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Whatever Floats Your Goat (Duck Duck Goat)

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Ah Tuesday.  The most underwhelming day of the week.  It doesn’t have the anticipation of a Friday or the dread of a Monday or even the satisfaction of getting over the peak of the work week on a Wednesday.  Thankfully, I have a wonderful Mastication Monologues post about a restaurant that will have you wishing for the weekend.

Stephanie Izard is one of the highest profile female restaurateurs who has cultivated an enormous following through her various eateries in the West Loop/slowly gentrifying Fulton Market area of Chicago, including the famed Girl and the Goat which I have also written about.  Now, she has taken her legend to another level by becoming an Iron Chef as well as opening a Chinese inspired restaurant called Duck Duck Goat, a much better alternative to a goose, I think.

Izard just making noodles (PC: WGN)

It is easy to get to by public transportation or with a car, and when we walked in, it was very busy with the lunch crowd.  From the neon lights in the front window to every inch of the interior, Izard has attempted to recreate the kitschy 1950s Chinese restaurants that tried to slap as many random artifacts on the walls and used as many brightly colored wallpapers in each room.  Even though it sounds like a madhouse, it was pleasant on the eye in its tacky glory as we took a seat at the center island bar while we waited for our third diner to join us.  We decided to try some of their mixed drinks since they looked too good to pass up.  I got the Bebop and Woksteady, the bartender appreciated by Ninja Turtle knowledge on that one, and Janice got the Lucky Duck.  I won’t go into every single detail of what went into these elaborate drinks, but I greatly enjoyed my cocktail.  It was a mix of mezcal, pineapple juice, and orange juice with lime salt coating the rim.  If you’ve never had mezcal before, it is an acquired taste.  Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) word “Mexcalli” (Mesh-calee) meaning “over-cooked agave” because it comes from the same agave plant tequila is made from.  However, since it is overcooked, it has a strong smoky flavor which I think gives it a more complex flavor than tequila.  The Aztecs believed the agave plant was holy and contained the nectar of the gods, and the Bebop and Woksteady was just that.  The smokiness of the mezcal was enhanced with the lime salt yet had an understated sweetness that kept it from becoming a poor man’s chelada.  Janice’s Lucky Duck was a rum based drink that tasted like a sweet, bubbly lemonade with a low-key bitter undertone.  Eventually, Janice’s friend Joe arrived, and we were seated at the table.

Looking over the menu, they even extended the same old-school Chinese vibe to the layout and pictures.  Before we got our food, Joe and Janice went on to get the Try Try Again and the Good Health cocktails.  We quickly learned that you couldn’t go wrong with their mixed drinks since everything we had was delicious and dangerous since they tasted like candy.  However, I went off the beaten path to keep it real with the Chinese menu and got an adult bubble tea.  I got the Honey Please which was milk tea infused with honey whiskey.  While I am partial to a great bubble tea, especially of the taro variety, I wasn’t too pleased with Duck Duck Goat’s take on this Taiwanese drink mainly because they went too heavy on the whiskey and light on the tea.  Once we refilled out cups, we got down to business with the foodstuffs.  Overall, the prices were more on the pricier end compared to other dim sum/Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and Chicagoland, but we learned that the price tag was justified.  It was interesting because it wasn’t as full on American Chinese as I anticipated yet it was more like an intermediate selection of more Western friendly Chinese traditional dishes with a classic Izard twist.  Plus, all menu options were on the small to medium end and meant to be shared with your fellow diners.

Chinese food has been around since the 1800s in the United States due to a high influx of Chinese immigrants to the West coast to build the railroads.  Most of the workers came from southern regions of China, especially the town of Taisan (台山市), and brought with them food that had to be either adapted for their American customers or made as close to the real deal for their fellow Chinese immigrants without having all the necessary ingredients.  Traditional Cantonese dishes do have some similarities to the modern day orange chickens and chop suey, but most mainland Chinese view American Chinese food as foreign food that their favorite tv characters eat out of white take-out boxes.  Instead of heavily-sauced meat dishes, we started with char siu bao or pork buns.  We got the baked version (叉燒餐包) which was different from the steamed type often served at many dim sum restaurants in Chinatown.  The dough was amazing.  Soft and topped with green scallions, but the filling was kind of disappointing.  I was expecting the red, sweet minced pork in all previous char siu dishes I’ve tried, but instead it was more like shreddednpork with little seasoning.  I would still recommend trying them for the dough alone.  Next up, the extremely lightly pan-fried jiaozi ( 鍋貼).  The name behind these dumplings come from many sources.  Some believe it comes from the Chinese word for “horn” like on a bull, others the early word for “money”, or possibly the word “jiao’er” meaning “tender ears” because an ancient Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner made them for his patients who had frostbitten ears.  No matter its origin story, it was a wonderful choice.  They were filled with beef short rib and bone marrow whose saltiness was sinfully rich and filling.  I highly recommend these dumplings.  Then came the chiu chow fun gor which were shrimp dumplings that were showered  with modestly sweet peanut-soy sauce and pickled red peppers.  They were also more multi-layered in terms of flavor compared to the char siu bao or the next choice in our feast.  Following these dumplings, we got, surprise surprise, xiao long bao (小籠包) or soup buns.  These unique dumplings were invented in Shanghai but quickly spread throughout China.  The ones served at Duck Duck Goat were served in the southern Chinese style with translucent skin and filled with traditional pork, crab, and broth.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of getting to know these dumplings, do not pop them in your mouth immediately, or you will be scalded with hot soup on your tongue and elsewhere.  They were just as good as the ones I had at Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong!  They were complimented very well with a lip-smacking earthy soy sauce on the side.  Finally, we ended the dumpling part of our dinner with ham sui gok (咸水饺/咸水角) or glutinous rice goat dumplings.  These were new to me, and I typically would avoid rice cake due to my experiences in Korea.  However, the crunchy, fried exterior gave way to a chewy interior that was stuffed with seasoned goat.  I would preferred it if it was served with a hoisin or spicy sauce to make this dish really pop, but Iron Chef Izard knows what’s best.  Transitioning from more tame dumplings, we went full throttle into more traditional Chinese fare that could drive more squeamish diners away:  duck hearts.  I had previously eaten parts of a duck I never thought I would when hosted by my friend David’s family in Taipei (非常谢谢!), but this is another part that I ended up loving.  Izard nailed the dish by roasting them until they had a good char and served them halved on a puddle of mild sesame-horseradish sauce.  Given the heart is pure muscle, it almost tasted like cubes of sirloin with a slight kick from the horseradish.  Hands down my second if not top dish we had at dinner. As if we couldn’t eat any more, Janice recommended that we should try the slap noodles.  The reason why they’re called “slap” is because they are slapped on the kitchen counter to remove any excess flour as they’re stretched to perfection by hand (example here).  I personally wasn’t wowed with these thicker, somewhat crispy noodles that were canoodling with shrimp, goat sausage, bean sprouts, and a strange red vegetable we couldn’t identify.  My theory was that they were cooked tomatoes.  Joe and Janice preferred it more than I did, but I think my preference for thinner or crispier noodles may have clouded my perceptions.  Noodle-wise, I was definitely feeling the chilly chili noodles.  Perhaps I liked it because it was more Korean in nature because it had the spicy ramen-esque noodles, pickled cucumbers, and was cold like naengmyeon.  Surprisingly, we had room for dessert in the form of baonuts (see what they did there?).  These deep-fried bao were similar to the char siu bao earlier in our meal, but these were more like warm doughnuts and filled with rich, dark chocolate frosting.  They were well-executed as a Chinese version of a Western doughnut, but it was nothing super innovative.

Our experience at Duck Duck Goat was definitely memorable.  I would highly recommend a visit if you’re tired of eating the same old Panda Express and want to expand your Chinese food horizons but are not yet ready to go full throttle with some chicken feet or stinky tofu.  Just remember to come hungry and be willing to share your food with others, if possible!


Duck Duck Goat Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Great Blogs of Fire!: Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce

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When I was younger, I never understood how or why my dad would eat these strange red and yellow seeds on his pizza.  When I would try them, my mouth would hurt, and I vowed to never sully my pizza again with this mysterious condiment. As time went by, I realized they were just dried pepper flakes, and I tried them again.  What was once a traumatic experience, now was a pleasurable one.  I moved on to jalapenos on nachos and Louisiana hot sauce on my Popeye’s fried chicken.  My desire for spice grew as time went on as I diversified the foods I ate or went out of my way to try like in Mexican, Sichuan, or Indian cuisine.  I eventually reached my dad’s level where my spice tolerance makes my fellow diners shake their head in disbelief. Owners/servers of ethnicities known for piquant food traditions have marveled at the idea of a white person enjoying the same level of spice as they do or perhaps even more so.  It has also caused episodes of spice profiling when restaurant owners did not make it spicy enough for my liking even if I requested it when ordering.   By consuming spicy foods, I see myself carrying on the family tradition from my dad, but it made me wonder what caused me to develop this desire to consume fiery dishes?  According to the Smithsonian and Popular Science, it seems that food preferences are a mixture of nature and nurture.  While initial studies thought that genes could make individuals more resistant to the spicy food’s effects on their taste receptors, a recent study showed that more extroverted or thrill-seeking personalities were drawn to spicy flavors.  This doesn’t mean that the more adventurous eaters felt the burn less, rather the insular lobe in their brains connected the pain and/or novelty of the taste to positive feelings.  This connection of pain and pleasure goes against millennia of evolution where chili plants originally developed capsaicin to deter animals from consuming them.

Thus, this long history of hellish dining brings me to my first meeting with Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce.  The label on the front looks fun enough with a little smiling pepper catching some rays under the sun on the beach looking innocuous enough with some shades, a little umbrella, and a cool drink at his side.  All is well with the world, or so you would think.

Then you flip the bottle over, and you realize that there was a reason why the smug chili pepper on the front had a devious smile.

Perhaps the part with removing oil stains and wax floors is a bit of hyperbole, but after tangling with this beast in a bottle, I can agree that the second half of the warning label is legitimate.  According to Dave’s Gourmet website, this sauce has been the only sauce banned from the National Fiery Foods Show and is recommended for real O.C.s or Original Chiliheads.  When I poured a bit of this hell-fire out, it was a thick, burgundy sauce that was like a very thick mole sauce or a grainy buttercream cake frosting.  I then made the plunge by tasting the drop, and it felt like a mix of a MOAB drop and a lightning bolt of nostalgia went off in my mouth.  The taste was the same or very similar to the extremely spicy, esophagus-closing sauce I had at Onniyure Donkatsu in Seoul.  According to chiliworld.com, the main ingredient is red savina habanero peppers as well as pure capsaicin or the active irritant found in chili peppers.  It is roughly rated at 250,000 Scoville heat units where as original Tabasco sauce is only 2,000 Scovilles or Frank’s RedHot sauce is only 450 Scovilles.  Needless to say, the spice level was overpowering even for a seasoned fire-eater like me, and it lasts for at least 30 minutes after eating.  The flavor is kind of bitter due to the high levels of capsaicin extract, and it is better mixed into soups or rice dishes to provide a spicier profile instead of being consumed straight up.  This sauce could be considered a biohazard though and should not be trifled with.  For example, I found that I started to cough/choke on the sauce’s fumes when washing the sauce off my plate with hot water.  Tread carefully, adventurous diners.

Final Score for Dave’s Insanity Sauce

Flavor:  3/10
Spice:  10/10
Overall:  6.5/10       This is not your backyard barbecue hot sauce.  What it lacks in flavor, it more than makes up for in spice.  It is certainly not my favorite hot sauce, but it is definitely a go-to if I’m feeling like having a good sweat while eating.

Cinful Prices but a Heavenly View (Cindy’s)

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Ah, another quarter done in my speech pathology program.  It has probably been the most challenging quarters so far, but I came out on the other side ready for another quarter of growth.  Plus, Summer has finally arrive in Chicago.  While I am more of a fan of winter since I am part White Walker as well as a weirdo,

If you squint closely, you might see me

I do enjoy all of the great activities the city offers when the sun is shining and everyone is out of hibernation mode.  Today’s post is a little delayed but better late than never!

While New York is often known for its skyscrapers as well as their 9/11 tower that took away the Sears Tower’s status as the tallest building in America, skyscrapers were invented in Chicago all the way back in 1884/1885.  Between then and now, we have gotten enough practice constructing these towering behemoths to include elements of work and play.  Enter Cindy’s, a.k.a. the jewel of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.

PC: Chicago Architecture Association

This establishment did not exist back in 1893 when some of the biggest names in Chicago and world industry such as Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormack, and William Wrigley (the very same as the gum company) came together to create the Chicago Athletic Association.  Mr. Wrigley even went on to adopt the association’s logo to be the symbol for a certain Northside baseball team that just broke a 108 year World Series curse.

Not too subtle, eh? PC: LoopChicagoBlog

It became a hub for the richest socialites to get their sweat on as well as some of the biggest athletes from the turn of the early 20th century such as Johnny Weissmuller who went gold five times in Olympic swimming and also was Tarzan.  It was a male-only club up until 1975, but by then it was a slowly decaying institution that eventually closed in 2007.  Thankfully, a hotel consortium reopened the doors to the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel where they restored the edifice to its former glory and then some to create a feast for the eyes.

The ballroom staircase and event room with a recreated plaster ceiling (right) PC: Chicago Architecture Association

I had never been to this hotel even though I’ve lived here all my life, but as always, my fiancée Janice/her friends managed to find a new brunch place to check out.  It was a beautiful day to enjoy the view from Cindy’s where we could look out over Millenium Park and the harbor.  It is one of the most popular skyscraper balconies in the city, so I highly recommend you make reservations.  However, based on our experience, we were not sure why it is so in demand as a brunch venue aside from its ultramodern design.  We were sat at a low bench table with a box for a table.

Plenty of room for tiny Jan Jan

We looked over the menu to find a variety of drinks and breakfast staples such as pancakes and eggs Benedict but with ridiculous prices even for sharable dishes.  25 bucks for a yogurt parfait?  Unless it came served in the holy grail, a bowl of yogurt should never cost that much.  The cocktails were not up to snuff either since their old fashion ($16) was oddly sour and my Moody Tongue porter ($25) was strangely tinny tasting.  Maybe it was an off day, but the wait staff was also not very attentive since it took a good while to get our server to exchange our drinks for better made ones.  Then there was the food.  It was the best part of the experience aside from the seating arrangement.  Our group ended up sharing a cast iron quiche Lorraine ($34), croque madame ($30), and cast iron chilaquiles ($29).  There was a lot of food that eventually was brought out to our table, but the quality still wasn’t worth the exorbitant prices.  Plus, the seating arrangement was not ideal for taller patrons like yours truly.  I say this because my knees were level with the low box table which meant I had to lean forward and downward to an extreme degree  in order to avoid spilling my food. Out of the three dishes we sampled, the chilaquiles were the best followed by the croque madame, and then the quiche.  The chilaquile’s mixture of eggs, chorizo, crema, and peppers were a much-needed punch of Latin american flavor and spice for an otherwise mild brunch.  The croque madame is a French invention originally named the croque monsieur.  The name croque monsieur roughly translates to “Mr. Bite” because it was originally designed to be a cafe sandwich to be quickly eaten in Parisian cafes.  The croque madame was a riff on the croque monsieur when a fried egg was placed atop its brioche top slice.  The floppy egg was said to resemble an old-fashioned lady’s hat, hence the “Madame” moniker.  At Cindy’s, we had many ladies in our presence with how many eggs were residing on our sandwich.  The sandwich was extremely rich and buttery with the melted Gruyère cheese and bechamel sauce, and the ham brought a very slight smoky element to the flavor profile.

So much ham hanging out with some rogue chilaquiles

The frisee salad on the side was less a side salad and more of an ornamental lawn to this monstrous mansion of meat.  This would be an idea meal for a powerlifter who needs a ton of protein really quickly after working out at the Athletic club in the hotel.  As for the quiche, this Middle Ages classic brought the original recipe back to life with plenty of egg custard, bacon, cheese, and onions.  I’m not a big egg fan, so this plate was lower on my list.  Janice loves eggs more than I do, and she said it was okay but not great.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Cindy’s for brunch, but it would be a great place to grab drinks before going out on the town on the Mag Mile, a night-cap at 2 am on Saturdays, or some hair of the dog the following Sunday morning.  Now go out there and enjoy summertime in Chicago for all it’s worth!
Cindy's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Simply Bowled Over (Brazilian Bowl, Chicago)

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Bemvindo to another chapter in the epic food-filled saga that is Mastication Monologues!  Things have been a bit more laid back as of late as I enjoy the wondrous time in school known as Spring Break where the pressures of the typical quarter fall away.  Thankfully, with this free time I’m able to commit myself to at least writing more than usual, and you all get to read about a new cuisine you might have never have tried before.  Talk about a win-win!  Not only that, but this is officially my 300th post!  It has been a long time coming, but let’s get down to the food.  Today’s featured restaurant is Brazilian Bowl located on 3204 North Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657, but there is another location on Lawrence Avenue in the Little Korea neighborhood further north in Chicago.

I’ve always been a fan of trying different types of food from throughout Latin America, but typically Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban food take center stage in Latin American cuisine.  Boiling down this giant geographical area to three countries is doing the rest of the nations’ cuisines a major disservice.  Brazil, on the other hand, occupies a unique position in both the continent and the food world.  Not only is it the largest country in South America, but it is predominantly Portuguese-speaking while swimming in a sea of Spanish speakers.  The size of the country has also led to an interesting blend of cultures.  Brazil’s Amazonian region is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world that is inhabited with Amerindian tribes who have lived in the sadly shrinking rainforest for over 12,000 years now.  Add into that mix, Brazil imported 40% of all African slaves to the Americas as well as being home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. This intermingling of cultures led to Brazil having a diverse food scene as well.  Thankfully, Brazilian Bowl manages to go beyond the southern regional specialty of churrascaria or grilled meats made famous through chains like Fogo de Chao.

There’s not just meat in Brazilian food.

My friend Drew brought me out to try this local eatery since he had been going on and on about how good their food was.  It was a small establishment in the form of a cafeteria-style eatery where we ordered at the counter and had them bring our meals over to our table.  Looking over the menu, they had a variety of dishes including hotdogs, hamburgers, salads, empanadas, traditional Brazilian plates, fresh fruit juices, and of course, make your own bowls.  I looked beyond anything else and went with Drew’s recommendation:  feijoada ($10.95).  I had tried an Indian fusion version of the Brazilian national dish before during Chicago’s Restaurant Week, but I never was face to face with this mythical creature.  While we were waiting for our food to come out, I also managed to see that they were selling a variety of Brazilian snacks and ingredients in the front like a mini mini-mart.  I didn’t indulge, but a package of bread crumbs reminded me to also request an order of the pão de queijo (5 for $4.50; 2 minimum or 10 maximum per order).  Eventually, the staff brought us our food, and it was a mountain of food for the price.  Feijoada (derived from the Portuguese word for “bean”) takes many forms depending on the region of Brazil it comes from, but Brazilian Bowl focuses on the Rio de Janeiro version which includes four different types of meat (blood sausage, pork, beef, and ribs), black beans, collard greens, pico de gallo, farofa, and a bed of rice which serves as the foundation for the hearty meal.  While many conjecture that the stew comes from the era of when African slaves would make the most of the pork scraps they would get on the plantations in addition to African ingredients like collard greens and farofa or cassava flour, others say that the dish arose from Brazil’s black bean boom.  Both upper and lower sections of Brazilian society enjoyed the beans, but the elites preferred to eat the black beans with a stew of meat and vegetables, a carryover tradition from Northern Portugal.  Whatever the origin, this was a meal that was both hearty and overflowing with flavor.  The meats were plentiful and tender with an emphasis on the smoky blood sausage and blended perfectly with the black beans.  The pico de gallo was fresh and slightly tangy due to some lime juice they mixed in.  The collard greens were sauteed and brought even more color and some crunch to an otherwise mostly chewy bowl of ingredients.  When mixed together, the entire melange was like the sambadrome during Carnival in my mouth.

Dramatic recreation of our meal’s flavors (photo credit: AP)

The only downside was the farofa which basically blended into the background, so I’m not sure why it was included.  It was just what I needed to warm-up on a cold Chicago night.  Our meal didn’t end there though.  The pão de queijo or Brazilian cheese bread was the perfect side.  This bread originated in the slave communities of northeastern Brazil in the 17th Century.  Originally, slaves would make a bread out of cassava roots with no cheese, but as the mining communities grew in wealth over time, the slaves were able to make the bread with cheese inside as well as with imported wheat that normally wouldn’t stand up to the intense heat of the region.  The little lumps of bread were piping hot with Parmesan crusts on the outside and even more on the inside.  The interesting part of the interior was that the cheese was thick and taffy-like instead of being more rubbery or stretchy like melted mozzarella.  Definitely worth a try if you’re not looking for extremely exotic cuisine.  Finally, we reached dessert.  I tried an order of brigadeiros ($1 per piece) and a slice of bolo prestigio ($4 per slice).  The brigadeiros has an uncertain past, but they are balls of sticky, sweet condensed milk and chocolate.  If you have a sweet tooth and/or are a chocoholic without any loose fillings, these are for you.  As for the bolo prestigio, it was very similar to the brigadeiros in regard to the chocolate and same sprinkles on the outside.  However, the condensed milk was combined with coconut milk to create a choco-coco masterpiece.  Plus, the cashier gave me basically half the cake when I ordered in Portuguese.  I don’t know if it made any difference, but overall Brazilian Bowl does not skimp on portion sizes.  Drew and I only had a few bites of the rich cake before we drew our dining experience to an end.

Brazilian Bowl was a great recommendation on behalf of my friend, Drew, and I highly recommend everyone try this simple but culturally and culinarily enriching establishment.  Bom apetite!
Brazilian Bowl Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Five Fun and Funky-Fresh Food-Filled Years

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As 2016 draws to an end, many reflect on what a year it has been.  Indeed, it has been one for the ages.  As social media has connected us more than ever, we have witnessed an unprecedented rise of media coverage of the chaos that envelopes the world on a daily basis.  Fear and instability has gripped us in the form of Trump’s election, Brexit, China and Russia’s expanding influence, and increased refugee migration throughout the world due to global conflicts.

This sums it up basically

This sums it up

2016 also marked a historical moment in my life as my blog Mastication Monologues officially turned five years old.  Time for an origin story!

Back in 2011, I was a recent college grad working and trying to figure out how to make a future career.

I needed all the help I could get

I needed all the help I could get

Naturally, it wasn’t the most enjoyable time in my life given the stress of graduating in a period of time when work stability was quite low following the 2008 crash.  Therefore, I decided to go on a trip to New York City with my parents to break up the monotony of work.198073_1575062773554_2851075_n  Up to that point, I had already done a lot of traveling/eating around the USA as well as Europe, but all of my memories were just floating around in my head.  Once we returned home, I reflected on my parents’ encouragement to further develop my writing talents and to record my past adventures; thus, the food blog cometh.  Initially, my blog started off as “Stick a Fork in Me”, and my first post featured an Argentinian restaurant in Chicago where I ate sweetbreads (think internal organs, not cinnamon rolls).  This new hobby began to reflect my everyday life as I went to graduate school and eventually went to work in South Korea as a teacher.  During this time, I decided to make my blog truly stand out from the crowd which in turn resulted in me changing the title of my magnum opus to Mastication Monologues.  With a new blog name, I traveled to many places in Asia I thought I’d never visit

Example: I went to the origin of those cat statues in every Chinese/Japanese restaurant

Example: In Tokyo, I went to the home shrine of those cat statues in every Chinese/Japanese restaurant

and enjoy meals I never heard of.  Eventually I made it back to the States, and I met my fiancee through an act of kismet.  In fact, I won her heart on our first date based on how I ate my fried chicken.

Didn't even know how charming I was :D

Didn’t even know how charming I was 😀

I’m a classy guy like that.  Five years on from my first post, my life is completely different.  I found the lady of my dreams.  I’m going to get married next year.  I’m on the verge of almost 300 posts on Mastication Monologues. Plus, I’m currently studying to pursue a career in speech language pathology.

Even though I might be on the verge of thirty and working on degree number four, I feel as if I have made life progress in these past five years.  The experiences that I have been through have made me an older and wiser person in terms of basic humanity.  No matter where I have been, food has been a way to connect with others, and in a way, what I have eaten has made me think of the world differently.  This, in turn, has been reflected in my writing.  I was originally just writing a purely restaurant review-focused blog, but now Mastication Monologues has morphed into a combination of food, culture, history, and humor.  Although this content focus has changed a bit, my main objective over these five years has never changed: craft a blog that went beyond supplying a recipe catalogue or reviewing restaurants that only pertain to wealthier tastes.  I may not have amassed the type of online following/buzz that others have from doing the aforementioned, but if just one person learns something new from reading my food blog, I am satisfied with the work I have done.  If you haven’t kept up with my blog over these past five years, here is a post for each year my blog has been operating that I think is the most interesting/unique:

2011:  A Brooklyn Fish and Chip Shop that deep fries anything you want/A Cuban Chinese NYC restaurant196951_1575064173589_336444_n

2012:  My first time having a real dim sum dinner in Chicago’s Chinatown

2013:  A visit to Korea’s largest fish market and eating poisonous blowfish soup998550_2876935119549_1444096486_n

2014:  Eating at the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo1656419_3159958634960_66039121_n

2015:  Food Convention in Chicago and meeting Rick Bayless!img_4453

What does the future hold for my blog?  I might not be posting as regularly as I did in the past as more of life’s responsibilities come my way.  Nevertheless, my taste for adventure and a good meal will never wane, so please always keep an eye out for my posts because there are plenty of delicious tales to come.  Have a happy 2017 and never stop exploring!img_9709

Hitting It Big on the Market (Mercat a la Planxa)

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Bon dia!  Finally another post during this crazy holiday season.  It hasn’t always been the easiest to think of what great restaurant I should review next since this time of the year naturally comes with trips to various eateries as well as sampling a variety of homemade morsels.  However, today’s entry on Mastication Monologues has a special place in my heart based on the day we went there.  Next year, I will marry the love of my life, Janice, and Mercat a la Planxa was the ideal backdrop after our engagement photo shoot this past year.

It has been four years since I went back to Spain, and eight years since I lived in Barcelona for a year to finish my Spanish degree.  Although the peninsula is now a far-flung memory from my current home, it always is in the forefront of my mind, especially the food.  Therefore, when Janice said that she made reservations at one of Chicago’s premier Spanish restaurants, my taste buds were having their own tablao de flamenco in anticipation.  Needless to say, Mercat a la Planxa lived up to the hype.  The shoot before the meal went well minus my newer pair of shoes that were ripping the backs of my heels to shreds.  On top of it, it was unusually warm and humid for Fall, and neither Janice nor I are suited for hot climes.  Thankfully, we all took it in stride and much thanks to Tanya our photographer for doing an amazing job through it all (shameless plug for Tanya Velazquez Photography here!).  janicemark-18-of-43After we said our goodbyes and thanks for the enjoyable time, we eventually arrived at Mercat at the corner of Balbo and Michigan Ave.  It is very non-descript on the outside aside from a graphic printed on the windows. img_0706 The interior, on the other hand, is very sleek and modern.img_0677img_0678img_0679  Definitely made an impression on my fiancee and I given it shares a lobby with the Blackstone Hotel.  img_0704This building was known as “The Hotel of Presidents” since some kind of famous Commanders-in-Chief like FDR, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in their luxurious suites.  In addition to heads of state, huge captains of industry (Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and Vanderbilt) as well as other famous stars (Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn) have made the building their temporary home (the entire list can be found here).  Little did we know that this historical building would lead to a historical night for our palates.  Looking over the menu, I realized that Mercat was unique in the sense that they focused on Catalan ingredients and dishes since all of the items were written in Catalan.  While the southern Andalucian region gets all of the credit for what counts as being Spanish (bullfights, flamenco, sunny beaches), Catalunya on the east coast of the peninsula is firmly anti-Spanish.

Never the best of friends

Never the best of friends

It caused me some trouble when living in Barcelona since speaking Spanish before Catalan is seen as sign of being an outsider, but thankfully at Mercat they were just focused on providing the best experience possible.  As we looked over the menu at the various tapas, we saw everything from vegetable, meat, olives, paellas, and even a roast suckling pig (half of one is $220 and a full is double!).  With that final option, the price reflects the fact it can feed roughly 4 to 12 people, and it comes with its own personal meat carver and sides.  Obviously, we weren’t going to take down one of these hogs, but we were starving since we hadn’t eaten all day.  While we were trying to make our choices, our server brought a classic Catalan pre-meal food:  pan amb tomaquet (bread with tomato). img_0682 This Catalan version of Italian bruschetta is relatively new to the region.  This 18th century invention is believed to be the result of abundant tomato harvests and using the juicy veggies to soften hard bread.  I found this take on the carb-based antipasto quite refreshing compared to what is commonly found in Spain, but that also was because it was closer to bruschetta with its large tomato chunks and oregano compared to the minimalist fare found in cafeterias in Espana.  Eventually we settled on several tapas that could satisfy our ever-burgeoning appetites.  First, there were the datiles con almendras/almond-stuffed dates ($9). img_0683 These were a bit different than typical bacon-wrapped dates given they were drizzled with La Peral Asturian cheese which imparted the salty-sweetness with a milky smoothness that served as the fulcrum to balance both flavors.  Next were the gambas al ajillo ($13).img_0685  This was a definite highlight when this Catalonian bowl was still bubbling when placed in front of us.  From the size and quality of the olive oil/garlic/chili mix the shrimp was swimming in, it was the ideal tapa.  Next was my favorite tapa:  patatas bravas ($5).  These “wild potatoes” are my judge of whether or not a restaurant’s tapas are up to snuff (or if they even have them!).  Honestly, if you’re a professional chef and have mediocre/terrible fried potato chunks and a spicy mayonnaise sauce on the side, you might as well pack up your cooking utensils and find a new day job.  While that has been the case in very few of my tapateos, at Mercat they are the real deal.  They are the closest thing I have tasted outside of Spain to the same bravas I would always get at my favorite cafe on Rambla de Brasil in Barcelona.  First, the presentation was exquisite as they were lined up in a little row with the spicy sauce atop each potato like a barretina or traditional Catalonian cap.img_0695  I don’t know if they did this on purpose, but it was an excellent homage to the culture.

Messi reppin' Catalunya!

Messi reppin’ Catalunya!

img_0694These typically red hats are worn as a symbol of Catalan identity, and they can be seen now every Christmas on their traditions that revolve around poop like el caganer  (the pooping man) and el tio nadal (the pooping Christmas log).  Then there was the taste.  Most patatas bravas I’ve had, they’ve had more of a tomato based, more Mexican-style salsa sauce which isn’t even close to the original.  Mercat, however, has just the right blend of mayo, cracked black pepper, and garlic to go with the crunchy potato pieces.  I highly recommend these tapas if you want a true taste of a Spanish tapa mainstay.  Next came the albondigas/meatballs ($12).  This plate was an homage to the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine as the meatballs were made of both beef and lamb and a variety of ingredients including smoked yogurt, tahini, pickled vegetables, and almonds.img_0693  It was a hearty Mediterranean/North African inspired tapa that was further enhanced with the slight spice provided from the North African harissa chili sauce.  If you love lamb or Middle Eastern food/flavors or don’t eat pork, this is the tapa for you!  With all of these delicious plates coming our way, we knew we had to sneak some greens in their somewhere to be healthy, so we got the broquil amb cansalada ($12).  img_0692It was good but not as great as it was described on the menu.  It just tasted like some charred broccoli with the occasional hammy pancetta note.  The desserts at the end of our meal were killer regardless of my sweet tooth.  The only problem is that the desserts are quite small.  The horchata bon bons ($4 each) were addictive with a crunchy chocolate shell coating horchata ice cream and topped with cinnamon puffed rice and almond brittle. img_0697 When popped in our mouths, it had a plethory of crunchy, smooth, and rough textures and a nuttiness more common to Spanish tiger nut-derived horchata which differs from Mexican rice-derived horchata.  We also tried the financer ($14).  This small, golden cake was named either due to its resemblance to a bar of gold or its supposed popularity in the financial district of Paris since it could be carried in the pocket of traders for long periods of time without being damaged.img_0700  I don’t know if this delicate treasure of culinary creation could have done the same because it melted under the weight of the cheesecake gelato, candied almonds, and tart cherry gastrique to create a mouth-watering Catalan creation.  Finally, there were the croquetes de xocolata ($10).  This dessert was like a Salvador Dali creation.  img_0702The milk chocolate croquettes were rich to begin with, but then things took a turn for the “interesting” as we found them floating in mini rafts of banana-infused marshmallow adrift in a sea of rosemary-infused caramel and Arbequina olive oil.  Our mastication-filled maritime adventure rode the flavor wave from the bittersweet chocolate, to the sweet caramel, to the surprising whitecaps of banana and oddly fruity (in a good way) olive oil.  If you want a dessert that challenges your senses in all the best, most decadent ways, this is the dessert for you.

In sum, Mercat a la Planxa left us thoroughly satisfied with our meal and the overall dining experience.

img_0687 While there are cheaper tapas restaurants in the City and Chicagoland area, you will find it hard to discover an eatery as unique as this “Market on the Grill”.
Mercat a la Planxa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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