PILSEN — Growing up poor in Mexico, Carlos Gaytan learned that nothing goes to waste in a hungry household.
When his mother cooked a pig, she used every part of the animal, including the sesos, or brains. The brain was cooked whole, tamale-style, in a cornhusk. To Gaytan, it was the tastiest part.
“Everybody wanted that small portion,” said Gaytan, the owner and head chef at Chicago Avenue’s Mexique restaurant. “We used to share them.”
Today, Chicago’s Mexican immigrants have brought sesos to the city. Beef brains are available at some Mexican grocery stores and are regularly eaten in homes, Gaytan said, but they have yet to establish themselves on most of the city’s menus.
“It’s really rare to see taquerias that have tacos de sesos,” Gaytan said. “It’s just the culture in the United States. It sounds kind of gross.”
While there are not a ton of dine-out options for cow brain binging in Chicago, Carnitas Don Pedro in Pilsen can satisfy that yen. A pile of the fried tacos sits in the display window to entice passersby.
In back, the recipe is simple. Cooks first grind up the cow brains, which “look eerily like human brains,” according to cook Pedro Duarte.
Sesos are bland on their own but good at absorbing other flavors, he said, so the ground brains are then blended with tomatoes, cilantro and onions and placed in the freezer for a few days to let the flavors mingle.
Later, the mix is placed in a tortilla and deep-fried. The result is a crunchy shell with a rich filling that has the consistency of scrambled eggs.
The restaurant’s sesos are popular, especially on the weekends, when the place often sells more than 1,500 of them, Duarte said.
Gaytan prefers pork brain, which he places whole in a cornhusk and boils in water and mole verde, the traditional Mexican green sauce often seen on enchiladas.
“The only problem is it’s really mushy,” he said.
For those concerned about health risks, there is a small likelihood of illness if the brains are not properly prepared, according to the American College of Nutrition, a group that works to spread nutrition knowledge among physicians and other professionals.
At the same time, the cow brain is loaded with vitamins and minerals, making it a healthy choice, according to the group’s website.
“The nutrition contained within far outweighs the rare but possible bad effects of beef brain,” according to the group.
On a recent trip to sample the brain tacos at Don Pedros, diner Amy Stone tentatively took her first bite. But then she took another. And another.
“This is actually really good,” she said. “But it just really freaks me out when I’m eating it, thinking I’m eating brain.”
Gaytan said wary diners should taste a brain taco for themselves before passing judgment.
“Before we say that we don’t like it,” he said, “I think we need to try.”