If that hum-drum chicken breast has you searching for a more novel protein, it’s possible to find something much more exotic close to home. Elk, antelope, boar and other wild game are on the menu, both for the health conscious and those who want to challenge their palate.
“Wild game is nothing to be afraid of at Rainbow Lodge,” said Donnette Hansen, who owns the restaurant located at 2011 Ella Blvd.
“The foundation of our menu is seafood and wild game. The kind of game that we grew up harvesting and enjoying. I was raised in a sporting family where hunting game and game birds and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is how we spent our free time. I still enjoy chasing trout and a good field hunt with my family gun dogs.”
On the table at Rainbow Lodge are such options as duck, quail, pheasant, rabbit, North American elk, bison, venison, wild boar and Nilgai antelope. Hansen says that Axis deer, Black Buck antelope, geese and partridge make seasonal appearances on the menu also.
“I like to make our dishes approachable and we recognize that for many of our guests, dining at Rainbow Lodge might be their first time trying anything other than fish, beef or chicken,” said Hansen. “With that in mind, our most popular appetizer for over 30 years is our ‘Taste of the Wild’ – a daily sampling of three types of game that we are featuring that week.”
Hansen says that all of their game is ranch raised in a natural style and processed under strict USDA guidelines.
“The Nilgai is harvested from the King Ranch, there are several bison and elk ranches in the plains of the US and much of our Texas exotics come from game ranches in central Texas,” said Hansen.
Rainbow Lodge does not serve what Hansen calls “novelty” meats or meats that she feels do not offer any real flavor benefits.
“You might be surprised what people try and sell me,” she says.
In preparing game meats, the cook needs to be aware that game meats are much leaner than farm raised animals.
“Attention to cooking time is critical,” said Hansen. “Nothing over medium rare on the meats combined with oils and seasoning and a quick grill or sear on game birds. I like berries, citrus, fruits, organic grains and nuts as part of the dish. Things that these animals eat, I think that always completes the dish.”
Some of this season’s menu pairings at Rainbow Lodge include pan roasted breast of pheasant atop creamy spätzle with Gruyere cheese, bacon and apples and coffee rubbed North American Elk Chop, horseradish beets, and charred endive.
Hansen said that techniques like smoking and braising work well on a few cuts such as bison short ribs and duck legs.
“We make many of our own sausages,” she said. “My favorite right now is a venison, fennel and pistachio breakfast patty style sausage at brunch.”
Another local restaurant which definitely serves what could be called exotic meats is Sammy’s Wild Game Grill at 3715 Washington Ave. Sammy Ballarin, who has operated the restaurant for seven years, said that he had been in the business for some time when he starting seeing media reports about the increase in popularity of unique meats.
“I started to research it and tested meats on friends and family,” he said.
A recent visit to the restaurant showed elk tacos, kangaroo skewers and camel empanadas on the menu. Another sign compared the percentage of fat in USDA beef, 6 percent, with some other choices, like antelope (.9 percent) and ostrich (2 percent).
Ballarin said that their elk and antelope burgers are very popular, while more adventurous souls go for the kangaroo, which is a little more on the gamey side because it is not farm raised. By contrast, the peppery sage taste of the antelope probably has something to do with its diet.
A local distributor helps Ballarin source meats, some of which come from Texas and Tennessee ranches, and in the case of python, Vietnam. The python, in case you are wondering, is slow cooked – because of its inherent toughness – and served in a chili. Ballarin is correct when he says python is like chicken with a seafood taste. Camel, on the other hand, is a fattier meat which has a mild gamey taste that is richer than beef.
Marcie Turrin, who follows a paleo diet, started frequenting Sammy’s about two years ago when her work brought her near Washington Avenue.
“I mostly get the duck burger on salad,” said Turrin. “I’ve never gotten anything I haven’t liked. It’s always fast, fresh and different.”
Ballarin said that he sees a lot of the CrossFit and paleo crowd due to all the lean protein he serves.
In case you’re looking for a typical burger or sandwich, though, Sammy’s offers that too – with chicken and beef on the menu, as well as grilled cheese for the kids. The soft pretzel buns are tasty and come from Slow Dough Bakery. There are even fries – made out of potatoes. But only at Sammy’s can you get them topped with python chili.