I take a gulp of Dragon's Milk to wash down the taste of the pork tongue.
It's a Saturday night at Durham's Dashi, and in the corner booth of the restaurant's izakaya, or Japanese gastropub, I am surrounded by little plates—of pork tongue, beef heart, beef tendons, chicken heart, chicken liver, chicken skin, and shrimp heads.
The intimate, industrial space is tucked upstairs from the street-level ramen shop, like a playful tree house. Likewise, the izakaya's menu dares you to play, to hopscotch past your comfort zone. That's why I'm here: to have a cocktail and order everything that makes me squirm. I sip liberally from the Dragon's Milk—a drink of gin, cucumber, and unfiltered sake—between bites.
Most of Dashi's offal and off-cut selections are yakimono, or grilled dishes. The meat is salted and charred, sometimes served with a bit of wasabi. It is unabashedly naked. Either accept the ingredient for everything it is—and is not—or return to the land of Wonderbra chicken breasts.
I tentatively bite some pork tongue off the blackened skewer, chewing long enough to contemplate the irony of tasting tongue. The beef heart, like its chicken counterpart, is deep, dark, and meaty. Because the heart is a muscle, its flavor is less mineral and more approachable. I take another bite, then another.
The chicken livers, common but rarely served alone, evoke a pate that is done trying to impress people. There are no bells or whistles, just rosy centers with a buttery texture and iron-rich taste. As I push aside the beef tendons—deep-fried, curry-dusted, greasy—and devour the shrimp heads, I realize that the most notable part of the meal was not any one bite, but the server's relaxed, assured reply: "Chicken hearts, livers, and skin, right?" he said. "Those are the best parts."
I can't help but wonder: Since when?