A number of years ago, I had a realization about meat. I realized it's all the same. It's all made of dead stuff, and what separates London broil from chilled monkey brains is nothing more than a few seasonings and a few arbitrary categories in my own chilled monkey brain.
While uncomfortable at first, mine was by no means a unique revelation. In those I know who have experienced a similar moment of eww-reka!, it was inevitably followed by one of three responses. Either: a) the person became a vegetarian; b) the person said, "I like the illusion! Godammit, stop badgering me, Collias!" (the most common response); or c) the person said, "Well sir, then I reckon I might as well try everything and base my tastes on how things taste!" I'm in the third camp, and admittedly, I've gotten burned because of it. I've eaten dishes that I regretted immediately, and others that I regretted when I got food poisoning a day later. I've also had some of the best food this town has to offer and not had to stand in line to get it. So here it is: my guide to the body of Boise's restaurants. If your favorite serves something that I've overlooked, let me know and I'll be there in no time, even if no one else will.
Sweet lady tripe will never be mainstream America's idea of a hot date. She looks gross wrapped up in the grocery store, she sounds gross when what you learn what she really is (a cow's stomach tissue), she smells kinda funky no matter how you doll her up, and the taste ... well, no matter how good tripe is, there's no escaping the conclusion that it's creamy. And a large percentage of diners will never be OK with eating creamy beef. But if you do, I suggest the tripe tacos from local taco trucks ($1 apiece at El Torito Market in Garden City) for starters. If you can stomach that (so to speak), the next step is a bowl of menudo, or tripe soup, dished out weekends only at Rita's Panderia in Nampa ($6.99). Served in spicy red broth with corn tortillas and plenty of onions on the side, Rita's menudo is sweet, hot and well worth the drive. But the appearance and texture ... well, they'll make sure that only the enthusiastic apply. Caucasians should expect to get a funny look when ordering it--and maybe a "You do know what that is, don't you, gringo?"
Technically, the gizzard is a muscular pouch where a chicken packs sand and grit, which help it to grind chicken food into chickenure. Yummers. Your great-grandparents, grandparents and probably parents ate gizzards by the gazillions, both in restaurants and at home. And today, they're still mainly sold to those same people, who, if you make the mistake of asking, will talk endlessly about exactly why they looove gizzards. But here's why you won't: Gizzards are nasty little balls of gristle that on first bite, taste just like all the meat you ever politely spat into a napkin when no one was looking. But once--that is, if--you're able to get past the texture, they're basically a dark-meat chicken finger steak (The Crescent, $4.95). Go into it knowing that they're an acquired taste. And maybe swallow a few spoonfuls of gravel first to help them move along.
Rocky Mountain Oysters
For the most part, I've turned off the part of my brain that wants to imagine what I eat in its former, anatomical state. Or at least I stopped caring what that part has to say. The ultimate test of my denial is testes--or "Rocky Mountain Oysters," or "Lawyer Fries" (The Crescent, $7.45). For taste, they're tender and not that different than a cheap finger steak, although they sometimes--or maybe I'm just imagining this--have a slightly tinny or chemical aftertaste. I'll also admit that the last time I ate fried-up family jewels, I bit into something chewy in the middle of one ball and just about fainted on the spot. So much for not empathizing. But if you're nuts over them, be sure to hit the oyster feed put on by the Eagle Fire Department each June (www.eaglefire.org).
Adventurous delicacies aside, simply dining at the China Grand Buffet on Fairview is an eye-widening experience ($9.50, all-you-can-cram). Long lines of large people fill huge plates with foods they've heard of (hooray for the sundae bar!), foods they haven't (green shrimp-paste cakes? Ugh!) and foods they'd never dream of ordering--like chicken feet. At the buffet, they're served Hong Kong style, meaning "tortured, then killed, then cooked beyond recognition." The skin is a little sweet, a little spicy and so soft it is indistinguishable from the sauce. Unfortunately, the bones are also nearly soft enough to bite through--almost. And that's where I get the willies. If you can make it through an entire plate of chicken feet, you're a better carnivore than me.
Veal sweetbreads are the ultimate test of risk versus reward in organ meats. The veal part is often a conversation stopper--or date ender--in its own right, but when you learn that "sweetbreads" is a nice name for the thymus gland, you'd better hold on to your napkin. Or not, because in actuality, sweetbreads are (depending on execution) buttery, crispy and not in the least gamey--or "organ-y," as liver-haters are wont to say. Consider them the calamari of organ meats. And consider Tapas Estrella ($8.95) restaurant pioneers for being willing to serve their delicious rendition in a market as (how to say this nicely) "safe" as Boise.
Raw Quail Eggs
The "crazy oyster" at Fujiyama consists of an oyster on the half-shell topped with a pinch of caviar, a sea urchin and a raw quail egg. Whether the crazy part is the raw egg or the urchin (what with being in landlocked Idaho and all) is anybody's guess. But it's crazy good.
This wonderful dish probably shouldn't be counted among the ranks of testes and other organ meats. After all, beef carpaccio is usually made of filet mignon or some other "appetizing" piece of beef. However, I recognize that to many diners, any piece of non-fishy flesh that isn't cooked over heat automatically counts as freaky. I'm here to rectify that. Beef carpaccio is beef that is sliced extra thin--or, in some other markets, ground into a pile--and, depending on the recipe, either cured, usually in lemon juice (as at Gino's Grill, $8.95), or served raw. It is often served with a little shaved hard cheese like Parmesan, some hard-boiled egg and plenty of bread. In both local incarnations, it is as soft and tender as a little beefy cloud and is very subtle in flavor--so subtle, you might first think it doesn't taste like anything. But you'll come around.
As my co-workers, friends and most anyone who opens their window while I'm walking by can attest, I love beef tongue. It's more than an organ to me. It's like a friend. I can't resist it grilled up in $1 taco-truck tacos, and I've been to more than my share of "Tongue Saturdays" at Gernika ($6.99), where they serve it up sliced, breaded and smothered in a homemade tomato sauce. Tongue is lean, tender, flavorful--it's everything you could want from a cut of meat, except that it's not located on the animal's ass or armpit, two areas that for some reason are considered "appetizing." And therein lies the contradiction. Chew on it for a while, and I'll see you at Gernika next Saturday.
Head. Cabeza. The name says it all, except what, exactly, "head" is. Is it inside-head? Outside-head? Chin? Nostril? Scalp? Let me take a shot at answering all those questions: Yes. Head is chewy, fatty and is too inconsistent in texture to all come from one particular part of the head. The few times I've been brave enough to order cabeza at the old El Torito stand on 27th (it moved behind El Torito Market on Chinden Blvd. last year), I've assumed the $1 tacos were a cranial grab-bag. And I've rarely finished them. But I tried. And though I may shudder when I remember it, I take comfort in that old Nietzschean chestnut, "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Keep saying it. Even if you don't believe it.
For directions to any of the restaurants in this article, visit this article at www.boiseweekly.com.