Dining

Bewitching Barnacles

Meet percebes, chefs' new favorite mollusk
Percebes

It's a good thing percebes have a winning personality—the briny goose barnacles certainly aren't winning any beauty contests.

Colloquially known as dinosaur toes thanks to their rough, craggy exterior, percebes are considered a delicacy along the Iberian Peninsula, where they're prized for their soft flesh and salty finish. 

Sourcing them is no small task: Percebes grow only in shallow, cold water, in the nooks where ocean waves and rocky breaks meet, meaning divers looking to pluck the sturdy barnacles have to brave surf and jagged shoreline simultaneously. In the States, finding a plate of percebes has long meant hounding Basque restaurants and Japanese grocers (where they're known as kame no te) to find out if an under-the-radar batch had been flown in.

While preparations vary, the main idea when eating percebes is to let their briny flavor shine. After they're steamed, simmered or blanched, just remove the hardened black casing on the outside to reach the salty meat inside. If you're lucky enough to get percebes fresh off the boat, simply pull back the tough bit and suck the them down raw. Either way, the prehistoric-looking claw part isn't for eating; think of it as a handle to grab onto while you dig for the meat inside. If you're looking for something a bit more presentational, here are three places serving percebes with a passion:

Hamasaku, Los Angeles: This West L.A. sushi institution is beloved for its inventive rolls and thoughtful omakase from chef Yoya Takahashi, who imports percebes every September when the Japanese variety is in season. Though the sushi master likes to eat them raw when he's on his own, he steams the percebes in sake for several minutes when preparing them for guests. "Their flavor and texture is like a cross between a clam and lobster," says Takahashi.

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L2O, Chicago: At the Michelin-starred L2O in Chicago, chef Matthew Kirkley has been after percebes for years. "The stories I'd read of the perilous way that they're harvested and the fact that their flavor is so revered put them high on my list," he says. Now that he's started sourcing them through a connection near Vancouver, Kirkley has been able to put percebes on the menu for anyone that's willing to give them a shot. "We blanch them, then clean off the outer membrane and 'foot' in advance. Then we make a stock out of those feet and a bit of mojama (salt-cured tuna) and gently reheat the percebes in the stock before serving it with a simple garnish of julienned parsley, orange zest and nori."

Huertas, New York City: At Basque restaurant Huertas in the East Village, executive chef Jonah Miller compares percebes to the best parts of a razor clam. After simmering them in heavily salted water, Miller does little more than run a lemon wedge across the top. "They're as tasty as they are ugly," says Miller, who currently sources the delicacy through New York's Pierless Fish. For a mollusk as craggy and sea-hardened as percebes, that's high praise indeed.

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