If I Only Had a Brain...And the Balls. Alcazar Restaurant. Encino, CA.
Lebanese "Lamb Fries"
Normally I don’t subscribe to the theory that if one is having problems with a part of one’s body, then one should remedy the situation by eating the counterpart from an animal (a concept known as organotherapy). It’s fairly straightforward and overly simplistic. For example: Want better eyesight? Eat the eyeballs from a rock cod. Stronger joints? Chew on a chicken’s foot. Is it shinier, bouncier hair you lust for? Eat a kangaroo. (Kidding on the last one.)
Sometimes, when people decide to explore deeper, murkier culinary depths, it’s because they need a little boost in the love department, whether that translates into a little help getting in the mood for love or keeping that mood, ahem, up. If this is your problem, then a spoonful of penis is usually what the doctor will order. A boiled bull penis generally does the trick, so they tell me. But, erectile dysfunction wasn’t my ailment. My problem was less in your face. That didn’t sound right. What I mean is that my problem was less tangible.
Still reeling from my recent failure to comfortably ingest weird Oaxacan delicacies, I feared my courage meter was running a bit low and, just maybe, needed revitalization in the bravery department.
But, having penile problems and eating an animal’s penis to resolve the problem is one thing — it’s a fairly exact connection. Having courage issues is another.
This is when one seeks the gastronomic services of the Wizard of Alcazar.
One goes to the Wizard for certain highly coveted attributes like sex appeal or wisdom or ambition — similar to that other wizard of that other enchanted land. However, unlike the other guy, Alcazar’s wizard dispenses the traits of one’s desires to persons who simply ask for them without having to jump through hoops, like assassinating wicked witches. He's also a hell of a cook.
Yes, just like the Cowardly Lion from that other story, I needed some courage and I needed it yesterday — except without the song and dance. I wasn’t about to let another plate of anything best me or I’m not the Deep End Diner. Courage, however, is a slippery thing to physically pin down since it’s not a physical thing, really. It’s usually symbolized by something. That same Cowardly Lion, for example, had his courage draped around his neck in the form of a military medal. Certainly, it’s a regal and decorative representation of courage, but not all these symbols are so stately.
Take for example, balls, cojones and bollocks.
In much of the world, courage is represented by *cough-cough* testicles. Apparently, the ballsier you are, the braver you are. Whether we’re talking about AC/DC’s big balls or Bartolomeo Colleoni’s third ball. Yes, three testicles, count ‘em — three!
A Venetian man named Bartolomeo Colleoni was the proud owner of three testicles. He turned out to be a famous Italian military contractor, the Blackwater of the 15th Century.
Testicles may stand for bravery the world over, however, this form of bravery isn’t easy to come across in Los Angeles. The family jewels are extremely unique items not normally offered at most LA restaurants, and even if they are listed on a menu, ball sack is rarely ordered for so many reasons. But, on a jubilant expanse of Ventura Boulevard, a single venue does cater to the lonesome testicle connosieur. This sanctum for scrotum is the Lebanese restaurant called Alcazar. It touts itself as purveyors of “Fine Middle Eastern Cuisine” as well as “Healthy Middle Eastern Cuisine”. All I cared was if they could serve up “Manly Middle Eastern Cuisine” — exotic entrées that would put hair on my hairless Asian chest and help me put the brave back in my belly. This is where the Wizard practices his magic. All I had to do was eat.
Alcazar gots the hookah-up!
Alcazar is an immersive environment where all you see, hear, smell and taste is designed to transport you to Lebanon, the Paris of the Middle East. The music piped in is wildly rhythmic and spellbinding. The design details found throughout are arabesque. In the evening, the sweet aroma from argheelehs or water pipes wafts through the smoking lounge inspiring exotic Beirut street scenes. Paramount to all these sensations is Alcazar’s intriguing Lebanese cuisine. The menu is quite comprehensive with the most tantalizing selections found in the mezza listings. Mezza or mezze are appetizers. The mezzes are split into two categories: cold and hot. The “Hot Mezza” includes something called Beyd Ghanam. They are delicately known as “lamb fries”, but I’ll just call them lamb testes because I’m not very delicate.
The Wizard of Alcazar sautées his lamb testes and enhances them with a lemon sauce and summak. Lemon with summak is perhaps redundant since summak is a souring spice and normally a lemon substitute as well. But summak, with its sweet, fruity characteristics, does have more dimension than lemon.
The texture of Alcazar's balls are delightfully soft and spongy — almost like fluffy marshmallows but denser and with a hint of liver. These Lebanese lamb fries are cooked to achieve a pleasing moistness, enough perhaps to be entered into a Pillsbury Bake-Off. Sweet and zesty, these testes are tasty, thanks to the lemon, summak and possibly cinnamon, though be prepared for a commanding and lingering lamb finish. As an added bonus or practical joke, roasted pine nuts bring even more nutiness to this dish.
Did the act of eating testicles alone bring back my culinary courage? Could I once again “sack up” now that I ate some? Absolutely, because now I was really craving a sampling of my old nemesis — brain. Yes, beef brain is also available at Alcazar, known in Lebanese as N’khaat.
Then the flashback came.
Like many flashbacks do nowadays, it had major influence from ILM. (What did flashbacks look like before CG effects?) The blinding white light washed over me until I was temporarily dazed, and when my head cleared, I was six-years old again, in my mother’s kitchen in La Mirada, California. Mother was standing over her stove, muttering something incoherent in Mandarin while sprinkling oils and sauces. Meanwhile, my little brother and I sat nervously wondering what our lunch would be that afternoon. It was worse than we imagined. A few minutes later, a pig’s brain would be placed before us with the command to consume the entirety entirely.
The trauma of that meal had long dissipated. The truth is I’d almost completely forgotten how outlandish eating brain was to a six-year old. Of course, I remember the meal. I just don’t recall the emotions. Now, I was doomed to repeat the past, to revisit my first extreme epicurean experience but not in a way you might think.
My three-year old daughter was also with me at Alcazar. I thought it would be fun entertainment if I made her eat brain for the first time. After all, the belly dancing wouldn’t begin for hours. She had eaten crickets before and she claimed to enjoy them, even bragging about the experience to her pre-school pals. Undoubtedly she, at the tender age of three, is more advanced in the delicacy department than I was at six. But, I couldn’t help feel a little guilty or even sadistic. Didn’t I cry throughout my brutal meal of brain? Didn’t I suffer over a stupid lunch? Didn’t I hate my mother for a few days because of it? Yes to all three. So why am I subjecting my little girl to the same torture? I don’t know.
And, just like my experience, it was against her will. When I asked her if she wanted to eat brain, she quickly responded no. But, I insisted. I even lied and said it was kind of like candy. Candy! What kind of candy tastes like a cow’s brain? I don’t have a freaking clue but that’s what I told her. I only wanted her to try it. I wanted her to taste it before she judged it. You can’t say you don’t like something when you haven’t even tried it, right? I got a little mad trying to get her to eat this cow brain. Hmmm. Mad? Cow? What if she gets mad cow disease? When I ate my brain, mad cow didn’t even exist yet, only mildly irritated ones.
I remained persistent. She still didn’t want to try it. Losing my patience, I bribed her with dessert afterwards. She relented.
I watched her push around the gumball-sized chunk of brain on her plate for about a minute. She then placed the nugget of noggin into her small mouth and chewed.
Are we destined to become our parents? My mother force-fed me pig brain while I tearfully ate it and now I find myself acting out that same scene with my three-year old daughter. While my little girl wasn’t crying — she’s tough — she certainly didn’t look pleased. My mother’s meal, however, turned out to be an important milestone in my life. It was profound in many ways beyond the simple act of eating food. It forced me to open up and be curious about everything. I guess I wanted the same experience for my daughter. I sought to expand her horizons even though she had her whole life ahead of her to do so. Maybe I was being a bit overzealous.
After she took her nibble, I asked her if she wanted anymore. She answered no. I respected her wishes and put her leftover brain on my plate.
The n’khaat was delicious, exceptional. The best brain I’d ever eaten. It has a fragrant, fried crispy exterior with a soft, creamy, custard-like inside that’s comparable to a dense, buttery tofu. Frying anything can make it delicious. Having your brain fried is genius. There's nothing else like it: this crispy cream, this KFCerebrum. The lemon and garlic seasonings punched up the brain’s inherent subtle flavor and really brought out its natural je ne sais quoi. Hopefully after the brain is digested and works its magic, I’ll get smarter and be able to describe what this je ne sais quoi is exactly.
Fine Middle Eastern Cuisine
17239 Ventura Blvd
Encino, CA 91316
My mom was a lot sneakier. She hid the pig's brain by chopping it up and stir-frying it with eggs and tomatoes to make me smarter. I don't think it worked. I didn't figure out what she was doing until I was 21!
I think I'm going to be looking forward to some big shrink fees.
Scrambled brain??? That sounds delicious. It's also a good description of my party days when I lived in Hollywood.
But - this is a parental advice - never force your kids to eat something they dispise. Don't even trick'em to do so. My three sons have always had different habits of eating, they change all the time.
Remeber, it tok al lot of years til you were ready for this experience.
Here's an Ask a Chino question for you: why are so many food bloggers Asian?!
thanks for your concern. corn smut did almost turn me off to strange foods for a while but thankfully i'm rehabilitated.
i, of all people, should know not to forcefeed my kid anything. you know what they say...if you don't learn from your past, you're doomed to repeat it!
thanks for the comment. to answer your query on the asian food bloggers.
Now Huitlacoche was something I didn't like when I first tried it at Guelaguetza, but when I had it cooked fresh as part of a crepe down in Tijuana, it was night and day.
It did have a strong, slightly pungent taste to it, but definitely not moldy as with your experience. Our waiter at the time referred to it as Mexican truffles. :)