When Anshu Pathak welcomes you into his kingdom, you can count on food being served. It might be wedges of peppery cheddar cheese with romanesco florets and black tahini. It might be beaver curry, barbecued guinea pig, or a wagyu steak as thick as an encyclopedia. The first time I visited his office, in a drab corner of a squat, sunbaked business park 70 miles east of Los Angeles, it was lion burgers.
Beef patties shrink as they sizzle on the grill, losing up to a quarter of their weight. Lion meat, pale pink and dotted with little white globules of fat, fluffs up when you cook it. I had expected a bold flavor and a tough texture, but it was mild, not at all gamy. Pathak sells the stuff for an average of $500 per pound. Some cuts, especially the bones, can retail for much more. “The penis,” he boasted, “I sold it for five thousand bucks.”
Impish and extroverted, the 57-year-old Pathak is short and compact except for a slight belly. He’s diabetic, has been since his mid-30s, which seems a cruel twist of fate for a guy you’d imagine sampling every item at a Vegas buffet. An obsessive collector of stamps, rare plants, and who knows what else, Pathak is equally compulsive when it comes to business. He owns half a dozen food-of-the-month ventures: gourmet cheeses, rare fruits and vegetables, beer, wine, hot dogs, steaks. Exotic Meat Market is not his most profitable venture, but it’s his favorite.
To get to Pathak’s farm, where he raises some of the animals whose flesh he sells, I pulled off the freeway in Perris, a suburb of Riverside, and passed a fleet of vintage bombers at March Field Air Museum. I continued through acres of scrub and asphalt and newish tract homes before turning onto a dirt road, where Pathak met me in work boots and a white windbreaker and matching cap. His 13-acre spread, bordered by the Santa Ana River, is home to the passengers of a miniature Noah’s Ark: alpacas, ostriches, emus, peacocks, goats, lambs, and two water buffaloes, a Valentine’s Day gift Pathak bought for his wife. A cria, or baby llama, born four days ago, pranced about on spindly legs as goats skittered around in large, open-air pens, and a pair of heritage turkeys spread their wings.
Four years ago, after growing frustrated with sellers who refused to reveal the age or lineage of their animals, Pathak started raising his own. While kneading a Dorper sheep, who seemed to relish the massage, he explained that he’s begun a long-term breeding program. “If I stop buying more animals, stop feeding the animals, it’s a very profitable business. But I keep buying animals,” he said, laughing. “One day it is going to be a zoo.”
Pathak first took up animal husbandry as a child in India, breeding thousands of dogs in his native city of Ahmedabad. He came to the U.S. in 1989, following a pregnant girlfriend to Southern California. In India, he’d managed 42 lakes for the government. In America, he got his first job selling diamonds in downtown L.A., but he soon grew restless. Door-to-door food vendors were common in India, so when he saw an ad for a similar business, Pathak bought a stake. A few years later, he founded Gourmet Meat and Seafood of San Bernardino. He started off selling the basics as well as less traditional meats such as alligator, elk, bison, and turtle. His most vocal critic was his mother, a lifelong vegetarian. “She used to make it so hard on me,” he says. “‘Anshu, is your stomach a graveyard that you put all those dead animals in your body?’ … I’m not a good Hindu, but I’m a good man.”
It’s hard to know how large the national appetite is for Pathak’s more unusual products. A spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute told me that the exotic-meat business in the U.S. is so tiny, she wasn’t aware of any data to quantify it. For one thing, there’s no precise definition of “exotic.” For most Americans, it means anything outside of the big five: chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and fish. Yet reindeer is common in Scandinavia, nutria is a Cajun-country staple, and capybara is a popular street food among the asaderos of Bogotá. Goat, hardly a top seller in the United States, is common in Mexican and Indian cuisine. “To me, no food is exotic until it is far away from me,” says Pathak, who sells or has sold antelope, armadillo, bobcat, camel, flamingo, muskrat, opossum, otter, peacock, raccoon, squirrel, wildebeest, and zebra.
As much as it seems like selling lion meat shouldn’t be legal, it is — though it’s not without controversy. While lion is not yet an endangered or protected species in the United States, in Africa, hunting and habitat loss have whittled the lion population from more than 400,000 to less than 30,000 over the past century. Pathak says the lion meat he sells comes from cats raised in captivity on American soil, but he won’t say where. To be sold legally in the U.S., all meat must be inspected by an authorized agency. But the USDA is required to examine only meats named in the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act, neither of which addresses many of Pathak’s selections. So Pathak and other above-board purveyors of game meats must pay the USDA or a state agency for that service. Plus, regulations vary from state to state. In California, the Department of Fish and Wildlife oversees the hunting and trapping of various animals, while commercial sales are overseen by county and city health agencies.
Pathak insists that he does not deal in prohibited or endangered species. But even so, he says, he receives daily calls from activists and government agents trying to set him up by asking for illegal products: “tiger, whale, seal, too many things. Some people are so sick they will ask for human meat.” Given how few qualms he has about his line of business — he proudly wears (and sells) a T-shirt that reads “I Make Lions Disappear. What Is Your Superpower?” — what would probably surprise most of his critics is how much he loves animals. At the farm, he watches over them like a proud papa, petting Goldie, one of his favorite llamas, and referring to her as “that girl.” He refuses to slaughter many of the older animals, who are well past their best years as meat or egg producers. Before we head out, Pathak presents me with an emu egg, speckled and dark green like something a dinosaur might have laid, assuring me that it is the most delicious of all eggs.
Pathak’s few competitors are scattered around the country, from Reno to Texas to New Jersey to Florida. Yet one of Exotic Meat Market’s main rivals is located just 30 minutes west, so after leaving Pathak’s farm, I headed to a Corona strip mall to check out Exotic Meats & Fruits. The closet-size retail space is lined with pictures of ostriches, pheasants, and rabbits — both live and plated. The owner seemed wary, but he invited me to his office in the back while his son manned the counter. He said he didn’t want to talk about his personal life but was happy to discuss the competition, who happens to be his older brother.
A couple years after Anshu immigrated to the U.S., Nerry Pathak followed. He either worked for or partnered with Anshu, depending on whose account you believe. Nerry says he was a vegetarian until four years ago, when Anshu convinced him to try a llama burger. “I liked it,” Nerry remembers, so he asked Anshu for a case of them. When Anshu tried to charge him $200 for it, Nerry says, he decided to open his own business. Anshu tells a different story. He says that the day their mother died, Nerry told him that he had received her blessing to launch his own exotic-meat business. The Pathak brothers agree on one thing: Since late last year, they no longer speak.
Where Anshu is gregarious, Nerry seems cautious and controlled. Taller and stockier than his brother, he has a small black mustache and a more pronounced accent. His approach to the exotic-meat trade is more conservative than Anshu’s, and he mostly deals in bison, duck, and venison. Unlike Anshu, Nerry has no particular passion for food. He’s an entrepreneur who’d be just as happy selling perfume or high-end furniture, two additional ventures he told me he’s considering.
In contrast to Nerry’s business-minded opportunism, Anshu’s evangelism for his trade is all the more flamboyant. He possesses the brio and hyperbole of a boxing promoter or a carnival barker. As we mingled with the llamas on his farm, he mentioned that someday he wants to open a petting zoo. And build a mobile slaughterhouse. He invited me to tag along a few weeks later on a trip to slaughter alpacas in central California. Alpaca carpaccio is said to be quite delicious.