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I Am Certain of Nothing (Ode to a Chef)

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Really?  Seriously?  Why?  These three words coursed through my mind this past Friday as I got a text from my mom and confirmed it via the power of the all powerful internet:  Anthony Bourdain passed away today at the age of 61.  I was ready to shut out the final Friday of my academic career like a boss, but the news of the death of the original foodie/traveler/essayist/activist/chef/Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practicer/general badass hit me harder than the smell of a ripe durian.  Why the impact?  It is a journey that began in my childhood.

Everyone at some point in their life has some type of fear.  Be it heights, spiders, or even clowns (I still find them creepy to this day), but my big fear when I was a kid was the dark when I was trying to fall asleep.  Why was I scared?  Perhaps it was the the mystery or the dread of the unknown lurking in the darkness that engulfed me each night.  Little did the things that went bump in the night know that I had a secret weapon to combat my anxiety: A small music box that played the Disney song, “It’s a Small World” (which also was hilariously spoofed by the Simpsons).  I would pull the string on the music box when I felt overwhelmed, and the melody would calm me down while I also sang the song to myself as I slowly fell asleep which is as follows:

It’s a world of laughter

A world of tears

It’s a world of hope

It’s a world of fears

There’s so much that we share

That it’s time that we’re aware

It’s a small world after all

Luckily, my fear of the dark went away as I grew a bit older, and my music box fell silent.  However, the verses still echoed in my head as I began to read more, make new friends from different cultures, and finally made my first trip overseas in 8th grade to Italy.  It was around that same time that I stumbled across a book called Kitchen Confidential by a then low-key Bourdain.  I read it from cover to cover, and I couldn’t get enough of the chef’s in-your-face attitude and no-nonsense approach to writing.  This publication ended up being an inspiration for this very blog I started back in 2011 after completing my own foodie tour of his town, New York City.  When he began his tv show on the Travel Channel, I watched it with great fervor to see what place he would go next, and what wacky situation he would approach with his trademark snark but good humor and thirst to learn more of other peoples’ way of life and struggles they might face.  Each episode opened my eyes to the possibility of new lands to explore and new cultures to learn.  Every time I said goodbye to my parents at the airport before leaving to live abroad, I turned around to face an unknown world that filled me with a familiar feeling of fear and anxiety.  However, instead of having a music box at my side, I had Bourdain’s words as my North Star:

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you.”You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

As I found myself at various points in my life looking out over Africa from the Rock of Gibraltar, navigating a remote jungle in the middle of the night in Costa Rica, and venturing into the heart of the hermit kingdom of North Korea among other places, I learned more about the world and myself yet realized how little I actually knew.  His advice also helped me appreciate both simple and fine dining and try anything under the sun including dog soup, snake, turtle jelly, and even poisonous blowfish and its sperm sacks.  Experiencing different cultures through dining wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t step outside of my comfort zone.

All of these experiences bring me to today.  Reflecting on his passing, it seems that the words that I used to sing myself asleep resonate all the more when reflecting on the impact Bourdain has had on me as a traveler, writer, gourmand, and person and the rest of the world.  His shows made us laugh, but his passing left us in tears.  Our world is filled with future hopes but also tempered with fears.  However, through travel I think that we can be more aware that in the end we have more in common that we might think.  It truly is a smaller world thanks to Tony.  Bon voyage et appetite, chef.

 

 

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Come On Inn and Stay Awhile!

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Look who’s back.  Back again.  This foodie’s back.  Tell a friend.  That’s right, readers, it’s another chapter in the Mastication Monologue universe.  I’ve found a bit of spare time in the madness that is grad school leading up to graduation.  It’s less than a month, and I’m ready to start that next step in life as a bilingual clinical fellow in the Acero charter school system in Chicago!  However, future career moves aside, let’s talk about what makes this blog great:  delicious meals and delightful experiences.  Today’s restaurant reviews focuses on Lachet’s Inn at 2119 W Irving Park Road in the Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Chicago has always been a center for immigrants from all corners of the globe.  In the 1800s, German and Irish waves made their way from the entry point of Ellis Island in New York west to the up and coming metropolis of Chicago.  In fact, so many German immigrants arrived in Chicago that from 1850-1900, they were the largest ethnic group in the city with a population peak in 1914.  While there are more individuals of German descent in the Chicago suburbs compared to the city now, there are still plenty of vestiges of their culture, including a plethora of bakeries, chocolate makers, and bier hauses serving traditional German meals and of course, ze beer!  Chicago has always been a big drinking town, and our love of beer was established with the arrival of German brewmasters.  Which brings us to the year 1971 when German businessman Karl Laschet bought a tavern on Lincoln Avenue in a German enclave of Chicago and named it Karl Laschet’s Inn.  It was run as a German tavern focusing only on steins rather than serving old world delicacies.  The ownership of the Inn changed in 1991 and food was brought in in 2000.  Although Lachet’s Inn’s food hasn’t been around as much as their brews, they all channel the spirit of the fatherland’s cuisine.  We were brought in by our friends Katilin and Dan who swore by the food and drinks, so we naturally had to take the plunge.

When we walked into the tavern, we were greeted with a neighborhood bar vibe with plenty of German artwork on the walls and a full bar complete with no frills beers.  Look elsewhere if you’re hankering for really off the wall beer flavors.  99% of their beers hail from either Germany or Austria, and my personal favorite is the dark but super smooth Austrian Hirter Morchl dunkel.  We were sat in the dining room in the rear of the tavern, and it might be a bit tight if it is busy around dinnertime.  As we looked over the menu that was bedecked in the classic Hofbrau blue, we decided to start our meal off with hackepeter ($11.95) and potato pancakes ($7.95).  While potato pancakes are pretty straight foward in terms of their origin, but hackepeter is more commonly known as mett in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  The hackepeter term is more common in northern and eastern Germany, specifically Berlin.  However, mett comes from the Old Saxon word “meti” or “food” or low German for “chopped pork meat”.  The really interesting part of this dish was that it was served in the traditional manner: raw on pieces of fresh bread.   The steak tartare was accompanied with onions and capers and a bottle of Maggi sauce which is kind of like a European take on soy sauce.  From the first to the last bite, I was hooked on this rich and filling appetizer.  The meat melted in your mouth on the soft bread and had notes of garlic and fennel which blended perfectly with the crunchy white onions, pickled capers, and salty Maggi sauce.  I highly recommend this Old World favorite.  The potato pancakes also were top notch with a crispy golden brown outside and a soft but not greazy inside.  Once we were finished, we moved on to our main entrees.  I decided to order the rouladen ($20.95 for the regular size or $14 for the small).  I had the option of soup or salad, but I went with the mixed green salad.  However, I would highly recommend their pickled cucumber salad as well.  When our food came out, we were also treated to a mini loaf of warm brown rye with butter.  It was simple, but also very fresh and filling.  Thankfully I didn’t eat too much of the bread because the rouladen was transcendent.  It consisted of thin cuts of beef wrapped around a mix of bacon, onions, pickles, and mustard served in a brown gravy.  As most meals in life, the food that looks the least impressive is often the most comforting and satisfying.  While I couldn’t taste the pickle or mustard as I’d like, the bacon and onions naturally overpowered the filling in a good way.  The beef was very flavorful and not overcooked.  The spaetzel on the side was good, but I’m not a big fan of spaetzel to begin with.  My wife and her friend swear by it though, so I’d say go for it!  The red cabbage was uber-sour, so beware if you’re sensitive to very bold and powerful flavors.  From other visits, I would also recommend the thuringer and the schnitzels for main dishes.  By the time we were full (very easy to do because the portions are huge), we came to the most interesting part of the meal with the after dinner drink.  This is a German tradition of combining herbs with strong liquor to combat digestive issues after a meal similar to the French digestif.  Laschet’s offers a wide variety of schnapps flavors, and I went with the apple-peach mix.  Apparently for men, it’s the equivalent of ordering an appletini or a cosmopolitan as our waiter scoffed at my choice.  Regardless of his opinion, the shot was sweet and delicious!  Fellas, if you don’t want any judgement, go with the apple or apple/pear mix.  They’re all delicious palate cleansers, but I think the doppel korn will be last on my list for future visits.

Overall, I highly recommend a visit to Lachet’s Inn if you want a taste of old-school Germany in Chicago.  Giant portions of fresh food for reasonable prices with plenty of hospitality.  Now that’s what I call gemütlichkeit!

These Are a Positively Delicious Discovery (BienMeSabe)

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*Opens door*  Hello?  Anyone still here?  Well, for those of you still around and searching for my latest restaurant review, look no further!  Welcome back to Mastication Monologues, and it truly has been too long.  I’m in my final quarter of my graduate speech pathology program, and for once I found some time to write a post about a cuisine that is often overlooked in the pantheon of Latin cuisine:  Venezuelan food.  Although Venezuela is typically known for their beauty queens winning Miss Universe, their political turmoil, or Fred Armisen’s portrayal of an obnoxious Venezuelan ambassador on Parks and Rec, their food really should be their most famous export.  Today I will be reviewing a wonderful Venezuelan restaurant called BienMeSabe located at 1637 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60613.

Bienmesabe” literally translates to “It tastes good to me”.  My wife and I were saying that and more throughout our entire experience at this wonderful paradoxically hidden yet well known gem to the locals and Venezuelan baseball players and managers like Ozzie Guillen, Miguel Montero, and Carlos Zambrano.  The restaurant is run by Chef Pedro Ron, a professionally trained chef from the Culinary Institute of Caracas, who has owned restaurants in Venezuela and in the USA.  Even before we entered the restaurant, we admired their homage to their indigenous populations on the side of the restaurant outside.   Their charming patio was calling our name in addition to their extensive menu.  On his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Colombus regarded Venezuela as a “paradise on earth”, and the country has been blessed with a bounty of assorted produce and various ingredients that are the result of a melange of indigenous, Spanish, Italian, and African flavors as highlighted throughout their menu.  We started our meal with drinks.  BienMeSabe offers your typical soft drinks but also fruit smoothies and Venezuelan beverages.  Naturally, I went for the most authentic drink possible recommended by our waiter, and I ended up getting a small chicha or a rice milk smoothie ($5.75 small/$11.75 large).  The word “chicha” has a murky origin since it can be found in various forms from Mexico to Argentina, but the Royal Spanish Academy states that it most likely comes from the word “chichab” or “corn” in the Panamanian indigenous Kuna language.  The Venezuelan version relies on rice that is boiled and mixed with milk, condensed milk, and cinnamon which results in a rich, creamy vanilla milkshake/horchata-esque beverage that is poured over ice.  It would be a great drink on a hot summer day.  We were quite hungry that day, so we wanted to get an appetizer. We eventually landed on the tostones  from the Spanish verb “tostar” or “to toast” ($7.25).  These twice fried plantains hit the spot.  They were nestled beneath a comforter of Caribbean cheese, crema, slightly spicy chili sauce, and green onions.  If you’re looking for a savory, salty, yet light treat, these would be great right next to a cool beer.  It was then time for the main course:  las arepas!  Structurally, an arepa is like the love child of an English muffin and a tortilla.  It has a maize base and the heft of an English muffin minus the nooks and crannies.  Plus, it is one of the few aspects of Venezuelan cuisine that has remained unchanged since pre-Colombian times and is still popular to this day.  Currently, 70% of Venezuelans eat arepas for at least one of their meals as a side, and they function like bread for sandwiches typically.  BienMeSabe has a great variety of ingredients, both for meat lovers and vegans, to fill their homemade arepas.  I decided to go with the more authentic bochinche (Venezuelan Spanish for “a loud social gathering”) arepa ($13.95).  I could see why its name was apt because it was a house party packed with chunks of sausage, plantains, homemade cheese, and fresh avocado slices. Talk about an interesting guest list!  From the first bite, I was ready to join the fiesta.  The sausages were covered in a chili sauce that had a low and slow burn that was balanced with the cool, more neutral cheese and savory avocado.  The plantains provided occasionally sweet notes to the mainly savory meal but were not out of place.  The garlic sauce on the side were the perfect compliment to the sausages.  The best part was that the arepa held up to some serious munching a large amount of ingredients in a small package.  I couldn’t say the same as some burgers or tacos that I’ve tried in the past.  If you’re not in the mood for arepas, BienMeSabe also has salads, burger, traditional grilled Venezuelan meats, and fish entrees.

Overall, I highly recommend BienMeSabe if you’re tired of typical tacos and burritos and want to experience freshly made Venezuelan cuisine in cozy surroundings.

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

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