Since the era of Anubis and Osiris, we've considered the heart the organ in charge of the emotions. It's belief so ancient that it has become embedded in a hundred idiomatic phrases — "You broke my heart," "My heart is fluttering," the faux-ironic "I heart you" — and a hundred million love poems. San Francisco's drugstore shelves and pastry shops are covered in so many hearts right now you'd think the cult of Aphrodite had blossomed anew.
The heart, I have to add, makes for awfully good eating.
Watch the cable show Bizarre Foods often enough, and you'll see a few man-hancement rituals that call for the heart to be plucked from a just-killed animal and devoured warm and beating. But that's eating heart as symbol. Cooks all over the globe have mastered cooking the heart as meat: julienned and stir-fried. Braised with mushrooms. Not a few 19th-century American cookbooks include recipes for stuffing a beef heart with herbed breadcrumbs, larding it with bacon, and roasting it over hot coals.
Look around for hearts to devour, and you'll find San Francisco has plenty of them. As the culinary braggadocio that dominated offal cuisine a few years ago is finally fading, and all the fashion-forward eaters have ticked off the list of squishy bits they've eaten, heart meat seems to be enduring on menus. I'd even argue that hearts are entry-level offal. There's none of the digestive funk of stewed intestines, none of the reek of badly cleaned kidneys, none of the cloying richness of liver and blood. The heart — whether it comes from a pig, a cow, or a chicken — is lean and robust, with the most amazing texture.
Here is the easiest way to break into hearts: Grab a bar seat at Alembic (1725 Haight at Schrader, 666-0822, www.alembicbar.com), order yourself an Old Fashioned, and ask for a plate of Ted Fleury's jerk duck hearts ($5, half-price during happy hour). They come about eight to a skewer, each the size of a large grape, nubbly from their coating of ground herbs and spices. The spice hits first, along with the whiff of thyme salt Fleury finishes the dish with, and then the flavor of the hearts emerges. It's unmistakably duck, dark and the slightest bit gamy; the acid in the pickled pineapple the chef fans out underneath the skewer cut through the richness, readying you for the next bite.
Skewers of grilled chicken hearts are a staple of restaurants that serve yakitori. You can find heart (hatsu) at Japanese restaurants like Izakaya Sozai (1500 Irving), Oyaji (3123 Clement), and Hana Zen (115 Cyril Magnin), not to mention Ippuku (2130 Center, Berkeley), where I ate them simply seasoned with salt and the smoke from binchotan charcoal, meat juices pooling in the hollow centers, bursting out when I bit in. At Halu (312 Eighth Ave. at Clement, 221-9165), the Beatles-themed robata-ya run by Shigemi and Mimi Komiyama, a skewer of hearts ($5 for two) arrived at the table between skewers of panko-crusted, fried mushrooms and crisp curls of bacon-wrapped mochi. Split in half so they resembled cola-colored lima beans, the hearts were dipped in a marinade and grilled. A hit of grill-smoke, followed by soy sauce and sugar, intensified the meat's flavor: darker than chicken thighs, smooth-surfaced, and just chewy enough to keep you aware that you're eating meat. The skewer emptied fast — pop-pop-pop-pop — and if I hadn't been anticipating an onslaught of more, would have called for a second round.
Heart specials tend to flicker on and off the menus of higher-end restaurants that practice whole-animal butchery; they're a staple of nose-to-tail dinners, and evidence of their passing lingers in rumors and blog posts. Bocadillos (710 Montgomery) is sautéeing beef heart with sherry and onions; and if you bide your time at Espetus (1686 Market), the Brazilian churrascaria, and refrain from ordering every chunk of beef that passes by, the servers may present you with a skewer of coração de frango (grilled chicken hearts).
Chris Cosentino, chef at Incanto (1550 Church at Duncan, 641-4500, www.incanto.biz) and one of the biggest offal boosters in the country, has been trumpeting the pleasures of heart meat for years; chopping it up for tartares, grilling it with horseradish, playing with lamb, pork, beef, and venison. A dish Cosentino served at Incanto's first head-to-tail dinner in 2004 — ravioli stuffed with beef heart, kidney, and nettles, floating in a limpid oxtail broth — remains one of the most spectacular heart dishes I have ever eaten.
Beef heart wasn't on the menu when I visited Incanto a few weeks ago, but tuna heart is. Cosentino is one of two local chefs who serves cured Sardinian tuna heart. The other is La Ciccia's Massimiliano Conti, who was born in Sardinia. He says it's a specialty of Sant'Antioco, one of the islands off the southwest coast of Sardinia. Tuna heart isn't currently on La Ciccia's menu, but the chef often serves it sliced thinly, with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice and a wild arugula salad, or grated over spaghetti tossed with olive oil, garlic, chile flakes, and parsley.
Cured tuna heart has a wild, oceanic presence, a mineral-tinged bite. It's a turbulent flavor that, like fish sauce or raw onions, needs to be treated with delicacy. Incanto's spaghettini with tuna heart, egg yolk, and parsley ($11/$17) was overcooked and off-balance — smothered in black shavings of tuna heart, with one lone yolk dispatched to mitigate its potency.
To encounter beef heart with any regularity, another tour of the city's Peruvian restaurants is in order. Antonio Castillo, co-owner of Limon and Limon Rotisserie, says that beef-heart anticuchos began as a popular street food dish that has since moved into restaurants. (Anticucho is Quechua for "cut stewed meat.") La Mar Cebicheria (Pier 1 1/2, the Embarcadero), Inkas (3299 Mission), and Destino (1815 Market), all serve anticuchos. At Mochica (937 Harrison at Fifth St., 278-0480, www.mochicasf.com), chef Carlos Altamirano slices beef heart meat to the thickness of an orange peel, then threads it onto skewers and marinates in a dense red chile paste ($11 at lunch, $12 at dinner). Underneath the grill-caramelized, fiery marinade pulses the unmistakable flavor of beef heart.
But to taste the heart mostly unadorned, you should order the anticuchos de res ($8.25) at Limon Rotisserie (1001 South Van Ness at 21st St., 821-2134, www.limonrotisserie.com). There, chef Martin Castillo cuts the beef into diamonds and rubs them with garlic, ground aji panca chiles, and salt. The thinnest edges of the beef char on the grill, the spice-crust blackening as if it has become crystallized smoke, but the center of the meat remains deep red. There is a thrum of liver in the flavor, but it vibrates on the sub-bass level, under the true taste of the heart.