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An Omnivore's Dilemma 

Meat two ways: pricey barbecue at T-Rex, bargain Moroccan at Tajine

Wednesday, May 3 2006
When pressed to justify my omnivorous eating patterns by those who choose to restrict their grazing, I've always replied, a trifle flippantly, that I'm pleased with my place in the food chain, adding that I'm sure a bear would have no compunction about reminding me of my position relative to him if I crossed his path. (A careless jest that, as I saw recently demonstrated in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, is all too true.) But there's a classier, better thought-out rationale, as expressed by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which he makes many points in defense of humans eating animals, including the salient one that most domesticated animals can't survive in the wild; in fact, without us eating them they wouldn't exist at all! (Italics and exclamation point his.) His elegant argument goes on for many pages, so in the future I will send people to Pollan's book. In fact, I might take to carrying around a Xerox of the relevant passages.

I may rest easier about my appetites, but Pollan's description of the CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or feedlots) in which animals are bred to be slaughtered — not to mention his account of the contents of their feed — puts me off my feed. (Pollan writes, "Yet I'm sure that after enough time goes by, and the stink of this place is gone from my nostrils, I will eat feedlot beef again.") Pollan is a realist. I remember being annoyed by an article by Jeffrey Steingarten about heritage pigs, in which he parsed out his own meat morality this way: "If I must kill, I'll kill only the best ... As eating the best animal flesh can be very expensive, I can afford to eat meat considerably less often than before." He also confesses, "The only time I eat commercial pork is when it comes in the form of delectable pit barbecue piled high on a paper plate set before me by a champion pit master." Well, I thought, that neatly eliminates from your life all manner of highly enjoyable street food, junk food, and fast food. Is there a banh mi stand that uses heritage pork? Could I afford it if it did?

When I bring home more than $90 worth of takeout from T-Rex, the rather haute and eagerly awaited (its construction took a couple of years) barbecue place in Berkeley, my father is a bit taken aback at the total, but I point out that at T-Rex, to quote the menu, "All of our meat is raised naturally with humane care, hormone-free without antibiotics." Furthermore, a rack of ribs at Everett and Jones, a short car ride away, is $25, as opposed to $28 at T-Rex (and the meat likely isn't "hormone-free without antibiotics"). When I ask at E&J for the sauce to be served on the side, the servers invariably reply that they've run out of sauce cups. And I was shocked to discover that, while a rotisserie chicken goes for $4.99 at Costco and $12 at Cafe Rouge, chicken at E&J is $9 a half, or $18 for a whole bird. (Granted, it comes with mediocre potato salad and cardboard bread.)

What I'm saying is that I'd rather spend more money for better quality — essentially what Steingarten said, no matter how elitist I found his screed. The ribs from T-Rex are utterly delicious: meaty, moist, delectable pig candy. When I examine the rest of the meal, however, it's uneven: I'm not nuts about either of the sauces, mild or spicy (though they do come with proper takeout containers). The pulled pork shoulder tastes odd to me, and the brisket, though well flavored, is too firm, too sturdy. I want it to melt in my mouth. Two of the three sides — the celery root mashed potatoes (a silky purée) and the fried baby artichokes with aioli — elicit raves; not so the long-cooked greens, though I like the chunk of ham hocks I find among them. We love the cakey, sweet slab of Belma Bucket's corn bread, big enough that four adults would have been satiated with one order rather than the two I brought home.

My dad and I concur with the general Berkeley foodie opinion, which is that T-Rex has improved after a slightly rocky opening (our initial lunch there was encouraging). Berkeleyans were so eager with pent-up longing for a sit-down barbecue place of their very own, so tired of having to drive out to Bo's in Lafayette, that they piled into T-Rex's chic, airy two-story place en masse and then posted bitter rants online about having to wait for their food. (The horror! The horror!) And that's despite the fact that at T-Rex you can begin your repast with grilled sweetbreads and rabbit liver mousse (that's Berkeley barbecue, folks).

Unlike Steingarten, I'm entirely happy to pay too little for my food, upon occasion. When Tommy and I try the tiny Tajine, open since last fall on a rather gritty Tenderloin block, we are so pleased that nearly everything on the menu is under $10 (save the brochette royale, a combination grill of lamb, chicken, and kufta kebabs served with soup and salad for $11.95) that we split a chicken bastilla to start and go on to lamb couscous for Tommy and chicken tajine for me. (It's called "chicken tajine" on the blackboard and "dajaj mequalli" on the to-go menu.) "Too much food!" warns our server, but we assure him we'll take stuff home.

The plump, perfect round of phyllo dough dusted with powdered sugar reveals a tasty, moist stuffing of shredded chicken, ground almonds, and eggs. My stewed chicken may have been cooked in one of the conical tajines that decorate the open kitchen — which takes up a big chunk of the storefront, leaving only enough room for four cramped tables for two — but it comes to the table already plated, a thigh and leg topped with preserved lemon shreds and olives, swimming in saffroned juice. A heap of fluffy couscous is topped with nicely gamy, tender lamb chunks, carrots, zucchini, and potatoes; it reminds me of the little couscous places I'd frequent as a student in Paris. The warm, crusty, delightful Moroccan bread is perfect for sopping up juices. I love this food, so much so that I'm almost willing to forgive the harsh light pouring down on us from decorative Moroccan wrought-iron lanterns (and I don't ask whether the meat is raised humanely and antibiotic-free). I admire a big bowl of harira, fragrant lentil soup, brought to an adjoining table. It looks like a meal, and it's only $3.50. We sip sweet mint tea from small glasses.

When we say we'll try both the dessert offerings, baklava and shpakia (another honeyed Moroccan pastry, tubular and dusted with sesame seeds), our server again insists on saving us money: "They come two to a plate," he says, "so I'll just give you one of each."

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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