City Paper is not for tourists
“Oh no!” my dining companion yelps. “I think I just ate one of those ligament thingees, thinking it was slaw.” By the contorted look on his face, you’d think he’d just swallowed a handful of agitated hornets.
A minute later, having safely swallowed the distasteful cartilage, he offers a less dramatic review: “Tastes like wax.”
We are sitting in a booth at Thunder Burger in Georgetown, picking our way through the advertised weekly special: tender alligator ribs, braised in beer, glazed with a sticky sweet honey chipotle sauce and served with a crunchy cabbage and cranberry slaw.
Now, I’ve gnawed on the scaly reptile before—I’ve just never seen alligator meat presented with such panache. Like most diners, I’m much more accustomed to tasting the meat only after it’s been battered, deep-fried, and rendered indistinguishable from the average chicken McNugget.
At Thunder, chef Ryan Fichter’s gamey take on the standard baby-back platter is an altogether different animal—or, more accurately, an altogether different part of the animal. The rib meat is darker than the whitish chunks of tail that generally get turned into your Southern-fried gator bite.
“I didn’t even know you could get the rib section,” says Fichter, who went hunting for exotic meats and wound up sourcing his reptile from an alligator farm in Hollywood, Fla. “It’s all USDA-approved and everything.”
Braised for four hours in Stoudt’s Smooth Hoperator doppelbock, chicken stock, and various seasonings, the oily meat has that desirable falling-off-the-bone quality that your neighborhood barbecue joint strives for.
And, while its scrawny bones resemble those of a bird—I was expecting a more gargantuan frame, but, then again, I’m no biologist—the meat doesn’t “taste like chicken,” as the mystery-meat saying goes. The texture and flavor seems more akin to pork. At least at first. Later, it begins to remind me of moist canned tuna.
Say this for D.C.’s fanciest gator platter: It’s nicely cooked, sufficiently sauced and entirely palatable. The only thing interrupting our enjoyment is the tough gristle we have to pluck from our teeth. Fichter tells us not to blame the poor lizards for that: “You find [cartilage] in pretty much every rib you get—even baby back ribs, spare ribs, as well,” he says. “It is completely edible. To some people, it’s a delicacy. It’s next to impossible to remove all that stuff.”
Long considered a delicacy in the American South, among other places, alligator is quietly emerging as the au courant exotic protein in D.C. this summer. While the reptile ribs appeared as part of Thunder Burger’s recurring “Wild Wednesday” special (Fichter serves a different exotic game each week ), he says he’s not through with the animal. He’ll be revisiting the ribs in the coming weeks and plans to devise gator hushpuppies.
Elsewhere, the Cajun Experience on 18th Street NW recently unveiled a combination gator and crawfish slider, in addition to various other gator menu items. Bayou in Foggy Bottom, meanwhile, runs a gator special every Wednesday night. Sometimes, it’s gator chili; other times, it’s gator ‘n’ grits.
It might seem a natural migration, moving from the swampy bayous to marshy Washington. But the transition isn’t exactly seamless. Despite a recent spike in the number of Louisiana-themed venues across town, some places have given the cold-blooded creature the cold shoulder. Bayou Bakery in Arlington doesn’t serve it. Neither does Hot ‘N’ Spicy Crawfish in Woodley Park, which offers chicken nuggets but not the reptilian variety.
A few places have carried the swamp creature in the past, with mixed results. The Brazilian-themed Grill from Ipanema offers a traditional fried alligator appetizer, served with a sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce. Unfortunately, no amount of sauce could cover up the fishy aftertaste of the densely breaded non-delicacy. On the other hand, Bardia’s New Orleans Café puts out an alligator gumbo each summer. Proprietor Bardia Ferdousi’s chops up and sautés tiny chunks of the meat to soften them up prior to adding his homemade gumbo mixture. The result is perfectly suited to a swampy D.C. day.
As I order, Ferdousi sketches me a little alligator figure on his ordering pad. “This part is no good,” he says, scratching out the lower half of the tail. “And this part is no good,” he continues, scratching out everything above the animal’s rear legs. This leaves only the top portion of the tail, which he calls the “tender part.” When I mention the alligator ribs at Thunder Burger, he just shakes his head.
Ferdousi says he sources his meat from alligator farms in Louisiana, which generally trade in younger, smaller gators, with tail meat that’s more tender. “Like lamb,” he says.
Perhaps no D.C. restaurant moves more alligator—an estimated 100 pounds each week—than the Cajun Experience, which features chunks of tail in a variety of dishes, including po’boys where you can order the meat fried or blackened. Co-owner Aaron Lewing, for one, recommends the more transparent blackened style, which tends to make patrons less squeamish, he says.
“For us, it’s not a new, trendy thing,” says chef Thomas Schoborg, espousing the restaurant’s ethos of upholding the authentic culinary traditions of Cajun country. Granted, it’s Schoborg’s first time really cooking the reptile. His prior gig was at Rosa Mexicano at National Harbor.
While Schoborg admits there is a novelty factor to eating alligator, he says the curiosity is a bit overblown. “Think of all the strange stuff you see on menus now,” he says. “Gator’s really not that odd in the grand scheme of things.”
Schoborg compares the tail meat to pork tenderloin in texture, but says its nutritional content is closer to chicken breast. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, gator is generally high in protein, low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and clocks in at around 200 calories per three-ounce serving.
Schoberg further points out that tail meat comes fairly cheap, about $7 per pound. A nice fish might run as a high as $12 per pound.
“Apparently, it’s an aphrodisiac, as well,” he says with a properly reptilian grin. A restaurateur in San Francisco once claimed, “a couple of bites, and you feel strong like you can take on the world.”
Last week, Schoborg ran a special on stew made with gator, turtle, and crawfish meat in the style of the traditional Cajun dish alligator sauce piquante. It featured thick slabs of tail in a spicy tomato-based broth with the standard creole components of celery, onion and pepper, plus a dash of absinthe. To say the dish had a kick is to put it mildly. I was simultaneously spooning it up and wiping my nose.
Of his various gator-themed menu items, Schoborg seems most proud of his sliders. The blended gator and crawfish meat patty is seasoned with paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, dried thyme, and Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning. The chef says he was inspired by the kinds of smoked gator sausage available in Louisiana, only he had no casings or other tools necessary to recreate the links.
“We have a meat grinder in the kitchen, so I figured, I have alligator meat, I’ve got the grinder, it just makes common sense that we try to make something with it,” Schoborg says. “The burger just seemed like a nice way to see what the seasoned ground gator meat would taste like without actually making sausage.”
The gator burger certainly exudes a sausage-y flavor, one of heavy seasonings covering up any discrepancies in taste and texture. The light-colored patties arrive with a darkened crusty char on the outside, served atop a grilled bun with iceberg lettuce, a sliver of tomato and dollop of spicy orange aioli. A swampy mixture of meats and spices, it runs a little pinkish on the inside.
As I chew on, I can’t help but wonder whether Spam might taste like this if Hormel Foods Corp. had been headquartered in Cajun country instead of the Midwest.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Thunder Burger, 3056 M St. NW, (202) 333-2888
Cajun Experience, 1825 18th St. NW, (202) 670-4416
Bayou, 2519 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 223-6941
Grill From Ipanema, 1858 Columbia Road, (202) 986-0757
Bardia’s New Orleans Café, 2412 18th St. NW, (202) 234-0420
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