Photo of Phi “Nina” Nguyen by Laura Hayes

If you want to impress your friends, order No. 32 on the Bún DC menu. A bowl of bubbling, 14-ingredient crab and tomato broth arrives filled with a tangle of vermicelli noodles, all topped with pork belly, heart, liver, blood, ear, and rounds of pork roll. According to Phi “Nina” Nguyen, the bún riêu soup with pork organs is slightly more popular than No. 31—the version with the chicken guts.

Nguyen operates the new Vietnamese restaurant on Sherman Avenue NW with her 70-year-old mother Dep Le. She put the organ meat, commonly known as offal, on the menu for nostalgic reasons. “When I was little in early middle school, I always saved some extra money in my pocket,” she says. “In Vietnam, we sell congee soup on the street with chicken organs. I’d save money to eat those things.” 

She also seeks to give customers a window into her world. “Hopefully customers will like it similar to me, and won’t be scared,” Nguyen says. “Please don’t be scared of the chicken insides, the pork insides.” 

While pho shops in the District often serve beef tripe and tendon, full-service Vietnamese restaurants like Miss Saigon and Vietnamese Chelsea Restaurant shy away from offal altogether. “I don’t see it,” Nguyen says. “People are a little scared to put it on the menu because they think customers won’t eat it. Why not? Just try it. It’s meat!” 

Toh Roong, a Thai noodle soup pop-up launching Friday inside Lucky Buns, will sell boat noodle soup the traditional way—thickened with pork blood. Chef Kitima Boonmala hasn’t decided whether to list the ingredient on the menu. “It enhances the flavor almost the same way as bitters in a cocktail,” Boonmala explains. 

She soaks lemongrass leaves in the blood to zap any unwanted gamey or metallic flavors before adding it to the soup. Nguyen takes a similar approach using ginger and garlic. “If they don’t know, they’ll be more open-minded,” Boonmala says. “The bottom line is, it tastes good.”

While a handful of D.C. restaurants have historically served menudo soup gurgling with tripe or Chinese preparations of crispy pork intestines or congee with duck blood, diners who dig the distinct flavors and textures of offal have typically had to flee to suburban strip malls in Falls Church, Annandale, Wheaton, Rockville, and Hyattsville to get their fix. Is the small uptick in District restaurants serving innards anecdotal and merely a result of a rapidly expanding restaurant industry? Or is there a shift in how and what we’re eating? 

Chef Erik Bruner-Yang says it’s both.“It’s always been here, there are just so many more restaurants now,” he says. “At least since Toki Underground opened [in 2011], there’s always been a few chefs doing stuff like that … But more and more places are chef-driven and looking to provide diners with new experiences that remind them of traveling somewhere.” 

Bruner-Yang serves a play on a Taiwanese blood cake at his Japanese-style standing restaurant Spoken English. Cooks there soak rice in pork blood with aromatics and steam it, forming a cake that’s grilled and topped with cilantro, peanuts, and lime. To his delight, people are trying it. But it wasn’t always that way. 

“We’ve been serving this dish dating as far back as when we were doing Maketto pop-ups at Hanoi House,” he says. That was in 2013. At first they called it blood cake, and it didn’t move. “As soon as we changed the name to ‘black sticky rice,’ everybody bought it.” Five years later, he brazenly writes blood cake on the menu at Spoken English, suggesting diners are less squeamish. 

The chef has another theory, which others echo. “You’re seeing a lot more ethnic and heritage-specific cuisines, and typically those count on a heavy use of all of the parts of an animal,” he says. 

“In Laos, a family man who is a farmer and works long hours buys a whole cow and shares it with the village and they all have a ceremonial meal,” explains Chef Bobby Pradachith of Thip Khao and a forthcoming Lao restaurant that’s yet to be named. “They’re not just going to eat the filet. This guy worked hard, so let’s make use of it and eat the intestines and the heart.” 

Pradachith is tracking a trend where chefs are going back to how people have cooked historically. Look at Maydan and The Dabney being heralded for their live fire cooking methods, for example. 

“Back then in poverty situations, offals were a necessity,” says Pradachith. “If you’re eating a rib-eye or a filet, it’s muscle. Offals too are muscles.” He in part blames “Western media” for the perception that offal is “disgusting and not delicious.” Sometimes they’re labeled offcuts—a term that shouts “other” or “not as desired.”

Until recently, Thip Khao had a standard menu and a “jungle menu.” The latter listed the Lao restaurant’s daredevil offerings, be they dishes with sweltering levels of spice or preparations containing offal. The chef, committed to bringing D.C. a true taste of Laos, recently integrated the two menus so that the grilled chicken hearts and fried pig ears aren’t in a separate category. 

Pradachith believes restaurants can play a role in educating diners about offal. “I had a guest who seemed interested in chicken hearts,” he explains, adding that she had formed an opinion before trying them. “I sent it out to her complementary and said, ‘If you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine.’ She ate it and really loved it.” 

He hopes diners continue to trust him. “I want people to come into the restaurant repeatedly and become more curious and more willing to try more things,” he says. “You’re going to see a lot more of the offcuts because it’s simply how Lao people eat … This is what we’re offering. We’re not going to change.” 

Andrew Chiou and Masako Morishita take a similar approach at Momo Yakitori—their Woodridge Japanese restaurant specializing in grilled skewers. Some customers hesitate to try the chicken liver, heart, comb, and gizzard or duck heart or liver. “We’ll have a server gauge if they’ll freak out if we send it out [on the house],” Chiou explains. 

That said, the giblets, which can be ordered separately or in a set, are quite popular and often sell out. “Half of our customers are familiar with yakitori and Japanese culture,” Chiou says. “They go right for it.” He personally prefers offal. “Some of them are really creamy. I like that mineral flavor. They’re a lot more bold than just plain meat.” 

“I’m so happy that more and more people are interested in eating these amazing little parts,” Morishita adds. In Japan, where she grew up, there’s a concept called mottainai, which loosely translates to “waste not, want not.” “You praise and appreciate all of the parts of meats.” Like Pradachith, she relishes the opportunity to introduce diners to something new. 

Chiou says he’s seeing more offal on D.C. menus and credits the farm-to-table movement. “If you’re buying straight from a chicken farmer, they have all of the giblets anyway so it’s either we take them, they give them to their animals, or they sell them,” he explains. He buys whole birds from Pennsylvania through respected meat purveyor D’Artagnan.

“The quality of meat has improved lately,” Chiou says. “When it was just the big farms, most offal didn’t taste good. Livers from the Tyson plant aren’t tasty. I don’t even think they sell them for human consumption.” 

Jamie Forsythe, a D.C.-based D’Artagnan sales representative, explains that the birds Momo Yakitori uses arrive fresh every night of the week. As someone who sells to a bevy of District restaurants, Forsythe is a good barometer for how much offal is actually making its way into local bellies. 

“For us it’s been pretty steady,” he says. “Hearts we’re selling more than we were before. Livers have been strong and steady for a long time. I’m starting to get more people asking for brains.” 

He’s noticed that some chefs, like Bruner-Yang and Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Nate Anda, consistently order blood and guts, making it worthwhile to continue to sell them. “But a lot of people will jump into it and jump back out,” Forsythe says. “Either it doesn’t sell or they’re not sure how to work with it. I don’t feel like people are beating down the door for offal more than they were years ago.”

Just because a country’s cuisine incorporates offal doesn’t mean restaurants will make the leap. Chef Danny Lee goes to To Sok Chon in Annandale for dishes featuring Korean blood sausage, known as soondae, and he’ll happily tear into some gopchang—small intestines hiding in a casserole or hot off the grill. But that doesn’t mean he puts either dish on the menu of his downtown Korean restaurant Mandu

“I love eating offal but I don’t have the most experience at cooking it,” he says. “It’s also not on the Mandu menu because it doesn’t sell. With Korean food, it took us a long time to get people to know what kimchi is, then we throw beef intestine at them? I’m not opposed to running it as a special, but as a set menu item, something like that would be a waste.” 

Even though he doesn’t serve it, Lee would like to see more restaurants coax diners into trying it. “It would be great to see more people using offal, and maybe there’s a way to educate people about it,” Lee says. “It’s been around for a while and it’s something people aren’t used to if they didn’t grow up eating it.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.

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