As more restaurants have embraced whole-animal butchery in recent years, customers are increasingly coming face-to-face with meat that’s exceptionally rich and only a little offbeat: cheeks.
This once-underutilized cut is turning up on menus across Philadelphia. At Barcelona on East Passyunk, pork cheeks are braised with apple cider and served over a parsnip puree. At nearby newcomer Ember & Ash, skate cheeks are paired with sweetbreads and tempura-fried for a play on surf and turf. At Osteria on North Broad, beef cheeks are marinated in red wine, slow-cooked until fork-tender, and served over braised celery root with dabs of herbaceous salsa verde.
Forsythia chef-owner Christopher Kearse has long been a fan of cheeks. He likens them to the oysters on a chicken — two rounds of dark meat that are easily overlooked but fantastic when cooked. “There are two per animal and no one uses them,” he says.
At his erstwhile Will BYOB, Kearse used to work beef cheeks into tasting menus rather than a la carte offerings, because customers would seldom order them, especially for special-occasion meals. But pork cheeks are currently on the menu at Forsythia, where they’re seared, then braised with mirepoix, red wine, porcini mushrooms, and kombu; just before serving, the cheeks are dredged in Wondra flour (which is higher-protein), fried to a crisp, and dressed with spicy honey. The crispy pork dish sells well.
Why did Kearse decide to put cheeks on the menu? His staff wanted to have fun and challenge themselves after a year of cooking mostly takeout meals. But he also thinks some diners have gotten more adventurous. “Cheeks in 2021 are ... seen a lot more than in 2012,” he says.
That’s not a universal experience: When Juan Carlos Romero was cooking out of his Italian Market taqueria, the original Los Taquitos de Puebla, beef head tacos were an everyday menu item alongside its celebrated al pastor. But after he and partner Lluli Pilar relocated the shop, now called Philly Tacos, close to 20th and Reed Streets, that changed. “When we moved to here to Point Breeze ... it’s a different kind of people,” Romero says.
Now, he reserves the beef head tacos, made by boiling a whole head in aromatics for several hours, for special occasions. In his native Mexico City, he says, certain taquerias specialize in beef head tacos. On Ninth Street, Romero would get even more specific — one customer in particular came in just for brain tacos — but he admits cheeks are his choice.
“For me, the best part of the head is the cheek, because it’s tender, juicy,” he says. “I enjoy [them] with an extra-spicy salsa, or maybe a habanero salad with radishes. That’s a very good taco.” (He plans to make beef cheek tacos for this year’s Cinco de Mayo.)
Some restaurants have persisted with cheeks no matter what the reception. Center City’s Belgian beer haven, Monk’s Cafe, has featured them in one iteration or another — veal, lamb, and beef — for over a decade, reports co-owner Tom Peters. In the starter’s current format, beer-braised beef cheeks are served over Green Meadow Farm’s heirloom-corn polenta; pickled radishes help cut the richness, as does a sour beer on the side.
Veteran Monk’s chef Keith Ballew says that customers have grown more comfortable with the cut. “At first a lot of people were like, ‘What part of the cow is this? Are these the butt cheeks?’ ” he says with a chuckle. “Over the years I think people have become pretty accustomed to offcuts like face meat.”
That growing acceptance may be most evident at Washington Square West deli darling Middle Child, where beef cheeks recently made an appearance in a sandwich dubbed “the Cheeky Bastard.” Chef Zvi Finklestein conceived the special as a hot alternative to a Reuben and drew inspiration from beef cheeks bourguignon he enjoyed at Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore.
He re-created the dish’s elements in sandwich form, pickling mirepoix, roasting carrots, mixing homemade red wine jelly into mayo to create “boxed wine mayo.” The beef cheeks were cooked overnight at 200°F until they had a shredded texture. Everything was carefully layered on well-toasted ciabatta with Swiss cheese. Working in a small space, Middle Child’s crew could only turn out about 40 specials each day it was available. Each time, it sold out within an hour of being posted on Instagram at 10 a.m.
“All these people are eating lunch at 10 a.m. just so they can get a certain sandwich,” Finklestein says with a laugh. “To some extent, it feels like as long as it tastes good, people are gonna order it.” (One special that didn’t sell quite as well: a Jewish deli-style steamed tongue hoagie.) He adds that the cheeks’ presentation — it could have been mistaken for a barbecue sandwich — probably allayed any concerns.
Cheek meat is taken from well-used muscles that don’t have much fat but are loaded with collagen. For beef, pork, and veal, that means a long, slow cook (typically a braise) is required.
“After that collagen melts, you’re left with a really, really rich jus,” says Osteria executive chef Ed Pinello, who put braised beef cheeks on the restaurant’s recent reopening menu. “And the [muscle] striations in it are so short, because it’s kind of a flat piece of meat, that it really lends itself to being so fork-tender. You can really just cut right through it.” Diners unfamiliar with beef cheeks might find the texture comparable to short rib, he adds.
Cheeks can be hard to come by at the butcher shop. There are, of course, only two per animal, so they often come frozen, as suppliers amass them more slowly than other cuts. They can be labor-intensive on the front end; any silver skin still attached needs to be trimmed before cooking (easiest to ask a butcher to do this). If you are curious to cook them at home, check Primal Supply in Brewerytown and East Passyunk for pork cheeks, Esposito Meats in the Italian Market for veal cheeks, and House of Kosher in Bustleton for beef cheeks.
There’s less work — at least for the cook — when it comes to fish cheeks, and they’re much faster. “We fry ‘em from raw and they take 90 seconds to cook,” says Ember & Ash’s Dave Feola of the skate cheeks and sweetbreads dish on the restaurant’s starters list. Feola and fellow chef-owner Scott Calhoun are determined to highlight every part of a protein, from cod throats to beef shins, so cheeks fall right into that mission.
“Typically when they’re butchering these fish, they’ll take the loins, they’ll take nice fillets off, and then either the bones get sold for stock or the head gets chopped and slid right in the trash can,” Calhoun says.
Fish cheeks can be even harder to come by than their land-bound counterparts. Samuels Seafood’s Joe Lasprogata, the wholesaler’s vice president of new product development, says he first heard about them years ago from charter fishermen down the Shore who would cut the cheeks out of bluefish. “They’d always brag about how delicious they were and just panfry ‘em,” he says.
Halibut and cod cheeks are the most commercially available, though Lasprogata has come across monkfish, walleye, grouper, and tuna cheeks over his 30 years with Samuels. Because fishermen often remove them from the whole fish, customers who receive fish cheeks typically get clean medallions of meat that are quick-cooking and remarkably tasty. “I think there’s a little bit more of a concentration of flavor and they have a little bit of a sweetness to them, as well” he says.
Samuels’ retail market, Giuseppe’s, will try its best to accommodate customers requesting fish cheeks. No matter who’s ordering them, Lasprogata takes the interest in this offcut as a good sign.
“Especially [when] you’re dealing with a wild product, you should respect it and try to take full advantage and appreciate it,” he says.