Pittsburgh’s Essential Butcher Shops and Meat Counters

There are hardly any independent butchers left in the region. But these six institutions, most of them more than 50 years old, offer high-quality meat with service you’re not going to find at the big-box stores.
Abumweb

PHOTOS BY HAL B. KLEIN

It’s easy to feel a little salty right now with the weather jerking us back and forth from sunshine and breezy warmth one evening to wondering if that’s really frost on the ground, again, the next morning. It is. Tomorrow, it might be sunny and 70 degrees again.

Rather than revile the jerking changes, revel and roll with them. Let’s embrace this time of the year for what it is: the most versatile season for cooking meat. Right now, you’ll have the opportunity for smoking brisket over hickory and oak one day, and then the following day, it’s chilly enough for a long braise of a locally raised Boston butt. And it’s never not a good time to roast a whole chicken.

But where can you shop for high-quality meat in Pittsburgh?

Building a relationship with a local butcher can help you make sure your favorite and specialty cuts are available, and they can even turn you on to new things to cook. Butchers provide an outlet for locally raised meat and also supply meat for the specific needs of cultural and religious culinary traditions.

The problem is that there are hardly any independent butchers left in the region.

“There used to be shops all over Pittsburgh,” says Raymond Turkas Jr., owner of Strip District Meats. “But the reality is there are very few independent butcher shops left in any city. It’s really a thing of the past.”

Lamb

WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA LAMB FROM SALEM’S MARKET & GRILL

Iowa Beef Packers introduced boxed beef — pre-cut and vacuum-sealed hunks of cow that could be ordered and shipped from afar directly to the shop or grocery store — in 1967. Boxed beef moved into prominence in the 1980s and now dominates the market; just four meatpackers control 85% of the beef market in the United States. Similarly, large entities control the hog and chicken markets, too.

“The whole stream of processing has become monopolized by just a few companies in the country and even the world,” says Abdullah Salem, owner of Salem’s Market & Grill in the Strip District.

On top of consolidation at the front-end of the supply chain, there was a significant shift in the 1980s and ’90s in how we shopped for just about everything.

“As soon as big box stores moved in, all the little, independent stores from clothing shops to pharmacies to butcher shops were gone. It was tough to stay competitive with that,” says Moe Martin, production manager of Weiss Meats in Pleasant Hills.

It still is.

One of the region’s most ambitious newer butcher shops — Heritage Craft Butchers in Washington County — shut down in February after just three years in business following a couple of rough weeks. In doing so, it closed a pipeline for those of us who were interested in purchasing high-quality, locally raised meat that wasn’t previously frozen. In the past decade, others have tried, too. Marty’s Market in the Strip District, Butcher on Butler in Lawrenceville and D’s Butcher Shop in Bloomfield all tried to revive the local butcher, but none lasted more than a few years.

Fridaymeat

TOM FRIDAY’S

There are a handful of smaller grocers around the region that continue to maintain meat cases similar to what you might find at a larger chain grocery (in that they are ordering from the conglomerate meat processors) but have the added feature that they can special order for you and often make some products such as sausage, jerky and bologna.

Just a few businesses managed to weather the storm to still offer what would be considered a classic butcher shop or meat counter. That perseverance might pay off.

Now, in an era where an ever-increasing part of the population cares where their meat comes from and how its raised, when small businesses, particularly the ones with deep history, are celebrated as local institutions and when inflation in national and international commodity markets means that locally raised meat can compete on price with feedlot farms, it’s a good time to look to our local butchers.

They thrived during the pandemic. “When there was no meat in Giant Eagle, Costco, Sam’s Club, when you could only get a couple of things at a time, people came here because they knew we had everything and didn’t have a limit on how much you can buy,” says Tim Thoma, owner of Thoma Meats in Saxonburg.

With new government programs such as the Meat and Poultry Expansion Program and the Local Food Provision Program included in the Build Back Better Act, there’s an opportunity for butchers to expand their businesses or grow new ones, too.

“It’s not a question of availability. It’s a question of wanting to do it. Pennsylvania has one of the most vibrant livestock systems in the United States. You go to the livestock auctions and they are full of options,” says Salem.

The six establishments listed below are my favorites in the region. All of them except for one have operated for more than 40 years (and three for more than 70).

Nabil

NABIL MALOU, A BUTCHER AT SALEM’S FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS

Salem’s Halal Market and Grill
The Draw: halal meat. Large selection of goat and lamb. Affordable prices, particularly considering the quality. A large percentage of meat is locally raised and traceable to the source.

The butcher counter in the back of Salem’s Halal Market and Grill has been humming with the sounds of multicultural marketplace since it opened in the Strip District in 2010. But the business, and the tradition of whole-animal butchery, goes back to 1981 when Massaud Salem founded Salem’s in Oakland. Salem’s is a halal butcher shop, meaning the rearing, slaughtering and butchering of animals must all take place under the rules of the Islamic dietary law known as Dhabīhah.

Salem’s sources all of its beef and most of its lamb and goat from farms primarily in Washington and Indiana counties. Whole animals are brought in daily, stored in the large walk-in cooler and broken down on-site. The chicken comes from Crescent Foods, a top-line halal meat processor.

“We can offer quality that you’re not going to be able to find elsewhere. We’re going to offer support to farmers and producers you’re not going to find elsewhere. There aren’t many butchers like us that will custom cut just how you like it,” says Abdullah Salem, the second-generation owner.

Salem’s is the largest non-industrial purchaser of livestock in Pennsylvania, which translates to a selection that is always going to be fresh. Because Salem’s has an attached restaurant (on Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurants list every year since 2017) that uses the same supply chain, and a large catering operation, prices are competitive with chain grocery stores, too.

Inside the long meat case, you’ll find whole front- and hind-quarters of lamb and goat, perfect for a roast or a long smoke. There are whole oxtails ready for braising, plump chickens for roasting and a range of stew meat and steaks, too. Since Salem’s is bringing in the animals whole, all secondary cuts such as kidney, liver and hoof are also available.

“If something is locally raised. If it’s purchased by you. If it’s butchered by you, there is no comparison in flavor,” Salem says.

Many of Salem’s customers have cultural culinary preferences to eat animals at certain stages of their lifecycle. Salem says that they can place custom orders in addition to the already outstanding everyday selection.

“This is a community center. The butchers here know what you like. They know that you like a lamb shoulder better than a leg. They know someone else prefers older, tougher cuts of goat. They know when it’s someone’s birthday and what they like to cook to celebrate. That’s the difference between us and a big-box store,” Salem says.

2923 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412/235-7828, salemsmarketgrill.com

Thoma

TIM THOMA

Thoma Meats
The Draw: You couldn’t get closer to the source if you tried.

Nestled in the rolling hills north of Pittsburgh is Thoma Meats, where, over 77 years, the Thoma family expanded its operation from a small butcher shop on Main Street in Saxonburg to a sprawling, fully integrated facility just outside of town where they now run the largest USDA-inspected meat processing plant in Western Pennsylvania.

“It’s the history. It’s the location. And most of all, it’s our reputation,” says Tim Thoma, the third-generation co-owner. “Most of the farmers we work with go back multiple generations, too.”

Thoma processes between 150 to 175 head of livestock per week. Beef, lamb, goats, hogs and even rabbits come in every weekday from farms across the region. While much of what’s processed goes back to the farmers, restaurants and even some big-box stores, the Thoma family also purchases livestock at auction for its retail operation.

“We take pride in supporting our agricultural community,” Thoma says.

There’s a retail shop with a nice array of cuts butchered just steps away from the counter, which is filled with select cuts of high-quality meat. There’s plenty to pick up here but the go-to move is to call ahead for custom cuts, which can be anything from a goat shoulder, a whole hog trussed and ready to smoke or even a 300-pound half-side of beef broken down into all its parts.

Thoma processes everything they bring in. Using an array of smokehouses, grinders and stuffers, it offers 25 value-added products, including bacon, ham, sausages, ring bologna, snack sticks and Canadian bacon. Have a dog? The “we don’t waste a single thing” business also offers high-quality raw dog food called Dinnerbell Pride.

The business, which continues to grow, employs 30 people, and the fourth generation is already working the floor.

“You might not know the difference until you taste what we have here. And then … pow! The flavor profile is amazing. Once you try it, you’re going to want to come back,” Thoma says.

748 Dinnerbell Road, Saxonburg; 724/352-2020, thomameat.com

Abumweb2

ABUL KAFE, BETTER KNOWN AS ABU MUHAMMAD

La Madina Mediterranean Halal Market
The Draw: The newest butcher in town brings a lifetime of international experience to the South Hills. Most of the meat is locally sourced and all of it is halal

Abdul Kafe, known as Abu Muhammad, came to Pittsburgh in 2018 as a refugee from Syria. Back in his native Homs, Abu Muhammad ran a restaurant with an attached butcher shop, marrying his lifelong passion for tail-to-nose respect for animals. Prior to coming to Pittsburgh, he spent time in Cairo, where he also ran a wholesale butchery business.

“I opened my eyes and from then on I was a butcher,” he says.

Abu Muhammad took partial ownership of La Madina Mediterranean Halal Market on Banksville Road in November. It’s a small store chock full of specialty ingredients from the Middle East, and in the far right corner is his butcher counter.

His case is stocked with halal lamb, goat, beef, veal and chicken that he’s broken down into various whole muscle and smaller cuts; he’ll also prepare custom orders upon request. Abu Muhammad drives to eastern Ohio weekly to purchase lamb and beef from Amish farmers; he says he typically breaks down five to 10 lambs and one whole cow per week. “You will get a higher quality of meat here than you will find at the grocery stores. It’s meat that is fresh. It’s meat that is treated with respect,” he says.

He says that the primary difference in lamb between Syria and Western Pennsylvania is that the lamb was bred for its flavorful tail fat in his homeland. “The quality of the lamb is very different here. You can taste that they eat a diet full of grass and that everything is natural from nature,” he says, adding, “Beef, it’s basically the same.”

In the same way other butcher shops across the region use trimmings to prepare sausages according to their culinary traditions, Abu Muhammad offers sujuk, a spicy, fermented dried sausage, and other items such as chicken and beef sausage that former chef makes with what he brings into the store.

Ibrahim Alebedy, who works at La Madina and translated for Abu Muhammad, says that the butcher has already built a loyal following in the months since he’s opened the market. “He is very famous in the halal community in Pittsburgh. People come from Ohio and West Virginia because they know how good he is at what he does,” he says.

“It was fate that brought me to Pittsburgh and to this market,” Abu Muhammad says. “We are just beginning to build the business that we want to have here,” he says.

2880 Banksville Road, Banksville; 412/502-2539

Kennedy

VAL AND JOHN KENNEDY

J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand
The Draw: Direct, farm-to-table fresh meat from a family business with centuries-old roots in Western Pennsylvania agriculture.

J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand is in the back corner of Farmers’ Market Coop of East Liberty, open year-round every Saturday.. The fifth-generation family business, one of four original members of the cooperative founded in 1941, offers an enticing selection of fresh, non-cryovaced cuts of beef, pork, poultry, goat and lamb, as well as additional specialty items throughout the year. All the meat is locally raised on pastures by the Kennedy Family, who also operate Four Seasons Game Bird Farm in Valencia.

“We grow everything we sell. We never use any boxed meat. It’s a lot more work but we think it’s worth it for the quality and to carry on the tradition,” says co-owner Val Kennedy.

Talk about tradition: The Kennedys have been staples of our region’s agricultural economy for a very long time — the family began farming and raising animals in Butler County in the late 1700s.

The best way to order from J.L. Kennedy is to call the farm during the week. “This way, the 10 questions you have about a cut of meat can be answered quickly. And you can get custom service or place specific orders easily,” Kennedy says.

The farm also sends out a helpful text message every Friday to let customers know what’s going to be at the stand on Saturday morning; you text back with what you want to pick up (the market opens at 5 a.m., and while there is always something, I suggest getting there early if you don’t place a pre-order). While you’re there, you can pick up piecemeal items such as slices of bacon and rashers of Canadian bacon from the market stand. Plus, the other vendors at the cooperative offer locally grown and value-added products, including jams, beans, eggs and vegetables.

“You can Google all you want, but a lot of times there are nuances that you’re only going to learn from having conversations with people who have been doing it for as long as we have. And sharing that knowledge base means so much to us,” Kennedy ways.

344 Sheridan Ave., East Liberty; 724/898-2316 (farm) and 412/661-1875 (market), fourseasonsgamebirdfarm.com/j-l-kennedy-meats

Tomfriday

TOM FRIDAY JR.

Tom Friday’s Market
The Draw: Historic meat stand with hanging beef. Great location for North Side residents. Old-time charm.

Tom Friday’s is the last classic, old-style butcher counter in the back of a grocery store in the Pittsburgh city limits. The Brighton Heights market, founded by Tom Friday Sr. in 1955 and now run by Tom Jr., is one of the few remaining butcher shops in the area to cut beef from hanging racks rather than pre-packaged boxes. And that beef is local, too. Friday receives a shipment at least once per week from Thoma Meats in Saxonburg. “I would never change. It was instilled in me by my father that this was the best way to do it,” Friday says.

What this means for a consumer is there are always expertly butchered, flavorsome cuts of locally raised beef available, and the shop can offer custom steaks and grinds for anyone who calls ahead. Friday says he rounds off his beef selection with Certified Black Angus beef so that he can supplement the demand for popular items such as strip steak and ribeye because there aren’t enough of them on each cow (ask for the locally raised cuts if that’s what you’re looking for).

You’ll find chicken, pork and lamb at Tom Friday’s, too, including some less common offerings such as pork steaks. Friday’s custom blend of ground brisket, chuck and short rib makes for some of the tastiest hamburger meat in town and the house-made kielbasa and other sausages rank high, too. This is a wonderful spot if you’re looking for big beef bones for stock since they are straight from the cow.

Prices are reasonable, and everyone behind the counter is very into the notion of lean-forward customer service. This is the kind of place where you can develop a relationship with your butcher.

Friday says it all meets his guiding principle. “You give a customer good quality and a fair price, and they’ll come back,” he says. “And we plan to be here for them when they need it.”

3639 California Ave., Brighton Heights; 412/766-4500, tomfridaysmarket.com

Stripmeats

RAYMOND TURKAS JR.

Strip District Meats
The Draw: Outstanding selection. Super knowledgeable. Custom orders.

Raymond Turkas Jr. has seen just about every trend in his more than five decades in the butchery trade.

“We pretty much sell everything you can think of. I never would have imagined that. When I first started out, all we did was chicken. We were still killing poultry in this building when I was in grade school,” he says.

Turkas officially joined the family business in 1971 (though he worked informally since childhood) and started introducing other types of meat to the store. “I’d move into 10 feet of space here, a few feet there. They let me do whatever I wanted as long as we had a few extra dollars in the bank,” he says.

Now, Strip District Meats has just about anything you can ask for. Turkas says the business, which started operating on Penn Avenue in 1952, began to move away from working whole carcasses about 25 years ago (like just about every butcher shop across the country), which he says is good for business because they order just what they want instead of getting stuck with too many certain things. He says his focus is consistently improving the selection and quality of what he offers. The lowest grade of beef at Strip District Meats is USDA Choice (a lower grade, Select, is more prevalent at grocery chains), and there is a significant selection of Prime as well as a case stocked with ever-increasing offerings of specialty Wagyu beef.

If they don’t have something on display, they might have it in the back or can special order it for you. In addition, there’s a good selection of sausage made in-house, plus various cures of bacon that you can purchase piecemeal. There also are game meats such as elk, antelope and venison, a selection of offal and even less-common meats such as camel, kangaroo and python.

Turkas says that customer service is the real key that sets his business and the other remaining butcher shops — even the tiny counters found in the back of small groceries can offer something you’re not going to find in the big-box stores.

“It’s all about building relationships with your employees and with your customers,” he says.

2123 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412/391-1762, stripdistrictmeats.com

Moeandjoe

MOE MARTIN AND JOE GSIACA

Weiss Meats
The Draw: Large-format cuts at big-box prices but instead of a national chain, you’re supporting a Pittsburgh-owned business. Customization of orders. Great if you are in the South Hills.

Weiss Meats, located in an industrial park in Pleasant Hills, was founded 74 years ago by Milton Weiss and is now run by sons Joe and Elliott Weiss and grandson Aaron Weiss. The large storefront offers a terrific number of options for just about anything you could ask for.

Aside from a smattering of locally raised Elysian Fields lamb, the meat comes from national meatpackers — Weiss stopped butchering whole animals years ago. The draw here, then, is customer service, choice and pricing.

Retail manager Moe Martin, who has worked at Weiss Meats for 16 years, says that people used to come in once every few months and stock up on bulk cuts. Now, most customers visit to purchase what they need in the short term. Either way, he says, meat counters such as Weiss offer larger-format items, including beef subprimals such as whole brisket and strip loins, not typically found outside of wholesale stores such as Costco or Restaurant Depot, as well as smaller cuts such as pork chops. The difference, he says, is that at Weiss Meats they’ll cut it just how you like it.

“Everything is custom. If it’s not in the case we can cut it or we can get it for you,” says Martin. “You can come here and stock up. And we’ll break things down if you want us to.”

Martin says the recent addition of a digital display letting people know what’s currently in stock and how to cook it is an excellent augmentation of what is another of the biggest draws to Weiss Meats: “A lot of it is a matter of education. We want to help people who are coming in here figure out what they like.”

Martin says that what people are looking for changes fairly often, partly because of social media, and Weiss is constantly adapting while still aiming to appeal to its legacy customers.
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“Those trends on TikTok and YouTube have a huge influence on what people are coming in here to buy. And it’s moving a lot faster now, too,” he says.

Right now, big-bone tomahawk steaks, tri-tip and short ribs are the hot trends. “We got in a ton of the full rib with the long bones so we could make our own tomahawk and they took off,” he says.

100 Terence Drive, Pleasant Hills; 412/650-8560, weissmeats.com

Categories: Eat + Drink Features, PGHeats