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To Live and Pie in Wicker Park

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Welcome one and all to another great blog post from Mastication Monologues!  Things have been picking up as of late since it’s the holiday season.  In between studying and braving the Walking Dead-esque crowds at the mall, I managed to squeeze in a trip to a Chicago bakery that was truly memorable in terms of its concept and approach to classic desserts.  If you’re a sweets lover, strap yourself in for a wild ride!  If not, prepare to be amazed!

The adventure all started back when I received an email from A Baker’s Tale saying that they were huge fans of my blog at the bakery, and they wanted to invite me to an exclusive event for local bloggers.  Naturally, I said yes, and informed Janice that we had some serious business to take care of.  Baked goods business.  I looked it up, and I saw it was located in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area which has been recently gentrified.  What this means is that you can’t walk more than five feet without running into an ironic mustache or fixie bike.  However, the exterior of A Baker’s Tale exuded neither a hint of pretentiousness nor any sort of kitchyness. IMG_7877 Walking in, we were immediately greeted by the employees and eventually the owner, Christine, who’s in the middle of the pic below. IMG_7923 I didn’t know where to look first in this coffee shop+bakery+fun house.  Once more bloggers and vloggers and what have you arrived, Christine explained that she loves literature and baking which in turn translated to the Alice in Wonderland and other literature inspired establishment that surrounded us.  Since I am also a fellow librophile, I couldn’t get enough of the homages to many classic works.IMG_7882 IMG_7884From the classic book prints,IMG_7917 the talking doorknob statue,IMG_7921 whimsical cakes,IMG_7889IMG_7887 IMG_7886IMG_7890 hedgemazed trip to the bathroom,IMG_7929 and the breathtaking tree overshadowing our tasting tables with leaves made of pages from Alice in Wonderland, IMG_7888IMG_7933there was no detail left on the sideline as we quickly made our way over to the tasting table. IMG_7878 I was late, so late, for a very important date…with some bakery!  IMG_7926IMG_7918IMG_7880Surprisingly, there was no door mouse, march hare, or Mad Hatter when we sat down.  As more bloggers began to stream in and take their seats around the table, I was half driven to yell, “Change places!” to get in the spirit of Mr. Carrol’s work, but I decided to focus more on the diverse spread of pastries in front of us like a very late high tea.  IMG_7879We started with a plate of a mini cherry pie, a passion fruit raspberry cheesecake, and a s’more bar.IMG_7924  While none of them made me shrink or grown into a giant like Alice when speaking with the doorknob, they were big on flavor.  First, there was the mini cherry pie that was a version of their normal sized pie.  It was topped with hearts as an homage to the Queen, but I felt like a king with this royally decadent dessert.  The crust was buttery and mixed with the sweet and tart filling to perfection.  I then had the passion fruit raspberry cheesecake.  It was filled with a burst of tropical flavor that was like a mix between an orange, mango, and lime that kind of gave the whipped cheesecake a slight key lime pie vibe on the aftertaste. However, if you’re not into tart flavors, it might be a bit overwhelming for you like it was for my gf, Janice.  As good as these first two desserts were, they were beneath the third option:  the s’mores bar.  These desserts date as far back as the 1930s from a Girl Scout campfire cooking manual, or so the legend goes.  However, A Baker’s Tale version of it presented it in the least messy way possible.  One of my personal pet-peeves with traditional s’mores is how the crunchy graham crackers explode with every bite and can’t keep the blazing hot marshmallow inside to save its own inanimate life.  I quickly learned upon the first bite that these bakers really can work magic.

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 3: Devour

Step 3: Devour

The graham cracker base was soft yet substantial and topped with a house-made marshmallow fluff that sported a rich, chocolate accent that tied it all together to perfection.  Plate two wasn’t as over the top in terms of bombastic flavors, but it was a solid entry to the tasting event.  IMG_7907The chocolate chunk and peanut butter cookies (both also were available in gluten free versions at the tasting as well) were good but not great probably because they weren’t the most decadent options.  Case in point, they were overshadowed by the toffee chocolate cheesecake that was presented in a Reese’s peanut butter cup form.  From the Oreo cookie crumb crust to the creamy filling that had ample pieces of chocolate coated toffee and a thin layer of gooey caramel on top, this dessert checked all the boxes for me.  Moving from there, the next plate was the belle of the dessert ball.  It consisted of three, vibrant, expertly-crafted macarons sporting three very different flavors:  pistachio (green), raspberry (red), and elderberry (blue). IMG_7932According to the almighty Wikipedia/internet, macarons originated in Venetian monasteries in the 9th Century A.D. but were brought to France when Catherine Medici, an Italian noblewoman, married King Henry II of France.   Their popularity began to rise during the French Revolution when two nuns in the city of Nancy made the cookies to pay for their rent; however, the original version of these desserts were basically a cookie.  The modern version of the macaron with two cookies and a filled center came about in the 1830s in Paris where it was known as the Gerbet, named after the supposed inventor, or the macaron parisien.  They were then brought over the USA and sometimes confused with the coconut-based macaroon.  Actually, the word “macaroon” is just the English translation for the French “macaron“.  Whatever it’s called, these little morsels went down too easily.  My personal favorite was the pistachio because it was sweet but not too sweet whereas the elderberry one was a bit too saccharine for my palate (surprising, I know).  The outer cookies had that thin, crisp shell that gave way to feathery interiors that led to the thin but incredibly rich layer of flavored cream. IMG_7916 Ils sont tres delicieux!  Finally, there was the somewhat sweet and savory plate.  Whereas the other plates contained straight up desserts, the scone platter mixed it up in terms of flavors and textures.  Scones have an interesting history to say the least.  Their name has many different origins including the Middle Dutch schoonbrood or “pure bread”, the Scots Gaelic’s sgonn or “large mouthful”, or perhaps after the Scottish town of Scone.  They were not as cutesy at they look today because before baking powder, a scone was a large, flat, unleavened oat cake made on a griddle.  Thankfully, A Baker’s Tale did not harken back to the scone’s roots.IMG_7931 The two on display were the vanilla scone and the jalapeno white cheddar scone.  I thought I would prefer the former over the latter, but in reality, it was the opposite.  Yes, both were denser and somewhere between moist and arid that scones should be compared to the aforementioned cookies and cakes, but somehow the savory option won me over.  I personally think it was because it was such a sharp contrast to the mountains of sweet stuff I hoovered up over the course of the tasting, but I was partial to the clear pepper notes that came out in every bite that resulted in me showering the floor with crumbs.  Don’t hate me because I’m so debonair.IMG_7908  I highly recommend the jalapeno scones if you don’t have much of an affinity for all things sugary sweet.

As the night went on and my sugar levels reached their optimum level of satisfaction, we called it quits.  We departed A Baker’s Tale with a warm farewell from the owners and thoughts of the wonderful experience we had the priviledge of enjoying.  I highly recommend a visit to this very welcoming bakery that boasts desserts that are as satisfying as a finishing a great read where all of the ends are tied up and the villains receive their just desserts.  Lucky them!IMG_7937
A Baker's Tale Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Getting Our Just Desserts

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Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is one of my sweetest and over the top posts I’ve ever written!  If you have a sweet tooth that borderlines on a diabetic condition like I do, then you’re going to love this entry.  Last weekend, Janice and I experienced the final part of my one year anniversary gift that she got for me:  two tickets to Chicago’s Dessert Fest.  What a sweetheart!

When we got to the venue, River North’s John Barleycorn and Moe’s Cantina, there was already a line out the door and an accompanying mob once we got inside.  Everywhere we looked, we could see plenty of delicious treats being enjoyed by the guests.  While we weren’t swayed by the sundae bar that seemed pretty weak for an epic event like this one, we were more interested in the cake table with desserts made from Fabiana’s Bakery.  Not only did it boast a wonderfully delicious, buttercream-coated, cyclops rainbow cake that won “Most Craveable Dessert”IMG_6451 but also a decadent chocolate ganache wedding cake served in plastic shotglasses.IMG_6452  We definitely got crunk on those nuggets of rich dark chocolate goodness.  We quickly moved our ways through the munching masses and were confronted with a barker of sorts who bellowed, “WHO WANTS FREE ICE CREAM?!!  THIS IS DESSERT FEST!!!!”  I didn’t know King Leonidas worked dessert fairs in his spare time. Naturally, Janice’s and my hands shot up because we’re all about the cold stuff.  He hooked us up with free Blue Bunny turtle bars that was a combo of pure vanilla ice cream coated in a crunchy milk chocolate shell with the occasional hunk of pecans and caramel.  IMG_6454Simply the best, bar none! 11188221_10105701925746959_7766073886550940910_n We managed to snag a sample of macarons from a table that was mobbed with people.  I snapped up a chocolate one and a passion fruit one while Janice got a raspberry one.  They were perfect from their semi-sticky middles to the airy yet firm cookies.

Chocolate and passion fruit macarons.

Chocolate and passion fruit macarons

I personally felt the raspberry combined with the chocolate one was the ideal combination, but the passion fruit was a bland letdown.  We made our way upstairs to the sun-splashed second floor of John Barleycorn where they were slinging champagne and white wine with banana creme pie samples. IMG_6457 I got a glass of bubbly while Janice and I shared a nibble looking out over the crowd by the bar while lounging on a leather couch.  The banana creme pie reminded us of a pina colada with a mix of coconut and cream, but the champagne made it even better.  We made our way down and over to Moe’s Cantina where an entire room was just waiting for me to be explored. IMG_6466Right by the entrance, they had an open kitchen where I saw cooks preparing some sort of cup dessert with cream.IMG_6459  I didn’t have time to spare.  I was on a mission.  I visited each booth and brought back my loot to our table.  What a spread we had once I was done doing my recon mission.IMG_6460  What we ended up with was a slice of Bar Louie’s chocolate cake, voted “Most Delicious Dessert”, but sadly we never tried it since we filled up on the following treats beforehand.  First, there was the Warm Belly Bakery entry that eventually was crowned the Chocolate Champion.IMG_6465  Its presentation left much to be desired, but the brown butter chocolate chip cookies with a salted hazelnut dark chocolate mousse and a raspberry accent was quite a combo.  The cookie seemed a bit undercooked but the rich buttery dough and sweet chocolate combined to perfection with the salty yet earthy mousse.  The raspberry reminded me of our earlier macaron experiment.  While the fruit and chocolate combo was seemingly going to rule the day, the mystery dessert I had witnessed a few minutes earlier ended up rocking my world.  Turns out it is a Mexican dessert from Moe’s Cantina called a crispy xango (pronounced “zan-go”with berries and cream.  IMG_6462What is consisted of was a deep fried tortilla, coated in cinnamon and sugar churro style, and filled with a berry infused cream.  Janice got even more of the lowdown from one the employees.  Turns out they import their tortillas from Nuevo Leon in Mexico, and the cream even had a slight Bailey’s infusion to the cream.  Deep fried treats and a boozy sweet element?  I’ll take it!  I spread the cream evenly over the crunchy and crumbly surface like butter, and it was an ideal combo of textures and flavors.  By the time we made our ways upstairs, we walked past Old Crow Smokehouse’s plethora of key lime pies, which were given the “Perfected Classic Award”.  IMG_6467IMG_6468We didn’t sample any, but we did get a taste of some after-dinner digestifs.  Digestif is a term from French that refers to a drink that supposedly aids digestion.  The ones we samples were of an Italian variety in the shape of an amaro and a limoncello.  The former is an herbal liqueur that is often consumed neat, and has roots in the 19th century often originating in pharmacies or monasteries.  The name “amaro” means “bitter” in Italian, and I could see why.Lucano  I could only liken the taste of it to a less syrupy/obnoxious Jaegermeister.  It was potent but bursting with anise, ginger, and licorice.  As for the limoncello that Janice tried, it is a very different digestif compared to the amaro.  First, it is a bright yellow that comes from the lemon zests (hence the name) that are used to make the alcohol.  Second, it is more regional in nature given that it is a mainly southern Italian drink.  The one we had came from the southeastern region of Italy called Abruzzo which is kind of close to the heel of the boot of the peninsula.  Tastewise, it cleansed the palate of all of the sugar we had previously consumed but also perked us up with a strong, lemon scented kick.  As we left the festival, it was like leaving some sort of wonderful, Willy Wonka-esque type of dream, but it was a great gift from my lovely girlfriend.  I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a good and calories-be-damned sort of time!11248149_10105702971601059_1612555248785757579_n

Un-Ba-Le-Vable Flavors

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Things on my blog have been picking up as of late since I’ve survived my first semester teaching in upper academia, so these posts are keeping me sane in the flurry of bureaucracy and final exam writing.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I like writing them!  Today’s post once again brings me to Chicago’s Uptown Little Vietnam neighborhood.  It’s a diverse enclave of Chicago’s ethnic rainbow which boasts a plethora of eateries serving a wide variety of foods from Far East and Southeast Asia.  However, the Vietnamese community is the largest; ergo, I’ve sampled just the tip of the pho iceberg when it comes to fully exploring their culinary representatives.  Ba Le Sandwich shop is one of the best and most popular eateries in the area, and my first visit there was fantastic.

Ba Le’s storefront is at the heart of Little Vietnam at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway and opposite the iconic Tank Noodle where you can get some hot pho soup to chase this newly arrived cold weather away.IMG_4846  Walking into the establishment, past the small Buddhist shrine at the entrance, I was greeted with a sleek and modern interior that boasted a full wall of treats like freshly cut coconuts, Vietnamese head cheese or giò thủ , and a large vareity of chè or sweet pudding/jello treats.  IMG_4217IMG_4212 IMG_4214 IMG_4213On the right hand side of the shop, there were sushi roll packs next to a mini French bakery that was bursting at the seams with macaron mini-mountains.  IMG_4216Delectable remnants of the French colonization of Indochina as they were, I was interested in something more substantial and what Ba Le is known for:  banh mi.  If you want a historical explanation of the sandwich, hit up my Portland food truck adventure here.  Looking over the menu, they also offered side dishes like the famous gỏi cuốn translucent shrimp rolls, noodle salads, fried rice, and egg rolls.  As for the banh mi sandwiches, I went for the Chinese Pork or xá xíu ($4.95), and they do cater to vegetarians with banh mi, btw!   The sandwich was quite big for the price as I took it to one of Ba Le’s window counters you can eat at while watching the locals go about their daily business.  I wasn’t doing much people watching because I was severely distracted and gobsmacked at how delicious this sandwich was.IMG_4218  It was the culinary equivalent of Saul, future St. Paul, being knocked off his horse and converting to Christianity after hearing the voice of God. Oh_Lawd___by_deadprez132001 I don’t know what it was that made this sandwich stand out from the thousands of other sandwiches I tried.  Perhaps it was the extremely fresh French baguette that was just the right ratio of crispness to softness.  IMG_4220Maybe my weakness for mayonnaise combined with the fresh-from-the-garden cilantro, jalapeno peppers, daikon radish, onions, and carrots.  I think the pork helped as well since it was served in the char siu (叉燒) style which originates in China.  It is basically barbecued pork that is roasted while being coated with honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and five spice powder.  What you get is a tender cut of pork that is both sweet and slightly salty, a perfect fauna compliment to the unspoiled flora of my unwrapped Garden of Eden.  Long story short, it was ecstasy in my mouth, and it wasn’t very heavy compared to many Western sub sandwiches.

So if you want a heavenly bite of Vietnamese culture for hellishly low prices, check out Ba Le Sandwich Shop in Chicago!
Ba Le Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Call Me Delishmael

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Well, I’m finally back to perusing the best eateries that the Chicagoland area has to offer after a very long time away in Korea and around Asia.  So first, I’d like to start off this post of Mastication Monologues with a quick snack that I sampled on the plane from London to Chicago.

I managed to find a pretty good deal through the Irish air-carrier, Aer Lingus, so of course everything was Kelly green with shamrocks all over as soon as I stepped on the plane.  Aside from that, it seemed like everything would be similar to a flight in the USA.  However, I knew that the food they served on the aircraft would reflect the national flavor of the airline, and they did not disappoint when they presented me with something that I’ve never seen before.  The stewardesses were walking by with baskets offering us “flapjacks”, and I was greatly confused as to why they were walking around with pancakes in baskets? The reason being is that the word “flapjacks” in America is another way to say pancakes, so why would they be slinging these breakfast treats around without even giving people plates to eat them on?  So, I said I’d take some flapjacks, and it ended up being this pre-packaged bar that seemed to be made of oats, sugar, honey, and chocolate chips.

Presto

Presto (pancakes/flapjacks in the USA)

Change-o

Change-o (Irish flapjack)

IMG_3843It tasted great and not as diabetes-inducingly sweet as you’d might think.  It was like a more decadent granola bar.

Moving on from cultural misunderstandings through English regionalisms, I’d like to call attention to a famous yet not so famous pizzeria in Chicago called Pequod’s Pizza.  They have two locations:  one in Morton Grove and one in Chicago.  I went to the Chicago location on 2207 N. Clybourne Ave.  Before I begin with my assessment of my dining experience, I’d like to first address a time-old polemic of pizza preferences:  thin crust vs. deep dish.

This has caused many a debate amongst friends in Chicago about who makes the best kind of each variety, and it has caused conflict between Chicagoans and other Americans (read:  New Yorkers)/foreign tourists.  I’ve found that many people from outside Chicagoland deride Chicago deep dish pizza for not even being pizza and more like some sort of mutant casserole, cake, pie, food brick, etc.  Instead, they prefer the wafer-thin New York City slices that are more similar to pizza from Italy.  I won’t get into a pizza debate while writing this post, but I’d like to hear what kind of pizza do you prefer?  Personally, I like it all, but I will always defend deep-dish pizza as being a fantastic version of pizza.  As for those who say it’s not pizza, it still has all of the main components of pizza:  crust, cheese, and tomato sauce but just on a more grandiose scale.  An analogy I always use for the naysayers involves a pickup truck vs. a monster truck.  Both have the same components of a truck:  four wheels, general body shape, an engine, and a steering wheel.  The main difference is the monster truck can do sweet jumps, crush cars, and has enormous wheels, but you cannot deny that it still is a truck despite the difference in appearance.  Anyway, back to Pequod’s.

I had heard many good things about Pequod’s through various forms of media and word of mouth, so I decided to make reservations there ahead of time for Friday dinner.

Thar she blows

Thar she blows

I highly recommend you make reservations on the weekend as I arrived to a thirty minute wait even though I called in for a table beforehand.  Thankfully, they were very prompt with their service, and my friends and I were seated at a nice corner booth.  The overall ambiance is just a general bar and pizzeria with two floors of tables and booths. IMG_2458 Their menu was manageable with basic bar food along with their famous pizza that sports a “carmelized crust” that seemed to be enhanced by the type of pan they used to bake them.IMG_2459  The only appetizer we got was cheesy garlic bread that was passable, but nothing that really wow-ed me.  Thankfully it wasn’t as greasy as the garlic bread I got in London at Bunga Bunga.  I didn’t like that they charged us for an extra cup of marinara sauce on the side when neither of the cups were adequate for four hungry people.  It was a minor setback as we segued to ordering a large pan pizza (17.50) with cheese, spinach, pepperoni, and sausage.

Like all pan pizzas, it took around 45-50 minutes to cook since there is a lot more to heat up compared to the thin pizzas found anywhere else in the world.  When it came out though I was very excited since it looked to die for.

Best welcome back meal ever.

Best welcome back meal ever.

Upon taking my first bite of the pizza, I knew I was won over by Pequod’s pizza.  The crust wasn’t extremely thick but still substantial enough to support the avalanche of delectable toppings piled atop it.  With each bite, there was plenty of gooey cheese, seasoned pieces of Italian sausage, non-greasy pieces of pepperoni, and semi-chopped pieces of spinach which I really enjoyed in comparison to Giordano’s finely chopped spinach they use in their deep dish pizza.  As I reached the end of my first piece, I encountered the caramelized crust they boasted about on the menu.  Even though caramelization essentially means the food is burnt like the sugar on top of a creme brulee, I did not get burned by this flavorful and crunchy crust.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it tasted like some well done cheese on the edge of the crust along with the very slightest hint of sweetness to balance the overwhelming wave of savory ingredients that had just washed over my palate.  I tapped out at three pieces which is the equivalent of probably eating ten pizzas at Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, but my friends and I left very satisfied customers.  58029_3211435121840_163141590_n

So, if you want to check out a popular Chicago pizzeria that isn’t as big as Uno’s or Lou Malnati’s but still has delicious pizza at reasonable prices, check out Pequod’s pizza.  I finally found and enjoyed my white whale.

Here’s my updated pizza list in Chicago:  1.  Giordano’s, 2.  Lou Malnati’s, 3.  Pequod’s, 4.  Uno’s, 5.  Apart.  What’s your favorite?

 

Pequod's Pizza on Urbanspoon

London (Day 3)- Feel De Riddim, Feel De Ride, Sit on Down, It’s Eatin’ Time!

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After a rousing first and second day in London, day three would put them all to shame as I managed to try two different restaurants while going all out at night at some fun night clubs and bars.  However, let me start at the beginning.

It was a laid-back day where I mainly walked around the museum area of South Kensington.  I thought I would be able to knock out both the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in one day…how foolish I was.  I would highly recommend a trip to the Natural History Museum over the Victoria and Albert Museum since they have many great biological, geological, and astronomical displays.  The only downside was the hordes of school children that swarmed about every main display like screaming ants at a picnic.  After braving my own personal running of the schoolchildren, it really worked up an appetite.  So, I decided I would take a trip to south London, specifically Brixton.  This area has been known over the decades as a bastion for Caribbean immigrants along with scenes of brutal violence like riots and knife crime.  Naturally, like many ethnic enclaves in a cosmopolitan city, it has recently become trendy for students and young professionals to take up residence in Brixton.  With them comes the phenomenon of gentrification, but where I walked around in the neighborhood, I didn’t feel it was as widespread as in certain neighborhoods of Chicago (read:  Pilsen).  I was determined to visit El Negril that specializes in Caribbean food, but as always with my luck, they didn’t open until 5 pm.  So I walked back toward the tube station to find another eatery called Bamboula which drew me in with its vibrant colors. IMG_2221 Once inside, it was moderately full, and I was the only white person in there which seemed to come as a shock to the main waitress/hostess.  I was quickly seated opposite a guy who seemed to be either touched in the head or communicating with Jah while eating/paying for the bill which annoyed my waitress greatly.  Next to him was a Rasta tapping out a reggae beat on his plate between mouthfuls and seemed to be quite a devil with the ladies.  After soaking in these surroundings, I went for the lunch special of goat curry, callaloo rice, grilled plantains, and salad.  It also came with a drink, and there were so many things on the menu that I didn’t even know what they were.  True to form, I went for something called “sour sop” juice.  It all eventually came out with a wonderful presentation. IMG_2220 I started with the goat curry and the callaloo rice.  The goat was quite bony, but the chunks of meat were tender and tasted like a mix between beef and lamb.  The brown curry it was swimming in went exquisitely with the the rice which seemed to be made out Basmati rice and seasoned with some scotch bonnet peppers to give it a proper kick.  This starchy side gets its name from the callaloo leaves which were originally eaten by West Africans and then their ancestors when they arrived as slaves in Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago etc.  I could only describe them as having a very subtle spinach texture and taste.  The salad was refreshing but nothing out of the ordinary, and the plantains were delicious since they were savory yet had a bit of the sweetness of their banana relatives.  Then there was the mysterious sour sop juice.  It looked like lemonade and tasted like a sublime mix of passion fruit, pear, and pineapple juice.  Once I demolished all of my meal, I asked Princess what exactly a sour sop was, and she said that it’s a type of fruit that is native to Latin America that kind of looks like a green pear.  I sent my regards to the Rasta chef and was on my way to see the Brixton Market.
Bamboula Caribbean Restaurant on Urbanspoon
IMG_2225IMG_2222IMG_2226  It was an entire street and mini community of food hawkers that catered to the local populace with sour sop stalls, piles of callaloo, roti shops, tea houses, and plenty of reggae beats floating overhead.IMG_2227  It was like I was transported to a completely different world far from the pomp of Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.  Since I was in the mood of markets, I moved from Brixton Market to the more upscale Borough Market in the middle of London. IMG_2242 My friends recommended that I check it out even though it’s a bit more expensive/tourist ridden than the other central markets.  These negative attributes fell by the wayside as I was in some sort of culinary Valhalla as I wanted to try everything in sight, but unfortunately I think it would take at least a week to hit up every stall.IMG_2228 IMG_2229  It was a wondrous playground as I flitted from a cheese maker to a man serving paella and different curries to a chocolatier to a seasoning shop that had uber-expensive truffles on display to smell.IMG_2235 IMG_2234 IMG_2233 IMG_2232 IMG_2231 IMG_2230  I obliged, and the earthy aroma nearly knocked me over with how powerful it was.  I can see why they’re only served in small slivers as garnishes to dishes.  Eventually, I decided this would be the perfect place to get dessert, and I saw a bakery stall with a very long line that was moving quickly. IMG_2237

A mountain of meringues.

A mountain of meringues.

I jumped in line, and I immediately knew what I was going to get:  a monstrous chocolate chip cookie.  It was a bargain at only 2 pounds (~4 bucks), but it was quite possibly the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had.

Normal sized?

Normal sized?

Think again!

Think again!

It was semi-soft with rich chocolate slices spread evenly throughout along with some rich brown sugar that sang with every bite.  I liked this market too because it was mostly covered as I discovered it had been raining for awhile as I walked out to the tube station in the shadow of the Shard building.  At night, I went out with my friends Ravi, Rav, and Bob in Shoreditch to a restaurant called Chico Bandito which allegedly was a Mexican and Cuban restaurant. IMG_2244 Upon looking at the menu, I couldn’t see even one receta cubana, but the Mexican food all looked muy sabrosa.  I hit it off with our waitress hablando espanol, and she hooked us up with some festive hats as we indulged in the last ten minutes of happy hour.

Viva la hora feliz!

Viva la hora feliz!

IMG_2250 To start off, we got two plates of nachos, one traditional and the other with chorizo. IMG_2248 Both were some of the best nachos I ever had because the tortilla chips seemed to be lighter than the ones back in the USA and with less of an overpowering corn flavor that allowed the gooey cheese, cool sour cream, spicy chorizo, and zesty guacamole to really make their mark on our palates.  As for the main entree, I went for the chicken chimichanga which ended up being a softball-sized fried, stuffed tortilla. IMG_2251 It was expertly made with a crunchy exterior that gave way to a spicy monton de pollo.  The rice and mixed bean and green salad on the sides were delicious, but the problem was that the chimichanga alone ended up sitting like a bowling ball in my stomach for the next three hours.  I couldn’t even finish the rest of the meal.  I didn’t feel greasy, just extremely full which kind of put a damper on our night out when we went to Bar Kick.  I’d highly recommend checking out Chico Bandito though for quality Mexican food.   I eventually felt better by the time we made it to the dance club Concrete where they were having Biggie and Tupac night.    After a long night of dancing to 90s rap tracks,  we rode home on rent-a-bikes from the club at 2 am through the streets of London. I then realized It’s tough being a food critic and a gangsta at the same time.
Chico Bandito on Urbanspoon

Biggie approves this blog post.

Biggie approves this blog post.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Freude Durch Essen (Joy Through Food)

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Hello and welcome to another chapter in Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be telling you about two very different types of food.  One is a traditional Korean dinner dish while the other is a German dessert that has been transplanted to Korea (with smashing results).  First, there is the chicken restaurant that I went to in Incheon located by Bupyeong Station.  Here is how to get there:  Go to exit 12 at the Bupyeong metro station.  Go out and head straight and take the first left at the alley on your left hand side.  Walk down to the 7-11 and then make a left and it will be on your left hand side across the street from the bar Woodstock.IMG_0557

Anyway, it seemed like a pretty popular place when we walked in since every four to five person booth was filled with people chowing down on giant bowls of chicken stewing in a dark sauce with assorted vegetables.  The bday boy, Ryan, informed me that we were going to get Andong Jjimdak (안동찜닭)  with ganjang (35,000 Won).  For those who don’t know Korean cuisine, we ordered a heaping bowl of steamed chicken that was marinated in soy sauce and stewed with glass noodles and vegetables like sweet potatoes, onions, and chili peppers.  We wisely signaled to our waitress that we wanted the chicken without bones, and she understood us.  This made eating it a whole lot easier.  Before the meal, they supplied us with typical side dishes like pickled cucumbers and kimchi, but a nice twist was a cold vinegar soup with radish.  I was the only one who finished it at our table since I really enjoyed its cool yet briny flavor profile.  When the jjimdak finally came out, it was a plate that took up probably a quarter of the table.

Needs more carbs

Needs more carbs

Then again, there were five of us there, so we were each going to get a fair share of the chicken stew.  I helped myself to a couple pieces of chicken, some fiery red chili peppers, and a few large onion slices. IMG_0556 The meat was mouth-wateringly tender and fell apart in my mouth, and the soy sauce was on the sweeter end which really let the savory elements shine.  I obviously left the tteokbokki (rice cakes) for those who enjoy them more than I, but I did try to eat a lot of the noodles and chili peppers.  Once the chicken was gone, I tucked into the of dark brown, Sargasso Sea of noodles.  I found that it was quite difficult to eat them with just metal chopsticks.  Eventually I got my fill after some struggle, but they were not anything special.  I do have doff my cap to the chili peppers though.  Even when Koreans have bragged about their food being spicy, I have been left wanting.  So I was delighted to just go right to the source and snack on some Tabasco-level spicy chiles.  I normally eat more than the average bear, probably more akin to a grizzly, so I was still hungry afterward.  However, for two or even three people, it would be plenty of quality food for the price.  I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re looking for a traditional Korean dish that comes in an American-sized portion:  gargantuan.  The second part of the post involves a dessert I tried in Bupyeong Station called Schnee Pang.

I have seen numerous food stalls in the underground market of Bupyeong Station, but right by Exit 13 there is a German inspired, confectionery stand called Schnee Pang.IMG_0527  I finally took the plunge and tried one of their bizarre looking cookie balls.  After doing a bit of research on these addicting, diabetes-inducing balls of sugar, I found that they are  called Schneeballen or “Snowballs” in German.  They are over 300 years old and hail from Rothenburg, Germany.  They’re made with strips of dough that are then wrapped around a handle, and then said handle is removed.  These dough balls are then put in a special holder called a Schneeballeneisen (hooray for compounds!) and deep fried.  What you end up with is a large cookie ball that is coated in various types of chocolate and powdered sugar like my Snow Sugar Chocolate Schneeball (2,900 W).

You You You Ball of Chocolate! (I don't know why it's in French at a German place)

You You You Ball of Chocolate! (I don’t know why it’s in French at a German place)

It’s even fun to buy as you get the option of smashing the softball sized ball with a wooden hammer for no extra charge.  I went for the gusto and smashed it like the Soviets did Berlin in 1945.

Smashee Smashee Teacha!

Smashee Smashee Teacha!

When I finally tried my German pastry, it was kind of like eating buttery, thicker fortune cookie shards smothered in milk chocolate and powdered sugar.IMG_0530  Long story short, it was amazing and interactive.  What’s not to like?IMG_0532

CBIK? Once In A Brew Moon Part Deux (with freshly baked cookies)

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Hello and welcome to the latter half of a two-part post about some of the best craft beers in Seoul.  In my last post, I spoke about going to both Craftworks in Itaewon and Oktoberfest in Hongdae.  Today, I am going to describe the delicious findings I encountered during a trip to the creative Castle Praha in Hongdae and my after dinner trip to Tom’s Cookies.  First things first, the beverages in question.

Now, I have already been to Prague, so I was curious to see the mysterious but much heralded Castle Praha located at Solnae 6-gil Hongdae in Seoul (http://www.castlepraha.co.kr/new/home/eng/page5.php).IMG_1725  After a bit of walking from the metro stop, I was face to face with a large building that looked very out of place next to the more typical Korean looking buildings, i.e. large, soulless blocks of concrete. IMG_1726 I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a castle or an old church, but it had a replica clock and sun dial like I saw in the Czech Republic in both Prague and Olomouc. IMG_1727 The stone work was quite intricate much like the taste of beers that I had inside.  Upon entering the warmly lit interior, I could see that they blended the feel of an old castle with modern design.  However, it was kind of bizarre hearing hip hop music over the speakers as a soundtrack to this quaint visit.  Please look into some Classical music, Castle Praha.  My group and I were seated on the top floor which was right by the wine elevator.  Castle Praha has more than just beer.  They also have a wine list and a full menu of both Czech favorites and American staples like pizza, salads, and bar food.  However, if you’re looking to try a bit of Czech cuisine, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny.  The koleno or roasted pork knuckle was 37,000 Won, so I just opted for two beers:  the Jerzek Hedgehog Grand Pilsner (10,500 W for a large) and the Royal Porter (10,000 W for a large).

I picked the first one because it would make sense to get a Pilsner since it was invented in the Czech town of  Plzen in 1842.IMG_1729  Plus, there was a funny animal thrown into the name, so I couldn’t say no to it.  Overall, it was not an overly light brew in terms of taste like a lager, but it was quite foamy and filled with fruity notes throughout each sip.  It would definitely sit well with me on a hot day like today.  As for the Royal Porter, it is a beer that is more my style as I have mentioned in previous posts (See CBIK 1 or Troika or Dandy Candy).IMG_1730  It was dark and thicker than the Pilsner but not too overwhelming in terms of taste.  True, it had a more bitter bite to each sip, but it did not have the more unusual coffee background like their Dark Lager.  So I think if I had to choose one, I would choose the Royal Porter just based off of my penchant for dark beer, but they have beers and liquors for all types of palates.  Once we had downed and thoroughly enjoyed our drinks, we headed out for dessert at Ben’s Cookies.IMG_1733

We arrived at Ben’s cookies with not even a line out the door, but all of my friends were saying that these cookies, especially the peanut butter ones, were the best thing since someone figured out how to untwist an Oreo.  Naturally, that piqued my interest.  Unfortunately, they sold out of the peanut butter by the time we arrived, so I settled for a cranberry and white chocolate cookie along with a triple chocolate cookie (completely necessary).  They’re priced by weight, so mine came out to 5,000 W for two.  They were semi-soft which received a big seal of approval from me since I hate crumbly, hard cookies and were chock full of their respective title ingredients.   Texture aside, more elements doesn’t always equal better food.  First, the cranberry and white chocolate cookie had some of the largest cranberries I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Not berry good

Not berry good

They were semi-dried and resided alongside hulking chunks of pure white chocolate.  However, it was overall a pedestrian cookie since all I tasted were the tart cranberries while the chocolate and dough were mere bystanders in terms of flavor.  Thankfully the triple chocolate was as decadent and delicious as it sounds.

A triple threat...to your waistline

A triple threat…to your waistline

The cocoa trifecta came from the chocolate dough which was then topped with three large, melted chunks of white chocolate, and then on the inside there were smaller chunks of melted white chocolate.  The molten interior is what really made this delectable morsel stand out from the tamer first entry.  Overall, I’d recommend Ben’s Cookies if you’re looking for some legitimate Western style cookies, but the price might keep me from coming back for more.

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