Where to eat exotic meats in San Francisco
My father used to tell me stories about nights he spent in the mountains, living off the land and eating insects. As a child, I would reply to those tales by wrinkling my nose and exclaiming, “Ewww!” The desire to eat wild things seemed so distant from my urban California life. Little did I know that when I moved to nearby San Francisco, I'd be seeking out exotic proteins from innovative chefs.
The city is crawling with eateries offering alligator, wild game sausage, lamb’s brains, ostrich, and edible insects. San Franciscans have wild taste. So I abandoned my vegetarian tendencies, and began the hunt for feral dishes in the city by the bay.
First stop, the Mission. Artist and entrepreneur Monica Martinez wore the same wistful smile my father did as she described the taste of escamoles, the larva of an insect that lays its eggs beneath the agave plant.
“You cook them up with butter and pasilla peppers. They are the most delicious thing,” said Monica. Her edible insect eatery, Don Bugito, created citywide buzz after selling out at the 2011 Street Food Festival at Fort Mason. Instead of hiding the insects, she tries to accentuate their unique flavors for her Prehispanic Snackeria.
Monica chose to launch Don Bugito in San Francisco because it’s rampant with untamed palates and unorthodox ideas. She sells her creepy crawly treats at Off the Grid at Fort Mason and will have a mobile food truck soon. Monica has great hopes for the sustainable aspects of insect consumption.
Next up was lunch on-the-go in the Financial District. The mobile eatery Missing Link is another young start-up by entrepreneurs who ventured to S.F. in search of adventurous clientele with eco-conscious bellies.
Missing Link’s staple offerings are all around $8. They include elk sausage with jalapeño and cheddar; wild boar with apricot and cranberry; pheasant stuffed with spinach, mushroom, and Parmesan; and southwest buffalo, which is “basically buffalo chorizo,” according to cofounder Marc Rubio. The sausages also come paired with combinations of banana peppers, watermelon radish, cucumber, tomato, onion, and chile aioli sauce.
“Wild game is the epitome of organic. It had a chance to live freely,” said Marc. “It’s also very lean. Pheasant, for example, is only .06 percent fat. We actually have to add chicken fat because Americans are not used to tasting meat without high fat content.”
And, of course, Missing Link caters to more adventurous mastication. “For a while we served alligator from Texas and people keep asking to have it back.”
For untamed flavors in a posh setting, Bistro S.F. Grill is the place to go. It started off as a booth at the farmers’ market, but became so popular the owners decided to open a restaurant on California Street off Divisadero. The new dining locale is intimate with chic black and red décor and stylish burlesque paintings.
I joined Devin Meyer in the kitchen to talk burgers as he manhandled slabs of raw meat. On his forearm was a tattoo of a pig divided into edible cuts. "The wild boar is pretty popular,” he said. “And people aren't afraid to order it rare.”
The wild boar burger is an original recipe created by the three Bosnian owners. It’s made with Del Monte Meat Co., salt, pepper, cranberry sauce, and caramelized onions. And, “No one has ever sent it back.” It was bigger than both of my fists combined. Come hungry like the wolf.
Not only zombies eat brains. Fried lamb brains (cervelli fritti) served with artichokes are a common dish in Rome, and also in the Mission district, thanks to the Roman eatery Locanda on Valencia Street. “We have a hard time keeping enough of them around to satisfy the demand,” said chef Anthony Strong. “But that’s to be expected. San Franciscans are very adventurous, well-traveled, well-educated diners.”
Locanda orders about 40 whole lamb heads per week from a ranch in Sonoma. Anthony particularly enjoys scooping out the brains while playing Puccini's “Turandot” at full blast to “creep out” the staff. The brains are separated into small pieces, then soaked in buttermilk, dredged in semolina, and fried. The addition of fried capers, sage, and parsley is an original Locanda twist.
Hanging on the wall, black-and-white sketches of wolves watched as I sunk my teeth into the crispy, spherical, golden brown shell of a lamb’s brain. The inside was soft pink, like a new pair of ballet slippers, with a whipped cream cheese texture. It tasted rich and fatty, like chicken skin, but with a gentle saltiness. It practically melted on my tongue.
Kokkari in the FiDi is known for one of San Francisco’s favorite potassium-rich meats – the octopus. Devouring the limbs of intelligent, carnivorous invertebrates is a beloved tradition for Greek food lovers, especially in this city. “Octopus is a required menu item for a Greek restaurant,” said chef Erik Cosselmon. “It is also one of the hardest items to cook.”
Kokkari’s octopus salad is a unique San Francisco invention. However, a more traditional entree, Octopodaki tou Yiorgou, is the real eight-armed star of this establishment. The dish was named after one of the Greek owners because it’s his favorite item on the menu. Kokkari prepares it with lemon instead of the traditional red wine vinegar.
The outside is grilled. Inside, the octopus flesh is tender, fragrant, and buttery. Inquisitive tongues will detect light spices and rich olive oil. The zesty flavor of lemon peeks through as a subtle touch, almost an afterthought. It made me wish I had been born Greek.
Once upon a time, I scoffed at my father’s love of crunchy, creepy-crawly treats. Don’t repeat the mistakes of my youth. San Francisco offers a plethora of distinct proteins, and it is well worth taking a risk between the lips. Hunt down Monica’s mobile bug eatery, Don Bugito, to enjoy pre-Hispanic flavors. Try Missing Link in the Financial District for some adventure between the buns. Visit Bistro S.F. if you like your burgers fat and juicy. The chef, Devin, recommends Monterey Jack cheese on the wild boar burger with cranberry sauce. Locanda offers the best lamb brains in town, sweet, tender and slightly crisp on the outside. If you have a connoisseur’s palate, lust for ocean flavors and prefer to munch wild things while relaxing in posh leather chairs and mood lighting, go to Kokkari. Make a reservation first. And if you have a sense of adventure, prowl the streets of San Francisco and find out what exotic tastes are lurking in kitchens near you.
Don Bugito food photos by Michelle Edmonds