Exotic Eats

Michael Nagrant / 10.28.11

I recently ate squirrel. The meat was free-range, a mix of Indiana squirrel and the Albany Park alley variety. By that measure, I also imagine because the latter likely subsisted on a diet of exhaust fumes and empty Chobani containers, it was not organic.
The meal was not a frat prank dare. Rather, a friend was pursuing his dream of creating a hyper-local (read: backyard foraged) meal. It was also an opportunity to experience a traditional Brunswick Stew (thought to have been one of Queen Victoria’s favorites) — a thick porridge of game, tomato and spice. Kentuckians would call it a “burgoo.”

The squirrel did not taste like chicken. It was much better. The cheeks — luscious melting roasted hunks — were deeply rich, oily and tasting of roasted hazelnut and coffee.

This often has been my lesson in eating that which most do not consume: to do so is to find reward. Eating the whole — or the unconventional — animal, for those who choose to eat meat, is the most respectful way. If an animal has given its life, we must not stop with the tender filet mignon or the crispy cured pork belly. We must consume everything.

Thankfully, to discover the rewards of scary eats yourself, you do not have to stalk the alleys of Lincoln Park with your hatchback (though if you own a hybrid, the lack of engine noise makes such an endeavor easier than ever).

In the last few years, a growing number of restaurants have embraced the nose-to-tail philosophy practiced by primordial man and lately espoused by Britain’s organ evangelist Fergus Henderson. You can find the odd and tasty pretty much anywhere.

I realize to consume such things requires a suspension of disbelief. That makes the timing right, for there’s no better time than Halloween, a holiday built on a philosophy of denial, where an accountant may dress as a naughty nurse and a doctor moonlights as Freddy Krueger.

But where to start?

From the top, of course, specifically, the brain. Nothing seems more challenging, but the stir-fried lamb brain or mughuz masala from Uptown’s Shan Restaurant, stir-fried in clarified butter and flecked with chili and ginger — one the best Indo-Pakistani dishes served on the North Side. It’s as inoffensive and as light as a plate of perfectly scrambled eggs.

Squeamish yet?

For an easier head proposition try the beef cheek barbacoa served by the Garcia family on Sunday morning at La Favorita grocery in Pilsen. The tender shards of meat perfumed with garlic and dabbed with a touch of hot sauce eat like the very best short rib.

A little lower in the cow’s neck, you’ll find the sweetbread, which is neither sweet, nor bread, but the thymus gland. As a lazy cell producer for the immune system it does little work and is thus rather tender, best breaded or grilled and served alongside inky-blank boudin noir (a sexy French name for blood sausage — very sexy considering it’s a pudding of pig blood, meat bits and spice), on the excellent tableside grill platters or parrillada at Folklore in Wicker Park.

Down the gullet and on to the liver. Once contraband in Chicago, foie gras, or duck liver, is the food of kings, an Egyptian pharaoh favorite, and more indulgent than butter. Like bacon, foie usually makes things better. Think of it as the marijuana of organ meats, i.e., the gateway drug to bigger and funkier offal.

If you have money, and connections, there is no grander introduction than the foie terrine served in The Office under the Aviary in the Fulton Market district. The crock, featuring a half inch of cured foie larded with black truffle and sea salt and served with hot fresh buttery brioche (replaced with more fresh hot brioche when the first batch goes cold), is so rich that even were he training for the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong would put on five pounds after consuming the stuff.

Almost as luxuriant, but much cheaper and easier to procure and certainly more modern is MorSo’s Thai/French fusion duck liver parfait studded with spicy ginger and radish.

But that’s the easy stuff. Nothing quite turns the stomach like stomach. The honeycomb tripe found at the bottom of Pho 888’s soulful herbal tea-like pho soup adds a comforting richness that will stave off the recently predicted long and terrible Chicago winter ahead.

If belly’s not your thing, maybe bone marrow is. The Bristol’s roasted marrow is served in cross-cut shank bones with shallot jam, is velvety and flavored like a nutty butter (a theme, I know, but who doesn’t love butter).

Some say too much butter will threaten your own heart. So for my seagan — seafood eating vegan acquaintances — might I suggest the smoky robata grilled Hamachi collar (basically fish neck) at Sushisamba Rio?

Keeping to the sea, NoMI Kitchen’s uni avocado toast is another winner. If you’ve ever seen a spiky sea urchin, a k a uni, you’ll notice it looks a little like Food Network’s Guy Fieri — and God knows that’s pretty scary. However, don’t let that spook you away from the custardy roe inside, a briny sea-kissed topping with which Chef Ryan LaRoche lards these signature crostini.

My vegetarian friends, do not despair, for I’ve saved the best for last: huitlacoche. Also known as Mexican black truffle, it’s a black fungus found on ears of field corn. Taste-wise, it’s an earthy distant cousin of the Perigord black truffle. Sandwiched between a freshly griddled tortilla and slathered with some oozy cheese on a quesadilla at Humboldt Park’s Maiz, it’s one of the finest scary eats. Though if that’s too spooky for you, hey, at least you’re not eating squirrel.† Shan Restaurant, 5060 N. Sheridan; (773) 769-4961

† La Favorita, 1925 S. May; (312) 666-8222

† Folklore, 2100 W. Division; (773) 292-1600

† Aviary/The Office; 953-955 W. Fulton; (312) 226-0868

† MorSo, 340 W. Armitage; (773) 880-9280

† Pho 888, 1137 W. Argyle; (773) 907-8838

† The Bristol, 2152 N. Damen; (773) 862-5555

† Sushisamba Rio, 504 N. Wells; (312) 595-2300

† NoMi Kitchen, 800 N. Michigan; (312) 239-4030

† Maiz, 1041 N. California; (773) 276-3149

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.