When Uncle Max comes to town, it's like Mardi Gras, St. Paddy's, and Halloween all rolled into one. Max is an eclectic gentleman, fond of the exotic. For last summer's family gathering, a Hawaiian-themed barbecue at Casa Kelly, he brought in ice sculptures and hired hula dancers. This summer's barbecue event is supposed to be a bit more rusticated, sort of a chuck-wagon theme. Max is insisting that we serve buffalo meat, and since he foots the bill, buffalo is going on the menu.Still, I couldn't help but ask. "Buffalo?"

"I have lived well, Evey, and it's starting to take its toll. Buffalo meat is what some people might call a healthy alternative for an old carnivore like me."

Rich from Iowa Meat Farms in Mission Valley (619-281-5766) clued me in as to what Max was getting at. "The main thing about buffalo meat is that it is leaner than beef. It has less fat, and a tiny bit more protein. Even domesticated buffalo are leaner, because they eat only grass. Buffalo don't process grain as well as beef cattle."

Rich said that while "buffalo are closer to a wild species, the texture is almost exactly like beef. Buffalo looks a little darker and a little coarser, but every buffalo steak I've had has been super tender, even though it has less fat. The main things behind a meat's tenderness are inactivity, age, feed, where the meat comes from on the animal, and the breed. However, buffalo are all one breed," and wild or no, "they don't run like they used to out in the wild."

Less fat, in this case, also means less marbling -- "tiny veins of fat that run through the meat." In beef, less marbling can mean less flavor, but buffalo seems to deliver anyway. "The flavor is a little sweeter than beef," said Rich.

Iowa Meat Farms gets its buffalo frozen (as do most of the other markets in town). "We thaw it, grind it, then freeze it right away. Once in a great while, in the summertime, we'll put it in the case, in patties or in bulk [ $4.99 a pound]. I would recommend trying a patty first. If you like it, we have New York steaks [ $15 for 10 oz.], which is a piece of the loin. You'll probably find that to be one of the best-eating pieces of meat."

Tip Top Meats in Carlsbad (760-438-2620) also sells buffalo. Vince seconded Rich on the leanness, and added, "It's very, very rich in iron." (An ad I came across claimed that buffalo delivered three times as much iron as chicken and twice as much as beef.) As for taste and texture: "When I eat buffalo, I get a much more rich, robust flavor than I get with beef. The texture depends on the cut." Tip Top sells New York or ribeye steaks ( $14.99 apiece for a 10-oz. steak), ground buffalo patties ( $6.98 a pound), and top sirloin roasts ( $8.98 a pound).

Tourists and Native Americans are the chief buffalo customers at Don's Market in Santa Ysabel (760-765-3272). "We're surrounded by Indian reservations up here, and a lot of Indians buy it for their use," said Graham. "And when the tourists come up, we get cleaned out -- and I've got most of the animal here, except for the shanks." Don's Market carries New York steaks ( $17.50 a pound), ribeye steaks ( $20 a pound), top sirloins ( $12 a pound), T-bone and Porterhouse steaks ( $17.99 a pound), ground buffalo ( $7.49 a pound), and chuck roasts ( $9.50 a pound).

Graham warned me not to overcook the steaks. "You've got to be careful, because the meat is much more lean than beef. But a chuck roast would be cooked the same as beef, because you're slow-braising it with moist heat." Also, "I think buffalo meat has a sweeter taste than beef, so be careful not to overseason it, or you'll miss out on the flavor."

Trader Joe's carries a 20-oz. box of four ground buffalo patties for $5.49 . Whole Foods Market carries fresh buffalo (as opposed to frozen): New York steaks ( $18.99 a pound), tri-tip ( $8.99 a pound), and ground buffalo ( $6.99 a pound).

Buffalo can also be found roaming the menus at a few restaurants around town. Ruth's Chris Steakhouse offers fresh (meaning never frozen) buffalo ribeyes and New Yorks ( $28-$35 for 16 oz.), usually from the fall through the month of January. Chef Neftali at the Del Mar location (858-755-1454) praised the beasts. "When we run the buffalo special, we get a tremendous amount of compliments. It's a very lean meat; I'd say it was 80 percent leaner than beef. The texture is a bit grainier. Some people think it will taste gamey, but it doesn't. And because it's sweeter than beef, it's easier to pair with wines. We serve it several different ways. One is plain grilled and seasoned with salt and pepper -- seared, so that it retains all the juices. Another preparation is with a blue cheese crust -- blue cheese, roasted garlic, panko breadcrumbs, and heavy cream. We put it on top of the steak, then put the steak under the grill to form the crust."

And if, unlike Uncle Max, you want to start with something a little less grand, The San Diego Burger Co. in Seaport Village (619-239-7901) will prepare a 1/3-pound buffalo burger to your liking for $6.95 . Me, I decided to run a taste test on some burgers and New York steaks -- one of each from Iowa Meat Farms. Husband Patrick was delighted; the buffalo steak was grainier than beef, and it shredded as I chewed, releasing a trickle of juices. In the burger, the texture gave the meat a crumbly quality. The meat gave up its sweet richness without a struggle.

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