You can take the boy out of meat mongering, but you can’t take the love of breaking down animals out of the boy.
It’ll come as little surprise that one of the first stops on my Playa Samara must-see list was the local butcher shop, Carniceria Samara. Impressed by the shop’s staff and offerings, and realizing that my Spanish needed a real-world refresher course, I asked the owner, Raphael, if I could work with the guys. Only momentarily fazed, he said OK, and the next day I returned with my knife in tow.
Raphael works with his 19-20-year-old son, Raphael Jr., 16-year-old Eduar, an aspiring BMX star, and Alex, their seasoned journeyman butcher/salesman/class clown. With open arms—and a handful of gringo jokes—they let me in their shop, showed me the ropes, and gave me one of my favorite Playa Samara memories.
The Carniceria Samara day starts with a few jokes, some cell phone video sharing, a cup of coffee, and Alex’s freshly fried chicharrón severed on warm tortillas. After pleasantries are exchanged and everyone has eaten, the reach-ins are cracked open and the meat is brought into the main room—the only room—hanging from rails on meat hooks. In Costa Rica, there is no such thing as case-in-case-out; here it’s bag-in-bag-out, and whole bone-in meat, fresh off the truck.
Next, we prepare for the wholesale rush by breaking down the most popular items: Costillas—pork ribs of all shapes and sizes; Lomito Rayado—thin slices of beef sirloin and top round; and cubing what seems like hundreds of pounds of skirt steak for “Carne en Salsa”, a dish served at almost every comida tipical restaurant and bar. All the while, we’re told to take special care to clean the cuts nicely and set aside the scraps for Raphael’s famed Chorizo, which he makes twice a week.
The shop consists of four reach-in refrigerators, the main deli case, and one freezer. All of which seem to be in a perpetual cycle of repair and disrepair—part of being a good butcher in Costa Rica means knowing how to work on a refrigeration compressor. In one corner Raphael Jr. holds court as the band saw guy— an obvious right of passage as Eduar was never allowed to touch the machine. There is a communal table in the middle of the room big enough for 3 cutting boards and a scale. We worked at the table all day, breaking down beef and pork, never in any particular order, and never within any particular sanitation guidelines. A knife was a knife, a cutting board was a cutting board, and meat was meat. If you needed to cut something, you used whatever was at hand, and just did it.
Carniceria Samara receives joint deliveries of beef, pork, and chicken three times a week. While they sell a decent amount of chicken, pork and beef are by far the biggest sellers. They order what they need, and dry age the beef until sold. This usually means between 7–21 days, but is sometimes longer. For finer cuts like Lomo and T-Bone, there is a dry aging section in one of the reach-ins where beef often ages well over 21-days, but again, the rule of thumb is “cuando lo vendemos.”
On top of the madness of breaking beef with these guys—in Spanish!—I also wanted to learn about the animals we were working with. Almost all of the carniceria’s animals are raised locally. However, the meaning of “local” is pretty broad in Costa Rica—with an area of 19,730 sq. miles, the nation is a little more than 1/8 the size of California. Raphael gave me the (roughly translated) 411 on the cattle:
Guanacaste is cattle country. All across Costa Rica most beef is from Brahman cows [which originated in India and developed an abundance of sweat glands]. The cattle is the best because it’s really hot here, and they can stand the heat well, and because their skin is oily, they sweat a lot and they don’t attract pest.
90% of the cattle Carniceria Samara buys is pasture raised on green grass and is rarely supplemented with corn or soy or other grains. This is more of an economic reality than a choice, as in Central America cattle raised on corn and soy simply costs much more. Corn-fed can be sourced for special orders, but it usually comes from Nicaragua.
Raphael and Alex have some compelling arguments as to what makes a Costa Rican steer “mas sabor o mas suave”. According to their 30+ years of combined butchery experience, Brahman cattle raised at higher altitudes have a superior taste. This is due to the hard work they have to put into grazing for feed. This labor results in denser muscle structure and more flavorful meat, although it sacrifices tenderness. The opposite can be said for the Brahman raised on pasture in the flat lands, which tend to be tenderer but less flavorful.
A really cool feature of Raphael’s shop is that regulars—both retail and wholesale—are invited to come behind the counter and cut their own meat! I can’t imagine the type of liability insurance a business in the States would need to cover a practice like that, but it really added to the sense of community around the shop. People don’t just go there to buy their meat and leave, they come in say hi, to ask about Eduar’s latest date, or to analyze a recent futbol game. The carniceria is as much a community center as it is a butcher shop.
But the most impressive part of Carniceria Samara is that they cut everything retail to order!
“You need a picnic roast? Sure, no problem, let me break out the whole shoulder on a hook and rail right in front of you and seem it out. You need some ground beef? Sure, no problem, what custom meat block would you like me grind for you?”
At times the shop has lines that last 30 minutes for 4 customers because they’re breaking down each and every request to order, shooting the breeze all the while. Raphael says, “cutting fresh meat to order means the customer always gets the freshest meat”. It was fair trade as far as I could see, and not once did I witness an unhappy customer.
Maybe it’s small town living, maybe it’s Central America, but whatever it is, I’ll take another cut of Carniceria Samara, fresh to order.