Michael Mixon and his family are at the top of the world in barbecued pork. But you don’t get to be the best without going the extra mile, which is why he partnered with Cabo Wabo Tequila on an epic quest to master the holy grail of BBQ beef: the brisket. Their mission and their motto: do everything bigger bolder, and better.
All summer, we’re following Mixon as he examines this choice cut from its life on the ranch to the importance of fresh spices for a seasoning to the physics of how the smoker transforms brisket into meaty magic. When he’s finished his training, he’ll be ready to blow away BBQ fans at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue.
“In Texas when you say BBQ, that’s a 10-to-14-hour relationship with a piece of meat.”
To get it right, he sought out a butcher whose dedication to beef is as mighty as Mixon’s is to smoke and Cabo Wabo’s is to agave-forward taste. Of course he found one in Texas. Matt Hamilton, of The Local Yocal Butcher Shop in McKinney educated Mixon about brisket and butchery... and then shared even more of his occupational knowledge with us. First things, first: setting the record straight on what barbecue isn’t.
“In some parts of the country you say BBQ, that means you’ve got a grill,” Hamilton says of some regions’ proclivity to call any cookout a barbecue, even a quick sear of some burgers and hot dogs. “In Texas when you say BBQ, that’s a 10-to-14-hour relationship with a piece of meat. And the standard in Texas is brisket."
The USDA Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (yes, this is a thing) lists about 100 different cuts for pork. The same document for beef contains almost 300 different ways to put beef in your mouth -- just a slight learning curve. Luckily Mixon only needed to focus on one thing: the literal belly of the beast. It’s a piece of meat he can only master on a cow -- because there’s no such equivalent on a pig.
“With pork, there isn’t actually a brisket cut,” says Hamilton. “If you’re breaking down a pork butt, you’d just cut the whole shoulder together. With beef, because of the size of the animal, we take all those muscles apart and can peel that brisket off.”
Mixon’s a pro, of course, and with the help of the Local Yocal staff, learned what makes for a nice hunk of meat that can show off the power of barbecue at the Royal. But for the average person walking into a butcher shop, where does someone start the road from learning more than “filet, strip, or ribeye”? If you want to up your meat game, it’s not going to happen at the grocery store. Just like a gas station isn’t going to carry caviar, your local grocer is only going to stock the most popular or affordable cuts.
If you really want to ascend Flavor Mountain, then your local butcher is the only sherpa you should trust to take you there. A good butcher has irreplaceable knowledge from working with the meat at all stages. They know what goes into a good cut ahead of time, and what you need to do when you take it home to not screw it up.
Asking for help and learning things about meat can be intimidating for some people, but rest assured you’re not alone in your uncertainty.
“Twenty percent of our customers know exactly what they’re doing, they’ve been doing it this way forever... they’re just doing their deal,” says Hamilton. “Then 80% of the people, they don’t like to admit it, but they love that you’re giving them ideas. One time I’m talking to a customer about a bavette steak, and I explain what it is and a couple different things you can do with it... there were two other people in the store, and they were kind of listening from just away. They weren’t together either -- but they both got the same cut. Suddenly it’s ‘I want to do that, that sounds really good.’”
Takeaway: your butcher does this all day, every day. Defer happily to their superior knowledge and enjoy that thick cut life.
When Local Yocal was founded in 2010, they intended to sell only grass-fed, grass-finished beef -- but soon realized that would be a tall order. “That’s about 1-3% of the market, and that’s a pretty small slice of the pie to go after and keep your doors open," says Hamilton. “We use Angus as a ‘gateway’ -- better than what you buy at the grocery store. Better quality, and better option. Wagyu is the 'Oh my God' steak, and then eventually we get them to the grass-fed, grass-finished, which is the healthiest beef you can eat.”
Their mission to perfect beef isn’t just about amazing flavor -- it’s also about putting a healthier brisket on your plate.
Local Yocal takes customer education one step further with a one-of-a-kind class they call “Steak 101." Hamilton says it takes about three hours to teach the average meat-eater everything we need to know. Taking each carcass apart, the class learns about eighteen different cuts -- and tastes them all. The presentation is so instructional that some people literally don’t believe the facts before them. Students have asked incredulously if Local Yocal marinated one piece of meat but not a comparison piece. Hamilton says it’s simple: “Different breeds, different feeding, different cuts can make a lot of difference."
In the shop’s quest to serve only the best of the best, they’ve had to turn a lot of farmers down. Hamilton estimates that they’ve fielded inquiries from almost 300 different ranchers to get to the three suppliers they use today. Hamilton calls a lot of the smaller grass-fed operations, “corporate refugees and burnt-out hippies” who aren’t putting in the time and effort to raise quality stock. Hamilton says a simple question like “What’s the background of your cattle?” once received the reply, “Well right now there’s some trees behind them...”
Even ranches that have certified and pedigreed animals might not make the cut; some of them have the right papers, but not the right follow through. “The biggest problem you have with most ranchers is that they haven’t seen their cattle naked (killed and prepared so you can see the actual meat),” says Hamilton. “You raise a calf, you think you’re doing a good job, and then you take them off to the livestock sale and say goodbye. And you have no idea.”
The ranchers Hamilton and the staff work with do extensive bloodwork and “test kills” on their cattle to ensure that the end product they have envisioned is what actually comes out when they get the cattle “naked."
With all the care and effort put into making the best beef possible, you assume that health is the last thing that the Local Yocal staff would want you to think about. But their mission to perfect beef isn’t just about amazing flavor -- it’s also about putting a healthier brisket on your plate. You know all those Omega-3 fats that doctors keep telling you to eat? The yin to their yang is Omega-6 fats, which are all over our current diets. A ratio of 1:1 is ideal in avoiding heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, but most people have something closer to a 15:1 ratio in favor of the Omega-6.
Hamilton breaks down the science: “You get an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of 1:1 on grass-fed. You take that steer and put them in a feedlot and it’s gonna go 15:1 or even 20:1. We do work with corn-fed Wagyu, but they can keep a 1:1 ratio even on corn feed.” So if the richest-looking beef in the world turns out to be healthier than most of the competition... maybe a good butcher can keep you guilt-free next time you skip the surf and go all turf?
The biggest thing Hamilton (and probably all butchers) want to stress is that whatever you can budget for a reliable butcher is worth it. “Some people get overwhelmed by ‘I can’t afford to eat like this’,” says Hamilton. “But can you take $50 a month to spend differently instead of at a big store? If the 7 million people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area did that, do you know how much of a difference that would make? But they get overwhelmed and then decide to do nothing. Something is better than nothing.”
There are cuts and grinds for every budget to eat well. Adjust your plans to eat meat better, not more. Would you rather feed each guest at your backyard grilling party a terrible steak or the best burgers of their lives instead?
You might even be inspired to carefully select a brisket and heed the experts’ advice on how to make it perfect. A good butcher might not be an everyday stop, but next time you’re gonna eat at a crappy restaurant... go to your local butcher and see what a damn good piece of meat tastes like instead.