Prep: Brine or braise, remove outer skin
Once relegated to Jewish delis and taco trucks, tongue—like the rest of its offal brethren—is making glamorous appearances on menus across the Unites States. Ever game for taking tough, cheap cuts and turning them into meat magic, chefs are using tongue in unexpected dishes, splashing them onto hot dogs, subbing them in for beef tartare, and heaping them onto unconventional sandwiches. While the low price point is a clear draw—beef tongue starts as low as $2.50 per pound compared to beef brisket at $6—the real allure is the product. The delicate texture that emerges after a careful brine or slow and steady braise make this meat no substitute, but instead a true star on a menu full of more familiar proteins.
Don’t think the leather look-alike (which actually mimics brisket in taste) requires a week’s worth of prep—the boys at Austin’s Noble Pig manage to massage extra flavor their into their Seared Beef Tongue Sandwich in just a few days, with a little help from a super-sized syringe.
In a mere 48 hours, 2012 Austin Artisan Rising Stars Chefs Chef John Bates and Brandon Martinez transform what-could-be-tough tongue into tender meat. Using a giant syringe (think 2-inches wide by 4-inches long), they pump traditional corned beef brine inside the tongue, speeding up the process: “We don’t have much storage or space,” says Bates, “so it can’t hang out for a week or two.” After cooking the meat in that same liquid for six to seven hours and removing the tough outer layer, the tongues are seared off, adding a rich, grilled bite. The sandwich, a nod to the classic deli nosh, is finished off with pungent garlic aïoli, smoked green onions, and bright red pepper relish.
Tongue and corned beef may be an obvious match, but tongue also makes several of Atlanta’s bun-loving menus. At HD1, Richard Blais' temple to the gussied-up “haute dog,” Chef Jared Lee Pyles (who uses a pressure cooker to create his silky ox-tongue in a pinch) matches the spice of his pecan-smoked beef pastrami dog with a rich ox tongue-tripe hash. House-made sour pickles add crunch and acidity to the earthy dog. And Chef Terry Koval features the off-cut whenever possible at Farm Burger in nearby Decatur, trying to utilize every part of the 100 percent grass-fed cows raised specifically for the locale. His pickled beef tongue bursts with flavor and texture alongside creamy confited cauliflower purée and Pop Rocks-like, vinegar-bloomed mustard seeds.
Most of these chefs grew up eating tongue, so it’s a natural fit on their menus, but the flavor has such a hook that customers eventually feel just as comfortable ordering it. “We had it on the menu, because I grew up with it,” explains Noble Pig’s Martinez. “I didn’t think it would sell as well as it did, but it’s our third best seller.” And Atlanta Chef Shane Devereux based many of the bar snacks, like his duck tongue carnitas, at his soon-to-open The Lawrence on food he grew up with. He achieves the ideal combination of tender-crunchy texture by braising the tongue (seared first to lock in moisture) in a star anise-scented duck stock, then crisping it in a frying pan. Duck tongues are smaller than beef and don’t require the extensive muscle break-down, so Devereux is careful to not overcook them (only braising for around 40 minutes). Finishing off his taco truck update with pickled shallots, cotija cheese, and tomatillo salsa, his dish shows why any chef can work with tongue.
“Tongue is still an under-utilized product,” says Devereux, who isn’t afraid get creative when it comes to his menu. “When cooked improperly, people are afraid to try it.” What about when not cooked at all? In one of the more bold tongue dishes we’ve seen, 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Star Chef Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo does beef tongue tartare. OK, so the tongue is actually braised. But the dish is done in the style of tartare, with shallots and parsley mixed into rillette—a blatant (can we say “loud-mouthed”?) celebration of tongue. With interactive mix-ins (ketchup, mustard, anchovy, cornichons, and egg yolk), unapproachable tongue suddenly becomes familiar, playful, and irresistible. And like all of our tongue dishes, it proves that no matter what it looks like to begin with ("unusual" is on the nicer end of our descriptive spectrum), when it’s cooked the right way, tongue is downright addictive.