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A Place Where Almost Everything Is Fair Game : Restaurants: The menu includes alligator, zebra and mountain lion, among tamer fare. And people come from continents away to partake.


OSCEOLA, Mo. — You say you just can't find a restaurant that whips up a black bear dinner like Mom used to make? The menu at your favorite bistro lacks that thick, juicy elk steak you've been craving?

From A to Z--alligator to zebra--if it's wild, it's on the menu at Cecil Pritchett's, an improbable restaurant in an unlikely setting near Truman Lake, about 100 miles south of Kansas City.

If you don't see it on the menu, just ask. Owner-chef Cecil Pritchett will try to track it down and cook it.

"I had a hippopotamus on order for a long time, but I just couldn't get it," he said. "I'm still trying to get it."

Pritchett, 53, got some strange looks from this village's 750 residents when he opened his restaurant in an ancient brick building in 1992 and began boasting "the largest selection of exotic wild game food in the world."

"People kind of laughed at me under their breath. I think they thought I was totally insane," he said.

But folks from as far away as Canada, England and France drop into his down-home cafe with black-and-white zebra decor to sample delicacies like quail in pecan-honey sauce, alligator in Hawaiian sauce, smoked antelope sausage, venison in curry sauce, and hickory-smoked mountain lion and zebra.

Pritchett's wild culinary skills date to his childhood in Nevada, Mo. With 10 children, the family ate a lot of wild game such as rabbit, venison and quail, which he learned to cook.

Pritchett worked in production for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City for 12 years before buying a restaurant there in 1981. He put a few wild game dishes on the menu and the next year won blue ribbons at a Kansas City food festival.

Despite his celebrity, customers didn't exactly beat a path to his door, Pritchett said. He eventually sold out and took a job in advertising, then worked as a chef for several Kansas City-area restaurants.

After working in restaurants in smaller towns, Pritchett moved to Osceola two years ago, bought a creaky but quaint brick building built in 1845, and fired up the grill.

"I started out selling broasted chicken and hamburgers, then slowly started introducing stuff I wanted to do," he said.

Pritchett admits he sells far more chicken, steak, prime rib and standard breakfast and lunch fare than wild game at his restaurant. He declined to say how many wild meals he serves a week, but "we sell something on the exotic side every day."

He buys most of the meat from Dale's Exotic Game Meat Co. in Denver. Manager Paul Beier said most of the animals the firm sells, including zebra, bear and African lion, are raised on game farms in the United States. The company imports venison, elk and moose but no meat from Africa, and it doesn't sell animals on the endangered species list, he said.

Pritchett has never been picketed by animal-rights advocates, probably because he's in an area where hunting and fishing are popular. The one complaint he's heard was in 1983, from a woman at his Kansas City restaurant.

She "tried to explain that some people out there didn't think I should be serving alligator," he said.

Pritchett said he can understand that some people might find his menu upsetting. But he also noted that some of the animals he serves, like mountain lion, are dangerous and "so abundant in the mountains of Colorado that they often have to be shot by conservation people."

Pritchett also serves up wild offerings at sports shows throughout the Midwest. Many of his customers pull off Missouri 13 just east of Osceola bound for Branson, the heartland music mecca.

"It's usually not people from this area" who order the wild fare, said Sylvia Saysoff, a waitress at Pritchett's.

Governor and Senator-elect John Ashcroft stopped in recently. He ordered a shake (one of the tamer dishes) and posed for a photograph beneath the exotic menu above the grill. Hank Bauer, the former New York Yankee great now living in Kansas City, is a regular visitor and prefers the fried frog legs.

Jim Naylor, the St. Clair County circuit court clerk, confided over coffee at Pritchett's that he had recently screwed up the courage to sample zebra. With each bite, Naylor said with a smile, images of a striped horse galloping across the African plain raced through his head.

"It tasted fine," he said hesitantly, not seeming totally convinced. "It was, I guess, probably like beef."

An independent taste test from an open-minded visitor:

* The pan-fried quail, farm-raised in Ohio and the top seller on the wild menu, was excellent.

* The alligator in Hawaiian sauce had a hint of fish taste.

* The deep-fried rattlesnake and frog legs tasted like chicken.

"If anybody asks us what something tastes like, we say, 'Everything tastes like chicken,' no matter what it is," Pritchett said with a laugh. "Believe me, mountain lion and zebra do not taste like chicken."

He's right. Even the K.C. Masterpiece hickory barbecue sauce Pritchett uses to coat the meat didn't help. The zebra had a slippery, gamy taste. And the mountain lion was purrfectly awful--tough and wild-tasting.

Among the 25 wild menu items, zebra and ostrich are the most expensive dinners at $29.95. Quail and venison dinners are $9.95, black bear $19.95, and a buffalo smoked sausage dinner is $11.95. Sample bites of mountain lion, bear or zebra go for $2.

Pritchett isn't done tinkering with his menu.

"I want to do kangaroo and elephant and hippo, those three for sure," he said. "I don't have moose on the menu yet or caribou. I just keep exploring things that I think should be there."

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