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Category Archives: Burgers

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

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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

South Carolina (Day 4)- Gettin’ Our Kicks with Nana (Nana’s Seafood, Kickin’ Chicken)

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Finally, I have arrived at the terminus of our South Carolina adventure and not a moment too soon (six months later).  Welcome back to Mastication Monologues where I spread the word of both good food and great times!  This post is the final installment in one of my travel series, and this one was not lacking in terms of major events.  From eating at one of the finest restaurants in the Southern United States to finally asking the love of my life to be with me forever and ever, it was an exhilarating journey from beginning to end.

So, we began our final day in the Holy City with a walking tour around Charleston’s downtown area.  We bided our time looking around the gift shop which boasted plenty of Charleston’s signature golden rice and colonial porcelain, but eventually we found our tour guide, Michael Trouche.  He was in charge of Charleston Footprints Touring Company, and we would highly recommend them if you’re looking for a very informative and affordable tour of the town from a Charlestonian whose family has been there since its founding.  We learned many interesting tidbits about the houses we otherwise would have walked past none the wiser.

Oldest house in Charleston

Oldest house in Charleston from the 1600s

He took us from the waterfront, IMG_8446to the intimate streets where scenes from Porgy and Bess took their inspirations, IMG_8447IMG_8442IMG_8448to even his family’s home that was huge yet still had that antiquated Southern charm.IMG_8445  He even showed us the house where Francis Marion, the real life planter and politician who Mel Gibson portrayed in the movie the Patriot, jumped from a third story balcony to the street below because he was embarrassed that he couldn’t toast to beginning a rebellion against their British overlords.  Why?  Because Marion was a teetotaler.  Even though he didn’t drink, he still managed to have fun by some how escaping the party with a broken leg on a horse and then waging a successful guerrilla war against the Crown’s troops during the war.  The most eye catching of the waterfront properties was Rainbow Row (not Road, Mario Kart fans).  IMG_8450These Georgian style buildings were originally bustling warehouses and storefronts, but they fell into disrepute once the Charleston economy was devastated by the Civil War.  However, in the 1920s they were redone with Caribbean flair in the form of their present day colorful facades.  Not only do they look pretty, but they keep the buildings cool in the sweltering summers thanks to their chromatic appearances.  We also got a taste of local business as we stopped into a local antique store that had everything from paintings to moonshine and of course Janice made friends with the resident poochy!

Just a little excited

Just a little excited

As our tour came to an end, we had worked up a mighty hunger, and I insisted that we should try Nana’s Seafood and Soul Takeout.  I read that it had some of the best and most affordable seafood in the Lowcountry, and it lived up to the hype and then some.  It’s actually such a small place we drove past it at first and had to back it up to make sure it was the right storefront.  IMG_8459When we walked in, it was a much different crowd than we encountered in most of the other restaurants in Charleston. IMG_8462 IMG_8461First, it was simply decorated, and it could only seat maybe 10-12 people, 20 if you really wanted to sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  Second, it was exclusively African American in terms of patrons and staff aside from us, but us integrating the place didn’t stop us from having a wonderful time there.  They have mainly seafood options along with some classic chicken wings and sides for rock bottom prices and generous portions.  IMG_8460Need I say more?  Janice also asked if they had their famous garlic blue crabs ($18)  that they only serve when they receive them which isn’t very frequently.  As for me, I purchased their shrimp and oysters ($12).  We also talked with the owner who took our order which was a nice touch not found in many other restaurants in the US. Once we put in our orders, we took a seat at one of the small formica topped tables right next to a group of alumni from historically black fraternities and sororities and soaked in the atmosphere.  Our meals came out in carry out styrofoam containers even though we were dining in which already was a signal to me that we were in for a treat.  Janice opened hers first, and was greeted with a mountain of blue crabs which would be at least double in any other more touristy restaurant in downtown Charleston.IMG_9118  My shrimp and oyster lunch had a bit more variety with my crustaceans and bivalves being of the fried variety.  All of which didn’t surprise me since we were in the Dirty South, but the real rarity that came with this kind of food was the surprisingly green and fresh salad that accompanied my seafood. IMG_9119 Plus, I would have expected maybe some dirty rice or a helping of collard greens, but that Nana always keeps you guessing!  While we got down to business with our food, it was only the beginning of the Trump train where he was quoting the Bible and acting like a Christian who loves all people.  Funny enough, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day when we visited, and it was funny to see that everyone in that establishment, regardless of color, knew that Trump was talking nonsense.  Hopefully that spirit carries into November this year.  Politics aside, the food was mouthwateringly good and aesthetically pleasing.  The breading on my shrimp was very light and not greasy at all, but I don’t think the oysters went too well with the fried batter since they were runnier and didn’t lend themself to being fried to perfection.  I think crab or maybe the scallops would have been a better choice.  The fries I forgot to mention kept the “heart healthy” meal keep on going, and I tried to insert some green salad between each fried mouthful.  I think my heart was still beating by the end compliments of the lettuce and cucumbers.  Let me say that don’t think I was going to get too healthy on this trip because we shared a cup of potato salad ($2).IMG_9120  It was perfectly made with diced potatoes, plenty of mayo, and just a right amount of paprika on top. Then there was Janice’s meal.  Talk about having to work for your supper.  I never had fresh crab out of the shell before this visit, so Janice was the Master Yoda to my Luke.

Skilled she is

Skilled she is

Once I got the hang of it, I found the savory and garlickly meat to be worth the work. IMG_9122 If they have these armor plated morsels available, I’d highly recommend them.  Unfortunately, with pride comes one downfall as Janice was having trouble with a particular leg section.  So I thought I could break the shell with my fingers, which I did, but much to my chagrin the crab also sliced my thumb open.  So, I went into the bathroom in the back of the restaurant which was the definition of bare bones, but there was at least soap and water to wash the wound off.  However, we didn’t have a bandaid, so the owner ran out to her car and got me one. IMG_9126 Now that’s some Southern hospitality!  We actually managed to polish off our meals, and we were off to see some last highlights of Charleston.

Pretty she is

Pretty she is

Like a boss!

Like a boss!

We left Nana’s with great memories, full stomachs, and a “See y’all later!”.  We moved beyond the city to the Sullivan Island beach which was covered with plenty of dead starfish for some reason. IMG_9129 Even though it was an all you can eat bonanza for the seagulls, it didn’t ruin the pristene beach on our perfect vacation as a newly engaged couple.IMG_9133  We also went to Fort Moultrie which was originally made of palmetto palm trees during the American Revolution.  Thanks to the supple nature of these native trees, the British naval cannonballs literally bounced off the walls of the rebel-defended fort.  Hence, today we have the nickname of South Carolina, “The Palmetto State”.  It was not the wooden version I was expecting, rather how the fort looked circa World War II when our servicemen had to watch out for those pesky U-boats.  IMG_8464It was an ok experience looking out over the water and walking through the creepy underground bunkers, IMG_8465but its not something to go out of your way for unless you’re really into history like yours truly.  Our final bite to eat was at a local chain nearby our Air BnB called the Kickin’ Chicken. IMG_9135IMG_8472

Somebody's excited!

Somebody’s excited!

It’s like your typical laid back sit down restaurant with a focus on all things poultry with a Southern twist.  IMG_8471We went quite early for dinner, so the place wasn’t too kickin’.  The menu had a mix of bar food and Southern American classics like chicken and waffles.  We were more interested in their signature Kickin’ sandwiches.  Janice got the namesake sandwich ($9), and I got the Santa Fe Wrap ($9).  Clearly, the prices weren’t anything ridiculous, but we also weren’t going to go overboard since we were still stuffed from Nana’s before.  When our plates came out, we weren’t that impressed. IMG_9136 Janice’s was kind of bland with average bacon, a moderate amount of provolone cheese, and not the best chicken we had during the trip.  My Santa Fe wrap was a bit of a let down too.IMG_8469  It did bring the flavors of the Southwest alive with the inclusion of Tex Mex ingredients like peppers, salsa, onions, cheese, and the jalapeno cheddar wrap, but just barely above flat line.  Perhaps we would have been better off ordering the more bar food-esque options because these sandwiches left us wanting.  Once again it proved that small, family owned businesses are typically provide better quality and priced food and drinks.  Although it was the last impression we had of Charleston, it did not leave a sour taste in our mouth because it was drowned out with the great memories we made together on the road to many more in the future.IMG_9134

Nana's Seafood & Soul Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Kickin' Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

It’s Greek to Me

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Everyone needs a no-frills diner.  A place where you can go to get food that may not be the best for you or might not look the prettiest, but you know it will always make you feel good.  This type of culinary sanctuary is as varied as an individual’s palate, mood, and perhaps even time of day.  Let’s be real, late night eats are never the healthiest in the world, but there’s nothing like being a little naughty when the sun goes down. 1433858760_70ec314f6f2232ce557694c962a36572 This is where Margie’s Restaurant comes in.

It was a cold and dark night like any old Midwestern winter night, and Janice was craving a milkshake and some fries.  Instead of just going to the local McDonald’s, I suggested we try a local favorite that I’ve always seen but never visited.  Margie’s is not much from the outside or inside. IMG_5671IMG_5674 It’s just a local fast food joint that serves really basic food for reasonably prices in large portions like your standard hamburgers and hotdogs or Chicago classics like homemade Italian beef sandwiches. IMG_5673 While I do love all of those, I had a particularly greasy favorite in mind when I went to order.  The gyro (plural: gyros) has become a staple of American fast food cuisine compliments of Greek immigrants who brought it here and made it popular in their diners across the nation.  It probably became popular with Americans due to the fact that you can eat it on the go even though I wouldn’t recommend it since they can be pretty jam packed with ingredients.  The name is also a point of contention as you might hear “jai-ro”, “jeer-oh”, or “yee-ro”, but the closest pronunciation is the last one. IMG_5675 The word “gyro” comes from the word for “turn” which replaced the Turkish term “doner” which means the same thing.  The turn part comes from the fact that the gyro meat is roasted vertically and sliced off in thin strips with a long knife or shaver.  This technique was invented in the 19th Century in Turkey, but the Greeks will tell you otherwise.  Your typical gyro consists of a pita flatbread that is filled with spiced lamb, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce.  However, there are alternatives out there; the most common variant I’ve seen is with chicken instead of lamb.  I always keep it traditional because I love the spice and flavor of lamb that the Eastern Mediterranean nations do so well.  Margie’s had a gyro special where I could get a plate of the Greek classic with a side of fries for 5 bucks.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance.  The service was brisk given I went on a random weeknight, and it was freezing outside.  The food came out quickly and wrapped up very nicely.  When I got home, Janice definitely enjoyed her meal, and when I opened up my bag, I didn’t know where to start.  IMG_5676A huge pita was lain over a facefull of fries, tomatoes, and onions along with two tubs of tzatziki sauce.  Basically, I had to be the mad scientist to put this monstrosity together, and luckily I had the skill and mettle to do just that.  Once I combined everything like a boss, I got down to the business.  IMG_5678The typical problem that I mentioned before is that the meat is oftentimes quite greasy, so you run the risk of having your clothes ruined by the gyro’s juices hopping a ride on your pants and or shirt.  Margie’s gyro, on the other hand, was not greasy at all, and the pita held up quite well to my ravenous choppers tearing through my meal.  The tomatoes were fresh and onions plentiful, and the tzatziki was cool and tangy like any good yogurt based sauce should be with hints of cucumbers.  As for the French fries, they were of the crinkle cut variety, and they were fried to perfection.  I wasn’t able to finish the golden stack of potato sticks due to the filling nature of the gyro, but I highly recommend this special or any of the other specials.  You’ll get your money’s worth, that is for certain.

So if you’re ever out in the western Chicagoland suburbs and need to get a ton of food for not a ton of money, check out Margie’s Restaurant!
Click to add a blog post for Margie's Restaurant on Zomato

Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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Toronto (Day 1): Sleepless Nights in Hogtown

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Welcome to another wonderful and interesting edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I’ll be relating the first day of four of our adventure to the Great White North a.k.a. Canada.  There has always been a sort of brotherly love between the two North American nations compared to the more tension filled links with our southern neighbors like Cuba or Mexico.  We Americans see them as hockey nuts that are also extremely polite while they view us as obese, war mongers,ncbn0ni

but national stereotypes aside, we manage to get along just fine.  Case and point:  my friend Aaron and I.  We met each other in South Korea of all places in the same teacher orientation group, and we struck up a friendship through long bus rides and making terrible puns together.

Canada (Aaron), America (Me), and France (Jean) just partying it up in Korea

Canada (Aaron), America (Me), and France (Jean) just partying it up in Korea

After Aaron and his gf, Alyssa, visited Chicago, Janice and I decided to pay them a visit up in Toronto, a place neither of us had visited.

So, our adventure started from Chicago super-early in the morning with driving through a whole lot of nothing until we reached Canada.  Once we crossed the border, we stopped for a sweet piece of Canada in the form of Tim Hortons.  Although there are now branches throughout the Northeastern USA, they haven’t arrived in Chitown.  So, we wanted to see what all the hubbub was about.  it looked like a fancier fast food diner, and I knew that this Canadian institution specialized in having great coffee and doughnuts.  I got a Canadian maple, tres Canadien!, and Janice got the sour cream glazed.  Janice was less than impressed due to the too sugary treat that didn’t match up to a similar, yet less diabetes inducing version in Chicago.  As for mine, I found it to be enjoyable even though I’m not partial to cream filled pastries.  IMG_6878Thankfully there was more fresh, fried dough than cream, and the maple icing was delectable.  Once we finally reached the city and trying not to die with all of the crazy Canuck drivers.  We got to our apartment with a sweet view that would make even Drake jealous, and then proceeded to meet up with Aaron and Alyssa.IMG_6879  We walked all over the town as they showed us the sights that ranged from Korea Town that actually had a lot Aaron and I recognized from our time in the Land of the Morning Calm to the Kensington Market that seemed like a Caribbean island market in the middle of a modern metropolis.

Dude, it's some herbage.

Dude, it’s some herbage.

IMG_6887 After traversing what seemed like half the city, we managed to get our final destination (no, not death like the movies), Insomnia Restaurant & Lounge.  Unfortunately, it was super busy, so we had to wait for a table.  We hit up the bar next door, and I tried a new Canadian beer I never heard of:  Hockley dark. IMG_6897 It was a traditional English ale that was full bodied with a clean, caramel aftertaste that my compatriots likened to a lighter Guinness, or as they say on their website, “a brunette with the body of a blonde”.  We eventually got the call to head on over to Insomnia.IMG_6910  It looked like any other gastropub with the addition of some Christmas lights overhead.  IMG_6909However, our table was quite different mainly due to the super comfortable easy chairs that made the dining experience that much more enjoyable.  The reason why we chose Insomnia over all of the restaurants in Toronto is that they were part of the Summerlicious food festival which was similar to Chicago’s restaurant week that Janice and I greatly took advantage of.  Just like Chicago’s restaurant week, there was a set menu that consisted of a starter, entree, and dessert for $25.  I started the meal with a Maudite Belgian Strong Ale.  IMG_6899If you love lambics or dubbels or Belgian beer in general, I highly recommend this spicy yet fruity brew.  Then looking over the menu, there was a ton of great picks for food which made it all the more difficult to choose just one item.  I, along with everyone else I think, got the pork taco since it was the most interesting appetizer.  It looked super fresh yet simple. IMG_6900 All it consisted of was seasoned, tender, yet slightly spicy pork, pico de gallo, some cabbage, and a creamy, rich avocado spread.  The cilantro sprigs made it all the better since I love the controversial herb.  Then came the entrees.  I was torn between the burger since I had a hankering for one, and the Dirty Dirty South fried chicken and waffles.  However, I wanted something a bit different, so I went for the latter.  Funny enough, Janice, Alyssa, and I all got the chicken while Aaron got the burger.  He was greatly satisfied with the juicy Ontario ground chuck, milk bun, and classic lettuce, onion, pickle combo.  Our chicken and waffles, on the other hand, were a different beast all together.  When it came out, it looked like something inspired from the Spanish Inquisition or Vlad the Impaler. IMG_6901 Our waffles were pre-cut into quarters and alternated with the boneless chicken thigh pieces in a large stack that was held together with a series of wooden skewers.  Atop this unique creation was one of my most disliked foods:  cole slaw.  I love my cabbage products like kimchi or kapusta, but I dislike the cream picnic staple.  I slowly took apart the tower o’ food with the precision of playing the popular game Kerplunk and sliced into my meal.  It was a mouth-watering combo of thick, fluffy waffles and non-greasy but still flavorful pieces of all white meat.  The honey maple butter and maple syrup made this plate the ideal mix of savory and sweet.  I highly recommend this entree.  As if you thought that would have been the end of the meal, there still was dessert! This was the toughest part of the night for me since I have a huge sweet tooth, but since everyone was going for the enticing s’more and creme brulee, I went for the sponge cake.  Long story short, it was all good in the hood aside from a couple bumps in the road.  First, there was my financier sponge cake.  The name of the cake comes from either the traditional rectangular pan that made the cake resembling a bar of gold, or the cake became popular in Paris’ financial district.  IMG_6904It was moist, light, and spongy in texture with a strong almond taste that was enhanced with the Coca Cola foam that was the right kind of funk I like in my meal and a classy caramel drizzle.  The cherry on the side was a nice touch.  Then the burnt marshmallow s’more ice cream was an interesting concoction.  IMG_6905It was composed of the vanilla ice cream on top of a layer of burnt marshmallows that then topped a graham cracker cookie which was drenched with Lindt chocolate sauce.  Diabetes?  I haz it.  Alyssa offered me a bit of hers, but I swear the cookie was made of hardtack since neither I nor Aaron could break it.  Thankfully, Aaron’s was more normal, but it might prove to be too sweet for those of you who enjoy more savory plates.  Finally, there was the creme brulee that Janice wasn’t digging too much, IMG_6906but I found it to be good, not great.  As we sunk further into our chairs, food comas coming over us quickly, we ended the our first night in Toronto there, and it was a sign of greater times to come!  I highly recommend Insomnia to those visiting Toronto if you’re looking for delicious comfort food with a twist.
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Peckish and Picking a Perfect Pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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