You could say butchery is in our bones. Archaeologists have unearthed mastodon tusks with cuts and grooves next to rudimentary knives. While we've evolved into a society where most of us never see the sentient creatures whose story ends on our dinner table, the tradition of butchery is still passed on from master to apprentice, parent to child, generation to generation.
Even though the heyday of butcher shops may have been snuffed out by the invention of the supermarket, small town shop owners still skin, slice, and smoke day after day for their loyal, quality conscious customer base. Hidden among the sprawling agricultural beauty of the Central Coast are three such master butcher shops.
The first weekend in June, I set out with my trusty sidekick of a husband to see what these gems had to offer up for my palate and my barbecue.
- Photos By Anna Starkey
- MEAT MARKET You might not be able to find a date at J&R Natural Meats in Templeton, but you'll definitely find top quality, humanely sourced meat.
First, we headed north, where J&R Natural Meats is tucked into a bustling shopping center on Rossi Road in Templeton. A full-service butcher, J&R has a USDA-certified processing operation and a focus on local, naturally raised meats, from poultry to beef and everything in between.
Butcher Colton Godfrey greeted us, and when I asked what amazing creation they had in the smoker to elicit such a tummy rumbling odor, he laughed and said, "Oh, nothing actually. We smoked tri-tip yesterday; that's just the fans pumping everything out. But if you need something smoked, we can do that!"
It's clear that customer service is No. 1 at this company, as is a commitment to humanely sourced meats raised as locally as possible. J&R has an MHU—mobile harvesting unit—based out of its Paso Robles location. Bringing the processing to the ranches greatly reduces the stress on animals in their final moments. Pasture raised animals given fresh air and freedom, and humanely processed, ultimately translate to better meat on your table.
Fellow butcher Jim "Griff" Griffin joined us as Godfrey took our order of a porterhouse steak (his recommendation) to the back. I asked about why customers would shop at a local butcher instead of the supermarket, and Griffin ticked off reason after reason.
"We have superb quality meats and real meat cutters who know this stuff backwards and forwards. We can accommodate special requests, cuts, even help people with certain food allergies get what product will work for them," Griffin said.
Our porterhouse arrived at the counter wrapped along with Shamrock sausage and hickory peppered bacon that we couldn't leave without.
We wound our way down the Cuesta Grade, passing longhorns on our left and praising the late season rain for green crests as we swooped down the hill. After a quick stop in SLO to drop off our haul at home and make room in our ice chest, we headed into the heart of the Arroyo Grande Village.
- Photos By Anna Starkey
- 122 YEARS AND COUNTING Arroyo Grande Meat Company resides in a building that's continuously been a butcher shop since 1897, and it's one of a few California locations that sell Sterling Silver beef.
The Arroyo Grande Meat Company has continuously run a butcher shop since 1897. First owned by Matt Swall, and changing hands at this point or that, the Gonzales family bought it in 1992. As the saloon doors swung open, Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Western theme song welcomed us in.
Butcher Geoff Montgomery stood behind the counter feeding beef into a grinder, catching the hamburgers-to-be in his hand like a practiced pro. The Meat Company offers Sterling Silver beef—prized for its marbling and incredible flavor. You won't find this on the shelves of any supermarket.
"What's unique about Sterling is they don't grade their meat like everyone else. Their standards are above and beyond the normal markers. Marbling, tenderness, and flavor all must be premium," Montgomery said.
The tight-knit team runs by one simple rule—if it's not good enough for Mom, it's not good enough for you. The tradition and quality that has lived in these walls over the past 122 years is evident in every product they offer, including in-house ham, bacon, and sausage—the latter of which comes in 40 varieties. Tubs, bags, and bottles in varying sizes of the shop's Santa Maria-style seasoning line the walls. Montgomery recommended all of it.
"Seriously, it's simple and amazing on its own, or you can add to it. Toss in thyme and rosemary and you've got an amazing pork rub, or cumin and cayenne and it's great taco seasoning," Montgomery said.
We grabbed a tub along with a couple of tri-tips and headed out the swinging doors toward our last stop.
- Photos By Anna Starkey
- WOODY Tim "Woody" Woodbury runs a top-notch butcher shop, but all his Yelp reviews gush about his tri-tip sandwiches.
Lunchtime approached, and I knew exactly where to satiate ourselves; Woody's Butcher Block in Santa Maria. Tim Woodbury, who goes by the title of head honcho, was in the food service industry for 28 years before switching gears into the premium meat market world after seeing a gap in his community. From beef jerky to filet mignon, if the product doesn't meet his lofty standards, Woody's simply won't carry it.
"All of our meats are fed 100 percent vegetarian diet. Much of the 'commodity' meats sold in grocery chains and box stores are fed animal by-products as feed supplements. This is not natural and would never be available at Woody's," Woodbury said.
He recommended that everyone try the relatively unknown hanger steak at least once. The taste is "luscious and surprising," Woodbury said. "You will always remember your first hanger."
He's not wrong. I'll never forget you, first hanger!
Wafts of smoke from the back barbecue filled my nostrils, and I was ready to chow down. Woody's has a wonderful selection of sandwiches, but none are as popular as the Santa Maria-style tri-tip. Certified angus beef tri-tip is seasoned with Woody's Grilling Salt—in-house Santa Maria-style seasoning—and slow-roasted over red oak. Served in a toasted French roll with seasoned butter, the tri-tip slices are dipped in a hot au-jus and paired with fresh homemade salsa.
We stuffed our ice chest not once but twice with everything from beef jerky to bacon, hanger steaks and porterhouse, sausages, spices, and more. We hauled home a little more than 15 pounds of quality meat that we can feel good about eating. It may not be the cheapest way to procure your protein, but there's no comparison in quality, customer service, and flavor when you buy from passionate people knowledgeable about their business.
Best of all, it turns out butchers are pretty much the nicest people in the world! So grab your wallet, walk through their door, inhale deeply, and you'll never look back. Δ
New Times contributor Anna Starkey is still hung up on that hanger steak. Send comments and questions through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.