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Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
A plate of grasshoppers during lunch at El Jaripeo restaurant in Salt Lake City Turrsday, October 7, 2010. El Jaripeo serves authentic dishes from the Mexicna state of Oaxaca.

SALT LAKE CITY — Abraham Santiago's memories of his childhood in southern Mexico include running through cornfields to look for grasshoppers.

But Santiago wasn't looking for grasshoppers as part a child's game; he searched for the insects to eat and enjoy. Santiago and his family are from San Pedro Pochutla, Oaxaca, where eating grasshoppers is as common as eating chicken.

"Kids always collect them from the fields, especially after the rain, in the winter time," he said.

Santiago is now running his own food business and restaurant called El Jaripeo, in Salt Lake City, where he serves the traditional grasshopper dish from his childhood.

"They taste different, but somehow like chicken," he said, trying to describe the flavor and texture.

Maria Victoria Santiago, Abraham's sister, said this is the only Mexican restaurant along the Wasatch Front to serve the Oaxacan traditional dish made with grasshoppers (chapulines, as they're called in Mexican Spanish).

"We have costumers that drive all the way from Provo just to eat here", she said.

Despite the look, the grasshoppers aren't that bad.

The little dried insects with a dark-red-color are prepared in a typical Mexican style. They are fried with onions, tomatoes and green bell peppers. The dish is served with a hand-made tortilla, black beans and Mexican cheese called "quesillo." The best accompaniment to this Mexican specialty is the "horchata" flavored water. The "horchata" flavored water is also one-of-a-kind for El Jaripeo, as it is served with strawberries, prickly pears, melons and nuts.

In addition to offering a very particular salty, spicy, flavor with a crunch, the grasshoppers are also a very good source of protein. The little insects are around 62 to 75 percent protein, while a traditional beefsteak offers 54 to 57 percent protein.

The grasshoppers are bred and toasted for human consumption in Mexico. They are then packed and made ready to be exported to other countries. It takes about a week for the toasted bugs to make it all the way to Utah.

However, the grasshoppers aren't the only specialty dish Santiago serves at his restaurant. A costumer can also order a side of crickets.

"We also offer the crickets in a variety of styles: with garlic, extra spicy, with lime juice or plain as a snack," Santiago said.

Other Mexican specialties that are served in El Jaripeo are the "clayudas", a big corn tortilla, with black beans and beef chorizo and "cecina" (similar to beef jerky) on the top. Along with these specialty items many other traditional Mexican dishes can be found at El Jaripeo, such as, enchiladas and chilaquiles.

El Jaripeo is located at 1259 S. Redwood Rd. The restaurant has been open for almost three years, and the Santiago family has been together in the food business even longer.

e-mail: tnavarro@desnews.com