Pork skirt steak

The secret of secreto: "It's a special cut," the vendor said. "It's a flap on the bottom of the belly, near where the skirt steak would be on a cow." (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

The first time I picked up a secreto was from an Iowa meat vendor at a farmers market.

I was planning on grilling some chops or maybe a tenderloin, those being the only cuts of pork I — or anybody else — ever really used. Oh, sure, we all go for the shoulder when it's time to do something like barbecue or a braise, but a grill calls for something that's not so unwieldy.

The price point caught my eye. At more than $20 per pound for pork, it was the most expensive thing listed on the chalkboard. Plus it had that vaguely foreign name that implied there was something I didn't know … secreto. I asked why a cut of pork could be that expensive. Sure, it was all the other buzzwords — pasture-raised, organic, antibiotic-free — but that alone wouldn't justify that kind of price.

"It's a special cut," the vendor said. "It's a flap on the bottom of the belly, near where the skirt steak would be on a cow."

And with that I bought my secreto — all one pound of it — and took it home. That little thing was great when it came off the grill, lightly prepared with some salt and pepper and a little bit of citrus. It was soft like a tenderloin and easy to cut when medium rare, but a little fattier and more flavorful. At this price, I was never going to be able to afford it with any regularity, but damn if it wasn't delicious enough to make me want it all the time.

After that first encounter I had trouble finding it. Asking the butchers at the local grocery stores, all national chains, was an exercise in futility. And as much as I loved my local meat market, they were just cleaning up cuts from a box. To find the elusive secreto, I needed someone who broke down a whole animal into cuts and would save the prize just for me.

Four years later and four states away, I found my marks, a pair of former chefs turned butchers who had opened a whole-animal shop called Porter Road Butcher in Nashville, Tenn. James Peisker and Chris Carter were just what I needed — a couple of butchers known for quality cuts and guys who actually like it when nosy people ask a lot of questions about meat.

I broached the question of the mysterious secreto. What was it? And can they cut me some? I really wanted in the club if they would just teach me the secret handshake.

Peisker smiled.

"In our search for the mysterious secreto, the secret cut from the pig, we've talked to a lot of people, because life is about learning and education, so we constantly try to get everybody's opinion," Peisker said.

Yes, I thought. Good. These are my people, always wanting to eat better, trying to find that elusive great cut.

"The secreto? Everybody calls it a different thing," he said.

WHAT? The holy grail of pork is just marketing? There's not one secret part?

"Completely different parts. A guy from Argentina told us it was the culotte off of pork chops — the cap. So if you have your pork chop section? Imagine it as a rib-eye and (waving his hands) you have a rib-eye cap. You have the same muscle in the pigs," Peisker said, disillusioning me a little more with each word. "Chris went to Curate (in Asheville, N.C.) and they were serving 'secreto' and it was the inner skirt steak. And then (noted Detroit chef and 'Charcuterie' co-author) Brian Polcyn in a demonstration said that it was the top blade steak, which we call the paleron."

I checked with noted butchers around the country. Sara Bigelow at The Meat Hook in Brooklyn said it's the strip right off the belly, kind of like an outside skirt steak. Russell Flint at Rain Shadow Meats in Seattle said it's a triangle cut under the shoulder blade. Calls to Houston and San Francisco got replies of "secreto … what's that?"

I had to admit, I was a little crushed. It was a little like pulling back the curtain and finding that Oz was just a short guy with great marketing. Or James Franco.

Peisker said he's been asking the question for years of other butchers, chefs and meat lovers.

"And I haven't seen one definitive answer. They're all great cuts. You prepare them the same way — season it, hard sear, keep it rare, and it's delicious. That's the secret behind it — it's not the cut, it's how you cook it. Put it on a rockin' hot plancha and you keep the pork as rare as possible."

So maybe that's the secret — treat it like a password to the good stuff that the meat people know is rare. And if a butcher shop says they've never heard of it, just ask them what they're holding back for themselves. That's probably it.

foods@tribune.com