Nov. 14, 2012 at 3:06 PM ET
Ever had a hankering for alligator? What about rattlesnake, kangaroo, yak or ostrich? Unless you live in the South (where deep-fried alligator is a regular menu addition), you may think of these game meats as more fit for “Fear Factor” than your dinner plate.
But before you get too squeamish, let me assure you there’s a way to satisfy any curiosity you might have about the wide world of “exotic” meats without stepping too far out onto the culinary fringe. And that’s where sausage comes into the equation.
In recent years, a number of restaurants (and food trucks) have added unusual sausages to their menus, made from ingredients you won’t find in any supermarket, like crocodile and rattlesnake. It’s a bit of an update for sausage-making — an ancient tradition — but adventurous chefs and restaurant owners are counting on the fact that people will try almost anything in a sausage.
Hot Doug’s in Chicago offers a new game meat sausage every week and owner Doug Sohn, 50, says he can get customers to eat anything from yak to kangaroo as long as it's ground up and encased.
“The nice thing about these meats appearing in sausage form is that they look like Italian sausages, so it’s a much more approachable way to eat one,” he told TODAY.com.
Sohn is not the only one who thinks so. When Los Angeles restaurant WurstKüche opened in 2008, owner Joseph Pitruzzelli included a rattlesnake sausage on the menu to lure more adventurous eaters. But he didn’t expect that some would become such quick converts to reptilian brats.
“People try them for the novelty at first, but we get them to come back,” he told TODAY.com. “I was surprised that for some it became their go-to sausage. They’re coming back for the flavor.”
Pitruzzelli blends his rattlesnake with rabbit meat and jalapenos, lending them a lean, chicken-like texture with a spicy kick at the end. The inevitable comparison to chicken is one people often make, but exotic meat lovers insist there’s a distinction in taste and texture between game meats — even if it’s one that can be difficult to describe.
With that in mind, I visited one of the few exotic sausage sellers in New York City for my own adventure in the strange world of exotic meat. I sunk my teeth into a 100 percent alligator sausage at Max Bratwurst und Bier in Queens, N.Y., a cozy beer hall that attracted some headlines when it opened last summer with rattlesnake and alligator on the menu.
And while I won’t be turning my back on pork anytime soon, I can honestly say I’ll order an alligator sausage next chance I get. It was salty (even a bit briny) in a way that mingled nicely with the sausage’s spices, which packed a lasting kick. The alligator’s juices had caramelized along the casing, infusing the brat with a smoky sweetness.
As for the texture, this sausage wasn’t chewy in the slightest. Despite the leanness of the meat, it was still juicy on the inside and had just enough snap to it when I bit down.
I can’t deny that it’s still tempting to compare the flavor to chicken. They certainly share a texture — though the alligator sausage was, surprisingly, more tender than many chicken varieties I’ve tasted. I also tried a rattlesnake sausage, blended with pork and rabbit. As lean meats, the rattlesnake and rabbit paired well, with the rabbit imbuing the sausage with a richer texture and a more traditional “game” flavor.
Max Bratwurst co-owner Fjori Noreli, 28, says the sausages have been a hit among the younger set, but older people still tend to give him curious looks.
“When they see the rattlesnake, they ask, ‘Rattlesnake in a German restaurant?’” Noreli told TODAY.com. “'That’s weird.'”
But rattlesnake and other game meats aren’t so unheard of outside the beltway. In Texas, they’re part and parcel of the culinary tradition, according to Fort Worth chef Tim Love.
“For years people would cook rattlesnake over a fire because the protein is very good,” he told TODAY.com.
Rattlesnake is difficult to cook, however, due to the meat’s elasticity. Bearing this in mind, Love opted to use the meat in sausage form at The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth.
“Grinding the meat is the key, because you get the chew of the sausage,” he said. “Rattlesnake and alligator have continuously moving muscles. Anytime you have continuously moving muscle, you need to work on texture and flavor.”
In the end, Love developed an appetizer with grilled rabbit-rattlesnake sausage on top of a manchego rosti (a really fancy Tater Tot, as Love says) with a dollop of crème fraiche to top it all off. While his menu at the restaurant rotates seasonally, the rattlesnake appetizer and his kangaroo sausage nachos are always available (and more than a few Yelpers have sung their praises).
Still not convinced these sausages are worth a try? Consider this: Many people are turning to game meats as a way of avoiding the potential health risks posed by domestic meats. Steve Loppnow, a co-owner of Wisconsin-based Specialty Meats and Gourmet, has noticed a big spike in demand for game meats as more people have become interested in where their meat comes from.
“Everyone is trying to go toward game meat because it’s lean and healthy for you,” he told TODAY.com. “A lot of people got scared away from domestic meats because of mad cow diseases, and they want free-range meat.” Loppnow has seen an increase in orders from food establishments as well, and he’s now supplying some exotic sausage trucks in Los Angeles.
Of course, procuring exotic meats can be a challenge, and there are strict laws requiring proof that all animals are farm-raised. “It’s trying some days,” Loppnow said. Kangaroo has been difficult to get a hold of lately, as well as venison and elk, because more of the farms that raise those meats have started folding under the pressures of increasingly strict legislatures, he added.
Some weeks, Hot Doug’s owner Doug Sohn is happy to scoop up whatever meats he can get his hands on.
“Depending on the season, sometimes we can’t get ostrich and sometimes we can’t get alligator,” he told TODAY.com. “After Hurricane Katrina, we couldn’t get game meat from down there for a while. For the most part we always get something, though.”
But there are still some meats that are a little too exotic — even for Sohn.
“I was contacted by someone who farms iguana meat, so I’m waiting to get a sample to see,” he said. “I’m not convinced that everything translates into sausage — if it doesn’t taste good, I really don’t care.”
I may wait for Sohn’s opinion on that one.
Danika Fears is a TODAY.com intern who devoured pate by the spoonful at her grandparents’ house long before she ever knew it was liver.