A quick glance at East Village restaurant The Black Ant's dinner menu, and the Shrimp Tacos with Spicy Aioli and Avocado Carrot Salad sounds like a dish you might find at any other upscale Mexican restaurant.
But here, Chef Mario Hernandez has a secret ingredient: ground grasshopper-crusted shrimp. Welcome to a brave new world of eating bugs.
The five-month-old restaurant is the first New York City eatery to incorporate insects, namely grasshoppers and ants, into nearly every aspect of the menu, a practice that's part of a trend growing in the larger food world, where they're increasingly seen as a great, sustainable choice when it comes to protein sources. A number of brands like Exo, Bitty, and Chirps are using cricket flour in energy bars, cookies, and chips, and Jet Blue is even serving Exo bars on flights.
Although for Hernandez, a former executive chef at Yerba Buena and Coppelia who hails from Mexico, cooking with insects is not so new. "It's a really important part of Mexican gastronomy," Hernandez says. "Ever since I was really young, my grandma and I would harvest grasshoppers and ants, depending on the season, and cook them."
Now, you'll find them at The Black Ant in select dishes like Black Ant Guacamole with chicatana (ant) salt, Tlayuda con Chapulines (grasshoppers), and the Yum Kaax cocktail with sal de hormiga (ant salt rim). The menu changes every three months, but there are always grasshopper and ant options among other meat, vegetarian, and vegan dishes. (If you're in the latter two groups, ask questions before ordering: the insect-laced dishes are not clearly marked.)
So, where do you source ants and grasshoppers?
If you were wondering, the ants you're eating aren't the same ones that show up on your kitchen counter every so often. These are organically sourced: Hernandez arranges visits to Oaxaca, Mexico, two or three times a year to source the insects in the wild, timing his trips around the rainy seasons when ants emerge from their nests to make room for the next generation. And the grasshoppers come from a farm there, although he intends to build his own at some point.
"In Mexico, they're really easy to harvest, which makes them a good option for countries that have a lot of problems getting protein for the population," Hernandez explains. "Another big consideration is environmental impact. You need 1,500 liters of water to produce one pound of meat, but you need just a couple of liters to produce one pound of grasshoppers."
When Hernandez returns from his trip, he boils the insects in salted water, toasts them in spices, chile, and garlic, and sun-dries them to preserve their freshness.
So how does it taste?
When we tried the cocktails and guacamole with ant salt and the bisque and shrimp tacos with ground grasshopper, we were surprised how rich and flavorful everything was—without the slightest hint of insect in taste or texture.
But the deep fried grasshoppers served whole were a little daunting, despite tasting great with the guac. Blame it on American culture, but something about seeing the grasshopper, antennas and all, definitely felt a bit like Fear Factor. And surprisingly, they we're crunchy, and had a soft chewy texture, kind of like mushrooms. (Tell your friends that fun factoid at your next dinner party.)
"I know it's foreign to people here, but as soon as our customers taste them they order it again and again," he says. Hey, green juice was once an acquired taste, too. —Jamie McKillop
The Black Ant, 60 Second Ave., between E. 3rd and 4th Sts., East Village, www.theblackantnyc.com
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