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Plenty of places to dine on tasty and trendy nasty bits

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Offal has become awfully trendy, hasn't it? Snout-to-tail dinners sell out at top-notch restaurants, and cookbooks that celebrate using every part of the animal earn rapturous praise.

The term offal—pronounced just like "awful"—refers to organ meats, anything that pumps, beats and filters through an animal's system. Brains, kidneys, intestines: They're all on the table.

Modern eaters may argue that we're past the idea of needing to eat every animal part. Many are justifiably grossed out by the thought. But as the Raleigh diner demographic becomes more varied, so have the opportunities to enjoy offal in area restaurants.

Ethnic eateries, for one, provide adventurous menus of authentic international cuisines.

At Seoul Garden, blood sausage and goat meat tripe explore the gamut of Korean food. Tripe, the stomach lining of a ruminant, is typical elsewhere, from fancy European meat markets to taco stands in Mexico. Though we could not find it locally, the French version of andouille sausage, andouillette, is made with tripe.

Tripe also appears in pho, a Vietnamese soup, at Pho Cali. Mexican tripe stew (menudo) and beef tongue (lengua) tacos can be found at any taqueria in Raleigh or Cary, including Fonda y Birrieria Jalisco. While tripe is elastic and chewy, beef tongue, usually braised in garlic, is just like a soft bite of steak.

Inka Peruvian Restaurant proudly serves anticuchos: chunks of grilled beef heart on a skewer. A popular backyard barbecue food all over Peru, this is one of the traditional-style appetizers featured on the restaurant's menu.

The esoteric movement in eating offal is propelled by conscious eaters who appreciate gourmet fare. Involved farmers, chefs and butchers feel that making use of the entire animal honors its sacrifice.

Not that high-end eateries offering artfully composed offal is a new concept. J. Betski's masterful meat options—from charcuterie to schnitzel—include a spring beef tongue salad on the pub's menu, accompanied by arugula, pickled vegetables and a poached egg.

Let us not, however, get caught up in the newness of this trend here at home. Part of the South's grit and traditional foodways are rooted in eating every single bit we could, out of necessity.

Both Big Ed's City Market and the N.C. State Farmer's Market Restaurant serve brains and eggs, a quintessential Carolina breakfast. On the website for Rose brand pork brains—canned in nutritious-sounding milk gravy with an "easy pull top lid"—Rep. Howard Coble from Greensboro offers this robust endorsement:

"When I was a youngster, my mom used to prepare Brains N' Eggs for breakfast ... So that's when I started eating them. I've enjoyed them ever since, but I can't find any on Capitol Hill. I'll admit the name of the dish is not the most appetizing, but try 'em, you might like 'em!"

Well, I tried 'em, but I didn't like 'em. Neither does Sam Hobgood, owner of Big Ed's, where they sling out about 20 plates a week. A pulpy texture gives way to stringy veins, with an odor much like cat food. I needed extra sweet tea to wash away the lingering pungency.

Jay Pierce, chef at Cary's Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, calls offal "sustenance cuisine" (and pleasantly pronounces it "OH-fuhl"). He often features fried chicken livers and giblet gravy ladled on mashed potatoes on Wednesdays.

Weekend brunch showcases Carolina liver pudding. Soaked in buttermilk overnight, the livers are drained, simmered in a roux and pulsed into a puree. They are then mixed with cornmeal and fried into small grit cakes and served with poached eggs and creamy grits.

For special events, Pierce experiments with offal. He once served an hors d'oeurve of lamb liver pudding spread on crostini and some fried with brandied cherries. Pierce also finds inspiration in nose-to-tail master chefs like Chris Consentino, of the famed Incanto restaurant in San Francisco.

"I served lamb hearts at a dinner," Pierce says. "I wouldn't have done it if Consentino hadn't made beef heart tartare on Top Chef Masters. He's the one who gave me the courage. People were shocked that I used the strongest, most flavorful muscle in the lamb."

While studying the success of the newfound offal cooking techniques, Pierce doesn't stray far from tradition.

"The giblet gravy and the Carolina liver pudding that we make don't appeal to the foodies, unless they're more of the anthropologist foodies," he says. "They're not as titillating as the lamb hearts. But my customers are traditionalists ... [who] are interested in the farmers market and learning how their grandmothers cooked.

"They understand 'waste not, want not,'" he continues. "With some connection to the Great Depression, those are the ones that understand that everything has a purpose. You don't need to like it, but you need to use it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Tripe: It's offal."

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