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Mind over meat 

Testing my mettle against the gutsy items at my favorite taqueria.

cover_story6-1.jpg
click to enlarge La Regional image David Koon
  • Brian Chilson
  • SHOWDOWN: The author with (from left) cabeza, tripa, buche and lengue tacos.

The human mind, as will become clear to anyone who has existed on planet earth for more than 10 minutes, is prone to irrationality. Take me, for example. While I'm a Large-American and will happily eat hot dogs (a food whose fine-print ingredient label should actually say "a bunch of stuff you'd probably rather not know about"), you couldn't put a loaded gun to my head and make me eat a plate of pork chitterlings, which are honest, unadulterated, as-God-made-them pork intestines, which many perfectly sane people find delicious. Ditto on liver, gizzards, brains, kidneys, lungs, testicles, blood sausage and/or head cheese.

Then again, I'm a squeamish sort. I've been known to get grossed out to the point of losing my ox-like appetite by finding a bit of gristle in a chicken breast, so the idea of eating all the more gutsy stuff that those with stronger constitutions adore would just never occur to me. If I didn't love pulled pork, fried catfish and pepperoni pizza so dang much, I'm pretty sure I'd be a vegetarian by now, not to mention a lot thinner.

It's a mystery, then, why I volunteered to write this story, about eating everything on the menu at La Regional that I swore I'd never eat. Ah, the things I do for this job.

I've been going to Southwest Little Rock's La Regional restaurant for years now. It might be my favorite quick lunch in the whole city: a simple, working-man's taqueria attached to a grocery store. The food there (my faves are the pork tacos and chicken tortas) is always fresh and amazing, including the cheap, generous tacos, perfectly prepared and served with onion, cilantro and lime. That said, I know that some of the meats available at La Reg are closer to what gets served on "Fear Factor" than anything that's ever going to be on my Thanksgiving table. But during a brainstorming session for our Readers Choice issue a few weeks back, I just had to go and open my big trap.

Last week, after several days of stalling and copious ribbing by Times photographer Brian Chilson, I finally bit the bullet and put my mouth where my, um ... mouth is. Without further ado, here's my experience with the four oddest meats on the regular menu at La Regional. (And at the end of the story, see footage from the taste-test.)

THE MEAT: LENGUA

WHAT IT IS: Grilled beef tongue

HOW I THOUGHT IT WOULD TASTE: Ever seen a cow lick something? I know that's not a flavor, but that's exactly what I thought it would taste like — wet, slimy, maybe covered in seared taste buds.

WHAT IT ACTUALLY TASTED LIKE: Steak. In hindsight, this isn't all that surprising, given that the tongue is just a big ol' muscle, just like the muscles that wind up as your T-bone or New York strip. To boot, the tongue isn't doing much heavy lifting in general, so the fact that lengua is incredibly tender makes a lot of sense. Of the four meats I sampled, lengua is definitely something I'd consider trying again — if, that is, I can get my gatdamn brain to stop assaulting me with the image of a cow lubing up its kisser every few seconds while I'm chewing and swallowing.

CHANCES THAT I WOULD EVER TRY IT AGAIN: Similar to the chance I would ever watch "The Hangover, Part II" again.

THE MEAT: TRIPA

WHAT IT IS: Beef stomach

HOW I THOUGHT IT WOULD TASTE: Rubbery. Gelatinous. Beyond that, my mind wouldn't dare.

WHAT IT ACTUALLY TASTED LIKE: Sort of like bacon. La Regional fries their tripa very well, leaving it with a nice crunch on the outside, like a fried pork skin (this isn't the case everywhere; my colleague Robert Bell reports that Grills on Wheels down the street from the Times' office serves theirs considerably less crunchy). That said, it was the finish of each bite that I really had an issue with. Inside that crispy, flavorful crust was a sort of warm, creamy middle — same flavor, but a horribly different mouthfeel. At that point, the little devils inside my mind kicked in again, and all I could see was Han Solo carving open the dead Taun Taun with a lightsaber so he could stuff Luke Skywalker inside to keep him from freezing to death.

CHANCES THAT I WOULD EVER TRY IT AGAIN: Paris Hilton wins Nobel Prize for chemistry.

THE MEAT: CABEZA

WHAT IT IS: Roasted cow's head

HOW I THOUGHT IT WOULD TASTE: Like a cow smells.

WHAT IT ACTUALLY TASTED LIKE: Amazingly tender and flavorful roast beef. In a repeat from the lengua above, it's kind of a no-brainer that the head of a beef cow tastes — surprise! — like beef, so I don't know why I got it into my noggin that the cabeza would be magically transformed into something disgusting just by virtue of coming from a cow's face. Further no-brainer: the cheeks, jowls and forehead of a cow aren't really getting a workout on a day-to-day basis (cows tend to be the stoic, hard-to-read types), so you wind up with fork-tender meat that literally melts in your mouth. It's neck and neck between the cabeza and the lengua as to which of the four meats I'd ever eat again.

CHANCES THAT I WOULD EVER TRY IT AGAIN: The Red Sox win another World Series at some point in the next 86 years.

THE MEAT: BUCHE

WHAT IT IS: Pig esophagus

HOW I THOUGHT IT WOULD TASTE: What part of "pig esophagus" don't you understand?

WHAT IT ACTUALLY TASTED LIKE: Sort of like the fat off pork spare ribs. That said, once again it wasn't the flavor that did me in. It was the way the buche looked and the way it made my imagination do flips, which is why I put it off until last. Of the four meats, the buche definitely looked the most foreign: light brown, flat, rubbery, maybe even a little slimy. Once I got used to having it in my mouth, it really wasn't all that bad, with a rich, pork flavor that makes me understand why some folks love it. The problem was: it didn't feel at all right. Worse, just when I was getting semi-used to it, I bit down on a piece and there was this ... horrific ... bit of ... very soft ... gristle inside that popped between my teeth. At that point, I literally did one of those cartoon cheek-bulges like Bugs Bunny when he's seasick, and Brian suggested we adjourn lest we ruin a lot of peoples' lunches.

CHANCES THAT I WOULD EVER TRY IT AGAIN: President George W. Bush gets a memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum get married there.

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