Several years ago, I had the privilege of sampling a plate of ribs, one that was uncommonly succulent, and not the usual pork or beef variety, either. These were alligator ribs, braised in beer and glazed with a honey chipotle sauce. I remember the bones. So birdlike! But the meat didn’t exactly “taste like chicken” to me. Closer to pork. Or was it tuna? I had tried alligator a few times before, but only the tail section, the ophidian answer to white breast meat. And it was always deep-fried and densely breaded, like some swampland McNugget. This reptilian spin on baby backs was entirely new to me and fairly new to the cook who prepared it, for that matter. It was one of chef Ryan Fichter’s first weird specials in his ongoing “Wild Wednesday” series spotlighting a different type of exotic game animal each week at Thunder Burger in Washington, D.C. (Also try: his Thai-style python soup.)
For years, farmers in places like Florida and Louisiana have promoted alligator meat as a healthy alternative to chicken or pork. Consider these figures: 232 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 46 grams of protein per 3.2-ounce serving. The scaly fellow who sacrificed his rib cage for the benefit of my beer-braised nutrition, I was told, came from an alligator farm in Hollywood, Florida. But at that time, this lean serpentine protein was still something of a novelty in a traditional steak-and-lobster town like D.C., served at only a few, usually Cajun-themed, restaurants in the area.
America’s appetite for alligator has spiked a bit since then. According to CNBC, the price of gator meat has doubled over the past three years, rising from $6 to $7 per pound to $12 to $15 per pound, with increased demand helping to drive up the cost. (See the clip below.)
Thunder Burger chef Fichter can believe it. “I have seen it being used a lot more around town,” he says now. “I feel like chefs are tired of cooking the same four proteins.” Alligator ribs continue to emerge from time to time on Fichter’s rotating wild-game nights, as well as other prime-choice gator cuts. “We do the tails, we also use something called sirloin meat, from the back of the body, behind one of the legs,” adds Fichter, who currently pays around $11 to $12 per pound for the slithery Southern delicacy.
But don’t go calling it the new pork just yet. In his experience, Fichter says, black bear and shark generate more excitement with diners.
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