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Come On Inn and Stay Awhile!

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

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

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

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

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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

South Carolina (Day 3): Going With the Grain (Granary, Vendue House, Griffin)

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As if this South Carolina series couldn’t get any better, here’s part three of our Charleston chronicles!  (Part 1 and Part 2 here).  We woke up on our first day as fiance and fiancee, and we were on cloud nine.  What better way to celebrate than a brunch fit for a king and queen?  So, after doing some online sleuthing, we found that there were many rave reviews about the Granary.

It was Saturday late morning, and we were blessed with another lovely sunny day.  However, we noticed that the roads were conspicuously empty for such a splendid morning.  All was made clear when we entered the Granary.  It was located in a moderately sized strip mall, and the interior was tastefully decorated in a modern rustic style. IMG_8356 IMG_8350 It also continued in a trend I noticed of the restaurant drawing upon the Carolinian bounty of locally sourced and produced products on their menu such as the plethora of cured meats hanging in freezers right at the entrance of the establishment. IMG_8354 We also quickly realized the lack of cars and giant trucks on the streets that were typical for the previous days of our visit.  Like many parts of the South, football (not futbol or footy as it’s called across the pond or south of the border) is king, and it was no different in the Granary as all of their slick flatscreens had on various college games.  Contrary to the majority of diners, we were instead there to experience the show this Southern charcuterie powerhouse could put on.  Once we were seated in this charming setting, we got down to business.  We started our meal with the butcher plate ($16) which consisted of all house made cured meats, pickled vegetables, and salubrious spreads.IMG_8351  The bounty was spread before us, and I didn’t know where to start.  I immediately tried some of the pickles and mustard on the side since they are two elements of any savory meal I couldn’t pass up.  Unfortunately, they were of the sweeter variety, but the whole grain mustard would prove to pair ideally with most of the meats on the board.  The pickled cauliflower was also sour and crunchy which satisfied my palate much more than the pickles surprisingly.  I’ll start with my least favorite item, and that was the goose pate.  It was like a warm scoop of chocolate ice cream that was both rich and devoid of any sweetness compared to its dessert doppelganger.  However, I’m not a huge proponent of spreadable meats, so it started off with a disadvantage.  Not for me, but perhaps you might enjoy it more than I did.  Then there was the slices of pork rillette which reminded me of bologna with each bite on the accompanying pieces of olive oil kissed bread.  The two other items, the bresaola and soppressata, were the true stars in my eyes and taste buds.  The small disks of soppressata, a specialty sausage of southern Italy, consisted of spicy pork and reminded me of its mouth watering Catalan equivalent, fuet, that I gnawed on during my siesta period during the day.  If you like your fatty meats, this is the one for you.  The bresaola, on the other hand, was thinly sliced but had tons of flavor packed into every fiber.  Bresaola comes from Lombardy in northern Italy and is typically made of aged beef rubbed with salt and spices.  It is then sliced thinly as we had it that day in Charlotte, and it made a great topping for the aforementioned pieces of crusty pane italiano.  This multi-ringed circus was a prelude to the greatness that was to follow.  For our main brunch plates, we were taken aback by how well made and reasonably priced our meals were.  First, there was Janice’s Benedict Hash ($15).IMG_9105  Before I begin describing these delectable creations, I have to add if you’re eating at the Granary, come hungry because the portions are not for the faint of stomach.IMG_9103  In her plate, one could find crunchy yet tender duck confit pieces, sweet pickled peppers, roasted mushrooms, English muffin croutons, poached eggs, and hollandaise in addition to the traditional roasted potatoes.  It was everything Janice could have asked in a meal.  From the fluffy, delicately poached eggs to the plentiful duck confit scattered amongst the semi-crunchy potatoes and croutons, it was like a breakfast trail mix we would have brought along with us on all of the walking we would do for the rest of the day and night.  It was jazzed up with a dash of local Floking red jalapeno hot sauce that was like a sweeter Tabasco type of hot sauce.IMG_8353 However, my sweet tooth conquers all which segues to my French toast.  I’m going to make a bold claim, but this was the best French toast I’ve ever had. IMG_9104 It started with fried pieces of cinnamon-orange brioche that were then covered with candied pecans, bananas, and lying on a criss-cross of fresh blackberry preserves.  IMG_8352As if that wasn’t enough, there was a moderate layer of blueberry cream cheese stuffed throughout the middle of each slice.  This astounding version of a breakfast classic was topped with a generous soupcon of bourbon maple syrup which went well with the fresh banana slices.  It was a true form of Southern comfort in the morning.  Once we were finished, we made our way to the Charleston Aquarium.  As mentioned in a previous post, we had bought tickets to the main aquarium as well as the sea turtle hospital.  It is very worth it as you are able to get up close and personal with these mighty beasts of the deep who were cut down due to disease or human interference, unfortunately. IMG_9199 IMG_9198 Moving around the rest of the main facility, it wasn’t as great as Shedd in Chicago, but there were plenty of interactive exhibits for the kids that we also enjoyed.  Definitely a fun diversion in Charleston if you have young children or are looking for something to do with inclement weather.IMG_9203 IMG_9200 IMG_9207  After hanging out with Dory, Nemo, and the totally righteous sea turtles, we had to go and see the Charles Town Landing.  Many people don’t seem to know about it, but it is actually the actual site English explorers landed in 1670. IMG_8395 It is also where the current name of the city comes from:  Charles Town -> Charleston.  If you love history like me, you’d be in heaven because it looks similar to how they recreated the settlement feel to the embankments, forts, and even cannon.  However, if you’re like my fiancee, Janice, and aren’t the most interested in history, they have animals on the northern side of the nature preserve.  So we got there close to closing time, so we had roughly an hour to see both sections that were on opposite sides of the Landing.  We rushed by the animals to not see any of the animals aside from the trusty bison who were just busy being majestic.  IMG_8399I then proceeded to powerwalk/jog my way to the English galleon on the Ashley River.  On the way, I found out that I accidentally jogged across a piece of a Native American burial ground, so that could have been slightly better labelled.IMG_8400  Eventually, I made it with time to spare, and it was a lot smaller than I thought.  IMG_8407I don’t know how the original sailors survived in such cramped quarters, but I can see why they went crazy colonizing America after getting off the boat.IMG_8412 IMG_9209  Thankfully when Janice eventually met up with me, we were able to walk back and enjoy the sights of the park minus the need to sprint my heart out.IMG_8417 IMG_8404IMG_8402  By the time we got to our car, we were ready to fill our rumbling stomachs with some sustenance.  So, what better time to check out the Vendue Hotel rooftop?  This hotel is in the heart of downtown Charleston, and we had to find the elevator to get to the bar at the top of the building.  Once there, we were greeted with a tastefully decorated bar that also has one of the best views of the city. IMG_9108 IMG_9107 It was a bit too chilly to sit outside and take in the sunset over the Holy City, named for its numerous church steeples and other houses of worship, unfortunately.  Once we were done admiring this breathtaking city,  we got down to business at the bar.  Ordered some cava or Spanish champagne with a side of their pulled pork nachos.  IMG_9112IMG_9111We were celebrating our engagement like a pair of classy tourists. IMG_9110 The nachos were unique and satisfying because it combines a Southern cuisine staple with a tex-mex mainstay.  Plus, instead of having typical neon-yellow nacho cheese, they had an almost cheese gravy spread over all of the tortilla chips.  I’d highly recommend this bar food mainstay with a distinct Charlestonian character.  During our meal, we managed to crush the cava bottle, but I did manage to get an East Coast favorite:  Yuengling beer. IMG_8427 It is from the oldest operating brewery in America established in 1829, and the unique name comes from the German founders last name “Jungling” or “Young man” in German which was Anglicized to “Yuengling” (youngling in English).   As for the taste, I wasn’t a big fan of the thin and kind of hoppy red ale.  Janice got the Temple of the Dog ($11) which was a very strongly made mix of rye, chinato, bitters, and a brandied cherry for garnish.  It was like a lighter Manhattan that was potent yet refreshing.

Very refreshed right now

Very refreshed right now

By the time we finished that shared drink, we made our way down the street to the Griffon, a famous dive bar that has dollar bills coating the walls like wallpaper.IMG_8432  It has reached new popularity after appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.  It wasn’t too happening when we went in and got a nightcap, but I’d imagine it would be better later at night on the weekend.  Still we had a lot of fun!

Or at least Janice did

Or at least Janice did

We left the dark pub to walk the streets and take in the coastal charm of Charleston walking along a dock under the light of the moon. IMG_8436 An almost perfect penultimate day with plenty of excitement to come during our last day in the Dirty South.

 

The Granary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Roof Top Bar & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Griffon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

A Capital Idea!

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Welcome one and all to part deux of Restaurant Week on Mastication Monologues!  If you’re not sure what Restaurant Week is in Chicago, then I highly recommend reading my first post at Hub 51.  Today’s post is somewhat in the similar but even classier vein of high end dining for low low prices.  While I’m all about trying new and exotic foods, my meal at Capital Grille in Chicago was classic steakhouse dining at its finest.  While it’s not one of the old stalwarts of steak in the home of the dearly departed Union stockyards, I really enjoyed my experience at this establishment.

While walking to Capital Grille, I saw that they had valet parking which is a great deal in a part of down that isn’t known for cheap/free parking.  The outside was just a hint of the regal interior inside that had all the pomp of a classic steakhouse down to the dark wood bar and portraits of random white guys sporting some facial hair that would make any modern day hipster proud. IMG_5810IMG_5834IMG_5833 IMG_5832 Capital Grille even has personal wine kiosks for clients who are willing to pony up the cash for their pinot noir, but the coolest thing I thought was that they even had a cabinet for wine for what seemed to be for anyone who is or has served in the armed forces. IMG_5835 I was quickly led to the table for our guys night out that quickly became a double date plus two dudes.  Still, it was a good time had for all as we kicked off the dinner with some drinks.  I got a glass of the Jameson 12 year Reserve.IMG_5815  This drink was smoother than James Bond and Ron Burgundy in a velvet room.  It was the perfect compliment to the free bread basket that was filled to the brim with crisp flatbreads, warm slices of black rye bread, and rock hard rolls (not a fan, personally). IMG_5813 So, since it was Restaurant Week, I went with the accompanying $33 menu which was a bargain for a three course meal.  For my first course, I went with the wedge with blue cheese and applewood smoked bacon.  Initially, I had to ask the waitress what a “wedge” was since I was curious what this wedge consisted of, and she sarcastically answered that it was a type of salad.  When it came out, it all made sense.  Looking at it, it seemed like the laziest salad ever created. IMG_5817 It literally was a quarter of a head of lettuce with dressing and bacon pieces adorning it and sliced tomatoes placed at the foot of this odd looking dish.  So, I proceeded to sliced the lettuce piece to bite-sized pieces along with mixing it up with the extremely decadent ranch, blue cheese chunks, and bacon.  It was the Paula Dean of salads given how fattening it was yet oh so tasty with the tangy dressing mixing with the salty bacon and pungent blue cheese.  It was only a prelude to the epic entree that came out soon thereafter in the form of the 14 oz. bone-in, dry aged sirloin steak along with a side of mashed potatoes and french beans with heirloom tomatoes. IMG_5824 Funnily enough, the girls at the table got the smaller, 8 oz. filet mignon, but that didn’t take away from its quality. IMG_5823 When I dug into the sirloin, it was heaven in meat form.  I got it medium rare which meant that it still was a bit bloody but well done enough to keep in all of the juicy flavors. IMG_5825 It was superbly succulent, and a generously sized piece of steak for the price.  The sides were equally exquisite.  The mashed potatoes were creamy and buttery, and the beans were neither too firm nor too soft.IMG_5822  Then there were the desserts…lord, the desserts.  First, I got the flourless chocolate espresso cake.IMG_5830  It was like a slice of fudge that wasn’t as sugary and not as crumb based as a typical slice of cake.  This texture combined with the intense dark chocolate flavor with coffee hints in each forkful made it hard to beat, and the raspberry sauce was the icing on a cake without equal.  My other dining companions tried the creme brulee which looked lip-smacking good, but sadly I didn’t get to try it. IMG_5831 However, based on their gleaming white bowls at the end of the dessert course, I could only assume they liked it!

So if you want to try a slice of Chicago’s steak culture in the heart of the city, check out Capital Grille.
The Capital Grille on Urbanspoon

Last K-Days (Part 2)- Life’s a Beach

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My second day in Ulsan wasn’t as action packed as the first day, but I did manage to have some McDonalds and pay a visit to neighboring Gyeongju.  The only real food highlight of the day was when I managed to try a new type of 호떡 or hotteok which is like a sweet pancake.  Normally, they are fried and filled with a sticky, sweet syrup, but the variant in Ulsan I found to be more pleasant.IMG_2088  First, instead of being soaked in cooking oil, they were baked in a small oven.  Second, inside the hotteok there were more sesame seeds and honey instead of syrup which led to a more interesting and varied taste. IMG_2089 Plus, it wasn’t as messy as the original hotteok I tried in Myeongdong in Seoul.  Lord knows I don’t like to have half of my food still on my hands when I finish eating.  I made it to the seaside town of Busan.  I had visited the city before where I tried some deadly fish soup and had a “sexual” encounter in the Jagalchi fish market, but this time we were going to explore the art village on the other side of the harbor.

The first food I tried in Busan when we got to the art village was this Dalgona cookie that smelled pretty good from far away.  However, this was no ordinary snack.  I saw people fiddling about with their cookies on metal plates for some reason, so I learned hat you can cut out the shape imprinted in the cookie with a needle as a type of challenge.  If you cut it out perfectly without cracking the shape, then you get a free one.  Dalgona cookies seemed to be a simple treat to make since it was only made of sugar and baking soda that was heated to a high temperature before being spread on a small griddle where it cooled.

IMG_2099 You then got your choice of shape you could press into it.  I decided to do a gingerbread man shape since it looked pretty easy…or so I thought.  I took my seat next to the other kids at the table and proceeded to get to work. IMG_2166 It was harder than it looked because the cookie was wafer thin yet extremely brittle which required the steady hands of a brain surgeon with the needle.  I was making great progress as I cracked parts off around the upper torso, but a random fault line erupted as I rounded the crotch.  All my hard work was for naught, and my Korean audience was disappointed after watching my splendid progress.  I vowed to come back and try it again. IMG_2163 Even though the cookie was extremely sweet and crunchy, there was a burnt, bitter aftertaste that may have been caused by either the singed sugar or my defeat.

 I highly recommend a trip to the art village as it’s very quirky but tasteful if you like random artwork integrated into a mountainside community.  On the way back to the car, I got another Dalgona cookie with a fish this time in honor of the seafood hub that is Busan.  This time around, I cut the shape out with four quick jabs with the needle.  I was satisfied with overcoming the challenge.IMG_2159  However, these snacks were a mere prelude to the food extravaganza that would soon follow in the city as I went to Gukje Market.

When we got there, it seemed like the entire world was out and crowded around these food carts.  I would come back to these carts later, but first we had to try some of Busan’s famous mini kimbap (think California sushi rolls with different fillings).  We went to a food tent that specialized in these mini kimbap, and there was plenty of variety in terms of ingredients we could choose. IMG_2101 You ordered by placing plastic kimbap on each flavor tag, and then the woman behind the counter would whip them up in a jiffy. IMG_2102IMG_2103 I was starving at that point, so we ordered almost all of the flavors.   I saved myself for the parade of little rolls that made their way onto our plate which included the following flavors:  spicy pepper, flying fish eggs, anchovy, spicy tuna, spicy pork, spicy beef, kimchi, and dried squid.IMG_2104IMG_2107  I loved nearly all of them, but the spicy pork and spicy beef were the most disappointing.  It was more like eating liquified, overly salty mystery meat puree in a sushi roll.  Not my kind of dining experience.  I really enjoyed the spicy pepper kimbap since they were spicy but filled with lots of pepper flavor.  The flying fish egg kimbap were surprisingly good since the eggs brought a different texture to the rolls as I enjoyed popping the little orbs between my teeth.  I eventually slowed down, but the food crawl didn’t end there.  We then moved down the main pedestrian area of Gukje Market to get 납작만두 or napjak mandu which are essentially flat dumplings or potstickers that came with a side of 오징어무침 or ojingeo muchim which is strips of squid and vegetables in a chili sauce.IMG_3616  It was one of the many food carts that had a mob of people around it jostling for position to taste some of the wonderfully grilled dumplings, and I quickly made a hole in the crowd for us to stand.  It seemed like people would put the vibrant red strips of squid and vegetables in the dumplings and then fold them like tacos to eat with chopsticks.    Overall, I would have enjoyed them more if I wasn’t so full of kimbap, but they were delicious.  The dumplings were crispy around the edges, and the dough had a buttery taste that gave way to seasoned vegetables inside.IMG_2110  Combined with the semi-sweet and spicy squid and vegetables melange, my palate was fully satisfied.  As we made our way back to where we entered, I stopped for a quick drink at the convenience store.  I saw a drink that was called “pine bud drink”, so I got it. IMG_2108 It apparently was made from pine tree needles, and the taste isn’t good.  I took a big swig and was intrigued by the taste. IMG_2158 It kind of tasted like Gatorade at first, but then I was blasted with a shot of a flavor I could only describe as pine tree mixed with menthol.  Strangely, I enjoyed it for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Then again I like green tea flavored products while my other foreign friends can’t stand it.  Try it at your own risk.  Finally, there was the 씨앗호떡 or ssiat hotteok or seed hotteok.  We could only get it at the severely crowded entrance where we were quickly ushered in line by a guy working for the food cart.IMG_2116

Apparently this is the original food cart that started serving the hotteok.

Apparently this is the original food cart that started serving the hotteok.

It snaked around as more eaters rushed around us, and we eventually reached the front of the cart where the entire order and buying process took maybe 30 seconds tops.

The batter

The batter

Pre and post fry

Pre and post fry

IMG_2115

I’m nuts for it!

These hotteoks were fried like the ones in Seoul, but they were stuffed with honey, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.  It was the best hotteok out of the ones I have tried.  Not only was the dough chewy and rich, but the seeds made it taste like peanut butter when combined with the honey.  Plus, I loved the crunchiness that served as a counterpoint to a mostly soft dessert.

After getting back from Busan around 11pm, we tried some gwamegi or dried herring which is normally served with lots of side dishes to cut through the salty flavor, but we only really had chili sauce, garlic cloves, and some wonderfully strong and berry flavored Chinese baiju liquor.IMG_2123IMG_2122  It was ok, but I did enjoy the smoky elements of the snack and the fruity aftertaste of the baiju which reminded me of my time in Beijing.  We soon headed out for a late night snack of mayak jjimdak or drug chicken soup.IMG_2126  Now don’t order this dish expecting to find some magic herbs and spices given the name.  The “drug” element comes from the idea that the soup is so incredibly tasty that it’s addictive like a drug.IMG_2127  I would have to agree with them as the fiery red broth was thicker than a normal Korean jjigae or soup, and there were plenty of pieces of juicy chicken throughout the meal.  I would have to check into rehab if there was a drug chicken soup spot by my house back home.  With that spicy and “illicit” meal behind us, my third day in Ulsan drew to a close.

Beijing (Day 2)- Go Duck Yourself!

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Welcome to another installation of Mastication Monologues where today I will be bringing you day two of my food adventures in Beijing!  It was quite a happening day complete with a visit to the Forbidden City, and let me tell you that the only thing that is forbidden there is sitting down for a rest.  It was an immense sight to see, so we worked up quite an appetite by the time we found an exit.  Nearby, there was a large stretch of shopping malls and restaurants, so we decided to take a gander at what they had to offer.  We eventually ended up at this Muslim/Uyghur restaurant.IMG_1494 China, being the gargantuan country that it already is, encompasses a multitude of cultures and ethnic groups.  The Uyghur people are one of the most distinct groups in the mix as they mainly inhabit the far western part of the country, and a majority are Muslim instead of Buddist or Taoist.  In terms of food, you can definitely tell that they are not like the Han majority as they consume a lot more mutton, flatbreads, yogurt, and kebabs.  A little Middle East meets the Far East flavor for ya.  We were the only non-Asian people in this eatery, so the local clientele were very surprised to see us.  Upon sitting down, they insisted on covering our seat backs with protective covers and the table cover with an extra layer of plastic.  This was a signal that our meal was most likely going to be like Sea-World, i.e. the first three rows are going to get wet.  We plumped for the lunch special for two which involved a Beijing hotpot that was quite novel.  I say novel in the sense that the actual cooking device didn’t look like a typical pot used for this type of cuisine.  It looked more like the progeny that would arise 9 months later if a lava lamp, a smokestack, a fire pit, and a castle moat got together during one crazy weekend in Jamaica. IMG_1495 Inanimate object freakiness aside, the rolls of thinly sliced lamb had my mouth watering.IMG_1497   They also had scarlet bales of beef with plenty of vermicelli and wheat noodles on the side. IMG_1499 IMG_1498While the meat was delectable, I think that it was a bit of a disappointment with how much of it was boiled off in the water.  The shrimp were quite useless since they were frozen together in a clump to the plate the entire time…talk about fresh.  If you’re a veggie head, there was plenty of tofu, fungi, lettuce, cilantro, and onions to satisfy your cravings.IMG_1501IMG_1500  One of the more interesting dishes of ingredients we could throw into the boiling water were these cheese-filled, sea scallop balls and the mystery black balls. IMG_1502 The former were quite funky in a good way with their playful striped exteriors and piping hot cheese and seafood sauce innards.  The latter were a bit more unsettling since I couldn’t really tell what sort of meat I was eating, and it seemed like each meat orb had a piece of string in it.  I don’t know if that came from the preparation, but it didn’t bother me terribly.  All throughout the meal, I enjoyed watching the wait staff watch us eat since we were so proficient with chopsticks.  They were probably thanking the heavens they didn’t have to search for a fork.  It was an ok dining experience, but I prefer my previous Sichuan or Taiwanese hot pot dinners.  If my taste buds were snoozing on me after that lunch, I would give them a jolt they would never forget as we made our way to Wangfujing Snack Street (王府井小吃街; Wángfǔjǐngxiǎochī Jiē).IMG_1505  It was a lot more crowded than Donghuamen market, and it seemed more like a local place to get snack food which also meant the prices were a bit more reasonable.IMG_1508  I saw a lot of the usual weird food that they also had at Donghuamen, but one of the sticks was really calling my name:  the scorpions.IMG_2810  I don’t know if it’s just the fact that they are poisonous, or that they were still alive and squirming on the stick that made me want to eat them.  I got a stick, and it was the best bizarre food I tried in Beijing with the spider running a close second.IMG_2812  I’d have to say that it was a mix of the chef’s spicy dry rub, and him knowing not to burn the arachnids while frying.  Those two elements combined to create a snack that was crispy, piquant, with a bit of meat that didn’t taste like anything.  It seems that insects will taste like whatever you season them with, so I consider them the tofu of cheap proteins.  Another fun part of the experience was having other western tourists walk by with their Chinese friends and reel back in horror as I took down the creepy crawlies with no trepidation.  Naturally, the Chinese broke out the classic praise phrase in English, “You’re strong!” while their Western friends insisted on a raincheck when I offered them one.  Quick note on Asian cuisine I’ve noticed while traveling, the weirder it seems to Western palates, more often than not it can somehow increase strength (read:  male libido) in some fashion like dog soup in Korea.  Long story short, I’d eat the scorpions again if I had the chance, and I recommend you try them as well.  However, my day didn’t end there.  All of these brief excursions culminated at dinner where I had the signature dish of Beijing:  Peking duck.  While New York has its delis and Chicago its deep dish pizza, you would have to be a fool to go to Beijing and not try one of these succulent fowls.  The place we went to was called Lao Zhai Yuan 老宅院.IMG_1521  It was in a really small hutong or neighborhood and gave me the impression that I wasn’t at some touristy clip joint.  We ate in one of their courtyards which thankfully had plenty of heat lamps, but it just further added to the ambiance of it all.IMG_1519  We also enjoyed the menu descriptions of some of the items they had to offer, and the prices were extremely reasonable.  Our entire meal probably cost 10 bucks.  IMG_1512While we were waiting for our duck to be prepared, I got a bottle of baiju 白酒 which is like China’s version of Korea’s soju.  However, the difference is in the alcohol content. IMG_1514 While soju only has around 20% alcohol, baiju has a 40% minimum, so it’s more like vodka in that aspect.  I definitely felt that way when I took a small sip of it straight, but it got more interesting when I mixed it with Sprite.  It didn’t blend very well with the Sprite like vodka would, but it added a strangely pleasing berry twist to the citrus Sprite. IMG_1513 In the distance, I could smell a sweet fragrance wafting our way, and I saw our chef going to work on our duck with brain surgeon-like precision. IMG_2816 His craftsmanship showed with each plate they brought to our table of just the meat, the golden brown skin, and the meat with strands of the skin still attached with a thin layer of fat between both tissues.  It was hands down the best meal I had in Beijing.

Heaven in one meal.

Heaven in one meal.

The skin was not only crispy but had dulcet tones to every bite while the meat was tender and rich.  It doesn’t take a mathamagician to put one and one together to imagine how great the skin and meat bits were.  The meal was only further enhanced with the delivery method of the duck to your mouth which took the form of utilizing a paper thin pancake and smearing the plum sauce all over it first.  Then, you could either put horseradish, sugar, cucumber sticks, or onions before loading up on your duck.  Once you have it all piled up, you roll it taco style and enjoy.  It was a great combination of sweet, savory, and tangy to create the ultimate dining experience in Beijing.  The plat de résistance was the duck head that they served to us as the very last item.  It was cleaved in half still with everything inside like the brains, tongue, and eyeballs. IMG_1516IMG_1517 Naturally, my dining companion didn’t think I was going to eat it, but I ended up consuming it nevertheless much to her disgust.  It was worth it though, and not my first time doing so since I had it in Taiwan.  There wasn’t a lot of meat on it, but I’ll always say that the eyes are the best part since they have a buttery quality to them.  All’s well that end’s well as I went to sleep that night with a very happy stomach.  Long story short, find this restaurant, and you will not regret it.

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