Even though we’ve got no problem sinking our teeth into chicken hocks and the back muscles of cows, break out a little organ meat and the most hardened carnivores run for the door. Thing is, offal is almost always anything but, so we’ve rounded up and rated some of Chicago’s scariest eats. Some qualify as treats, while others are, at best, tricks. (This article first appeared in Chicago magazine in a different form.)
BOUDIN NOIR GRILLE
(111 N. Carpenter St.; 312-421-2318)
Though its name sounds like a harmless French flick, boudin noir, or black sausage, has a dark side—literally. It gets its oily black color from pig blood, used as a thickener to bind chopped pork, fat, onion, and quatre épices (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger). La Sardine’s version, a custardy, smoky hunk of rich meat offset by sweet caramelized apple and onion and the acidic zing of mustard-tossed frisée, is the best in town.
(228 W. Cermak Ave.; 312-842-7818)
Cold pieces of chopped stomach are usually enough to turn yours, but when Ben Li tosses them with sesame seeds, crisp celery bits, and cilantro dressing, you’ll want to stuff your tummy full.
TESTA (A.K.A. HEAD CHEESE OR PIG FACE)
(1647 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-2340)
Mado’s pig head gets poached overnight with garlic, rosemary, thyme, and onion. All the meat is removed, chopped, and seasoned with a “secret spice mix” featuring fennel, allspice, and clove. The mixture is enriched with the gelatin-infused stock and then wrapped into a cylinder shape and cured for a week. While the testa at many restaurants is jiggly meat Jell-O, a sliced round of head cheese from Rob Levitt eats like a soulful hunk of braised meat perfumed in a Sri Lankan spice bazaar.
CORNED BEEF HEART
(Hotel Arista, 2139 Citygate Ln., Naperville; 630-778-8623)
Slagel Family Farm beef heart is brined for five days in a traditional corned beef spice mix and then, because heart is fairly lean, poached in duck fat for ten hours. The result is paper-thin pink slices of prosciutto-like meat spiced with garlic and pepper. It’s such a superior alternative to the typical rubbery Reuben filler that we’d turn our back on Manny’s brisket any day in return for a lifetime supply of this stuff.
MUGHUZ MASALA (A.K.A. LAMB BRAIN)
(5060 N. Sheridan Rd.; 773-769-4961)
Mythology says that chowing on bull testicles makes you more virile. Maybe a spoonful of gray matter makes you smarter. The important thing is to find whatever convinces you to take a bite of this wonderful ghee-laden stir-fry with flecks of chiles and ginger. File away those worries about squishy texture: This brain’s easy like a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs.
THE “OJO” (A.K.A. EYEBALL TACO)
Maxwell Street Market
(Look for the neon orange sign advertising eyeballs, brains, and cheeks a couple of blocks north of Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Street.)
There isn’t enough hot sauce, cilantro, or onion in the world to make this taste good. Though the fresh corn tortilla isn’t bad, the milky cornea (sometimes a cow’s, sometimes a goat’s) staring back at you is as mucilaginous as you’d expect it to be. Frankly, there’s no economic distress we could imagine that would have furthered this culinary tradition.