Tasty, Nasty Bits
I can always count on my friend Nevin when I’m in the mood for some adventurous dining. Together, we’ve eaten our fair share of oddities – some tastier than others – including organ meats, stinky tofu, cold pickled duck tongues, grasshoppers imported from Oaxaca, silkworm larvae, Brazilian Pacu fish, Sika deer, llama, and Himalayan yak. The weirder an ingredient is, the more likely Nevin – a man whose Super Bowl tradition includes drinking a blended concoction of beer with meat – will want to eat it. And although I sometimes protest about eating something, he can usually convince me to at least sample a bite.
Knowing that Nevin would be a faithful and inspirational partner-in-crime, I asked him to join me for my next extreme eating quest, an adventure in which I would attempt to eat the reproductive organs of various animals. I didn’t have to try very hard to convince him. In fact, you could say that I had him at “lamb balls.”
Our first stop was Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant, a Chinese halal joint way out in the Outer Sunset, where the specialty is Peking hot pot, and which boasts lamb jewels on its menu. After a long trek on the L train on a recent rainy night, Nevin and I entered the small restaurant, which was filled with Chinese families and teenagers, and were greeted by two friendly waitresses who sat us down at a table equipped with a propane cook stove.
Nevin and I opened our colorful menus, which were called “Dinner Manuals,” and found the meat we sought under list of available hot pot ingredients – “Lamb Eggs.” We agreed we liked this delightful, delicate euphemism, which also made it easier to say out loud to the waitress. We ordered a serving, along with tofu, rice noodles, and tonghao (bitter, flavorful chrysanthemum greens) to cook up in our hot and spicy soup base. We were also intrigued by a dish on the Chef’s Specials list called Extremely Hot Pepper, so we ordered it, along with a Peking beef pancake, at the waitresses’ insistence.
After bringing out two bowls of sesame dipping sauce and placing a large metal cauldron of spicy red pepper oil-spiked liquid filled with dried anchovies, star anise, and ginger onto the tabletop stove, our waitress sparked up the stove and walked away. She returned a moment later with a plate full of sliced lamb testicles.
If you had told me that what lay before me were a plate of sausage pieces, I may have believed you – they were pink and shaped like slices of Spam, with only a slight red veiny-ness about them. The waitress also brought out the rest of the hot pot ingredients and directed us to cook the lamb eggs and tofu for 10 minutes; the other ingredients didn’t need as much time. We threw the two proteins into the hot pot, and soon after, the rest of our dishes appeared.
The Extremely Hot Pepper lived up to its moniker. It was filled with five different red and green, fresh and dried chili peppers (seeds and all), scrambled eggs, and chicken. As Nevin put it, it was the type of dish that is “bad for your fingernails,” a colloquial expression that he learned in Mexico referring to what you’ll be doing to the bathroom walls the morning after eating something wickedly spicy. I ate a few bites, but the dish’s heat defeated me, even with the beef pancake as a neutral flavor buffer.
And then, the main attraction – the lamb eggs. When they were ready to eat, the meat was no longer pink but a light tan. As they are prone to do, the balls had experienced some shrinkage in the liquid bath, and the pieces curled around the edges, so that they resembled brown mushroom caps. I fished out a slice from the roiling, boiling pot, dipped it into the sauce, and popped it into my mouth. I was instantly surprised by how tender and mild-tasting the meat was. I was expecting it to have a spongey, chewy, and organy taste, but it almost had a texture like tofu, with a slight, but not off-putting sulphur flavor, somewhat like a boiled egg, but even milder. In fact, I preferred to eat the lamb eggs without the dip, because the sesame sauce overpowered their subtle flavor.
At the end of our meal, we had more than three-quarters of the pepper dish left, but our hot pot was decimated. I can honestly say that I had a ball (and then some) at this meal.
With testicles checked off our list, the next night I was determined to stay on the theme. A bit of Internet research led me to believe that Pho Clement in the Inner Richmond carried a dish called Pho Ngau Pin, or beef noodle soup with ox penis. I scribbled down “ngau pin” in a notepad, in case I had to ask for it in the restaurant, and hurried off to meet Nevin on Clement Street.
I had a bad feeling when I scanned the menu taped up in Pho Clement’s window – nary a sign of ox pizzle was on the list. I double and triple checked the menu before Nevin volunteered to go in and ask. We decided that it would be less embarrassing for a man to request the item, figuring that the dish had something to do with increasing virility. And anyway, there was no way in hell that I was going to ask the old Vietnamese waitress inside if she would serve me some ox dick.
Nevin boldly strode into the restaurant while I shied away in the back, pretending to be engrossed in a menu. “Excuse me, but do you have this?” I heard Nevin inquire. I looked up to see the woman’s eye bulge and her waving him to a man in the back, “Ask him!” she shouted, and so Nevin showed the old man the notepad, who roared back, “No! No! No! I wish I had that!” as if outraged that Nevin would ask such a thing. As Nevin and I exited the pho joint with chagrin, we wondered if he had unwittingly asked the waiter something horribly obscene.
Nevin’s a trooper, and he was determined that we carry out our mission. We walked up and down Clement Street, stopping at every respectably authentic pho shop so that Nevin could point at the words in the notepad. But at every single restaurant, he was told no, sometimes with a shake of the head and sometimes followed by peals of laughter.
At the last place we tried, I didn’t even go inside, instead watching from outside the glass doors as the two women cackled when asked to look at the notepad. I couldn’t help cracking up when Nevin came out, but promptly shut up when he said, “You know, they probably think I’m trying to get this dish so I can test it out on you later tonight.”
Forty five minutes later, disappointed, hungry, and sans phallus-filled pho, we decided to eat at the D&A Café, where I ordered the closest thing to an ox penis that I could find on Clement Street – Baked Ox Tongue. Nevin got the intriguingly named House Special Beef Haslet appetizer, which ended up being a mélange of organ meats. Penis it wasn’t, but it was still pretty weird.
After dinner, we decided we couldn’t end our night on a discouraging note, and we were craving a sweet dessert to cap off our meal. We failed at getting the ngau pin, but I still had one more trick up my sleeve.
We walked down to Seventh Avenue to the Kowloon Tong Dessert Café, an establishment that specializes in treats from Hong Kong, and which has “snow frog” on its dessert menu. The extremely enthusiastic server took our order of condensed milk peanut butter toast and a hot cup of coconut milk with snow frog hasma, or frog fallopian tubes!
I’ve had hasma before, so when the covered ramekin arrived, I wasn’t surprised by the jelly-like substance that was gently floating in the steaming coconut milk. To be honest, they go light on the snow frog, so you’re mostly tasting and feeling whatever liquid you get. Like other Chinese medicinal delicacies, hasma has supposed health benefits – it’s said to be good for your complexion. Whether or not it’s true, it didn’t really matter because the snow frog dessert was a tasty treat.
When Nevin and I parted ways for the night, we agreed to someday trek out to a place in San Jose which serves bun bo hue, another type of Vietnamese noodle soup, flavored with chunks of ngau pin. But for tonight, we’d go home like two girls who struck out at the club. It would be another dickless night.
If you’re itching to eat some lamb “eggs,” or other tasty morsels, mosey on down to Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant, located at 3132 Vicente Street. For more information, call (415) 564-3481, but note they don’t take reservations. Get your dessert fix – whether it be innocuously delicious egg puffs or sweet liquids and custards laced with bird’s nest or snow frog – at Kowloon Tong at 373 7th Avenue. For more information, call (415) 876-1289. Both restaurants are cash only, so make sure to hit the ATM before you nosh.