Photo by Amy TheligWhen a buddy of mine recently returnedfrom bagging a feral hog in the rolling hills of Riverside County's Big Horn Canyon Ranch, he encountered an unexpected problem: no local butcher wanted it.
He visited all the famous butcher shops in Orange County—El Toro Meat Market in Santa Ana, purveyors of all that is edible inside a cow; El Toro Gourmet Meats, South County's premier place for cuts of all the barnyard; Mattern Deli, sellers of smoky German sausages—in hopes of finding someone who would transform his boar carcass into snappy, hearty sausages. But no deal: gaming is now so rare in Orange County, once overrun with deer, bears and delectable bunnies, that most modern-day butcheries are no longer equipped to properly prepare wild game.
I told him to visit Brees' Quality Meats in Garden Grove. It's stereotypical Orange County: clean, well-swept, good smell and teeny—shoehorned into a sparkling stucco strip mall. You realize the Breeses take their meats seriously, though, when you get a gander at the carne asadas, the hefty chicken kebabs brewing in homemade marinades, the plethora of DIY barbecue sauces and marinades for sale—and the cowhide and horns on the wall.
It's all cow, pig and chicken out front, but that's not the whole story. Brees' is the last place in Orange County where you can take wild game to be, um, processed. You bring all of it in: claws, paws, hooves, snouts, horns, antlers and buckshot. You take it home in chops, steaks, rounds, sausages and other . . . cuts of meat. Brees' does the in-between.
This is the kind of place that doesn't look busy, but the second someone leaves, someone else comes in, much like in a bad play. So bustling was it around the holidays when I last visited they had to call Darwin back in from retirement. Not that Darwin—Darwin Brees, son of founder Jim. But still . . . a butcher named Darwin means business. It shows in his demeanor: when I start firing the kind of Huell Howser "Golly, hey, Louie, get a shot o' this!" questions that'll get a man killed—or at least not talked to.
"You don't have to write that down," Darwin the butcher kept saying as I kept scribbling, considering the one-in-a-million juxtaposition of name and occupation. Isn't it reverse evolution or something? Kind of.
A blocky, substantial man whom I already know wields a mean cleaver, he looks kind of like the cook on a battleship: thick arms and hands just short of brawny, full head of hair, cowlick just going gray. There's another 15 years in him, anyway. The way he walks seems like stumbling until I realize he's taking exactly the right number of steps from counter to cooler and back.
They weren't actually cutting anything when I got there, but Darwin rattles off matter-of-factly all they've done—boar, caribou, elk, deer (of course), mountain lion. "Some guy is going out to Illinois and he told us he's going to bring back two buffalo," Darwin says. Can you even fit a buffalo in here? In the back, in the wild-game area.
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SHOW ME HOW
"You have to separate everything. The health board, you have to be licensed. We're grandfathered in," Darwin says cryptically; he means that wild animals have to be turned into steaks separate from the beeves and the chickens. Being from the wild, they might be carrying, er, local color with them. "They come in all hair and everything," he says. Like lions.
And they go out like lambs. Mmm, lamb.
As for my friend? Darwin took care of his catch. We're still grilling those boar sausages even a month later. We shoulda left a couple of links for Darwin, but . . . what did he say about survival of the fittest?
BREES' QUALITY MEATS, 11877 VALLEY VIEW ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 892-1115. $78 MINIMUM FEE TO PROCESS WILD GAME; 79 CENTS PER POUND ADDITIONAL FEE FOR ANIMALS WEIGHING MORE THAN 100 POUNDS.