Matt Russell

From Sonoran dogs to huevos rancheros, dishes made by local chefs have put Tucson on the national foodie map. Beyond the fare for which the region is known however, there are exotic things happening on Tucson menus.

When Tucson chef Jonathan Landeen purchased the Cork and Cleaver Restaurant, 6320 E. Tanque Verde Road, in 1994, one item on the menu he knew he had to keep when he re-opened as Jonathan’s Cork was buffalo. Adventurous eaters found it to be a delicious departure from the standard fare of the day.

The exotic bison filet was a popular dish. Nearly 20 years later buffalo occupies the same space on Jonathan’s Cork menu, which now also features everything from lamb chops to lobster tails.

Landeen says the number of courageously curious patrons has grown and his menu is widely known for regular rotations of bore, venison, antelope and ostrich. While options for exotic meats are virtually limitless, Landeen assumes a decidedly conservative posture.

“We’re not exotic for the sake of being exotic,” he affirmed. “If it’s not tender and flavorful, we won’t serve it.”

When it’s available, ostrich is currently his top-selling exotic item, and much to the surprise of patrons, Landeen suggests a medium rare preparation for the bird.

And when asked the obvious question, he responds, “No, it doesn’t taste like chicken!”

Closer to the University of Arizona campus is Boca Tacos y Tequila, 828 E. Speedway, a small taqueria with a large menu that’s as exotic as its owner and chef, Maria Mazon. Mazon grew up in Sonora, being taught from an early age “what a taco is supposed to be.”

Every time she sees tacos on a menu with, gasp, lettuce and sour cream, she renews her pledge to “change the world, one taco at a time.”

While she may not have officially changed the world yet, she got the world’s attention last year when she sold her first lion taco. Activists and allies alike lined up at Boca to see what the roar was about.

A year later, Mazon remains committed to culinary exoticism. She features a different exotic taco on her menu every Wednesday. She has served up eel, camel, turtle, jellyfish and kangaroo tacos.

The kangaroo is always a guest favorite, with “a mild flavor similar to ground beef, and a distinct finish of game that lingers at the end,” she says.

When asked what tequila she recommends pairing with the kangaroo, Mazon didn’t hesitate. “The Penasco Anejo, of course, the oak of the agave works very well with the Kangaroo’s subtle gaminess.”

After visiting with Landeen and Mazon, I may have to expand my own exotic palette.

Anyone else game?

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 4-5 p.m. Saturdays on KNST 97.1-FM/790-AM.