Before British chef Fergus Henderson popularized the phrase "nose-to-tail eating," or Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield began featuring "not-so-nasty bits" on her West Village menu, Calvin W. Schwabe wrote this century's official offal treatise, 1979's Unmentionable Cuisine.
"Because of prejudice or ignorance, we Americans now reject many readily available foods that are cheap, nutritious and good to eat," Schwabe wrote in the book's introduction, before describing recipes for brain croquettes, stuffed spleen and calf's head casserole.
Though Americans tend to turn up their noses at these so-called nasty bits—offal meats like kidney, liver, bone marrow, tongue and tripe, or other animal byproducts like skin, tail and trotters—adventurous chefs across the country are embracing the whole beast. And slowly, the trend is starting to find its footing in Boise.
Brian Garrett, the meat-manic owner of the Saint Lawrence Gridiron food truck, dabbles in non-traditional meats on his menu—specials include a hunk of fried pork belly topped with house-made chicharones, or deep-fried pig skin.
"Honestly, when we started the truck, we were talking about doing offal Mondays and having one specialty item, a limited quantity offal. ... But the oxtail stew was the first experiment with that, and it was just an absolutely fantastic stew and it didn't sell well," said Garrett. "So we haven't really given it a shot that much more except for the chicharones."
But Garrett does offer offal to more courageous diners at the truck's specialty pop-up dinners.
"We're building the pop-up dinners to be a little bit more adventurous," said Garrett. "They're themed and people buy the menu; they don't have options. ... With that, the sinister side of us feels like once they buy the ticket, we've got them."
Some dishes Garrett has recently concocted include chicken gizzard ice cream, blood pudding tart and bone marrow on toast.
But it's not just the "yuck" factor that keeps Garrett from filling his menu with these weird bits. He said that despite their reasonable price tag, some of these items can be surprisingly difficult to procure in Boise.
"We were trying to get beef tendons or even beef skin for one of the pop-up dinners that we were doing. I called every butcher I knew, every purveyor I knew, meat-packing plants locally, nobody would sell the weird pieces," said Garrett. "It's interesting. I think it just has more to do with the sales market than it does the availability of the product."
Meats Royale, an old-school butcher shop on Overland Road, carries a small variety of offal and other byproducts, but manager Jess Aldape said demand isn't very high.
"I have beef heart, beef liver, beef kidneys, oxtail, beef tail, whole hog's head; I carry them," said Aldape. "They're not in the case but if you come in, I can get you heart or liver or kidney."
Aldape said he recently ordered a box of chitterlings (hog intestines) for one customer and sold hunks of tripe (cow stomach) to another making menudo, but said the majority of his offal meats are fed to house pets.
"A lot of the heart that we sell is primarily for customers that are serving it to their dogs," Aldape. "Liver, it's about 50/50—cats, dogs and I have a pretty steady clientele that come in and want me to slice liver however thick and they actually fry it up with onions. That's something their grandma did, and they remember it and want to try it again."
Aldape sources most of his offal from Gem Meat Packing Co., a USDA-certified meat-packing plant in Garden City.
"The only thing we sell is the heart, the liver and the head," said manager Tyler Compton. "All the other offal goes to [rendering company] Darling Delaware; they take care of all that stuff. They cook all that stuff down, and it's a base for cosmetics."
Compton said that Gem Pack only offers cow heart, tail, liver and head because things like intestines can be difficult to clean.
"There's big plants that sell intestines, but we don't do that," he said. "We don't sell any offal off the hogs, it's just the beef."
Compton said Gem Pack delivers most of its organ meats to stores in Nampa and Caldwell, where there's a large Hispanic population. Aldape also said his less traditional meat products are prized among Hispanic and Asian customers.
"I know that it's popular in a lot of other countries; we've just kind of gotten away from that," Aldape said. "I have quite a few Asian people that come here that live here locally. They request these things because that's what their parents did and their grandparents. They utilize every piece of the critter; there's no waste in those countries. You eat the brain, you eat the liver, you eat the heart."
On a recent Friday night in downtown Boise, the smell of raw onions wafted from a small fluorescent-lit window on the Azteca Mexican food truck. A sign hanging on the truck advertised lengua (tongue) and cabeza (beef cheek) tacos.
By just after midnight, though, the truck had completely sold out of both.
"Everybody wants it, the way my dad cooks it," explained Navil Velasco, as she handed a plate of corn tortillas heaped with shredded beef to a nearby patron.
Velasco said the lengua and cabeza tacos are beloved both by the drunken bar crowd and those who have been frequenting the truck for years.
On the Bench, another tiny fluorescent-lit dive slings a significant amount of offal.Pho Tam's signature dish is Pho Dac Biet, a cauldron of noodles and broth flecked with five-spice floating hunks of sliced meatball and slivers of tripe.
"Every time, I tell them—if they are American—that No. 1 has tripe," waitress Yesica Lopez told Boise Weekly. "Do you like tripe? Or do you want to do No. 1A that doesn't? I let them know."
Not all places dishing up the weird bits do it for the sake of efficiency or novelty.
Sushi Joy, a Chinese and Japanese palace perched on the outskirts of downtown, offers a menu item that's prized in Asian cultures, but often overlooked by California roll-loving Americans.
Hamachi kama, the collarbone from a yellowtail, is a succulent mess of bones and grayish meat that might look like kitchen scraps to the untrained eye.
"The Hamachi kama is kind of special," explained manager Winnie Zhu. "We just have one or two for every day, or three if we're really busy ... because we cut the fish every day.
Slathered in a rich mayonnaise-y lemon and black pepper sauce, the broiled Hamachi kama requires patience to dissect. You have to dig your chopsticks deep into the collar pockets to pinch off fatty slivers of meat while extracting thin bones from your mouth with each bite.
But the effort is more than worth it.
"The Asian people, the traditional Asian people, know what it is. But so many of the Americans ... when they trust me to try it, they always love it," said Zhu. "No one's complained so far."
Garrett and Aldape agreed with Zhu's sentiment. Those who trust their tastebuds and shrug off the stigma attached to the nasty bits tend to realize offal's not so awful after all.
"It's a mind-over-matter thing. ... It's hard for people to put it in their mouth and try it and be completely unbiased, but it's good," said Aldape. •