[ taste buds ]
Growing up in Northeast Philly, I'd see them sitting in open freezer bins, past the friendly chickens and polite hams: impossibly large beef tongues. I tried to reconcile this sight with the slack-jawed cows I'd seen on country drives before the thought of papillae riled my mind — the spell eventually broken by a Russian émigré scooping one up like it was rib-eye.
"My friend, who loves it, had some where they left the very tip intact. He said it felt like he was hooking up," says Andrew Gaspar, a line cook at Brauhaus Schmitz, which recently served braised calf's tongue with pickled apples and horseradish mustard. Don't let trepidation hold you back: There are many other local restaurants changing minds and palates by treating this delicate, replete-with-fat cut as a gateway into all things offal.
Stop into Prima Pizzeria Taqueria late at night and you might see whole beef tongues being carved up for the day ahead. They resemble grayish children's playground slides with a meaty base propping them up, three-quarters of each tongue's calories coming from fat. Jésus Mozo (whose sister, Alicia, owns Prima) runs the place after 9:30 p.m., while his girlfriend, Paola Sagastume, oversees cooking.
Their tongues reach a sublime state via a three-hour boil blessed with chipotle, guajillo, coriander, cumin and black peppercorn before being peeled and diced; a 20-minute simmer in their own broth follows. A little onion and cilantro and an embowering tortilla are all that's needed. Cooking six to 10 at a time in a giant pot, Mozo estimates he goes through upward of 70 tongues a week.
"It's very much an immigrant cuisine," says Zahav chef Michael Solomonov. "You've got so many cultures who've lived in poverty and will eat anything." At Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv, the city where the Israeli chef spent his formative years, various ethnic groups — Yemenite, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Russian — serve up udder, sweetbreads and foie gras, everything skewered and cooked over flames. Treated right, tongue is delicious, he declares: "You can add great flavors to it by brining and braising, and yet, due to the fat content, it's really robust." At Zahav, lamb tongue is poached, peeled and seared over charcoal after a two-week brine in allspice, sugar, salt, garlic, fennel seeds and caraway. It's left with a delicately crisp exterior and a moist, meaty interior — a good starting point for beginners. "People are getting cool about this stuff," Solomonov says of these cuts. He wasn't always cool with them himself, saying that the traditional pairing of apricots and tongue freaked him out as a kid.
The tongue is approachable at Famous 4th Street Delicatessen. There you get a heaping pile on rye that looks suspiciously like corned beef, not counting the telltale dots of silenced taste buds. "Tongue's a hot property today," my waitress says, speeding away with my order — hot and with mustard, as she suggested. It gives off an unapologetic fatty flavor that, along with the sheer girth of their sandwiches, makes the deli's "zaftig" size seem like a stretch, even for two.
As good as the sandwich is, I pursue a second Jewish-deli opinion from someone who cures tongues in-house. Lee Stein of Stein Boys Famous Deli in Northeast Philly starts with a garlicky brine. Stein prefers his tongue cold, either with mustard or as a special with coleslaw and Russian dressing. The tongue is loaded in a meat slicer standing up and sliced tip to back, yielding trapezoidal cuts, beautiful slices glistening red and dotted with white daubs that carry on in neat, symmetrical lines. It's mostly an older, 60- to 80-year-old crowd ordering it, Stein says.
Local preparations of tongue easily predate those deli customers' birthdays. Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer's Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economies, which came out in 1886, suggests a braising liquid of stock with onion, carrot, turnip, potato, parsley, bay leaves, Worcestershire and ketchup. Those turn-of-the-century domestic types would likely flip out over tongue's contemporary premiums. At Stein's, they charge $15.99 a pound, versus $7.99 for corned beef. As one of the deli guys puts it, that's because there's only one per cow.
Similar logic must apply at Kim's BBQ in Olney, where a platter of tongue goes for $39.99. The savory aroma once the speckled flaps hit the grill doesn't lie: first a supernal sweat, then a buttery flavor coating the mouth. Sweet sesame oil pulls out the tongue's inherent creaminess. "Mostly Japanese," says GM Young Kim when I ask who orders tongue the most. And Koreans? "Some," he says, wanly. The transverse slices here don't extend to the tongue's hulking base. "Too fatty and tough," Kim insists.
That's where chef Brad Spence of Amis disagrees. "[The tongue base] has the most fat, lots of meat, gelatin — all the good stuff," he says. That variation is apparent over two different samplings of their famed veal-tongue dish. The first time, its unctuousness has it brimming with pudding-like aspirations. The second, each bite is different, distinct masses of meat and fat converging in a juicy Pangaea. It was Italy's poor masses who first honed the preparation. "Leave the expensive stuff that's crap to the rich," says Spence, before beaming about taking his 3-year-old to dim sum to eat chicken gizzards and shrimp heads/
"It's usually the girl who's reluctant while the guy's going, try it, try it," says Amis GM Martin Cugine of tongue-ordering couples. "If you can put it out of your head what you think it is and take one bite, we'll have a new fan."
Some anecdotal data to support Cugine's claim comes to me at London Grill. With a braised tongue sitting before me, the last in a line of women turns before heading into the neighboring Paris Wine Bar, her eyes latching on long enough for an elongated "ewwww" to trail off as she exits. More tongue for me. But I wanted to share.
"When you have a moment," I say to bartender Kelley Wilhelm. I cut into the tongue's base. I hand her a bite, and within an instant her bravery pays off.
"That is nothing like what I expected. It's stew-y and meaty," she says. "It doesn't taste like offal at all."
Pretty soon, we'll all be speaking in tongues.