NEW YORK — Any other New York City restaurant would’ve been shut down for bug infestation, but The Black Ant restaurant in The East Village is gleefully in business. More so, the bugs are on the menu. The little black dots sprinkled over the signature guacamole are neither beans nor peppercorns. They’re chicatanas, black Mexican ants hand-caught in Oaxaca, roasted with garlic and chili and ground into a special black ant spice. Still hungry? Then add a side of chapulines, or grasshoppers, to your guacamole for only eight bucks.
“Insects are very important for Mexican gastronomy,” says the restaurant’s Chef Mario Hernandez, who grew up in Cuernavaca, Mexico, enjoying many arthropod varieties at his grandma’s Sunday dinners. On the nearby peasant market, the family bought ants, grasshoppers, and black beetles called toritos or little bulls, nicknamed so for their tiny horns. Grandma would roast them with spices, or grind them with a mortar, mixing the powder into chilies, salsas, and other dishes. “If you go there today, you’ll find people on every street selling chapulines of different flavors — spicy, salty, sour,” Hernandez says. “It’s like eating chips.”
As a food source, insects are both nutritious and eco-friendly. Cattle is polluting, chicken factories are inhumane, fish is depleting, but the creepy crawlers are abundant and, scientists say, are high in protein. Mexico isn’t the only place where people practice entomophagy — insect eating — but the Western World is too disgusted to put them on the plate, according to the United Nations Food and Security Report. Some think they’re dirty, others find them creepy. Because we’re too removed from nature, we’re no longer used to seeing them — so we find them appalling, says Alexander Skolnick, who studies the emotion of disgust at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. And unlike mammals or other animals, they’re too different from us, which adds to our aversion. “They have too many legs, and they use them to move in a weird way,” Skolnick says. “They jump too unpredictably, and we don’t like that.”
But Hernandez proves our disgust is possible to overcome. Served in a noir setting with a huge surrealistic painting of a black ant overlooking the scene, Hernandez’s dishes are popular with New York crowds and can pleasantly tease your palate if you’re brave enough to try. Like other wild creatures, invertebrates sport a stronger flavor than factory-farmed meat. They’re earthy and gamey like deer, hare, and wild boar, albeit more intense. And they’re crunchy and crispy like chips, except you may have to occasionally pick their legs from between your teeth.
The Black Ant has a few options to ease you into entomophagy. In Tacos de Chapulin the critters are inconspicuously tucked among dollops of guacamole and fresh cheese. Fair warning: Don’t poke through your tacos, or you’ll have to resist de-bugging them and flicking off the brown bodies. How’d you tell when you actually chew on one? It’ll instantly fill your mouth with a rich earthy taste. For the brave omnivores, Croquetas de Chapulin is a must. Made from yucca and grasshopper flours, these fried orbs come decorated with little shiny chapulines, which stick their long legs up in the air like practicing ballerinas. They give the chewy balls a yummy crunch while the creamy truffle dip makes them (somewhat) easier to swallow. Want something else to wash down the bugs? Ask mixologist Gustavo Ortega-Oyarzun for Yum Kaax — a corn-and-mezcal cocktail named after the god of maize. It comes in a glass rimmed with spicy ant salt and a cute brown grasshopper nestling on an orange peel.
If crickets give you creeps, ask to hold them when ordering guacamole — and it will arrive with only a sprinkle of crushed black ants. So does Ceviche de Cobia, featuring thin-sliced tender fish soaked in a piquant chili serrano. But the best intro to insects is Pollito Con Papas. Juicy and delicious, this rotisserie chicken is rubbed with ant seasoning, forming a charred black crust akin to Cajun, but with its own unique, smoky, finger-licking tang. And the petite blue potatoes will nicely fill you up.
Insects have one more important advantage. They’re GMO-free, 100 percent organic, and always harvested by hand. Ants are caught as they swarm on their mating flights, grasshoppers with a net stretched over a field, and beetles are simply picked off trees. They’re all as natural as Mother Nature itself. So curb that urge to flick a little chapulino off your croquette. It’s good for your health. And it’s good for the planet.
More photos:Lina Zeldovich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.