Summertime and backyard grilling go hand in hand ... unless you don't have a yard, a grill, or any of the requisite paraphernalia — wicked appetite and supply of cold beer notwithstanding. And even if you have everything you need to grill outdoors, the prospect of another meal of overcooked burgers and hot dogs might not hold appeal.
So I sought the advice of local chefs and other food pros — the very folks who earn their livelihood grilling and smoking meats (and vegetables, too) at a high level and who, as it turns out, often live in small apartments with shared (or nonexistent) yards and no room for fancy equipment. The consensus? With a bit of MacGyver-style improvisational know-how and some good old-fashioned elbow grease, there's no reason apartment-dwellers — even those with nary a patch of grass to call their own — can't put together a drool-worthy summer barbecue.
Beyond Burgers and Hot Dogs
It should come as no surprise that a great grilling experience starts with selecting the right piece of meat. Toward that end, your local butcher can be an invaluable resource. Aaron Rocchino, co-owner of Berkeley's Local Butcher Shop (1600 Shattuck Ave.) and a former chef at Chez Panisse, said he often steers customers toward cuts they might be less familiar with. The advantages of this are twofold: These unsung cuts are often just as tasty, if not tastier, than their more popular counterparts (like rib eye and New York steak), and they're usually a bit cheaper, too.
One of Rocchino's favorite cuts of beef is the coulotte, which is the cap of meat located above the top sirloin, and which can be purchased whole or as individual steaks. If he knows a customer plans to grill the coulotte whole, Rocchino will leave on a pretty substantial layer of fat, which, when rendered on the grill, gets nice and crispy and allows the meat to develop a "caramel-y" flavor. At Local Butcher Shop, the coulotte sells for $20 a pound — not inexpensive, but still less costly than a rib eye or a filet mignon. For a less expensive beef option, Rocchino recommends the flat iron ($11/lb.), a part of the shoulder that "works real hard" and thus develops great flavor.
In general, Rocchino tends to recommend grilling whole roasts or big, shareable steaks — thicker cuts that can spend more time on the grill without overcooking, and are thus more conducive to flavor- and crust-development.
When it comes to the grilling itself, Rocchino has three tips: 1) Let the meat come to room temperature before you cook it, lest you risk burning the outside of your steak while the middle is still stone-cold raw. 2) Season the meat while it's coming to room temperature — or even earlier if it's a big roast — so that the seasoning gets inside. 3) Once the meat is cooked, wait awhile before cutting it to avoid losing all those precious juices.
Meanwhile, chef Lev Delany, the "meat guy" at Oakland's Chop Bar (247 4th St., Ste. 111) and the soon-to-open restaurant and beer garden, Brotzeit Lokal — he of the roasted whole pigs and house-made charcuterie — keeps it simple when he grills at home. He goes to the Marin Sun Farms butcher counter at Rockridge Market Hall (5655 College Ave.) to get a bone-in porterhouse, about two-and-a-half inches thick. Delany rubs the meat with salt and pepper, lets it come to room temperature, and then cooks it on a hot grill for about ten minutes on each side. You can even try the same method on the stovetop with a cast-iron skillet, but "it will be smoky as all holy hell," Delany warned.
Lizzy Boelter, proprietor of The Grease Box Mobile Kitchen — a gluten-free food business that's most famous for its fried chicken — draws on her Southern heritage when she grills at home. One of her favorites is pork ribs (see recipe on the next page), cooked "low and slow," coated with a dry rub made with old, ground-up coffee beans and chili flakes. It's an adaptable recipe: Boelter said she's had success cooking the ribs on the grill, in the oven, and even in the toaster oven (that jack-of-all-trades in many an apartment kitchen).
The key to this slow-cooking approach, Boelter said, is to grill the meat until it has the texture you want — not to be a slave to the meat thermometer: "That's one of those things that chefs know that normal people might not know: Don't worry about the temperature. If you're cooking something for ten hours, it's going to be done."
All of this said, when done properly a grilled burger is a glorious thing. Even after serving up hundreds of burgers every day for his gourmet food truck business, Fivetenburger, Roland Robles still finds himself making them at home all the time. "Since we sear them on the trucks, having them grilled at home is a treat," he said.
Again, the quality of the meat matters, but Robles isn't overly fussy. For home cooks, he suggests hitting up the butcher section at your local grocery store: "The closest carnicería would be a fine choice." Ask for the freshest grind — most places regularly grind their chuck, which, because of its higher fat content, makes for a nice, juicy patty. (That 95-percent-lean stuff might make you feel less guilty, but it'll surely produce a dry and flavorless burger.) Robles is also fond of using beef alternatives for his homemade burgers: turkey, bison, seasoned pork, and lamb.