Off the Menu

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From San Francisco to Miami and beyond, the most exciting experience for many diners is ordering something that can’t be found in writing.

By W. Blake Gray and Alli Tong

Stonehill Burger_By Jody Tiongco-6The concept of ordering something “hidden” or off the menu is making a comeback as of late, yet it is not a new phenomenon. Just five years ago, secret menu items were most famous at fast-food restaurants, including the popular California chain, In-N-Out Burger, which coined the term “animal style” (ordering off-the-menu fries or burgers with the restaurant’s signature sauce, chopped grilled onions and cheese). Today, this trend has trickled into the realm of fine dining, where restaurants are embracing the novelty and appeal behind ordering something that most don’t know.

Spreading the Word

Naturally, guests can’t order secret menu items unless they know they exist. In an ironic twist, however, some off-menu items are so famous that they’re better known than what is actually on the menu. “Our famous, off-the-menu item is the crab macaroni and cheese,” says Michael Velardi, executive chef of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, adding that many patrons come to the restaurant specifically for a taste—even though it’s only an off-the-menu side dish.

In Aspen, the best way to learn about off-menu items is to take an old-fashioned seat at the bar. Many restaurants serve dishes at the bar that they won’t serve on the floor, such as the steak sandwich at Steakhouse No. 316: a New York strip with caramelized onions and Gruyere.

In many instances, such hype around a secret menu item can certainly cause a dish or drink to become more public. At Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco, owner James Freeman accidentally created an off-menu drink for caffeine lovers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Before he opened his first coffee kiosk in 2005, a seminal event in modern American coffee history, Freeman experimented with blends and roasts using 4.5-ounce eight-sided glasses, which he bought from a restaurant supply shop. The size of the glass limited the amount of milk the drink could contain: less than a latte, more than a macchiato or cortado, and without the expansive top needed for a true cappuccino. In fact, the drink itself was named after the glass it is served in: a Gibraltar. The story goes that this was originally a drink that the Blue Bottle baristas made for themselves behind the bar; today the cult classic has spread to coffee shops on both coasts, and even to London.

On the other hand, some establishments don’t rely on word-of-mouth for their hidden menu items to come into the spotlight. Burger Parlor in Fullerton, Calif., set up a special text line, where customers text “Burger Parlor” to 90210 to receive updates of the latest off-menu items.

These are just a few examples of the way food coverage has changed in the present day dining scene. As recently as a decade ago, the main media sources for reading about food were newspaper critics and magazines. Today, major cities have multiple restaurant news websites, such as Grub Street, Thrillist and Tasting Table, all battling for exclusives on the local food scene.

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A Clandestine Classic

One of the most tempting and creative creations to take off the menu is the classic American burger. “A lot of chefs like making a really great burger, but they don’t want to have a burger on the menu because everyone will order it,” says Mourad Lahlou, chef/owner of Aziza in San Francisco.

Oftentimes, what’s secret about it is the burger’s existence. Servers at Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco may deny that there’s a steak burger made from scraps trimmed off the prime steaks, coarse-ground and grilled medium-rare over a mix of mesquite charcoal and almond wood—but that denial became difficult after the burger reached SF Weekly magazine’s list of top dishes in the city.

Additionally, the secret of the burger is the extra-special ingredients. At Starbelly in San Francisco, when guests order a burger “Doc’s way,” it’s topped with chicken liver pate. At the nearby restaurant Foreign Cinema, those in the know can savor the balsamic egg burger, featuring a fried egg and sweet balsamic reduction sauce.

At The St. Regis Monarch Beach’s Stonehill Tavern, in Dana Point, Calif., Executive Chef Raj Dixit understands the lure that an off-the-menu dish can have. At Stonehill, Dixit always offers a seasonal off-the-menu burger that he says is only given to guests who ask for it. “The best part of [an off-the-menu dish] is interacting with the service team to engage the guest and open up,” he says. “You get a feel for what the table is looking for—it’s a great way to inspire.”

Yet, he notes, when one guest orders his off-the-menu burger, it creates a “domino effect” and influences others to want it, too. This season, the chef will be offering a bison burger that he says will eventually lead to a venison version—he’s thinking something with chili. Dixit adds that any off-the-menu dish is created with thoughtful care.

“We try to take a focused approach for off the menu—it has to be well-executed,” he says. “It can’t be half-brained; you have to make it work.”

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Comfort Creations

The origin of off-menu items is similar to that of the “family meal” that chefs serve to restaurant staff before service begins. In many cases, these off-the-menu tastings eventually lead to those dishes making their ways onto the menu.

For instance, José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman were line cooks at San Francisco’s Nopa restaurant tasked with preparing the family meal for the staff. The cooks created carnitas so delicious that the dish became legendary with local diners in the know, mostly from word-of-mouth. This led to Ramos and Guzman becoming head chefs at their own restaurant, Nopalito.

New Orleans native and chef Justin Simoneaux draws on his roots for a sandwich that sounds too starchy for the menu at San Francisco’s Boxing Room: the French fry po’boy. It’s similar to that of rich poutine on a French roll—the chef slides cheddar cheese and bacon into the roll with fries, bakes it until crisp and serves it with giblet gravy. Like many off-menu items, this is not low-calorie.

Neither is the Cracker Jack milkshake at Tongue & Cheek in Miami, which is made not with Cracker Jacks, but with crushed Baby Ruth candy bars and salted-pretzel ice cream. It’s an innovative and popular off-menu item—but less known is the fact that chef Jamie DeRosa will offer guests the same dinner served to his staff during the family meal for just $10 from 5 to 7 p.m. only.

Family Meal -- week of May 6. Photo Credit T&CEnticing Experiences

As exciting as off-the-menu items are, one challenge for restaurants is that it’s hard to stop making them. Chefs can’t just take them off the menu—they were never on it in the first place.

One New York City restaurant, Shake Shack, faced this obstacle after seeking publicity for its peanut butter bacon burger. Patrons who stop by this neighborhood fixture today, however, won’t find this treat on or off the menu.

“Due to the possibility of cross-contamination, we no longer like to serve it,” says communications manager Greg Waters. “Introducing peanut butter to our burger station can be harmful to those guests that have a peanut allergy.” Instead, Waters suggests diners satisfy their desire for an off-menu item with a grilled cheese, which guests can customize and make their own by adding applewood smoked bacon and chopped cherry pepper.

In the cocktail realm, Beretta in San Francisco won acclaim with the New Rider cocktail, made with Wild Turkey rye, lemon, house-made ginger syrup, maraschino liqueur, bitters and sage. But now Beretta has to limit the number of New Riders it serves, ironically, due to the rye revival (and subsequent demand it created) in cocktail bars across the country. Wild Turkey wasn’t expecting so many rye orders, and the whiskey fell into short supply. Because the New Rider is an “off-off-menu” cocktail, patrons need to be dedicated cocktail connoisseurs to get one.

Additionally, sometimes off-the-menu items are so exclusive that they’re only available for short periods of time, as seen at Red, the Steakhouse in Miami’s South Beach. Its Alaskan king crab is only available until February, and even then it has to be ordered three days in advance since they bring it all the way from Alaska.

For many restaurants, the point of off-menu items is to encourage return customers time and again. These types of offerings forge relationships between food and guests, who will fall in love with a particular dish—or even the secrecy of it all—and yearn to come back for another taste.