Editor's Note:While we're all familiar with the usual dishes around Chicago like pizza and Italian beef, there's a whole world of adventurous food in Chicago from bugs to offal. Dennis is ready to explore the wild side of the dining scene.
When I was a kid, my parents were very careful with where they spent their money. For us, eating out at a restaurant usually meant McDonald's, or on very special occasions, Red Lobster. A lot of my current desire to write about food comes from that leftover childhood curiosity about those places we never tried. When I imagine someone in some other country, far away, the first thing I wonder about is what they eat every day. Is that childish? Yeah...probably.
With that in mind, I couldn't have predicted that I'd be nosing around Chicago for a bite of camel on a quiet weeknight. If you have ever heard of Frontier here in Chicago, you might know that they specialize in wild game. They've got a wide selection of oysters (you even get a paper checklist to pencil which ones you want), and once you scan the rest of the menu, you'll see that things here aren't quite what they seem. Fritters? Okay, I've eaten a fritter. But a conch fritter? Whoa. Mmm, sausage. Wait. Alpaca sausage? What?
Sadly, we hit the table after the conch and alpaca had run out, so we just flew by our helpful server's recommendations and tried several of the other sausages on the menu. The wild boar jaegerwurst ($10) is a somewhat dry, crumbly, spicy, and black-peppery sausage made from wild pig. It comes with a side of rye bread, mustard, housemade giardiniera, and housemade sauerkraut. Because it's highly seasoned, it's a little hard to see if there's much difference in the flavor of wild boar vs. domestic piggy in this sausage. But don't cry, human. Frontier also has a unique whole animal service, where you can order an entire wild boar (or other game) in advance to share with your loved ones.
If you guys love Slim Jim® meat sticks, you'll enjoy the venison knockwurst ($10). The Slim Jim reference is not a knock (get it?) either; this flavorful deer meat has big flavor, and it shares that tart profile you get from a gas station meat stick, only a lot better. Any gaminess from the venison is balanced by that bold tart flavoring. You'll feel a lot like a German hunter refueling after a harrowing day in the field when you're plowing into these tube steaks, especially with a cold crisp beer in your non-eating hand.
If you head down south along the Gulf Coast, you might see people serving up alligator. Here in Chicago, you'd probably see a Ninja Turtle before you saw an alligator running free, because it's not a meat you can just wrangle out of Lake Michigan. That makes the experience of eating alligator ribs ($14) a little wilder. The ribs are rubbed with a Cajun spice rub and brushed with a sweet and fruity blueberry barbecue sauce for added flavor. As for the meat itself, it's like a cross between chicken, pork, and a firm white fleshed fish that has a super, super, mild aquatic flavor. The ribs are chewier and firmer than frog legs, if that's a frame of reference that works for you. I refer to frogs as water chicken; I might refer to alligator as water pig.
The most interesting regularly-featured item on the menu, however, is the camel crepinette ($16). Camel. You don't see that in Chicago every day, other than at the Lincoln Park Zoo! A crépinette is a round French sausage patty that's usually wrapped in webby caul fat before it's cooked. The meat itself has a very musky and distinct flavor with strong gaminess, but it's offset by a sweet reduced sauce that helps soften the funkiness a bit. The meat is gristly and lean, leaving some tough chewy bits behind, but I'm willing to assume the toughness is a function of the meat itself being that way.
Did I like it? I'm not sure... but the remarkably distinct flavor did grow on me. I'm still astonished at how different this red meat tastes than its other ungulate cousins I'm used to eating. But was the experience worth it? Absolutely. And if your companions aren't into the idea of adventurous eating, Frontier also serves burgers. Beef burgers. For that one friend who won't admit they're scared to try something wild.