My earliest memory of a neighborhood butcher shop has everything to do with pinkish neon light. No, not outside the shop, as if pork shoulders were going fast in a red light district. All but forgotten now, Korean neighborhoods were once home to many mom-and-pop butcher shops, only to be swallowed whole – slowly and painfully – by conglomerate-owned chain stores and massive supermarkets.
Upon entering these small shops, one was always greeted by a pinkish hue, a glow. No escaping it. For whatever reason, the lighting in the meat display was always that color. Not yellow, green, or lavender. Pinkish. So most common folk in Korea, my generation or older, all have fond memories of pinkish neon meat display lights, along with the distinct smell of fresh meat permeating every cubic inch of whatever tight space one stepped into. These butcheries mainly sold beef and pork; plump beef ribs, thinly sliced sirloin, pork belly, pork shoulder. Back in those days, “aging” meat was not popular in Korea. Freshness was the principally sought after quality in any cut.
That meant no 75-day dry-aged bone-in rib eye. That meant no handmade pâté. That meant no half-smoke, no salami, no fat-marbled burgers. But alas, of course none of these existed in the butcher shops of my memory. There was no Red Apron Butchery. I’ve got a new neighborhood butcher now, and there is no room for jacking around with this one. Meat, straightforward meat. Pinkish hues are nowhere to be found, but after a few visits, Red Apron is building up a niche in my gastronomic psyche already.
Red Apron is a temple for cured, smoked, stuffed, aged meat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more impressive display of these things in one gathering. Not quantity, but quality. Everything looks as if they were handmade. Time was taken to carefully set those pâtés, to stuff and smoke those sausages, to cure that salami, to age those steaks. An assortment so mind boggling that I had to pry myself away from its gravitational pull. A powerful vortex of meat, lurking beneath the surface with suction cups as beautifully lethal as those of the Kraken itself. My lust will not be satisfied until I have sampled every morsel offered, an admirable feat worth struggling for.
Just steps beyond the display, in an open kitchen, two cooks were busily grilling, busily assembling, busily frying. In addition to all the meat porn, Red Apron serves up a burger, sandwich and hot dog menu with the potential to reach legendary renown even against the most revered of delis and burger joints. To date, I’ve tried: the porkstrami sandwich, the Cubano sandwich, the meatball sandwich, and of course, the classic cheeseburger. Of these four, the porkstrami was most unique, a definite head turner, a potential question mark. Slices of roasted pork emulating the flavorful, peppery bursts of brisket. Sauerkraut on top of that. The end creation is the best of both worlds; a distinct pork flavor with that pepper-cured kick you yearn for from pastrami. Two dichotomies clash in a bun, under a bed of pickled cabbage. And all for the better.
The more classic the recipe, the harder it is to execute it to perfection. The more common the taste, the harder it is to make a bold statement with it. The giants of meat, the temples of smoked curedom, they all master the most basic of all calling – the classic burger. Red Apron, all innovation aside, does just that. Of the four creations I’ve tried (admittedly, I have ways to go before making a full circle on the menu), the cheeseburger and accompanying fries were the best, simply sublime. Nothing fancy, nothing hipster, nothing too Brooklyn. Toasted buns, lettuce, tomato, American cheese, and a hand-crafted patty cooked to a perfect, bleeding medium. The ground beef actually has flavor, increasingly a rarity even among so-called “gourmet” burger chains. Only choice cuts are used, and with the use of trustworthy, pure meat comes the privilege of enjoying pink patties. Almost tears of joy. And the fries are fried in beef fat. Need not say more. If you’re not frying the frites in peanut oil, the only other options should be either duck fat or beef fat. Red Apron throws in whole garlic cloves and rosemary into the fryer. Crisp, fragrant, deep. Bold and straightforward, just like their burger.
It’s a joy to be around a no-bullshit butcher.