Like many American Jews who came of age in the late 20th century, I thought tongue was the grossest of meats. Chicken fingers and hamburgers were more my speed, and I could tolerate a spoonful of creamy chopped liver if I didn’t think about it. But beef tongue, the economy cut once prized at Catskill resorts, delicatessens, bar mitzvah buffets and Sabbath tables, was unacceptable. Its telltale bumps and thick, sinewy texture was simply too foul, too old-country, and far too much like French kissing dinner.
Noah Bernamoff, who owns Mile End, the nouveau Jewish delicatessen in Brooklyn and sister sandwich shop in Manhattan, once felt the same way. “I remember watching my grandmother eat tongue Polonaise [served with sweet and sour raisin sauce] as a kid and thinking, ‘Bubbe, you’re a special lady, but that is crazy.’” He has since had a change of heart — and palate. These days, Bernamoff features tongue on the menus at both of his restaurants — a lamb’s tongue dinner platter at the deli and sliced veal tongue served on pumpernickel and balanced with horseradish and onion-raisin marmalade (an updated take on his grandmother’s favorite sauce) at Mile End Sandwich.
At Mile End and across North America, tongue is staging a comeback, particularly on the menus of Jewish restaurants looking to “reinvent traditional Jewish cuisine,” as Zach Kutsher of Kutsher’s Tribeca in Manhattan put it. More surprisingly, people — young and old, tongue fanatics and novices — are beginning to seek it out.
“Our tongue sandwich is among the top five best sellers on our 12-sandwich menu,” said Bernamoff. Similarly, Paul Ashby of Paulie’s Pickling in San Francisco said he has consistently sold out of pickled tongue over the past three months. And Zane Caplansky, who runs the Toronto-based artisanal deli Caplansky’s, said word has spread quickly about his own deli’s tongue sandwich, which tops slices of light rye bread with beef tongue that’s been pickled with coriander, bay leaf, and mustard seed, then boiled in cinnamon- and clove-infused water. “We’re up to about 50 tongues a week, and growing,” he said. “It continues to shock me.”
In February, The New York Times dining critic Pete Wells described Kutsher’s veal tongue, which is served as part of a larger charcuterie board, as “pink, soft and delicately hot-smoked” — awfully kind words, I thought at the time. Perhaps there was something redeeming about tongue I wasn’t seeing yet.
Nostalgia certainly plays a role in tongue’s recent popularity surge. So does the food world’s preoccupation with “nose to tail” cooking, which stresses the importance of using all parts of the animal (in the kosher world, which only permits the front half of an animal be eaten, it would be “nose to rib”), and its daredevil embrace of formerly taboo foods. “We have undergone a meat renaissance,” Caplansky said. “Customers are really beginning to look for things like offal and sweetbreads on menus.” Tongue, he said, falls into the same category.
Chef Alex Raij, who serves beef tongue braised in a tomato and caper sauce at her Sephardic-influenced Brooklyn restaurant, La Vara, has a different theory. “Tongue never really went anywhere in the ethnic context, like Mexican taquerías and Japanese yakitori restaurants,” she said. The same can be said of old-school Jewish delicatessens like Katz’s in New York City and Langer’s in Los Angeles, where tongue sandwiches have been on the menu for decades. “But now that people are embracing ethnic food in a furious way, tongue is simply back on the wider radar,” she said.
Perhaps most important, today’s chefs’ home-cured, hand-sliced treatment of tongue makes all the difference in flavor and texture. So does their willingness to look beyond traditional Jewish preparations. The upscale kosher restaurant Pardes in Brooklyn, for example, serves a pickled beef tongue and onion ring platter. And Caplansky’s sister food truck, called Thunderin’ Thelma, offers inventive specials like pickled tongue tacos served on a tostada with pico de gallo, as well as bánh mì-style tongue sandwiches. “People expect an authentic Jewish experience at the restaurant, but the truck lets us experiment,” Caplansky said.
Still, some people’s aversion to tongue, mine included, runs deep. “I can’t say that beef tongue is our most popular seller with retail customers,” said Naftali Hanau, who runs Grow and Behold, a kosher sustainable meat company based in New York. Most of the tongue they do sell goes to source Pardes’ menu. Meanwhile, Kutsher said his decision to include tongue on a larger charcuterie board alongside more appealing meats, like beef and duck pastrami, chopped liver and spicy salami, was strategic. “It’s a gateway,” he said. “This way, people who would never commit to having tongue for dinner can sample a piece.”