Meet your meat
Few sounds, or smells, are more appetizing than the kiss of a flame on a sizzling steak. There's nothing that says a summertime cookout like a properly cooked piece of meat, at least to this eater. But there is a gaping and regrettable chasm—in terms of freshness, flavor and just all around care—between the mushy steaks found at grocery stores that languish in their Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrap cocoons and the meat that's handled with relative reverence at your neighborhood butcher shop, a place where the person preparing it has a name and might even know yours. In this age of convenience, butchers who cut steaks to order and take the time to talk to you about it are rare, no pun intended.There's an art to cooking a good steak, but few tools are needed; if you buy quality meat, you're more than halfway there. For the fire, use hardwood lump charcoal rather than those easy-light briquettes. They burn hotter and won't give your meat a chemical smell or taste. Gas is OK, too. It's best if the steak comes to room temperature before you grill it, and don't be afraid to go heavy on the salt and pepper. Get your grilling surface super-hot, so hot that you can't bear to hold your hand over the grill, unless you are some kind of masochist.
Figure about seven or eight minutes of grilling time total per inch of steak, a couple minutes for each side. A good sear is important. A browned, caramelized crust that gives way to a tender interior is a lot more pleasant to chew than a uniformly flabby and gray piece of meat. If your steak is particularly thick, you might turn down the heat a bit until it cooks to temperature. Make sure to let the steak rest for a few minutes off the heat when you're done cooking—it'll be juicier that way. While the meat is resting, toss up a salad and crisp up some olive-oil-drizzled bread on the still-hot grill. Find a comfortable perch, pop open a cold one (see below) and be thankful that you get to eat so well.
Here are a few local butcher shops to check out:
Wooden planks and platters of amazing-looking steaks sit atop a bed of grass within the gleaming meat bar of Homegrown Meats. All the meat, from lamb to poultry, is naturally raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free, but it's the beef that's truly special. The place is called Homegrown for a reason: Its Mt. Palomar cattle ranch is our closest-to-home source for grass-fed, from start to finish, beef. An all-grass diet is better for the animal, for our food system and the environment. It's better for you, too, so you can eat more of it. Though it's also more expensive, Sean Hendricks, the friendly head butcher, will steer you to the cuts with more value, like freshly ground top sirloin that makes the best burgers you've ever tasted and the tri tip, which will stretch to feed a crowd. 7660 Fay Ave. in La Jolla. 858-454-6328.
I might not be able to afford to eat at Cowboy Star's restaurant as often as I'd like, but I can try my best to recreate the experience at home, set to a similar country-music soundtrack or any of my choosing. Its adjacent, full-service butcher shop carries many of the cuts featured on the restaurant's menu, from grass-fed to corn-fed, traced back to ranches across the country and around the world. If you buy one of the grass-fed steaks, take care not to overcook it. I can't really support meat cooked past medium-rare anyway, but grass-fed meat has less interior fat marbling that usually takes more time to render, so it cooks faster. If it's fat you're seeking, try a cut of American Wagyu steak, the stateside version of Japanese Kobe beef. It's almost like eating butter, which may be appealing depending on your capacity for gluttony. 640 10th Ave. in East Village. 619-450-5880, www.thecowboystar.com.
The old-school original, Siesel's Old Fashioned Meats is in the midst of a remodel, which hopefully won't strip any character from the place. Butchers with years of experience and sass to show for it dry age decently priced USDA prime steaks and host frequent grilling demos and tastings. It's also home to my favorite bacon, save for the cured deliciousness made at North Park Meat Co., and a good source for lump charcoal and all kinds of other cookout supplies. Plus, Bay Park Fish Co. is right next door, so you can pick up some fresh local fish in case you invited some non-carnivores to the party. 4131 Ashton St. in Bay Park. 619-275-1234, www.bestmeatssandiego.com.Siesel's sister shop, Iowa Meat Farms, has been custom-cutting meat for more than two decades and has the added bonus of a pretty good beer selection in its cooler. 6041 Mission Gorge Road in Grantville. 619-281-5766, www.iowameatfarms.com.
Also on the old-school tip is North County's Tip Top Meats, a European deli and meat market in one, where you can pick out any butcher-shop steak to-go or eat in the refreshingly and unapologetically old-world eatery. And for an extra $3, you get a side of potatoes and soup or salad; you can even grab your own German beer or wine from the store's coolers. 6118 Paseo Del Norte in Carlsbad. 760-438-2620. www.tiptopmeats.com.
What to drink with all that meat? Beer, of course!
Good meat deserves good beer. Don't make your friends drink macro-swill when some of the best craft beers in the world are made right here in San Diego. For the cheapest and freshest local beer, your best bet is to go straight to a brewery and pick up a keg, growler or bottles, but in a pinch, your local liquor store or neighborhood market might have a secret, or not-so-secret, stash of fine craft brew. Drink up!
South Bay Drugs is already familiar to the beer-obsessed, but it's hard to convince others that such an ace beer collection exists inside of an Imperial Beach pharmacy, but it's true. A friend recently hosted a comprehensive local stout tasting, and he was able to find almost all of them here. South Bay keeps a well-maintained website that gives up-to-date info on stock selection. Trust me, it's worth the drive. 779 Palm Ave. in Imperial Beach. 619-424-5164, southbaydrugsandliquor.googlepages.com.
A trek in the opposite direction takes you to Escondido's Holiday Wine Cellar, a beer paradise with a 200-foot-tall neon “Liquor” sign that's a beacon for boozehounds. They are serious about beer here, and friendly, too. Nearly every local brewery is represented by a good number of bottles, and there's a semi-hidden walk-in fridge containing even more rarities. Holiday even does its own beer aging. The wine and spirits offerings are also admirable, and there are always fun classes and events. Where else would you get to meet Dan Aykroyd (3 to 6 p.m. May 22) and buy a signed bottle of his vodka, housed in a crystal skull? 302 West Mission Ave. in Escondido. 619-696-9463, www.holidaywinecellar.com.
The owners of Keg N' Bottle in the College Area, a store for SDSU kids seeking beer-pong supplies, have bought and remodeled a Del Cerro liquor store into a serious craft-beer-shop contender. In addition to more than 10 beer refrigerators and shelves of additional bottles, the new K&B Cellars just installed a bunch of taps for on-site drinking and will soon be doing beer and wine tastings with food. 6380 Del Cerro Blvd. in Del Cerro. 619-286-0321.Olive Tree Marketplace has good sandwiches and a relatively small, but equally good beer selection. It even has its own beer blog (www.olivetreemarketbeer.blogspot.com) on which listings and descriptions of new arrivals are posted. The beer is consistently fresh, and there are always some limited-edition bottles from local breweries at decent prices. 4805 Narragansett Ave. in Ocean Beach. 619-224-0443.
It's a straight-up liquor store, complete with an overabundance of dirty mags, but Mesa Liquor stocks a decent amount of bombers (the big bottles) with a nice mix of American microbrews and Belgians. Some of the bottles may have a film of dust on them, making them a bit suspect, but if Chris, the resident beer guy, is on hand, he can point you toward the better stuff. 4919 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa. 858-279-5292.