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Top of the Tabla

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Bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  The weather has been absolutely perfect as of late here in Chicago, but I feel like the chill of the Fall will be here sooner rather than later.  With it, comes a longing for hearty food and more robust drinks  in terms of spices and general ingredients.  Ergo, I’d like to put forth a new restaurant review of Las Tablas, a Colombian steakhouse that gives you gargantuan portions of delicious food for reasonable prices to fortify you for Chicago’s terrible winter.  IMG_4076

We went to this eatery earlier in the summer for one of Janice’s friends birthdays, so they were easily able to accommodate our enormous party.  The interior of the establishment was simple and some of the most eye-catching decorations were pictures on the wall of different people who seemed to have a bit of a weight problem.  These rotund subjects were signature pieces of “the most Colombian of Colombian artists”, Fernando Botero.  His unique take on artwork has created quite a following throughout the world, and it was an authentic piece of the homeland as we sat down and perused the menu.  We started with drinks.  While Las Tablas is BYOB, you can also order drinks off their menu.  We split a pitcher of sangria since it was a fun summer drink for the extremely humid night. IMG_4081 It wasn’t anything special though.  The wine was semi-acidic and didn’t really possess any of bold sweetness that comes from the sugar and fruit floating in the blood-red elixir.  The food, however, didn’t let us down.  They have plenty of authentic Colombian appetizers and entrees to choose from.  Even though its a steakhouse, vegetarians never fear!  They do have veggie friendly options for you.  For example, the aborrajado ($6) I got was vegetarian but not vegan friendly.  According to the menu, the aborrajado is a specialty from the coastal region of Colombia that consisted of a sweet plantain filled with guava jelly and topped with melted cheese. IMG_4084 While that seemed like an odd mix of ingredients, it actually jived pretty well.  Apparently, the banana was supposed to be fully fried according to Wikipedia, but my plate was semi-fried and was gooier if anything.  If you get this appetizer, let it cool off for a long time.  Although it smells like a freshly baked apple and banana pie, you will get a blazing mouthful of napalm.  Not a good look when out with friends for a fun time speaking from experience.  When I finally let it cool down enough, I found it to be a unique but tasty dish.  If you have a sweet tooth and a love for chewy, salty cheese then this is the ideal appetizer for you.  The guava and banana were a dynamic duo that teamed up with the cooked cheese on top for a sweet and salty treat.  I was semi-full after it, but I still had to choose an entree.  After looking over the numerous meat options, I got the bandeja paisa (literally:  “country tray”) ($21).  My girlfriend got a combinacion ($21) with a plantain, skirt steak, yuca, potato, and baby calamari.

When both of the plates came out, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach.  My girlfriend’s plate was especially eye catching with the slightly char-grilled baby octopodes (or octopi if you’re all about mixing Greek and Roman pluralizations).IMG_4085  Some of them were quite chilling to look at on other peoples’ plates where they had faces similar to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Creepy cephalopods aside, they were quite delicious with a nice firm texture and a great charred aftertaste mixed in with the semi-buttery flesh.  As for my plate, where to begin? IMG_4087 First, there was the rib-eye steak.  Lord, was it perfect.  Juicy, tender, and bursting with rich, meaty flavor.  The other meat element, the fried pork belly, looked very similar to another type of bacon I tried that also tricked me in Hungary.  It was a lot harder to eat than the steak because of the tough pork skin it was attached to, but that didn’t stop me from getting my hands dirty and perhaps scaring some of my fellow diners in the process. IMG_4117 You don’t mess with a man and his bacon.  It was worth the greasy face and fingers with each nugget oozing salty and porktastic notes that were probably as addictive as Pablo Escobar’s finest wares.  The beans were ok, but they were enhanced when I mixed them in with the freshly sliced avocados, white rice (that was on the dry side), and the fried egg atop the mini rice mound.  The arepa on the side was also quite tasty since it was filled with more of the cheese that was melted on top of the aborrajado from earlier in the meal.  It was like a South American version of a Mexican quesadilla, and I’ve tangled with the Salvadorian version of an arepa on an earlier food adventure.  There was no way I was going to finish all of this food, so I threw in the towel by the time I finished all the meat, arepa, and avocados.  I couldn’t stuff myself any more with rice and beans.  In the haze of my food coma, I knew I experienced something special that night from a place I had never been to before but hope to experience one day.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

So if you want a taste of Colombia without having to hop on a plane, check out Las Tablas for some of the best steaks this side of the equator!

Las Tablas on Urbanspoon

Getting My Goat On

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Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga!  Today’s restaurant review takes us to one of the newer but highly regarded eateries in Chicago in the West Loop:  Girl and the Goat.  I had heard so many great things about famed chef, Stephanie Izard.  According to the website, “Izard is name of goat in the Pyrenees”; hence the name of the restaurant.  Looking beyond their rustic take on English on their website, their food was king or perhaps queen of the mountain.IMG_4035

The interior was bumping when I went there around dinnertime for a double date.IMG_4030  Servers were buzzing by as we checked in for our reservation.  There was a bit of a wait, so we grabbed drinks and took in the entire experience.  From the sleekly designed interior to the open cook line, it was like poetry in motion everywhere I looked.  IMG_4037IMG_4036IMG_4034It only whetted my appetite even more for the upcoming meal.  Eventually we were seated and the madness began.  With a tumbler of whiskey in hand, we looked over the menu to see some common items like olives or steak tartare, but then there were crazy things like duck tongues or pig face. IMG_4039 Mind you, the menu is on a rotating basis, so you might be privy to some dishes I never saw on the menu.  We went crazy ordering once our server came over however.  The journey began with a sun-dried tomato bread boule that came with a side of vinegar seasoned corn relish and savory butter with a garlic infusion. IMG_4042 This typical carb starter got us off on the right foot as it was warm, oh-so-soft, and bursting with the taste of fresh tomatoes.IMG_4044  Then for actual dishes, the Girl and the Goat focus on more tapas-esque presentation and portion sizes which means that each selection is meant to be shared amongst all the people at the table.  Ergo, we ordered things that everyone wanted to try.  First, seafood.  We got the raw kusshi oysters with muscatel mignonette and tarrgon along with the wood fired blue point oysters with horseradish, bacon, and preserved lemon.

Kusshi oysters

Kusshi oysters

This was a historical foodie moment for me since it was the first time trying oysters.  While I heard from some people that they tasted like snot going down, I found them to slide right down without any sort of trepidation from my palate.  They didn’t need to be chewed or anything, so I don’t know what those other diners’ problems were.  I personally preferred the wood fired oysters because they were slightly warm along with a nice sinus-tickling horseradish kick.

Woodpoint fired oysters

Woodpoint fired oysters

While we were partying under the sea with the super shellfish, the steak tartare wraps came out.  If you just saw “steak” and “wrap”, the “tartare” part means that the meat was raw inside.IMG_4047  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe to eat.  In fact, these nibbles were quite light at delicious.  The lettuce leaves were super fresh, and the pieces of red meat were accompanied by some tempura flakes and another corn relish that provided a texture contrast to the tender steak and crunchy tempura batter. IMG_4048 Along with this hands-on dish, we got an order of squash blossom rangoon with wasabi garlic chive yogurt and sliced almonds ($13). IMG_4049IMG_4050 I think these fried gourds were a bit over the top with their cheesy interiors.  IMG_4051It seemed to simply be a high-falutin version of common jalapeno poppers, and they were quite primitive in comparison to the other dishes we tried before.  The duck tongues ($16) that came next were anything but ordinary. IMG_4052 While everyone at the table was disgusted yet slightly curious when I ordered this dish, I was curious to see if it was going to be different from my experiences with duck tongues in Taiwan and China.  Lo and behold, it was since they were neither simply cooked nor still sticking in a duck’s head.  Instead, they were fried and arranged into a mini-mountain over a tuna and black bean poke that was negligible, but the spicy piri-piri bird’s eye pepper (similar to the one at Nando’s in the UK) from Mozambique really kicked these tongues up a notch in terms of flavor.  Plus, my formerly squeamish dining companions found them to be quite pleasant since they melted in your mouth and didn’t feel like you were making out with Donald Duck.  After that bizarre treat, we came back to reality with an order of ham frites ($7) with sides of smoked tomato aioli (literally: “garlic oil” in Catalan) and cheddar beer sauce.  IMG_4053These smoky, savory taters were finger licking good especially with the cheddar beer sauce and powdered ham that took these common bar items to a new level of haute cuisine.  If this redesigned ‘Murikan favorite got my palate amped up, the spring onion potstickers ($15) were a Far East fusion creation to cool it down.  IMG_4054It was served at room temperature, and the fried dough was extra delicate.IMG_4058  Along with that, the dandelion greens and sunflower seeds created many earthy tones as I took down each one.  All of these were leading up to the piece de resistance, the crisped braised pork shank ($25). IMG_4057 Not only was this thing monstrous, but it also came with sides I would have never expected:  Indian naan bread, buttermilk dressing, peach kimchi, and a pepper sauce.  I almost felt like young King Arthur with the sword in the stone, and I took my Excalibur with great aplomb. IMG_4063 The meat fell off the bone, and it was mind-blowingly succulent.  Each strand combined with the golden crispy skin to create a legendary dish that I will never forget.  The naan was fresh, but I didn’t think it really fit in with the other ingredients.  The kimchi peaches somewhat made sense since it was a sour/sweet element to cut through the savory and slightly greasy meat.  The pepper sauce was good but not great.

It gone!

It gone!

As if you thought this was the end to the food madness, the pork belly and scallops came out.  I tried a minuscule portion of the pork belly, and it would have been great if my stomach wasn’t stretched to bursting.IMG_4066  Perhaps for next time.  The lobster was quite sweet while the crab seemed to be a better compliment to the lean pork.  As for the scallops, I can’t really comment on them because I was absolutely stuffed, but their presentation was pleasing to the eye.  Plus, the scallops were quite hefty for the price.IMG_4068

So in closing, if you want to try one of Chicago’s most highly vaunted restaurant, bring your piggy bank and then some because it isn’t cheap.  However, it is high quality food with moderately large portions compared to other similarly prestigious eateries.   Ergo, you should get down to Girl and the Goat ASAP.

Girl & the Goat on UrbanspoonIz

Absolute Cero

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Hola a todos and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  This really has been a post that has been long in the making, but it is not short on quality by any means.  Today’s restaurant in question is De Cero on the Near West side of Chicago.  It is a modern version of a taqueria or taco shop for y’all who don’t habla espanol.  It takes the ingredients from the Pilsen and Little Village Mexican strongholds and presents it in a more Rick Bayless upper echelon Latin cuisine fashion.

Sharing the block with other famous dining establishments like Le Chevre and Girl and the Goat (post coming soon), De Cero is a simple restaurant with open patio dining and indoor dining.  It’s simply furnished with wooden chairs and a soft lit interior.IMG_3961 IMG_3959 IMG_3960 When I went with my girlfriend and her party posse, we hung out on the bumpin patio that was occasionally ruined by spontaneous drizzle storms.  Being the Midwesterners that we are, we just sat through it and enjoyed the wonderful food and drinks.IMG_3947

First, there were the libations.  They have non-alcoholic selections like the classic Jarritos that can be found in every corner store stocked with Latin goods, but we came for the more adult beverages.  I started by wetting my whistle with a mango con chile margarita ($9.75).  Not only did it come with chile, but our waitress indulged my thirst for spicy food by letting me know I can put habanero chili powder on the edge.  When it came out, it checked all the boxes for me for a bebida perfecta (perfect drink). IMG_3948 IMG_3950 It was the perfect blend of the natural sweetness of the sunny yellow mango with the occasional hint of tequila and a bold punch of smoldering chile with each sip.  Later on in the night, I tried the jicama margarita, but it was the blander of the two options. IMG_3958 IMG_3957

As for appetizers, we got the chips and salsa entrada ($6.75) where we chose the pico de gallo, red picante, and tomatillo lime verde salsas.  A side of guacamole was thrown in there for good measure.  IMG_3953Out of the trio of super salsas, my favorite was the pico de gallo.  All of the different elements like the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and tangy lime juice were in perfect harmony which I couldn’t say the same for its compadres.  The red picante was pedestrian but a bit heavy on the smoky chile element, and the key lime green tomatillo salsa was more sour than savory which didn’t really catch my fancy.  However, the guacamole made me think “Holy moly” with each ravenous bite of the tortilla chips. IMG_3954 Even though it was the same color as toothpaste, it tread the line between chunky and smooth excellently and the cilantro pepped up this potentially bland side.  IMG_3956My girlfriend also tried the spicy goat cheese tamale ($3.75).  IMG_3969

Duck confit taco and tamale

Duck confit taco and tamale

It was nothing special.  The mild masa of the tamale drowned out the flamboyantly tasty goat cheese which left me muy triste.IMG_3971  After munching on these appetizers, the main course came out.

I got four different tacos:  spicy applewood chorizo, rajas, al pastor, and chicken mole ($3.75 each).IMG_3963  Surprisingly, I thought the best one of the four was the rajas. IMG_3967 This doesn’t mean that the other ones were huge let downs, but I felt that I tried better versions in cheaper restaurants.  Especially with the al pastor that had plenty of spiced pork shoulder but not enough pineapple.  IMG_3966The chorizo was not as spicy as I was anticipating which left me crestfallen since I’m used to Mexican sausage bringing the heat.IMG_3965  The chicken mole was more of an experiment for me since I’ve never really been a big fan of mole.  IMG_3964Even though I love chocolate, this cocoa infused sauce never really jived with my palate.  At De Cero, it was no different, but I’m sure many other people love it. The black beans that came with the tacos, however, were a nice change of pace compared to the typical brown refried bean goo they serve at every tex-mex eatery. IMG_3968 They were served whole, simmered in a pork based broth with a chunk of pork thrown in for good measure.  It was food for the soul.

By the end of the meal, I felt like a stuffed gordita, but the overall quality of the ingredients in the tacos and the zesty margaritas made De Cero a taqueria experience without equal, especially with lovely company.IMG_3973
De Cero on Urbanspoon

Pane and Pleasure

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There’s nothing I love more than a perfectly made sandwich.  From the crunchy bread to the random assortment of ingredients that reside between the foundation layers, it is a meal that can be customized for anyone from any walk of life.  Ergo, there are a plethora of different sandwich shops throughout the Chicagoland area, and I’d like to tell you today about Panes Bread Cafe.IMG_3895

I had never heard of this establishment prior to a random visit there with my girlfriend.  I didn’t really know what to expect from a place called a “bread cafe”.  I’m sure there would be coffee involved, but then what?  Random slices of bread to go with your espresso?  Anyway, we walked in and were greeted by a brightly painted interior decorated with an eclectic mix of Latin American artifacts, Italian movie posters, and colorful murals.   IMG_3894We walked up to the order counter and looked over the menu. IMG_3890 Panes offers everything from soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas, but I was eventually swayed to the bread side as I looked over the sandwiches.  While they had more tame options like a ham and cheese or a B.L.T., I went for the devilish pollo diablo ($5.95).  My girlfriend got the pompazo sandwich ($5.95).

They both came out about 10 minutes later as they constructed and pressed each fresh panini sandwich to perfection.  They both looked great with the golden potato chips on the side. IMG_3891 I wouldn’t consider my sandwich anything that would render Satan a hot mess due to the spicyness, but it had a slight kick due to the spicy mayo and peppery spice rub on the juicy, all white chicken breast. IMG_3892IMG_3893 I personally thought that the bread really brought the sandwich to the next level.  The pompazo was ok, but I felt that the rich and verdant pesto overshadowed the chicken, tomatoes, and cheese.  Pesto-avalanche aside, I was impressed by their fresh ingredients on perfect bread that was hefty enough to deal with me tearing through it like Pac Man in the labyrinth of white dots.  As for the potato chips, I really liked them because they were crisp but not too salty.

I highly recommend Panes Bread Cafe if you’re looking for a cozy cafe that offers plenty of fresh sandwiches that won’t cost you that much bread.

Panes Bread Cafe on Urbanspoon

Taste Trekkers’ Publication

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Hey everyone!  Sorry for the long wait with the posts, but I just got a new job teaching.  It’s really hectic at the moment, so my food adventures are on temporary hiatus at the moment.  However, one of my articles I wrote before all of the madness struck just got published on a food blogger site called Taste Trekkers.  If you want to check out my article involving 5 of the best restaurants representing different ethnic groups in Chicago, click right here.

Nacho Average Restaurant

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Hoo doggy!  It’s heating up in Chicagoland right at the end of summer, and today’s Mastication Monologues post is a real firecracker.  If you’re looking for a fun new bar that has a giant photobooth to document a crazy night or a beer pong table to relive old glory days in college, then check out D.S. Tequila Company!

It is a restaurant that has plenty of attitude in terms of its decor and events that are held every weekend that range from trivia to bingo.  The inside is quite modern in design with mostly metal, exposed brick, and dark wood accents.  However, my favorite part of the restaurant is the patio.  1bec1e9e3d9e3d7cfe86cc15ce343653.640x427Both times I’ve been there, it was nice weather, so it was packed with partiers and diners.  In this post, I’ll just be talking about my second time there when I went with my girlfriend for lunch.  She had been raving about their nachos there, so I couldn’t say no to a Tex-Mex and personal favorite.  We sat on the patio on the oddly humid/on and off drizzing day around noon.  Due to the precipitation, we got to see their retractable roof on the patio in action, so no worries if it’s raining.  You can still get your groove on outside.  This lunch experience  was the complete opposite of the first time I went there on a rowdy Saturday night.  There were patrons calmly talking over their meals, and we proceeded to do follow suit when the menus were placed in front of us.  We started with ordering drinks.  D.S. Tequila lives up to its name with their own homemade brew ranging from blanco to anejo which you can purchase in the restaurant if you are completamente loco for the Mexican mezcals.  I ended up getting one of their frozen mug drinks ($8 for a glass/$32 a pitcher): the black and green.  It was an intriguing drink since it came out in a large beer mug, but it looked like a root beer slushy. IMG_3879 Turns out that the darker liquid was the Negra Modelo Mexican beer, and the slush was D.S. Tequila’s original margarita.  It was like an inversion of a margarita I had at Gusto Taco in Seoul.  However, I think I preferred this inverted beergarita since the full bodied lager enveloped the sugary slush, but the citrus zest made each sip really pop.  While imbibing this innovative icy beverage, Janice ordered the regular sized Texas Trash Nachos ($9.89).  I was confused why she thought that this would suffice for someone like me with a giant appetite.  I was looking at the other options on the menu like their tacos, burgers, salads, or soups, but she assured me that this would demolish even the biggest of stomachs.  She was totally right.  The nacho equivalent of Mount Doom was placed in front of us with an ominous, heavy clunk on the tabletop.IMG_3881 I didn’t know where to start.

Guess which one of us is intimidated?

Guess which one of us is intimidated?

Dive headfirst into the ingredient-rich top layer or play it safe with the unadorned chips around the borders of the plate?  I took the bull by the horns, and rode that toro through chunks of succulent steak, chunky guacamole, cool sour cream, two layers of cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and acidic pico de gallo.   Needless to say, that they all came together in one of the best nacho platters I’ve had.  The only problem, as with most nacho platters, is the refried beans foundation that often times results in soggy chips towards the end of the meal.  That would be my only complaint with the dish, but at that point, I didn’t really care because I was really hungry.  We ended up finished the entire thing, and it was a great bargain for less than five bucks a person.  I’m scared to think how big the “family size” nachos would be.

Overall, I’d recommend D.S. Tequila for a great patio experience or just a rocking good time on a weekend.  Their drinks are strong, and their portions are huge.  What more could you ask for?

D.S. Tequila Company on Urbanspoon

Throwback Post: Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid

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Bienvenidos y welcome to Mastication Monologues!  If you’re reading this, you’ve finally reached the end of my throwback Europe series.  We’re touching down in the heart of the Iberian peninsula in the ageless city of Madrid.

Home to the Spanish government and monarchy, Madrid is the imposing and more regal version of Spain’s more laid back second city, Barcelona.  Everywhere my friend Kevin and I turned, we were confronted with another piece of history.  Royal palace?  Check.1930504_1100433668123_5085_n  El Prado Art Museum?  Check.  El Parque de Buen Retiro?  Double check. 10400831_1100124860403_5015_n 10400831_1100124220387_9578_n 10400831_1100124380391_983_nI especially enjoyed the park because it offered a bit of relaxation in a city that is mostly business-minded.  Not only are there plenty of open lawns and large trees, but the main fountain in the middle of the park was the best because you can rent rowboats for an hourly fee.  It was nice to just sit on a bench and take in the more leisurely pace of life in Spain where families were out on paseos (after meal walks) and the old timers were arguing about the superiority of Los Colchoneros vs Los Merengues over some coffee.  One of the best places outside of the city that I’d recommend visiting is El Escorial. n1145100159_31215923_1194 It was commissioned by Felipe II to be a royal palace and a symbol of Catholic strength in the face of the rising wave of Protestantism.  The palace’s design is particularly interesting  since it was designed with a grid floor plan to pay homage to the red hot griddle that Saint Lawrence was burned to death on.  From the halls gilded with gold mined from New World mines to the exquisitely carved statues in the Court of Kings, it was a royal palace without equal.n1145100159_31215937_5529  While I did try some delicious tapas throughout my stay in the city, the star of the food show took the form of churros at Chocolatería San Ginés located at Pasadizo de San Gines, 5, 28013, Madrid.san-gines chocolateria-san-gines-_328091 What are churros?  Churros are basically pieces of fried dough that are often long and thin.  From there, chefs have given their own twist on them which have included:  plain, coated with cinnamon-sugar, coated in chocolate, coated in chocolate and filled with caramel, or coated in chocolate and filled with custard.  At Chocolatería San Ginés the churros are served plain with a cup of chocolate on the side for dipping. Chocolate_con_churros_-_San_Ginés_-_Madrid This churro shop has been open since 1894, and it has been a favorite hangout for night owls and club goers who want something sweet and greasy to fill them up before going home.  I just stumbled upon it through pure chance during a normal night after dinner, and I never forgot the first time I bit into one of the golden wands of magical fried dough.  They were substantial, light, and fresh out of the fryer.  I could have eaten them without the chocolate due to their subtle buttery base common to many fried dough treats, but the warm melted milk chocolate took this dessert to another level.  I was communing with San Lorenzo, San Gines, and the rest of the culinary saints by the end of the heavenly plate.  It was a perfect end to my visit to the Spanish capital, and a heavenly denouement to this throwback series.10400831_1100123420367_3194_n  I hope you enjoyed reading this European adventure as much as I had writing it.

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