February 5, 2014

Taste Bud: Out of my head?

In honor of the return of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on Sunday, I decided to eat a brain.

I know, I know. I must be out of my head, right? (Sorry, that was a really bad joke. Let’s begin again.)

I admit I have always been intrigued by the notion of eating brains. Sure, it’s not a big deal to many cultures, but in our fairly bland American culture, you don’t find many people who are seeking out gray matter as a snack.

I remember as a teenager watching the indie film “Faces of Death” and being horrified as diners beat the crap out of a monkey, only to eat its brains moments later straight from the poor animal’s skull. Who does this? Who eats brains?

Actually, brains can be fairly nutritious, fatty but with plenty of protein and potassium. Problem is, brains disappeared from the menus of taquerias for many years thanks to the fear instilled by mad cow disease. Many would-be brain-eaters had to do without.

But they are back, at least at El Molcajete, a relatively new Mexican restaurant on Fourth Street near Central Avenue that has become one of my favorite haunts in the last few weeks. In addition to a litany of other delicious, traditional Mexican tacos (the tongue here is delicious, and the chicken tacos are like eating mini fajitas), I noticed on a recent visit that the restaurant offers tacos de sesos. And the best part is you don’t have to kill the cow yourself.

Yes, brain tacos. Insert zombie groans here.

Of course, there are apprehensions. What are the odds I might contract mad cow? And will I somehow capture some of the cow’s spirit and begin experiencing its thoughts? Hmm.

Finally, being generally adventurous, culinarily speaking, and cerebral enough (sorry!) to get past my misgivings, I ordered one.

Now, while I have generally enjoyed the tacos de cabezas (head meat) and even tacos de tripa (tripe, or beef intestines), my first taste of cow brains left me puzzled.

For starters, I thought the chopped-up brains looked almost like a dark, flaky fish that had simply fallen apart. It almost resembled canned tuna, except for the outer parts that had been seared during cooking. Those parts actually just looked like brains as they held their shape. So I definitely had not ordered a fish taco by mistake.

But the smell was also, well, kind of fishy. The first bite was even a bit fishy — similar to mackerel but much, much milder and with a lingering sour undertone. However, as I took a couple more bites, my taste buds began to acclimate to the odd, new flavor they were experiencing. At this point, the flavor went from Whoa! to unpleasant.

The texture was something I didn’t expect, however. The brain was a bit on the mushy side, like your grandmother’s really moist oyster dressing. That took a bit of getting used to, but I got there.

Finally, I added some spicy, tomato-based salsa to see how the chiles might enhance the flavor of brains. Honestly, it didn’t really work for me. But then I tried a bite with a green, milder tomatillo sauce, and that one did it — something about that flavor brought out the right things in the brain (mine and the cow’s), and at that point I was off and running. Or at least off and chewing.

I am proud to say I not only ate the whole taco (there was a lot of brain in there, too), but I actually enjoyed it. I’m still deciding whether I would order another one. Of course, I said that about lengua (beef tongue) many years ago, too, and now I am addicted. I also said the same about tripa, and I’ve had that more than once.

Anyway, El Molcajete has a lot of interesting stuff on the menu, from oyster cocktails to octopus fajitas, but if you’re looking to dip your toe into the water of unusual Mexican treats, I’d say the (ahem) smart money is on tacos de sesos. Really, it’s a no-brainer.

Yeah, sorry. Last one, I promise.