Texas is God’s country. We’re undoubtedly home to the most blue-blooded, god-fearing people ever to grace our grand Union. We also are the most voracious and stubborn group of American barbecue lovers bold enough to claim that our barbecue alone is the best in the world.
So much so, that in its June issue, Texas Monthly magazine called out the other barbecue-crazy states by declaring that the top 50 barbecue joints in the world could only exist on our rich Texas soil. There may be other great barbecue joints out there, but not top 50 great.
While Texans love their meat, San Antonio is home to the single most meat-centric culture in Texas. We’re not just talking about barbecue – we’re talking about barbacoa, carne guisada, cabrito, fajitas – and everything else that makes Tex-Mex and Mexicano puro cuisine what it is today. San Antonio is at the crossroads of true Mexican and American Cowboy culinary traditions.
It’s not a claim to take lightly.
Enter Meatopia, San Antonio’s latest addition to an exponentially growing culinary destination. With the promise of more meat than any single carnivore could possibly consume in one weekend, and with a lineup of chefs and menus so diverse and far-reaching, how could a meat-lover not be instantly lured? Hook, line, and sinker.
“There’s no redundancy at Meatopia.” proclaimed Meatopia’s founder, John Ozersky. “It’s more than just barbecue.”
Way more. Meatopia has been called the “Woodstock of Edible Animals.”
Now in its ninth year, Meatopia is Ozersky’s egalitarian celebration of great chefs, great meat and great meat-eaters. The New York-based food writer and author, himself a James Beard winner for his writing, has now expanded to television and with Meatopia, an international stage. It’s only fitting that San Antonio is the only Texas city to host a Meatopia event.
Meatopia at the Pearl last weekend put San Antonio right where it belongs: in the heart of the Texas Meat Map. Austin might have the long-standing and highly respected Texas Monthly BBQ Fest (incidentally held on the same day), but with Meatopia, San Antonio is daring to declare that we are more than just barbecue.
As a student chef at the Culinary Institute of America at the Pearl, I could hardly wait for the grills to start smoking, and I wasted no time plotting my eating habits for the days leading up to Meatopia. I became a vegetarian to purify and prepare myself for the gluttony that would ensue (not that it was necessarily hard for me to do).
Is what I did healthy? Sane? Ridiculous? All I knew is that I had enough beautifully marbled, ultra-prime wagyu beef ahead of me to put whatever misgiving I had aside. At least that is, for one weekend.
Day One: Beefsteak
Beefsteak was the first of two events held at the Pearl for Meatopia. It promised to be a “decadent, live fire-fueled night of excess” and guests would be “treated to all the steak they (could) hold.”
It was meant to be a homage to the extravagant “beefsteak” dinners of the Gilded Age in New York. This intimate event served the meat family style with two side dishes prepared by The Granary and a sweet corn tart dessert from Bakery Lorraine.
The Pearl was bathed in the smell of charring wood. Six open wood-burning grills glowed red like an inferno in front of the Pearl Stable. A large and growing crowd mingled with buzzing anticipation as the cut wood slowly turned into the glowing charcoal embers needed to char the whole center cut Saratoga rib eye loins on the menu.
To say that what was taking place was without a certain degree of machismo would be a discredit to the pure talent that was about to grill straight carnal decadence right in front of our eyes. Before me were expert men hardened by the intense heat of the open flame and a honed skill as precise as the edge of their razor-sharp blades.
These chefs took rare, expensive cuts of meat and turned them into some of the best steaks anyone in attendance would ever experience. A full-on meat bacchanal was unleashed.
Three chefs were given the same cuts of meat (ultra-prime wagyu, center cut, whole ribeye loins from Thompson River Ranch in Montana) and two fire pits – their methods of cooking and seasoning were their own.
- Chef Tim Byres of Smoke in Dallas served up delicious coffee and paprika-cured steak topped with a pickled celery and mustard seed relish.
- Coming all the way from New York City, Chef Michael Toscano of Perla seasoned his steak with salt and sugar Sicilian oregano and Calabrian green chile rub and garnished with a greek yogurt and pickled hot cherry pepper spread.
- Our very own Tim Rattray of The Granary grilled steak served with a “barbecue butter.” The barbecue butter was made by collecting the drippings from the grilled meat and simply folding the concentrated mash into soft butter. While it may seem deceptively simple, the intense beef flavor easily helped elevate this dish to the top of the three choices.
It didn’t take long before the meat was on the grill and the guests were in their seats inside the Pearl Stable. Drinks flowed freely from one of the two bars and roving waitresses. One by one, whole rib eyes were charred, rested, cut, plated and rushed off to hungry guests. A steady stream of meat was now flowing continuously from grill to table.
Slowly guests trickled out of the Stable, obviously sated, yet a certain gleam glazed their tired eyes – they were ecstatic and wanted more. The hardiest and most committed of the bunch made their way back to the grill stations in search of another helping – straight off the now dying flames. Of course, many came to thank and talk directly with the chefs themselves.
It was here that I witnessed what this event was truly about. As these chefs cooked off their last hunks of meat, they eagerly worked to give away their choice creations with whoever asked – no fork or knife necessary.
Carnal desire trumped stuffy manners. What better way to enjoy this kind of meat than by hand?
Everyone from ticket holders, to servers, security, and everyone else in attendance were treated to some of the best cooked meat San Antonio, and certainly, Texas, had to offer. Under the milky, black autumn sky at the Pearl, everyone lucky enough to be within the warmth of the open flames was devouring meat by hand.
We felt connected to the meat we ate, the chefs that cooked it, and the other guests that shared the same bounty as we all did. The feeling was fleeting, but immediate. And we all reeked of burning wood.
Day Two: Meatopia
Meatopia is a completely different event. While Beefsteak was meant to be a more singular, intimate and decadent event, Meatopia was clearly meant to be the wide open, all-encompassing celebration of all things meat.
If Beefsteak was meant to awe the most discerning palate, Meatopia was meant to seal the deal.
Thirty-two chefs from around the country, including some of the best San Antonio has to of would cook their best meaty offerings.
Meatopia isn’t a barbecue event, though many dishes were either barbecued or grilled.
The dishes presented ranged widely from braised veal breast to sous-vide sweetbreads. The common denominator was meat, but much was left to the imagination of the chefs.
To wash down all of the meat you could stand, ice-cold beer and George Dickel cocktails shaken by some of the San Antonio’s best bartenders were easily available (and included in the ticket price).
It also helped that there were rarely any long lines.
Judging from the few lingering long lines, some crowd favorites included Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria‘s cabrito asados de lena and Biga on the Bank Bruce Auden‘s Broken Arrow Ranch venison chili topped with grilled Bandera quail and cornbread.
Many attendees seemed to have easily reached a general consensus over which dishes were best. Rising star Paul Qui, Top Chef winner and owner of Qui in Austin’s pork-centric Filipino classic sizzling sisig was a critic favorite as was Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston’s spit-roasted whole boar.
Another local favorite included Chef Steven McHugh of the soon to be opened restaurant, Cured at the Pearl. He made a beautifully complex whole hog gumbo.
In what could be considered the festival’s best example of cognitive dissonance, Chef Mike Behrend of Green Vegetarian Cuisine at the Pearl boldly served the lone vegetarian dish.
A vegetarian dish at a festival for meat worshipers? Oh, you bet your rump steak – and it tasted absolutely delicious. His salt-crusted new potatoes with braised kale and mustard greens was a welcome respite in a sea of meat.
Meatopia was a statement. What does it say for San Antonio that we can hold our meat event in direct competition to one of Texas’ most respected and beloved barbecue events? It certainly says a lot about the quality of chefs representing our city and the people that enjoyed it.
As San Antonio gains national recognition for its “city on the rise” status, the culinary arts will play an even larger role in years to come. It was a meat lover’s utopia and by the end of the day more than a few guests were meat-drunk and in recovery.
Long past the “meat sweats” level of intoxication, guests recalled their favorite dishes while meandering through the Pearl. Probably a good idea to keep walking – once you sit down after that much carnivorous activity, you’re likely to be down for the count.
Jesse Torres is a culinary arts student at The Culinary Institute of America, Air Transportation Specialist in the US Air Force Reserves and garde manger at Lüke Restaurant. He enjoys spending lots of time with his two bichons, mixing drinks, weightlifting, biking, reading and contributing to San Antonio’s Renaissance. Follow him on Twitter @jessejamz or contact him at email@example.com