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Temenaks in Tenerife (Day 2: Cannonballs and Cuttlefish)

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If you’re still reading Mastication Monologues for day 2 of our Tenerife adventures, you’re in luck because that’s exactly what’s in store for this post!  While my post for day one was action packed complete with a beach rave and us being tardy to a sardine burning party, this post is for those who are more into chill days or fans of the world’s beautiful game:  Soccer or better known as football.

We started the day off with breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and we decided to take a post-breakfast paseo or stroll to the walkway below the hotel that traced the jagged, volcanic coast of the island with plenty of giant aloe plants, beautiful flowers, and lizards along the way.  Eventually, we looked out over the alcantilados or local cliffs and saw that there was a round indentation that jutted out from the coastline and was filled with water.  Upon closer inspection, we saw that there were people walking around it and swimming by it in the ocean.  Our new plan for the day was to make it to the natural pool and swim in the ocean or bust.  This was our first foray into the very hilly main neighborhoods east of our hotel, and it turned out to be more complicated that we thought.  Since Tenerife has undergone and still is experiencing the influx of tourism, we had to navigate a labyrinth of private resort properties and small side streets to eventually find a series of stairways that led to the rocky coast line.  However, our adventure didn’t end there, we then traversed a series of giant, sloping crags to eventually reach the end of rocky shore and the natural pool.  It was a true test of marital teamwork.  As we made our way past snorkelers riding the waves while also trying not to be thrown upon the giant stones lining the shore, we were amazed at how Tenerife manages to still have pockets of wild beauty amidst the encroachment of humans.   We gazed upon the water as we prepared to dive in, and we could even see small fish flitting about under the surface before we cannonballed our way into the cold and salty Atlantic.  It was a great day of soaking up the sun and surf while swimming.  Eventually, we decided to call it a day after we began to feel like pieces of salty bacalao, and on our way back up from the natural pool we made friends with an older Italian couple.  The jolly signore and I bonded as we helped our ladies over the giant rocks, and he was surprised to find we were American.  Turns out he was retired Italian air force officer who temporarily worked with the U.S. military and lived in Huntsville, Alabama (said with his best impression of a Southern American accent), and we enjoyed a good laugh about sometimes not being able to understand some of our fellow tourists’ thick British accents.  Eventually, we parted ways at the top of the hill, and Janice and I decided to get an early dinner before the Spain vs. Morocco match.

We ended up at a small restaurant called Camber (Calle Herrador, 64, 38683 Puerto de Santiago, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain) that was your typical Spanish cafeteria with terrace seating and indoor seating and a bar with tapas out for display.  We decided to sit outside to enjoy the sunny weather, but that quickly became our undoing as we were bombarded with a horde of flies that were enchanted with my saltwater-soaked jersey.  Between enraged swats, we had a lovely meal.  The first tapas that emerged were paella and the albondigas or meatballs.  The paella wasn’t as good as the one from our sunset cruise, but the sweet tomato sauce went well with the pork-based meatballs.  We then received our gambas al ajillo or garlic shrimp which was served in a way I’ve never seen before.  Instead of being grilled and tossed with garlic, they were served in a low, wide clay bowl still boiling in water and olive oil and surrounded by a plethora of sliced garlic cloves.  Although they were on the smaller end of the shrimp kingdom, they were fresh and coated in a heavenly garlic wash.  Finally, our main and muy canario entree emerged from the kitchen: choco or cuttlefish with a side of papas arrugadas or wrinkly potatoes.  Surprisingly, there were some indigenous potatoes on the islands before the Spaniards introduced the variety we were eating in the 1500s.  However, the ancient preparation of this dish hasn’t changed where they are boiled, heavily salted, and then left to dry which results in a shriveled potato with a salty crust (kind of how we felt after our Atlantic Ocean adventure).  These spuds were accompanied by traditional mojo verde and mojo rojo (pronounced “mo-ho).  The green/verde variety was more like a mild chimichurri made from parsley, cilantro, garlic, and olive oil, and the red/rojo variety was spicier since it contained paprika and small, red peppers from the neighboring island of La Palma.  I liked both of them, especially when mixed together, on the potatoes.  These sauces were eventually brought to the Caribbean where they live on in Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican cuisine, and the red mojo legacy even can be seen in some spicier barbecue sauces from the American South where Spanish influence existed like Texas, Florida, and Louisiana.  As for the choco or cuttlefish, it is a very common dish as well as octopus in the Canary Islands since island nations typically love their seafood.  I don’t think it was the best cuttlefish in the world, but it wasn’t terrible.  I liked the green mojo that brought out more of the cuttlefish’s salty flavor, but I’m sure there are better seafood spots on the island.  Once we paid, we walked back to our hotel to change out of the fly-enticing clothes we were rocking.  On our walk back, we perused a local open-air mall for some possible souvenirs, and we found a let’s just say “suggestive” trend of suspiciously shaped bottle openers as we went from store to store.  Eventually, we asked a shopkeep why there are so many of these kind of bottle openers, and he simply said, “One person sold them, and people buy them.”  Hooray for civilization!  Once we changed, we walked back up the mini-mountain to Bar Central (Av. 5º Centanario, s/n, 38683 Santiago del Teide, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain).  It was similar to the Camber cafeteria, but it was soccer themed with all of the crests of Spanish futbol clubs along the top of the establishment.  As the teams took the field and the anthems played, we saw the surrounding tables fill up with patrons, some who worked at our hotel, to see the furia roja play their way to the top of the group.  As the ball began to roll, our waiter came around with free tapas (credit to Janice for the excellent portraits) including green olives, liver sausage on crunchy, mini toasts, and our favorite spicy chorizo spread on the same small toasts.  It was the perfect side to our cold Doradas and the dramatic injury time goal that brought the Spanish to the top of their group.  After all that excitement, it was calming to watch the sun set over the horizon and the beautiful island of Gomera that we would explore the following day. Stay tuned, readers!

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Temenaks in Tenerife (Day 1: Noche de San Juan, Sunset Cruise)

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Welcome back once again to another entry of Mastication Monologues!  I may or may not have more free time to write on this blog now that I have officially graduated from my speech pathology program, but my wife and I actually just came back from a magical honeymoon in the mysterious land of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.  When we eventually settled on the location, I was very excited because I wanted to go somewhere in Spain, but a location I had never been before so my wife and I could explore together.

The Canary Islands are a series of volcanic islands that are off the west coast of Morocco that truly are a hidden gem and basically Hawaii for Europeans who are searching for fun in the sun, i.e. English, German, and Russian tourists mostly.  However, when we told people stateside where we were going, we were greeted with typically an uncertain, “Oh cool.  That’s awesome.” followed by, “So where are they exactly?”  However, they wished us well and to have plenty of fun which we obviously did.  Funny enough though, the islands are not named after the chirpy birds that were used in mine shafts rather the birds were named after the islands.  Numerous theories about the islands’ name abound.  One involves the Romans calling the islands Canariae Insulae or “Island of Dogs” due to the presence of the dogs the indigenous Guanche tribes bred, worshipped as gods throughout the island, and even mummified them to be buried with their owners.  When the Spanish arrived in the 1490s, they described the same large, powerful dogs killing wolves that were attacking their livestock, and today this ancient breed is known as the Prensa Canario as shown below.  Another theory is that the Romans named the islands after the large amount of seals or “sea dogs” they saw on the shores.  Instead of starting our travels in the Eternal City like the ancient travelers, we left Chicago on an overnight flight.  We decided to start our honeymoon off right with a light dinner at Hub 51 at O’Hare airport.  We had been to Hub 51 in Chicago before with friends (delicious food), so we knew they wouldn’t disappoint us.  We got a delicious, not too dry Giuliana prosecco in addition to sharing guacamole and chips.  The chips were on the thin, cantina-style side which sometimes was a drawback if we wanted to really pile on the rich but not too spicy guacamole.  We also wanted to try their Brussels sprout salad, but we had a stroke of luck when they said they were out of the Brussels sprout salad.  We switched it up and ordered the Sonoma salad instead which was delectable from the mixed greens to the fresh slices of grapefruit that offset the sweeter vinaigrette and candied walnuts.  With our bellies full and ready to depart the Windy City, we eventually arrived in London-town  and had a layover in “beautiful” Gatwick airport.  During our time there, we decided to grab some food before our next leg to the islands. We ended up at Garfunkle’s which seemed like England’s take on a Chili’s with general burgers as well as more traditional British fare in the form of fish and chips and a chicken pie which we ordered.  While the fish and chips weren’t as authentic as getting it from a chippy or a fish and chip shop for those who don’t speak British English, the breading was light and crispy with plenty of delicious cod beneath.  Their chips were a bit stale which I didn’t care for, and their mushy peas were a bit too mint heavy.  Janice’s chicken pie was more satisfying with layers of creamy mashed potatoes, seasoned chunks of chicken, a hearty cream sauce, and a side of carrots and broccolini.  After our bite to eat, we grabbed brews to watch the Belgium v.s. Tunisia.  Funny enough, the beers my wife got were from Portland, Maine that her and her friends get when they’re in Connecticut.  It was a quite hoppy IPA, but thankfully it was something light before the second leg of our trip that finally brought us to Tenerife.

Flying into Tenerife, it looked like a more desert-covered version of what I would expect Hawaii to be.  The most breathtaking portion of the island was seeing the looming Mount Teide above the clouds.  It is a still active volcano that the native Guanche people called Echeyde.  They viewed the peak as a portal to hell and the home of a powerful demon, Guayota, who was imprisoned there as punishment for kidnapping the god of sun and light, Magec.  The subsequent eruptions of the volcano, the most recent in 1909, were seen as Guayota attempting to escape.  We were swiftly shuttled from the southern airport on the island of Tenerife to our hotel in Los Alcantilados Los Gigantes.  However, it wasn’t just any special night, it was La Noche de San Juan or Saint John’s night which was adopted by the Catholic Spanish from the pagan Guanche people who originally celebrated the date to ring in the summer solstice.  We could see the traditional giant bonfires dotting the countryside as the local Canarios were burning old belongings to signify a new start to the year.  When we finally arrived to our hotel, we were exhausted yet at the same time exhilarated and ready to find a beach party to experience a unique cultural celebration.  Our first meal wasn’t quite a leap into the unknown at the restaurant across the street from our hotel with a Margarita Italian-style, thin crust pizza with mugs of typical, thin, Spanish lager native to the Canary Islands called Dorada.  Once we were fueled up, we began our hunt for the beach party for San Juan.  We received conflicting information from the waitress and the front desk worker, but they both said that there was a giant wooden sardine to be burned.  We had to be there simply for the randomness.  It soon began a wild goose chase of people telling us to just find the beach in addition to randomly attempting to find the party with a German family.  Suddenly, the skies in front of us lit up with glittering explosions, and Janice and I immediately ran toward them, leaving the Germans in our wake.  We finally found the hidden route to the beach party and were faced with only the finest Euro-techno beatz Tenerife had to offer. I asked the bartender about the burning sardine, and it already happened two hours ago on the beach!  Still, the thrill of the hunt was entertaining, and we enjoyed the ambiance.  After a cold Dorada looking out over the revelers on the black sand beach and the pile of ashes from the wooden sardine in the background, we decided to call it a night.

Our first morning in Tenerife was breathtaking as we enjoyed the iconic cliffs or alcantilados right outside our window.  We then went downstairs to experience the interesting buffet that our hotel had to offer.  It was very European with plenty of cereals, cold cuts, and a bread wall.  You heard me right.  It was literally a wall of fresh bread that you could slice your own piece of baguette, boule, or rye.  I swear I saw Janice kneeling in front of it praising the carb gods, but maybe it was just my jet lag.  I helped myself to a variety of fresh fruits like the Canarian banana that is smaller than the ones found stateside, but are much sweeter and probably the best I’ve ever had.  They also had churros and melted chocolate (not pictured here) which constitute a typical Spanish breakfast.  There was also a sopressata spread that was salty and spicy in all the right ways.  At midday, we decided to watch the England vs Panama game at one of the many local British bars. The food was nothing to brag about compared to what was to come, but I tried a corned beef and Branston pickle sandwich, something I never tried before. While in America, we think of salty, crunchy pickled cucumbers, Branston pickle is an English made spread that consisted of chunks of pickled carrots, onions, and turnips in a sweet, slightly spicy brown sauce.  Apparently it’s very popular in English pubs on cheese sandwiches.  It was okay on a very simple sandwich, but it did not set my palate alight compared to other meals we would have this trip.  After enjoying the 5-0 thrashing of Panama and plenty of airhorn blasts from the barkeeps, we had a date with a private sunset cruise from Puerto Colon.

It was a glorious day, as are most days in the Canaries, and we set sail out on the Atlantic Ocean with Captain Marco and Captain Jan Jan. 

Captain Jan Jan showing us around

We were treated to delicious Spanish cava or champagne and (in counterclockwise order below) a mix of Spanish cheeses, mild and spicy Spanish chorizo, and melt-in-your mouth jamon iberico (Iberian ham).Between the appetizers and the main course, we were treated to something unbelievable:  30-35 pilot whales swimming around our boat.  Captain Marco said he never saw anything like it before because these whales are naturally shy around humans and boats.

Part of a family pod with a little baby whale in the middle

Eventually, all that excitement made us hungry, and we had a mouth-watering mixed paella that contained fresh mussels, tiny clams, plentiful rings of calamari, and juicy pieces of sausage and chicken.  It was followed up by a decadent chocolate torte and an apple tart that were too good for words.  As came into port, we were brought to a lookout point to watch the sunset.  A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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.

 

 

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.

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