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Never a Boar in the Kitchen

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What’s up people?  The weather has been relatively all over the place for a Chicago summer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try some new and consistently delicious food.  Enter Andy’s Thai Kitchen that me and my girlfriend hit up for her gusband’s birthday.  I was not really super excited about getting Thai food since it just all seems like the same thing, similar to my thoughts about Vietnamese food, but Andy’s Thai Kitchen managed to change my mind.

Bday selfie!

Bday selfie!

While the weather was quite cold outside, the interior is very warm and welcoming.

When we left it was almost closing time

When we left it was almost closing time

Not only that, but the body heat from the masses of people waiting at the narrow vestibule made the experience seem all the more chaotic.  It could almost be an homage to the organized madness that is synonymous with Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok.  Chef Andy Aroourasameruang brings the unadulterated flavors of his home, Chachoengsao Province, to Chicago in the form of one of the most unique Thai menus I’ve seen in a long while.  IMG_6086I had never been there before, but all of my other diners had visited it before.  So, I let them order most of the food for our meal aside from my entree.  First, we started the meal with the som tum tod  or fried papaya salad ($12). IMG_6087 Unfortunately, this was during Lent, and I had given up all fried foods.  So, based on the reaction of my fellow diners digging into the colorful melange of deep fried papaya sticks, giant pink shrimp, cashews, tomatoes, and green beans, they loved all of it.  It was presented differently than other mango salads I’ve seen in Thai cuisine given that the mango was actually fried and not served in its original form.  I’d recommend it though since I ate the shrimp together with the veggies.  The spicy lime dressing gave it a perfect tangy/fiery zip to keep you coming back for more.  As for the entrees, I went with the ATK signature dish:  wild boar pad ped ($11).  Basically, it was a spicy red coconut curry that had “young pepper” (whatever that is), slow cooked and stir fried boar, and Thai eggplants.  IMG_6088The curry was very rich and flavorful with a potent kick, and there was a ton of tender boar that seemed like slightly gamier beef.  It should have been tougher, but the slow cooking made it fall apart in my mouth.  The Thai eggplants were a new addition to foods I’ve never tried before, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Even though they looked like tiny halves of lime in my curry, they added more of a half-crunchy, half creamy element to the softer parts of my meal.  The only downside was that I think that they could add a wider variety of vegetables to the sauce.  As for Janice, she got the basil crispy pork belly ($10.95) which was another ATK signature dish. IMG_6091 This one wasn’t as elaborate as my curry, but it still brought big flavors that Thai cuisine is known for.  It basically was rice served with a plentiful helping of stir fried pork pieces along with mushrooms, garlic, chili, and basil leaves.  It was good but not great.  The meat was the best part with its crispy outer layer that gave way to multiple alternating layers of fat and juicy pork, but it became somewhat monotonous according to Janice.  Thankfully, the food party didn’t stop there since there was still the matter of dessert.  While most of the options had a distinctly South/Southeast Asian flavor like the fried roti or banana blanket, we had to go with the customer pick, the mango sticky rice ($7).IMG_6093  I was surprised to see what it actually looked like when it came out.  After living in Korea, I was skeptical of desserts boasting, in my eyes, typically savory elements like rice or beans.  However, this dessert might have turned my head a bit with its fresh layer of sliced mangoes and generous helping of coconut milk. IMG_6094 It was like eating a Southeast Asian version of bread pudding with the rice taking the place of the flour based dough.  I highly recommend this sweet treat.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that offers quality and unique Thai dishes, enjoy a great meal at Andy’s Thai Kitchen!IMG_6098

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Peckish and Picking a Perfect Pepper

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t read my last post, it dealt with a super spicy ghost pepper salsa that has taken my tastebuds by firestorm.  It seems like spicy food has been popping up all over the American fast food scene as of late.  I’d like to bring you one of the most intriguing entries into this fiercely competitive arena from American fast food chain Wendy’s.

This hamburger chain is the third largest fast food chain in the world behind the two biggies McDonald’s and Burger King.

Wendy's new "Image Activation" restaurants feature bold, "ultra-modern" designs that greatly enhance the customer experience, including lounge seating with fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and digital menuboards.(PRNewsFoto/The Wendy's Company)

Wendy’s new “Image Activation” restaurants feature bold, “ultra-modern” designs that greatly enhance the customer experience, including lounge seating with fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and digital menuboards.(PRNewsFoto/The Wendy’s Company)

What sets this restaurant apart from the rest are its sandwiches.  While it does have your typical hamburgers and cheeseburgers, the patties are square, not round.  Plus, they don’t really have a “signature” sandwich compared to the more popular Big Mac or Whopper from the two aforementioned larger franchises.  Personally, I’m a big fan of Wendy’s given their commitment to providing a cleaner and tastier product everytime, and they seem to have more variety on their menu compared to McDonald’s or Burger King.  All of which brings me to the two latest Wendy’s menu items that really made me stand up and take notice of their ever-shifting menu choices.  First there was the jalapeño fresco spicy chicken sandwich.  While it was a bit on the pricey end for a fast food sandwich ($5, if I remember correctly), the quality definitely came through for a one off experience.  It’s a pretty substantial sandwich for the price as well.  I noticed the bun looked a bit different from the typical white bread buns that typically accompany their burgers and sandwiches.  Instead, it had more of an artisanal look to it as a sort of whole wheat roll.IMG_6512  I always appreciate good bread, so we were starting off on the right foot.  Then I took a big bite, and it was quality through and through.IMG_6515  The thick, juicy, all-white meat chicken cutlet was crispy and the batter was dusted with a chili powder to start off the spice party.  Then then chipotle mayo, raw onions, and verdant jalapeno pepper had my tastebuds in a very happy place.  If you like hearty sandwiches with plenty of fiery heart, this is the one for you.  This was just the slightly spicy prologue to the main objective of my Wendy’s trip:  the ghost pepper fries.  As I mentioned before, my previous post dealt with the new trend that is the ghost pepper, and it seems that Wendy’s has jumped on that wave.  Was my experience a hang ten or a complete wipe-out?  Eh, kind of in the middle.  When I opened them up, it looked like a simple mound of cheese fries with a generous helping of raw jalapenos. IMG_6516 At the outset, it was bland with the nacho cheese thoroughly covering the fries, but it became slightly spicier as I got into the heart of the dish.  At the very most, I might have had a little hint of flame here and there, but it was a low and slow burn.  Once you try a ghost pepper, you won’t forget it, and these fries weren’t anything close to a ghost pepper level of spice.  My lips weren’t super red.  My mouth wasn’t watering and in pain.  I also wasn’t in absolute fear of touching my face and having my own pepper spray party.  Long story short, if you are a real pepperhead, then the ghost pepper fries will not pique your interest or palate.  If you can’t deal with spicy food, then this will probably be spicy for you.

So, the next time you’re at Wendy’s and if you’re lucky enough before they remove these experimental items from the menu, I’d recommend the fresco chicken sandwich over the ghost pepper sandwich.  You get more bite for your buck!
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Great Blogs of Fire!: Tropical Pepper Company Ghost Pepper Sauce

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues post!  Before I begin, I’d like to recommend a food website that I have been a part of since the outset of my blog, but it has changed in many ways.  While there are lots of websites for restaurant recommendations like Yelp or Trip Advisor, I’d like to make a case for Zomato.  It is similar to the aforementioned websites, but it also integrates other apps like Google Maps and Uber if you need a ride to your restaurant.  I’m currently the number 8th ranked foodie in Chicago and my blog is number two on their list out of hundreds as noted on the side of my blog, so I highly recommend it for new and seasoned bloggers as well if you’re looking for a platform to launch your brand like I did years ago with Urbanspoon.  Anyway, foodie promotion over.  Let’s get back to the food!

Today’s post is another ode to one of the greatest culinary inventions in human history:  hot sauce.  While there are millions of different blends of peppers and ingredients that range from the sweet to savory to Manhattan Project levels of spice, I cannot get enough of these condiments.  I only recently decided to showcase my love for burning my tastebuds with reviews of my latest hot sauce adventures (See post #1 here).  So, I would like to let you know about a great discovery I made this past week:  Tropical Pepper Company’s ghost pepper sauce.  I picked it up from the local grocery store’s hot sauce wall that I’m slowly but surely working my way through, but I’m sure you could find it in any grocery store that has a substantial Latin American section.  I also chose this sauce at the recommendation of a fellow chili head who works at the store who highlighted the sauce’s ability to scorch your mouth with both heat and flavor.  Naturally, it piqued my interest.  Looking over the bottle, there were plenty of warning signs of the potency of the sauce.  IMG_6349From the skeletal remains of the toucan to the “More than one drop is suicide” warning on the upper label, it all made me all the warier based on previous history with this creation of the devil in the USA and overseas.  Oh yeah, and this quaint description on the back. IMG_6572 The Naga/Bhut/Bih Jolokia pepper originates from the far eastern regions of India and also Bangladesh.  It was once considered the hottest pepper in the world at 800,000 to 1,000,000 Scoville units of spiciness which made me skeptical of the number given on the back of the bottle as only 500,000 Scoville units.  To give you an idea of spice, a typical jalapeno pepper is around 10,000 Scoville units.  My following experience could only be summed up by Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, “Too hot!  Hot damn!”.  The name either comes from the fierce Naga warriors of Nagaland or Bih comes from Assamese for “poison” since its so hot.  As for the origin of the more popular “ghost” name,  athe home of the Bhut Jolokia website provides this explanation, “The word Bhut, given from the Bhutias people, means “ghost” and was probably given the name because of the way the heat sneaks up on the one who eats it”.  This was surprisingly accurate when I finally sampled the sauce.   When I opened the bottle to drizzle on some tacos, I sniffed it first to get a snoot full of slightly vinegary hints of fire.  When I poured the candy apple red sauce on the tacos, it was more watery than I was expecting.  Upon my first bite, I found it to compliment the taco contents with an initial subtle spice that almost had a jerk seasoning slant to it with a modicum of sweetness.  However, as time went on, my appetite lit the fuse on this powderkeg of sauce.  The heat kept on building and building to leave me with a constant layer of sweat on my brow and a noticeably higher level of salivation from the sheer heat in my mouth.  Janice even told me that my lips and surrounding area was extremely red after enjoying this sauce, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I know it might seem weird, but I find pleasure in the afterburn in my mouth after eating a spicy sauce.

So here’s my general review of  Tropical Pepper Company’s ghost pepper sauce:

Flavor:  8/10  Full of semi-sweet fruity and slightly smoky notes that are surprisingly for such a spicy sauce
Spice:  8/10    While the label is slightly misleading in terms of underestimating the heat, it has a good level of spice that sneaks up on                              you, but is manageable if you’re experienced with this type of firepower (pun intended)
Overall:  8/10   This is one of the best ghost pepper sauces I’ve ever tried, comparable to Jake Melnick’s XXX wings sauce, where there                              is a nice balance of both spice and flavor instead of just tongue melting heat.

La Isla Deliciosa

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Asia is one of the most interesting continents when it comes to cuisine.  You might be asking yourself, “Uh, what’s so special about sushi, korean barbecue, and orange chicken?”  Well, hate to break it to you that there is much more to Asian cuisine than that given the sheer size of the continent and number of different cultures that inhabit its regions spanning from Turkey to Japan.  This geographic spread contributes to the variety found in this corner of the world, but some country’s cuisines are more popular than others in the US.  For example, the food items I previously mentioned are probably the first cuisines that come to peoples’ minds when you say “Asian food”, i.e.  Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food.  Vietnamese and Thai food are more recent entries to the public consciousness due to increased immigration from South/Southeast Asia, and they all have their own special place in the ever expanding American palate.  However, one country that doesn’t get the foodie hype that its other neighbors receive but really should  is Filipino food.  Janice and I got well acquainted with many island delights in Chicago at Lincoln Square’s Isla Pilipina Restaurant.

We’ve walked past this place all the time around dinnertime, and it has been packed without fail.  Naturally, when we went it was no different. IMG_6255 After waiting for a table to open in the funky fresh interior that was bumping an odd mix of rap and oldies out of the overhead speakers, we finally managed to take a seat amidst the madness of the waitstaff toward the back of the restaurant. IMG_6256 Looking over the menu, I could see the influences of a number of cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.  IMG_6258IMG_6257That last one might come as a surprise to some, but Spain unified the roughly 7,000 islands into the country of the Philippines back in the 1600s.  The name of the country even comes from the name of the king of Spain at the time, Felipe (Phillip) II.  During Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish and Filipino cultures intermingled through marriage and food which still can be seen today in the names of the dishes offered at Isla Pilipina like pata, adobo, and guisado.  It’s a byob restaurant as well if you’re interested in knocking a few back with your meal.  We started the meal with a plate of 20 lumpia Shanghai ($5/ $3 for 10).  The name of this dish comes from the Hokkien (Southern Chinese) word lunpia, and they are clearly carry-overs from the mainland.IMG_6261  They’re basically deep fried mini-egg rolls that according to the menu are filled with pork, egg, jicama, green onions, carrots, soy sauce, and love.  I could especially taste the love above all of the other ingredients.  Seriously though, I quickly learned that there’s a reason why they sell them in a plate of 10 or 20 rolls.  The fried dough that envelops all of the fresh and savory meat and veggies is the best part.  These golden brown, crunchy, and flaky nuggets of heaven are paired with a semi-watery sweet and sour sauce that has some chili flakes floating in it to add a little pep to these pipsqueak poppers.  I highly recommend starting off with them and get a 20 roll plate because they go down way too easily especially if you’re sharing with others.  As for our main courses, Janice got the pancit bihon ($8) with a side of the garlic rice ($6) that apparently everyone on Yelp was raving about.  Pancit, like lumpia, comes from the Hokkien language.  It is derived from “pian i sit” which means “convenient food”.    I could see why since it was basically pan fried rice noodles with sauteed chicken and mixed vegetables.  A simple meal to be whipped together at a moment’s notice if necessary.IMG_6263 I helped myself to a couple forkfuls, and personally, I found it to be quite bland.  The ingredients were fresh and all that good stuff, but it didn’t really taste like much.  Even with the addition of lemon juice from the lemon slices that were provided on the side, I couldn’t really get into the pancit since I was more focusing on the citric tang than the actual noodles.  The same could be said about the garlic rice.  I don’t understand why everyone thought it the be all end all of side dishes. IMG_6269 True, nothing smells better than cooked garlic, but it basically was plain Jasmine rice that was superficially pan fried with garlic.  In essence, it was like long grain white rice with some garlic salt on it.  It’s better when combined with other food if anything, but it’s not rave worthy or even worth your time, in my opinion.  My entree, the lechon kawali ($11), was the opposite of these blander dishes.  This deep fried pork belly is a remnant of both Chinese and Spanish cuisine, including the Spanish name, and it was anything but a shrinking violet in this garden of eatin’.  IMG_6267It was a giant piece of pork that spanned my dinner plate, and it was even pre-cut which was piece de resistance!  Each piece of the lechon was a layer cake of different pork elements.  While the upper portions consisted more of the crunchy, salty pork skin and firm white meat, the lower echelons of the belly was where the money was. IMG_6272 I hit the jackpot every time when I reached the thin layer of fat that gave way to the most succulent and flavorful part of the pig.IMG_6274  Mixing these pieces with the garlic rice was a tasty combo, but the Filipino gravy was a bit of a mystery to me.  While part of it tasted like a sweet steak sauce, it had this hint of musty funk that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  It didn’t ruin the meal at all though.  I was definitely more satisfied with my entree than Janice’s.  If you like bacon or any type of pork product, I highly recommend the lechon, and I’ve heard good things about their pata as well.  Even though it was a lot of food for a reasonable amount of money, I still wanted to try one of the most iconic Filipino desserts:  halo halo ($6).  Meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog, not me stuttering the name of a Beyonce song, this classic and wildly popular dessert has become quite famous outside of the Philippines thanks to Filipino migration to the USA to typical hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago.  Even Anthony Bourdain has succumbed to its wildly colorful grasp.  It’s a ridiculous melange of crushed ice, red bean paste, white beans, lychee jelly, coconut shavings, coconut milk, and it was all topped off with a scoop of taro root ice cream, a slice of flan, and a cherry.  Nothing too complicated.IMG_6276 Now, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that my relationship with red bean paste is one of revulsion almost on par with my dislike of pasta, so I naturally approached this dessert with a wariness similar to an unexploded ordinance, just ready to blow up in my mouth even though I’m a veteran of trying the gross red bean paste.  Yet, it also had one of my favorite Asian dessert ingredients as well:  taro.  This purple root vegetable may look like a sweet potato, but it is the bomb (a good one) when it comes to taste.  I normally get it in bubble tea, but the ice cream on top of the halo halo tasted just the same.  I don’t know what they do to this tuber, but it literally tastes like vanilla cookies.  It’s like making potatoes taste like chocolate bars.  Mind.  Blown.  Plus, the addition of the Spanish flan, that was quickly picked up by my girlfriend, was a nice touch.  After picking at the parts I knew I liked, I dove into it spoon first. IMG_6278 Luckily, all of the other sweet elements like the coconut and lychee covered up the red bean flavor, and it was like a super diverse slushy.  I ended up mixing the taro ice cream in with the rest of the ingredients, and it was like a purple vanilla milk shake with ice chunks and the occasional sweet jelly piece.  I would definitely go for another halo-halo, but I couldn’t finish it all because it was pretty big as well for the price.

So if you’re tired of the same old sushi or Korean barbecue and/or want a lot of food for little money, set sail for Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square!
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Stroop and a Pancake? Bacon and a Blintz?

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Ah the Netherlands.  A land of many contrasts and confusion.  Like is it the Netherlands or Holland or both?  Even though both are generally accepted, the Netherlands is the official name of the country/kingdom while Holland is the combined name for two provinces within the country/kingdom.  Beyond the name, most people have a few common thoughts about the country.  The first thing that probably pops into the heads of many is of Amsterdam and its accompanying delights or vices depending on your moral constitution or perhaps Mike Meyer’s freakish Dutch villain Goldmember, the largest of the Low Countries has a lot more to offer.  For example, it is home to the Frisian language. It is currently an endangered language in the Netherlands, but it once was spoken throughout the North Sea’s southern coast. Not only does it have a once distinguished past, but it currently holds the position of one of most closely related languages to English, more so than German.  Some are quite clear cognates like “help” which is just the same word or “My name is…” is “Myn namme is …” in Frisian or “I’m from…” is “Ik kom fan …”.  However, don’t expect to be able to completely understand them.  While linguistic facts, Dutch ones included, are always interesting, I’m here to talk about a Dutch pancake house in Chicago that is homey and filled with delicious breakfast treats.  I’m talking about the Famous Dutch Pancake House/Pannekoeken Huis in Lincoln Square on the north side of Chicago.IMG_6518

While there are plenty of great breakfast places throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, each one seems to have its own angle.  There’s one that reflects the Swedish community in the Andersonville neighborhood or even a Greek cinnamon themed restaurant.  However, it’s not often you hear of a Dutch breakfast restaurant.  The Pancake House doesn’t serve any of the “special” treats you might assume, but rather a plethora of Dutch pancakes or pannekoeken (pronounced:  pan-eh-ko-kehn).  Although the Dutch word literally means “pancake”, they are different than the American ones we are used to.  Instead of them being thicker than a Snicker, they are more similar to their French brethren:  the crepe, a thin and airy bread that could be sweet or savory.  When we got there on a Saturday morning, we managed to beat the rush just barely around 8:30ish.IMG_6141IMG_6140  It’s a very small dining room, so be prepared to have a real cheek to jowl experience.  We looked over the menu to find a plethora of sweet and savory pannekoeken along with more common American breakfast items like eggs, French toast, and bacon.  IMG_6142After much deliberation and a recommendation from our waiter, I got the apple raisin cheese pannekoek ($9.95) and Janice got a veggie pannekoek ($8.95).  When they came out, I couldn’t believe how big they were, i.e. at least as big as a small hubcap.  However, they were thin which meant that they weren’t as heavy as American pancakes.  Janice’s veggie pannekoek looked verdant and mouth-watering.IMG_6143  She had the option of three veggies and her choice of cheese as toppings, so she went with a asparagus, mushroom, and green pepper combo along with some strips of melted Havarti cheese.  It was a great savory pancake.  While the thin dough provided a solid flavor foundation, the lightly sauteed veggies mixed well with the buttery cheese.  Definitely made this carnivore steal more than one forkful off her plate.  As for my pannekoek, it was certainly different than what I’m used to eating for breakfast.  IMG_6144While I like to keep my savory elements separate from my sweet ingredients when it comes to food, this pannekoek had me singing a different tune.  First, there was the plethora of apple slices that almost completely obscured my pannekoek and was occasionally punctuated with an amorphous blob of melted Havarti cheese.  Then our waiter hooked me up with what seemed to be syrup for my sweet pannekoek, but it wasn’t quite the same.  It turned out to be schenkstroop which derives from the words “schenk”which comes from the Dutch/German verb “schenken” meaning “to pour out”, and “stroop” meaning “syrup”.IMG_6145  Aside from the name difference, this Dutch specialty is made from sugar beets instead of the cane sugar our everyday pancake syrup is made from.  What this meant for my pannekoek experience was two things.  First, it had a much higher viscosity than American syrup which made it seem more like a thick molasses.  Second, after I made it rain all over my pannekoek, I found the schenkstroop to have a cleaner and not as overpoweringly sweet aftertaste compared to its American counterpart.IMG_6146  I thought it was perfect for this type of pancake because of the many competing flavors for my tastebuds attention.  As I mentioned before, I wasn’t a mixing savory and sweet kind of guy.  Hell, I find Hawaiian pizza to be an abomination to food lovers everywhere.  Pineapple on a pizza?  Aloha, brah (and I mean it in the “goodbye” sense).  Anyway, pizza rant over.  The creamy and slightly salty Havarti semi-neutralized the tart, gossamer-thin granny smith apple slices that melted in my mouth.  However, little did I know that the pannekoeken’s dough hid another sweet secret in the form of raisins that were baked right into the cake.IMG_6147  They were like little, chewy barnacles riding along on the underbelly of a blue whale of flavor.  I couldn’t get enough of the sweet, savory, and salty delight, but it was gone before I knew it.

So if you want to sample a cozy little corner of Holland in Chicago for very reasonable prices and great service, grab your wooden shoes and clog your way down to the Pannenkoeken Cafe!IMG_6148
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Getting Our Just Desserts

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Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is one of my sweetest and over the top posts I’ve ever written!  If you have a sweet tooth that borderlines on a diabetic condition like I do, then you’re going to love this entry.  Last weekend, Janice and I experienced the final part of my one year anniversary gift that she got for me:  two tickets to Chicago’s Dessert Fest.  What a sweetheart!

When we got to the venue, River North’s John Barleycorn and Moe’s Cantina, there was already a line out the door and an accompanying mob once we got inside.  Everywhere we looked, we could see plenty of delicious treats being enjoyed by the guests.  While we weren’t swayed by the sundae bar that seemed pretty weak for an epic event like this one, we were more interested in the cake table with desserts made from Fabiana’s Bakery.  Not only did it boast a wonderfully delicious, buttercream-coated, cyclops rainbow cake that won “Most Craveable Dessert”IMG_6451 but also a decadent chocolate ganache wedding cake served in plastic shotglasses.IMG_6452  We definitely got crunk on those nuggets of rich dark chocolate goodness.  We quickly moved our ways through the munching masses and were confronted with a barker of sorts who bellowed, “WHO WANTS FREE ICE CREAM?!!  THIS IS DESSERT FEST!!!!”  I didn’t know King Leonidas worked dessert fairs in his spare time. Naturally, Janice’s and my hands shot up because we’re all about the cold stuff.  He hooked us up with free Blue Bunny turtle bars that was a combo of pure vanilla ice cream coated in a crunchy milk chocolate shell with the occasional hunk of pecans and caramel.  IMG_6454Simply the best, bar none! 11188221_10105701925746959_7766073886550940910_n We managed to snag a sample of macarons from a table that was mobbed with people.  I snapped up a chocolate one and a passion fruit one while Janice got a raspberry one.  They were perfect from their semi-sticky middles to the airy yet firm cookies.

Chocolate and passion fruit macarons.

Chocolate and passion fruit macarons

I personally felt the raspberry combined with the chocolate one was the ideal combination, but the passion fruit was a bland letdown.  We made our way upstairs to the sun-splashed second floor of John Barleycorn where they were slinging champagne and white wine with banana creme pie samples. IMG_6457 I got a glass of bubbly while Janice and I shared a nibble looking out over the crowd by the bar while lounging on a leather couch.  The banana creme pie reminded us of a pina colada with a mix of coconut and cream, but the champagne made it even better.  We made our way down and over to Moe’s Cantina where an entire room was just waiting for me to be explored. IMG_6466Right by the entrance, they had an open kitchen where I saw cooks preparing some sort of cup dessert with cream.IMG_6459  I didn’t have time to spare.  I was on a mission.  I visited each booth and brought back my loot to our table.  What a spread we had once I was done doing my recon mission.IMG_6460  What we ended up with was a slice of Bar Louie’s chocolate cake, voted “Most Delicious Dessert”, but sadly we never tried it since we filled up on the following treats beforehand.  First, there was the Warm Belly Bakery entry that eventually was crowned the Chocolate Champion.IMG_6465  Its presentation left much to be desired, but the brown butter chocolate chip cookies with a salted hazelnut dark chocolate mousse and a raspberry accent was quite a combo.  The cookie seemed a bit undercooked but the rich buttery dough and sweet chocolate combined to perfection with the salty yet earthy mousse.  The raspberry reminded me of our earlier macaron experiment.  While the fruit and chocolate combo was seemingly going to rule the day, the mystery dessert I had witnessed a few minutes earlier ended up rocking my world.  Turns out it is a Mexican dessert from Moe’s Cantina called a crispy xango (pronounced “zan-go”with berries and cream.  IMG_6462What is consisted of was a deep fried tortilla, coated in cinnamon and sugar churro style, and filled with a berry infused cream.  Janice got even more of the lowdown from one the employees.  Turns out they import their tortillas from Nuevo Leon in Mexico, and the cream even had a slight Bailey’s infusion to the cream.  Deep fried treats and a boozy sweet element?  I’ll take it!  I spread the cream evenly over the crunchy and crumbly surface like butter, and it was an ideal combo of textures and flavors.  By the time we made our ways upstairs, we walked past Old Crow Smokehouse’s plethora of key lime pies, which were given the “Perfected Classic Award”.  IMG_6467IMG_6468We didn’t sample any, but we did get a taste of some after-dinner digestifs.  Digestif is a term from French that refers to a drink that supposedly aids digestion.  The ones we samples were of an Italian variety in the shape of an amaro and a limoncello.  The former is an herbal liqueur that is often consumed neat, and has roots in the 19th century often originating in pharmacies or monasteries.  The name “amaro” means “bitter” in Italian, and I could see why.Lucano  I could only liken the taste of it to a less syrupy/obnoxious Jaegermeister.  It was potent but bursting with anise, ginger, and licorice.  As for the limoncello that Janice tried, it is a very different digestif compared to the amaro.  First, it is a bright yellow that comes from the lemon zests (hence the name) that are used to make the alcohol.  Second, it is more regional in nature given that it is a mainly southern Italian drink.  The one we had came from the southeastern region of Italy called Abruzzo which is kind of close to the heel of the boot of the peninsula.  Tastewise, it cleansed the palate of all of the sugar we had previously consumed but also perked us up with a strong, lemon scented kick.  As we left the festival, it was like leaving some sort of wonderful, Willy Wonka-esque type of dream, but it was a great gift from my lovely girlfriend.  I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a good and calories-be-damned sort of time!11248149_10105702971601059_1612555248785757579_n

Sarajevo Fo’ Sho’!

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The Balkans have long been a forgotten corner of Europe but one of the most tumultuous and diverse regions of the continent.  A potpourri of Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins all interacting with each other, not always positively, mind you, and exchanging ideas and more importantly, food.  While this geographic region is on the Mediterranean Sea, the food is very different to their western neighbors Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.  While they might focus on the same staples like wine and olives/olive oil, their meals have more of an Eastern European and Middle Eastern vibe due to their location as a crossroads of sorts between East and West.  Instead of having to buy tickets to Europe, Janice and I managed to find a slice of Bosnia quite close to home on Chicago northside at Restaurant Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is the name of the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is an ancient and diverse city that once boasted of being the only European city with a synagogue, Orthodox Catholic, mosque, and Catholic Church in the same neighborhood.  However, much of the city was destroyed by Serbian forces in the siege during the War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s.  Once the guns fell silent, the rebuilding process began, and now it’s back to its former glory.  Due to the aforementioned violence, many Bosnian and Serbian refugees came to Chicago for a better life.  This brings me back to our visit to Restaurant Sarajevo. IMG_6128 It was quite busy around dinner time, but we also just beat the rush by going around 6 pm.IMG_6108  We looked over the menu and decided to try the cold appetizer plate ($10.07) since it contained two of our favorite food groups:  meat and cheese.  While we were waiting, we got a free basket of some delicious, warm, crusty bread.  It came pre-sliced in giant pieces, and the butter that came with it had a thicker consistency that was almost like cream cheese. IMG_6117Turns out it was a Balkan and Central Asian treat known as kaymak.  The word “kaymak” means “melt” in Mongolian which was an apt description since the spread on the warm bread was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Our appetizer came out, and it was a gigantic plate filled with savory delights. IMG_6110 IMG_6109We could see smoked beef, two types of Bosnian sausage, peppers, and Bosnian Travnik feta cheese.  It was a who’s who of European food with the Mediterranean represented in the olives and peppers and feta while the Eastern and Central European elements were present in the sausages and smoked meats.  The smoked beef was not as super smoky as you would think it would be like American barbecue, but it still was very juicy. IMG_6111 While the two meats were very distinct in flavor.  The darker of the pair was more like a salami with a salty aftertasteIMG_6113 while the more reddish sausage I could liken to a spicier Spanish chorizo. IMG_6112 As for the feta cheese, it was a great piece of the crumbly stuff when combined with the olive oil coated peppers or the sausages. IMG_6116 For the main course, we were simply awash with great choices, so we shared two entrees.  First, there was the Bosnian chorba ($4.58).IMG_6114  It was a hearty beef based stew filled with large, succulent chunks of tender veal along with bobbing potato cubes and carrots.  Definitely a great choice for the winter months, and it was a lot of soup for a great price.  Then there was our Bosnian mix plate ($19.23).  It was a family dinner for less than twenty bucks, but you really must like meat if you get this entree.IMG_6119  On one plate we had grilled veal and chicken kebab, beef sausage, cevapcicipljeskavica, mixed vegetables, chicken schnitzel, and our choice of side.  Woof.  It was totally worth it since we brought our appetites to this meal and were ready to destroy what came our way.  First, I have to say that every slice of meat was all killer and no filler, i.e. high quality cuts of meat with little to no excess fat or additives.  We learned that they make their own sausages on-site which probably explained the freshness of the meal.  The grilled veal and chicken kabab were good but nothing beyond some competently made pieces of grilled meat.  As I mentioned before, the beef sausage was filling and super fresh and did have a bit of a snap to the casing that comes with using natural casings.  Then there were the super Bosnian entries to our meal in the form of the cevapcici and the pljeskavica.  The first one, the cevapcici, actual comes from the Persian word for “kebab” and is a type of casing-less sausage.  Although during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it became associated with hadjuks or outlaws as an easy food to make while wandering the countryside. IMG_6122 I had had this mini-sausage dish before at Chicago’s Andersonville fest even though it was at a Croatian food tent and served in a fancier fashion.  It was like a Balkan version of a cocktail weenie but with more delicious, seasoned lamb and char-grilled.  As for the pljeskavica, it’s basically a lamb and beef patty that is stuffed with mozzarella cheese.IMG_6121

Once again, meat and cheese reigned supreme in this Balkan favorite, and it was so bad for you yet surprisingly not super greazy.  It also had a helping of the kaymak cheese on top just for good measure.  The chicken schnitzel was a representative of the Central European element in Bosnian cooking, and I really liked the tangy tartar sauce that combined with the super thin but tasty, golden breaded chicken cutlet.  Surprise, surprise!  We still had more food in the form of the potatoes on the side that were simply sauteed with an olive oil and oregano coating. IMG_6123 Even after all of that we managed to find some room for some decadent dessert.  We got the Bosnian chilled apple rolls ($5.50) that apparently is another Bosnian specialty.  IMG_6124IMG_6126IMG_6127It consists of a mix of chopped walnuts and apple pieces with honey that is enclosed in flaky, buttery filo dough.  Surprisingly, it was served chilled like it said on the menu which is a bit different than similar desserts that are served room temperature or even warm like Greek baklava.

In the end, we were absolutely stuffed with a ton of delicious and hearty food.  If you want a taste of a land that isn’t very well represented in America, run down to Restaurant Sarajevo!
Restaurant Sarajevo on Urbanspoon

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