Frankie Consoli knew just what to do when he heard Taco Fusion in South Tampa was serving real lion meat tacos. He went there for lunch.
Even at $35 per taco, he considered a chance to eat lion worth his money.
“It’s a bit tougher than steak,” he said after taking his first bite while sitting on the veranda outside the new South Tampa restaurant. Roughly as chewy as a flank steak, he said, with a powerful red-meat flavor and a strong “gamey” finish.
He’s eaten rattlesnake and antelope before, but lion, “Man it’s delicious. I heard everyone hating on them on Facebook about this place serving lion, so I thought I’d come check it out. Where else are you going to get that chance?”
If he didn’t want lion, Consoli could pick from other exotic meats on the menu: bison, shark, ostrich, gator, gazelle, rabbit, duck, camel and kangaroo.
Lions are considered “Vulnerable” in the wild, which is a step short of “Endangered,” according to wildlife conservation groups, and so importing or selling lion meat isn’t illegal. If restaurants buy from approved vendors, and if those vendors raise their own livestock, then human consumption isn’t necessarily prohibited.
D’Angelo Bros. in Philadelphia supplies partridge, reindeer and ostrich to restaurants around the country. Czimer's Game & Seafood outside Chicago lists lion on its inventory along with bear bacon and yak. The Il Vinaio restaurant in Mesa, Ariz., served lion meat leading up to the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010, partially to drum up attention.
Taco Fusion has served exotic meats since opening Feb. 11 on Bay to Bay Boulevard, but it only started serving lion a few days ago. Social media was quick to pounce.
“How dare you serve this,” Jennifer Rieger Hauck wrote on Taco Fusion’s Facebook page. “I truly hope your restaurant goes out of business very soon and you end up living on the street.”
Undeterred, Taco Fusion officials posted a reply to critics: “If you guys are mad now, just wait till you see what we do next.”
“In my mind, I don’t think this is a bad thing,” said Taco Fusion owner Ryan Gougeon. Initially, he was hesitant to put lion on the menu, but he decided to go ahead after managers noted they have all other kinds of exotic meats on the menu. “These are animals that are raised for consumption on a farm, not from the wild where they are threatened. I travel to Asia frequently and exotic meats don’t seem to be a problem, but people here are stuck on beef, pork and chicken that are slaughtered inhumanely.”
Still, Gougeon said he’s already received threats online from upset people.
Much of the lion meat on the market comes from within the United States, said Jeff Kremer, director of donor appreciation at the Big Cat Rescue conservation site in Tampa. “Restaurants will do this to just draw attention, for the novelty,” he said. “It’s just a disgrace in my opinion.”
But Florida is one of several states that allow people to own exotic animals like tigers and lions for pets or for entertainment, Kremer said. Owners often find the animals are too much to handle, and they end up on the market for meat.
Meanwhile, Taco Fusion has more unusual items coming: iguana, bear and zebra, which, on one level follows a trend in gourmet circles to use ever-more-exotic ingredients. It’s not uncommon for the Food Network to broadcast cooking competitions where chefs use sea urchin, squab, quail eggs and bone marrow.
Michael Fortunato is now a fan of the lion taco, and considers his $35 well spent on lunch Tuesday. “I don’t see why people would be upset,” he said. “It’s not like a lion is all cuddly. It would eat your face off.”