Beef is as central to Amarillo’s culture as blue skies, wind, and high school sports. With nearly 28 percent of fed cattle in the U.S. located in the Panhandle region – according to the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) – it’s safe to say that cattle outnumber people in the Texas Panhandle. We’re one of the largest meat-packing regions in the United States. Beef plays a major role in local industry and a major role in local mealtimes.
And yet the time-honored art of meat-cutting is slowly dying out. Not just locally, but across the country. The butcher shops that once existed in every U.S. neighborhood, where skilled artisans broke down whole carcasses of meat, have slowly been dying out. The growth of supermarkets in the 1960s brought big changes to how Americans bought food. Meat-packing houses began taking over the process of cutting carcass beef, shipping boxed, precut meat to grocery stores. Even though more and more customers began buying backyard grills and cooking steaks at home, the beef they bought didn’t come from a butcher’s counter. It came cling-wrapped in foam trays layered in refrigerated cases.
A little more than a generation ago, most Amarillo shoppers probably knew a butcher by name. The butcher knew them. Today, the only butcher many adults probably know by name is Sam, Alice’s boyfriend from “The Brady Bunch.” That show dates back to 1974.
Harold’s Farmers Market “It’s disappearing,” Lyndon Brazile says of his profession. He owns Harold’s Farmers Market at 1308 Grand St., one of the only family-owned, old-fashioned meat markets left in the city limits. Lyndon’s father, Harold Brazile, opened Harold’s Lil’ Market in 1963, about a block north on Grand. It sold only meat until 1984, when Harold bought Cox’s Fruit Stand. The small grocery operated at the market’s current location, and allowed the family to begin stocking fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to quality cuts of meat. “We’ve been 32 years at this same location,” says Lyndon, who took over the business from his father in 2010.
Lyndon Brazile says his dedicated customers come from all over Amarillo and even from as far away as Panhandle, Borger, and Shamrock to buy steaks wrapped in paper, rather than supermarket shrink-wrap. “They’ll order stuff and we pack it and they come pick it up,” he says. “A lot of our customers like our ground beef. We try to grind it fresh all day long.” He says ground beef available at the big-box supermarkets is often ground at the packing house. As a result, it isn’t nearly as fresh. “We try to offer fresher meat. That’s how we’ve kept in business.”
Harold’s ages their steaks at least 30 days (“so they’ll be more tender,” Brazile says) and sells mostly choice-grade beef – a step up in quality from the select-grade beef sold in most supermarkets. While it’s hard for Harold’s to compete on price with large corporate stores, “we try to offer a better product,” Brazile says.
He wonders if traditional meat-cutting is on the wane as a career because it can be such a demanding job. “You have to be on your feet all day,” he says. “You have to be concentrating. It’s something you don’t pick up overnight. I think people just don’t want to work that hard, like they used to.”
Fiesta Foods A little more than a mile to the west, at Fiesta Foods’ Amarillo location, Bob Marler is training some of his newest team members to cut meat. He’s the market supervisor for all three of Fiesta Foods’ locations, overseeing 14 employees from Pampa to Midland. “Cutting meat is an art,” says Marler. “To train someone who’s never cut meat to become a journeyman meat cutter, depending on the person, takes anywhere from six months to a year. It’s a tough job. Good meat-cutters are a thing of the past.”
While today’s beef arrives from the packing company in boxes – for instance, a box of sirloins – it still must be cut into individual steaks. That involves extensive knowledge of the proper angles and slices that result in customers’ favorite steaks. “Meat is so expensive that you have to be careful,” Marler says. It’s important to minimize mistakes. It’s also important to be well-versed in sanitation practices. “It’s better to bring them along at a slower pace.”
That’s how Marler first learned the trade. His in-laws operated a meatpacking plant in Floydada, hiring him in 1971 when he was just 20 years old. “I had no clue what the business was,” he says with a chuckle. The Floydada plant also had a retail store, and Marler soon found himself learning how to take an entire cow carcass and process it for cutting. He followed that work with stints at local Albertson’s grocery stores and then H-E-B in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area before returning to Amarillo.
He’s seen firsthand how the supermarket industry has changed the marketplace for meat-cutters. “Before, especially with carcass beef, you’d have to bone out all the trimmings and lean it up,” he says of the process of preparing large sides of beef for retail sales. “I don’t think anyone comes around anymore with carcass beef. No one has a rail system to hang it and roll it into the cooler. That’s all gone.” He says the job is easier and simpler today. “I can remember when someone would come in and want two rib-eyes, and you would have to break two front quarters down off the carcass. Now it comes all pre-packed and in a box. You take it out and cut it.”
According to Marler, the reduction in labor saves money for customers, and the quality of today’s boxed beef is just as good.
United Supermarkets Dennis Irlbeck, the market manager at Market Street United, comes from a similar background as Bob Marler. Irlbeck’s first job was at Brown’s Meat Locker, a custom processing plant in Stratford, Texas. Beginning during his junior year of high school in 1975, Irlbeck would attend school for part of the day and then spend the rest of it learning to cut meat. “I had the option of sweeping floors at the Ford dealership or cutting meat, and I chose this one. I’ve been in the business ever since,” he says.
After seven years with Brown’s, Irlbeck got a job at the Cut Rate Grocery Store in Sunray until moving on to United Supermarkets. Since then, he’s been cutting meat at one United store or another. According to Irlbeck, United is one of the only large local supermarkets that still operates a meat market.
He oversees around 25 employees at Market Street and admits finding and training qualified meat-cutters has become a difficult, time-consuming task. “It’s still a skill,” he says. “You can’t learn how to cut meat in two or three days. It takes weeks to really learn how to cut every piece of meat and cut it right and make it presentable.” He explains that large grocery stores like Walmart sell pre-packaged meat direct from a meatpacking plant – there’s no meat-cutter on-site – but United’s market departments still package their own beef. Even though a majority of customers simply grab their favorite cuts from a refrigerated case at United, it almost always originates with Irlbeck and his employees in the market. “Ninety-nine percent of the stuff we produce we cut fresh every day,” Irlbeck says.
While United’s customers buy plenty of select-grade beef and natural-certified Angus – along with a few cuts of dry-aged prime grade – Irlbeck wishes more customers would take advantage of the customization offered by an on-site market. Only a small number of customers ever make special requests. “It’s a thrill when someone comes in and they ask for a special cut. When they ask for something specific and we tell them we can do that for them, you see the satisfaction on their faces,” he says.
Most case-ready cuts of steak are about an inch thick, but some customers special order inch-and-a-half thick cuts. Others have asked for the wishbone or pulley bone off a chicken, or for Chicago-style bone-in rib-eye steaks. “They might need a rump roast and they want it tied so it looks like a picture in a magazine,” he says. “One lady came in looking for a cottage roll, which is a boneless pork butt roast that is netted and made into a ball. It was a back-east type deal.” Irlbeck says he often has to rely on his years of experience and a little Internet sleuthing to meet these special requests.
That personal touch is one reason he thinks every shopper should get to know a meat-cutter. “If they need something special someday, they have someone they can go to,” he says. “They might have a friend coming in and they want something really good. Knowing that customer on a one-to-one basis, I know what they like and what they are expecting. I can pick them out a good quality piece of meat to make their event special.”
Edes Custom Meats One of Amarillo’s best-known specialty meat markets is located a few miles outside the city limits, on McCormick Road along I-27 between Amarillo and Canyon. Melvin Edes opened Edes Custom Meats in 1982 after several years in the meat business with Safeway. Hoping to slow down now that he’s reached retirement age, Edes sold his business to Pak-A-Sak in January of this year. The two entities already had a long working relationship, with Pak-A-Sak convenience stores selling Edes’ popular beef jerky for years.
Jack Hensley is now managing Edes and its 32 employees. He comes from two decades in the meat business followed by 15 years with Pak-A-Sak. “We aren’t going to change much, if anything,” he says of the transition. “[Melvin] has one absolutely wonderful operation out here. One thing that will never change is the quality. It will remain the same indefinitely.”
Hensley says he’s excited to return to cutting meat. “A meat-cutter or butcher is a profession,” he says. “It’s an art. [Beef] comes to us in cow form and we process it completely down to where the consumer can eat it. It’s an art to get that product where it looks appealing to eat and you want to take it home and cook it.” He says Edes’ beef is natural-fed and the majority of it comes from local ranchers. Like Harold’s, Edes competes with larger supermarkets by offering a higher grade of beef. “Any meats out here, the grade is choice or higher, like prime. It’s much better beef.”
According to Hensley, Edes ages most steaks a minimum of 21 days. “We make sure we age it correctly. In a grocery store, the aging process isn’t a priority,” he says. “It may have been processed a week ago at the packing house and it arrives at the grocery store and they put it out in their display. It might age for seven to 10 days, or 12 days.” The aging process allows natural enzymes in the beef to break down the collagen that holds muscle tissue together. The presence of that collagen is what makes a steak tough or chewy. Longer aging results in better texture and flavor.
According to Hensley, a number of customers are also drawn to the freshly ground beef available at Edes. “Our ground beef is nothing less than 80 percent lean, and we have a 90 percent and even a 96 percent lean beef. People are starting to become more health-conscious and they know they can come out here and get outstanding, quality products.”
The Future of Meat-Cutting At Edes, Hensley says the butcher is a dying breed. Bob Marler describes the skills he teaches as a lost art. Lyndon Brazile says the local meat market is disappearing. Are they right? Yes and no.
Just as gourmet coffee shops and specialty bakeries have become big business in recent years – including in Amarillo – artisanal butcher shops have begun popping up in trendy neighborhoods from San Francisco to Brooklyn. The Panhandle usually lags a few years behind coastal trends, but still: This is beef country. Couldn’t our population of dedicated meat-eaters support a small-scale butcher?
At Market Street United, Irlbeck isn’t sure. “It would be nice to see a stand-alone butcher shop, but the profit margins in retail meat are pretty low,” he says. “You can make money but you’d have to have a good, steady customer base and even pick up restaurants to help supplement it.”
Brazile has experienced those economic marketplace uncertainties firsthand. “The biggest challenge has been the drought,” he says. One of the biggest impacts of the multi-year Texas drought, which began in 2010, was the increase in cattle prices. A lack of water made it harder to grow food for cattle, which meant many ranchers decreased their herds for economic reasons. A lower beef supply sent prices soaring. “The cost [of beef] has gone up dramatically, and it’s been really hard to make a profit,” says Brazile, who has relied on the other grocery items at Harold’s to balance out price fluctuations.
Marler says another challenge to the industry comes from changes in customers’ tastes. He doesn’t see evidence that higher-quality, higher-profit beef is automatically what they prefer. “Most people want a good, rich, red-colored beef,” he says. That’s not necessarily what they’ll get with choice or prime beef, which receive that designation, in part, due to the amount of marbling – the intramuscular fat dispersed within the leaner beef.
The presence of that fat gives a steak its flavor, but not all customers view the fat as a positive thing. Fiesta Foods sells leaner, low-fat, lower-quality select beef because that’s what its customer base wants. “We have gotten away from using choice and prime beef because there is so much fat and marbling,” Marler says. “The customer wants a leaner beef, but one that still eats good and doesn’t have a lot of fat. So that’s what we cut.”
Regardless of where they’re employed or the types of products passing across the chopping block, these butchers and meat-cutters say serving customers and meeting their needs is at the heart of what they do. In fact, they don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t choose fresher beef, from more desirable cuts, accompanied by better service.
“At Walmart, you have to buy whatever is in their case,” Marler says. Behind the counter at Harold’s, Brazile agrees. “They just put it out and people take it as it is,” he says of the big corporate supermarkets. “We try to offer something they don’t offer. We try to give them good service, and we cut and wrap meat as people want it.”
Even the most moderate carnivores are familiar with the taste and texture of a brisket or sirloin steak. Beef is simply a part of life for Amarillo residents. But there’s much more to the cow than just the standard muscular cuts. These variety meats are available locally for adventurous eaters – if you know where to shop.
Thankfully, a thriving Hispanic culture in Amarillo means plenty of opportunity to try tongue, cheek meat, beef tripe, and even cabeza de vaca, also known as cow’s head. (Yes, it’s exactly what you think.)
“Most of these are used in tacos,” says Linda Vargas, who co-owns Super Mercado Los Olivos at 3803 NE 24th Ave. Her father, Francisco Vargas, bought the family business from a cousin in 2006, and Linda and her husband Juan purchased it from him a few years later. This small family business sells a variety of traditional Mexican meats and hand-made cheeses along with fresh produce, baked goods, and a few grocery items. She estimates that 90 percent of her customers are Hispanic. The unique offerings from her market reflect those traditional tastes.
Tongue (lengua): “It’s just a big muscle,” Vargas says. Tongue is high in protein but also high in saturated fat, and is beloved as an ingredient in street tacos. On weekdays the market sells beef tongue raw, but cooks it on Fridays to serve during the weekend. “It sells really well. It has such a good flavor,” says Vargas.
Cheek meat (barbacoa): Tender and inexpensive, authentic barbacoa can be made from either the meat on the inside of a cow’s cheeks or the entire head. Vargas says preparing it is simple. “You boil it in water with garlic, bay leaves, and salt. Leave it overnight. It’s pretty basic,” says Vargas. “Garlic is the key ingredient.” The result is a silky, immensely flavorful taco filling with a texture similar to finely chopped smoked brisket.
Tripe (tripa): Most Mexican markets sell tripe, or the stomach lining of a cow. The most popular format is called honeycomb tripe, which is thoroughly cleaned, bleached white, and ends up looking like a honeycomb in appearance. It has a neutral flavor and, when diced, is used as a primary ingredient for menudo, a popular stew. “It shrinks to these hard little straw shapes, like a hollowed-out pencil,” Vargas says. “The texture is a little chewy.” In some traditions, tripe is also occasionally eaten without being cleaned first. Vargas says that’s very much an acquired taste, and not one she personally enjoys. “It still has everything in it – all the contents of the intestines. When you take a bite, you can tell.”
Cow head (cabeza de vaca): Los Olivos also sells a full cow’s head, typically slow-cooked all at once in a smoker or wood-fired barbecue pit. The tender cheek meat and meat from the rest of the head are scraped off the skull and traditionally served in tacos as cabeza barbacoa – a popular breakfast food among Hispanic families. “We don’t sell the full carcass – it’s too big and we don’t have the room – but we do sell the cow head for barbacoa,” Vargas explains. “In essence, it’s the whole-head barbacoa. It has everything.”
Cuts of Beef
Chuck: Roasts and short ribs. Inexpensive and rich in flavor, it’s popular for ground beef.
Brisket: A cow’s lower breast meat. These muscles contain more connective tissue than other cuts, and typically require slow-cooking – i.e. a barbecue smoker – to tenderize the meat.
Foreshank/hindshank: A lean and often tough cut, often used for low-fat ground beef or beef stock.
Rib: The source for rib roasts, prime rib, and rib-eye steaks. The rib-eye is by far the favorite all-around steak of local meat-cutters and their customers. “It’s just got wonderful flavor, very tender,” says Jack Hensley of Edes. “It has the best flavoring and marbling of any steak,” says Dennis Irlbeck of Market Street United.
Short rib: Well-marbled muscles with high connective tissue, so these require slow roasting until tender.
Short plate/flank steak: A thicker rib muscle often known as chuck ribs. Flank steak also comes from this section and is popular in carne asada or Asian stir-fry.
Short loin/tenderloin: Home of the T-bone, porterhouse, strip steak, and the leanest part of the cow: the tenderloin (filet mignon). “My favorite is the porterhouse steak. You have the filet on one side and the New York Strip on the other. It makes for a good cut of meat,” says Lyndon Brazile of Harold’s. “The T-bone is a good-eating steak,” says Bob Marler of Fiesta Foods, because it pairs a strip with the filet mignon.
Top sirloin/bottom sirloin: The small of a cow’s back, occasionally known as the chateaubriand. “I’ve always felt like a sirloin has been underrated,” says Hensley. “It’s a wonderful steak. It’s juicy and tender, with less marbling. It sells well, but I’ve thought it could sell better.”
Rump/round: Top and bottom round roasts, rump roasts, and tri-tip steaks (Santa Maria or Newport steaks) come from this section. Because these are often-used muscles, these cuts can be lean and tough unless prepared properly.
Most steaks should be eaten soon after being brought home from the market or grocery store, but that’s not always possible. How should you store a steak, and for how long?
To maintain the best quality and optimum freshness, raw steaks can be refrigerated for three to five days. They can last in a freezer for up to six months.
Refrigerator: Most experts, including Jack Hensley at Edes and Bob Marler at Fiesta Foods, suggest storing Cryovac®-packaged supermarket beef in the original container. “That’s as good as it gets,” Marler says of the protection offered by the cling-wrapping process. A steak purchased in waxed butcher paper should be rewrapped tightly to keep moisture-loss at a minimum in the refrigerator. Always store it on the lowest shelf to keep any drippings from the steak from accidentally leaking onto other foods.
Ground beef doesn’t last as long as steak does in the refrigerator. “If you buy ground beef and don’t eat it that day, then it needs to go straight to the freezer,” says Marler.
Freezer: To store steak in a freezer, make sure to freeze it before the beef has lingered in the refrigerator for too many days. Remove each steak from the original packaging and pre-wrap it in butcher or freezer paper. (Freezer paper won’t stick to the meat.) Then place each steak in a resealable plastic freezer bag. To minimize freezer burn, seal the bag with as little air inside as possible. While it is safe to store a steak for as long as a year in a freezer – or possibly even longer – the quality of the steak’s flavor and texture will certainly diminish over that length of time.
Make sure you allow frozen steak to thaw completely before cooking it. “We freeze steak up to 60 days after the kill date and then bring it out to thaw a week before we serve it,” says Bobby Lee of The Big Texan Steak Ranch.
How to Cook a Steak
You’ve purchased a nice, choice-grade rib-eye from your favorite meat market. It’s well-marbled, an inch-and-a-half thick, and already looks delicious. What next?
Because you live in the Texas Panhandle, you’re probably going to want to grill it. While most local carnivores agree grilling is the best way to cook a steak, they’re divided on whether to use gas or charcoal. “I like it cooked outside on the grill, but I’ve never been a gas grill person. I like charcoal or wood,” says Jack Hensley, general manager of Edes. Lyndon Brazile of Harold’s Farmers Market casts his vote for charcoal, too, but admits “either way is good.”
However, Fiesta Foods’ Market Supervisor Bob Marler says he prefers a propane grill to cook steak. To wade through these mixed opinions, we left the meat markets behind to consult with someone who has built an empire on his knowledge of cooking steak: Bobby Lee of the legendary Big Texan Steak Ranch. Lee says the Big Texan’s cooks, who are on display in the dining room, may cook up to 1,500 steaks a night.
“A lot of places feature a different type of wood [for cooking steak],” he says, listing mesquite or hickory as popular options for wood-fired grills in steak restaurants. “But because of the beef that we have in the Texas Panhandle, we like a natural gas through lava rock.”
He says anything else – like the smoke from charcoal or a wood-fired grill – can distract from the natural flavor of the steak. “Our beef is the best in the world,” Lee says, so “we don’t want to push the flavor one way or another. We like the flavor of the beef with a natural flame against it. That’s the best way and the way we’ve always done it.”
A steak should be removed from the refrigerator and allowed to sit for around 20 minutes, at room temperature, before grilling. This helps it cook evenly. Pat the steak dry before placing it on a hot grill.
As for any other flavoring or marinade, Lee says to keep it simple. “We want to taste the beef,” he says. Before grilling, cooks at the Big Texan rub the restaurant’s personal Montreal steak seasoning blend on each steak. Lee says the ingredients are “sea salt, garlic, black pepper, and lemon – and that’s all it needs. It’s the purest of pure.”
Leave the steak on the grill until it browns and chars slightly, for four or five minutes, before flipping it to the other side. For a medium-rare steak, let it grill another three to five minutes to an internal temperature of 135 degrees. Medium steaks should cook to 140 degrees, or another five to seven minutes. Medium-well requires an internal temperature of 150 degrees, or eight to 10 minutes.
Absolutely do not cook it any longer than that, Lee warns. “As a steak person, you hate to see any steak well-done,” he says. If you’re going to do that, “just order a hamburger patty or a piece of chicken because the flavor in the meat burns up. A steak turns brown when you cook it is because the sugar in the blood caramelizes as it’s cooked.” Cook it too much and your fully brown steak becomes a flavorless steak.
How does Bobby Lee prefer his steak cooked? “Hot-rare or rare, depending on the thickness.” He offers one last instruction: “If you go into a steakhouse and it has steak sauces on the table, you should order the chicken-fried steak or the fried chicken. A well-cooked steak doesn’t need anything.”
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.