There’s no shortage of buzz about plant-based options at the center of the plate, but plenty of diners still crave the meat-centric meals they’re used to. With the right choices, serving those meaty dishes doesn’t have to blow the bottom line. “You can take something economical and elevate it to a high-end dish,” says Keith Griffin, chef and location manager for James Madison University Dining in Harrisonburg, Va. Read on to see which of-the-moment cuts operators are sourcing to get the meatiest bang for their buck.
1. Pork shoulder
Griffin likes to use meats that benefit from slow cooking. “This process allows the protein fibers to soften and break away easily,” he says. “With pork shoulder, for example, if you tried to grill it and serve like you would a steak, then it would be extremely tough and virtually inedible. When you slow-cook it for eight-plus hours, however, it pulls apart easily.” Barbecue pulled pork is a dining hall staple, he says.
2. Sirloin flap meat
Kenneth Wilbanks—corporate director of food services for The Palace Group, which includes eight senior living communities in Florida—likes using sirloin flap meat in Asian, Southern and Latin preparations. That means anything from rubbing with Texas-style spices to drizzling with Argentinian-inspired chimichurri. “When they introduced this cut, it was very inexpensive, in the $3 to $4 [per pound] range. In recent years, it’s still a value at $5.50,” he says. “We put Asian rub on it, roast it with wood and chill it down and slice it thin, thin, thin, and that becomes a Korean-style beef.”
3. Ground turkey
At Fulton Medical Center in Fulton, Mo., Director of Food and Nutrition Kara Jaegers uses ground turkey as a cost-effective staple for winter menus. “Comfort foods such as chili, spaghetti and tacos are popular right now, and I can’t beat the price of ground turkey versus ground beef,” she says.
4. Chuck roll
“Chuck roll, neck off—that has so many uses, I can’t even begin,” Wilbanks says. One of his favorite preparations is to slice the meat thick and braise it for a pot roast-style presentation. “We have the meat as the center of the plate in a nice chunk, and then around the outside, roasted carrots, leeks, onions and potato. We don’t cook it all together, so you see the roasting of each vegetable,” he says.
5. Pork belly
This trendy cut has soared in popularity throughout restaurants in major markets in the past decade, but it wasn’t an instant hit on campus at James Madison. “Not everyone really knew what it was,” Griffin says. “When we explained that it was really just uncured bacon, people seemed to perk up to the idea.”
6. Beef franks
Sometimes you can’t go wrong with the all-American hot dog. “With the low food cost of beef franks, we run Friday hot dog and chip specials,” Jaegers says. “When customers are on the go, it’s an easy lunch that’s affordable. Chili dogs, pigs in a blanket and [our DIY] hot dog bar are popular.”