Meat Your Maker: Butcher & Bird is Now Open at Salt
This smartly done boutique butchery serves delicious ready-to-eat sausages, plus a curated counterful of quality cuts, bespoke pickles and one mean chocolate chip cookie.
Photos: Don Wallace
Going to a butcher shop is one of those interactive-human parts of life that we celebrate when watching programs such as the greatly lamented Anthony Bourdain’s, yet never—or rarely—do in our real lives. But it’s not our fault, most of the time. We don’t have a lot of butcher shops to visit, thanks to the industrialization of our food chain.
That’s what makes butcher Charles Wakeman’s quest to open his own space in Salt in Kaka‘ako both poignant and to-the-point. He’s rolled the dice on his double decades of experience, including cooking and meat-making at Vintage Cave, just as America and the world is in the midst of a big cathartic cry over losing Bourdain, its champion of the authentic and noncorporate.
Here’s what you can get at Butcher & Bird: food you can eat on the spot and fresh cuts you can cook at home—meaning you can have your meat and eat it, too. (Oh, and there’s also a terrific chocolate chunk-macadamia nut-crunchy coconut cookie that is as big as a salad plate.)
The in-house eats star a variety of handmade sausage and quality deli sandwiches. The big succulent sausages—we tasted a brat, a Kielbasa, an Italian, a classic pork and a chorizo at a media sampling—are skin-popping plump, delicate as mousse in composition and nuanced in their spicing. Not, in other words, like those extra-ingredient-packed rubbery things you get in the supermarket.
“Making sausage is similar to making dough,” Wakeman explains. “In dough gluten acts as a binding agent. In meat, it’s myosin,” a protein that emerges in the mixing process and “acts as an emulsifier.” You can buy them here raw or, for the in-house sausage sandwiches, cooked. “We poach them until they hit 165 degrees, then finish on the grill.”
He adds spices with a light hand. “You don’t want to add any fresh herbs, or onions, because they’ll add water and break down the myosin,” he says. Instead, for your $12, each sausage variety gets its own topping, composed with ingenuity and umami by Wakeman with input from his wife, Jesa Simpkins, aka “The Bird”—she’s a well-known aerial silk instructor and performer.
The brat gets homemade sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard—a classic without embellishment. The Polish kielbasa gets a heaping helping of kim chee dill pickle relish, pickled mustard seeds and green onion—it’s a garden of pickled delights. The classic pork goes whole hog via a slathering of bacon jam and avocado purée with sliced tomato and cilantro—smooth and unctuous. The chorizo’s layers of street corn relish, pickled jalapeño, picante crema and cilantro sparked on several levels, the latter a long-lasting but subtle heat.
The other side of the menu is composed of deli sandwiches. The well-composed Italian combo got me talking to Anthony Provenzano, senior vice president of Cushman & Wakefield/ChaneyBrooks, who brokered the space for Wakeman. Although born and raised in the Islands, he had his memories of the ideal Italian sandwich, which matched mine, from a place on Santa Fe Avenue down on the docks of Long Beach, Calif. where all the ingredients “fell off the truck.” Needless to say, these memories do not include a 5-inch pile of Boar’s Head on a foot-long hero that resembles cardboard. Instead, in the right way, the way Wakeman does it, there’s an airy interpolation of quality coppa, soppressata and salami, along with lettuce, tomato and pepperoncini, on a roll spritzed by a light oil and vinegar dressing. We did debate the choice of a soft roll, but succumbed after Wakeman explained it was from This Is It, source of the best bagel and bialy in town.
There was also a Philly cheesesteak, which thankfully avoided imitation (no Cheez Whiz, no American), especially in the matter of meat. This was a real steak, not that brown stuff they do in Philadelphia. And so it was good.
Bringing up the quality of the meat takes us to the heart of Butcher & Bird. Wakeman buys the best local stuff—all Kunoa Cattle grass-fed beef and Pono Pork, the day we were there. As he breaks it down, he’s finding a use for everything, whether in the sausages, the sandwiches or else out in the case.
He knows he’s got a nice neighborhood growing around him and is pricing his wares to be competitive, to pull in people who live or work nearby and don’t want to enter the parking inferno of Whole Foods or Down to Earth at quitting time. The display the day I was there had Pono Pork: bone-in chop for $14.98 a pound and pork belly and porchetta belly for $10.98 per pound. The Kunoa grass-feed beef offerings were a New York strip for $20.98 a pound, a boneless top sirloin for $10.98 a pound and a flap meat or bavette cut for $12.98 a pound.
The presence of the flap meat is a calling card, a way a butcher hangs out his sign that says he’s the real thing. It and onglet, hanger steak, are often called the butcher’s cuts—the ones reserved to take home to the family. They’ve got a chewier and more flavorful grain. (Bourdain first made his mark slinging hanger steak and a magret de canard, duck breast, in the chaotic exuberance of Brasserie Les Halles in New York City back in the late 1990s, a scene described in his book Kitchen Confidential.)
Born in Hayward, Calif., Wakeman spent 10 years in Chicago doing his butcher’s apprenticeship before returning home. He worked in restaurants in Venice and La Jolla, “surfing from Pismo to SoCal,” he admits, before a visit to Hawai‘i. “When I surfed for the first time without a wetsuit I knew I had to live here.”
He started off cooking, since that’s where the jobs were. “I was at The Whole Ox and then cooked with Chris Kajioka at Vintage Cave,” he says. “What always happened was they’d find out about my other talents: ‘Oh, you can make sausage!’” Soon he’d be butchering and curing on top of cooking. “I finally realized my skill set as a butcher was much more unique and went to Whole Foods Kailua and worked as a butcher for a year and a half.”
But, he realized, “the corporate idea of a successful day is different from mine. I like to take care of the quality, check up with the supplier, wait on the customer, not spend the day filling out forms and talking to management on the phone.”
His story made me think about how I got my introduction to the idea of having my own butcher. I was 20 when two guys, Don and Harry, broke away from the local supermarket to open their own little place in our neighborhood in Santa Cruz. After some trepidation on both our parts (they were serious family men, I lived in the freaky old rock n’ roll Victorian and went barefoot as much as possible), they wooed me with affordable butcher’s cuts and recipe advice—the same service Wakeman is offering, by the way—and over the course of a year and a half changed my way of eating.
With Butcher & Bird, Wakeman has a chance to change a lot of people’s shopping and eating habits, for the better, one tasty bite at a time.
324 Coral St., #207, at Salt at Our Kaka‘ako. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., (808) 762-8095, butcherandbirdhi.com.
Bring the family down to the Best of Honolulu Festival July 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Honolulu Hale civic grounds. Eat at ‘ono food booths, shop local designers in the marketplace, bring the family to the keiki zone for face painting, balloon animals, rides, games and more. For more information, visit honolulumagazine.com/bestofhonolulu.