EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appeared in the April 4, 2014, edition of the Manteca Bulletin.
MANTECA – Frank Teixeira pulls clumps of thinly sliced tri-tip from a tin with silver tongs, layering it like bricks across a bread roll.
From the cooler, he fetches tomatoes, onions, lettuce and cheese. There are bottles of sauces and other condiments, too.
But the secret, he says, is in the seasoning.
And the seasoning, he illustrates with a motion of his arm, the tongs now serving as a pointer, is in everything from the meat on the grill to the Portuguese beans under glass.
In fact, if Teixeira were to snap his apron in the air, fluffing it as though it were a pillow, even the dust that bellows off would make your taste buds tingle.
Yes, the seasoning is in everything at Fagundes Meats and Catering – even the air.
The family’s nearly 40-year-old empire might be built of meat, but the lifeblood of this old-fashioned meat market and deli is in fact the seasoning and marinade crafted in his stepfather’s kitchen decades ago.
“The great Fagundes seasoning,” Teixeira said, his voice booming with pride, “since Day 1, we’ve put it into everything. My dad came up with it.”
Americo Fagundes has been dead for 22 years, but his seasoning continues to bless a family whose name has become synonymous with lunchtime and weekend BBQs across the Central Valley.
Fagundes Meats and Catering is renowned for all aspects of its business. Customers bounce through the double doors on Jason Street and exchange conversation with the staff as if they were family before disappearing into traffic with their slabs, racks or links of meat.
This is place is a meat market first, there is no mistaking that. But for the past two decades, it has also developed a reputation as a lunchtime hotspot.
The tri-tip sells just as well cooked, sliced and soaked in an Au jus sauce as it does rubbed and wrapped raw.
Teixeira says he sells about 100 tri-tip sandwiches during his busiest days, which are usually Friday and Saturday.
The sandwich is available every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the old-timers – those that have frequented the market since it first opened its doors in 1976 – still associate the sandwich with the weekend.
“We’re so famous for it on Fridays and Saturdays because our (grillers) are out there on Fridays and Saturdays,” cook Brian Cline said. “They’re under the impression that we only have sandwiches on Fridays. We always have tri-tip available to our customers, Tuesdays through Thursdays too.”
Regardless of the day of the week, the sentiment about the sandwich is the same. Tri-tip aficionados favor Fagundes’ sandwich. In an unscientific poll conducted by the Bulletin, Fagundes commanded 72 percent of the vote.
“There are a lot of familiar faces. A lot of repeat customers, definitely,” said Teixeira, whose career in the family business began as a freshman at Manteca High. “They all say it’s a great tasting sandwich. We put a lot of meat on it.”
Peeling back the layers
While it might take a few minutes to prepare a tri-tip sandwich – and even fewer to consume it – there is nothing quick or short-changed about the process.
To understand the different layers of a Fagundes tri-tip sandwich is to understand the history of the meat itself.
Teixeira, with a meat hook and knife and glasses hanging from the tip of his nose, plays the role of a willing professor. He welcomed the Bulletin into his meat locker for a tutorial on “breaking beef.” He pointed out the different cuts, each seemingly cordoned off by a seam of fat. Then, he carefully removes the tri-tip, dancing around the slab, making small, precise cuts.
“It’s a lost art,” says employee Ron Long.
The marbled meat is then seasoned in a 300-pound tumbler along with a hundred others and allowed to marinate over night in a refrigerator.
The combination of fat and seasoning give the tri-tip a bounty of flavor. And because it’s not cut until after it has been pulled off the grill – unlike, say, a steak – the flavor is contained and allowed to settle in every bite.
Experience on grill;
experiment in kitchen
Cooking a tri-tip fit to be sold is not for the layman; at least not at Fagundes.
The grill is tended by five of Teixeira’s most trusted friends, each of whom brings a wealth of experience to the iron and coals. There is Phillip Mello, Curt Spillman, Ernie Nunes, and Cline.
The fifth? “Me,” Teixeira says with a chuckle. “God damn, I know how to cook a tri-tip.”
The five have more than 120 years of combined grilling experience. They understand each meat is special – that no two sets of cooking directions are alike.
“Unlike a steak, which you only want to flip once to save the juices, the tri-tip is a bigger muscle so you flip it a few times on the grill,” Teixeira said. “You want to get it nice and seasoned. You don’t want it too well done; you want to keep all the juices inside.”
Each sandwich is $6.50. For $9, customers can pair their sandwich with a side dish and a beverage.
Like the seasoning, the side dishes are all home-grown. Customers can choose from potato salad, macaroni salad and “the best Portuguese beans in the world,” Teixeira said, taking advantage of the moment.
Cline is responsible for the lunch menu’s non-traditional tri-tip selections. He developed the Philly Cheese tri-tip sandwich, served only on Fridays and made with an authentic cheese sauce. He also revitalized the house chili with chunks of, you guessed it, tri-tip.
“When I first started here, no one would buy the chili,” said Cline, now in his eighth year as a cook. “I would follow the directions and I thought it was good, but it was like ‘Hell, let’s throw some tri-tip in it.’ And that’s how it took off.”
But you can’t celebrate success at Fagundes without acknowledging one universal truth. Everything, from the sandwiches to the sides to the meat rubbed and wrapped, begins with a dash of seasoning.
“Everything has our seasoning,” Teixeira said, “and that’s why the people love us so much.”