelpers have driven me to before. What’s a really overhyped restaurant in the Rose City? Too numerous to count, but let’s take Kenny and Zuke’s for example:

The pastrami, to be fair, sucks. People go nuts for this shit, but I’m telling you now that any single one of you could prepare a beef brisket pot roast with sodium nitrite, put it on bread, and you would have approximately the same thing. This isn’t just an aesthetic consideration. This isn’t just, as the pastrami pariah Nick Zukin would have me believe, my modern, industrial sensibilities talking. Yelpers love(d) this place, although they have gotten considerably more critical of late.

The whole media establishment love(d) this place: The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, the list goes on…, and I say that there is only one factor that accounts for its rabid popularity: Brand Strength. It’s at the bottom of the Ace Hotel (where I once stayed as a destitute transient, only it was called the Ben Stark back then), and it’s done up like a jewish deli, but sleeker. It’s Katz’s without the rough edges and somewhat worse pastrami! What more could the hipster republic ask for?

Take heed, restaurateurs. Take notice. How about Bunk? East Coast sandwiches with chef pedigree. The phenomenal popularity of this place had escaped my understanding until recently. Actually, it’s improved significantly since the early days, but if it hadn’t been for those line-out-the-door early days, they wouldn’t have five or six locations today. Marketing. A sort of underground, “oh here’s the dude from Ripe, worked for Mario Batali way back in the day. My friend says he’s really cool,” marketing, but that’s the best marketing of all! Marketing that don’t look like marketing.

Speaking of insider marketing, let’s look at some projects by Chefstable (where does the chef end, and the stable begin?): Lardo, Block and Tackle, Roe, Pok Pok! Phenomenal! How do they create so many hits?! Are they the Phil Specter of restaurants? Marketing. These are some very good restaurants, don’t get me wrong (oh please restaurant bosses—don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I’ll be back begging for alms again someday), but are they the very best restaurants that have opened in their respective fields? Maybe, sometimes. Mainly though, if you open a restaurant in The Stable, you get the very best hay that money can buy, and by hay I mean marketing. Eater and Portland Magazine will say nice things about you in advance of your opening. The guy at the Oregonian will be notified to put on his prescription secret agent glasses and and come on down to darken your doorway. You get the very best shot at it that money connections can buy.

So, do I do anything besides gripe about the success of others? Some restaurants are wildly successful; what’s the problem? The problem is that marketing is the monkey wrench in the meritocracy. For every new Bunk Sandwiches/Lardo/Pok Pok that opens, we lose another business that might be as good or even better, and give us a greater range of options for dining. Because the foodie masses will gladly queue around the block for an average meatball hoagie with rocker chef pedigree, we lose all sorts of other places —RIP Döner Kebab, Flogenes, Hillbilly Bento, Sauvage…—that broaden the palate. The gastronomic terrain becomes more predictable—”oh is that another Pok Pok opening up? Thank god, I won’t have to travel two and a half miles to for my Ricker fix anymore”—and less exciting. In my estimation, more diversity is nearly always a positive thing, and homogeneity is unequivocally evil.

So, to put this back on track: Would-be hoteliers of Saint John’s, I admire your ambition in restoring this eyesore of a dive (although I actually think the current facade is kind of cute) to it’s Gilded Age glory. And I really want you to succeed, if only so that I can take my daughter someplace nice after a day’s hiking in Forest Park or Sauvie Island. But I think there may be something you’re overlooking about this town: marketing rules everything. If the construction were done, and included lots of reclaimed wood, exposed rafters, and vintage chandeliers, and you had contracted a chef from say New York or San Francisco, it wouldn’t matter if you served fried horse poo sandwiches, people Yelpers would line up and praise your authenticity. You could be on the way to a hotel empire in no time at all. Imagine: the New Seasons Market of hotels. It could be such that the sustainability-minded traveler hadn’t even a choice in Portland anymore.

I’m telling you right now that this thing will follow you through construction, until the opening of your big, beautiful hotel. I really hope you succeed, but right now you gotta think about your brand. And fix that food, even Yelpers can tell it’s off.

 

P.S. to pastrami charlatans, hand sliced don’t mean thick as a textbook. I slice meat so thin by hand, I wrote this blog post with piece of lox on my glasses.

 

(Not) the Coolest

 

Am I not that fun? Am I just a debbie :-( because the idea of a cooler with an integrated stereo, charging station, and blender doesn’t sound that cool? Because my idea of a fun cooler is one that keeps food cold, with ice, for a really long time? You know what I think would be super fun? Quality hinges! A stainless compression latch! A lid gasket! Durable construction! Not running to the store 36 hours into the camping trip because the ice all melted! Not hearing a goddamn sorority party at the campground! The sounds of birds and running water, rather than Skrillex shrieking from someone’s shitty itunes lineup! Cold beer and a whiskey on ice, rather than a fake-ass margarita made with sour mix, blue caracao, Coach perfume, and a little acetone.

I can’t even keep my stereotypes straight with this fucking thing. Who does it appeal to? Sorority sisters or tech-brofessionals? Besides gender (and having a job), is there even a difference between those?

Margaritas. I think maybe the way you make (or take) a margarita is the difference. So tech-brofessionals, feel free to repurpose that blender motor as a percussion instrument when you get all buzzed up on Hoptimus Prime double IPAs (and shaken Partida margaritas, por supuesto) and decide to pretend you’re actually up there on stage with Skrillex like a backup DJ. Only you’re actually just having a tailgate party in the Subie in the parking lot, after the soccer game.

Here, play these both at the same time:

 

 

You know, that actually sounds pretty cool. Maybe this won’t be so bad.