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Bend's Bizarre Foods: From bone marrow to tendons, unusual foods are popping up on Central Oregon's menus 

Unusual foods are becoming more common in Central Oregon's menus.

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Lately, I can't stop watching Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. It's almost like watching a nature show in which the rare animal, baldus rotundous, eats everything that breathes. It seems like the slimier the creature is, the more Zimmern delights in eating it - slurping and squeakily chewing with pure joy.

While Zimmern's dining choices can be stomach turning (I'm guessing worms are not going to make it onto fine dining menus in America), the truth is that Zimmern is profiting from the rise in popularity of "bizarre foods," either unusual animals and plants or parts of animals that haven't been utilized in American cooking. But recently, it's become apparent that in America, dinner is moving away from standard meat and potatoes to more adventurous fare.

That's not to say humans don't delight in the unique texture of stomach lining, or munching on ants like popcorn. In other cultures, these are delicacies. It's just that since the '50s in America, Wonderbread and Hamburger Helper have ruled the dinner table.

But recently, this has been changing. Whether it's the popularity of ethnic restaurants or the conservationist desire to use the whole animal, menus across America have drifted from featuring sirloin steak and chicken breast to glands and marrowbones. And it's taken off with abandon - the population seems to have, at least to some degree, loosened its gag reflex and opened their minds and mouths to unusual foods. It's a trend that's been infiltrating the country for a couple of years now and recently popped up in Central Oregon.

I knew Bend was ready for adventurous eating when Pho Viet and Café, the Vietnamese restaurant on 3rd street, started serving Pho Bo Dac Biet, a version of the popular Pho noodle soup that features steak, as well as beef tendon, meatballs and "leans and riches."

The beef meatballs in this soup are not your Italian grandmother's ground-meat-and-spices dish. Instead, Vietnamese beef meatballs are made from a combination of blended beef cartilage and tendon. The result is a dense, springy, chewy meatball - the texture, I'm told, is not unlike Central Oregon's original adventurous dish, Rocky Mountain oysters.

The "leans and riches" is known stateside by another name - tripe (or stomach lining). Both in its intact form or the more popular form, thinly sliced, tripe looks like a piece of coral and was affectionately described by my companion as having the texture of "basketball skin." The flavor, however, is quite mild and not completely off-putting for first-time tripe eaters.

The best of the bunch by far is beef tendon. When it is first dropped into the hot soup, the tendon has the consistency of a chewy toffee. Once it softens a bit in the liquid, the tendon turns tender and a bit gelatinous. The flavor is earthy and a bit sweet, almost like beef candy.

If you're not ready to sink your teeth into stomach lining quite yet, a more approachable dish can be found on an upcoming menu at Tart - marrowbones. Many cultures treat bone marrow as a delicacy, and for good reason. Marrowbones are filled with flexible tissue that, when baked, turns molten and becomes a creamy, velvety, spreadable substance. At Tart, the marrowbones are baked with sea salt and served with toasted baguette slices and an arugula, celery leaf and lemon salad. The bone marrow, in its near olive oil consistency, captures the soul of the meat - rich and mild in flavor. It feels almost sinful to scoop out marrow from a bone and spread it on toast, with oils running down the sides of your fingers.

Some call these foods aphrodisiacs, and it's not hard to see why. They're provocative. It's intrusive, almost a faux pas, to slice open a bone and scoop out the marrow or delight in the texture of tendon. Until recently, you would have had to find an off-the-grid ethnic restaurant to sample these dishes. But today, they're becoming more and more mainstream and are starting to infiltrate Central Oregon's restaurants. So take a tip from Andrew Zimmern, who says, "If it looks good, eat it."


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