The best Sacramento butchers for lighting up the barbecue season

Photograph by Paul Hermann

By Scott Thomas Anderson

‘Summer time, and living’s easy.” At least, it is for those countering the heatwave by igniting their own flames under the grill. Here in California, the sky is bright, the air is thick and the golden barbecue season is in full, fiery tilt.

Of course, having glorious months on the grill requires help from a certain kind of expert: I’m talking about those highly skilled, under-appreciated, sharp-eyed knife and cleaver wizards who wear white aprons. Fortunately, Sacramento has plenty of these professionals working outside the corporate structure; and a stop by their fridge-cluttered butcher shops can lead to cooking success at sundown.

One place every carnivore should visit is Mad Butcher Meat Company. Located on Florin Perkins Road, it carries most summertime barbecue standards, not to mention more adventurous offerings, including alligator sirloin and ready-to-grill frog legs. One of Mad Butcher’s true standouts is its Santa Maria-style tri tips. Each of these burly, raw beef-blocks is carefully seasoned with garlic, salt, spices, dextrose and papain. If seared on an open flame, and then carefully cooked under the hood, these tri tips come out as a ruby-centered, gristle-dripping monsters. Mad Butcher’s Santa Maria rub also brings a succulent, smoke-licked char to their outer fattiness, while mustering an extra flavorful streak of salt through the skin and spilling juices.

SN&R spoke with winemaker Jon Campbell, owner Leoni Farms in Sutter Creek, about the best bounty of the vine to for accentuating barbecue triumphs. Campbell is not just a pro who’s been barreling award-winning vintages for tasting rooms over the last decade, he’s also a grape farmer who loves grilling outdoors while holding a glass of vino. When it comes to trip tip, Campbell recommends going big, red and bold.    

“With all that fat you have clinging to a tri tip, you want something with a bit of acidity, so what works is a barbera or cabernet sauvignon,” he noted. “And, generally, if you’re barbecuing any type of beef, usually a cab is a sure-fire way to go.”  

Photograph by Emerson Vieira

Another Sacramento butcher’s haven awaits at Taylor’s Market. This longtime fixture on Freeport Boulevard has a meat-cutting team that’s renowned for their herculean, heavily marbled rib-eyes and T-bones, though they also pull a plethora of unique sausages – one of the quickest, easiest options for grilling. Taylor’s thoughtful sausage combos can make even a barbecue novice look good. This is especially true of its Cajun Andouille links. Rotating them over flames brings out savory and gritty flavor nuances, their briny skin perfect for browning to a tasty crisp.

Taylor’s green chili sausages are another homerun, their links packed into slightly spicey mixes of aromatic and lusciously flavored textures. And then there’s the parmesan sausages – Taylor’s masterstroke for easy summer cooking. Once these links are heat-sweating over the grill, they offer up juicy cheese reflections carefully balanced over a plump, delectable pepperiness.

If you’re going to pair them with wine, Campbell recommends keeping it simple.        

“Just a zinfandel or a blended table red,” he mentioned. “Zinfandel is always my go-to for barbecuing when you’re not sure. I pretty much love having zin with anything off the grill.”

Last, but far from least, is Adams’s Meat Company in Folsom. Adam’s is as old school as it gets when it comes to a true California butcher shop. Owned and operated by veteran cutter Adam Abramowski, its steaks and half-chickens are massive, its product sourced from sustainable farms, and its array of homemade, signature rubs and marinades deliciously consistent.

Fans rave about thowing Adam’s hand-pulled Polish venison sausages on the grill, or raising the flame on its spicy lamb sausages, which pair great with Greek tzatziki. Yet one of Adam’s most reliable highlights is its chipotle marinated chicken wings. Because of how big these bird-flappers are – white meat bulging around the top of the bone – they require a lot attention and rotation on the grill. They also need to have the proper internal temperature before coming off. But all that work eventually pays mouth-watering dividends. Fire and smoke give these wings a charred kind of sweetness, while re-enforcing the spanking spice and red chili juices that’s melted into their tender joints. It’s the kind of one-two punch of a butcher’s brilliance and a griller-lover’s know-how that leads to gourmet moments in the backyard.      

A bottle of Leoni Farms by the barbecue.

For Campbell, barbecued chipotle wings call for a good white wine.

“You’d probably have a viognier or sauvignon blanc, because either is going to hit just right with something as crispy as wings, especially when they have all that smokiness in the skin,” Campbell explained. “The viognier is my top pick; and if you’re outside cooking on a hot summer day – whether it’s white wine or even a zin – don’t be afraid to have it chilled with what you’re barbecuing. That’s the way the Basque do it, and it works really well with a lot of their dishes. Personally, the older I get, the less I care about all the wine etiquette. It’s about doing what you actually enjoy.”

Campbell sells his own wines at Leoni Farms through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and the operation also has Sacramento-area delivery options.

Local butchers aren’t being slowed by this year’s searing, record-breaking sunrays; and while the dreaded dog days are certainly upon us, good cuts of meat plus great fixings means there’s still a way to get to the heart of that summertime magic.   

Scott Thomas Anderson is also the host of the ‘Drinkers with Writing Problems’ podcast.

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