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Monday, February 11, 2008

Grass-fed Cheesesteaks at Otto's

Some of you may recognize the name of the man I call my Central PA correspondent, Sam Komlenic. Sam's our proofreader at Malt Advocate, he's a real rye whiskey geek, he's a beer guy with solid old school credentials, and we think alike on enough things that I don't fear sending him out to check things for me. Like last week when I got an e-mail menu from Otto's, the State College brewpub, presenting their weekend specials, which included "grass-fed cheesesteaks." !!! I've been getting more and more into sustainable and grass-fed meat since reading Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma (thanks again, Stan), and when I saw that, and realized I was going to be in upstate NY all weekend, I forwarded the menu to Sam immediately and asked him if he could make the sacrifice and get his hungry self over there to check them out. As it happened, Sam already had a Friday lunch appointment with Otto's partner Roger Garthwaite, and within 5 minutes he had received the e-mail and accepted the challenge. Here's what he sent me:

Well, after dining on two local beef-infused dishes over lunch, I'm ready to report.

Up front; you asked for the first food review I've ever attempted. I'm an Otto's Pub Club member and feel that they do a great job of being creative with their menu and ingredients, let alone the consistently great beer quality and selection. It's ten minutes from my house. I like the place. They also get negative feedback from me when it's warranted. Equal opportunity.

That said, I had lunch today with brewery partner Roger Garthwaite. (I paid, by the way, so whatever integrity I had going in I tried to maintain.) Also on the special board was a beef-barley soup made with "Our Own" cow. This was a cow raised on Otto's spent grain as well as pasture, and it gave its life decently to be a part of "our" diet. I had a gorgonzola burger made from "our own cow" a week or so ago, and I kid you not, it was the best burger I've ever eaten. Rare, by the way, a luxury that shouldn't be attempted with industrial ground meat.

The soup arrived after being recommended with conviction by our server, J.K. Very thick and dark (the soup, not our server), and really delicious with a nice pepper kick at the end. Lots of our own cow in that one.

The sandwich was prepared from beef raised by Northern Tier Sustainable Meats in Troy, PA, a cooperative of family farms paying attention to environmental responsibility. It arrived hot on an oven-crisped, good quality roll. (Though Otto's works with a local artisanal bakery for most of their breads, this was not one of Gemelli's.)
A good base of really tender meat was accompanied by sauteed onions, peppers, and mushrooms. The onions seemed to have more of a presence than the other two. I had asked for provolone cheese, and the steak was served without sauce (sorry Philly fans), which is how I prefer mine. Topped with lots of shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes, I'd call it a California or garden style (I'd call it an abomination; that kinda stuff don't belong on a cheesesteak!).

The meat didn't appear to have been heavily macerated by spatulas on the grill, a process I generally prefer. Turns out it didn't need it. I find beef raised on grass (pasture and hay) to be more tender than all grain-fed, and this may have been the first cheesesteak I ever had with not one little piece of gristle in that clean, succulent meat. Tasted great, though I'm not sure if it necessarily tasted better or if the tenderness does that much for it.

Cows, as ruminants (critters with more than one stomach), were meant to digest grasses, not grain. Grain consumption elevates the need for antibiotics in the animal, and is part of the chain of "confinement agriculture," where the animal, darn near any animal, is kept in a stall/pen/cage for its entire (or nearly so) life. Grass is the way to go. Live an honorable life, die an honorable death.

The only thing that could have been better would have been more of that great meat, but grass-fed quality comes at a premium. Still, it's definitely worth the price of admission. Otto's participates in the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign anchored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), and encourages residents and businesses to use local, PA produced ingredients (I do too!). They are also looking into the PA Preferred program administered by the PA Department of Agriculture.

Don't just drink local; take it to a higher plane. Ask your favorite brewpub, pub or restaurant to cook local, too!

Thanks, Sam!


Stan Hieronymus said...

My first thought is that I'm ready to try Northern Tier meat with Southern Tier beer.

Viva la grass.

mj said...

You're not kidding, the grass-fed gorgonzola burger at Otto's is the best burger I've ever had, hands down.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Stan wants to start a Civil War in his digestive system...:)

I've also heard that steak combo called a Hoagie Steak too. And Otto's food was really good when I went last year, beer was tasty too.

Only problem with getting restaurants to buy local is making sure there's enough supply for them. I'm trying to get my sister in law to do more local beer nd wine at her restaurant but they don't have enough time to go and "check it all out" and I don't want to be pushy where I'm not directly involved, but I persevere.

Gotta say, being a PSU grad, I went back there last year and I was shocked as to how much growth there was. That whole area where Otto's is was nothing but open fields when I went there.

Hey, where were you in upstate? I'd a bought you a beer if I knew you were around my area. (even given you some of my homebrew to sample later as well)

Bill said...

re: "Cows as ruminants were not meant to eat grain." That might be true (I don't know), but remember -- when cows are fed "corn," they're fed the whole entire chopped up plant, not just the kernels and cobs. The whole plant is grass -- all grain plants are grasses, and if you ever see cows near cornfields, you'd know they consider the plant as edible. The corn fed cows is basically leaves and stalks. It's grass.

I'm all for "true" grass-fed cattle, because "corn" has become this monster, sucking up way more water and soil nutrients than virtually anything else that grows from soil, and unable to produce its own seed for reproduction thanks to the geniuses at Monsanto. But cattle aren't being fed "grain" in any respect other than that corn is a grain crop. Grains are grasses, and if you eat the whole plant, you're eating grass. Actual grass produces "grain" seeds, which are eaten by ruminants when they eat grass or hay.

Lew Bryson said...

Great God almighty, Bill, I am embarrassed to admit that as a guy who grew up next to a farm I never even questioned the "feedlot cows are fed corn" statement. Of course it's silage. That said, I have read that a feedlot diet -- which is mainly corn and corn silage -- is not ideal for a healthy animal, although it does put the pounds on. Obviously, there's more research to be done on my part.

Lew Bryson said...


Buying local is not that easy, true. It's a chicken/egg thing, much like organic crops: if you don't buy it, there won't be enough, but if you try to buy it, there's never enough. AAAAHGHGH!!! However...craft beer used to be like that. It's gotten better as people buy more of it. I suspect buying local will be the same; I've seen it work in places.

Stonch said...

Is a cheesesteak just a steak with a load of cheese on top? If so who conceived of such a thing? Elvis? I mean surely it's just a fast route to an early grave?

Lew Bryson said...

Stonch...if you're a vegetarian, all meat is a fast route to an early grave! A cheesesteak is a long roll, kind of like a short baguette, slit lengthwise, and filled (not TOO full) with very thin-sliced beef that has been sauteed on a grill, sometimes with onions. Cheese is then put on top -- again, not TOO much. As with anything, it can be overdone, but a reasonable one is actually not a horrible thing for the diet...unlike, say, a deep-fried Mars bar. And they're effin' delish.

Anonymous said...


I, too, was unaware of silage being called simply "corn." Are cows really never fed only the grain? If that's the case, your statement is true enough...except that, compared to hay, the grain at the end of the corn stalk is much more substantial than that on any small grass, and the fiber in the corn stalk is much heavier than that in small grass, and likewise harder to digest. I've chewed on grass stems, and I'm willing to bet my system can handle them much more easily than a corn stalk, even if, during the silage process, that fiber has been somewhat broken down. I stand by my statement that corn requires more medication on the cow, however (at least that's what farmers have told me), and may be due to those tough fibers. And you're right, corn is a drain on the environment in general, especially the Frankencorn now being used. I know of old timers still using heirloom open-pollen corn (corn that can reproduce itself) that they've grown for years, so that they aren't dependent on Monsanto, who controls almost all the patented genetics involved with modern hybrids.

...and to anonymous bill mc,

Yes, intermittent supplies can be a problem, so why not do as Otto's does: feature it as a special when available, not as a standard menu item. Allows much more flexibility on the part of all involved!

Also, State College has indeed come a long way from the cow town (pardon the pun) it was back when. The same can probably be said of any town not affected by industrial slowdown. I'm glad that the outer limits of the burg are populated by the likes of Otto's! We're still a small town by most modern standards, though not as small as we once were.

Bill said...

"Are cows really never fed only the grain? If that's the case, your statement is true enough...except that, compared to hay, the grain at the end of the corn stalk is much more substantial than that on any small grass, and the fiber in the corn stalk is much heavier than that in small grass, and likewise harder to digest. I've chewed on grass stems, and I'm willing to bet my system can handle them much more easily than a corn stalk, even if, during the silage process, that fiber has been somewhat broken down."

If cows were fed straight grain, beef would be very pricy. Corn-fed cows are fed silage, usually mixed with a little alfalfa and often cottonseed. If they ever get straight grain, it would have to be an adjunct to their main diet -- 40+ lbs of grain a day is expensive and adds up.

And whether we can digest small grass easier then corn stalks is immaterial, as we're a few stomachs short of a cow! Dairy cows in the east have been fed corn for years.

I'm with you on grass -- it's better for the environment. The antibiotic argument is more due to close quarters -- if we switch to grass but cattle never leave feedlots, folks would feel they need to pump in antibiotics. But I hate seeing the grass/grain thing, especially as fad nutritionists warn against our eating grain by using cattle as the comparison -- "they use corn to fatten cows." Well, no. They use lack of movement and unfettered access to more food than necessary to fatten cows, but whether that food is grass or corn silage doesn't matter. Cows can eat and digest this stuff. Whether one is marginally better than the other -- could be. But the difference is that between romaine and red leaf, not romaine and Twinkies.

Anonymous said...

To Sam K.:

Yeah, you're right about the special bit, but she can be a pain in the butt as well.

The comment about State College was meant to be positive, just shocking to me how much has changed. Didn't think the area had enough population to support all that growth, college kids being college kids.

And my wife and I loved the new Creamery.