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It’s Greek to Me

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Everyone needs a no-frills diner.  A place where you can go to get food that may not be the best for you or might not look the prettiest, but you know it will always make you feel good.  This type of culinary sanctuary is as varied as an individual’s palate, mood, and perhaps even time of day.  Let’s be real, late night eats are never the healthiest in the world, but there’s nothing like being a little naughty when the sun goes down. 1433858760_70ec314f6f2232ce557694c962a36572 This is where Margie’s Restaurant comes in.

It was a cold and dark night like any old Midwestern winter night, and Janice was craving a milkshake and some fries.  Instead of just going to the local McDonald’s, I suggested we try a local favorite that I’ve always seen but never visited.  Margie’s is not much from the outside or inside. IMG_5671IMG_5674 It’s just a local fast food joint that serves really basic food for reasonably prices in large portions like your standard hamburgers and hotdogs or Chicago classics like homemade Italian beef sandwiches. IMG_5673 While I do love all of those, I had a particularly greasy favorite in mind when I went to order.  The gyro (plural: gyros) has become a staple of American fast food cuisine compliments of Greek immigrants who brought it here and made it popular in their diners across the nation.  It probably became popular with Americans due to the fact that you can eat it on the go even though I wouldn’t recommend it since they can be pretty jam packed with ingredients.  The name is also a point of contention as you might hear “jai-ro”, “jeer-oh”, or “yee-ro”, but the closest pronunciation is the last one. IMG_5675 The word “gyro” comes from the word for “turn” which replaced the Turkish term “doner” which means the same thing.  The turn part comes from the fact that the gyro meat is roasted vertically and sliced off in thin strips with a long knife or shaver.  This technique was invented in the 19th Century in Turkey, but the Greeks will tell you otherwise.  Your typical gyro consists of a pita flatbread that is filled with spiced lamb, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce.  However, there are alternatives out there; the most common variant I’ve seen is with chicken instead of lamb.  I always keep it traditional because I love the spice and flavor of lamb that the Eastern Mediterranean nations do so well.  Margie’s had a gyro special where I could get a plate of the Greek classic with a side of fries for 5 bucks.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance.  The service was brisk given I went on a random weeknight, and it was freezing outside.  The food came out quickly and wrapped up very nicely.  When I got home, Janice definitely enjoyed her meal, and when I opened up my bag, I didn’t know where to start.  IMG_5676A huge pita was lain over a facefull of fries, tomatoes, and onions along with two tubs of tzatziki sauce.  Basically, I had to be the mad scientist to put this monstrosity together, and luckily I had the skill and mettle to do just that.  Once I combined everything like a boss, I got down to the business.  IMG_5678The typical problem that I mentioned before is that the meat is oftentimes quite greasy, so you run the risk of having your clothes ruined by the gyro’s juices hopping a ride on your pants and or shirt.  Margie’s gyro, on the other hand, was not greasy at all, and the pita held up quite well to my ravenous choppers tearing through my meal.  The tomatoes were fresh and onions plentiful, and the tzatziki was cool and tangy like any good yogurt based sauce should be with hints of cucumbers.  As for the French fries, they were of the crinkle cut variety, and they were fried to perfection.  I wasn’t able to finish the golden stack of potato sticks due to the filling nature of the gyro, but I highly recommend this special or any of the other specials.  You’ll get your money’s worth, that is for certain.

So if you’re ever out in the western Chicagoland suburbs and need to get a ton of food for not a ton of money, check out Margie’s Restaurant!
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A View to a Grill

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Welcome one and all to another great post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post focuses on cuisine that might not get the spotlight like other, more mainstream types of food like Chinese food or Mexican food, but that doesn’t mean that it is of lesser quality.  In this case, I’m talking about Syrian cuisine.  It is part of the Levant on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, its food shares roots with neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and even as far as Iraq.  Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has colored everyone’s thoughts about this country, but I would like to show you that there is more to Syria than the seemingly eternal struggle between Assad and the plethora of Islamic militias that shift alliances as much as the Syrian desert sands.  I had my first taste of Syrian food at Pita Pita Mediterranean (formerly Pita Pit).

The restaurant itself doesn’t look like much. IMG_5658 It’s just another storefront in another stripmall in the northern Chicago suburbs, but the food inside is like the lamp in the Disney movie Aladdin:  relatively unknown to the world unless you help Jafar with both halves of the golden scarab.  Actually, it’s not as dramatic as that given that a quick Google Maps could sort you out in a snap, but there definitely is treasure to be found when looking over their menu.  I saw typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare like kebab, hummus, and Jerusalem salad, but then there were other choices I’ve never heard of.  Naturally, I gravitated toward these options.  I started off with sampling their babha ghanouj ($3 small/$5 large) and the muthawama ($3 small/$5 large).

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Babha ghanouj (بابا غنوج) literally means “pampered papa” in reference to most likely the head of a harem, and these flavors were definitely made for royalty.  It consists of grilled and pureed eggplant that is then mixed with sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic, and yogurt.  It was also topped with a dollop of olive oil for good measure.  I found this cold spread to be both savory yet slightly tart that went very well with the light pita triangles that came with the dip.  I was more partial to the muthawama.  It was very similar to the babha ghanouj in terms of ingredients aside from replacing the eggplant with potatoes.  I think this switch made the white condiment feel more like sour cream and taste like a garlic aioli which goes great on any type of carb, be it pita or French fry.  As for my main dish, I passed over the tried and true favorites in my mind and took a dive into the great unknown with the mnazeleh ($10).  When it came out, I didn’t know what to think.  IMG_5655It wasn’t as sexy as the spreads I had before, but it looked more like an over spiced pile of onions and tomatoes.  The colors weren’t as bright either.  However, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover.  It came with a more vibrant, complimentary side of rice that was moist and lightly seasoned that I subsequently folded into the main meal.  IMG_5654What I ended up experiencing was one of the best Middle Eastern dishes I’ve eaten.  The eggplant base that upheld the tomato, onion, and beef hodgepodge was super tender to the point of disintegrating faster than Subway’s ties with Jared and was infused with the beefy goodness residing above.  The addition of the rice gave it a lot more body, and I would suggest changing the recipe to include the rice.  I recommend this plate if you’re looking for something uniquely Syrian and full of flavor.  By the end of my meal, I thought I couldn’t fit anymore, but I had to try their baklava ($2.80).  This dessert’s history is as multilayered as its filo dough.  Different countries throughout the eastern Mediterranean claim it as their own invention, but there is no definitive answer for a dessert that is as old as time.  Some scholars believe it comes from the Mongols since it might derive from the root “bayla-” meaning “to pile up”, but the “-va” ending suggests a Persian origin.  The oldest recipe, dating back to the second century B.C., of anything resembling this sweet treat is the Roman placenta cake.  You might be thinking, “Ugh!  They made cake out of placenta?!!!  Vomitrocious!”  Au contraire, mon frere.  The word “placenta” derives from the Greek word “plakous” which related to layered breads and was then transferred into Latin as “placenta” as a word meaning “cake”.  However, the Roman version had cheese, honey, and bay leaves between each layer or “tracta” instead of the nuts we use now.  The modern version of baklava is thought to have derived from Istanbul during the reign of the Ottomans where the sultan would present his elite guard, the Janissaries, with trays of baklava on the 15th day of Ramadan in a procession complete with pomp and circumstance.  At Pita Pita Grill, I was neither a Christian mercenary nor served with any great ceremony.

Cue drooling...now!

Cue drooling…now!

The baklava was dripping with honey with every forkful, but I think it was a bit too thick for its own good.  It had plenty of chopped nuts throughout the flaky dough layers, but it made it extremely frustrating to cut with a fork.  I’d prefer if it was served in smaller, easier to eat squares.  I did get a ton of baklava for the price though, and I recommend it to anyone.  Just be prepared to use some elbow grease to keep it on the plate.

So, if you’re looking for a “diamond in the rough” restaurant that is no frills in terms of presentation, go to Pita Pita Grill and discover a whole new world of delicious, Syrian food!

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Do the Deaux

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Bonjour, y’all!  Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is extra dirty and deep fried since I’m going to be talking about some of the most Southern cuisine there is in the United States:  Cajun cuisine.  Most people think of Mardi Gras or Hurricane Katrina when they hear anything to do with the state of Louisana, but the reality is that it is also home to one of the most unique cultures in our great nation.  The Cajun people are descendants of the Acadian (French colonists) settlers in Canada who were deported by the British in the mid-1700s en masse to the then unknown lands to the south including the original 13 colonies, i.e. America in utero.  If these French colonists weren’t imprisoned, killed, or passed away from diseases before or after the expulsion, they found themselves migrating to new and foreign places like the territory of Louisiana.  At that time, it was considered part of the Kingdom of Spain, and the Acadian refugees were welcomed by the Spanish government due to the French and Spanish governmental and Catholic links.  This new rapport led to the Acadians becoming the largest ethnic group in Louisiana, and their name slowly evolved from “Acadian” to “Cadien” to eventually “Cajun”.  With a new name for their culture, their Cajun French (however strange sounding it may be at times) and food became two pillars of local pride for these new settlers and still are going strong today.

Modern day Acadians

Modern day Acadians

Acadian food had to adapt to the new environments they found themselves in since it was a lot hotter than old frosty Canada, and the local flora and fauna were extremely different, especially in the bayou regions.  Therefore, they adapted their tastes to create dishes that emphasize the use of pork and shrimp for proteins, flavorful spices, and the “holy trinity” of green peppers, onions, and celery.  However, with the rise of New Orleans as the biggest and most important city of Louisiana also came the rise of creole cuisine.  While some may use them interchangeably, creole cuisine is more varied in ingredients and reflect the more cosmopolitan nature of the city versus the more rustic Cajun fare.  For example, a key difference is that creole cuisine uses tomatoes while Cajun dishes do not.  With the rise of celebrity chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse in the latter half of the 20th Century,

The man. The myth. The legend.

The man. The myth. The legend.

there came a regeneration of Cajun and creole cuisine that was spicier and adapted for modern tastes as the food spread out across the USA.  Enter Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.

I had never been to this local restaurant, but one of my good friends worked there and said I should try the food.  I’m not a huge seafood fan (I’m more of a land animal lover), but Janice and I ended up going here on a double date since my friend David picked it.  The restaurant itself is like a typical seafood restaurant with a large, wraparound bar to greet you in case you wanted to eat some fish or drink like one.  We were more in the mood for a bite to eat, so we met up with David and Vivian who were waiting for us.  Looking over the menu, I could see that they definitely were trying to stay true to the Cajun and creole cuisine staples along with including more general American surf and turf options.  Price-wise, it’s not the cheapest eatery in town but reasonable for a seafood restaurant like in the $20-30 range for an entree.  We decided to focus more on the Big Easy specialties starting with our appetizers.  We got the shrimp and crawfish fondue and the crispy fried alligator. IMG_5648  The fondue was definitely worth it since it was warm, gooey, and filled with plenty of shrimp and crawfish chunks.  IMG_5651The crawfish/crayfish/crawdad/ecrevisse in Cajun French wasn’t really noticeable in this dish given that they often have a slightly muddy flavor given they live and eat whatever they can find in the muck at the bottom of streams.  Hence why some call them “mudbugs”.  The garlic bread isn’t very Cajun, but it mixes well with the creamy melted cheese.  What more could you ask for in an appetizer?  Oh wait, fried goodness!  That’s the last box that the alligator checked off.  Since the Acadians settled in the swampy bayous of Louisiana, obviously they needed to find protein sources.  Therefore, it only seemed natural they would try and find a way to eat the large and plentiful alligators prowling the waters.  At Pappadeaux it wasn’t like they were plucking them out of the water right outside the door, but they do promise the highest quality of alligator meat on their website.  It was served to us on a platter with a side of fried potato sticks and dipping sauce.  I would liken it to a plate of popcorn chicken with a dirty South twist.  The meat wasn’t exactly like chicken, but it did have a similar density and similar, but not identical, flavor.  The breading had a subtle, spicy hint to it with notes of paprika, and the dipping sauce had a thousand island/special sauce vibe going on.  Once we took down those tasty treats, I ordered my shrimp étouffée.  Before it came out, I got a complimentary cup of their gumbo.  This dish’s name originates from either the West African word for okra “ki ngombo” or the Native American Choctaw word for sassafras leaves “kombo“.  The reason why the name is linked to these plants is because this state dish of Louisiana is classified as African, Native American, or French depending on the thickening ingredient.  The first two were already defined with okra and sassafrass while French creole cooks used flour and fat to thicken their gumbos.  This was a lip-smacking good taster of Louisiana.IMG_5649  From the spicy andouille sausage to the rich brown base, chopped veggies, and shrimp,IMG_5650this small bowl could do no wrong.  I couldn’t wait for my étouffée to arrive.  Étouffée comes from the French verb “étoufféer” meaning “to smother” or “to suffocate”, and I could see that most of the ingredients in this creole dish were covered in the brown roux sauce. IMG_5652 Mixing the rice together with the rest of the dish made it resemble the fusion feijoada I had at Vermilion during Restaurant Week.  It showed the mixing of different cultures like with the use of rice from Spanish and African dishes, the local shrimp from the Cajun country, and the French sauce and spices.  It wasn’t a spicy entree, contrary to popular believe about creole and Cajun cooking, and it was the perfect dish for a cold night like when we visited Pappadeaux.  I really enjoyed the amount and quality of shrimp in this dish since they weren’t too chewy or undercooked.  Plus, the rice gave the étouffée the body to be filling but not too much so.  I always love meals that involve mixing meat and rice together, so it was a match made in Cajun heaven for me.  My fellow diners also seemed pretty pleased with their choices.

So if you don’t have enough money to take a trip down to NOLA, get yourself on down to Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen!  Seaing is believe, hear?
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Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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A Place Drinkers Hold Beer

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Markets have been around since the beginning of establish civilizations.  They are meeting places where people from all corners of the earth can come to exchange goods, news, and ideas.  These markets can take many forms.  There are traditional ones that still exist today like supermarkets or farmer’s markets, or the advent of the internet has led to the rise of the all powerful online marketplace.  Along with markets, alcohol has been the cornerstone of most nation states throughout history.  Whether that be airag, the milky spirt sipped on by one Ghengis Khan, or the wine that filled the goblets of the Caesars throughout the history of the Roman Empire, alcohol has been a double edged sword that has existed for man’s pleasure or survival in the case of areas where watersheds were too polluted to drink from.  Given all of this information, it would only seem natural to place both of these concepts together into a market that sells beer or today’s restaurant:  Beer Market.

They have many different locations throughout the Chicagoland area, but my parents and I visited the franchise branch in Bolingbrook’s Promenade shopping center.IMG_5617  It wasn’t too busy when we walked in since we eat dinner earlier than the average bear or bird in this context. IMG_5613 It was like any other modern American gastropub with exposed brick, dark accents, wooden chairs, and random neon beer signs.  We sat down and were greeted with a monstrous beer menu.  As I leafed through the 25 pages of beers, I was overwhelmed with making a selection.  However, once I was finished reading the tome, I settled for a kolsch to go along with my bratwurst entree.  What better than a German beer to accompany a German meal?  My mom got the cole slaw burger which I had a natural aversion to since it was carrying the stepchild of potato salad in my eyes when it comes to picnic side dishes.  When all of it came out, it didn’t look like the most appetizing meal in the world, but I’d let the flavors do the talking.  Kolsch or Kölsch beer is a German beer that was invented in Cologne in English or Köln, hence Kölsch.  It is a light yellow, pale ale which is quite rare in the land of lagers, but thankfully the hops are not over the top.  Instead, it has a bit more body than your average lager and a more floral/fruity quality to it.  Definitely more of a summer beer if you’re looking for something light and crisp.  It paired very well with my bratwurst.  The word bratwurst comes from the German words “brät” or “finely chopped meat” and “wurst” or “sausage”.   They were actually made popular throughout the USA compliments of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise where even today brats still outsell hot dogs.  Beer Market’s take on the bratwurst had slight riffs on the original sausage.  IMG_5614First, it was soaked in beer to give it even more flavor and seal in the juiciness.  Then, it was buried in a heap of grilled onions that were great, and the brown mustard had a kick to it that was an homage to another ballpark staple.  The sausage and onions were not served on your typical white bread bun or roll but a pretzel bun.  So, the pretzel-mustard-brat combo in short was a home run.  My mom’s cole slaw burger seemed ok presentation-wise, but she wasn’t too satisfied overall.IMG_5616IMG_5615  She said it was average at best, so I think you should check out their other menu items.  So if you’re a beer lover or are looking for a more upscale, solid but not spectacular bar and eatery than the dive on the corner, then check out Beer Market.
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Great Blogs of Fire: Xxxtra Hot Habañero Sauce

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Summer is in full swing as we’re finally in August, and what better to spice up the summer than a fresh hot sauce blog post on Mastication Monologues?  So, today’s entry comes from the Tropical Pepper Company who manufactures their sauces in the wonderful land of Costa Rica.  Although, Costa Rican cuisine isn’t too spicy, the land is ideal for growing the peppers needed to make their signature sauces.  Check out my post here where I reviewed their hazardous ghost pepper sauce.  While the habañero pepper doesn’t come close in spice to the all mighty bhut jolokia, it still does pack a punch like in today’s Xxxtra hot habañero pepper sauce.  First, there is the bottle. IMG_7286 Instead of the toucan being a skeleton like on the ghost pepper sauce, it is much more inviting with some of the peppers you are about to consume in his colorful beak.  Then there is the back of the bottle which is a bit bombastic in hyping up this condiment, but it still ranks as an “ouch” on their heat scale.IMG_7327  Knowing the potency of the first sauce I bought from the Tropical Pepper Company, I preceded with caution when I popped the top to try it out.  What I found was one of the best hot sauces I’ve tried.  The sauce’s color was red with a hint of orange and punctuated with white/yellow pepper seeds floating throughout the mixture.  IMG_7328Plus, it was noticeably thicker than its ghostly predecessor which became apparent when I had to put a bit of elbow grease to get the sauce out of the bottle a la Heinz ketchup.  The ghost pepper salsa, on the other hand, is a super watery, burgundy solution of doom.  I didn’t get the hint of any sort of gastrointestinal foreboding from the habañero sauce.  Luckily, the bark was like the bite:  pleasant.  Mind you, I have higher tolerance for spicier foods, so if you’re not used to eating fiery meals, don’t dive headfirst into this pool party.  However, I found it to be an interesting mix of elements.  From the outset, it had a kick of spice with a vinegar-fueled tang but with super subtle sweet notes that I think might be attributed to the use of pineapples in the recipe.  The spice quickly ebbed to a more understated, slow burn on my tongue as I ate more of it and got used to its smooth flavor.

Final Score

Flavor:  9/10
Spice:  6/10
Overall:  7.5/10       It’s a spicy, but not too spicy sauce compared to the hype job its packaging does for it.  Thankfully, it doesn’t let the                                    spice overwhelm its flavorful self.  Recommend this sauce for wings or perhaps tacos.

We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

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Wepa!! That was my reaction when I visited my first Puerto Rican restaurant.  If you don’t know what that means, “wepa” is a common exclamation in the Puerto Rican community to signify happiness or a way to encourage someone.

Basically "Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream 'wepa'"

Basically “Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream ‘wepa'”

I didn’t need any encouraging when I walked through the doors of hidden Chicago gem, Cafe Central.

I’ve had my fair share of comida latina that has ranged from Colombian to Cuban, but I had never tried the food from what many consider the United States’ 51st state.  If you’re unaware of this connection, let me drop a bit of historical knowledge.  Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe who called it Borikén which eventually was transformed into Borinquen in Spanish when Colombus and later Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish run cities.  With the Europeans came the colonization of the island and importation of slaves from Africa.  This system continued up until the late 1890s until the USA beat Spain in the Spanish American War which led to the USA claiming Puerto Rico as a United States territory which has continued to today.IMG_6706  What that means is that all Puerto Ricans from the island are US citizens, but it has also resulted in increased Puerto Rican migration to urban centers on the US mainland like Chicago and NYC, especially.  In Chicago, the hub of all things boricua (Puerto Rican in modern Spanish) is typically Humboldt Park minus the current trend of the usual gentrification. larger However, this symbol of Chicago Puerto Rican roots is still going strong in the West Town neighborhood just west of Humboldt Park.  It was established back in 1952 a bit further south but relocated to its present location in the mid-1960s.  It still exists today as a representative of Puerto Rican culture in diner form.  The exterior doesn’t look like much, and the interior is just as simple but comfortable.IMG_6720IMG_6719  We beat the lunch crowd around 11:30, and the meal started with some fresh bread that seemed to be of the French variety with a magical sauce on the side.  Although Janice and I thought that this verdant food of the gods tasted like the Argentinian steakhouse staple chimichurri sauce, we were misteaken (pun intended!).IMG_6703  Instead, it was Puerto Rican sofrito, a mixture of recao (cilantro), sweet garlic, olive oil, and mild peppers.  It was an oily, herbal, yet garlicky and chunky spread that was wonderful with the fresh bread.  I washed it down with a cool Malta India which is a carbonated barley, hops, and water drink which is like a non-alcoholic beer combined with a root beer with a Caribbean twist.  IMG_6701It has a very distinctive taste, but I would recommend this unique Puerto Rican beverage.  It was similar to its Cuban counterpart I tried when down in Florida.  Then we started the meal for realz.  We looked over the menu, and I could see all of what makes Puerto Ricans I’ve met so proud of their culinary culture.  Pork, rice, and beans are the name of the game for the most part, but there are also sandwiches and caldos or soups to sample.  We started off with the ground pork empanada and two plates of mofongo ($3.60 each).  Empanadas are like your typical stuffed savory pastry, but the ones at Cafe Central are sin igual. IMG_6707 They have less thick pastry dough compared to other varieties I’ve tried and more like thin, crispy dough that was all killer and no filler when it came to the amount of seasoned meat you got.  IMG_6708Then there was mofongo.  I had only heard about it from my dad quoting Sandford and Son or from Puerto Ricans I’ve worked with in the past, but I can see why they loved it so much.  It is a symbol of the African influence on Puerto Rican cuisine as it comes from the West African staple fufu which is a mash of starchy vegetables.  In this case, its a ball of mashed plantains stuffed with pieces of chicarrón or garlic pork rinds. IMG_6709 It’s basically a ball of mashed sweet yet savory starch where we’d occasionally stumble upon a chewy yet crunchy nugget of glory. IMG_6711 Highly recommend this piece of the island.  IMG_6710It’ll feel like you ate a mini-cannonball though, so save room!  As if that wasn’t enough, we then had our main entrees.  Janice ended up getting the house specialty which is off the menu:  el lechón or roast pork ($10).  I can see why they keep it off the menu because they’d be serving nothing but this gigantic plate of soul warming food. IMG_6712 First, the strands of Monte Puerco were super tender and melted in your mouth but also had a hint of a salt and pepper rub to make it just that much more flavorful. IMG_6713 Not bad for an homage to the national dish of the island.  On the side, it was a Puertorriqueño parade on the plate with el arróz con gandules y habichuelas or rice with peas and beans.  Naturally, there were some tiny pork chunks in the rice which pepped up the rice a bit, but the rice itself was super rich with flavor. IMG_6714 The beans were also different than the refried beans in Mexican cuisine, and I liked them a lot better because they were stewed in a pork stock and were light.  As for me, I got the roast pork jibarito ($7.95).  This super Puerto Rican sandwich, meaning “little yokel” in Spanish, was actually introduced to Chicago straight from the Caribbean back in 1996 at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park.  I’ve always wanted to try this Puerto Rican iconic meal because it combines my love for quirky food and sandwiches.  Think of your typical bread based sandwich, but then take out the slices and replace them with flattened and fried plantains.  IMG_6715Then insert lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, American cheese (Thanks, Tio Sam), and your choice of meat.  I did like the locals and got, you guessed it, the roast pork.  When in San Juan! (or is it Chicago?)IMG_6716 It looked great, but I didn’t know where to start out of fear of this seemingly delicate work of street art would disappear in my clumsy grasp.  It was actually quite the opposite.  The fried plantains were surprisingly sturdy under pressure from one hungry hungry hippo, i.e. me, and the flavor was out of control.  Basically, take the lechón and combine it with the sweetness of the mofongo and the savory elements of the mayo and cooked onions. IMG_6718 Plus, the texture transitions from the crunch of the plantain to the soft pork, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomatoes blew my mind since they were in quintessential harmony.  If there’s one plate I’d recommend, it would be this.  Even over the lechón I just promoted.  By the end, we were in peak food coma mode.  If only we could then retreat to a cabana in Limón to nap the rest of the day away.  Unfortunately, our food adventure ended there, but we were extremely satisfied.

I can’t emphasize the greatness that is Cafe Central.  It’s a lot of delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food served in huge portions for a reasonable price.  What more could you ask for in a restaurant?  Absolutamente nada.  Buen provecho!
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