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Aug 18, 2007 05:23 PM

Prather Ranch has the Best Beef in the Bay Area

Great beef is hard to find. I refuse to eat anything from a feedlot, not just for ethical reasons but because the flavor is boring and one dimensional, and the texture is like baby food. Niman Ranch's stuff is decent, especially when it has been aged by the Cafe Rouge or Barron's butchers. All the same, I find the base flavor of NR meat to be uninteresting, and aging can only do so much. Same goes for Western Grasslands, Creekstone, and all of the other large scale "natural" beef distributors - fine ethics, uninteresting flavors. Some of the smaller, local ranches (Marin Sun Farms, Highland Hills) practice great animal husbandry, but have a product that is often too tough texture-wise and lacks a fully ripened flavor profile. I blame this on insufficient aging, due to financial constraints and the fact that they lack the facilities to process their own animals. The meat is often frozen, depleting flavor further and toughening the texture. Grass finishing on top of all of this doesn't help matters. (However, Highland Hills does sell excellent goat).

So, the first day I bought beef from Prather Ranch it was like the clouds parted, and God himself handed me a pound of oxtails. Here, you have meat that is the perfect balance of ethical and hound worthy. Not only am I proud to support this fine rancher, their meat is simply the best beef I have ever eaten.

What makes Prather so special?

-They use heritage steers, from a closed crop of cattle that has been bred for ideal flavor and texture.
-The beef is slow grown on pasture, and finished on organic hay, barley and rice (no corn or soy). The result is marbling that will make a grown man weep. (With all due respect to Michael Pollan, grain finishing to achieve marbling is a centuries old practice that is safe, healthy, environmentally responsible, and completely ethical).
-They age all of their beef at least 21 days, resulting in a well developed flavor and a marvelous texture that is tender and pleasantly firm.
-They slaughter and butcher all of their own animals. By slaughtering in-house they can ensure that the animals are treated humanely, and that the meat is safe and free from contamination. By butchering in-house they can ensure a steady supply of fresh meat, and the cuts are perfect.
-They will take special orders for just about anything; offal, bones, prime rib, just ask. The only thing they can't do is grind to order, but that's why you just need to buy a meat grinder.
-They always have a great selection of both prime cuts, and less expensive cuts.

So far I have tried: ox tails, top sirloin (for crudo), rib eye, chuck, hangar, and a truly magnificent standing rib roast for my birthday. Every bite has been phenomenal. The top sirloin it so good that I've had it three times, and I beg Mrs. Mousse to make it for me every weekend. This is the standard by which I will judge all other beef. Their prices are higher than supermarket beef, but comparable to "natural" beef and a great value considering the quality.

Prather Ranch does most of their sales through farmers' markets, though they also have a permanent butcher shop in the Ferry Building. I buy my beef at the Oakland Lake Merrit market, which is their only location in the East Bay at this time (yes, this means I have to go to two farmers' markets every Saturday, because I must get my produce fix in Berkeley. It's worth it). Tragically, attempts to start selling at the Berkeley Saturday Market were thwarted by the misguided and dogma driven ecology center. Prather is considering a stand at the Sunday Temescal market, which would be very convenient for Berkeley residents.

Prather Ranch is this hound's dream come true; beef that is as delicious at it is ethical. Go there now.

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  1. Now I'm sorry I passed up their grill at the Tuesday Ferry Plaza market. Why didn't you post this a few days earlier?! Oh, well, something to look forward to. --PR

    3 Replies
    1. re: Prabhakar Ragde

      I had the buffalo burger there this past tuesday - it was outstanding.

      1. re: Prabhakar Ragde

        After reading all of the good press on Prather Ranch, I went directly to the Ferry Bldg. and purchased 2lbs of tri tip on Saturday. Please note that I paid nearly double than usual for the tri tips that I usually purchase at Whole Foods or Lunardis.But no worries since I was so excited to try what I had read as the "Rolls Royce" of meats. So, that evening, I grilled the meat with a light marinade and sad to report it was barely edible. The meat was tough and tasteless and I was terribly disappointed.

        1. re: mcw

          As stated elsewhere in this thread, I'm no fan of Prather, but part of the problem may have been you interpretation of their meat as the "Rolls Royce of meats" when it's more like the Prius of meats. If you're expecting a very high quality version of conventional meat, you're going to be disappointed. Just as a Prius is a completely different type of propulsion system, so is grass-fed beef a completely different kind of beef. In particular, both the amount and type of fat is different, and if you cook it as you would a piece of conventional beef it's likely to be dry and tough. As for flavor, I don't know if I'd call it flavorless -- I've always found grass-fed beef to have a gamey flavor that some people obviously like and some people don't -- but if what you're looking for is the rich, sweetness of corn-fed beef, you're definitely not going to have that flavor.

      2. Just what is the Ecology Center's beef with Prather Ranch, if you'll pardon the pun?

        4 Replies
        1. re: Gary Soup

          The Ecology Center feels that Prather is too large an operation (though they pale in size compared to any CAFO). I understand the "small is good" sentiment when it comes to organic farming, but ranching is a different animal. It's precisely Prather's size that allows them to process animals in-house, ensure a continuous supply of fresh meat, and preserve 34,000 acres of land . It is, in fact, a more sustainable model for ranching than that of a smaller "boutique" operation.

          At least, "bigger is bad" is the party line they gave me. I think the fact that the individuals running the Ecology Center are strict vegetarians who don't want to see any meat at the farmers' market has a lot to do with it as well. It seems like they are allowing personal feelings interfere with the mission statement of the center. It's too bad, because many of the farmers' market patrons would enjoy the Prather stand.

          1. re: Morton the Mousse

            Fatted Calf, Highland Hills Farm, and Hudson Fish are all at the Berkeley Saturday market.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Yes, and the EC reps I spoke to made it clear that they would be happier if all of the meat vendors left the market.

            2. re: Morton the Mousse

              I work for the Ecology Center, and I think you misunderstand the decision-making process that determines which vendors sell at the Berkeley Farmers' Markets. It's not about the personal feeling of a few vegetarian employees. It has to do with seriously limited space, long waiting lists, and a thoughtful process of choosing vendors who don't sell the same thing. We go to great lengths to make sure there isn't too much product overlap so that the farmers, ranchers, and vendors who do sell can make a decent living.

              Many of the decisions regarding new vendors are made by a committee that includes plenty of meat eaters. It's true that we are a mission-driven environmental organization, and land stewardship is a major consideration when reviewing applications. We often favor smaller operations, but that's not a die-hard condition.

              So in short, there are a lot of considerations that go into who gets in to the Berkeley Farmers' Markets. But the ones you mention are either not true, or way down the list.

              Aside from that one line mis-characterizing the Ecology Center's decision-making, I enjoyed your review of Prather Ranch products! I'm eager to try to them out!

          2. Nice post. I've been eating their beef for years. It's the best I know of just like Morton says and I agree with his thinking, at least to the degree that my knowledge permits.

            I lived in SF for many years, but have been in the south bay the last few. So now, I can't always have it like I used to. The last years I was in the city, it was almost all I ever bought. I'd stock up at the Ferry Building when I'm there, but too often, I'm not heading home quickly enough and can't let it sit in the car for that many hours. Now and again, I'll head up on a Friday and buy some then.

            Concerned about the lipids issues, I've asked more than a few times about the healthiness of their beef compared to purely grass fed stuff. They claim to have it tested at U of Oregon (or is it Oregon State?) so that they can stay on top of things. Apparently, it's as healthy as purely grass fed beef is. The fact that they don't use corn makes a big difference, of course.

            Keep in mind that their Ferry Building outlet gets restocked on Thursdays, IIRC. So if you go earlier in the week, there could be relatively slim pickings. Fridays are great. they've got everything and the Saturday market folks haven't dented the inventory yet.

            Also, they've got lamb, pork, buffalo and vitellone, all of which are purely grass fed. I bought some vitellone ribs a few months ago and they may have been the tastiest ribs I've ever prepared. They're leaner than beef ribs, but still have enough fat to maintain that rib character. Great stuff.

            I like dealing with their people, too. They know their stuff and are helpful.

            1. Sounds like they've changed a lot from when I first bought from them. Back in the olden days (when the Tuesday market was at Justin Herman, and they were selling from a small booth), they were quite clear on the fact that selling their beef for food was secondary to their primary business, which was selling them for pharmaceutical products. In fact, they touted their beef as "beyond organic" because it was "pharmaceutical grade." They certainly weren't claiming that their cattle had been "bred for ideal flavor and texture," since their herd hadn't been developed with beef production in mind. Have they changed the cattle, or just the marketing? Actually, I just looked at their website, and they don't mention pharmaceuticals at all. I guess being associated with drug companies doesn't suit their new image. Here's another perspective:

              "Mary admits that the decision to branch out into raising, processing and selling
              organic beef didn’t require a lot of thought. “With our ranch already set up to raise
              animals for the pharmaceutical industry, it wasn’t much of a stretch to convert over to
              organic,” she says ...."

              BTW, it appears that "heritage" breed is ... Angus. Just like they sell at the supermarket.

              I wasn't impressed at all by the beef I bought from them, either the flavor or the texture, so I haven't bought any more. I did buy some pork from them more recently, and was very disappointed, again by both the flavor and the texture. Their stuff also appears to me to be sloppily butchered. Maybe I'll give them another chance, though.

              9 Replies
              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                I love it... pharmaceutical grade beef!

                "Hospital tested, hospital approved!" as Marshall Efron used to say in his routines where he read food ingredients labels on processed foods in that old KQED show.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Bizarre. My best guess is that they didn't dry age their beef in the old days. I do think you should give their beef one more chance (not the vitellone, the beef). You normally buy from Barron's, correct? Barron's stuff is good, but I think Prather is better. Haven't tried their pork, but all the butcher work I've seen on the beef has been first rate.

                  1. re: Morton the Mousse

                    I have been buying Prather since the old days and they used to dry age it then. Their butchery has always been terrible. I like the taste of their beef quite a bit, but their beef is variable, and it is better in summer than in winter for some reason. In order to find two evenly butchered steaks, I have to sort through 50 or more cuts. You will find steaks that start at around 1.5 inches in the fat side and taper down to .25 inches in part. Given how high the quality of the meat is, their butchery is a disgrace.

                    For those who are used to eating dry aged corn fed beef, the texture and flavor of Prather will seem off. Prather has a fuller flavor with strong minerality. For those who have been eating pure grass fed beef, e.g. Marin Sun, etc., the texture and flavor of Prather will be much better. For me, pure grass fed beef has a slight fishy taste like flax seed which is probably proof that it is better for you, but I am not keen on the taste and the tougher leaner texture. Niman beef even when dry aged is just mediocre to my taste in a bland one dimensional way. What I really want is Prather beef butchered by Lobel or Savenors.

                    1. re: Amy G

                      That hasn't been my experience the few times I've bought steak. In fact, I've been impressed with the evenness of the cut. That said, I'm not a big steak eater.

                      I believe their stuff varies with the season. I only started buying from them at the start of the summer.

                      1. re: Morton the Mousse

                        I recently bought a large piece of Prather Ranch chuck for grinding, and it was horrible--mostly gristle and silver skin. Much of it was thrown away. It did not have this experience with other big hunks of chuck bought at other butchers around the city. At (I believe) $10/lb, I was really disappointed.

                  2. re: Ruth Lafler

                    I am no expert on steaks, but I bought a rib eye from Prather a while back that was transcendentally delicious.

                    On the other hand, I ordered a 6# pork loin from them last year for xmas eve, and what I got was 4# of loin wrapped in a one and a half inch layer of fat, all wrapped in a thick piece of skin. I was so pissed to get 2# of fat and skin at the same price/lb as the pork that I haven't bought anything from them since, though I do like the fact that they are raising and slaughtering their meat ethically.

                    1. re: Pistou

                      I've found them to be really reasonable and I think as consumers, we owe it to these guys to tell them if we think they're out of line. I know if you did it considerately and without making a scene, they'd make it right, if you gave them the chance. I know some vendors are defensive but I've found Prather to be thoghtful and realistic.

                      1. re: Pistou

                        Sounds pretty tasty to me.

                        If you'd ordered a lean, unrwapped roast, the price per pound might have been higher.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I think it is incumbent on them to tell the customer if their roasts come two ways. I've never seen pork loin sold that way, before or since. But Earl you're right; I should have said something and given them the chance to fix it or at least explain.

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