The Bite

It may seem as though having a burrito shop on every corner means that Denver has finally arrived as a culinary mecca, but the truth is -- and I know this is going to scare some of you, so brace yourselves -- there are other foods out there. Enough fruits and vegetables to make the average trip to a Jivin' Juice Joint a daylong adventure in choices (did you know there are 42 kinds of mangoes alone?), more herbs and spices than can fit on a commemorative kitchen poster, and meats that have never been tucked alongside cilantro-lime rice and wrapped inside an extra-large tortilla.

The folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals shudder, I'm sure, but among the possibilities are nearly a thousand edible -- nay, delicious -- animals. Quite a few of them, such as the Nilgai antelope from India and Nepal, are being "wild-ranched" here in the United States; the Nilgai, which is also known as red deer, is available in Texas right now. And, not surprisingly, there are plenty of companies willing to deliver that meat to your door -- or at least to the restaurant down the street.

One of Colorado's smaller meat importers, Dale's Exotic Game Meats, was sold last year to a larger company, Great Plains Foods, which has been operating in Brighton (at 308 Walnut) for the past ten years. Dale Beier, former owner of Dale's, has stayed on as Great Plains's production manager. In addition to acquiring Dale's (and Dale), Great Plains has hired a larger staff that will aggressively pursue the sale of game meats to larger food distributors such as Sysco, as well as restaurants and other food-service businesses across the country (much of the meat goes to New York and Chicago; Denver is not one of the larger markets). Here at home, Great Plains's main competitor is New West Foods (1120 Lincoln), which is what the Denver Buffalo Company's ownership group, headed by Will McFarlane, turned into when it sold the restaurant to the Boulder Concepts Restaurant Group (think Bella Ristorante and Spanky's Roadhouse) and decided to go whole hog -- make that whole wild boar -- into the game-meat game.

Wild boars, also known as feral swine, have been roaming this country forever; as a former Floridian, I can recall several incidents in which they terrorized senior citizens by running across Alligator Alley, causing accidents. You don't even need a license to hunt boar in Florida; for a chuckle, check out the Web site, which states, "The mere fact of being in close contact with a fierce animal that is charging and attacking the hunting dogs is something that can't be described." And although Florida restaurants don't use the meat much, I ran into a lot of people who swore by its leaner, stronger-tasting roasts and hams and meatier bacon.

Great Plains also carries a wild boar from Russia and recently added moufflon, a wild baby lamb that originated in the Pyrenees but is now being wild-ranched in Texas. "The meat is stunning," says John Aldis, the company purchaser who's in charge of obtaining the animals. "Delicate, with a slight hint of sage." Aldis is also rounding up a small deer called a sika, the black buck, the Nilgai antelope and the Axis deer, considered "the Cadillac of all venisons," he says. "The thing people need to know about gourmet meats, which is how we prefer to refer to them so people don't confuse 'exotic' with 'weird,' is that they are as natural as can be. There are no growth hormones or anything. They're allowed to run free on huge ranches that are thousands of acres of land, where they are raised healthy and naturally."

Most of the gourmet meat from Great Plains and New West that stays in Colorado goes to mountain eateries, to places like The Black Bear Restaurant at Pike's Pub (10375 Ute Pass Avenue in Green Mountain Falls). Chef/owner Victor Matthews Jr., whose food I was incredibly lucky to sample at the Powderhorn Guest Ranch (The Bite, October 5, 2000), is known for his game preparations, including curried Nilgai antelope and a "three-dragon" soup of rattlesnake, alligator and turtle. That soup alone is worth the drive. Or you could have sampled Matthews's cuisine in Washington, D.C., late last year, when he was the lead chef for 150 dignitaries at the 2000 Celebration held in conjunction with the Millennium Tree ceremony.

Only a handful of Denver restaurants use gourmet meats -- and Great Plains doesn't want you to know which of those are serving its products. "We have just put the moufflon in place at some restaurants, and I don't want people not liking it or having a problem with it," explains Aldis. "I'd rather make sure the chef knows how to cook it first."

More likely, Aldis wants to make sure New West doesn't steal its clients, says Matt Barnes, New West's director of marketing. "There is heavy, heavy competition going on right now to get people on board with one of our companies," Barnes says. "Our main focus is on buffalo here, and we're the largest purveyor of it in the country." But New West also offers alligator and snapping turtle, rabbit, rattlesnake, quail and ostrich, black buck and the Nilgai antelope. In fact, Barnes says, New West plans to have everything Great Plains does -- and, of course, so much more.

In Europe, exotic meats are fairly common menu items, and I've sampled about a dozen animals there that I've never encountered here. About a decade ago, though, I got to try lion and yak at a small eatery outside of Pittsburgh called the Wooden Angel; the owner had gotten the meats from a wild-game hunter. And I hopped right up to The Savoy in Berthoud when I learned that the French restaurant prepares kangaroo medallions in a mango sauce. Wild boar is easier to find: Most recently, I found it at the Tuscany at the Loews-Giorgio; Sir Loin meat market (1910 South Havana in Aurora) also carries frozen boar tenderloin and boar sausage.

It's unclear whether Great Plains is making its meats available to the general public -- although Aldis says it is, sales associate Steve Swanson says the company is really only a wholesale operation. "I guess I can get someone a case of something if they call ahead," he offers reluctantly. New West, on the other hand, is promoting both its wholesale and retail operations, with a Web site at "The retail e-commerce operation for the more exotic meats won't be up and running until the end of the month," Barnes says. "But we do have ostrich available right now."

Can I get that in a burrito?