Tom Sietsema reviews Parts & Labor in Baltimore

When you’re bringing a steer and three hogs a week into your kitchen, you need space to break them down into pieces suitable for cooking and serving. So you can imagine his delight when Spike Gjerde, the chef and co-owner of the beloved Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, acquired a building with carving room to spare: a former tire shop and car storage operation in a part of town called Remington. The structure comes with garage doors and a loading dock, making it easy to transport whole animals inside.

Better for public relations, the set-up, big enough to hang 16 head of steer, “doesn’t traumatize our neighbors much,” cracks Gjerde.

Since its rollout in April, Parts & Labor, Gjerde’s combination butcher shop and restaurant, has also been supplying the chef’s related venues around town, including Artifact Coffee and Shoo-Fly Diner, with protein that has been dry-aged for at least a month in the arrival’s big refrigerated locker.

A forest of oak logs, stacked in open sheds outside the pink-and-green facade, introduces customers to the preferred mode of heat. Gjerde helped create the 10-foot-high hearth that incorporates soapstone from a quarry in Charlottesville and reclaimed cobblestones from Baltimore. The enclosed bonfire dominates the long kitchen, tended by executive chef and lead butcher George Marsh. His single-page script is concise, and it asks customers to be open-minded. Tucked among the rib-eyes and pork chops are less familiar cuts of meat — bavette, culotte — as well as sausages flavored with innards that amount to organ recitals.

A yellow light to potential patrons: You may or may not see chicken. Fish is an infrequent sight. This is a kitchen devoted to meaty pleasures.

And some cheesy ones. Parts & Labor does a riff on pimento cheese that glams up the Southern classic with garlic scapes and red chili pepper powder. The first seasoning gives the dip a stab of freshness; the second accent cranks up the heat. The jar of fun is delivered with ridged crackers that are baked at Woodberry Kitchen and good enough to munch on their own.

“If Slim Jim got its act together,” says our young server at Parts & Labor, “this is what it would taste like.” The ropes of semi-dried boar spiced with garlic are indeed far removed from the stiff red sticks you find at gas stations and truck stops.

Parts & Labor acknowledges the city’s German and Polish roots with its sausage, a lot that includes weisswurst and kielbasa. Another category, “From the Salt House,” shows off delicious corned tongue, lush mortadella and a smoky, coriander-laced “Beautiful Bastard.” Based on beef and pork, it’s true to its name on the tongue.

Marsh pens an eater-friendly menu. Alongside each cut, the menu relays information including muscle location and optimum doneness. Thus the flat iron, from the shoulder blade, shows up as six ounces of crimson meat. The beef, sliced just before it leaves the kitchen and sprinkled with local salt, picks up further succulence with an herb relish on the plate.

“Varieties” brings together frequently overlooked parts of animals and underscores the chefs’ commitment to avoid waste. Pig liver, beef heart and fermented lamb salami add their heady funk and richness to the zesty “dirty rice,” made bright with fresh cilantro and bits of egg. Blood sausage is a little one-note for my taste, although I appreciate the soft, dark link’s escorts of a fried duck egg and thick Pullman toast dabbed with pepper jam.

A tip for President Obama: Have the Secret Service whisk you to Parts & Labor to indulge in your hamburger fetish. The sandwich is built with juicy, dry-aged chuck, topped with some of that spicy cheese that may have initiated dinner, plus charred onions. At least that’s how I found my hamburger on a recent weekend. The menu changes from day to day; your mileage may vary.

Add some tubers to the meat-fest. The only side dish better than the split sweet potato, grilled on a metal plate, is the chunky potato salad topped with hard-cooked egg. Swiss chard suffers from what smacks of an ocean of soy sauce. The hammy collards make a superior cooked green. Snake Oil, biting with cider vinegar and fish peppers, is offered for those who might want an extra splash of heat in their food.

Not every dish is worth the trek or signals the farmhouse freshness inhaled by diners at Woodberry Kitchen, the lofty food barn in Clipper Mill. The thin Korean ribs at Parts & Labor are cloying in their sweetness, and a salad trumpeting summer with tomatoes, snow peas, ribbons of squash and wood sorrel comes with only a vague trace of its promised ramp-and-herb dressing. Eating the combination is more an act of duty than an act of joy.

The smell of rubber and grease has been replaced by the perfume of smoke and wood in the 84-seat dining room, its industrial edges smoothed over with half-curtains in the windows and a fetching bar in the rear. “People who used to get their tires changed here are now coming for steak,” a server tells my posse one night. A stool at one of the tall communal tables gives you a good view of the place. A perch in a semi-enclosed booth hugging the wall brings with it more privacy. Wherever you’re led, the smart and breezy service suggests Gjerde hosted a casting call in San Francisco or Portland. Expect to see lots of ink and antique facial hair. Inquire about a dish, and you get a CV on the ingredients.

The dishes at Parts & Labor are served in a manner this diner has grown to loathe: “as they’re cooked,” a waiter says when taking our orders. One night, and even to the server’s surprise, a hamburger and a steak show up ahead of the bread and butter. Pacing is a routine problem here. While I get that hand-crafted cocktails take time to create — and this bar’s efforts rock — they shouldn’t lag as if they’re dessert. While I’m writing about it, the best of the endings is a warm blondie, garnished with peaches and ice cream and dropped off in a black casserole.

Dinner tempts you to check out the tidy butcher shop and fill a basket with some of the same treats you enjoyed from the menu, along with aprons, knives, even a local beer from the “growler” station.

All that’s missing to repeat the flavor of Parts at home: the labor.

2 stars

Location: 2600 N. Howard St., Baltimore. 443-873-8887.

Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Snacks and salads, $2
to $12; sandwiches and main courses, $10 to $32.

Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

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Location: 2600 N. Howard St., Baltimore. 443-873-8887.

Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Snacks and salads, $2
to $12; sandwiches and main courses, $10 to $32.

Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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