Worth the Trip

Extreme Cuisine: Where to Find the Unusual and Outrageous

By Cooper Levey-Baker / Photography By Kathryn Brass-Piper | October 01, 2014
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Extreme cusine: big bird pork fu

The mark of a true gourmand? A willingness to eat damn near anything, at least once.

While the rise of the TV celebrity foodie has been far from a universal blessing, it has resulted in one unambiguous good: the wide exposure of average Americans to the incredibly diverse bounty of foods eaten around the world.

The first time I saw someone cook with eel, it was on “Molto Mario.” The first time I learned that some people in Southeast Asia eat tarantulas, it was on “Bizarre Foods.” And I could catalogue a huge list of food firsts I experienced thanks to observing Anthony Bourdain’s journeys.

That kind of exposure reminds us that even those of us who consider ourselves adventurous omnivores still eat from a tiny slice of the global pie. We might think we’re more sophisticated diners than those rubes out there who won’t even eat chicken if it comes attached to a bone, but in the bigger scheme of things, our tastes are often just as limited. I know plenty of putative foodies who shun even the slightly eccentric, like calf ’s liver or anchovies or foie gras.

There’s another dynamic at play: While the adventurous diner might be happy to throw revulsion to the wind and try something unusual at a celebrated restaurant, where it’s assumed a trusted chef has made everything delicious, it’s a bigger stretch to take the responsibility for cooking something new at home. I’ve eaten sweetbreads—a calf’s thymus gland—many times at restaurants, but never cooked them at home. Something about the word “membrane” in all the recipes just weirds me out.

But I’m determined to change my ways, and so I spent the last couple weeks cruising local specialty grocery stores for unusual yet delectable ingredients that any serious home cook should try. At least once.

Phúóc Lôc Tho Oriental Supermarket

The sign in the butcher section here promises pork blood, so, help, I’m going to buy some pork blood. I slide open the door to the refrigerator and take a gander. A dozen or so brick-like blocks of something maroon sit suspended in water in a bucket. I guess I’ll try one? I ask the woman behind the counter for help, but she just gestures to a nearby stack of foam containers and a box full of plastic gloves. Oh, so I’ve got to serve myself? Hmmm. OK.

I glove myself and dip my hand into the pool and come up with a hunk of tender but firm congealed blood. Into the container goes that, and into the trash goes my used glove. Whew. Glad that’s over with.

Turns out this is just one variety of blood at PhúÓc LÔc Tho. The Asian specialty store, located on 12th Street next to the, ahem, adult-oriented X-Factor, also stocks raw liquid pork and beef blood in addition to the brick I take home, which has been cooked in-house till it solidifies.

PhúÓc LÔc Tho is a treasure of other unusual finds, too. Looking for wrinkled pig stomach? A cow heart that looks surprisingly human? Beef tendons? You can find all of the above at the store, which also carries countless pantry goods and offers freshly made Asian specialties like pork buns and spring rolls.

Tom Trinh and Manh Nguyen own the shop; Kristen Trinh, Tom’s daughter, gives me some tips on how to use the pork blood. Add it to soup as a kind of condiment, she advises. She estimates that about half the shop’s customer base hails from South Asia, and the rest are just looking for some help figuring out how to cook their Asian favorites.

I need the help. I can’t say I’m crazy about the stir-fried pork blood I whipped up thanks to a recipe I found online, but it was an experience. Whatever you pick up, that’s what PhúÓc LÔc Tho guarantees.

Phúóc Lôc Tho Oriental Supermarket: 1944 12th St, Sarasota; 941-365-0520; phuoclocthosrq.com

Oriental Food & Gifts

Gulf Gate’s Oriental Food & Gifts may not have the exotic butcher specialties you can snag at PhúÓc LÔc Tho, but it more than makes up for that with its wildly varied pre packaged and pantry ingredients. One example: Big Bird Pork Fu, a plastic container of dried and shredded pork cooked with sugar, soy, lard, and more.

The stuff looks like a giant ball of fluff. Grab a pinch and it comes apart like cotton candy. Salty pork-flavored cotton candy? Oh boy, I’m in heaven. It makes a killer addition to soups. For a fun experiment, sub it in for grated cheese some time.

The shop’s refrigerators are also stocked with a bevy of unique seafood ingredients, like dried-out anchovies and tiny desiccated shrimp that fry up nicely, either on their own or as a complement to something else. They remind of nothing so much as the tiny schie served atop polenta in Venice, Italy.

But whatever you’re in search of, be sure to go on a Saturday, when the shop offers up a small selection of freshly made dishes from its small back kitchen. Once sated, bundle up all your finds and get cranking on dinner at home.

Oriental Food & Gifts: 2234 Gulf Gate Dr, Sarasota; 941-924-8066; orientalfoodandgifts.com

sriracha mayo
braised eel
Photo 1: Sriracha Mayo used to spice up any dish
Photo 2: Braised eel can be found at most Asian markets

El Mariachi Loco Latin Market

Calling El Mariachi Loco a grocery store is like calling Walmart a five-and-dime. It’s so much more. You can get help with your taxes or legal documents, pick up calling cards, and wire money back home. Way in the back, there’s even a dang salon. A man sits idle while a woman chops away at his ’do.

The food is on the left. The shop’s main attraction may be its exceptional lunch counter, which serves up classics like tortas and tacos, but the grocery aisles here are a wonderland of fun stuff. While you’re waiting for lunch, grab a hibiscus soda and cruise the lanes, but pay particular attention to the extensive butcher counter, where you can grab inexpensive, fresh, uncured pork belly with still-intact nipples, as well as claw-like chicken feet and wedges of pig intestines and feet.

That pork belly is a particular steal, its fatty flesh perfect for a long, slow braise. It’s the same cut they make bacon with, and while it shares bacon’s marbled texture, the flavor of the fresh stuff is so much more adaptable and the fat is so much more unctuous.

El Mariachi Loco Latin Market: 6350 15th St E, Sarasota; 941-751-0906

La Primavera Mexican Food

Fans of downtown Sarasota’s go-to taco-and-gordita joint Bianca’s were bummed when the shop went under this year, but the space was quickly reborn as Primavera, with pretty much the same menu up front and grocery options in the back.

While the butcher counter displays some of the same Latin American classic cuts you’ll find at El Mariachi Loco, plus rarities like beef feet and tripe, the real treasure here can be found in the shop’s extraordinary array of cheap spices packaged up by the company El Chilar. Sure, you can grab mainstays like garlic powder and chilies, but I urge you to peruse some of the more unusual baggies: horehound, myrtle, chinchona bark, black walnut, mullein leaves, powdered shrimp, cat’s claw, and a ton more. While many of the spices here possess medicinal rather than culinary value, the selection has me brainstorming how to work avocado leaves—here dried out like bay leaves—into my next recipe.

► La Primavera Mexican Food: 901 N Washington Blvd, Sarasota; 941-366-5321

Geier’s Sausage Kitchen

“Head cheese” is a pretty strange term when you really think about it. I’m not sure who thought it would make a product made from a cow’s or pig’s head more appetizing by adding the word “cheese,” but there you go.

A visit to Geier’s makes you ponder questions like that, thanks to its astounding variety of homemade sausages and cured meats—rare specialties like head cheese and jellied veal tongue among them. Both types, slapped between thick wedges of Geier’s hearty bread and striped with spicy mustard, make for a killer sando, miles ahead of anything you’re going to get from lame old Boars Head.

Geier’s also crushes it when it comes to blood sausage and goetta (a mix of meat and oats), and the cooler is full of special goodies like lamb kidneys, pig feet, whole quails, goose legs, and even some freshly delivered alligator meat from Lake Placid, Florida. What’s a true Florida feast without some reptile?

Geier’s Sausage Kitchen: 7447 S Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-923-3004; geiers-sausage.com

homemade sausage
pigs feet
fried tripe tacos
dry aging beef
Photo 1: Head cheese and homemade sausages at Greier's Sausage Kitchen
Photo 2: BBQ, braised, fried, or pickled are the many ways to cook pigs feet
Photo 3: Fried tripe tacos are a specialty at La Primavera
Photo 4: Scott from the Butcher's Block showing off his dry-aging beef

The Butcher’s Block

Scott McGowan runs down the list of meats his shop carries in addition to the usual stuff: rabbit, venison, buffalo, and goat. Basically, if you eat animals, you can find one you like at The Butcher’s Block.

And coming early in 2015, that list includes a number of cured meats that are aged in-house. McGowan walks me to the front of the shop, where he’s installing a walk-in cooler with a window that faces out into the street. It’s in this box that McGowan will soon be hanging cuts of dry-aging beef, as well as pig legs being cured into prosciutto and Serrano ham. The box will be lit up to display the meats even at night, allowing you to drool on the glass at any time of day.

While I’ve had more steaks and prosciutto in my lifetime than any sane doctor would recommend, I’m on the hunt for offal, in particular sweetbreads, which have become a favorite go-to for me in restaurants, even though I’ve never mustered the courage to try cooking them myself. Home recipes typically call for you to boil and then chill them before you even get to the fun part—frying or grilling—and the prospect of dealing so extensively with an animal’s gland has always given me the willies. But given McGowan’s expertise and his wide European travels learning new techniques, I know I’m in capable hands. Give me that thymus, bro!

The Butcher’s Block: 3242 17th St, Sarasota; 941-955-2822; butchersblocksarasota.com

dried chilis
Dried chilli peppers found at the market

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