Though New York City has always been a place of fearless eaters (street meat, anyone?), the latest trend to hit the mainstream culinary scene has even some of the strongest of stomachs feeling a little squeamish.
With options ranging from Sip Sak's poached calf's brain to Taqueria Puebla's wildly popular goat's eyeball tacos (not to mention Takashi's raw beef heart and Maharlika's fried pig ears), whole-animal eating has taken New York by storm. And it's not just die-hard foodies chowing down, either.
"These 'strange' foods have finally become something chic," says Nicole Ponseca, owner of the perennially packed Maharlika restaurant in the East Village, whose most popular dishes include balut (fertilized duck embryos boiled alive and eaten in the shell) and oxtail kare kare (oxtail stew with a savory peanut sauce).
"Ten years ago, serving dishes like sisig with the unabashed use of pig ears, cheek and snout would not have been so easy. Nowadays, it's not something to avoid; it's something that's sought out -- and by regular people."
Though whole-animal eating in itself is not a new phenomenon in New York -- high-end restaurants such as Casa Mono, Babbo and Boqueria have long been acclaimed for their superb preparation of offal, bone marrow and sweetbreads -- a delayed trickle-down effect has meant that the ubiquity of nontraditional foods in mainstream New York eateries is a very recent development.
Until recently, the savoring of "lesser cuts" had an almost elitist appeal that was limited to flavor-of-the-day faddists and hard core food enthusiasts such as the Gastronauts. But thanks to the sudden proliferation of 24-hour food-based television channels and shows such as Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," the constant exposure to exotic cuisines has normalized nontraditional dishes centered on offal cuts and animal blood and piqued the attention of regular Joes wanting to expand their taste palates, according to MSNBC food reporter Sarah Spigelman.
Spigelman, a bona fide exotic food expert who spends her days floating from one New York restaurant to another, eating anything from live octopus to pig's blood popsicles, says that whole-animal eating is not just chic these days; it's cost-efficient, especially for plenty of young New Yorkers that want to eat well but are hard up for cash.
"Nontraditional meat cuts are usually cheaper," Spigelman advises. "You can eat sauteed calf's liver for a lot less than a rib eye steak, and it is just as delicious. Beef tongue is also freaking delicious, people!"
Spigelman's sentiments are also echoed by chef Dan Stone from New York's Institute of Culinary Education. As a direct consequence of the rapidly rising popularity of whole-animal eating, Stone has launched a new class based entirely on the cooking of innards at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. Some menu items include buffalo frogs' legs with celery sticks and blue cheese dip, chopped chicken liver with schmaltz, and wine-braised beef cheeks.
"Many of these cuts are deeply flavorful," Stone told The Huffington Post. "Beef heart makes a very meaty, hearty chili. Other cuts have wonderful texture, such as sweet breads and bone marrow. And for some, these dishes are comfort or soul food, like menudo," a traditional Mexican dish made with beef stomach.
He also explained that his class, composed of both men and women, was anything but squeamish when handling the animal innards that some might consider unappetizing looking.
"Students were so anxious to work with these offal cuts," Stone added. "They even displayed bits of macabre humor," he said, citing a time a calf's testicle was prepped. "When one student dropped a Rocky Mountain oyster on the ground, she shouted, 'gland down!'"
Despite this newfound mass acceptance of whole-animal eating, however, some critics see the sudden widespread consumption of nontraditional meats as a passing fad -- for those who have just begun to show innard interest, at least. Many cultures such as French, Filipino, German and Vietnamese ones have incorporated offal into their daily diets and don't view such cuts as undesirable or nontraditional, the way many Americans have until recent times.
Sebastien Agez, the new executive chef at Tribeca's popular Plein Sud restaurant, known for its highly acclaimed foie gras and its brand-new signature bone marrow dish, believes that while offal is getting a lot of love these days from New York's mainstream culinary sphere, cow's brain will not be replacing the T-bone anytime soon.
"It comes and it goes. Kidneys, livers, gizzards -- they're still mainly ordered by those who have always been familiar with them. Chefs like to try different things and the customers embrace this," the jovial Agez said, sharing that he personally sometimes consumes rare veal kidneys and porcupine.
"But eventually, people will always go back to their trusted steak."