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.”
For now, it seems, people are largely content to leave tongue to the professionals — willing to taste it, but too intimidated to tackle such an unfamiliar meat in their home kitchens. But Raij insists that it can be part of a home cook’s repertoire. “I grew up eating tongue at home, usually braised in tomato and wine sauce, or boiled and served with salsa and mustard. My friends were always weirded out, but I loved it,” she said.
Bernamoff likewise stressed that preparing tongue is not as mysterious as it seems. “At the restaurant we call it nature’s hot dog because it’s set up with the perfect ratio of fat and flesh that makes it easy to cook,” he said. His forthcoming “Mile End Cookbook: Redefining Jewish Comfort Food from Hash to Hamantaschen,” which he wrote with his wife, Rae, includes a recipe for tongue. Until it hits the shelves, however, I needed a solid recipe to initiate me into the league of tongue. I found what I was looking for on Grow and Behold’s website a spicy beef tongue simmered in a slow cooker until it’s falling-apart tender.
As a former vegetarian and lifelong tongue skeptic, I was nervous — and admittedly, handling a cow’s tongue was a bit rattling. But after an eight-hour braise, the meat was delicately flavored, as fork-tender as brisket, and the perfect base for a not traditionally Jewish but decidedly delicious dish: tongue tacos. Tongue bashers, beware: You might just end up eating your words.
Slow Cooked Beef Tongue Tacos
This recipe is adapted from one found on Grow and Behold’s website. The peppers can be purchased at Middle Eastern shops.
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon ground Aleppo Pepper
1 tablespoon ground ancho pepper
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon coarse-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
1 beef tongue
1 bottle of light or amber beer
12 corn tortillas, warmed in oven
salsa, chopped cilantro, avocado slices or guacamole, chopped sweet onion and any other desired toppings
1) Place onions and garlic at the bottom of a large slow cooker.
2) Stir together peppers, brown sugar and paprika in a small bowl. Rub spice mixture liberally on all sides of the tongue.
3) Place tongue on top of the onions and garlic and add the bottle of beer. Cook on low until the tongue is fork-tender, approximately 8 hours.
4) Remove tongue from slow cooker and allow to cool until safe to handle. Peel off the outside membrane and discard, then shred the meat by hand.
5) Divide the shredded meat among the tortillas and spoon a little cooking juice over top of each. Layer with desired fixings and serve.
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column on food and culinary trends. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.