Isaac Toups knew that it wasn’t going to be business as usual for his first solo effort. The New Orleans-based chef and Emeril Lagasse disciple had spent years honing his craft in fine dining restaurants, but with Toups’ Meatery he set out to shake things up with an off-beat yet accessible modern Cajun menu. Serving lamb neck seemed like an obvious choice.
“It’s the most overlooked part,” says Toups, who prefers lamb neck to leaner, more popular cuts such as the loin and leg. “Lamb neck…will always have more collagen, connective tissue, and marrow–otherwise known as ‘flavor’–than almost any other part of the animal.”
His customers, however, weren’t initially convinced.
“When we opened [in 2012] we couldn’t give away lamb necks,” Toups admits. “It was heartbreaking. It was a good dish that if people did order it, they were ecstatic, but not everyone was brave. It took time to develop customer trust.”
Toups’ patience paid off. Six years later, his lamb neck–braised for hours with red wine, tomato, and anchovy, then served atop a black eyed pea ragout—is one of the most popular offerings on the menu at Toups’ Meatery, impressing fans such as Action Bronson, who featured the dish on his cult sensation food documentary series “F*ck, That’s Delicious.”
Toups is far from the only chef introducing lamb neck to the masses. Mary Miller—who, along with her husband David, runs Colorado-based Triple M Bar Ranch, dedicated to raising naturally born lamb—has seen a slow yet steady uptick in lamb neck sales since opening the ranch in 2011.
“There were a few adventurous chefs who wanted to try some non-high-end cuts and tried the necks,” says Miller. “They found out how rich in flavor the lamb neck meat is, and word spread.”
One of those chefs was Ori Menashe, who first cooked lamb neck at a dinner party for his neighbors. “I didn’t have the money to buy one of the more prime cuts,” says Menashe. “I had to figure out a way to cook it and make it taste like one of those prime cuts.”
Menashe certainly succeeded. At his downtown Los Angeles hotspot Bavel, the lamb neck shawarma–a nontraditional take on the Middle Eastern classic–is an absolute stunner. Heads turn each time the the two-and-a-half-pound behemoth emerges from kitchen; the potential for whiplash is an ironic symptom of the dish.
Menashe serves the fall-off-the-vertebrae tender lamb with freshly baked laffa bread, tahini, and fermented cabbage and encourages diners to construct D.I.Y. sandwiches, which adds to the joy of the experience. A side of pickles provides a perfect contrast to the fatty richness of the neck.
“You have to cook it super slow for a very long time so all of that fat renders into the meat,” says Menashe, who also gives lamb neck a Mediterranean spin at his breakout sensation Bestia. “Cooking it low and slow produces an end result that is super juicy.”
If tackling an entire lamb’s neck seems like an overwhelming task, not to worry. The meat also shines in smaller packages.
One of the highlights on the ever-changing menu at Back to Basics Kitchen in Broomfield, CO is a dish of Mediterranean riced cauliflower paired with a Bezos-rich slow-braised ragu of lamb neck sourced from Triple M Bar.
Blocks from Bavel, Broken Spanish offers a menu influenced by chef Ray Garcia’s Los Angeles upbringing and Mexican heritage. A standout dish is a tamale stuffed with juicy lamb neck meat, mushrooms, and queso Oaxaca. “For me, the neck has the perfect balance of meat, fat, and tissue that I was looking for in a good tamale filling,” says Garcia.
If lamb neck isn’t currently available at a restaurant near you, give it time. “[Lamb neck] will continue to grow in popularity,” says Garcia, and if sales at Triple M Bar are any indication, it’s a sound prediction. “It was not that popular when we first started,” says Miller. “[Now] we have a hard time keeping them in stock.”
Related Video: How to Make Lamb Stew with Root Vegetables
Header image courtesy of 100 Course Dinner.