Normally, bugs in a restaurant kitchen generate calls to the Health Department. But at Antojeria la Popular, a regional Mexican restaurant in Soho, six-legged critters get growing crowds of customers to whip out their cellphones and take pictures of dinner. They want Instagram shots that show them enjoying New York’s burgeoning food craze: the Grass-Whopper, a burger-style treat made with pan-fried crickets.
“It’s ridiculous,” gushes the restaurant’s director of operations, Marco Shalma. “People are coming from everywhere to try it!”
When the creepy-sounding sandwich was introduced last week, the restaurant sold about 20 a day, according to Shalma. Now, he says, as many as 100 per day are moving from the kitchen to some of New York’s more adventurous palates.
“I’m surprised,” he says. “People come here specifically to try the burger. We’ve definitely been busier since it was introduced.”
But Shalma shouldn’t be too surprised by what he calls “people’s willingness to get out of their comfort zones.” No fewer than two bug-centric cookbooks came out this year — including one that promises “40 ways to cook crickets, grasshoppers, ants, water bugs, spiders, centipedes and their kin” — and more are on the way in 2014.
The Grass-Whopper is the brainchild of Mexico City artist Pedro Reyes, a friend of Antojeria la Popular owner Regina Galvanduque.
“I wanted to create something that would make eating insects mainstream,” says Reyes.
He first served them at a lunch for an international conference at the Queens Museum last month, as a way of showing his vision of food for the future. The nearly 200 attendees — an international crowd of artists, filmmakers, university professors and housewives — ate up the buggy sliders.
“We served 500 burgers,” Reyes says. “All were well-received and eaten.”
Jason Ackerman, 28, also loved the Grass-Whopper when he dined at Antojeria la Popular one night this week. A paralegal from Long Island, he’s tried everything from giraffe to scorpion — just don’t ask him to eat a Burger King Whopper.
“I don’t touch [fast food],” he says, looking aghast. “It’s poison.”
Ironically, the goal of the Grass-Whopper is to mimic fast food — hence the catchy name, which makes it sound as though it’s made with grasshoppers, not crickets, though Galvanduque says they’re somewhat interchangeable.
“We’re just substituting for the beef patty,” says Galvanduque. “Everybody has a veggie burger and a turkey burger. Why not a grasshopper burger?”
But, she adds, coming up with the perfect formulation was no easy task. The crickets, which are sourced dead and somewhat dried from a distributor of Mexican food, get fried up in a skillet and topped with soft, white Chihuahua cheese. That helps bind the insects into a patty. Initially, they tried using beans for this purpose, but those tended to “overwhelm the smoky flavor [of the crickets],” Galvanduque says.
The patty is then topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, in a nod to traditional American burgers. A squirt of chipotle mayonnaise finishes it off.
“That brings out the Mexican flavor,” says Galvanduque. “Plus, [the sauce] contrasts the texture and the crunch, makes it smoother and really works well with crickets.”
She says that “in Mexico, crickets are our caviar,” but some north-of-the-border types don’t exactly see these backyard chirpers as gourmet fare.
Tiana Barksdale, 21, who lives in Brooklyn and works in marketing, looked a little sick as she nibbled on a Grass-Whopper earlier this week.
“It has a gritty texture,” she says. “I felt legs.”
But it seems Grass-Whoppers have legs not just literally — but also figuratively.
Barksdale’s sentiments notwithstanding, the burgers are such a hit that Antojeria la Popular plans to keep them on the menu permanently — not just for a few months, as originally planned.
Meanwhile, Reyes will be taking them on the road. In February, at the Zona Maco art fair in Mexico, he’ll sell them from a grasshopper-shaped cart. Galvanduque hopes to eventually bring the cart to New York and unleash it at street fairs and Food Channel events. But for now, she and Shalma are continually being blown away by the bug burger’s reception at the restaurant.
“People want to share the experience,” Shalma says. “I had one guy order a platter and then order a second one for the table next to his. Suddenly, all eyes and all conversation were on that table. It turns into a little bit of a dare, and everybody wants to be part of it.”