Meet 3 Butchers of the 'Burgh and Pittsburgh's ‘Brisket Boss’
We visit Salem's halal butcher shop, the butchery program at Whitfield restaurant and the Butcher on Butler. Plus, smoking tips from the Brisket Boss.
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photos by Laura Petrilla
Salem's Market and Grill
2923 Penn Ave. Strip District 412/235-7828
The walk-in cooler at Salem’s Market and Grill is a menagerie of recently living ruminants: more than 50 kid goats, nags, lamb, mutton, veal and heifer cows hang on hooks, ready to be broken down into primals, steaks and chops by one of the establishment’s six skilled butchers.
“Everything you see here was slaughtered yesterday,” says Abdullah Salem, owner and general manager of the operation.
Salem’s is a halal butchery, meaning that all meat must be processed according to Islamic dietary law known as Dhabīhah (). Animals must be humanely raised and healthy before slaughter, and a blessing is said over the animal before it is killed with a swift pass of a sharp knife through its jugular vein.
Halal butchery shares many similarities with kashrut, a set of Jewish dietary laws that includes instructions on animal processing, as well as the prohibition of consuming certain animals, such as pork. In fact, it was a kosher butcher, the late Wilfred Weiss, that helped Salem’s to move from Oakland to its current Strip District location in 2010 thanks to a $400,000 no-interest, no-contract loan. “Just a handshake. Him and my dad, straight-up,” Salem says.
His father, Massaud, founded the business in 1981.
Salem’s clientele is a study in diversity. One of the strengths of the family-run butcher shop is that it can cater to the specific needs and desires of its mixed audience in a way that mass-market grocery stores can’t. For example, Salem says, “Our Italian customers come in, and if the goat is under 20 pounds, they don’t want it. Our African customers come in, and if it’s not an old goat, they don’t want it.”
The majority of the meat sold at Salem’s was raised in Washington County and later slaughtered at Nema Food Co. in McKeesport. Salem’s stocks harder-to-find yet now in-demand off-cuts such as hearts, intestines, hocks and brains. “You’ll rarely find a farmer that isn’t happy to cater to an international population,” Salem says.
A diverse clientele and chef-driven passion for offal have made his butcher shop a draw. “Livers used to be nothing. My dad would give them away for free. He’d take all the tails and make lentil soup for the workers. Same with the heads. Now we have to order extra,” he says.
Because Salem’s practices whole-animal butchery and has an adjoining restaurant (one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 Best Restaurants), it can offer custom cuts of meat while keeping prices relatively low in relation to the quality of the meat it’s selling. “Whatever doesn’t sell out of the meat counter, or if someone wants a couple of steaks from a rack, we’ll take it next door and do something with it. We’d have to sell stuff double the price if we didn’t have the kitchen,” Salem says.
Still, price remains the biggest challenge to the future of the butcher shop. Feedlot-raised and industrially slaughtered beef in the United States, as well as imported lamb from as far away as Australia, retail for significantly less money than animals from small farms, even if they are locally raised and processed. Whole Australian lamb, for instance, recently sold for $3.49 per pound compared to $6.49 for local lamb (the local price is more variable; Salem works with county fairs to purchase 4H animals in the summer).
“It’s physically impossible to compete with them on price. We focus on quality and service. Some things I can win, some things I can’t. So we’ll just keep on moving forward,” Salem says.
120 S. Whitfield St. East Liberty, 412/626-3090 [whitfieldpgh.com]
On Monday mornings, a team of chefs lines up in a loading dock outside Whitfield in East Liberty to haul hunking primals of a cow from Jubilee Hilltop Ranch in Bedford County to the restaurant’s subterranean kitchen. The restaurant at Ace Hotel, conceptualized by Brent Young, a Pittsburgh native who co-owns the high-end butchery The Meat Hook in Brooklyn, is committed to using as many whole animals as it can on its various menus.
Most restaurants in Pittsburgh and elsewhere order selections of meat delivered vacuum-sealed in pre-cut portions. This particularly is the case with cattle, massive beasts weighing several hundred pounds. Each cow contains a smattering of prime steaks, a good portion of less-prestigious cuts and heaps of bones, fat and gristle.
There’s an advantage in sourcing the prime steaks this way (the restaurant will order more of these if demand outstrips supply). “You can’t get meat that tastes like this if you’re cutting it into smaller portions,” says Whitfield Executive Chef Bethany Zozula.
But that benefit comes with a challenge — what do you do with the secondary cuts, which vastly outweigh the prestige parts? “You have to get creative with what your dishes are,” Zozula says. “We have breakfast, lunch, dinner and events, so we’re able to use everything.”
Whitfield’s head butcher is Steve Beachy; he is also the restaurant’s sous chef. Beachy started butchering about eight years ago while working at Craft in New York City and honed his skills as the lead butcher at now-closed Marty’s Market in the Strip.
It takes Beachy about an hour to break down a half-cow into the parts that later will appear on Whitfield’s menu as steaks, roasts, burgers and broths. He starts from the front section of the cow — the chuck — and works backward.
Beachy says he has “an arsenal of knives” at his disposal but primarily uses his boning knife to break down the beast. After years of practice, he knows where muscle separates from muscle, where tendon can be cut from bone and when brute force is a necessary choice.
“It’s a lot of pushing and pulling to move the muscles and then light work with the knife,” he says as he heaves part of the shoulder, exposing a gap between muscle and bone before delicately cutting through a ball-and-socket joint, holding his boning knife with what’s known in the trade as a pistol grip.
Beachy uses a two-foot hacksaw when he cuts through smaller bones such as the chine bone, but only for the final bit. He delicately slices through the meat with a knife so as not to damage its fibers, something that would diminish a diner’s experience; only when he hits bone will he use the saw.
He rips through stock bones with an industrial band saw and uses the same machine to divide the restaurant’s porterhouse steaks. Since they’re a prime cut — the 2-plus-pound steaks go for $80 — he cleans each one with a device known as a bone-dust scraper.
Zozula says that she and her staff have embraced the challenge, always playing with how to use the less-prestigious parts of the cow. Potatoes cooked in tallow — there’s a lot of fat to melt down in half of a cow — are a big hit as a side for steaks. And beef shanks cooked for a special event were such a success that Zozula now orders additional ones for events.
The kitchen team always is exploring different ways to use every part of the cows they get, so keep an eye peeled on the butcher’s section of Whitfield’s menu as that’s where these “projects” are featured.