A cut above the rest
A cut above the rest
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

On the Line: Brian Smith Of The Butchery

While I primarily cover restaurant chefs, On the Line also looks for specialty concepts within the industry. Responding to a desire for accessible quality meats, two friends set out to create a place locals could go to. As Brian Smith and Robert Hagopian prepare to launch their third location of The Butchery in Crystal Cove Promenade, Brian gladly takes on our questions.

Name an underrated cut of meat.
Flap steak, also known as bavette, is a nice alternative to the more expensive cuts of skirt, hanger and flatiron, which restaurants have made more popular (and therefore, more expensive) in recent years. This is the same cut we use in our marinated steak tips, which are one of our bestsellers.

Where did you grow up, and where's home these days?
I grew up in Hanover, Massachusetts, on Boston's South Shore. Now I live with my family in Laguna Beach.

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Coffee.

How did you decide on opening The Butchery?
We like to cook. Robert and I were grilling for our families one day, and we were talking about how we struggled to find high-quality meats. I had recently taken a class at the Laguna Culinary Institute, and I asked the chef where to buy good meats like the top restaurants use. He sort of sighed and said, "You can't." Here was a real chef who couldn't source good product himself. That was a problem for all of us, and we set out to solve it.

Why did you change your name from The Meat House?
When we began we were a franchise. We could do a while story on franchising dos and don'ts, but in short, we separated from them and became The Butchery. We've been independently owned and operated for four years now.

What else do you offer, in addition to your meat selection?
We have a great artisan cheese case [Editor's note: Two words: MIDNIGHT MOON.], where we cut everything to order, which is the best way to buy cheese. We have a large craft beer selection and a nice wine selection as well. We also have a full deli and specialty grocery items that complement our core products.

Where was your most recent meal?
Thai spicy beef with basil for lunch at Starfish in Laguna Beach.

Most frequently asked question by customers.
We have a wide selection of meats, and the most common question is, "What's the difference?" For example, what's the difference between our prime ribeye and top choice ribeye? We source Angus beef for both, so is the prime just better? And that's a conversation, because the answer is not always that prime is better. If you're making a rib roast, we recommend our top choice grade over prime to most customers. That's because prime can be too "fatty" for many people. Top choice seems to be the right balance of marbling and flavor to please a diverse crowd. So the questions we get and that conversation we have is important, and we encourage that interaction.

What advice do you have for home cooks when it comes to butchering their own meat?
If that's something you want to do, we can sell you a sub primal loin and show you how to break it down. Unless you're real passionate about that and have a use for all the meat and trimmings, I'd just leave it to us.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
The food industry can be deceptive, and I think that's absolutely true. There is a lot of wordplay with food, including meats, and it frustrates me, both as the owner of a butcher shop and as a consumer. I saw a recent Instagram post from an experienced cook; it was a photo of skirt steak, and she mentioned the great deal she had just got on it at a local big box, warehouse-type store. There are two types of skirt steak. They are completely different cuts, and she had bought the inferior inside skirt without knowing it because they simply labeled it "skirt steak". You'd have to be pretty savvy about meat to catch that and recognize which one it was. That stuff really bothers me.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Home chefs. Our growing culinary scene in Orange County is also happening in people's homes and backyards. You can see that in social media and in the success of cooking shows. Even our kids are hooked on those shows now. There is a real excitement about cooking for friends and family at home again.

What are your most popular cuts of meat?
Our ribeye and our house steak tips are probably our best-sellers. Our rib is high quality RR Ranch Signature, Angus Beef that eats fantastic and our customers love it. It's an example of quality translating to taste. Our marinated steak tips are a regional cut of meat that originated in the Northeast. They are easy to grill, taste great and the price point is good, especially for a large group.

Chilling with co-owner Robert Hagopian.
Chilling with co-owner Robert Hagopian.
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

What have you learned from opening the previous two locations that you're applying to Crystal Cove?
That each location we are in is unique. Our customers have different needs and different favorites and we try to adjust for that. We also try to complement the businesses around us and fill what might be needed. In Crystal Cove, in addition to our meats, we think there is an opportunity to focus on higher end wines and harder to find craft beers  that aren't available in the area. We're also going to expand our sandwich menu.

Favorite places to eat.
This could be a long list, but choosing close to home are Gulfstream, Wine Gallery, Selanne's Steak Tavern and La Sirena Grill.

Last think you looked up online:
I looked up these interviews on your website and read a bunch of them.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
Owning a small business is really hard, and that's been a tough lesson. We appreciate people who take that risk and start a business so much more now, no matter what the business is, because of what we have been through to get here.

Favorite meal growing up:
I grew up in a blue collar household south of Boston, so meatloaf and mashed potatoes was as good as it got.

What would you like to be doing if you weren't in this business?
I'd be a writer. And probably broke.

The Butchery is located at 8058 East Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Coast, (949) 715-3883; www.butcherymeats.com.

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