September 26, 2012

The Taste Bud: The call of the wild

When I was a kid, my family would go camping every year in Green County, Ky., on land my grandparents owned. It was there I learned to fish and gig frogs.

If you’ve never gigged a frog, you may want to sit down — basically, you thrust a pointed stick through its midsection, and leave it on the stick. I remember one night I ended up carrying around a stick almost my height that had 15 or 20 frogs stuck on it, their legs still madly kicking in some vain attempt to escape.

The next day, when my grandfather fried them, the legs kicked around the frying pan, muscles contracting from the heat, as if they were still alive and feeling the burn.

As you would imagine, I didn’t eat frog legs for most of my life. But I was no stranger to squirrel and rabbit, and I later came to enjoy frog legs and other unusual game meat as well. And that’s why I went to Mike & Matt’s, an out-of-the-way place at 2835 Holman’s Lane in Jeffersonville.

I had heard the place served elk steak and actually went to try that, only to find out they no longer serve it (“They weren’t selling enough and the meat was going bad,” our server explained). So instead, I ordered the Great Outdoors Combo (a tad pricey at $21.95, but whatever), which featured the aforementioned legs of frog, grilled quail and fried bites of gator tail, along with two sides.

Now, Mike & Matt’s is primarily a home-cooking joint — the sides are great, and they have a buffet filled with starches, veggies and rotating meats that your parents and grandparents will savor. But I was in it for the weird food, so that’s what I got.

I’ll start with the gator bites, of which there were plenty — like, 20 or more. I was pleasantly surprised to find they were more tender than most other gator bites I’ve had over the years. The darker tail meat of alligator can sometimes be overly chewy, even downright tough. But every bite I had at Matt & Mike’s was lighter, more tender, and they went perfectly with the white gravy I got with my side of mashed potatoes (normally I eat hot sauce with gator tail).

The frog legs and quail were equally pleasing, if not for the faint of heart. I say this because, literally, my girlfriend Cynthia nearly cried when she saw the two pairs of frog legs on my plate. She even stopped eating for several minutes and couldn’t seem to look away.

She later grimaced and noticeably flinched when I accidentally broke one of the quail’s legs while trying to find purchase for a bite. As I took my first bite of quail, she said, “Does it taste like tragedy?”

But first, the frog legs. They were quite tiny — I’m used to the piles of large frog legs one can get at Mike Linnig’s — but lightly battered and delicious. For the uninitiated, frog legs actually do not taste like chicken, as some would have you believe. The texture is similar to chicken, although far moister, while the flavor is closer to seafood. Imagine a cross between chicken and catfish, and you’re getting close.

Unfortunately, Cynthia watched me tear apart one of the leg pairs at the hip, and again became squeamish. Later in the meal, she said, “When you sucked the meat off that bone and I saw the ball socket joint, all I could hear were the opening strains of ‘Rainbow Connection.’”

Sigh. Women.

The biggest surprise to me was quail — while I’ve eaten plenty of gator and frog over the years, I’d never tried quail and wasn’t prepared for the odd, gamey flavor.

At Mike & Matt’s, quail is served grilled — basically, they filet the bird, butterfly it, and slap it on the grill. The only bones left are those in the legs and wings, so you can eat it with a fork or just pick it up and eat it by hand.

The grilled quail didn’t appear particularly appetizing — it looked like someone had stomped on a sparrow with a heavy boot, and then cooked it — but the flavor was beyond interesting, if a bit tiresome after a while. The bird tasted quite a lot like liver, with just a hint of dark meat turkey. Interestingly, unlike the frog and gator, it did not blend well flavor-wise with the gravy, so I simply ate it plain.

So, I managed to try something new and gross out my girlfriend in one fell swoop. That’s a good day’s work. And if you are, um, game (sorry!) to try the quail, gator and frog but aren’t ready to commit to a full plate, Matt & Mike’s offers a Friday evening buffet featuring everything from the Great Outdoors Combo.