Arkansas is the perfect place to try out this new health trend. Read all about the what, why, where and how here.
We don't know Brandon Brown personally. But we like the co-owner, with wife Tara, of the nearly new Hillcrest Artisan Meats (H.A.M.) on Kavanaugh Boulevard. What's not to like about:
• A guy whose business card identifies himself as "maker of bacon." Better than a Ph.D. any day.
• A butcher who puts an artisanal version of Slim Jims (made, not from donkey lips, but Missouri-raised bison and boar) in a jar by the cash register.
• A well-schooled food professional who nonetheless answered — with no bull — the question of whether a customer could really tell the difference between free-range and factory fowl, pork and beef:
"I really doubt it. It's really a question of whether you'd rather eat all-natural organic free-range chicken from Falling Sky Farm in Marshall or a Tyson chicken. For a lot of people, it's more of a moral obligation. I know the animals we serve and eat. We call it happy meat. The end is the same for all of them. But would you rather eat hogs that've been rooting in the forest for acorns or a pig that's been stuck in a pen nose to tail with 5,000 other pigs?"
So let's eat some of H.A.M.'s happy meat. We love that the store stocks unusual parts, in addition to standard cuts, from naturally fed animals unpumped by hormones or post-slaughter brine. You can, for example, buy sweet breads, fresh foie gras, pig trotters and other strange parts, which, in the right chef's pot, can be ambrosial.
We were tickled to find hanger steak and a tri-tip roast in the beef case. The hanger is a muscle that hangs between the rib and loin. It's sort of a French bistro tenderloin. About four minutes a side in a grill pan gave us a steak that sliced up as tender as a filet, but with far more flavor. The tri-tip, a bottom sirloin, tasted as if it came from an entirely different cow. It was fine, but not nearly as beefy as those we've eaten on the West Coast, where the cut is ubiquitous, generally charcoal grilled after a long bath in a strong marinade. Brown knows the tri-tip because he spent years in Oregon, where he was chef for the King Estate winery and met his wife, an Arkansas native and restaurant pro.
Tara Brown (who happens to be related to the Chipman family of Chip's Barbecue fame) wanted to come home to Arkansas. They saw, after a stint at Boulevard Bread, the niche here for a high-end meat shop. ("You can find one in the back of every grocery store in Eugene," Brandon Brown said.)
And so here they are. Brown is a butcher, not just a meat cutter, though beef still arrives in primal cuts, but it is never sliced until ordered. Brown wasn't even going to have beef at first, but yielded to sound advice that customers wouldn't understand its absence.
Everything in the place isn't from Arkansas — the state suppliers here just can't meet all meat needs, much less completely stock shelves with dry ingredients, condiments, sweets and the other choice items that make a foodie shopping paradise. But the Browns bring in as much as they can, from rice to a local goat cheese.
Peruse the meat case carefully. You'll find the likes of house-made duck confit, the rich preserved duck quarter. There are prime salumi — cured meats like prosciutto and salami. They are all now imported, but Brandon hopes to begin making his own.
Fair warning: Prices are going to be higher than you'll find in the Kroger store that sits behind H.A.M., which is in a sleekly designed narrow space in the Hillcrest shopping strip. But the meat is a lot happier, remember.
Happy, too, are the sandwiches and soups H.A.M. is turning out for lunch each day. You can find the daily lineup on their Facebook page, but some regulars have emerged, including prosciutto; a Parisian dream of a sandwich built around lush house-made pate (a coarse and earthy meatloaf) with cornichons and Dijon mustard; a vegetarian choice (egg salad or caprese, for example); meat loaf; a BLT made with the house smoked pork belly, and my particular favorite, the Italian version of fried bologna. It's a slab of pan-fried pistachio-studded mortadella, dressed with sautéed onions, pickles and mustard. All the sandwiches come on Boulevard's crusty baguette (also available by the loaf) or eight-grain bread. A further nice touch for the $7.50 sandwiches — the best chips going, a sack of Zapp's.
Soups are a bargain — $4.50 for a 16-ounce portion that is big enough for two, with smaller or larger options. Senate bean soup never had so much silky shreds of pork as we found here, amid plump beans. The Mama Leone chicken soup was a surprise. Expecting a brothy Sicilian-style dish, we got an incredibly rich portion of cream-based, tarragon-highlighted soup crammed with shredded Falling Farms chicken. The soup special changes daily.
You can eat in, at one of two two-tops, or at a couple of stools at a counter. Brown says he may consider adding a take-home cooked dinner. Another good idea that we hope comes to pass is a "cassoulet kit." Brown would round up the many ingredients — beans, seasoning, duck confit, Toulouse sausages, pork belly — and include some instructions, then leave the cooking to you. The mouth waters.
Speaking of sausage: No charcuterie outlet worth its saltpeter is without a good selection of house-made links and H.A.M. has you covered. The garlicky Toulouse is a winner. So, too, is the fresh Italian sausage, though we were raised among Southwest Louisiana Italian grocers who favored even more aggressive use of fennel, garlic and crushed red pepper. There's a pre-cooked Texas sausage whose smokiness will reach your nose from 10 feet. And finally, we had a nice surprise in Oregon high desert sausage. It was a fresh sausage — though Brown sometimes makes a cured version — that has the lighter color of bratwurst. The coarsely ground meat is very lean, with flavor from juniper and sage. We guessed it would be a perfect breakfast sausage with stewed apples and a Dutch-style skillet pancake. Self-congratulation all around.
The Browns are about as nice as you could imagine, but if a small crowd builds, it can get a touch disorganized at the counter. Maybe a stanchion and a "line forms here" sign might help. We haven't regretted the waits.
A previous version of this story misspelled Tara Brown's name and the name of Zapp's potato chips.