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For meat lovers, a cut above

October 21, 2003|MARY McNAMARA

Harmony Farms is a small nondescript storefront on the endless commercial stretch that is Foothill Boulevard in La Crescenta. Within its immediate vicinity are an escrow company, a florist, a Goodwill donations center, a carwash and a bar called, whimsically enough, Up Th' Hill. Nothing that would hint at, say, the skinned carcass of a wild boar or a flash-frozen coil of rattlesnake. From the street, at 40 mph, Harmony Farms could be a granola-

binned health food store or an organic fruit stand.

So it's quite a shock to step across the threshold and smell meat. Real meat, bloody meat, the kind we used to buy in butcher shops from men in crimson-splashed aprons before the chains took over and put so much cellophane and Styrofoam all over everything it's hard to tell what it is, exactly. And during the last week, as pickets kept strike-supporting customers out of the nearby Ralphs and Vons, it was a smell that many people were experiencing once again.

Harmony Farms is a meat store, a specialty meat store. Here you can buy hormone-free beef, free-range turkey, lamb and chicken. But that's not all Harmony Farms is. Also for sale are kangaroo patties and elk medallions, ostrich meat, wild boar sausage and hunks of Cajun alligator, whole rabbits and duck and black tiger shrimp. Buffalo and venison come in many shapes and forms and there is the aforementioned rattlesnake, ready to be simmered into a stew.

"We get what people want," says Sonny Cabrales, manager and part-owner. "So someone came in, said 'How come you don't got rattlesnake?' and now we got rattlesnake."

Harmony Farms sells to health food stores, markets and restaurants as well as making home deliveries as far away as Orange County. The store has regular customers who have been coming in practically since it opened its doors almost 30 years ago. Lately, in the wake of the supermarket strike, there has been a lot of new walk-in business. "We can get people fresh steaks, no problem," Cabrales says, "but a pound of ground beef -- I deal in 300 pound lots, so that doesn't work for me."

Instead, he points out the various patties, mentioning that elk, buffalo and especially ostrich are all leaner than beef. Still, he is very proud of the conspicuously marbled Kobe beef the store stocks at $29 a pound. "Look at that," he says, holding out a steak shot through with fat. "That's perfect."

For those accustomed to mondo supermarket shopping, Harmony Farms is a vision and a revision. The area of the store itself could fit into the frozen pizza section of most supermarkets, the freezer cases are heaped with meat; display is clearly not part of the equation. There is no soothing music here, no sound of the rain forest or colors positioned to promote optimum consumer compliance. Though there have been changes made to keep up with customer mood swings, they've been more about adding rattlesnakes than cappuccino.

Harmony Farms used to be La Crescenta Meat Lockers, and that's the kind of history that sticks.

When Cabrales joined the staff in 1980, about five years after the store opened, a ranch-owning Californian was about to enter the White House, the turkey burger was a punch line for a Jimmie Walker joke and it was not unusual for even city folks to buy their meat off the hoof. A big part of their business was renting out meat locker space.

"When we started, you could rent a locker room for a side of beef," Cabrales says. "People used to buy a side of beef."

Or a whole lamb or a whole pig. A few customers still store their meat at Harmony Farms, but the demand for a meat locker of one's own has diminished significantly in the Los Angeles area and no one feels it more keenly than Cabrales, who has been working with meat for most of his adult life.

"Everything is different now," he says a bit sadly, surveying the limited hanging contents of one locker -- two sides of beef and a string of shanks.

They are the last steers auctioned off at this year's L.A. County Fair -- Cabrales and his staff cut a lot of meat for the 4-H'ers and others during the fair season -- and they are far outweighed by the boxes of repetitive and specific cuts stacked in boxes marked Harris Ranch. People still eat a lot of red meat, Cabrales says, but it's all the same sort of red meat.

"People got no use for short ribs anymore," Cabrales says, "no use for pot roast, not much use for brisket. It's all steak and tri-tips so it doesn't make sense for us to bring the animals in whole as much anymore."

Not that there aren't whole animals in the lockers at Harmony Farms. Four wild boar hang from their hoofs amid the stacks of brown boxes, skinned, each with signs reading: "Not for sale."

These belong to local hunters; Harmony Farms also dresses local wild game. Every year, the meat cutters go through about 80 deer, maybe 60 wild boar.

"You can't really tell," Cabrales says. "Depends on how good the hunters are that year."

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