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Laissez Les Bons Boefs Roulez!

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Beef.  The quintessential meat.  Hearty and filling, it can be found throughout many different cuisines served in very different forms.  If you visit Chicago, you can sample some of the best steaks in the country.  We used to be the butcher for the world with the Union Stockyards, but they have gone the way of smoking on airplanes and pay phones.

So.  much.  beef.

So. much. beef.

 

The Union stockyard gate then...

The Union stockyard gate then…

and now

and now

Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great porterhouse or t-bone.  If you’re not in the mood to drop some major paper on some of that red stuff, there are cheaper alternatives.  Enter another Chicago institution:  the Italian beef sandwich.  While other US cities have sandwiches that could be considered distant cousins to this hearty and humble meal like Philly’s cheesesteak or Pittsburgh’s Tommy DiNic’s Italian pork sandwich, the Chicago version is the best, I think.  In fact, it is so popular here that there are many restaurants that claim to have the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Today’s restaurant review revolves around one of the biggest names in the beef biz:  Mr. Beef.

Two of the biggest names in the city are Al’s Beef located in the Little Italy neighborhood and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the River North neighborhood.  Their rivalry is so notorious that it was featured on Travel Channel’s Food Wars.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I disagree who the real winner is.  Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, an Italian beef sandwich is one of those “must”s for Chicago tourists to try.  It’s in the holy trinity of a Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and the holy beef sandwich.  It arose from the Italian immigrant community’s need to make the meat last longer, so they sliced it thin, stewed it with spices, and slapped the tender meat on a fresh roll.  Thus, the Italian beef sandwich was born.  While I was working at a Mexican university that was located right next to the restaurant, I knew I had to pop over to try it since I’ve walked past it a million times but never tried their sandwiches. IMG_4930IMG_4931 So, I finally fulfilled my vow, and walked in to see a shop that is similar to other Italian delis with lots of pictures on the wall and a deli counter at one end with no fancy decorations. IMG_4932 Scanning the menu, I saw the beef sandwich I wanted, but it was 7 bucks.  I couldn’t believe how expensive it was compared to their competitors, so I was expecting this sandwich to justify the price tag.  I got it spicy which means that I got giardiniera on top.  I think giardiniera is also a Chicago thing since it comes from the Italian community also and consists of a mix of pickled vegetables and chili peppers in olive oil.  However, you can get it mild with cooked bell peppers or with no peppers at all.  Then there’s the juice factor.  You can get it dry or juicy, i.e. dipped in the same herb tinged broth the beef soaks in.  I always get mine juicy since it adds more flavor to savor, but you can get it dry to enjoy the freshness of the bread and the delicious beef.  After the brusque cashier took down my order, they set to making my sandwich.  As I was looking at the menu I saw they had other typical fast food staples like burgers, hot dogs, and sides like fries and onion rings.  Eventually, I finally got my sandwich and was ready to see what all the hubbub was about.  I got a seat in the back room at one of the super long tables you share with your fellow diners.  Once I opened up my wrapped up treasure, it looked mouth-watering. IMG_4995 From the bright verdant giardiniera to the fresh bread, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into dat beef.  The first bite was quite satisfying with a good ratio of bread to meat, but it lacked that spicy flair that comes with other dipped Italian beef sammiches.  The beef was tender and flavorful, but the giardiniera left something to be desired.  While other Italian eateries have a generous blend of veggies, I wasn’t a fan of the mainly celery based mix atop my meal.  It wasn’t as fiery as other spicy sandwiches which made it lose points, but it was innovative in the sense that the giardiniera was extremely crunchy to provide a bit of different texture to the mainly chewy sandwich.

So in the end, would I say Mr. Beef is the be-all, end all of Italian beef in Chi-town?  I’d say no.  It lacks the ingredient complexity of their competitors, and the relatively expensive price tag took it down a couple notches in my book.  However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try this fixture on the Chicago food scene.  It’s just a different take on a hometown classic, so maybe it will be better for you than for me.  Happy hunting!
Mr. Beef on Urbanspoon

Good But Not Gr8

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Welcome to Mastication Monologues!  If this is your first time here, prepare to be amazed with some of the most unique and delicious food adventures you’ve ever seen.  If you’re coming back, then thank you so much for your support and your views.  Remember to always tell your friends about my reviews as well.  So, today’s post deals with a cuisine that I never really dabbled seriously in until recently:  Vietnamese food.  For a majority of my life, I ate mostly Chinese or Japanese food, but then I started dating my lovely gf Janice who just so happened to live next to Little Vietnam in Chicago.  Therefore, the amount of Vietnamese restaurants I have tried now have increased greatly, and Pho 888 is one of them.

If you walk down Argyle street, you’ll be beckoned by every storefront since there is a plethora of Vietnamese eateries and Chinese bakeries like the iconic Tank Noodle shop or Bale Sandwiches, but I wanted to try Pho 888 since I had heard good things about it.  Plus, it didn’t seem as Hollywood as the more popular eateries.IMG_6026 Janice, Michael, and I hit this place up back in December a.k.a. life in the Ice Age.  So, they both wanted to get the quintessential Vietnamese dish, pho, but I was in the mood for something different.  Inside, the place was super simply furnished with plenty of chili sauces and seasonings on the table.  It’s literally a dining room and a kitchen.IMG_4917 The menu was huge like any good Asian restaurant, and the prices were pretty cheap (range of 4-12 bucks per item). IMG_4916 After a bit of deliberation, we made our choices and waited for the food to come out.  The first dish we sampled were the gỏi cuốn or “salad rolls” in English.  They consisted of bún (vermicelli noodles), cooked shrimp, herbs, greens, and it was all wrapped up in bánh tráng (rice paper). IMG_4918 These rolls were served at room temperature and were a refreshing alternative to fried spring rolls that sometimes can be too greasy.  The tương xào (hoisin sauce) that was served on the side had peanut pieces in it, but all of it put together was delectable.  The sticky rice paper was strong enough to hold all of the ingredients within its insanely thin cocoon.  Everything from the shrimp to the fresh cilantro and lemongrass made this dish really pop, and dipping the rolls in the sweet hoisin sauce blended well with the herbal notes from the vegetables.  As for the vermicelli, it provided a much needed body to the rolls and a solid foundation for the house party that was happening in my mouth.  The other appetizer we got, the fried shrimp balls, were quite the opposite experience. IMG_4920 While they looked scrumptious on the outside with their golden brown exteriors with an accompaniment of greens, pickled radish, and some sweet and sour dipping sauce on the side, what we found inside was horrifyingly gross.  IMG_4922I don’t know what was inside them, but it was like eating pre-chewed eggs mixed with seafood with the consistency of cream cheese.  I’ll just leave you with that image.   On the plus side, my main course came out soon thereafter I tasted one of these horrid appetizers.  I got the chả tôm (shrimp cake) and pork combo that was paired with more noodles, greens, pickled radish and carrot salad, fresh cucumbers, rice paper, and a bowl of warm water to make my own gỏi cuốn.  IMG_4923I tried a bit of the shrimp cake, but I really didn’t like it.  It was more fishy tasting than the fresh shrimp from the salad rolls we ate earlier in the meal, and it just seemed oddly artificial with its orange, spongy, Nerf-like interior yet wrinkled, glistening exterior.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

 

That cake ain't right

That cake ain’t right

So, I focused more on eating the seasoned pork that was stir fried in a chili sauce that had plenty of personality to make up for the awkward shrimp cakes on my plate.  So, I set to making my first Vietnamese spring roll.  First, I had to take one of the rice paper disks and submerge it in the warm water.IMG_4924  Once wet, I placed it on my plate, and I placed my ingredients in the middle of the nearly invisible Vietnamese version of a tortilla.IMG_4927  Then came the tricky part.  Rolling this rice paper up into a presentable roll was way more difficult than making a taco since the edges of the rice paper were incredibly sticky which meant that if you didn’t position your toppings right while rolling, then you risked a lopsided roll that will explode all over your hands/clothes when you bite into it.  After some trial and error, I finally got the hang of it, and it was an interactive meal that I really enjoyed.  As for Michael’s and Janice’s pho, I found it to be just below Tank Noodle’s version since it seemed to be a bit more on the salty side, but it still was delicious and kept us warm against the frigid conditions outside.

So if you’re looking for a real authentic Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago that may not be the best but does have simple and fresh food for reasonable prices, check out Pho 888.
Pho 888 on Urbanspoon

A Deli For a Happy Belly

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Ah college…an idyllic time where you can enjoy every social opportunity there is for an 18-22 year old while hopefully gaining an education.  On any college campus in America, minus the dry campuses, there is always a main street where most students go to shop, eat, and get their drink on.  The last two are especially important given that nothing is better than having a great night out on the town and more importantly, getting some precious food to fill your food before, during, and/or after the shenanigans.  This past fall, I went for the first time to the Indiana University with my girlfriend and her friends, and experienced everything their campus had to offer.  I had always heard good things about Bloomington, Indiana (hard to believe given it’s in Indiana), but I never had been there.  Plus, I went to the University of Illinois at Chambana, so our schools aren’t the best of neighbors.  However, I ended up having a fantastic weekend filled with fun, friends, and especially food.

We kicked off Friday night with exploring the downtown area and visiting a popular bar called Nick’s. IMG_4606 Apparently they’re famous for a drinking game called Sink the Biz, or as I’ve always known it from U of Illinois, depth charge.  Basically, you try not to sink the shotglass while pouring beer into it.

So tense!

The guys behind us were captivated.

Loser has to drink per usual.  Things got really rowdy when Captain Morgan showed up, but we were more into the prompt service and the good bar food like the cheese sticks, fries, and burgers.  Old people priorities, woooooo!  After that, we moved on to the Upstairs Bar where the party really jumped off.  First, there were these drinks called AMFs or Adios Mofos to keep it clean, and after tasting one I can see where the name comes from. IMG_4648 Take down one or two, and you might as well kiss your last functioning neurons goodbye.  If you like to dance, this was the place to be especially when Michael Jackson’s Hold Me from the classic film Free Willy came on.  It was a spiritual experience to say the least.  The rest of the night was pretty fun, but the following morning was even better.

The highlight (one of many) for our visit was the tailgate before the football game.  For the uninitiated, like myself back then, I wasn’t sure what tailgating consisted of.  Turns out it was the biggest food and drink fest of all time, but with the unpredictability of the elements thrown in.  What that meant was while we were freezing outside, we huddled around the Weber grill for warmth as bbq master Cam was slinging burgers at us.IMG_4654  We also were enjoying plenty of adult beverages, making new friends,

Ruby the dog is so popular

Ruby the dog is so popular

ruining old friendships over drinking games,

Something's afoot, but Janice is having too much fun.

Nobody but Janice is having fun.

and getting on Buzzfeed (Check number 15).  Nbd.  Eventually we made it to the football game, and it was about as dismal as the weather. IMG_4614 It was so depressing that one of our friends, Amanda, basically led a mass exodus of fans out of the stadium after loudly voicing her displeasure at a terrible throw and a missed catch.  We thought about going out, but after 10 hours of straight raging, we decided to call it a night.  The following morning, however, we nursed our hangovers with a little something the girls kept calling VD.  Now, that’s something people normally try to stay away from, but in Bloomington, VD or Village Deli is the place to be on a Sunday morning. IMG_4622 Recently it suffered a terrible fire, but thankfully it was repaired and back in business.  I enjoyed their funky fresh paint scheme with their psychedelic paintings on the wall of celebrities, and the food looked delicious as we walked pass the packed tables.  Their menu was simple but filled with great options for pancakes, omelets, and scramblers.  They are known for their Famous, Collosal, Huge, Ginormous, Fresh Buttermilk Pancakes, so that is exactly what I got ($4.50).  You can also add up to three toppings including fresh fruit, walnuts, peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, granola, or cinnamon roll.  That last one greatly intrigued me, so I plumped for just that to see what these from scratch big boys would look like.  What came out was just as large as they were talking about. IMG_4621 They were literally bigger than my face and coated with cinnamon, sugar, and icing.IMG_4620  I seem to have a penchant for ordering large breadstuffs for breakfast.  I quickly got down to business since I was starving, and they were some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had.  I could tell they were made from scratch with the fluffiness of each bite coated in that sweet and slightly savory cinnamon sugar melange.  It was kicked up a notch in the diabetes column with the cinnamon roll icing, but I was back in college for a weekend.  Nothing like letting the hair down a little.  My compadres’ meals looked equally delish, but I highly recommend getting there early if you want a table and not have to wait in line for half an hour or more.  It was a satisfying end to an entertaining weekend with new friends.

Job well done, team!

Job well done, team!

To finish, I would highly recommend visiting U of Indiana and the Village Deli if you’re looking for good times and great food with even better prices.  IMG_4651

Village Deli on Urbanspoon

Some Really Mean Cuisine

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Ah, Spring!  You have been nothing but cryptic so far in Chicago.  You have teased us with near bearable temperatures only to blindside the city with waves of freezing rain, snow, and chilly winds.  While the weather might get you down, you definitely should hit up one of the top dim sum places I have ever ate at, including America, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  The name of this wonderful eatery is MingHin Cuisine.  My girlfriend had been there before and had nothing but great things to say about it.  It is located in the New Chinatown on the northside of Cermak Road right next to the famous Lao Sze Chuan.IMG_5718

When I arrived before Janice, I was greeted with a horde of anxious diners waiting for a table in the bustling main rooms or the side tea room that is devoted solely to the warm brews.  IMG_5719So, I put our name in and got a post it with a number on it.  It’s a simple but functional system they have for alerting customers when their tables are ready.  You have to try and hear your number on the Post-It note being shouted out first in Chinese and then in English above the din of the restaurant.  Eventually, they yelled out my number, and they quickly seated me. IMG_5743 They offered me a selection of teas to sample while I was waiting, so I plumped for a pot of chrysanthemum tea.  Janice took a seat opposite me soon thereafter, and we sipped on the tea that oddly looked like urine.  IMG_5721Thankfully, there was no trick to be had there, but it wasn’t Janice’s cup of tea.  I found it to be quite interesting with its earthy and highly herbal personality, but a bit more intense than the green or black teas I’m used to.  While the tea was warming our bellies, we looked over the two different menus on the table. IMG_5720 One consisted of the dim sum options we could pick from while the other menu was more focused on barbecue.  After much intense deliberation and taking into account Janice’s recommendations from her previous visits, we made our choices.  IMG_5737

The first dishes that came out were from the barbecue menu.  We tried the barbecued spare ribs and the crispy Macau style pork belly ($5.95 each).  Both were fantastic. IMG_5725 The honey spare ribs were lip-smacking good minus the bones, but the taste was similar to Korean kalbi ribs with a soy marinade that was both sweet with a little salt mixed in.  Then there was the pork belly. IMG_5728 Talk about a contrast of flavors and textures.  The top of the meat had a thin yet crunchy skin of sugar and perhaps a bit of cinnamon that was the perfect compliment to the multi-layered and uber-tender and juicy pork.  IMG_5731These nuggets came with a side bowl of sugar to dip them in, but I found it to be a bit excessive.  We also had a side of fried sticky rice, but I was not impressed at all by this bland and flavorless pick.  We moved on from the meaty opening salvo to more traditional dim sum options like the barbecue pork buns, fried sesame balls, siu mai, shrimp egg rolls, and chao zhou dumplings. IMG_5741 All of the dim sum plates are priced based on size with small ($3.15), medium ($3.85), large ($4.25), and special ($5.50).  I won’t go into tons of detail with most these plates since I’ve tried these a million times over.  I did love my bbq pork buns because they were fluffy and filled with that sweet sweet char siu style pork.  As for the sesame balls, the ones at MingHin are my new favorite ones because they aren’t filled with my old enemy of the Far East:  red bean paste. IMG_5733 Instead, they are filled with a more neutral and less obnoxious white bean paste.  What I found out at a later visit is that if you get the giant fried sesame ball, they just give you fried slices of the chewy rice paste that is coated with plenty of savory sesame seeds and no beans to be found.  Another stand out in this meal were the chao zhou dumplings I ordered.  They were filled with pork, but two huge surprises were the crunchy peanuts and the slightly spicy kick with each dumpling.  Another great pick were the shrimp egg rolls. IMG_5739 They were slightly addicting with their crunchy, golden-brown exteriors that were light and not greasy at all with plenty of shrimp inside.  While all of these choices were quite standard, I knew I had to try something new, something slightly frightening to those who are happy to stick with the tried and true favorites.  Enter the pork knuckle and lotus root. IMG_5734 When it was placed in front of me, it looked intimidating, but I’m not one to back down from a culinary challenge.  I picked up a piece of the burgundy flesh, and it was oddly soft.IMG_5742  It was like eating ginger-flavored jelly.IMG_5735  It was slightly unsettling but not terrible once I got used to it.  I also tried one of the lotus roots as well, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I’m glad I tried it, but I won’t get it again.  I’ll just stick to chicken feet.  By the end of the meal, we were quite happy with the food we got and for the reasonable price.

So, if you’re looking for a new and high quality dim sum eatery, check out MingHin Cuisine!  It’s a small slice of culinary amid the jungle of restaurants, and it’s fun for the whole family!  Afterward, you can check out everything Chinatown has to offer including their square of zodiac signs among many other sights.

Tame rabbits love it

Tame rabbits love it

And wild tigers love it too!

And wild tigers love it too!

MingHin Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Topolobampo: One Bday at a Time

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I try to try as many different meals as possible while educating the reader about new cultures or the origins of popular foods.  One of the most diverse food scenes out there is Mexican cuisine.  You can go all over the USA and find some form of taco, burrito, or nachos at least even though some interpretations of these meals (especially nachos) might not be seen south of the border.  However, there has been an evolution of Mexican food as of late where different Asian cuisines have been blended to create new and crazy creations like Korean inspired bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos.  On the other hand, one of the biggest names in Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, has been trying to get to the heart of simple Mexican food after decades of living, tasting, and drinking everything from Juarez to Jalisco.  Janice and I met him during Taste Talks of Chicago where he talked about the constant evolution of food, and how meals bring people together from different backgrounds or may make them more in touch with their heritage.  How does Rick manage to do this?  At his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, they serve a rotating menu that draws on Mexico’s culinary history starting in the pre-Colombian era and ending in modern Mexican fusion along with different specialty dishes from all corners of Mexico.  I had the pleasure of paying Topolobampo a visit for my birthday last year with my lovely girlfriend, so I apologize for the delay for this mouth-watering post.

The front of the restaurant consisted of two different restaurants but both owned by Mr. Bayless.  IMG_4981It was slightly confusing trying to find the entrance because we couldn’t see a clear door for either restaurant, but it turns out they shared a common door.  Upon walking in, we were in the lobby for Frontera, the cheaper and more boisterous of the two restaurants.  We walked through the hallway past the strains of musica ranchera to the more demure Topolobampo dining room.  Instead of lots of kitchy Mexican bric a brac on the walls a la Frontera Grill, there were more oil paintings and softer music.IMG_4978  I’d also recommend putting on nicer clothes since its a classy kind of joint.01df7509f997342c67799f4f76e06f709f9e61dfc8  I could hardly contain my excitement as I looked over the menu, but we started off with some drinks.  There weren’t any prices for the food items, but there are for the drinks.  So, it seems they operate on the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” train of thought.  Janice went with a classic glass of red wine that ended up being as big as her head, and I got a mezcal margarita ($12.50).IMG_4964  Mezcal has become more popular with the rise of tequila, but still isn’t very widespread.  It is distilled from the maguey agave plant which is so revered that the Aztecs called the fermented liquid the “elixir of the gods”.  Mezcal assumed its current form when Spaniards took the Aztec agave drink called “pulque” and found a distilling process to increase its alcohol content.  While in Mexico mezcal is consumed straight, I had it mixed with the Spanish Torres 10 year brandy, bitters, lemonade, and mezcal from the very home state in Mexico that started it all, Oaxaca.  It was shaken and served tableside with much pomp, and it was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted.unnamed (2)  It was super potent, but not too sweet. IMG_4957 The hight quality mezcal and Spanish brandy left my palate with a smooth caress with each sip, and there was no burning sensation when it was going down compared with some tequilas I’ve tried.  Once we got our drinks, we got to figuring out what food to order.  At Topolobampo, diners have the option of doing a three, five, or seven course tasting menu with the eaters choosing the dishes.  A fourth option is doing a “Perfect Seven” chef-chosen seven course meal.  We each went for a 5 course tasting menu since we were starving and ready to sample everything Chef Bayless had to offer.  We expected nothing less than magic after hearing him talk about his pre-Colombian menu where he made Mexican food with no beef, chicken, cilantro, lime, or even pork! Long story short, we were blown away.  Our meal started with an off-the-menu item that we got for free.  It was a tiny stack of radioactive pink disks resting in a similarly colored liquid.IMG_4959  Our waiter explained that it was pickled watermelon and radish topped with cayenne pepper.  It was cool, sour, yet slightly spicy that primed our tastebuds for what was next.  I got the sopa azteca (Aztec soup) that consisted of a medium heat pasilla pepper infused beef stock, incredibly tender chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips.IMG_4961  It was simple yet warmed my soul on that dark and cold night.  It kind of reminded me of a Mexican take on French onion soup.  Janice’s first plate was a surprise knockout in terms of flavor.  She got the Sand and Sea which was green ceviche on a bed of tortilla sand.  If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s basically a room temperature salad made of tomatoes, onions, some kind of whitefish, and lime juice.  In true Rick Bayless fashion, he turned this Mexican coastal favorite on its head with chunks of summer flounder, serrano chiles, lime, jicama, and avocados to give it that Hulk green hue.  01cb2a19792a28dad09df6f12d856abd8ce6b359a7Coming from someone who is not a huge fish person, I loved it, and Janice, a bigger fish lover than I, loved it as well.  It didn’t have that super “fishy” taste that might accompany some dishes; I’d liken it more to a lighter and thinner guacamole in terms of taste and texture.   Next up was my beautiful girlfriend’s sunchokes.  The name “sunchoke” was invented for this tuber that is kind of like a potato in terms of appearance in the 1960’s to revive the sales of this very old plant.  However, the sun part supposedly comes from the Italian name for it “girasole” or “sunflower” due to the similar yellow flowers that grew wherever sunchokes could be found.  As for the “choke” part, that came from famous French explorer Samuel Champlain sending back samples of the veggies to France from Canada and America noting a “taste like an artichoke”.unnamed (3)  They were served in a recado blanco sauce from the Yucatan peninsula, a.k.a. the home of the Maya and every high schoolers’ Spring Break plans.  It was a simple sauce that had some garlic, oregano, and some sweet spices to give it a semi-curry character with a guero chile mixed in to give it a vibrant yellow hue.  unnamed (5)Underneath them were resting fermented kohlrabi pieces which were basically pickled turnips.  It was both spicy yet savory and slightly sweet.  The cool slice of avocado on the side cut down the spice when necessary.  They were ok but not amazing in comparison to my second dish:  the carne asada in mole negro.  Now, a lot of people love the chocolatey, spicy sauce on their enchiladas, and much to my own surprise, I am not one of them.  I love chocolate in all forms, but I normally shy away from mixing sweet and savory items.  Topolobampo made me see the upside of this pre-Colombian sauce.  First, there were the firewood-roasted pieces of ribeye that were small but extremely lean, and these exemplary cuts of meat were surrounded by smoked green beans and a small tamal of chipilin herbs. unnamed (4) Mole comes from the Aztec word for “sauce”, and legend has it that a group of nuns threw a bunch of spices together with some chocolate to make sauce for the archbishop’s meal.  He loved it and wanted to know what it was.  One of the nun’s said, “I made a mole”, and thus the legend was born.  For once, I was like the archbishop in a divine state of being when eating this plate. unnamed The Oaxacan mole wasn’t overly sweet like other moles I have tried; the chihuacle chili peppers really brought a little fire to each bite which I appreciated along with the other 28 ingredients that went into the delicious sauce.  As for the meat, it was astoundingly tender and smoky to compliment the mole.  The same could be said for the green beans.  Next, I got goat barbacoa which was served two ways.  The lower layer was slow cooked goat that could be found in a Jalisco birria stew while the top was a panchetta or cured piece of goat that was crunchier.IMG_4971  It was served with garnishes on the side that were fresh, but the goat when it was coated in the red chili sauce was rich, almost too rich for its own good.  IMG_4973While the barbacoa was melt-in-your-mouth quality, it was a bit too salty for my liking.  Janice’s tamal festivo that was stuffed with turkey, chestnuts, and coated in a red mole sauce was like a Mesoamerican take on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.IMG_4967  I was very thankful she ordered it because it was extremely comforting and hearty.  Our final round of savory plates took us to two stewed dishes.  I got the mole de olla or (pan mole) which consisted of beef short ribs wallowing in a ancho and guajillo mole while being topped with some zesty and sour prickly pear fruitIMG_4969.  IMG_4970It covered every taste bud with an explosion of flavors, and I highly recommend this dish.  Janice’s suckling pig was equally decadent. 01f8efcc2b3d20eb4e1e73a399b356a5e08d901b68The braised pork was succulent, overshadowing the greens, and further embellished with the extremely thin veils of 14-month dry cured ham resting softly atop this tiny nugget of greatness.  Even after all of these dishes, we still had room for dessert because as the maxim of high end dining held true where it was a series of small but high quality ingredients that satisfied us, but we didn’t feel stuffed.

Dessert was just as over the top and true to its Mexican roots.  The cacao tree was an homage to the sacred cacao bean that was considered a drink and food only reserved for Aztec emperors and gods.  A piece of milk chocolate bark lay across three different forms of the dark stuff. unnamed (1)unnamed (6) First, there was the moist lava cake that was made with house-made chocolate straight from Tabasco, Mexico.  Words cannot describe how delicious this element was.

So much love for the cake.

Clearly she liked it.

Next, the cacao fruit mousse was the opposite in the sense that it wasn’t extremely rich but rather a smooth and sweet raspberry and chocolate cream.  Finally, there was the rosita de cacao ice cream that was like a lip-smackingly great French vanilla combined with a generous helping of chocolate chunks from Chiapas, Mexico.  Janice got the crepas con cajeta (crepes with cream) which was just as great. IMG_4977 The crepes were slightly warm and filled with bittersweet dark chocolate ganache that became gooey due to the heat, and the pumpkin spice and pecan toffee ice cream on the side started to melt that made it perfect for the Fall.  On top of all of this, there was a meringue and warm apples that made it a mixture of European and pre-Colombian influences to make my stomach very happy.  The final two desserts were the winter buñuelo de viento and the guava atole.  The former was the antithesis to the cacao tree since it was all white errthang.01c17989af02d0e072be4bab7bc510836a68be025e  It consisted of a scoop of vanilla-brandy ice cream topped with puffed rice stewing in a warm traditional Mexican ponche or “punch” infused with hibiscus, tamarind, brandy, sugarcane, and tejocote apples.  The latter, the guava atole, was a complete nod to the Aztecs who invented the corn and flour drink.IMG_4974  On one side there was a steamed masa corn cake that was semi-sweet and moist.   Then the atole guava ice cream was on the other side where the sweetness of the tropical guava mixed with a slightly starchy element.  I liked the crunchy masa strips and flour crumbles because they brought both a change of texture along with an almost pie a-la-mode feel with the ice cream combined with the crumbles.  It was my second favorite dessert behind the cacao tree.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied, and it was a fantastic birthday from the beginning to the end even though I never found out how much everything cost haha.  If you want some gourmet Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices for high end diners, I highly recommend Topolobampo!
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

 

 

Winter bunuelo de viento

guava atole

First and Last Tine Eating Here

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I review restaurants and bring you some of my food adventures throughout Chicago and the rest of the world!  This post is the final installation of Chicago Restaurant Week, and sadly it doesn’t live up to other great days that were filled with spicy plates and savory treasures.  Today’s review deals with the brand new eatery Knife and Tine that opened in 2014 in the chic Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago.

The outside of the restaurant was modern and clean with flagstone from corner to corner, and the inside was like most modern American gastropubs:  dimly lit and dark accents.  IMG_5952IMG_5950Upon sitting down, we were supplied with our Restaurant Week menus.  It was like most other restaurants that allowed for diners to try a three course meal for the low low price of $33 dollars, but Knife and Tine also had a $44 souped up menu that had more decadent options.  The complimentary bread that started it all off wasn’t decadent.  IMG_5935The pimento cheese spread that came on the side was a bit too salty for my liking, but it was slightly spicy that salvaged my taste buds.  To start, we got an order of the spoon bread and the pear salad.  The former actually didn’t involve any bread, rather fried pieces of whipped cornmeal.IMG_5937  This staple of Southern US cooking left much to be desired on their own.  They were quite bland, and the batter had no character whatsoever. IMG_5940 They came with a hot sauce bacon aioli (dipping sauce) that might as well have been called “cream of salt with a dash of bacon”.  On the other hand, the pear salad was light, refreshing, and balanced in terms of the earthy baby arugula, sweet pear slices, and salty Parmesan flakes that were liberally strewn about the salad. IMG_5941 Then there were the arancini which are a Sicilian dish allegedly being invented in the 10th Century A.D. during Arab rule.  As for the name, it comes from the Sicilian word “arancine” meaning orange since these fried rice balls are shaped like their fruit namesakes. IMG_5943 It was fried like the spoon bread, yet a lot more flavorful than the cornmeal stuffed bites.  Unfortunately, it was a matter of quantity over quality in terms of tastes as the pimento cheese and cheddar took over this plate, and even then it was more salty than savory.  As we moved from snacks to the main entrees, I tucked into my chicken and dumplings platter.  It looked ok, and when I had my first bite, it was a let down.  IMG_5946While the crispy skin gave the chicken a satisfying crunch, the meat was greasy, and the ricotta dumplings were bland and semi-soggy soaking up the au-jus.  As for Janice’s beef cheeks, I actually preferred the brussel sprout salad that had a tangy vinaigrette over the over roasted meat. IMG_5945 I’m sure if you really like pot roast or other really stewed meats, this would be the dish for you.  It’s not quite my cup of tea.  The bone marrow bread pudding (on the left below) was confusing since I felt like the bread part overshadowed the spreadable goodness that is bone marrow.IMG_5947  It was a case of gilding the beef cheek in this case.  I was extremely impressed with the desserts, and this isn’t just my sweet tooth talking.  The denouement of our dinner took the form of coconut lime panna cotta and a super brownie.  The panna cotta (Italian for “cooked cream”) was coated with a blueberry coulis or thick sauce and topped with sesame tuiles (French for “tiles”) or a wafer of sorts and candied ginger. IMG_5949
 This Italian version of flan was also infused with a bit of coconut and lime juice with gave it an interesting tropical feel.  My favorite part were the toppings like the crispy sesame bits that brought a savory side to a sweet dessert and counteracted the sweeter pieces of ginger.  As for the super brownie, I might as well have slapped an “S” on it and called it, “my hero”! IMG_5948 It consisted of a blondie brownie buried under more brownie bites, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and candied walnuts.  On top of this avalanche of chocotastic flavors and crunchy walnuts, it was slightly warm that left me in a food coma and drifting off to dreamland.

While many diners have raved about Knife and Tine on Yelp and Urbanspoon, I honestly don’t know if we were eating at the same place.  Based on my experience and Amy Cavanaugh of Time Out Chicago’s, don’t go to Knife and Tine unless you like overpriced and salty food.
Knife & Tine on Urbanspoon

One In A Milion

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Hola and Namaste to a new Mastication Monologues post!  I got to apologize for the lack of consistent posts due to a new full time job that has been quite time consuming, but I promise that today’s entry will be all killer and no filler in the form of a great Latin fusion eatery in Chicago known as Vermilion.

Fusion in food is as common as the intermingling of cultures.  For example, America is a nation of immigrants, and our food reflects that concept of culinary cross-pollination.  Even traditional barbecue draws elements from Spanish, African, and Native American cooking traditions.  However, Vermilion focuses on a menu based on mixing Indian and Latin American cuisine.  What that means is that the super savory and aromatic Indian dishes get a spicy south of the border kick many are familiar with in Mexican cooking, but that is only part of the picture.  Janice and I went for our second to last reservation during Restaurant Week, and it was on a Sunday night after a delicious lunch at Demera.IMG_5908  The interior was super hip and sleek with a black, red, and white motif.IMG_5909IMG_5910  We were quickly seated in the dining room as a blend of Spanish pop and Bollywood hits bounced out of the speakers overhead.  I would also recommend dressing up a bit since Vermilion is a bit more upscale than most Latin and Indian restaurants.  We both went with the $33 restaurant week dinner which consisted of a standard three course meal with an appetizer, entree, and dessert.  However, our waiter surprised us with a free, little taster plate with a chef’s creation.IMG_5912  These petite squares that we were face to face with was a fried plantain chip topped with mango pico de gallo and resting on a sweet, brown tamarind chutney.IMG_5914  It was a mini t-bomb (taste bomb) of flavor where the sweet backbone of the canape was supported by the chutney, mango, and plantain, but was then tempered by the sour lime juice and semi-savory aftertaste of the fried plantain.  As for the appetizer stage of our meal, I went with a Bombay frankie and Janice got the pumpkin squash curry leaf soup.  The frankie was great. IMG_5915 It is one of India’s favorite street food snacks, and I can see why. IMG_5916 It consisted of a fried flatbread known as a roti that was then filled with chunks of chicken coated in Indian spices like cardamom and curry, but the best part was the shot glass of mint curry on the side.  It wasn’t toothpaste minty, but it gave the spicy sauce a cool aftertaste.  Janice’s squash soup was just as delicious. IMG_5917 It came with an Indian cracker on the side known as a pappad or papadum depending on where you’re at in India.  The soup was extremely creamy and rich with a pepper infused oil that gave each curry-filled spoonful a mild kick.  These bold flavors warmed us up for our entrees that came soon thereafter.  I got the Brazilian feijoada which I was pretty excited to try since it is considered to be the national dish of the South American nation.  Contrary to popular preparation which utilizes black beans and a dark, purplish-brown broth which is a mix of the aforementioned beans and various meats stewing in the dish, Vermilion’s take on it was a mix of Indian and Latin flavors.  First, the color of the stew was a vibrant red that contained a mound of white rice and a rice cracker in the middle that acted like a nacho with taco dip.IMG_5920  As for the rice, it was an element more in touch with its Brazilian roots, but I didn’t see any traditional farofa (manioc flour roasted with butter and bacon) on the side which made me quite sad.  As for the contents of the actual dish, there were red beans (supposedly black beans according to the menu), large chunks of succulent chicken, and hunks of spicy Portuguese chorizo sausage.  Not only was the meat spicy, but the actual stew had an Indian vindaloo flavor to it which means that it was super spicy with a smoky background.  This fiery quality was also a sign of Indian/Latin fusion since a typical Brazilian feijoada isn’t spicy.  Even though it wasn’t the most traditional dish, it was innovative, warm, and hearty.  Perfect for a cold day like it was when we went.  Janice didn’t go down the super spicy route and got the heart of palm Valencia paella.IMG_5922  It consisted of large rings of the pulp found in the middle of palm trees, curried Indian rice, and a bit of orange zest.  IMG_5923Neither of us found it to be as interesting as the feijoada since it just tasted like curry.  However, our meal got more interesting in the wrong way since we found a hair in Janice’s paella.  Thankfully, they replaced it for free with a dish of her choice, so she got the feijoada as well.  It got even better when our desserts came.  I got the mango cardamom flan which was out of this world.IMG_5924  The flan had the perfect firm yet gooey texture and was infused with cardamom.  It was soaking in a mango escabeche (a word originally from the Persian “al-sikbaj” meaning a meat dish soaking in a sweet and sour sauce) or syrup which imparted an incredibly but not overwhelming sweetness to a mostly neutral tasting dessert.  The coconut foam on top tied this entire dish together perfectly since it was both light and sweet.  If you wanted to cleanse your palate after all that sweet flan and heavenly foam, you could follow the trail of  pitted, juicy lychees covering mini mounds of cranberries to the end of the plate.  I jumped from one plate to another to get a taste of Janice’s date chocolate rice pudding that had a little bit of cinnamon and clove to add a savory yin to the semi-sweet yang with the date chocolate. IMG_5927 I never was a big fan of rice pudding though, so it didn’t capture my imagination as much as our final dessert.  Since Janice didn’t make a big deal about finding the hair in her food, our waiter brought out the most popular dessert to our table for free.IMG_5928  It was a flourless chocolate lava cake that was covered in a subtly spicy dark chocolate mole sauce…words can’t describe how satisfying and incredibly rich this dessert was.  It was further embellished with an undulating raspberry syrup trail that led to a creamy, small ball of vanilla bean and coconut ice cream that rested on some fresh sliced strawberries.  These desserts were by far the best part of the entire meal, and the service was superb.

So, even though things got a little hairy midway through the dinner, Vermilion managed to win us over with its creative food (especially the desserts!) and great service.  I highly recommend this restaurant if you are tired of the same old ethnic eateries.
Vermilion on Urbanspoon

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