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Thursday, September 6, 2012

5 Ways to Try Alligator in San Francisco

Posted By on Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 3:00 AM

Alligator dishes are popping up around San Francisco like crawfish in a running creek. Justin Simoneaux, executive chef of Boxing Room and from the small Cajun country town of Raceland, La., speculates why Bay Area eaters might be attracted to the reptile. "All these crazy Cajun alligator hunting shows are probably bringing its popularity up," Simoneaux said. Five years ago, the meat was "abundant and dirt cheap," he said, anywhere from $5-6/lb for tail meat, and now the same cut is $11-12/lb. "It's a lot harder to get now, so something is happening."

Hurricane Katrina also raised awareness nationwide about Louisiana's culture, and Cajun cuisine has been popular since at least the 1980s. Maybe the daring diners of San Francisco are just ready to try something beyond blackened catfish. Here are four dishes to introduce you to the mouthwatering and brag-worthy meat:

Tacos de Lagarto

Alligator tacos at Gilberth's Rotisserie and Grill - LARA HATA
  • Lara Hata
  • Alligator tacos at Gilberth's Rotisserie and Grill

Gilberth Cab wanted to pay homage to the iguana stew made in his wife's native El Salvador. When he substituted alligator in the stew, it was too tough. "We had to find a way to cook it fast, so we went in the taco direction," Cab said. Hence, the tacos de lagarto ($12 for two alligator tacos) at the recently opened Gilberth's Rotisserie & Grill in Dogpatch (subject of this week's full review).

Cab marinates the alligator in chili sauce for one day, lightly sautées it for four minutes, al pastor-style, with fresh pineapple and onions, and serves it with chayote slaw and roasted pasilla pepper purée. The meat is cradled by a crispy flour shell.

Gator Burger

Gator burger at Bistro SF Grill - REBECCA HUVAL
  • Rebecca Huval
  • Gator burger at Bistro SF Grill

"Better you eat him than he eats you," said Seni Felic, the co-owner of Bistro SF Grill in Lower Pac Heights. The restaurant's gator burger ($14.50) is one of their hot-ticket items, often selling 20 in one weekend, Felic said.

The burger is grilled with garlic and olive oil for three to four minutes. Any longer than that, and the meat becomes too rigid. The alligator comes from Louisiana through the local distributor Sierra Meat & Seafood. It is topped with fine slices of romaine lettuce, red peppers, and onions sauteed in garlic powder, salt, pepper, and fennel seed. The whole juicy package is surrounded by toasted sesame seed buns. In this presentation, the alligator meat is smoky and delicately crispy on its charcoaled edges.

Cajun Fritto Misto and Deep-Fried Gator

Deep-fried alligator at the Boxing Room - THE BOXING ROOM
  • The Boxing Room
  • Deep-fried alligator at the Boxing Room

The Boxing Room has been introducing Hayes Valley to the lesser-known sides of Louisiana cuisine for one year, including Justin Simoneaux's theories on alligator meat. "The tail part is really good fried, but if you're using the leg meat or the back meat, it's tough" and better for braising, he explained. "By itself, it tastes like chicken. You can put spice or sauce on it -- it's receptive to all sorts of flavors."

Simoneaux gets his alligator tail meat from a fishermen's collective in Eunice, La. There are actually no local sources for alligator meat, and it's against the law to have wild alligator meat in California. It must come from a farm. The cajun fritto misto ($14) at The Boxing Room is served with fried frog legs, alligator, okra, and rémoulade; the buttermilk-marinated, deep-fried alligator comes with a side of rémoulade and lemon.

Please note that The Boxing Room is waiting on a new shipment of alligator meat, and it will not be on the menu for a few weeks.

Stir-fried Alligator in Chili Paste

Stir-Fried alligator at Lers Ros - REBECCA HUVAL
  • Rebecca Huval
  • Stir-Fried alligator at Lers Ros

If you're more wary of reptilian meat than spiciness, the stir-fried alligator with chili paste ($19.95) at Lers Ros Thai restaurant might be the place to start. The moist alligator meat is cooked in an auburn curry made of chili paste, pungent young peppercorn, galangal, cooling bursts of Thai eggplant, and kaffir lime leaves. Non-threatening bits of alligator soak up those flavors in small succulent bites.

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Rebecca Huval


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