Salem's Grill: Halal butchers bring a grill and, soon, a market to the Strip




Are you a conscious carnivore? That means you like and eat meat, sure, but you'd like to avoid the animal cruelty and the unsanitary practices often associated with meat processing, which can result in sickness caused by E. coli and salmonella. Conscious carnivores also want more involvement in their meat choices -- cut-to-order by a visible butcher instead of just plastic-wrapped or Cryovaced parts in a supermarket cold case.

If that's you, learn these words. "Ethical meat" is the new hot-button term used by serious eaters around the country who are fed up, literally, with factory meat. Leaders of this movement are, as you might expect, in such cities as Seattle, Portland, New York and San Francisco. They buy meat that was raised locally on sustainable farms where the animals are respected from birth to dispatch. Some meat geeks are even taking DIY butchery classes, while others shop only where they know the butchers and the history of the animals. For them, watching whole-animal butchery is fast becoming the latest food theater.

In Pittsburgh, we may have to put butchery classes on our bucket lists. But we do have access to locally raised meat cut from "respected" animals by butchers who break down fresh carcasses before your very eyes. Raised on sustainable farms? Not quite yet, but two out of three is a start.

If you go

Salem's Grill

2923 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-235-7828; hours: 11 a.m to 8 p.m. Mon.-Fri. (closed from 1 to 2 p.m. Fri.), closed Sun.

Salem's Halal Meats & Groceries

338 S. Bouquet St., Oakland. 412-621-4354; hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (closed 1 to 2 p.m. Fri.)

Our best sources are Salem's Halal Meats & Groceries in Oakland and Salem's Market & Grill, a new side-by-side complex on Penn Avenue in the Strip District. The meat market (opening soon) and grill restaurant (open now) are owned by the Salem family, who are originally from Libya. They are halal butchers, serving the Muslim market. Massoud Salem is the owner, but his son Abdul is the go-to guy, running operations at both sites. Abdul gave me a tour.

Butcher shop

According to the USDA Humane Slaughter Act, animals should be stunned into unconsciousness prior to death. The most common methods of dispatch in commercial meat production facilities are electrocution and carbon dioxide gassing for swine (and chickens, too) and captive bolt stunning for cattle, sheep and goats. Perhaps you've seen photos of men working their way through pens or down a line of animals with what appears to be a staple gun shoved upside the animals' heads. Pow, pow, pow, and they fall.

Only halal and kosher butchers are exempt from the humane slaughter law. "In a halal operation, each animal is killed individually, out of sight of other animals," explains Abdul. "Halal meat must be slaughtered and processed under strict religious standards and supervision. The animals are slaughtered by hand and allowed to bleed freely. No stunning." With a swift and practiced stroke, both arteries of the neck must be cut through in one movement. The halal slaughter and skinning of a single steer, according to Abdul, can take 30 minutes to an hour, while commercial meat processors might do 5,000 animals per shift. Halal butchers often share killing facilities with rabbis, whose kosher requirements are similar.

All of Salem's meat is locally raised. Beef, veal, lamb and goat lived and grazed on farms in Washington County, western Ohio or on nearby Amish farms. Their natural feed is not enhanced with hormones or antibiotics. When ready, the animals are taken to a halal meat processor in McKeesport, where they are humanely slaughtered and skinned.

The whole carcasses are then transferred to Salem's, where they hang in the cooler waiting to be broken down per customer order. Want a leg of lamb? A butcher will heft a whole critter onto his work space and bone it out. Watch if you want. All the meat is fresh and never more than a week old.

Chickens are slightly less local, grown on a family-owned farm in Delaware. To ensure freshness, there are two kill dates for the birds each week. Abdul orders short. He'd rather run out of chicken than have extra meat that is no longer fresh.

Abdul has an arrangement with Tim and Rick Pound of Pound's Turkey Farm in Leechburg. Pound's turkeys are raised with no antibiotics or hormones and are not processed with brines or bastes. Come Thanksgiving, Abdul reserves a day on the farm for halal practices. They have been working together for 10 years.

'Overseas market'

Salem's sells to just about everybody from every ethnic background. "Our Oakland store is like an overseas market," Abdul says with a laugh. "If you've ever shopped in an international market, you expect it to be noisy and crowded with customers who call out orders and jostle the line. That's perfectly normal. In fact, it's desirable." Salem's slogan is, "We are the closest thing to back home, no matter where you are from."

Each customer gets personal service. "When a customer chooses a cut, we pull a carcass," Abdul says. "Then the butcher will bone it out, trim it to the thickness and weight of the order. We'll even offer advice on how to cook it. Most people know what they want, but if a customer brings in a recipe or even a photo, we'll cut to order. To deal with demand, some frequently ordered cuts will be ready in the cold case. What we slaughter is what we sell."

Opening of the new Market on Penn Avenue is planned for early summer. The space is 5,700 square feet, with half that space to be used for meat prep and storage. There are two wide doors, one for butchers to enter the grill side with fresh meat for the cooks, the other for customers to walk between the market and the grill.

But let's eat

Abdul's goal is to serve good food at a good price. The grill is an eatery that is neither fancy nor romantic, located in a plain brick building. Simple tables and chairs cover most of the generous floor space. The cuisine is traditional Mediterranean, and the menu is written on a chalkboard. Service is deli-style; point and choose, then food is cooked to order. It is also inexpensive and very, very good. I like to eat there.

But my usual shopping days are spent careening around in my convertible with a to-do list. It's not that I don't want to have lunch at the grill. I just have a mental clock with its foot in my back to get the errands over with. So when I go to Salem's, I get carry-out, mostly to stock up the freezer for future lunches. And when a potluck or book club dinner is on the calendar, I'll get a tray of desserts.

Those who dine in will find swords of lamb and chicken shish kebab (three-quarters of a pound each) lined up in military formation next to marinated rib-eye steaks. Fragrant lamb, goat and chicken curries are in the wells. Choose between excellent lamb-beef or dark-meat chicken gyros. Portions are shaved from the cone, then frazzled on the grill before being piled on a pita.

All breads are made and baked in the in-house bake shop, whose bakery equipment and brick-style oven were imported from Lebanon. Generously portioned beef, spinach and feta pies make a quick lunch. The spanakopita is textbook. Fill up on Mediterranean sides: Libyan soup, rice, salads, hummus, tabouli, grape leaves, lentils and falafel, all made from scratch.

Save room for desserts, some also made in-house -- both finger-size and diamond-shaped baklava, farina cake with syrup and almonds, and shredded phyllo pastries with pistachios and cream. Take your order over to the register and pretty Izdihar Shareef will cash you out.

Be sure to time your visit, however. The market is closed on Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. for prayers.

Don't look for a freezer at the restaurant. Meat is never held over until the next day. Staffer Kwame Freeman collects the day's leftover meat, makes a batch of fresh rice and distributes it to the homeless at a shelter on the North Side. Anyone living in the park bordered by North Avenue and Federal Street can come in for a hot meal. Kwame belongs to Light of the Age Mosque (Nur As-Zaman in Arabic) where one of the charitable missions is to serve the poor.

There are plans to expand Salem's Halal Meats & Groceries on Bouquet Street in Oakland. With the butcher shop soon to be relocated to the Strip District, the Oakland store will expand its kitchen and add a seating area to accommodate college students, a huge part of the customer base. Plans are being made for a campus delivery service.

If Abdul doesn't run out of steam, he has plans to expand the catering service, too. He now oversees parties for up to 1,000 guests, with whole lambs presented on trays the size of a kid's swimming pool. Yet, he would like to return to Duquesne University to complete the last two years of his business degree.

Please, Abdul. Maybe you should just teach the course.


Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620. First Published February 4, 2010 5:00 AM




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