It's a good time to be a meat lover in San Francisco. The nose-to-tail food movement is showing no signs of slowing down, abattoirs and charcuterie are in, and butchery demonstrations practically count as a spectator sport at foodie events. S.F. is dotted with artisan butcher shops that also double as grocery and gift stores, stocking everything from local cheese and jams to meat-oriented cookbooks and steak-shaped hot pads. These shops offer more to the community than just a place to buy high-quality ingredients: Many have frequent buyer programs, classes, in-store demonstrations, and more ways to interact with your local meatmonger.
Butchers are of course invaluable resources when you're cooking at home, but many of them also offer delightful sandwiches when you're craving a meaty lunch or dinner on the fly. A butcher's sandwich is dense and carnivore-friendly, showcasing the product in an irresistible form of edible advertising, as well as offering hungry customers the very best of the shop's offerings for immediate consumption. Though sandwich-making styles vary — some pile theirs with toppings that complement the meat, others let the meat speak for itself — if you're looking for meaty indulgence, it follows that you'd find one at a market specializing in it.
Though it's only been in business since 2007, Avedano's Holly Park Market in Bernal Heights (235 Cortland, 285-6328, Avedanos.com) feels like a quintessential old-fashioned butcher shop, from the vintage sign outside to the simple display case and period fixtures inside. This atmosphere is intentional, but not contrived: The building has been a butcher shop or market for the better part of the 20th century, and many of the items in the store are taken from its former incarnation as Ciccero's Meats, which opened here in 1955. The service is warm, befitting its role as a neighborhood hub, and along with meat from sources like Liberty Ducks, River Dog Farm, and Devil's Gulch Ranch, the shop also has a small but well-curated selection of cheeses, produce, seafood, and dry goods from vendors across the Bay Area and beyond. (Customers outside of the neighborhood can also buy from the shop's mobile Meat Wagon, parked Thursday through Sunday in Hayes Valley's Proxy Project.)
In-store, most customers are shopping for that night's dinner, but many also pick up a sandwich or two, because Avedano's sandwiches are fantastic, all made on Crepe & Brioche ciabatta bread that's toasted in a heavy-duty panini press until the outside is crispy and the inside is still light and fluffy. The Arista in Porchetta is a favorite — the porchetta is herbal and greasy (though I wanted a few more cracklings mixed in), the layer of provolone makes the inside oozy and satisfying, and a spread of tomato jam and layer of fresh arugula adds sweetness and a peppery counterpoint. Meatloaf, that most democratic of sandwiches, has well-spiced meat and pickled onions; it's nothing special, but it's pure comfort food. And the Smoky Moe is a superlative creation, made with pulled smoked chicken topped with a few slices of thick-cut bacon, Swiss cheese, jalapeno jelly, and pepperoncini — it's all smoke and zestiness, with so much richness it's hard to believe it's chicken.
Fatted Calf Charcuterie (320 Fell, 400-5614, FattedCalf.com), another beloved local butcher, started in a small Dogpatch kitchen in 2003. It has since spread to locations in Hayes Valley and Napa's Oxbow Market, and recently came out with a charcuterie cookbook. The local outpost is modern, with a cement floor and walls and rustic wood shelves, but the focal point is the gleaming meat case. It's a dedicated home cook's dream, stocked with house-made pates, confits, salumi, sausages, stocks, bacon, and impeccably sourced meats from around Northern California. Every week the shop hosts a butcher happy hour, where customers are offered beer and wine as they watch an employee break down a whole hog. Limited groceries, wine, beer, and soda are also available.
Like Avedano's, Fatted Calf also makes terrific sandwiches on bread from Acme and Firebrand. The meatloaf is the best in town, a loosely packed slice of pork, beef, and bacon mixed with enough herbs to keep things interesting, set on a fluffy roll and topped with delicate pickled onions, lettuce, and whole-grain mustard. The porchetta, on a crusty baguette, has a hearty dose of the butcher's delightful porchetta, though the roasted red pepper and caper-rich peperonata on top of the sandwich tended to overwhelm the flavor of the meat. The pulled pork is a luscious, smoky, garlic-brined pork shoulder topped with bourbon-barbecue sauce and carrot-cabbage slaw; it's not a transcendent pulled-pork sandwich, but it's more than passable.
Which was more than I could say for the pulled pork at Golden Gate Meat Company in the Ferry Building (983-7800, GoldenGateMeatCompany.com), a family-run business whose sandwiches I'd heard good things about. On my visit, though, I was disappointed. The much-lauded house-made pastrami was dry and overwhelmingly salty (though the fist-sized lump of pastrami, and the plain starkness of the meat, mustard, and bun was appreciated), the meatloaf with mushroom gravy tasted like a dreaded meal from childhood, and the pulled pork had a cloyingly sweet sauce.
Down the concourse, I found the sandwiches I was looking for at Prather Ranch Meat Company (391-0420, PRMeatCo.com), a ranch based near Mt. Shasta whose Ferry Building outpost does a brisk take-out business. A cold roast-beef sandwich was topped with alfalfa sprouts and a caper/herb sauce on sesame-semolina bread, an unlikely combination that despite the amount of beef seemed somehow genteel, like I should be eating it at afternoon tea. The warm pork sandwich had meat welded together with cheese and crispy bits of onion ring inside to keep each bite interesting. Meatloaf from Prather had nothing to set it apart, but that didn't mean it didn't satisfy in a down-home, Sunday-dinner kind of way.
Any roundup of San Francisco butchers would be remiss if it didn't mention 4505 Meats, the roving farmers' market pop-up with a brick-and-mortar in the Mission (and another planned for Divisadero later this fall), which offers bacon-studded hot dogs, a burger that lives up to its billing as "The Best Damn Cheeseburger," and other artery-busting concoctions. Meanwhile, though they don't serve sandwiches, Olivier's Butchery in the Dogpatch specializes in French cuts, while Drewes Meats in Noe Valley has been serving the neighborhood for more than 120 years. The recent Foster Farms salmonella scare is only the latest reminder that it's valuable to know and trust where your meat comes from these days — whether you're cooking it at home or savoring a messy, meat-laden sandwich on the go.