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A prime gig: Tony Sousa's foray into dry-aging beef started as an experiment

Ricardo Gandara

Would you believe a butcher who says that dry-aging your steak basically rotting the meat for 20 to 40 days will make it taste dramatically better?

Tony Sousa, the plant manager at Lone Star Food Service in East Austin, wants to explain why.

"A dry-aged steak that I personally select and give the loving touch will have a beefier, more concentrated and robust flavor," he says.

Though Sousa, 50, oversees hiring, training and the day-to-day operations of the East Austin meat-processing plant, dry-aging steaks is his thing. "The room is my baby," he says referring to a 150-square-foot room set aside at Lone Star for dry-aging steaks. "This is where we create steaks," he says. "First, butchering is an art, and aging beef is a creative process."

Lone Star's dry-age room has a padlock on the door to limit access, right away telling you that no one messes with Sousa's baby. Here, 2,000 pounds of beef — rib-eyes, strips and T-bones — rest on metal shelves, each one with a tag that has the customer's name and number of days that customer wants the meat dry-aged, the date the meat was cut at Lone Star and the date the meat was placed in the room. After the meat is just right, it is driven in refrigerated trucks to restaurants in Austin, Kerrville, Fredericksburg, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. In Austin, Sousa's dry-aged steaks can be found at Four Seasons, Steiner Ranch Steakhouse and, occasionally, Olivia, Bess Bistro and South Congress Cafe. "We also send our wet-aged beef to Dan's Hamburgers and Matt's El Rancho," says Sousa.

Lone Star sells only to retailers, but its dry-aged steaks can be found at The Meat House in Austin. The public can order gift boxes at www.lonestarfood.com.

Sousa was raised on a farm in central Brazil, where his family harvested the animals that landed on the kitchen table. He started working in restaurants at age 22, first as a busboy and eventually as a chef. He moved on to becoming a general manager of a hotel in charge of purchasing food for its restaurants. He started at Lone Star 15 years ago, making hamburger patties, and worked his way to butcher.

Now, as the hands-on plant manager who arrives at work by 5:30 a.m., he oversees a staff of about 40 in the plant's cutting room floor and transportation department.

On a recent tour of Lone Star, Sousa is wearing the customary gloves, hairnet and warm clothing. The cutting room floor is kept at a chilly 40 degrees. He's trained and hired nearly everyone in the room. It's a friendly, happy environment, judging from the chatter. "I am their friend and a mentor," Sousa says.

But Sousa wants to talk about the dry-age room. About two years ago, Lone Star president Franklin Hall came to him about offering dry-aged steaks. Sousa researched on the Internet and started with a small room to start the experiment. "We outgrew it in six months," says Sousa. He and co-workers started a larger space, using recycled metal for the frame of the room and the shelves that would hold the meat.

Fashioning a room from scratch and developing the step-by-step drying process has made Sousa a bit of an expert. "I put my steaks up to anyone's in the nation, and I am confident my steaks will out-flavor others," he says. Often, restaurateurs who are customers of Lone Star summon him to do cutting demonstrations for chefs.

"Tony is like a vintner in a winery," says his boss, Franklin Hall, who bought the company in 1996 from his dad, Frank E. Hall, who purchased Lone Star in East Austin in 1971. "And my grandfather, John H. Hall, who worked for the Swift company in Fort Worth, was the first Hall in the meat business."

Sousa guards a secret or two about his dry-aging process, but the rest is out in the open. Dry-aging meat is about controlling the temperature, humidity, air flow and lighting. Meat freezes at 28 degrees. Sousa keeps his room between 36 and 39 degrees. An alarm system alerts Sousa through his cell phone if the temperature climbs above 40 degrees. "Under a controlled temperature, dry-aging is a slow process, like the rotting of cheese," he says.

What does it mean to the customer who bites into a Lone Star steak? "The slow-rot process breaks up the meat's muscle fibers at a microscopic level," explains Hall. "When you bite into meat, there's less resistance from the muscles so it becomes more tender," he says.

Thus, a dry-aged steak loses some of its juices, as opposed to the wet-aged steaks that Lone Star also produces. Lone Star's wet-age steaks are left to age in their natural juices and immediately vacuum packed on the cutting room floor. The dry-aged steak is more expensive.

Sousa will tell you that it takes a team to create a steak, starting with the rancher. Lone Star uses meat suppliers who use sustainable ranching practices. The company gets its beef, pork and lamb from Niman Ranch, a network of more than 650 ranches that use sustainable grazing and humane husbandry methods. A lot of the Angus heritage beef that is vegetarian-fed (corn and grain) is raised in the Midwest. Some beef also comes from the Windy Bar Ranch in Stonewall, where owner Michael Klein raises pure-bred Angus beef.

Sousa has visited ranches to fully appreciate the business of serving quality steaks on dinner plates. "It starts with the rancher who lovingly feeds the animals and then on to harvesting. At Lone Star, our job is to age it properly and cut it properly for plate presentation," says Sousa.

Cutting meat is an art, Sousa insists. "It takes creativity to make a steak look good. My business is cutting meat, but I have to think about the father taking his family out for a meal, or a couple on a date, or someone trying to close a business deal.

"We want them to bite into our steak and say, 'Wow!' "

rgandara@statesman.com; 445-3632