The Organ Trail of San Francisco: The Best Offal in Chinatown & North Beach
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San Franciso’s Organ Trail Continues: the quest for the finest offal in the city…a Multi-Colored Brick Road (ahem) strewn with Brains and Heart For the Couragous.
Flaming kidney. Explosive intestine. Numbing uterus. Shrieking thymus gland! Are these ideas scrawled on the white board of a Spanish Inquisition spitballing session? A catalogue made by a doctor of gastric illnesses suffered during the Black Plague? Neither. They are, in fact, some of the more weird and depraved vittles offered for brave palates venturing into San Francisco’s Chinatown. The savage and outré isn’t limited to that historic urban zone, lest we be accused of portraying Asian food in an unflatteringly lurid light. Why, just a carriage ride’s journey due Northeast in North Beach there’s a little known restaurant tucked away up a quiet residential street where you can eat brains–lovely, fluffy brains lightly browned like scrambled eggs left a little too long in a cast iron skillet.
The Organ Trail, for those unfamiliar, is a guide to offal in selected neighborhoods around San Francisco. This week our giblet spotlight shines on two boroughs that are often lumped together, mostly by virtue of intimate geographical proximity. Where Chinatown ends and North Beach begins isn’t easy to determine. If there was a border it’d be a writhing snake, doubling back on it’s own tail until you’re left something resembling the scribblings of a two year old, or perhaps a tangled pile of pig intestines on a blood splattered butcher’s table.
The aforementioned dishes were either taken from or inspired by photos (and their accompanying texts) posted out front of three restaurants situated along three parallel east-west running streets between Stockton and Kearny streets. They’re unapologetically frank, like an old man sitting naked in a Russian bathhouse, sweat trickling over his opalescent ball sack. In case that unflattering comparison hasn’t caused you to flee screaming towards the nearest frozen food aisle in search of Marie Callander’s chicken pot pie, said restaurants are Spicy King on Clay Street; one block north on Washington is Hunan House; the third is the rhythmically named New Woey Loy Goey Restaurant, on Jackson Street.
Whether their brazen proclamations of offalic abundance function as enticements or deterrents depends on your attitude towards things that go bump in the culinary night– a disposition determined in large part by where and when you were raised and how much you’ve been brainwashed by the giblet mafia (Bourdain, Zimmer, Cosentino, et al). I give my parents credit for broadening my brother and mine’s culinary palates beyond hushpuppies and frozen spinach, but my gaze didn’t start it’s drift towards the ghastly treats waiting in the shadows until I’d started working in restaurants for a few years and binge-watching No Reservations on the Travel Channel.
The restaurants I’ve invited you to patronize offer big sizzling plates of these delicacies with nary a sour whiff of a suggestion that it’s anything but right and sane digging into a heap of spicy intestines whose grassy funk shakes hands with the signature Szechuan numbing pepper (which, if you aren’t expecting it can be alarming at first) and a furious, blushing heat. Your own lower digestive tract may even offer noises of sympathetic recognition upon ingestion.
Lest I come off as one of the many insufferable uber-gourmands that this city is teaming with, let me assure you that there are still things whose appearance elicits within me a deep aversion; namely, braised sea cucumber (not offal, I should point out), which as displayed on Hunan House’s window is a long, glistening, brown-black cylinder with what look like baby teeth poking out along it’s prodigious length. It looks like a few things: a medieval weapon spawned from the sick mind of David Cronenberg; the scary battle penis of a mutant steam punk alien porn star; a large toilet missile left too long in the bowl and somehow become sentient and predatory with tiny molars and incisors sprouting out of it.
Forging on to North Beach: the pickings are slimmer here for offal, but going in I knew of at least one dish which would make the jog worth it. Tosca Cafe is an institution and their grilled lamb heart is renown. This place has been around for almost 100 years and nothing has been done to disguise that fact. Giant, aesthetically dubious portraits of grandees from bygone days adorn the walls. The ceiling is cracked and jaundiced from decades of cigarette smoke and the cloying humidity given off by untold hordes of patrons pickling in alcohol. The only change in the last couple of years was brought about by celebrity chef and renowned meat enthusiast April Bloomfield. In addition to the grilled heart she offers pig ear and tail and a selection of charcuterie.
Finally we come to brains. We all think with them, but do we have the nerve to consume the thought mush of another creature? The answer for Maykadeh, a Persian restaurant on Green Street, is a resounding YES, a primal cry of affirmation from the cerebellum. They offer the bovine grey matter grilled with a side of warm pita bread, hummus, pickles and fresh tomatoes. Additional menu items of interest are lamb tongue and, seriously, rocky mountain oysters.
Tune in next time for a quick spin around the Richmond, where you may derive if you choose a small bit of sustenance from the digestive tract of an eel.
65 Waverly Place (at Clay St.)
826 Washington St.
New Woey Loy Goey
699 Jackson St.
242 Columbus Ave.
470 Green St.