Like most long-time Kodiak residents, I have lost track of how many times off-island visitors asked me, “So where do you go for a good ’roo burger around here?”
This week, the good people at Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant put an end to the shame-faced silence that used to follow such questions by adding a range of exotic meats to their menu.
Supplies of kangaroo sold out quickly when the new weekly special selections premiered Monday, restaurant owner Ray LeGrue said.
The boingy marsupial heads a list that includes duck, boar, venison and, of course, water buffalo. After taking part in a taste-testing session on Sunday for Henry’s staff and a few guests, I can attest that none of it tastes like chicken — although my notes on the alligator include a favorable comparison to pork.
The pre-rollout event introduced us to nine sausage flavors in a wide range of species and spices, and while I might not put all of them on my A list, they beat your off-the-shelf wieners hollow. The English bangers even got me over the disappointment of realizing Bert Parks would not serenade in the komodo dragon.
LeGrue explained this venary venture as the latest chapter in the increasing sophistication of Americans’ palates, following the triumph of coffee bars and craft beers.
Those of us of a certain — but not too advanced, thank you — age remember when you couldn’t get an espresso on every block in rural Alaska. As recent as 1982, I ordered “cappuccino” from a menu at a bar in Toledo, Ohio, and got a cup of Sanka with a squirt of strawberry syrup. Back then the corner deli bragged about having both kinds of cheese: yellow and white. If you wanted Swiss you had to make your own holes.
As for beer, traditional American brands got a bum rap, since the Germans and Brits who snubbed them don’t even have ball parks or bowling alleys to drink them properly in.
So now Americans demand a bigger choice just than chicken, pig or cow. And good thing for Kodiak, as the anti-farmed salmon movement gains traction in the Lower 48, raising demand and prices for our honest, wild product.
I also remember a stretch in the mid-90s when ostrich flooded the upscale markets. Advocates praised its light mouth feel and beefy overtones, while opponents said “meh” and “bleah.” I liked it, but as usual the rest of the world had not caught up with my fashion sense, so ostrich meat buried its head again.
Apparently, times have changed for exotic meats, which now get their — hopefully well refrigerated — time in the sun. However, LeGrue said the Henry’s menu expansion is “based strictly on taste” and not just chasing a trend.
He admits to getting late into the game game, considering the distributor who will supply his restaurant. His daughter, Jessica LeGrue, has worked for eight years at Nicky USA, the Portland-based butchers who have expanded their offerings from rabbit to other alternatives.
Ray said he decided to become a customer after a recent visit with Jessica when he liked all the products he tried, especially the lamb.
Nicky gets all its animals, including the game species, from domesticated herds. Because of limited and somewhat unpredictable supply, Henry’s diners can expect a rotating roster of Monday specials.
Ray LeGrue also touts reasonable prices, aimed at capturing a long-term market as islanders acquire a taste for upscale viands. The restaurateur acknowledges the trend might end at any time, “But one thing’s for sure,” he said. “People are always eating.”
Now where do I go for some capybara?
Drew Herman is a Kodiak-based freelance writer and editor who still wonders where the editors of the “New York Times Cook Book” expected their readers to get fresh fruit bat. No komodo dragons were harmed in the writing of this column.