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Dining Guide 2017

Up Your Food Game!

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The Meatmen Cometh
Inside the lost art of meat-cutting.
By Alex Springer



If this article caught your attention because the thought of comparing the work of butchers to the work of artists stirs up feelings of righteous indignation deep within you, then you have already proved my point—good art has always been provocative. On the other hand, if it caught your eye because you're looking for an argument with which to burn your vegan friends when they give you shit about indulging in a juicy ribeye, then I must disappoint you. I'm not here to absolve you of your gastronomic guilt—that will have to remain between you and your dietary deity.

Upon spending time with a few locals who've made careers out of doing our carnivorous dirty work for us, I'm really not sure how else to designate their craft. For Adan Bonilla and Cecilio Villalobos, their jobs at a local Texas Roadhouse gave them a shot at $20,000 through an annual meat-cutting competition; and for Philip Grubisa and his posse of ex-chefs who operate Beltex Meats, one of Salt Lake City's only whole-animal butcher shops, it's about preserving a trade that is on the verge of extintion. There's a name for people who have honed their unique skillset into a competition-ready arsenal, and it happens to also be the name for those who seek to perpetuate nearly forgotten practices.

They're called artists.

STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo

The Competitors
It's barely 10 a.m. when I arrive at the Texas Roadhouse in Taylorsville. Steakhouses like this cater to the dinner crowd, so they typically spend their daytime hours getting everything prepped for the dinner rush. Admittedly, I feel a bit guilty ringing the service bell to announce that I have arrived to disrupt their pre-service prep by pulling their two finest meat cutters away from their morning duties. For the time being, the dining area is clean and eagerly awaiting a Saturday evening's worth of diners. While I'm in the middle of lamenting the fact that there will be peanut shells all over the place within about 12 hours, restaurant manager Brad Allen arrives with a warm greeting. He's quick to mention how proud he is of the fact that not one, but two of his meat cutters were skilled enough to qualify for Texas Roadhouse National Meat Cutting Challenge.

This year's competition was in Kissimmee, Fla., in March and drew 113 competitors. Meat cutters qualify by competing locally, and their spot in the national competition puts them in the running to net $20,000 for themselves, along with the Meat Cutter of the Year title. It's no easy task—each competitor is given a 40-pound side of beef that they then must cut into prize-winning steaks. Judges are looking for the right combination of uniformity, yield and speed. Winners of the first round qualify for the semifinals, where they can move on to the finals and a real shot at that sizable prize money. Utah typically has a few competitors that make it every year, but it's rare to find a single Texas Roadhouse with two cutters talented enough to join the tournament.

It's not long before I meet the pair, who have been dutifully prepping their workstations within the frozen walls of the restaurant's meat coolers. Adan Bonilla is a towering presence on his own, and the fact that he spends 8 to 10 hours a day slicing up steaks could make him intimidating if he wasn't so damn pleasant. Cecilio Villalobos—or "Chilo," as his beef brothers call him—is the elder of the two, and carries himself like the steakhouse veteran that he is. Adan participated in the competition last year, and he even made it to the semifinals. It's Chilo's first, and though the two of them are technically competing against each other, it's easy to see there's no bad blood.

SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff

Both men started off at entry-level positions within the ranks of the chophouse after they moved here from Mexico, and worked their way up to the prestigious title of meat cutter after a few years on the job. "I practiced every day to prepare for the competition," Bonilla says. "If I win, I'm planning on sending my kids to school."

My first meeting with Bonilla and Villalobos took place just before the big event, and it was clear that they were already getting a bit nervous about competing on a national scale. Bonilla, who had vied before was a bit less fazed, but his counterpart had reservations about what to expect.

After watching these two make short work of a few slabs of beef, I start picturing them repeating these same careful motions while a panel of judges critiques their form. I can spot a good steak when I see one, and I must say that these two know what they're doing. Deep down, I start to get a glimmer of hope that at least one of our guys will be able to take home that cash prize.

A week later, I met with them after the competition to get their spin on the event—but mostly to see how well they did. "I tried everything I could," Bonilla says, "but I picked a bad piece of meat. I thought it looked good, but it wasn't on the inside." Neither made it to the semifinals, but by a small margin. "The goal was to get at least 88-percent yield, but I only got 82," Bonilla says. Chilo recalls feeling a bit overwhelmed once the competition started. "It was confusing because it was my first time and there were so many new people there," he says.

Regardless of this minor setback, both Bonilla and Villalobos remain solid professionals. "It's sad that we didn't get to the second round, but next year will be better," Villalobos says. Bonilla sees it as motivation to improve his performance at his home base. "I want to continue to do my best here, too," the meatman muses. "I love my job and I want to give quality to the customers."

Philip Grubisa - JOSH SCHEUREMAN
  • Josh Scheureman
  • Philip Grubisa

The Traditionalists
Thanks to years of watching horror movies, butcher shops always make me a little nervous, which isn't necessarily fair. In fact, when I came to Beltex Meats to spend the day with owner and professional butcher Philip Grubisa, the environment was a lot like that of a neighborhood bakery. It's a small shop that Grubisa and company built from a renovated home across the street from Liberty Park, and the storefront makes good use of the building's natural light and exposed brick. Even though it's only been there for just over a year, Beltex feels like it's been a neighborhood mainstay for generations.

A Miami native, Grubisa moved to Utah in 2007 while the woman who eventually became his wife finished her undergrad at the University of Utah. "I've been a chef for the past 13 or 14 years, and I always found myself as the butcher in most of these settings," he recalls. "Years ago, I met a gentleman in South Carolina who turned me onto the idea of purchasing the whole animal as opposed to just purchasing steaks. It's a big undertaking, but it's financially viable if you can make it work." While this idea initially started because it made fiscal sense for his restaurants, Grubisa came to learn how much buying whole animals helped farmers. "Farmers and ranchers aren't in the ribeye business, or the New York strip business—they're in the beef business," he explains.

For those who think that adding the words "whole animal" to a business is a hipster marketing ploy, I know a 50-pound Boer boat that would disagree. As we continue our interview, Grubisa proceeds to break down this lean bit of livestock and describe the best way to cook each cut. All of Beltex's beef, pork and goat come from local farms, such as Pleasant Creek Ranch, which produced the goat currently occupying the butcher's attention. "Marketing plays a big part in how consumers buy meat," Grubisa says as he unsheathes a gigantic hacksaw. "If the rancher is using great practices, there are cuts on the animal that are tender and delicious and great for certain cooking applications. We don't know about those cuts because they usually have weird names."

At this point, I'm amazed at how quickly Grubisa has assembled some familiar-looking cuts on his butcher block. We've got some goat chops for grilling, a neck roast just aching to be smoked or braised, and a bit of goat belly which would later be sliced into goat bacon—incidentally, goat bacon now occupies the top tier on my must-try list. "Goat is the most-eaten animal in the world, but we have to be salespeople about it here," Grubisa says. "I like to hire former cooks because they can talk about how to apply a certain cooking application to the meat that we sell."

While Beltex is a great place to pick up steaks, pork chops and sausages, it's also worthwhile to take a look at their other products. I spotted several jars of ready-made Bolognese sauce made with a mixture of beef heart and pork. They also use livestock bones to make soup stock, and dog owners can even pop in and get some gourmet ground beef for their canine buddies. Grubisa is also a bit of a charcuterie nerd, and Beltex boasts one of the most impressive selections of cured meats I've ever seen. After packing up the last of his goat meat, Grubisa leads me to the basement, where he and his team have built a fully functional curing chamber. He proudly opens the door to reveal racks upon racks of salami, pepperoni and chorizo. The aroma is intoxicating.

JOSH SCHEUREMAN
  • Josh Scheureman

"We want to get the choosy customer," Grubisa says as he locks up his curing chamber and swifts me back upstairs. "Because we're getting such a well-raised animal, everything goes up in price—but good food might cost a little more. The picky customers are our best customers." It's this statement that made me pause while munching on a bit of Beltex's fiery chorizo. Thing is, today's food consumers approach grocery shopping as an outward expression of their lifestyle choices. The ability to conscientiously choose locally sourced beef over something factory-farmed has become synonymous with the ability to choose DIY artwork on Etsy over mass-produced pop art from IKEA. In the same vein—or in this case, beautifully marbled fat—consumerism on a local level is no longer about buying the product itself. It's about buying the effort that went into the product.

That being said, it remains tricky to define that metaphysical magic that happens when someone makes the effort to create something special out of the mundane; whether it's through tradition or through competition. But, isn't that why we invented the word "art" in the first place? You chew on that. I'm going back for some more chorizo.

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By Ted Scheffler



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Alluring Appetites
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A Cheapskate's Guide to SLC
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Try the Grilled Cheese
A vegetarian reviews local hotel food.
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Hot for Tots
7 places that elevate the humble tater tot to art.
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Confirmed Classics
We tip our hats to longstanding, bona fide Utah eateries.
By Carolyn Campbell


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The Meatmen Cometh
Inside the lost art of meat-cutting.
By Alex Springer


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SLURP!
Where to go when you got it bad for boba.
By Amanda Rock


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Make it pop
Where to go for fine food with a side of spontaneity.
By Darby Doyle


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Breaking Bread
10 superlative sandwiches spots.
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Humble Crumble
Here's where to get your cookie fix.
By Amanda Rock


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Brain Freeze
Utah: Home to a bevy of frozen treats.
By Carolyn Campbell



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