Getting Cheeky: Tongue-in-cheek is no longer just a phrase. It's dinner

The first time I acutely remember eating pork belly was at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. I ordered steamed pork buns as an appetizer and then, shamelessly, ordered them for dessert. After I tasted the fatty bacon steak, wrapped in a blanket of soft, springy dough, I wanted it in everything – at all times. Belly had become the cut for pork, and restaurants both nationally and locally were happy to perpetuate the trend. Even now, seven years after my first brush with belly, it can be found on dozens of menus around town. And while I still daydream about that fat-tastic, swoon-worthy cut of swine, pushing my palate beyond the typical taught me that, sometimes, the best cuts of meat can come from the most unexpected places. These days, even the belly might be taking a back seat, for it’s all about the cheek.

If the thought of eating the chubby cheeks of a pink piggy is slightly off-putting even though you devour its belly with abandon, you aren’t alone in your illogical conundrum. Many butchers and meat processors consider the head of animals to be throwaway meat. Ever seen those diagrams of pig and cow cuts? Often the entire head is summed up as “head” or “neck,” or is ignored altogether. Meat-lovers want pigs’ tenderloin, shoulder and belly; from cows, they prefer the ribs, loin and round. Few – chefs included – are begging for cheek. Maybe it’s because the cheek, muscled from chomping, is tough and relatively lean and thus requires careful preparation. Or maybe it’s because many diners haven’t yet realized it’s a cut worth trying. Whatever the reason, there’s so little demand for this under-the-eye socket slip of inexpensive protein that you’d be hard-pressed to find it at any area butcher shop (Trust me, I’ve tried.). Yet the tide may be turning.

Cheek is by no means a novel cut. Ben Poremba, co-owner of Salume Beddu and owner of newly opened wine bar Olio and restaurant Elaia, was quick to remind me of Mario Batali’s wildly popular beef cheek ravioli that has been served at his restaurant, Babbo, since it opened in 1998. And any respectable taquería boasts tacos offering cachete de res, lengua de res and cabeza de res – beef cheek, tongue and head, respectively. Yet as Poremba related, “When you talk about cheek, people can think it’s kind of icky, but there’s a secret that’s just not spoken about.” At times, he explained, we’re eating it and just don’t know it. Some restaurants present it under the moniker “braised beef,” “braised pork” or barbacoa, bourguignon, even ragout. “Instead of using short ribs or rump, [chefs] might use cheek meat because it has the best flavor and best price.” “Brasato?” he queried of the Italian word for “braise.” “It’s probably cheek, but when you give it a foreign name, it sounds sexier, you know?”

But Poremba isn’t afraid to call a cheek a cheek. On Elaia’s a la carte menu, his “Beef” entree will recurrently feature cheek that’s been braised for 36 hours in a pomegranate molasses until it’s soft, tangy, sweet and juicy – yet still undeniably meaty.

“It’s always fun to marry the most extravagant cuts with the more humble,” explained Mike Randolph, who was working with cheek long before opening his evenings-only restaurant Little Country Gentleman this fall. For “Out of the Pot Roast” currently on LCG’s menu, Randolph brines beef cheek for 24 to 36 hours and then cooks it sous vide for another 18 to 20 hours. After shredding and seasoning, the cheek serves as the foundation for parsnip miso, root veggies, pearl onions, Maytag bleu cheese, a succulent slice of New York strip and pickled, slow-roasted slivers of tongue. A spattering of carrot greens finishes things off. Unlike its leaner pork counterpart, according to Randolph, beef cheek is “fatty, gnarly and needs T.L.C.” Was there enough loving care to render this cut tender? If taste equated money, Randolph’s roast would be pure gold: soft, melt-in-your-mouth succulent threads of juicy gold.

For another entree simply called “Pig,” Randolph uses the hog in every way imaginable on one long plate: smoked loin, fried chicharrón (cracklings), sous vide belly. The most intriguing element of the dish, though, is an unassuming fried cube that is, in fact, a distilled nugget of pork head. To create this ultimate spread of head, Randolph turns to techniques he learned during his tenure at Chicago-based restaurant Moto, a leader in molecular gastronomy. First, he boils the hog’s whole head (cheeks, tongue and ears) with mirepoix before shredding and caramelizing it with shallots, ginger, jalapeños and fish sauce. The mixture moves swiftly to the freezer – where the fat freezes and hardens – and then gets cubed, seasoned and fried up crisp. The end product takes more than two days to produce, but Randolph doesn’t mind. Being able to “broaden a diner’s horizons” with such arduous preparations is one of his favorite aspects of the job. And once diners bite into that little bouillon cube – rich pork juices bursting and dancing with Vietnamese flavors – his passion becomes emphatically clear.

While some chefs might shy away from a demanding ingredient such as cheek, its trying nature is one reason Bradley Hoffmann loves it. “The meat itself has such a different flavor from the rest of the pig,” said Hoffmann, sous chef at Salt. “It has that gamey accent to it. It’s a beautiful flavor on its own, but part of it is the process. You can’t just sear it and throw it out there. That would be like searing a brisket. It’s a lean meat; you really have to take your time with it.” Hoffmann attested to the love affair both he and Salt’s executive chef, Josh Roland, have with the meat. “The cheek is Josh’s baby,” Hoffmann noted. “Josh is everything pig, always.” For Salt’s “Soy-Braised Pork Cheek,” the tough cut gets braised with apple juice, herbs, soy sauce and bacon broth for six to seven hours. Three salty, sweet, fork-tender cheeks are then plated with a seasonal preparation like fall’s collection of baby spinach salad with fig vinaigrette, shaved celery and grilled apples. The result has become the most popular entree on Salt’s menu.

Eric “Ed” Heath, chef and co-owner at Cleveland-Heath in Edwardsville, Ill., also prepares pork cheek according to the seasons, currently joining two cheeks with ready-for-winter warm lentils, hunks of bacon, charred scallions and fresh tomatoes. “We’ve been seeing belly for a decade,” Heath said in regard to the ever-expanding nose-to-tail trend. “I love that people are using more fun stuff. There’s so much creativity going on.” Although the Berkshire cheeks that Heath uses are indeed lean, after braising them for two-and-a-half to three hours, they become soft and smooth, setting the tone for a beautiful dish that’s fatty, smoky, slightly gamey and perfectly balanced by the tomatoes’ acidity.

Heath and his partner, Jenny Cleveland, have also been making lamb tongue a special on the menu, preparing it with chickpeas, tomatoes, feta, mint and fresh chiles. Randolph and Poremba voiced their love for tongue as well, Randolph having played with cow tongue in tacos at his now-closed MEDIAnoche and occasionally adding it to Little Country Gentleman’s tasting menu as seen in the Out of the Pot Roast entree. Poremba also isn’t afraid to claim this oft-forgotten section of the cow, which he described as “surprisingly tender and mildly flavored.” Currently at Elaia, he serves an appetizer of beef tongue that’s been sous vide or pressure cooked until it absolutely melts, joined by a complex burnt eggplant purée and a warm salad of cracked olives, fresh fava beans and a smoked paprika vinaigrette.

If the trend continues to grow, a little tongue-n-cheek might just become the new surf-n-turf – but Heath isn’t stopping there. He loves to work with kidneys, livers, brains, sweetbreads and headcheese. How does he know when he’s gone too far? “On the line, we’ll always taste it to make sure it’s right,” he said, “but the last thing I want to do is convince someone to eat something. We’re all adults here.” Poremba agreed, “We will be using these cuts in everything as long as people will open up to them.” Yet, he reasoned, confidently, “They will.”