By Michael Nagrant, @MichaelNagrant
12:00 AM CST, February 6, 2014
The essentials: Butcher & Larder
1026 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-687-8280
Looks like: Pig tchotchkes, shiny knives and ruddy cuts of meat
Sounds like: Black Sabbath followed by Coltrane on the house sound system punctuated by the smartass, chop-busting friendly banter of the butchers
Smells like: Freshly butchered meat and the perfume of whatever beautiful soup is roasting in the slow cooker near the counter
I have a habit of tweeting meat porn. Sometimes the centerpiece of my protein brags—a spicy, juicy currywurst sausage made from local pork, for example—comes from Noble Square's Butcher & Larder, owned by Rob and Allie Levitt. When I'm grilling up something else—say, a brontosaurus-sized tomahawk ribeye that I usually procure from another local butcher shop that doesn't get its meat from local farms—Rob will tweet me with a gentle ribbing about how it's been a while since I've visited his shop. It's a subtle, not preachy, reminder: Where your meat comes from and how it was raised matters.
A few years ago, if you wanted to cook with local meat, you pretty much had to stick to frozen, pre-butchered cuts from Green City Market and other farmers markets. If you really wanted fresh, local farm meat, dining out was your best option. One of the few restaurants you could always count on getting local meat was the Levitts' snout-to-tail Wicker Park restaurant Mado.
When Mado closed in 2010, the Levitts were kind of burnt out, and with a child on the way, were looking for a new way to make a living. Rob considered working for a corporate hotel with a fixed salary and fixed hours, but Allie told him he'd be miserable. Rob noticed that his friends at the Brooklyn butcher shop Meat Hook were pretty successful; after his work at Mado was profiled in the book "Primal Cuts," he and Allie were inspired by the other meat purveyers featured in the book and decided to start their own retail butcher shop.
As a restaurateur, Rob had access to the best locally farmed ingredients, and he knew there was demand from customers. He has succeeded in bringing those items to home-cooking Chicagoans. If you need bones for stock, pig's feet for a bean dish or farm-fresh eggs, Butcher & Larder is your place. Their meat comes from within a few hundred miles, from small, sustainable farms that rarely sell to retail, such as Slagel Family Farms in Fairbury, Ill., or Gunthorp farms in LaGrange, Ind.
Levitt and most of his other butchers worked in restaurant kitchens before they became butchers, so they also make incredible prepared food and charcuterie. These items vary from week to week, so call ahead to see what's on offer. There's a mean chili verde (a garlicky pork sausage and green chili-filled stew that warmed my soul on a recent snowy Saturday; price ranges from $3 for a cup to $16 for a quart). The Italian beef with hot giardiniera ($10 for a sandwich, soda and chips) is one of the best in the city.
Inventive, flavorful sausages are on offer, including a bourbon-, green onion- and Great Lakes Brewing Eliot Ness beer-filled pork sausage called The Untouchables ($10 a pound). And then there is Butcher & Larder's burger stuffed with bone marrow, whose juicy dripping patty might just be the best burger in the city--if you cook them right at home (the $6 patty is pre-made, but not cooked like the sandwiches).
Maybe the most overplayed trope about the food business is how it's like a family. At Butcher & Larder, though, it's true. When you're a customer, if only for a few minutes, they bring you into that fold, too. And once they get your trust, they can get you to eat anything. As Levitt said, "We'll do braised pig's head on an apple fritter and we'll sell more of that than a ham and cheese sandwich."
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