When Fergus Henderson "pioneered" nose-to-tail eating at his London restaurant, St. John, in 1994, Mexicans might have laughed aloud at all the fuss.
Offal—cooked animal organs, or simply guts—has been a Mexican food staple for generations. In Mexico, as in many less fertile environs and less prosperous cultures, eating all the parts of an animal made economic sense. Aided by Mexican food hound dog Nick Zukin—a WW contributor who owns Mi Mero Mole in Old Town—I explored some gutty stops around town to wrap up Mexican Meat Month.
Beef head and tongue at Tortilleria y Tienda De Leon
16223 NE Glisan St., 503-255-4356, salsalocas.com. 9 am-8 pm.
The De Leon family has been slinging guisados for nearly 20 years at their restaurant and grocery deep in Northeast. Among the innards available here, beef tongue (lengua) may have the widest recognition and acceptance. Well-cooked, peeled and cubed, it's an especially tender muscle cut. Its mild flavor is also an asset.
Come Friday, stop in at De Leon for the cabeza (cow head) barbacoa, a common dish in northern Mexico. At De Leon's, they take a whole cow head and steam it until it's fully cooked, then pluck all the edible parts—tongue, cheeks, brain, connective tissue, even the eyes—from the bone. At this point, the parts can be served separately or they can be roughly chopped, combined and stewed, which is what they do at De Leon—minus the eyes and brain. As his daughter Lucy told me, "If customers who order barbacoa don't ask, this is what they get."
I asked, but tried it anyway. It was outstanding: beefy, rich and free from any bits of cartilage or tendon, which just melt away as the head cooks.
Pork kidney, intestine, ear and snout at Supermercados Mexico
17420 SE Division St., 503-477-5947. 8 am-9:30 pm.
The back corner of one of Portland's best full-service Mexican grocery stores hosts a dining spot that serves a veritable offal orchestra. When we walked in, my eyes fixed immediately on a tray displaying a range of different pig parts, referred to generally as "carnitas" based on the method of slow cooking them in fat.
We ordered tacos, with the offal chopped roughly to permit separate sampling of each type of innard. The kidney (riñón) was tender with a little chew to it and mild in flavor, with just a touch of the mineral flavor typical of organs through which blood flows. The curlicue-shaped segments of intestine (tripitas) were pleasingly crispy and chewy, a little gutty but not too strong. It might not be something to eat a lot of on its own, but in a mixture, it's a welcome inclusion.
My favorite bit was the ear (oreja), sliced into thin strips. This was porky, fatty and chewy with no off tastes or difficult textures. I'd have no trouble eating a taco made with ear alone, though I've never seen one. I'll avoid the snout (trompa), which has a rich porky flavor but also an unsettling feel from skin once occupied by hair follicles.
Stomach at Angel Food & Fun
5135 NE 60th Ave., 503-287-7909. 11 am-10 pm.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a profligate college student in Southern California, one of my reprobate buddies was a self-described Chicano from San Bernardino. Louie insisted that menudo was a surefire hangover cure, the kind of magic elixir I figured would prove most useful after a full-throttle party weekend. He dragged me to his favorite hole-in-the-wall, but I balked when he told me that menudo is tripe soup. I don't think it really helps with a hangover anyway.
Fast forward 40 years, and I admit tripe still isn't my favorite, but AFF's menudo is delicious. Two kinds of tripe go into the tomato- and red chile-imbued beef broth: honeycomb (casita) from the cow's second stomach and rumen or blanket tripe (panza), the spongy stuff that lines the first stomach. Before long stewing to tenderize the tripe, it is typically bleached by the butcher to sanitize it and minimize any gutty aromas.
The honeycomb tripe in AFF's menudo is well tenderized, though still a bit chewy, while the panza is very tender after cooking and absorbing lots of broth. The plate of accompaniments—cilantro, lime, onion and some killer habañero—add dimension to the soup.
Beef intestine, pork blood sausage and skin at Uno Mas
2329 NE Glisan St., 503-208-2764, unomastaquiza.com. 11 am-9 pm.
Though longtime Portland chef Oswaldo Bibiano knows a wide range of Mexican-heritage specialties, this is where he focuses on tacos—offering all sorts of interesting options. The beef intestine (tripa, not to be confused with tripe) filling is well crisped and finely chopped on the griddle after braising to soften it.
It was also clean tasting, with a little chew, such that only the telltale tubular shape discloses its provenance from the cow's deep down under. Pigskin (chicharrón) is prepared many ways in Mexican cooking, most commonly as salty, delicious fried "rinds" or "cracklins," with a bit of the subcutaneous fat layer still attached for greasy good times. Here, the previously fried skin is stewed, so that it has a little chew, but also some remaining crunch, before being spooned into its tortilla wrapper. I thought the texture was the best of both worlds.
The other less common pig part we had here was the pork blood sausage (moronga). Similar to Spanish morcilla, the sausage was crumbly, very dark, almost black, in color, but well seasoned and combined with slices of japapeño and raw and grilled onion. Color aside, it was difficult to discern that the sausage base was actually blood. Even at $2.50 each, I could have had two of these. Come to think of it, I did.
Pig head at Chalino
25 N Fremont St., 503-206-6421, chalinopdx.com. 5-10 pm.
Tucked into a high-design building off North Williams Avenue, Chalino is one of the new cool kids on the Portland restaurant scene. The menu overall might best be characterized as Mexican/New American fusion, dominated by Mexican forms but relying less on typical south-of-the-border flavors. The exception is this delicious dish for which a pig head is brined, boiled, picked, seasoned and then packed with its cooking liquid. It's more or less what Americans know as head cheese, though a lot better in quality than the stuff in the cold-cut section at Safeway.
The soft, unctuous meat excludes any really weird bits, is spread atop a crispy tostada and accompanied by mustard seed, raw purple onion and pickled turnip. It was enjoyable in a safe-but-still-guts way, though not terribly high on the adventure scale.