Adventurous diners don't have to go far to find tongue on a D.C. menu. Lengua is a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine, popping up as a taco filler at any number of area restaurants including Oyamel (lengua guisada, or braised beef tongue), Taco Bamba (El Beso , or pork and beef tongue), Fuego Cocina y Tequileria and El Centro, to name a few.
But finding tongue outside of a tortilla can be more of a task around the District. American cuisine tends to stick to the mainstream cuts of meat — the filet, ribeye, a loin. Even a dish like beef cheeks can cause some diners to give pause. But slowly, tongue, prepared in a variety of ways, is popping up at some of D.C.'s most popular restaurants.
"As Americans, we are the only culture that has shunned the 'fifth quarter' (offal) as a viable source of nutrition," says The Red Hen's chef Mike Friedman. But while others may shy away from it, Friedman has embraced it.
"I grew up with tongue as a normal meat product in my refrigerator, so naturally I'm attracted to using it my restaurant," he says. "My favorite way is to braise it in a rich tomato sauce with carrots, leeks, celery and lots of warm herbs like thyme, rosemary and bay leaf."
When the Bloomingdale restaurant opened this past spring, Friedman featured braised tongue on the menu, grilled and served with caramelized cauliflower, dill and an anchovy sauce with red wine reduction. He says it was an homage to his Jewish upbringing and love of Italian cuisine. (The dish is currently no longer available, but Friedman says it will be back on the menu in a couple of weeks.)
Like Friedman, The Pig's Michael Bonk's affinity for tongue comes from his family. "It was part of my grandparents' diet 60 years ago. They are from Poland," says Bonk. "For centuries we were eating literally every part of an animal." At his Logan Circle restaurant, while not a featured dish, tongue is sprinkled throughout the head-to-tail specialists' menu. In fact, tongue may be one of The Pig's tamer ingredients.
"For me, I don't get much pleasure cooking a piece of meat like a tenderloin," says Bonk. "With off cuts such as tongue, there's an element of the unexpected."
Of course, when someone decides to order The Pig's brains sandwich, they're probably not going to balk at the inclusion of tongue — but it's in there. It's also in their Venezuelan Pork Pot (along with belly, hock and snout, too). And last Friday and Saturday night, Bonk featured a corned beef tongue dip with onions, horseradish, mustard, gouda and a ham broth on the tasting menu.
But while diners — and menus — are getting more adventurous, Bonk would rather it stay a niche dish. "I have to be honest, as tongue gains popularity, I start to lose interest in it as a chef. I won't abandon it," says Bonk, "but I'm looking to feed my guests things they can't find at other restaurants in D.C."
We'd hate to see Bonk's interest wane too much, but in addition to The Red Hen and The Pig, just some of the other places D.C. diners can also find tongue include Mintwood Place (lamb tongue moussaka), Obelisk (veal tongue with green sauce), Mothership (gnocchi with tongue ragout), Izakaya Seki (beef tongue with yuzu miso), andDaikaya (beef tongue skewers). SUNdeVICH and DGS Delicatessen both feature tongue sandwiches. Update: Mad Fox Brewing Company also has a special going this week featuring tongue and cheek taquitos.
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[Photo: Jessie Bryson/Eater.com]