Daring to order from the ‘what’s-that?’ portion of some Grand Valley menus
Offal or awful?
After years of looking at Mexican restaurant menus, my curiosity got the best of me.
What exactly are the tacos with lengua, cabeza or buche, and why do most Anglos find them off limits, or at least intimidating? Are other customers getting something better while I just order the same old stuff?
I set out this week with a small group of adventurous eaters to check out the more mysterious side (at least to us) of Latino cuisine.
And why not? I’ve had alligator, rattlesnake and turtle, but most often they were deep-fried, so it could have been chicken for all intents and purposes.
The wretched smell of scrapple frying on a Sunday morning when I was a child still fills my scent bank.
My father once tricked me into eating headcheese.
Parents, if you’re going to disguise what you’re putting on the plate, don’t ‘fess up and gloat immediately afterward.
To this day, I never go near that stuff, even though I see it in the far reaches of the deli case.
Sausage makers are said to use “everything but the squeal” when slaughtering a pig. Nowadays, I guess most of the spare parts go into dog food.
I didn’t intend to recreate an episode with Andrew Zimmerman, the TV chef/host of “Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel. After all, we’re not in the hinterlands of Congo, we’re in Grand Junction.
The easiest starting point seemed to be menudo, reputed to be a hangover cure, and, as any child of the 1980s will remember, a boy band from Puerto Rico.
We ordered the menudo, a tripe and hominy stew flavored with chile peppers from Los Reyes Restaurant. As with many of these items, it’s often available even though it’s not on the menu. It was served with warm tortillas and a side dressing of dried cilantro, pepper flakes and lime.
We warmed up to this subtly spiced soup, after getting used to the texture. The intestines, the shape of sliced rigatoni, had a surprising amount of meat, and the broth alone had a rich posole, chili powder taste.
Verdict: I’d order it again, if only to see how another cook makes it, but not as a traditional morning-after breakfast.
Next up was beef tongue, beef cheek and pork stomach tacos, which are lengua, cabeza and buche, respectively.
I must admit, I didn’t dive into this without apprehension.
Tongue! I’ve seen this thing lolling around on a plastic tray at Safeway, and I always hurry past, quickly.
Taqueria Guadalajara supplied us with this next meal. The taqueria has anglicized their menu to offer American-style tacos with tomatoes and lettuce or Mexican-style tacos with fresh cilantro and onions. On the side, a clean, hot green chile sauce.
I asked the guy behind the counter what he liked.
Non-committally, he said “I like beef.”
We anticipated that the tongue would have the dense consistency of, say, liver. Not true, it was a succulent meat.
And ditto with the cabeza, literally “head meat,” but most often cheek.
The lengua was chopped fine and the cabeza was shredded. Both were perfectly spiced and juicy, unlike some of the skirt-steak tacos I’ve had.
The taco buche was OK, but probably more for a refined palate. The taste was fine, but it was obviously organ meat. I image it is what squid rings would taste like before being fried and turned into calamari.
Verdict: I’d definitely order cabeza and lengua again. Some places deep-fry buche and I’d try it served that way.
Lastly, I’m going to mention ceviche.
It’s not offal at all, but it’s another thing on the menu Americans might not have sampled.
I love a fresh, well-prepared ceviche, and you can easily make it at home.
Ceviche is simply raw fish or seafood cut into bite-size chunks and “cooked” by the citrus enzymes in the lime juice it marinates in for a day. It’s usually served on a tostada or with tortilla chips with onions, jalapenos and other crunchy toppings.
The only essential to ceviche is that the fish, mussels, shrimp or other salt-water creature, be fresh. Frozen seafood in lime juice turns mushy.
In Grand Junction, Tequila’s and El Tapitio both serve good ceviche, including an octopus variety called ceviche pulpo.
WINE AND CHEESE: There is a cheese tasting from 2–6 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays; featured wine and beer tasting from 2–6 p.m. on Fridays at Crossroads Wine & Spirits and Artisan Cheese Shop, 611 24 Road. http://www.crossroadswineandspirits.com
QUOTE: “Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only for food: frequently there must be a beverage.” — Woody Allen
Send tips of ideas to tess.furey@ gjsentinel.com