By Riki Shore
We at Three Squares like buying high quality meats and fish, and we like supporting local businesses. A visit to McCall’s Meat and Fish Co. in Los Feliz allows us to do both. Owned by the husband and wife team, Nathan McCall and Karen Yoo, the store has been open for a little over a year. Drawing on extensive professional kitchen experience, the two stock their store with the highest quality products, everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. You can find ground chuck, farm fresh eggs, and whole chickens. If you’re looking for something more exciting, you can find Nueske’s bacon, quail eggs, smoked trout and bone marrow. No matter what you buy, we guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Nathan McCall recently spent an hour talking to us about customer service, cleanliness, quality control, local vs. highest quality, wild vs. farmed fish, grass-fed beef, and his thoughts for the future. Check back later this summer for a unique recipe from Nathan and Karen.
TS: Why did you decide to become a butcher?
NM: We actually fell into it. We were in the process of opening a restaurant, and came to a point where we realized that it was going to cost too much money. We thought about what we could execute with our knowledge and our past experience. It brought us back to New York and a place called Lobel’s on the Upper East Side – a place I used to drive by every night on my way home from work. It’s a super high-end Upper East Side butcher shop that’s extremely well-known. There are butchers in LA, but not a lot of them. We put all that together and came up with this concept and once we figured it out, we just ran with it.
Editor’s Note: Lobel’s has a great cookbook called Lobel’s Meat Bible.
NM: It’s really about quality – quality of service, quality of product. We strive to do anything we can to get what the customer wants or answer any questions that a customer might have. And we all have cooking backgrounds, so we can really provide in-depth knowledge about cooking any cut of meat – pork belly, sweetbreads, quail, rabbits. If you were shopping at most other markets, they might give you some generic instruction. But, this is what we know how to do. And we’re a small, local business, and it’s nice to support us.
TS: What about the home cook on a budget who can’t splurge every day. What benefits do you offer that customer?
NM: When a customer comes in and they’re on a tight budget – this happens all the time – their eyes automatically go to the $30/lb items, and they think, “That’s crazy, I could never afford that”! We have a couple answers for that. First, don’t buy the $30/lb item. Second, you’re not going to need a whole pound of that. People are used to going out and eating 14 or 16 ounces of steak. Even a really nice NY steak, for 8 – 10 ounces, costs $12. You can take that, split it between two people, have a salad, roast some potatoes, and if you have a little appetizer, you’re eating a great dinner for $6 per person for the protein. You could also buy a more reasonably priced cut of meat. You can pick up a flat-iron steak for $4 – 6 for 6 – 8 ounces of meat, or you can get a piece of salmon for $7 – 8. Yes, it’s a little more expensive that what you would spend at the grocery store, but it’s also way better.
TS: Every time I walk in here, it’s sparkling clean and it smells good and it’s brightly lit. Do you think your customers respond to this when they walk in?
NM: People come in and they see how we’re dressed – we’re all in chef’s uniforms and we’re clean. Our store is clean and it doesn’t stink. People definitely take notice. People say to me, “Wow, it smells good in here. Wait a minute, it’s not supposed to smell good in a butcher’s.” But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
TS: It’s great that your customers recognize the cleanliness.
NM: We’re extremely conscious about it. People can see everything here. There are no walls. It really makes you stay on top of things. It makes our customers feel more comfortable and it just fits that expensive, high-quality meat should come out of a clean, well-kept store.
At this point, we were joined by McCall’s wife, Karen Yoo.
NM: Our main supplier is somebody I used to work with at Sona. We work with them because they provide an extremely high-quality product. They’re a little more expensive, but there’s a reason for that. We’re the only market in Southern California that carries the natural-certified Angus beef that we sell. It’s a pretty exclusive product. In my opinion, it’s better than Prime. It’s hands-down one of the best cuts of beef I’ve ever had.
KY: We use a supplier for everything other than chicken and fish. Chicken comes from Kendor Farm, and Dorene delivers it. We’re the only retail shop that carry her chicken and eggs.
NM: For fish, I go to the fish market and pick everything each morning. I can make decisions based on freshness and availability. Being there every morning makes all the difference in our fish selection.
KY: Definitely. And that has a lot to do with our cooking background. It was mostly about bringing in the highest quality product.
TS: Do you have customers who question this decision?
KY: We have people who walk in and what to know if everything’s local. But it usually doesn’t deter them from buying things.
TS: Do you find yourself having to talk through it with customers?
KY: Definitely. The whole question of local, sustainable, organic is very big. You definitely have to talk through those quite often.
NM: The biggest reason for people in the food industry using those words is strictly marketing. We really don’t use those terms here. We do a little bit, like on our fish tags, I’ll sometimes put “responsibly farmed”. I don’t put “sustainable”. If people ask, I’ll explain that they do practice sustainable farming, but it’s not a fully sustainable farm. But I don’t think most consumers really realize what it means.
NM: A lot, definitely. It’s easy to get both wild and farmed fish at the fish market. At this point, we sell about 60 percent wild fish. All the farms we buy from are all doing things without any kind of growth hormones or antibiotics. Our salmon is on all marine-based fish meal, so they’re not fed corn pellets. And it’s legit – it’s some of the best salmon you can get. And if there’s wild salmon available, I’ll get that too.
The problem is, once you’ve trained people to eat the farmed salmon at $17 or $18 per pound, and you bring in wild salmon at $28 or $29 per pound, people notice a price difference like that. They’ve eaten the farm-raised and liked it, so they’re more likely to buy it again.
TS: The Blue Ocean Institute publishes a terrific seafood guide that explains which fisheries are the most sustainable (meaning you can harvest these fish without fear that they are going to become extinct) and which farmed fish contribute the least pollution to the ocean environment. They offer an online version, a wallet-size guide and an iPhone App.
NM: There’s much more demand for grass-fed beef now because people have seen documentaries and they’ve read about how awful corn is, and some people are so passionate that they swear they’ll never eat anything with corn again. Supplying grass-fed beef is challenging. We used to get all our meat from Marin Sun Farms in Marin County. We got it steadily for 4 – 6 months, then one day they called and told us there’d be no grass-fed beef for at least 4 weeks. Their local market has grown as grass-fed beef has become more popular, so now they don’t need to send their beef to Southern California. They can sell it locally. Now we don’t get any beef from them at all.
TS: What about quality? Do you have a whole process for ensuring the quality from your suppliers?
NM: We monitor the quality of every delivery, every day. I’ve been working with our supplier, and I’ve known my sales rep, for 5 years. He comes in here every couple of weeks and he knows that we know quality. If I get something that’s on its way out, I’ll tell him and they take it back. Just like if one of our customers takes something home and it doesn’t look right, we take it back. That’s the kind of people we are, and the kind of people we like working with.
Also, when you’re in retail and your customers are picking up a raw product, things have to look good. Restaurants are different. They may get a product that doesn’t look good, but they’re going to sear it that day and brown it off and braise it for 8 hours and no one will ever know the difference. Retail is different.
Our customers even question oxidation [the process by which the meat, after being cut, is exposed to oxygen, loses electrons and changes color]. We have to explain that process all the time.
Our meat company keeps a rotation for us where they age the steaks before they’re delivered. Take a New York steak for example. We receive a whole strip loin that’s been wet-aged in a vacuum-sealed bag for a minimum of 20 days before we even get it.
Comparing one of our steaks with one at Costco can be tricky. Sometimes Costco has really good meat and sometimes their meat is not good at all. By not good, I mean it doesn’t have the developed flavor, it’s not as tender and nice, it’s a little bit tougher.
What happens with a company like that is they buy 3 weeks worth of meat at a time. They’ll get a shipment in and maybe these animals were just slaughtered a week ago and they’re getting that first delivery after 6 or 7 days in a wet-bag. They’re taking that meat out and cutting steaks and putting it in their case. If you buy that day, you’re getting no flavor, no tenderness…you’re getting just a really average or below average piece of meat. But what if you go back to Costco three weeks from that day, and they’re at the end of their rotation on their delivery? Now the meat has triple the amount of time on it, it’s got good flavor, it’s tender, and it’s a really nice piece of meat.
TS: How does the consumer know that when they’re buying steaks?
NM: They don’t know until they get it out and cook it and taste it. In this aging process, basically the more you age it in the bag, the less time you have out of the bag (before oxidation begins).
If you go to the supermarket and look at their steaks, they’re fire-engine red. They’re glowing. If you come here, our steaks have a much deeper color, a much richer color, and they oxidize faster.
Once we get our shipment, around 20 days, we age the meat an additional 4 to 8 days before we open it, which is why our meat is so tasty. You can cut one of our steaks right now, and tomorrow it will start to oxidize. You can take a steak from Albertson’s and you can open it four days from now and it’s still fire-engine red because it hasn’t been aged.
So the longer the meat has been aged, the more it’s exposed to oxygen, and the quicker the color turns from red to brown.
NM: One thing that remains tough is our space is really small, just extremely limited. Sometime in the future we’d like to open something that’s not too far away from here and allows us to cook some stuff, maybe prepared foods, maybe a small bakery. My wife is a pastry chef and she’s extremely talented, and not enough people know that because she’s cutting meat all day.
To a certain degree, we’re glorified prep cooks at McCall’s. We set you up to have a really great dinner. We do everything so you can go home and do what we really want to do. And now that we’ve been here and it’s been successful, we think we were crazy to think about ever opening a restaurant.