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SCRUMPTIOUS, I'M AFRAID : Unmasking Those Foods You Dread Reveals Some Unearthly Delights

October 20, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition

The food world is a fearsome place of hobgoblins and monsters. If you don't believe me, ask any kid.

They didn't have gross- out foods like candy rats and gummy worms when I was growing up, but there were still plenty of foods that scared me to death at a young age: liver, beets and, scariest of all, a wriggling fish, sitting on our kitchen counter, waiting to be chopped and cleaned.

In this generation, common food fears revolve around nutrition, public health and excessive fat in the diet. If you're finicky, scary foods pop up all the time, unexpectedly. Ethnic markets have such items as pig's head, blood sausage and hairy vegetables. Italian restaurants serve black pastas, colored by squid ink (the ink is tasteless). And consider trendy food expressions: "outrageous," "to die for," "killer."

The following short list contains foods that look, sound or taste scary, accompanied by a small reality check. For the record, bad cooking is what scares me, not unusual names or exotic ingredients.

Trick or treat, a little early.

McDonald's Milkshake

Many of my health-food-oriented friends are scared to death of fast food. So I'll bet most of them would be surprised to find that, with regards to the commercially popular McDonald's milkshake, they have little to fear.

McDonald's San Diego office provided me with a list of ingredients that go into milkshakes: nonfat milk, milk, sugar, corn syrup, flavored syrup, guar gum, carageenan and locust bean gum. The last three are thickening agents from plants and contain no artificial substances.

The syrups do contain chemicals such as sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate or propyline glycol to retard spoilage, but no more than you would find in any commercial cookie or cracker. Of the three main flavors--chocolate, vanilla and strawberry--only the strawberry has artificial colors: red 40, yellow 6 and blue 1.

And there's more good news for fans of this food giant. Consumer Reports tested milkshakes from several large chains, and McDonald's--surprise--turned out to be the lowest in fat calories. The shakes, for the record, contain between 310 and 350 calories (and 5 to 6 grams of fat) per 16-ounce serving. If the chalky flavors don't scare you off, the shakes can be a boon to dieting. If you want a richer shake, there's always Ben and Jerry's.

McDonald's, locations throughout Orange County. 16-ounce milkshake, $1.19 (prices may vary slightly with franchise).

Sea Cucumber

In a book called "The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig," anthropologist Marvin Harris writes about the curious reasons certain foods are reviled and others revered around the world. Surely the practical Cantonese would laugh at such a scholarly tome. They boast about eating "everything that flies except an airplane, everything that has wings except a table."

The new Sam Woo Restaurant in Irvine stops well short of that notion, but you will find sea cucumber on the menu. This Chinese delicacy, a.k.a. trapang, is a primitive, worm-like creature with a gelatinous texture. Most Chinese restaurants serve it in a brown sauce, accompanied by black mushroom or bok choy.

This is about as low as things go on the food chain, but not on the taste chain. Sea cucumber has a delicate, subtle flavor that absorbs oil and the flavors of vegetables admirably. Sam Woo's version is delightful, as long as you aren't put off by the sight of a shallow water, coastal worm sliced into rounds. And if you look at it from the Cantonese perspective, it's far less scary than a slice of fermented beast secretion--what we know as cheese.

Sam Woo Restaurant, 15333 Culver Drive, Irvine. (714) 262-0888. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sea cucumber with tender greens, $10.

Steak

It's popular to include red meat in any updated list of scary foods. Excessive amounts of red meat in the diet have been linked to a variety of ailments, and health food stores are stocked with books that explain the reasons.

None of this seems to deter anyone from stopping in at Pinnacle Peak in Garden Grove. This homey, bargain-priced steakhouse specializes in a monstrous, 32-ounce Porterhouse called the Trail Boss. If the sheer thought of it doesn't make your arteries shudder, you're in for a treat.

This isn't fatty beef like prime cut in a high-priced steakhouse, but rather Select, a grade of beef available to the average consumer. What makes it special is a combination of two things: The restaurant uses mesquite wood to barbecue, and the fire gets as hot as 1,000 degrees, which sears in the meat's delicious flavors.

A steak loses approximately 25% of its weight during the cooking process, so count on about 24 ounces of great eating should you order this steak. If you are counting calories, this comes out to about 1,200 without the trimmings, a scary thought for weight-watchers.

Pinnacle Peak, 9100 Trask Ave., Garden Grove. (714) 892-7311. Dinner only, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Trail Boss, $12.95.

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