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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

Living High on the Hog (Peckish Pig)

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Wow, where has all the time gone?  My first quarter in grad school has come and gone.  I came out on the other side of stats class a little older due to stress, but overall I’m ready to go into quarter numero dos starting January 3rd.  The holidays are currently upon us in Chicagoland, and the weather is definitely playing its part.  We have it all:  -30 F temperatures, icy streets, and snow covered sidewalks.  Luckily, these bleak conditions are ideal for writing some wonderful Mastication Monologues posts that I’m sure you have all been clamoring for due to my prolonged hiatus.  Today’s post involves the Peckish Pig, Evanston’s first brewpub.img_9872

Chicago has always been a city that has enjoyed its adult beverages.  My parents have always told me about how many bars there were in the old neighborhoods they would frequent, and how now most have them have gone away due to changing regulations and consumer tastes, among other influences.  However, the rise of craft beers has been seized upon by many purveyors of food, and they have been reaping the benefits ever since.  Case in point, the Peckish Pig which is always overflowing with patrons come rain or shine, so I would recommend making a reservation ahead of time if you’re not willing to wait.  Janice and I tried this eatery when it was a bit warmer this year, but the laid-back, gastropub ambiance is a warm welcome for most diners even in the dead of a Chicago winter. img_9870

There's always one person creeping on me when I take pictures.

There’s always one person creeping on me when I take pictures.

We started our meal with some libations to cool ourselves off.  The Peckish Pig had an extensive drink list, both alcoholic and non alcoholic.  I was interested in their beers given we were in a brewery while Janice was naturally drawn to the mixed drinks.  She went with the shoemaker ($11), and I got a cherry beer.  The shoemaker was toe-tappingly good with a mix of Belle Meade bourbon, amaretto, amaro, and walnut bitters to cut through the sweetness with an ever-so-slight earthiness. img_9849 My cherry beer was not as elating since it seemed to only be “cherry” in terms of hue.  img_9850They could take some notes from the Belgian Kriek makers if they are looking for a refreshing beer that is both colored and flavored nearly exactly like the sundae toppers.  I would not recommend this beer if you are a fan of fruit beers that are bursting with flavor.  At least it looked pretty if that was any consolation.  Moving on to the appetizer round, we let our grumbling stomachs lead the way.  After looking over their options (there are vegetarian options, by the way!), we decided to try their selection of European meats and cheeses ($15 for a medium and $20 for a large plank) as well as their Brussels sprouts ($7).  When both arrived at our table, we could see why the name of the establishment was the Peckish Pig.  The portions for the price were gigantic, so we were quite excited to tuck into the wonderful repast in front of us.  First, there were the Brussels sprouts.  img_9852The typical scourge of kids’ palates at dinnertime is actually one of Janice and my favorite foods.  Therefore, we expected this version with bacon and brown butter to be a highlight of the meal, but similar to my cherry beer, it did not live up to the hype.  Yes, it contained all of the aforementioned ingredients on the same plate; however, together they did not taste like anything.  It only tasted like some more well done pieces of bacon along with the bitter, almost burnt flavor of the roasted Brussels sprouts.  We were not impressed.  Thank the culinary gods the charcuterie version of Noah’s Ark came ashore on our table.  Where to begin?img_9851  At the top left, there was the Manchego cheese that was a bit better than your typical Manchego which is known for being crumbly and moderately grainy.  It was a bit part player to the other elements on the chopping block.  Next, there was the Gloucester cheddar with chives; the very same of the famous Cotswold Games where they roll a wheel of the delicious dairy down a hill while people give chase and try to catch it.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out here (Fast forward to 2:09 for the rolling).  This was the double variety of the cheddar which meant that it had a very sharp cheddar tang to it which was enhanced by the chives.  Definitely one of my favorites.  To the right of the cheddar was the Stilton blue cheese that was the standout favorite of mine.  It paired particularly well with the apricot jam because the potent funk of the cheese was soothed by the dulcet tones of the fruit spread.  Finally, there was the ash-cured goat cheese that had a hint of smoke to its flavor profile but was not much different from the run-of-the-mill spreadable cheese.  Following the cheese top half, there were the meats.  The salami on the left was slightly spicy which I enjoyed as I moved on to the Spanish chorizo.  I personally prefer the peninsular sausage over its Mexican equivalent due to its low greasiness and high piquancy.  Next to the red disks of chorizo was a fellow Spanish product: Serrano ham.  It is Spain’s take on Italian prosciutto, and I highly recommend trying some in this lifetime.  It is both delicate yet filling with a bold, peppery flavor.  Finally, the Peckish Pig plank treated us to some duck meat which was rich but nothing of note.

We definitely overestimated how hungry we were and the portion sizes at the Peckish Pig when we ordered our food because we also got an order of the hog wings ($13). img_9859 You’ll never see wings this big at another restaurant unless pigs fly.

Slightly intimidating

Slightly intimidating

img_9862 These pork shanks were marinated in a hoisin sauce that was sweet and tangy with a soy base to represent its Far East roots.  If you’re looking for an app that is gargantuan in size and flavor, I highly recommend this tribute to marinated meat.

Good all the way to the bone

Good all the way to the bone

For the entree, I got a duck sandwich ($14).  Mind you, you might be wondering how I survived this marathon of delicious food, but I only ate half of the sandwich.  img_9853img_9854Nevertheless, I greatly savored the meal that on paper should not have left the runway but in practice soared like a Concorde.   The panini-style foccacia was fresh and crunchy and contained a true yin and yang of flavor profiles.img_9858  First, the smoky duck was enhanced by the coffee bacon.  You read that right.  Coffee bacon.

Grounds for imprisonment...in my stomach

Grounds for imprisonment…in my stomach

Once more the Peckish Pig kitchen managed to finagle some coffee-cured piggy into a dish we tried, and it was executed to perfection.  With all of these smoky and savory flavors swirling around my tongue, I appreciated the neutral brie that brought them under control and allowed for the sweet and spicy apricot spread to compliment the rest of the sandwich.  It was a very unique sandwich that expertly balanced sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, and umami between two pieces of foccacia.  Talk about a mouthful!  At this point, we thought it wasn’t possible to finish another bite, dessert was calling our name.  We found room for the English sticky toffee pudding ($7).  It was a sumptuous feast for both our eyes and taste buds.img_9868  The moist cake was studded with small chunks of delicious toffee and swimming in a thin pool of custard cream and caramel sauce.  If anything, skip the meal and just have dessert.  It is definitely worth it.

Overall, the Peckish Pig is a casual restaurant that would be ideal for catching up with old friends and family or perhaps you would like to try one of Chicagoland’s many brewpubs.  I would also recommend it for its attention to both meat-lovers and vegetable fans as well as its extensive drink menu.
Peckish Pig Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

You Can Bring a Horse to Water, But He’d Prefer a Burger (Au Cheval)

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I never thought that I would be back this soon, this deep into the jungle that is graduate school at Northwestern University, but here I am!  Back for a limited time on Mastication Monologues, but hopefully I will be able to write more once this mad quarter is finished.  This year has been flying by, and I have visited and eaten at tons of great locations across Chicagoland.  However, today’s review involves a restaurant/diner known best for its hotly-touted cheeseburger.  In a foodie city like Chicago where we love our meat based dishes, especially hamburgers, the previous sentence will elicit a different response almost every time you ask someone from Chicago depending on where they are living in the city.  We even have the Billy Goat Diner made famous by Saturday Night Live and a curse featuring a certain Northside team that is currently trying to break the same curse and win the World Series.  Go Cubbies!  Yet, Au Cheval is one of the most highly regarded establishments across the city when it comes to the signature American dish of cheeseburger and fries. (Quick note:  Two other great restaurants, Cochon Volant and Small Cheval, have similar burgers minus the typical long lines)

Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop/Fulton Meat Packing District a.k.a. Google Headquarters new backyard, it is the flagship on a block of heavy culinary hitters including Stephanie Izzard’s so-famous-you-need-reservations-six-months-ahead-of-time Girl and the Goat  (highly recommend this restaurant too).  Au Cheval is relatively new in a city of numerous old establishments that have withstood the test of time, and based on our experience, there exists the distinct possibility that this burger joint might become part of the city’s fabric if it hasn’t already.  Janice and I met up with our friends Katelin and Dan for lunch.  They have metered street parking that we took advantage of, or you can reach it by taking the L (subway for you non-Chicagoans).  It is a very popular eatery if you couldn’t tell based on my description before, and they do not take reservations.  Because of this fact, it is often subject to mob scenes of people lining up outside during peak lunch and dinner hours to sample their offerings.  Luckily, we managed to beat the lunch rush and were immediately seated in their slightly dim, modern diner. img_9045 As I surveyed the tiny interior, I wasn’t blow away by my surroundings, but I’m a gourmand, not an interior designer.  img_9024Dan and I started the meal off with their Mad Town Nut Brown that was dark, had 7 different malts, and had nice hazelnut notes. img_9026 Au Cheval also offers a wide variety of mixed drinks, shots, and non-alcoholic beverages.  Food-wise, I could describe them as a very upscale diner that managed to find a twist on simple creations like bologna sandwiches or scrambled eggs served with fois gras. img_9025 Breakfast offerings aside, Janice and I were there for the burger that has been proclaimed by the Food Network, Forbes, etc. as “The Best Burger in America” for multiple years. They had a single ($10.95) or double patty ($12.95) option for an upcharge as well as the egg and bacon.  We followed Dan’s advice for choosing the double patty with egg and bacon.  He followed suit, and Katelin ordered the raw vegetable salad with apple and blue cheese ($10.95).  Surprisingly, before you could say “Da’ Bears”, our burgers were in front of us in their full glistening glory as well as a side of fries. img_9036

Our taste buds are ready

Our taste buds are ready

First, let’s discuss the much talked about burger.img_9032  Now, I am not typically a fan of the egg-on-burger trend that has been sweeping America, but visually this fried egg seemed like a work of pure art with its off-center sun in the sumptuous solar system of flavors in front of me.  Plus, if an egg is on top of a burger, it is described as being “on horseback” hence the name of the restaurant being “Au Cheval”.  Then there was the slabs of pure pork that were stacked like massive redwood planks over two serious beef patties donning flowing robes of American cheese.  The Eastern European side of me also appreciated the dill pickle spear on the side to cut through the grease.  Once I stacked it all together, it was a soaked monument to gastronomic greatness.  img_9040I hefted this sandwich to my maw and was immediately drawn into the aromas of beef and sweet pork belly like bees to honey.  I was smitten at first chomp.  The beef was grilled to medium rare perfection while the cheese was omnipresent yet not overwhelming.  I was partial to the pork belly that shone through and enhanced the flavor profile with a maple syrupy sweetness that your run-of-the-mill, crispy, thin bacon could not accomplish in a million dinner parties.  The only downsides to this burger were the aforementioned egg which kind of made the brioche bun hard but not impossible to grip, and the bottom part of the bun which left my burger hanging by my fingertips  at the end of this white-knuckle ride of a meal.  The fries on the side were just as great as the burger with a palatable amount of salt and just the right amount of fry to their golden hued exteriors.img_9027  Katelin said her salad was delectable too even though it wasn’t served between two pieces of bread or hiding beneath a sea of gooey cheese.img_9029  A good option if you want to balance your cholesterol out after downing one of Au Cheval’s incredibly rich burgers.

We left the restaurant to a sunny afternoon with bellies full and greatly satisfied.  I could now see what the hubbub was all about when we would go by the establishment and see people jostling for position in line.  Great restaurant owners know great ingredients which in turn lead to great burgers.  This chain of events was displayed during our visit to Au Cheval, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to try a burger worthy of having the word “greatest” in its title.  You might disagree with me about it being the be-all, end-all of burgerdom, but it is a high quality burger for a very reasonable price even with a bit of a wait.  So, if you don’t know where to go for lunch or have time to wait during dinner, gallop over to Au Cheval!
Au Cheval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Diego (Day 3): A Sweet Sendoff (Il Fornaio and Phil’s BBQ)

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It has finally come to the end of the line for the San Diego travelogue, and perhaps my last blog post in a long time to come as I begin my journey through graduate school tomorrow.  I’ll try my best to post on her, but life has a funny way of hijacking my best material.  As always on Mastication Monologues, I plan on highlighting the culinary stops we made along the way during our travels as well as any fun or exciting events of note.  Day three was much more laid back than day one or day two aside from a little shoe scare toward the end of our trip.

As we woke up from our deep slumber from the crazy night before, we were definitely feeling the results of dancing and indulging ourselves all night long with great company.  Thankfully, the newlyweds were hosting a farewell brunch for guests at another eatery on Coronado Island called Il Fornaio or “The Baker” in Italian. img_9746 It was one of seemingly a million Italian eateries strewn about San Diego, but it was clearly inspired by the signature villas one could find in the Tuscan countryside with the sand colored walls and arbor vitaes lining the entrance.  On the inside, it was light and airy with exposed woodwork and a kitchen that was open to the public eye. img_9744img_9743 While we didn’t eat from the official menu since it was picked out to be more wide ranging for the multitude of guests’ palates, img_9742the waffles, eggs, and sausage that were provided were all excellent, especially the fluffy waffles topped with a spritz of whipped cream and some freshly sliced strawberries.  We didn’t touch any of their alcoholic offerings like their signature mimosas or bellinis (a nod to the classic Venetian drink at Harry’s Bar), but they didn’t mess around when my fiancee asked for her personal elixir of life:  Diet Coke.

Now that's service!

Now that’s service!

Once finished with chowing down on the delectable morsels, we strolled out onto the outdoor patio that overlooked the entire San Diego skyline. img_9745 A breathtaking view for a trip that has felt the same way at certain points due to the immense amount of activities that were planned.  We were under the canopy, soaking up the last few rays of humidity free weather, when suddenly Janice remembered she didn’t have her high heels from last night.  I quickly traced our Uber driver down online and called him.  Luckily, he had them in the back of his car, and offered to drive to the restaurant to drop them off.  After we wished the Cua and Ng family goodbye and thanked them for their hospitality, our Uber driver arrived right on time with the goods.  It seemed like nothing could stand in our way on this perfect vacation.  Not even when we looking for a place to satisfy our rumbling stomachs as we waited for our plane.  As mentioned in my day one post, the wedding party hosted a rehearsal dinner with barbecue catering.  Lo and behold, Janice and I ended up eating at the same company’s franchise location in San Diego’s airport:  Phil’s BBQ.img_9747  After looking over their full menu of chicken, ribs, salads, sandwiches, and fixin’s, I decided to share a quarter rib dinner with Janice ($10).  It included four of their ribs and with two small sides or one large side.  We opted for the former choice in the form of potato salad and macaroni salad.  It also came with a side of cornbread which might not be offered at their main restaurant locations.  The ribs were smaller than the gargantuan ones offered at Sabrina and Thompson’s rehearsal dinner, but that didn’t mean that they were lacking in flavor.img_9749  The tomato-based sauce was on the sweeter end with not much of a smoky profile to it.  They weren’t as mouth-wateringly transcendent than the Twin Anchor ribs back in Chicago, but they were better than some fancy Italian dining at Sbarro.  The sides were competently made but nothing of note.  I did enjoy the cornbread that was warm and soft without the waterfall of crumbs that typically accompany each bite of cornbread.  I’d recommend trying Phil’s BBQ if you have a layover and want to try some Ohio style bbq, but it isn’t a must for any traveler.  At least the food was more satisfying than the Euro 2016 final between Portugal and France we watched.  By the time we were boarding, Ronaldo was lifting the trophy, elated beyond words, while we were less than enthused to come back to reality after such a wonderful time.  Perhaps the West coast really is the best coast after all that we saw, experienced, and tasted.   Until next time, readers!  Keep on traveling and eating!13606960_4451837091114_8145190808412734475_n

Il Fornaio Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Phil’s BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Diego (Day 2):  A Lambo, Gelato, and Rollin’ in Dough (Donut Bar, Nado Gelato, Village Pizza)

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Ah San Diego.  Home to the Chargers, the Padres, and their most famous mustaschioed ambassador, Ron Burgundy.  While we were visiting the city, we never got into antics like the Channel 4 news team like an anchorman street fight or having our beloved pet dog punted off the Coronado bridge, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a memorable time (I did get a new suit though for the wedding!).  47002647Our first day was fun, but Saturday was a non-stop rollercoaster that had plenty of thrills and a couple spills because we did eat and drink our fair share like any good tourists should.

If you didn’t read my first post, you can check it out here because our morning involved Janice’s friend and local fixer Amber who I introduced before.  Sadly, Ellie the schnauzer was not there to keep us company.  So, she brought us to a local breakfast favorite for both locals and tourists:  Doughnut Bar.  Now, coming from Chicago which has its fair share of fancy doughnut bakeries, I didn’t know what the big deal was about a company that specialized in creating mind-boggling sweets.  The line that stretched down the block that we soon found ourselves in spoke otherwise to my doubts.IMG_9625 IMG_9635  Amber recommended getting there the earlier the better as in like 8 am or 9 am if you want your choice of doughnuts because once the fried treats are gone, they close the entire store.   As we slowly shuffled like a horde of bleary eyed zombies toward our sugary host, something bright and shiny caught my eye.  It was just the Doughnut Bar owner’s new Lamborghini Aventor with a custom paint job. IMG_9629 I don’t know why other people weren’t as enthused as I was about this beauty of a machine just chilling on the side of the road.  It was a sign that it was going to be a great day on west coast.  Thankfully, the line moved quickly because we needed to get our sugar fix on before running off to get ready for the wedding ceremony!  I was having some second thoughts about rushing in and out after we set foot inside.  It was very modern and quirky with plenty of hilarious doughnut themed swag and artwork.IMG_9637 IMG_9640 IMG_9641  The true objets d’art were spread out in front of us like some type of heavenly bounty graced with every color and flavor of the rainbow.  According to Amber, they also switch around their menu and offer vegan options, so they know how to cater to people from all walks of life and keep them on their toes at the same time.  Janice and I didn’t know where to start because all of the doughnuts were calling our names.IMG_9643  There were chocolate ones,IMG_9644 ones made in homage to the local MLB All Star Game,IMG_9642 IMG_9646 cake batter,IMG_9647 and even one with a motherloving Pop Tart baked in the middle!IMG_9645 I didn’t want to look directly into its frosting for fear it would put the diabetic evil eye on me.  Plus, some honorable mentions among many.  IMG_9650 IMG_9649 IMG_9648We eventually made our choices, and they are not the cheapest doughnuts in the world at roughly 2-4 bucks a doughnut.  However, most of them are huge as you’ll see later in the post, and they are some of the most unique doughnuts you’ll ever taste.  Janice and I got a box of the Homer doughnut (mmmm sprinkles), a bacon infused cinnamon roll, a peanut butter cup doughnut, a Mexican hot chocolate doughnut, a Nutella doughnut, and a red velvet. IMG_9651 In addition to our to-go box, we got a French toast doughnut which was a doughnut fried and served up like regular French toast. IMG_9752 IMG_9754 This was an homage to the origin of doughnuts.  According to Wikipedia, some believe the word “doughnuts” came from the Dutch North American settlers who made oliekoek or “oil cake”, but the more compelling origin comes from a mid 19th century tale of an American boy punching holes in his fried dough because the centers were often raw.  This allowed for his dough to cook thoroughly and looked like the traditional doughnuts we eat and enjoy today.  However, the “nuts” part might have originally referenced the fried bits they poked out from the middle and have been referenced in writing as a uniquely American recipe as early as the early 1800s by none other than Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving.  We enjoyed every bite of this fried piece of Americana as we chilled upstairs surrounded by plenty of interesting paintings and wall art.IMG_9757 IMG_9660 IMG_9659 IMG_9658 IMG_9656  The French toast doughnut also came with a side of butter, honey, and syrup.IMG_9755  I just went with the syrup, but it seemed almost like gilding the lily with how delicate and light the doughnut was.  It was an excellent investment and got us amped up for the very long day ahead of us.IMG_9756  Highly recommend this option if you have the chance to snag one from the hungry masses.  As we were leaving, there was still a plethora of people lining up outside, but I managed to sit in the Lambo which fulfilled one of my lifetime dreams. IMG_9664 Could this day get any better?  Oh yeah!  We got suited and booted and went also with our friend Kathy to the church on Coronado island.

Burt Macklin on the case!

Burt Macklin on the case!

 

Much better

Much better

We made it just in time, IMG_9760and it was a great service.  Personally, I think the flower girl and ring bearer stole the show until the bride’s grandparents came out.

Awwwww

Awwwww

They were so old but in such good shape and happy.  IMG_9763Definitely restored my faith in humanity.  The ceremony went off without a hitch,

The wedding party

The wedding party

and afterward I found myself once again face to face with another beautiful automobile.IMG_9680  This time around it was a classic Rolls Royce that the bride and groom were riding off in, IMG_9681but I wouldn’t have minded if they gave Janice and me a ride just around the block.  Instead, we wished them well and needed to find something to eat before the reception.  Walking around the beautiful isthmus of Coronado, we eventually found Fire and Fly Pizzeria.  It was bright and airy inside with outdoor seating in the front and rear of the establishment.  IMG_9683They seemed to specialize in brick oven fired, Neopolitan style pizzas.  They offer both premade and make your own pizza options in addition to a few sides.  We got an order of two broccoli and tomato pizzas and one chicken pesto pizza ($9 each).  I also got a local brewed Coronado beer ($6).  They were promptly cooked and served as we made our way to the back patio to enjoy the beautiful day and engaging food. IMG_9687IMG_9686 The pizza that Janice and I shared, the broccoli and tomato sans tomato, was good but too bland for my taste.  I’m a man of fiery foods, so the mix of mozzarella, ricotta, and herb garlic olive oil was a bit too safe for my palate.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a quality pizza, but I’d get a different pizza the next time around.  I preferred the chicken pesto pizza that our friend Kathy got because it was coated with a healthy, almost excessive top layer of arugula which gave way to pieces of chicken that were intermixed with mozzarella, pesto, and roasted peppers.  As for my California Amber, I realized that I wasn’t a fan from the first sip.  IMG_9685It had a slight pine/resin aftertaste which turned me off instantly, but it seemed like a trend in California to serve mainly lighter beers like lagers and IPAs.  What does a guy got to do to get a good stout/porter?  Still, Fire and Fly was an excellent place to grab a bite to eat before the wedding reception.  We finished our lunch and walked around the isthmus toward the Del Coronado hotel and decided to get some gelato at Nado Gelato.  IMG_9695It was a non-descript cafe that we strolled into and managed to beat the local crowd from the beach.IMG_9692 IMG_9693  A clear sign we made a good decision.  After looking over their numerous, mouth-watering flavors, IMG_9691 IMG_9689Janice and I got a small cup of the giandua (chocolate hazelnut) and salted caramel.  IMG_9690 IMG_9694It was reasonably priced and extremely high quality.  After learning so much from local Chicago ice cream shop owners in another post, we could tell from the rich, nutty flavor complimented by the salt in the caramel that we found the jewel in the crown of Coronado’s dessert scene.  Highly recommend this tiny spot if you’re looking for something sweet to cool you off.  Eventually, we reached the historical Hotel Del Coronado.  It was originally built in 1888 and didn’t look a year over 100.IMG_9765  Seriously though, it was a reception location that was without equal that I’ve been to in a wedding and hotels I’ve stayed in for my entire life.  We walked through the dark wood lobby under antique crystal chandeliers and past the wrought iron elevator up to the penthouse suite for pre-cocktail hour drinks.  Long story short, the views were terrible, and it was a mainly forgettable time.  If the written word doesn’t convey my sarcasm, I’ll let the view do the talking.

Life is hard

Life is hard

Before we made our way to the cocktail hour, we managed to witness a special part of Sabrina and Thompson’s wedding:  the Chinese tea ceremony.  I thought it was going to be a traditional Chinese ceremony to compliment the Catholic ceremony before, but it was more of a symbolic uniting of families through Sabrina and Thompson serving tea to the new members of their expanded familial network.IMG_9703  In return, they received lucky red envelopes containing many monies I assumed.  However, the real show stopper were the gifts for the bride and groom.  Thompson got a spiffy new watch, but Sabrina managed to wear half of Fort Knox’s gold in the form of two giant bracelets and a gold chest plate.  IMG_9768Once the ceremony concluded, we made our way through the hotel like some sort of entourage.  Jokingly, the girls said I looked like a secret service agent escorting some gold covered celebrity and her squad through to the afterparty.  Little did they know, I was trained by Burt Macklin from Parks and Recreation. 48164ac277ed50a145d31d4620cc4caf Luckily, we made it safely to to the very bright back lawn that was right next to the Pacific Ocean.  IMG_9704No big deal.  The setting was picturesque, the drinks were flowing, and the seagulls were out for burgers, mini-sliders to be exact.  They swooped down on us to steal food, but luckily we were looking stylish and freaked out in our sweet sunglasses party favors. IMG_9713 Their family dog, Bebe, however, was non-plussed looking so stylish in a bowtie. IMG_9705 Eventually, the clock struck the reception hour, and we were led to the back ballroom that was enormous and overlooking the same rear lawn where we were enjoying some classic wild animal attacks.  I won’t get bogged down in every minute detail of the reception in this post because it’s long enough.  In a nutshell, minus the odd band music, we made some new friends and got down with old ones even when the dancefloor was dead sometimes. IMG_9726 IMG_9717IMG_9720The food was par excellence (a dessert bar and a macaroni bar? yeah, that happened), and our one bartender we always went to made sure that everyone was having a great time.  By the time the band’s encore finished, Janice and I made our way past our fellow partygoers outside the hotel entrance who, like us, needed a comfortable bed.  However, our night didn’t end there.  Back at the Air BnB we tried some of the doughnuts from the first part of the post.  I loved the Homer doughnut because it was simple, iconic, and fitting for someone with a big appetite like me.  IMG_9771The Mexican hot chocolate one wasn’t that memorable even with the toasted marshmallows, but the Nutella doughnut was delectable as well as the red velvet one.  By that time, our friend Kathy had made it back as well, and we passed out after an incredibly long day with heads filled with memories and bellies stuffed with amazing eats.

Donut Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fire + Fly Artisan Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nado Gelato/Botega Italiana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Diego (Day 1): I’m Going Back, Back To Cali (Yankee Pier, Lemonade)

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Time is fleeting.  Summer 2016 is flying by in the Chi per usual as kids are going back to school, and parents are happy the little monsters are out of their hair.  The last of the street festivals are attempting to be crammed into the few days of nice weather we have left before winter comes to our metropolis a la Game of Thrones (hopefully sans the army of the dead).  Luckily, I have another wonderful travelogue to bring a bit of sunshine to your day through the magic of our trip this summer to San Diego, California.

Janice had originally informed me of one of her child hood friends, Sabrina, was going to get married about a year ago, and when I finally found out where the wedding was going to be, I couldn’t be more excited.  It turned out it was going to be in San Diego, specifically Coronado Island.  The reason for my excitement was that I hadn’t been back to California in ages, and I was aching for some of that humidity-free fresh air and West coast sunshine, a definite change from this Chicago summer known more for humidity, heat, and destructive lighting storms. 21dbbc4ca53ea93620d40f5ea967b488c7fe99ae6f2b79b50d8f7ca5ab123e9d No wonder we Midwesterners are so tough.  Janice and I had an ungodly early flight, so by the time we reached our layover in San Francisco, another fun place to visit in California, we needed something to eat for breakfast beside the miniscule treats they handed out to placate us in the coach section.  As we strolled to our gate, we found a restaurant that seemed to be quite popular with our fellow travelers:  Yankee Pier.  They are a chain that has a stand alone location and another one in the San Francisco aiport, so they had a menu and service to compliment the need for people on the run.  However, this focus on culinary efficiency didn’t sacrifice the quality of the food.  I got some sort of Mexican omelet that was liberally garnished with cilantro and filled with peppers, chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocado which was a major game changer.IMG_9601  With a couple splashes of Tabasco hot sauce, I turned this fiesta in my mouth from mas o menos to un bombazo!  There was plenty of flavor to savor in this omelet, and I’d recommend it if you like Mexican flavors in general.  It was so good I even caught Janice in the act of sneaking a bite or three from my plate. IMG_9603 Also, I really enjoyed their sourdough toast because it wasn’t very crispy and more on the chewy end.  Sourdough is actually part of San Francisco’s identity since it was brought to the state by French bakers in the 1840s during the famous gold rush, and Yankee Pier’s version of the iconic bread did not disappoint.  Overall, if you’re looking for a delicious meal that is also mindful of your travel time restrictions, I’d highly recommend Yankee Pier.  Once we downed our food, we were on a plane further south to San Diego.

Life is terrible

Life is terrible

Upon landing we were picked up by Janice’s friend Amber and another little companion I was not expecting.  I got in the back seat and was face to face with Ellie the Schnauzer.  She was such a good lil’ poochy, but she was ready to show us around the town with her owner.IMG_9774  Eventually, we found a place to park and walk around.IMG_9623 IMG_9610  Eventually, we had worked up a bit of an appetite, so Amber took us to one of her favorite local eateries:  Lemonade.  Apparently, it has locations all over the Golden State due to its popularity as a purveyor of healthy salads, sandwiches, and (not so healthy) sweets.  Oh yeah, and they do have their own homemade lemonades, of course! (Sorry, Beyonce fans).  IMG_9622 IMG_9621We didn’t know what to get because there was so much to choose from, IMG_9611 IMG_9612 IMG_9613IMG_9614 IMG_9615but we went with two of the cold salads:  the blt panzanella ($2.75) and the edamame salad ($2.50).  It was cafeteria style, so they scooped a generous helping of each on our plate as we slid down the line.  We also wanted to try one of the sandwiches and purchased the tomato and mozzarella ($6.95).   IMG_9616They also have a plethora of sinfully decadent looking desserts, but we did not give into them.  IMG_9617 IMG_9618 It was time to pay for our goods, and we had fun with the employees having samples of their lemonades behind the counter.  It’s not just your mother’s lemon and sugar based summer drink.  We tried the carrot ginger, hibiscus limeade, and blood orange lemonades.  The best part was that you could mix and match as many flavors as your thirsty heart desired at no extra charge.  In the end, we made a mix of the blood orange and the hibiscus tea.  IMG_9619 IMG_9776It resulted in a deep burgundy hued drink with a slightly tangy and almost cherry-esque tinged flavor profile that would cool us off after running around with Ellie the tour guide and Amber. IMG_9777 We took a seat on the patio in the front, and while the ladies were catching up, poochy was enjoying her time on my lap/losing her cool over my drink.

So calm

So calm

Maybe not

Maybe not

Eventually, we got to eating our salad and our freshly made sandwich.  The salads were fresh and light since we didn’t want to fill up before the rehearsal dinner for Sabrina’s wedding.  IMG_9620The edamame salad was seasoned with a vinaigrette and pepped up with pickled radishes, sesame seeds, and carrots.  I particularly enjoyed each firm bean imparting an earthy note to each forkful.  The panzanella was my choice (on the left), and is an antiquated recipe.  This Italian salad has been referenced in literature as early as the 16th century as a “salad of onions served with toast”.  While it has shifted in focus from onions as a base to tomatoes, it doesn’t take anything away from this hearty side dish.  This savory salad consisted of basically a BLT sandwich with arugula vinaigrette soaked pieces of bread, turkey bacon, avocado, and tomatoes.  It’s definitely a salad for those who don’t love traditional salads, i.e. healthy ones.  As for the sandwich, it wasn’t anything of note.  Yes, it was fresh and handmade, but I’ve had a caprese sandwich before. IMG_9781 I’d like to try one of their other more noteworthy creations the next time we’re in town.  Once we downed our amazing meal, we bade Amber and Ellie farewell (but not forever) and made our way to our airBnB.  We donned our finest duds and Uber-ed over to the picturesque Coronado golf club for the bride and groom’s rehearsal dinner. IMG_9782 While we were wasting time before everyone showed up, we played some Pokemon Go, and I got caught in the act. IMG_9783 Eventually, both families and their friends arrived, and we had to stop being antisocial.  It was a great night meeting Janice’s friends from long ago, the bride’s giant family, and eventually bonding with a good number of the younger folks of the wedding party going around catching Pokemon.  Also, the food and drink was phenomenal.  We went to the restaurant that catered the event on our last day, so I’ll save my review for that post.  It was such a great time overall, in fact, we stayed until the staff kicked us out of the clubhouse.  If this first day was any indication of how the rest of our visit in San Diego was going to transpire, I couldn’t wait for the big day tomorrow!  IMG_9784Stay tuned for part 2…

Yankee Pier Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lemonade Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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