Pork belly is delicious. It's certainly God's gift to the poor, the epitome of "low meat." But the mysterious world of offal, the nasty bits left over after an animal is butchered, holds many joys: crunchy fried pigs ears, grilled lamb kidneys, rich veal sweetbreads. For the squeamish, it's a matter of being adventurous, of exploring the foods of other cultures. If only they knew what was really in that kielbasa sausage steaming in their Frogmore Stew. Most cities in America offer a smorgasbord of offal, if you know where to look, and Charleston is no exception.
No matter what your flavor, offal is worth exploring, in bad times as much as good. It finds a place across the culinary spectrum, from fancy preparations at the classiest restaurants to ethnic pots of tripe and chitlin's. And with a little ingenuity, you can craft your own offal tour, from tip to tail.
Crispy Caw Caw Creek Pork Trotters ($12)
If you're a bit green about the ears and want to ease into things, your first stop should be FIG. Mike Lata, the reigning king of all things fresh and local, will keep you in variety meats 12 months of the year. His chicken liver pâté is legendary, but the pork trotters will be mandatory on this trip (yep, that means eating feet, but you won't be disappointed). On arrival, you notice that they don't look like feet at all. Indeed, the dish is pretty enough to serve as the cover girl of this issue. Gone are the little piggie toes of your childhood, melted away by a long, slow braise. Just the gelatinous goodness has been retained, molded into a French tournade, sliced, fried until crisp, served with a Celeste Albers egg, sunny-side up, and some bitter endive napped with vinaigrette. You could develop a fetish for these things with their hot, gooey gelatin and ultra-lush flavor. Eat them enough and you'll find yourself eying the red-dyed pickled variety the next time you stop by Doscher's or The Pig.
At Martha Lou's you'll find perhaps the most notorious of all Southern offal, pig instestines, a.k.a. chitterlings, or more colloquially, chitlin's. Nevermind that any red-blooded, baseball-loving American has downed pounds of the things wrapped around even more offensive fillings in the form of hotdogs, somehow chitterlings get a bad rap. We guess this comes from the smell of the pot as they cook, but chitlin's are downright delicious. I like mine with hot sauce and sweet tea, served up by the queen of Charleston soul food, Mrs. Martha Lou Gadsden. On certain days, she cooks a big pot and piles them up high for guests. For a few bucks, you can partake.
At Los Parados you can get the Mexican version of chitlin's, a taco filled with "tripa," crispy, deep fried hog intestines. They're just what you need on an early spring day, a bit juicy, with a noticeable chew, but delicate and delicious, sort of like meat calamari. With a squeeze of lime, a few slivers of white onion, and some hot salsa, you'll have a fiery lunch to tell your office mate about. If you happen to stumble by Los Parados on Sunday afternoon, you can also dive into a big bowl of menudo, which along with lamb barbacoa is only available one day a week. Menudo personifies the soul of Mexican cuisine. Like matzo ball soup, it cures all manner of medical ailments, and outside of Scottish haggis or Greek kokkoretsi, it might just be penultimate offal, overflowing with honeycomb and book tripe — which anatomically are the second and third stomach chambers of a cow. If that were not enough, they also throw in beef tendon and feet for extra measure. But one spicy bowl will have you wondering why no one told you the secrets of offal before.
Liver Hash ($4.50/pint; $9/qt.; $36/gal.)
Big T's Barbecue
Barbecue hash is the South's contribution to the scrapple/panhaus/liver mush constellation that reaches down from the Pennsylvania Dutch through the Scotch-Irish of Appalachia and into the German ancestry of the Midlands. The best of the bunch is known as liver hash, a dark brown amalgamation of pig heads, shoulder meat, feet, and boiled skin, chopped into a mush and boiled down until it could glue your lips together.
It can be hard to find in town. So to finish your degree in offal, I suggest a road trip. Way up in Gadsden, as far from anywhere as you can possibly get, you'll find Big T's Barbecue, home to the finest example of South Carolina liver hash ever produced. It's so thick and mind-blowingly rich that I can stop on my way to a ballgame and still find myself smacking my lips as we pull into Clemson. They say their secret is in using the whole head, which not many people do anymore, and adding plenty of pork liver — enough to qualify the concoction as liquid pâté. Only a real pig can finish a plate of this hash over rice.