The grass-fed beef fillet at Acme Chophouse is wood-fire grilled and topped with sea salt.
On menus in the West, a fresh term of enticement is popping up: grass-fed beef. It sounds great—new sizzle for the steak. But isn’t that a bit like touting earth-grown carrots? Don’t all cattle eat grass?
Sadly, no. As anyone who’s sped past a giant feedlot knows, most cattle bound for the butcher lounge in huge holding pens. There they munch corn or other grains mixed with extras that can include antibiotics and hormones. This treated feed yields the mild, fat-streaked meat that we’ve all come to expect.
But times are changing, thanks in part to thoughtful nudges from Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Beef raised the old way—in an open pasture—is now coming into its own.
I first tasted grass-fed beef in Argentina. Cattle there graze on the pampa, a vast, evergreen grassland. The meat is lean, with a healthier fat profile and terrific flavor. Back in San Francisco, I went straight to El Raigón (www.elraigon.com), an Argentine steak house in North Beach that mesquite-grills rib eyes and fillets shipped fresh from Uruguay. The steaks have bright, beefy flavor and tons of juice.
Across town at Acme Chophouse (www.acmechophouse.com), chef Thom Fox serves Marin Sun grass-fed beef—whenever he can. In seasons when cattle eat dry forage, the meat can taste livery, so Fox cooks beef from cattle shifted to mowed grass. But from mid-March to mid-June, he grills pure pasture-raised steaks. The meat is tender and lively.
In Reno, chef Natalie Sellers of 4th St. Bistro (www.4thstbistro.com) checks a summer farmers’ market for grass-fed short ribs—often scarce—and presents them braised in cabernet until tender. In Woodland, Calif., Morrison’s Upstairs (530-666-6176) roasts Panorama grass-fed fillets all year (www.panoramameats.com).
Let’s Be Frank, a trailside cart at San Francisco’s Crissy Field (www.letsbefrankdogs.com), sells scrumptious hot dogs made from grass-fed Hearst Ranch beef. Taylors Market in Sacramento (www.taylorsmarket.com) offers ground beef from South America (www.estanciabeef.com).
Don’t fall for labels like natural, warns Mike McConnell, founder of a campaign encouraging diners to dig for the pedigree of meats on the menu or at the market (www.askforchange.org). Too much to ask? No, not anymore.
Photography by Scott Peterson
This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.