The Ultimate Bucket List For Adventurous Eating in Grand Rapids

By Samantha Suarez | Photography By David Specht

There are few pleasures in life greater than satiating one’s hunger by eating something you’re craving. Growing up, however, many Americans don’t venture outside the usual rotation of dishes such as, pancakes for breakfast, grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and turkey on Thanksgiving. While those things are classics for a reason, there’s a whole world of new and unique foods out there for us to explore.

Organ meats, for example, are the most overlooked parts of an animal in the United States — which is honestly a travesty because 1) it’s wasteful, and 2) beef tongue and chicken livers are delicious! There are also those animals you wouldn’t think to eat, like snails or jellyfish. We’re not suggesting that people should eat any endangered species like sharks, but if the only thing stopping you from trying something new and potentially tasty is your brain telling you that it seems weird, then why not nudge yourself outside the norm?

We understand that, like anything outside one’s comfort zone, adventurous eating can be disconcerting; but with a little courage, open-mindedness and knowledge of the culture it comes from, we think you’ll be able to taste the best the world has to offer.

To assist our readers in embracing new foodie creations, we’ve assembled a bucket list of adventurous dishes for you to try in the Grand Rapids area, along with everything you need to know about these dishes should you decide to give them a try. If nothing else, this will be a fun way to gross out your less-adventurous dining companions!

BONE MARROW FROM BREWERY VIVANT

Anatomically, bone marrow is the yellowish, reddish, jelly-like tissue inside the bones that has blood cell-producing powers. Historically, bone marrow has been vital in European cuisines, where special bone marrow spoons were developed in 18th-century France and England. Most of the bone marrow we consume is from veal because it is particularly mild and delicate. “The best way to describe the flavor is beefy brown butter,” said Chris Vander Meer, executive chef of Brewery Vivant. “It’s so rich and hearty, and then we have the fennel rub that we bake onto it, adding an even deeper dimension. Spread that on some of our crusty, French baguettes, and you have a match made in heaven!”

CHICKEN FEET FROM WEI WEI PALACE

When it comes to eating chicken feet, you’re not there for the meat. You’re there for the skin, and the gelatinous ligaments and tendons coated in that simultaneously sweet and spicy sauce. Aside from being a popular stand-alone dish, animal feet are also be used for their broth-generating properties. In Japan, for example, they are used in ramen. Animal feet are also highly valued for their collagen, which is supposedly good for your skin. In a world that is gravitating towards a whole-animal style of eating, Asia has been there for ages. As for the best way to
eat these “Phoenix claws?” Approach them like chicken wings and gnaw at them until you’re down to the bones!

BEEF TONGUE (LENGUA) TACOS FROM TAQUERIA SAN JOSE

If you’ve ever encountered raw animal tongue at a butchery, we reckon you knew what it was the moment you saw it. Seeing a giant cow tongue is daunting, but the good news is it’s almost never served in its full form. They can be jellied and sliced for sandwiches like they do in Jewish delis, stir-fried like in Chinese cuisine, or shredded for the most incredible tacos — like these ones from Taqueria San Jose! Don’t worry about the texture: it tastes like super-tender braised beef. Don’t forget the cilantro and onions!

OCTOPUS CONFIT (PULPO CONFITADO) FROM ZOKO 822

“I don’t think we could call ourselves a Spanish or Basque restaurant if we didn’t have octopus on the menu. Surprisingly enough, it sells really well!” Chef Ryan Martin of Zoko 822 told Women’s LifeStyle.

Octopus has popped up on the menus of many chef-driven restaurants in America’s trendiest cities. It makes sense due to the fact that it’s cheap to obtain and gives chefs a chance to showcase their skills. Octopus is, after all, one of those ingredients that is terrible unless cooked perfectly. On the consumers’ end, foodies enjoy it because it’s a nutritious, low-calorie source of protein that is also very filling. It is common in Mediterranean cuisine and is often consumed raw as sushi at Japanese restaurants. As for Zoko 822’s octopus confit, Martin says they cook the octopus in oil, and it comes out smelling and tasting like sweet crab meat. “Then we toss it in a classic Spanish sauce called mojo picón. We jokingly refer to it as Spanish barbecue sauce because of its sweet, meaty flavor with hints of smokiness and acidity,” he explained. “We then serve it with wrinkly potatoes, which is a method of preparing potatoes in the Canary Islands.”

BEEF PHO WITH TRIPE AND TENDON FROM PHO SOC TRANG

Vietnam’s unofficial national dish of fragrant broth with slices of meat and soft rice noodles is much loved all over the world. Pho truly is Vietnamese soul food, often enjoyed as a Sunday morning ritual for families. What people may not know is that there are many variations to this pho-nominal (see what we did there?) dish. Some have counted up to 40 different types of pho, including duck pho, ostrich pho, clam pho, and vegetarian pho. Rookies usually start with the basic version of beef pho with slices of raw and well-cooked meat, sometimes with brisket or beef ball. Veterans, however, will at least try beef pho with everything on it — tripe and tendons included. Tripe is the stomach lining of a cow while tendon is the tissue attached to muscles and bones. Tripe’s consistency is chewy while tendons are jelly-like. We encourage foodies to take your pho experience up a notch by ordering beef pho with all the meat variations. Make the jump and enjoy pho with a fabulous mix of textures! The worst that can happen is that you aren’t crazy about it, and next time, you can order pho and customize your soup with only your favorite bits.

ESCARGOT FROM BREWERY VIVANT

While the idea of consuming snails may repel the average American, escargot is a delicacy in France and even dates back to prehistoric times. Often served with a buttery garlic sauce (sometimes with alcohol bases like wine or brandy), escargot is a reasonably healthy food, containing high levels of protein, essential fatty acids, iron, and vitamins. “I like to push our guests to try escargot if they haven’t had it before. We do a very classic French preparation where we bring in Helix land snails from France and cook them in a compound butter with garlic, shallots, parsley, and brandy,” said Chef Chris Vander Meer of Brewery Vivant. “At the end, we top the buttery snails with freshly-shredded parmesan and bake it until it’s a beautiful golden brown. Place one of these babies on some grilled toast and I promise you won’t look back!” ”

BEEF HEART SKEWERS FROM ROAM BY SAN CHEZ

“As a chef, I appreciate when butchers keep as much of the animal as possible so we can utilize the parts that normally get overlooked. Respect for animals and the products we use is very important to me and the company,” said Petr Orzech, head chef of Roam by San Chez. Most of the meat we consume is muscle, and the heart is an extreme form of muscle. Similar to steak, roasts, and ground beef, only stronger and more fibrous, heart needs to be tenderized or long-chewed when eaten. It is also less expensive (probably because fewer people eat it). Beef heart is especially popular in South America as a street food, often marinated and then cooked over charcoal as kebabs and eaten with chile sauce. Chicken hearts are similarly skewered in Japanese restaurants. Nutritionally, heart meat is high in protein, iron, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, and amino acids. Roam by San Chez’s rendition of beef heart is Peruvian-inspired. “We cook it to medium-rare (unless requested otherwise) to try and maintain as much natural flavor as possible. We marinate it in garlic, onion and chili powder, clove and paprika, which are all very traditional spices in Peru,” said Orzech, “But we make sure not to overpower the beef.”

JELLYFISH WITH CENTURY EGG FROM WEI WEI PALACE

Are you ready for this jelly? Think of jellyfish as “the glass noodles of the sea.” Usually served cold or pickled and tossed with soy sauce or sesame oil, they are not as slimy as one might think and are, in fact, rather crunchy, like raw clams. Biting into them is like tasting the ocean in your tongue. Jellyfish are low in calories, low in fat, and rich in protein and collagen. The little fat they do have are essential fatty acids. But the real reason you should be eating them? Scientists say there are too many of them in the sea… and the problem is only getting worse! In 2014, jellyfish invaded a Scottish salmon farm, killing 300,000 fish overnight. They have also shut down power stations and have had a significant socioeconomic impact on tourist areas. We like to say: if you can’t beat them,
eat them!

Wei Wei Palace’s jellyfish is served with century eggs, which are eggs that have been preserved in a saline solution for a few months. Taste-wise, century eggs are like supercharged regular boiled eggs. The gelatinous black part doesn’t taste much like anything, but the yolk is creamy and pungent—bringing a nice contrast with the tangy spiciness of the jellyfish.

BRAIN TACOS FROM TAQUERIA GARCIA

Zombie jokes aside, animal brains are eaten all over the world and can be found in both high-end French restaurants all the way to that authentic taqueria down the road — much like this tasty treat from Taqueria Garcia! While there’s no doubt it looks like a taco with chunks of brain in it, take a bite and you’ll find that it has the texture of firm tofu with a custard-like creaminess. Brain has also been compared to scrambled eggs in texture, and indeed, brains mixed with scrambled eggs are popular in Portugal and Spain. While brains are 60 percent fat and high in cholesterol, they are also rich in healthy oils and B12 vitamins.

BALUT (FERTILIZED DUCK EGG) FROM THE KIM NHUNG SUPERSTORE

If you’ve heard of balut before, you probably knew it would make the list. For those who don’t know, balut is a common street food item in the Philippines. It is essentially a hard-boiled duck egg, which sounds innocent enough, until you find out the egg is fertilized and incubated for 14 to 21 days before being cooked. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: it’s duck embryo.

We Filipinos understand that balut is no beauty queen, but it’s still a shame that it’s been so exoticized in pop culture. The truth is that the thought of balut is more unpleasant than the balut itself. Once you’ve cracked the top off, you will encounter a broth so heavenly that you’ll forget about all your previous reservations. A good balut yolk is soft and creamy, while the embryo is tender and almost mousse-like in texture. You certainly aren’t meant to be crunching on any bones. Pictures you may have seen online where the duckling’s feathers and beak are visible are examples of overdeveloped balut, and do not do justice to good balut. “When I eat balut, I am taken back to my childhood days living in the Philippines,” said Ace Marasigan, West Michigan resident and founder of the Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival. “The street vendors would come by the wet markets and residential areas with their baskets full of eggs, yelling out, “balut!”, and we would all come out of the house and enjoy them.” He added, “The idea of balut may be off-putting to some, and that’s unfortunate because it’s absolutely delicious and eating one is truly an experience. If you still aren’t sure, I’ll eat
one with you!” Don’t forget to enjoy it with a little salt or vinegar.

Food is something everybody loves, and that makes it a wonderful way to connect with people all over the world. Whether you’re snacking on an elephant ear at a state fair or savoring some balut from a street vendor in the Philippines, you’re diving right into a culture. You suddenly have something to talk about with anyone around you. Food truly is a universal language. It just has different dialects.

As for you, dear reader, it’s a brave new world of food out there and we hope you take the time to learn its different dialects by venturing outside what is normal and trying everything you can!

“Food is something everybody loves, and that makes it a wonderful way to connect with people all over the world. Whether you’re snacking on an elephant ear at a state fair or savoring some balut from a street vendor in the Philippines, you’re diving right into a culture.”

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