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Category Archives: Chain Restaurants

A Deli For a Happy Belly

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Ah college…an idyllic time where you can enjoy every social opportunity there is for an 18-22 year old while hopefully gaining an education.  On any college campus in America, minus the dry campuses, there is always a main street where most students go to shop, eat, and get their drink on.  The last two are especially important given that nothing is better than having a great night out on the town and more importantly, getting some precious food to fill your food before, during, and/or after the shenanigans.  This past fall, I went for the first time to the Indiana University with my girlfriend and her friends, and experienced everything their campus had to offer.  I had always heard good things about Bloomington, Indiana (hard to believe given it’s in Indiana), but I never had been there.  Plus, I went to the University of Illinois at Chambana, so our schools aren’t the best of neighbors.  However, I ended up having a fantastic weekend filled with fun, friends, and especially food.

We kicked off Friday night with exploring the downtown area and visiting a popular bar called Nick’s. IMG_4606 Apparently they’re famous for a drinking game called Sink the Biz, or as I’ve always known it from U of Illinois, depth charge.  Basically, you try not to sink the shotglass while pouring beer into it.

So tense!

The guys behind us were captivated.

Loser has to drink per usual.  Things got really rowdy when Captain Morgan showed up, but we were more into the prompt service and the good bar food like the cheese sticks, fries, and burgers.  Old people priorities, woooooo!  After that, we moved on to the Upstairs Bar where the party really jumped off.  First, there were these drinks called AMFs or Adios Mofos to keep it clean, and after tasting one I can see where the name comes from. IMG_4648 Take down one or two, and you might as well kiss your last functioning neurons goodbye.  If you like to dance, this was the place to be especially when Michael Jackson’s Hold Me from the classic film Free Willy came on.  It was a spiritual experience to say the least.  The rest of the night was pretty fun, but the following morning was even better.

The highlight (one of many) for our visit was the tailgate before the football game.  For the uninitiated, like myself back then, I wasn’t sure what tailgating consisted of.  Turns out it was the biggest food and drink fest of all time, but with the unpredictability of the elements thrown in.  What that meant was while we were freezing outside, we huddled around the Weber grill for warmth as bbq master Cam was slinging burgers at us.IMG_4654  We also were enjoying plenty of adult beverages, making new friends,

Ruby the dog is so popular

Ruby the dog is so popular

ruining old friendships over drinking games,

Something's afoot, but Janice is having too much fun.

Nobody but Janice is having fun.

and getting on Buzzfeed (Check number 15).  Nbd.  Eventually we made it to the football game, and it was about as dismal as the weather. IMG_4614 It was so depressing that one of our friends, Amanda, basically led a mass exodus of fans out of the stadium after loudly voicing her displeasure at a terrible throw and a missed catch.  We thought about going out, but after 10 hours of straight raging, we decided to call it a night.  The following morning, however, we nursed our hangovers with a little something the girls kept calling VD.  Now, that’s something people normally try to stay away from, but in Bloomington, VD or Village Deli is the place to be on a Sunday morning. IMG_4622 Recently it suffered a terrible fire, but thankfully it was repaired and back in business.  I enjoyed their funky fresh paint scheme with their psychedelic paintings on the wall of celebrities, and the food looked delicious as we walked pass the packed tables.  Their menu was simple but filled with great options for pancakes, omelets, and scramblers.  They are known for their Famous, Collosal, Huge, Ginormous, Fresh Buttermilk Pancakes, so that is exactly what I got ($4.50).  You can also add up to three toppings including fresh fruit, walnuts, peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, granola, or cinnamon roll.  That last one greatly intrigued me, so I plumped for just that to see what these from scratch big boys would look like.  What came out was just as large as they were talking about. IMG_4621 They were literally bigger than my face and coated with cinnamon, sugar, and icing.IMG_4620  I seem to have a penchant for ordering large breadstuffs for breakfast.  I quickly got down to business since I was starving, and they were some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had.  I could tell they were made from scratch with the fluffiness of each bite coated in that sweet and slightly savory cinnamon sugar melange.  It was kicked up a notch in the diabetes column with the cinnamon roll icing, but I was back in college for a weekend.  Nothing like letting the hair down a little.  My compadres’ meals looked equally delish, but I highly recommend getting there early if you want a table and not have to wait in line for half an hour or more.  It was a satisfying end to an entertaining weekend with new friends.

Job well done, team!

Job well done, team!

To finish, I would highly recommend visiting U of Indiana and the Village Deli if you’re looking for good times and great food with even better prices.  IMG_4651

Village Deli on Urbanspoon

Cinfully Delicious

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A common phrase in English is “the breakfast of champions” which is often used to describe a specific foodstuff or collection of drink and food that will transform someone into a winner.  However, a tougher title to achieve is “champion of breakfasts”, especially in a big and competitive market like Chicago.  Now, I’ve had my fair share of flapjacks, scramblers, and skillets, and it’s really just the tip of the bacon-wrapped iceburg.  Not all diners are created equal though.  Kanela is one of those special franchises that has slowly, but surely, taken over the Chicago breakfast scene.

κανέλα” or Kanela means “cinnamon” in Greek, and this Greek American establishment of the same name is a temple to this once rare ingredient.  I love my spices and seasoning, but I think that cinnamon is my favorite.  Whether it’s in rolls, doughnuts, or French toast, I can’t get enough of the powdery and savory spice.  So, when I heard that we would be paying a visit to it for a morning meal, I was over the moon.  It had a modest exterior that belied its popularity as people were milling outside waiting for a table. IMG_4818 Thankfully, there is free parking nearby and on the street if you’re looking to take a large group to enjoy all of the great breakfast options we soon thereafter started sampling.  The place was absolutely poppin’ on a Sunday morning, go figure, but we got a table for two in no time. IMG_4817 We started the meal off with drinks.  Janice got a Bloody Mary that was extra spicy and made with Absolut Peppar vodka to give it that peppy kick to wake you up and/or chase the mad dog of a hangover from last night away.  IMG_4802As for me, I went the healthier route with the PB & J smoothie ($6) which consisted of peanut butter, blueberry, strawberry, and organic agave nectar which is a slightly healthier alternative to regular sugar but much better than artificial sweeteners.IMG_4805  Fun fact:  the agave is the same plant that tequila is derived from as well, but don’t expect any sort of alcoholic punch with this natural sugar substitute. Surprisingly, this large glass of cooling ambrosia isn’t as sweet as you would imagine. IMG_4803 It managed to capture the soul of the elementary lunch school staple with a splash of peanut butter mixing with the sweet fruits and syrup but in a much more understated manner.   Once we had our beverages in hand, we started the food fest by sharing an order of monkey bread ($4).  It came out and looked simply sinfully delicious.IMG_4808  I often wondered why people call it “monkey bread” since it doesn’t look like something a monkey would eat or shaped like some sort of simian.  After a bit of research, the origin of the sweet treat’s name is shrouded in mystery, but one theory postulates that its cracked and bumpy surface bears a certain resemblance to the bark of the monkey puzzle tree that grows in South America.  With one bite of this appetizer, we went ape.  Each piece we pulled apart from the bread was more flavorful than the one that preceded it.  The cinnamon dusted on top combined with the honey drizzled on top made it taste like a mixture between a dulce de leche roll I had in Costa Rica and a classic cinnamon roll.IMG_4807  Plus, it was slightly warm that pushed this dessert to the next level.  For our entrees, Janice got the duck confit hash ($12) while I ordered the spicy feta omelet ($11).  First, I have to mention that if you are any type of Greek restaurant or even just a restaurant owned by a Greek, you will get giant portions for your money.  Kanela holds to this axiom.  The duck confit hash looked mouth-wateringly good especially with the orange truffle vinaigrette that really piqued my interest and taste buds. IMG_4809IMG_4813 Thankfully the duck wasn’t too greasy either which can often be a pitfall when ordering the fowl for a meal.  As for my spicy feta omelet, I really loved the fresno pepper garnish that served as a flashpoint of the meal. IMG_4814 Its bright red skin immediately drew my attention at the newborn baby-sized omelet that was lying in front of me.  IMG_4815The ends weren’t that packed with any sort of filling, just fluffy eggs.  However, I soon got to the business end of things as I was greeted with a thick pocket of tyrokafteri cheese, red onion, and tomatoes. IMG_4816 My advice for anyone wanting to get this is that it’s not terribly spicy, and make sure that you love feta cheese because there’s half of Greece’s supply in just this one omelet.  So if you aren’t as big of a cheesehead as me, then consider yourself warned.  It’s not for the faint hearted.  The onions made a minimal impression on my palate, and the tomatoes were negligible.  The potatoes on the side were not too greasy or too dry, and they worked well when mixed with the omelets or just on their own.

By the end of meal, we were stuffed and satisfied with our trip to Kanela.  For the price, portion sizes, and overall quality of ingredients, Kanela can’t be touched.
Kanela Breakfast Club on Urbanspoon

Bro-ing Out with the Apple of My Eye

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If it’s your first time on here or you’re a longtime fan, you’re in for a treat.  I’m all about finding and trying new and unique restaurants, and today’s establishment definitely falls into both categories.  Well, maybe not so much new, but its menu choices are certainly memorable.  Cutting to the chase, I’m talking about Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  It has been around since 1960, and is considered by Zagat and James Beard the best breakfast place-bar none in the Chicagoland area.  It is so popular that there are now six locations around the Chicagoland area, but in this post, my girlfriend and I visited the original location that opened in 1960 in Wilmette.

I’ve heard of the Walker’s Bros. before, and I wondered what made them so special compared to all of the other types of chain breakfast restaurants or even little hole in the walls I’ve visited in the past.  Breakfasts in America are much more varied compared to breakfasts in other countries, so I feel like I’ve seen it all when it comes to ordering something tasty to fill my piehole with in the morning.  Boy, was I wrong after eating with the Bros.  The exterior of the restaurant just radiated history like it was a living time capsule, but the cars were slightly less hulking and more chock full o’ plastic compared to the motorcoaches of yesteryear.IMG_4201  Walking through the door, however, that hasn’t changed since they first opened it (or so it seemed).  It was full of beautiful stained glass windows and ornate woodcarvings coating the walls. IMG_4200 We were promptly seated in one of the side dining rooms, and we were treated to a perfect view of one of the enormous ceiling lights that were designed in the Tiffany style. IMG_4193 Not only were we taking in the surroundings but also the menu contents.  Janice had been here before, so she automatically knew what she was going to get:  the Dutch Baby pancake ($8.50).  As for me, I was having trouble trying to pick something since everything looked great!  Eggs?  French toast? Crepes?  Waffles?  I was at the pancake house, so I plumped for the apple pancake ($9.95) with the additional $1.95 for French vanilla ice cream on top.  Got to do it big when you’re rollin’ with the Bros.

When our plates came out, I was taken aback since I had never seen anything like it.  Janice’s Dutch Baby wasn’t like a small, screeching, blonde child wearing wooden shoes but rather something that looked like a cross between a taco salad shell and a danish.IMG_4198  What it actually was was an oven-baked pancake that was topped with a healthy sprinkling of powdered sugar. IMG_4197 The kicker was the lemon juice she spritzed over the pancake that really brought it to life.  I personally thought that it was a unique dish as it was less like a bready pancake and more like a lighter, buttery crepe that sizzled over my palate with the sweet powdered sugar combining with the raw sour power of the lemon juice.  Thankfully, the pancake itself wasn’t outshone by the lemon juice.  Then there was the apple pancake….where to start? IMG_4199 It was advertised as an “Original Pancake House tradition”, and that it was stuffed with some apples and cinnamon glaze.  Simple.  I’ve had apple pancakes before where they slice some apples on top and put a slightly thicker syrup over the flapjacks and fruit to leave you full but just moderately satisfied.  My apple pancake from Walker Bros. was the Steve Jobs of the breakfast world.  A revolutionary just doing what it wants to do no matter what.  It’s not for the faint of heart but rather for those with a well endowed sweet tooth, i.e. yours truly.  The exterior seemed to be lacquered with the Sinikiang (fun fact:  Sinikiang or Xinjiang is the Northwestern province of China that is home to the Uighur community and a majority of China’s Muslim minorities.  Also, it was a stop along the famed Silk Road where spices like cinnamon were traded.) cinnamon and sugar glaze so that it shimmered under the ornate lights and beckoned me to tuck into it. IMG_4196 I could see that it was piping hot as its snow white toupee was slowly trickling down its undulating surface through each nook and cranny.  Upon slicing it open, I was greeted with slices of cinnamon apples, pure white dough and more sugar glaze.  It was like an apple pie and a cinnamon roll had a delectable love child.  I was in absolute heaven with every bite, and this is one tradition I hope Walker Bros. never retires.

So if you want a piece of Chicagoland history along with some wonderfully innovative and delicious breakfast items for great prices, run, don’t walk to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  Their pancakes will make you flip!

Walker Bros Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Bongo A-Go-Go

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Happy 4th of July, ‘Murika!  What is more American than a new Mastication Monologues post about stuffing my face with delicious food that comes in gargantuan portions that would feed a family for a week?  Nothing…well, except maybe this .  Today’s restaurant review takes me to Andersonville in Chicago to the famed Bongo Room.

I had heard through the grapevine that this establishment knew how to sling some delicious brunch items to fill some growling, hungry and possibly hungover bellies.  I knew I had to check it out since I also caught wind of their portion sizes being insanely large.  I went there on a weekday morning, and I found it quite easy to park in their minuscule parking lot on the side along with procuring a table upon walking in.  However, they don’t take reservations, and if you go on a weekend, you will have to brave the hungry hordes that I often see milling about outside their doors.IMG_3644  Anyway, I was just there by myself, so I decided to sit at the bar since I didn’t want to take up one of the larger tables that were perfectly spaced and designed for the dining room.IMG_3651  The bartender gave me the main menu along with a list of specials.  It wasn’t as extensive as a Greek diner or other chain breakfast places I’ve been to, but they did have plenty of creative entries like a similar Andersonville diner, M. Henry.  I looked over the omelets, French toasts, and pancakes they had to offer, but it was like trying to pick your favorite child.  So, I asked the bartender what she would recommend, and she picked what I was leaning towards initially:  white chocolate and caramel pretzel pancakes ($10.50).

After a bit of waiting, they finally came out.  I honestly didn’t know how they managed to fit in the pretzels in this plate that looked almost like a canvas that should be hanging in the MOMA. IMG_3647 I almost felt bad that I would have to sully the milky white and golden lattice pattern that covered these monstrous cakes, but I sallied forth to my delectable date with destiny.  From the first forkful I was hooked.  The actual pancakes were light and fluffy, and the white chocolate sauce that covered them wasn’t thick like frosting but rather an extremely thin syrup made thicker with the presence of divine caramel.  This sauce was the key to the success of these pancakes while at M. Henry I was very disappointed in their bliss cakes.  M.  Henry went the healthy route with berry juice, but the problem was that they used way too much of it.  The sauce itself was too watery which the cakes absorbed too quickly, and in turn, left me with a plate of soggy flapjacks.  The Bongo Room, on the other hand, did coat their pancakes with a lot of sauce like M. Henry but with just enough to coat every inch of them and no more.  I didn’t interrupt another pancake pool party for breakfast.  Plus, the sauce was thicker which meant that it infiltrated the pores of the pancakes much slower than the thin berry juices.  Take notes, M. Henry.  You have good ideas and ingredients for bread-based recipes, but you need to tweak them to make them truly great.  Anyway, there is also the pretzel element of this dish that I found quite novel.  As I cut through my meal, I would occasionally be greeted with actual pieces of pretzels, salt and all, between the sweet folds.IMG_3649  I inquired with the bartender how they integrated these pretzel fragments into the meal, and she said that they are sprinkled in as the cakes are on the griddle.IMG_3650  Much to my surprise, they were not soggy at all and provided a great crunch to offset the more delicate pancakes.  The saltiness of the pretzels were a double edged sword since it was a masterstroke to combine it with the sweet white chocolate and caramel, but at times towards the end of the meal, the salt seemed to be a bit too much for my palate to handle.  Either way, this snowy white chocolate dish left me in a winter wonderland in the middle of summer.  I ate all of it so fast that the bartender asked if I wanted to lick the plate, but I wanted to preserve a bit of self respect after the dust settled from my feeding frenzy.

I was greatly satisfied by The Bongo Room.  From service, environment, price, portion size, and overall quality, they got it all.  Even though their menu isn’t encyclopedic in comparison to other nearby establishments, The Bongo Room makes up for it with fewer dishes done so well that they make everyone want to come back for more.  Just don’t cut in front of me while we stand in line, and I’ll see you there.

The Bongo Room on Urbanspoon

Too Much Flavor to Savor

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Hey hey, everybody!  Summer is finally here, and Mastication Monologues has another new restaurant review hot off the presses.  While it seems like I’ve been focusing a lot on fried chicken joints and burger stands lately, today’s post takes a turn for the more genteel in the form of brunch at  M.  Henry.

There are plenty of words that have entered the English language in the form of portmanteaus such as spork, frienemy, and the never-ending parade of celebrity couples like Brangelina, Kimye, and TomKat.  However, “brunch” has been around a bit longer than these limelight hoggers, and frankly I think it has offered a lot more to the world than they have.  Case in point, Punch magazine in England in 1895 first coined the term as a “Sunday meal for Saturday night carousers” that “Puts yourself in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow human beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”  Truer words have never been spoken, so I was led to M. Henry by Janice to see if their amazing brunch could do all of the above.IMG_3298  It seemed like it could based on the 20 minute wait we had to endure to finally get a table in the back room.  The interior of the establishment was tastefully decorated along with a full bakery section that greeted us complete with homemade granola, pies, and sweet rolls.IMG_3285IMG_3283IMG_3284  So we sat down in the bustling backroom, and I got acquainted with the menu. IMG_3297 If you love breakfast/brunch as much as I do, then you’ll need plenty of time to pour over the selection of mouth-watering options ranging from different egg dishes, bread based dishes, and tons of sides and vegan-friendly noms.  We started our meal off with a half order of the out of this world bread pudding ($5.75 half/$6.95 full).  Janice was over the moon about it, so I was curious to see if I’d be in orbit as well.  It came out, and it looked unlike any bread pudding I’ve seen. IMG_3286IMG_3288 The actual pudding was buried underneath a mountain of blood-red peach slices and plump raspberries.  So I took a few spoonfuls of the fruit and some chunks of the vanilla brioche pudding.  Upon eating it, I was greeted with a blast of rich vanilla flavor of the bread pudding along with the semi-sweet notes of the peaches.  The raspberries also were fresh and slightly tart that provided a nice contrast to the mellow pudding, but the seeds were a bit of a pain.  Although the ingredients were good, the presentation brought the entire dish down.  The main sticking point for me was the fruit juice that all of the ingredients were swimming in.  This caused the already soft bread pudding to become soggy.  I don’t know if we went there for the senior early bird special since they were trying to soften up our food for our dentures, but I personally prefer my bread pudding to have a bit more fortitude than the delicious but mushy pudding they served us.  If they served it on a plate with just a drizzling of the fruit juices, similar to other bread pudding recipes I’ve tried and seen, instead of a biblical flood, then it would be considerably better.  Once finished,  the waiter was back to take our order.  After much deliberation, I settled for their acclaimed bliss cakes ($9.95) with a side of candied applewood bacon ($3.75), and Janice got the black bean cakes and huevos borrachos ($9.95).  I was looking around at people eating bliss cakes in the dining room, and they looked like they were enjoying them greatly.  So I was quite excited to tuck into them when they were finally placed in front of me.  It looked like a plate out of Martha Stewart’s kitchen, and the first bite was delectable. IMG_3291 The top hotcake had a crust of brown sugar and oats for a sweet crunch for a great flavor and texture contrast to the fruity and fluffy pancakes.  After that first bite, I delved further into my meal, and my initial excitement gave way to a similar ennui that I experienced with the bread pudding.  Once again, M. Henry believed that stewing bread products in its own juices would somehow improve the quality of the meal.  This destroyed the bottom flapjack, and the creamy mascarpone cheese between the pancakes didn’t help.  I’m sure it was a good idea on the drawing board, but they should cool it with the fruit juices.  I definitely wasn’t crestfallen when I tried and subsequently destroyed my candied bacon.IMG_3294  Normally, I’m not a crispy bacon kind of guy, but these monster-sized strips were special.  M. Henry took a basic bacon strip and combined the salty, smoky flavor profile with a perfect coating of sugar to redeem an otherwise disappointing meal.IMG_3296  I tried some of Janice’s dish, mainly the huevos borrachos or “drunk eggs”, and I really should have ordered those.IMG_3293  Not only was the tortillas homemade, fresh, and thick, but the adobo mixed with the chorizo, sour cream, and avocado was a thick, south-of-the-border fiesta that couldn’t be any more at home in my mouth.  Que rico!  

By the end of the meal, I was indifferent to my experience at M. Henry.  I think I just chose incorrectly, but they do care a lot about the quality of the ingredients that they use.  That is for certain.  I’m sure there are other places in Andersonville that serve brunch, like Lady Gregory’s, but I wouldn’t say to completely avoid M. Henry’s.  It’s worth a shot.

M. Henry on Urbanspoon

Burgerville: A Wonderful Place to Meat (Portland, Part 2)

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Yo! So this is part two of my Portland travel journal where I’m chronicling my food adventures throughout the City of Roses.  Day one started off with a delicious breakfast, and today I’ll be presenting my wonderful lunch at Burgerville, a regional burger chain that started in Washington state and moved further south to Oregon.  What sets this company apart is their unique organic menu choices, commitment to improving the local communities where their restaurants are located, and even allowing bikes in their drive-thru lanes.  Talk about being progressive!IMG_2567

However, when I walked in, it was actually furnished like many other burger chains like Steak and Shake with the throwback 1950s decor complete with the signature jukebox and shiny, colorful vinyl seats.IMG_2570  The menu seemed to focus mainly on a variety of burgers living up to their namesake, but they also had a wide selection of chicken sandwiches, salads, vegetarian options, and desserts.  Not only that, but they had seasonal items for sides and offered jars of their signature sauces to take home with you.  After looking through their menu, I decided to go off the beaten culinary path and try one of their vegetarian options:  the spicy Anasazi bean burger. The Anasazi part of the name comes from the Native American tribe that lived in the Four Corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), and the beans they once farmed are offered by this small scale bean hawker.  Frankly, I was merely won over by the fact that it had some sort of spicy element in the title.  Plus, I’m trying to watch what I eat, so I appreciated the option to purchase something that’s a bit more heart healthy.  Not only did I get the meatless option, but I got the seasonal side which was a basket of rosemary shoestring potatoes and a side of Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese dipping sauce, another local Oregonian product.  When it came out, I couldn’t believe that I could order a vegetarian burger in a mainly meat burger chain restaurant and have it look this appetizing. IMG_2568 I was especially blown away simply at how verdant and fresh the lettuce looked on the burger.  Upon the first bite, I was amazed at how savory the burger tasted.  Thankfully it didn’t taste like I was eating a big pile of beans but rather a pseudo-beef patty.  The pepper jack cheese gave the meal some extra zing, and the chipotle mayo kicked up another notch that would make Emeril blush.

BAAAAAMMMMM!

BAAAAAMMMMM!

As for the French fries, I didn’t care for the size of them since I prefer my fries to be a bit bigger like crinkle fries, steak fries, or waffle fries.  Then again, size may not matter rather the motion in the ocean.  Flavorwise, it was like the perfect storm.  They were fried to the apex of flavor along with a liberal coating of rosemary seasoning and garlic olive oil.  The seasoning was borderline too saline for my palate, but I was greatly satiated by the end of the meal.

If you’re ever in the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend you try out a Burgerville location for their fresh, organic dishes and general variety of menu items.  Burgerville, it’s a community that believes in food for thought.
Burgerville on Urbanspoon

Sweet Vinndication (Portland, Part 1)

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Hey hey everyone and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I’m finally back from my four day long adventure to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, Oregon, and I have plenty of food adventures for y’all to read about.  However, I am going to switch up the style of my writing for this travelogue and instead just focus on one restaurant in each post.  Let me know if you prefer it like this, one post for one restaurant, or a recounting of each day with multiple restaurants.

While I arrived in Portland on Wednesday evening, I wasn’t feeling up to grabbing a very late lunch due to general fatigue and the wonderful Portland weather that greeted me, i.e. an annoying misty rain coming down at random intervals.  However, the next morning I suited up and was ready for my first day of my international teaching convention.  While externally I seemed raring to go, I remembered that I needed to get the fuel to get my teaching mind firing on all cylinders.  So, I remembered a breakfast place I passed while walking to a nearby Walgreens that was called Village Inn.IMG_2554  It seemed like a local place based on its location away from the heart of the downtown along with its general appearance as a greasy spoon diner.  I made a mental note of it and returned that Thursday morning.  It was another dreary gray and drizzly day, but my formal attire seemed to catch the staff off guard as I entered, valise in hand.  It looked like the average age in the place was 60, but I didn’t mind how empty it was at 8 a.m.  As I surveyed the menu, it seemed that this was a chain of sorts that smacked of the larger Denny’s corporation in regard to the general interior decor and menu boasting breakfast, lunch, and dinner entrees at all hours. IMG_2552 Plus, it brought the Baker Square vibe with their pie obsession.  Very Important Notes:  If you buy a dish on Wednesdays, you get a free slice of pie.  Plus, they offer 69 cent beverages everyday of the week from 6 am to 9 am, and kids eat free on Monday and Tuesday.  What’s not to like about this place?  After looking at the plethora of eggs, pancakes, My Very.Innportant.Breakfast option, and heart healthy plates, I went for the strawberry banana supreme French toast for $9.69.  French toast is my weakness when it comes to the first meal of the day, and I can’t say no to fresh fruit.

When it eventually came out, I was surprised that  it looked somewhat similar to the picture that advertised it in the menu except with more strawberry sauce to make it look like the set from Carrie.

C'est si bon!

C’est si bon!

Thankfully, the taste was the opposite of horrifying, and I didn’t feel like killing everyone who humiliated me by making me eat their terrible food.  The strawberries and bananas were actually fresh and not canned which I really savored.  I felt like there could have been a bit more powdered sugar, but the slices of French toast by themselves were divine.  Not only did I taste the subtle hints of vanilla in the batter with every bite, but the bread to cream ratio favored the former which I prefer.  Too much cream takes away from the flavor of the actual toast along with destroying any sort of texture contrast in the dish.  Overall, I was greatly satisfied with the food, service, and prices.  Plus, if you need to be somewhere in a hurry, they don’t mess around with your order which I appreciated.  So if you’re looking for a new breakfast restaurant that you’d like to try out for the first time or just need that coffee and pancake panacea to cure the hangover from last night, Village Inn is the place for you!

Village Inn on Urbanspoon

London (Day 1 and 2)- Just a Couple Randos at Nando’s

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Well, it seems that my adventures in Asia have come to a close (for now), and I’m back in the USA writing about them from the comfort of my parents’ kitchen.  On the way back from the Far East, I stopped over in London to visit a few friends, so naturally I had to chronicle my culinary conquests as I made my way through the same streets of Jack the Ripper and Tiny Tempah.

The first day was relatively laid back in terms of food experimentation as I made my way to my friend Ravi’s flat in the notoriously rough but currently trendy East End of London around Bow Road.  This area was also known for its Cockney subculture and signature accent which has been made famous in popular culture through plays like Pygmalion, or through the award winning actor, Michael Caine.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s traditional pickled whelks and jellied eels were a bit hard to find, so I instead tried some of Ravi’s home cooking which was wonderful.  He made me a vegetarian shepherd’s pie that seemed to consist of tomato sauce, lentils, beans, carrots, peppers, potatoes, and cheese on top.  It was filling, spicy, and savory which made my taste buds happy since I normally don’t go for vegetarian fare.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

However, the funnier part of the meal was the drink I had.  When I first arrived at his apartment, he asked me if I wanted something to drink like water, tea, or squash…squash?  I assumed he meant that he would take out some butternut squash and turn them into juice, so I opted for water.  Dinnertime rolled around, and he offered me this mystery squash to drink again.  So, I decided to give it a go.  He proceeded to bring out what looked like a big bottle of fruit juice.  He then poured a small amount into my glass and filled the rest up with water.  It tasted just like it advertised as a soft blend of strawberry and kiwi.  Turns out the actual squash is just a fruit concentrate with no gourds involved.  Hooray for regional dialects!  Then for dessert, I had another cultural clash as Ravi’s roommate, Jaime, offered me a Milky Way bar.  I love Milky Way bars in the US, so I gratefully accepted it.

Same, same, but different.

Same, same, but different.

After I bit into it, I was a bit taken aback by the contents since it lacked the caramel present in American Milky Way bars.  Instead, it was like a 3 Musketeers bar since there was only chewy nougat enveloped in chocolate.  Either way, it was a fitting end to a delicious meal.

The following day, I was out and about seeing the sights London had to offer.  For lunch, I did stop at Pizza Express, one of London’s most ubiquitous restaurant chains serving pizza and other Italian dishes, I didn’t feel like it really warranted an in-depth review.  Instead, I’ll bring you an even better chain that was introduced to me back in 2006 compliments of my friend Rav.  We were talking about fried chicken in America, and he told me of this place called “Nando’s” in London which he described as, “KFC but they don’t ba’a (batter in East London-ese) it” and had “peri-peri sauce”.  Given these random descriptions and my friend’s clear passion for this mysterious eatery, I vowed one day to try it.  Fast forward to 2008, and I finally made my pilgrimage with my friends to Nando’s.nandos-clink-street-london  Needless to say, I could see why Rav was bonkers about it as Nando’s serves roasted Portuguese/Mozambican chicken.  You have the option of choosing a quarter chicken,  half chicken, or wings with optional sides.  They also have salads, burgers, pittas, and wraps.  On this occasion I went for the half chicken, a side of chips (fries for Amurika), and some macho peas.  Once I ordered my food, I went to the sauce bar which has bottles that range from a pleasant lemon and herb to a mouth-scorching extra-spicy in an ominous black bottle.   The “peri-peri” Rav mentioned back in our college days means “bird’s eye pepper”, and there is a whole lot of it in said extra-spicy sauce.

No fowl play here.  Just good food.

No fowl play here. Just good food.

As for the actual food, the chicken is excellently prepared with plenty of semi-spicy marinade coating the juicy and pure white meat that just barely clings to the bone.  The macho peas were an interesting choice since they were peas seasoned with parsley, mint, and chili which unfortunately tasted like I was consuming minty peas sans chili.  While I like both elements separately, I think they should tinker with the ratio of spices to make this pedestrian side something special.  I’m more partial to their garlic bread side that not only is very garlicky but crunchy and pliable at the same time.  Their chips are good but nothing that will knock your socks off.  Come for the chicken and stay for the sauce, that’s what I’d recommend.  We ended our night with a couple of pints at the Horniman Pub on the Thames River as we watched Tottenham Hotspur cruise to victory, and I went to bed a very satisfied Yank.

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Beijing (Day 5)- Bruce Lee and Me

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130 posts?  Already?  Just like Rick Ross, everyday I’m hustlin’.  So today’s post on Mastication Monologues brings us to the end of my Beijing/China adventures, but that doesn’t mean that there are going to be any lame foods on display.  From breakfast to dinner, all three meals will be bringing the heat.  So let’s start at the beginning with the most important meal of the day.  I knew already of the importance of the traditional rice porridge congee has in Chinese cuisine for breakfast, but the real challenge lie in where to find a good place that serves it?  After a bit of wandering down the main street from the Zhanglizhonglu station by my hostel, I ended up at the same 24 hour restaurant I dined at the previous night as show in my previous blog post.  That meant that I was walking in when all of the night staff was swiping out while looking at me incredulously like, “This laowai’s back?  He must be quite daring.”  I found the myriad of congee options to be overwhelming where they had options that ranged from the basic plain oatmeal-esque  all the way to the most savory with full shrimp and green onions floating in a goopy sea of white.  I’ve had chicken and congee, so I went for another choice that I never saw outside of China:  brown sugar and egg congee.  I have a bit of a sweet tooth when it comes to things in the morning, so this congee fit the bill.  To drink, I went for something called “almond juice” on the menu, but it simply ended up being regular almond milk that tastes like cow milk with a sweet bite to it.IMG_3242  Eventually my porridge came out, and I was greatly intrigued because it looked quite different than the brown sugar oatmeal I like to eat.IMG_3243  However, once I had a spoonful, I was greatly satisfied as the warmth permeated my frozen body, and the brown sugar perked up my taste buds that were feeling a little sluggish that early in the morning.  By the time I finished the whole bowl, I had a cheap, tasty meal with some stick-to-your ribs staying power that would last me until lunch after walking all over the enormous Summer Palace complex.  After seeing just a fraction of the sprawling grounds where the Chinese emperors used to spend their free time and take guests to eat at their special royal restaurant, I started getting hungry.  When I got out of the Xiyuan station, I saw a modern looking strip mall across the street that had some familiar faces like the Colonel and Pizza Hut, so I decided I would see how they would be different in China after walking around the palace.  I found myself wandering to find the Pizza Hut entrance in back when I noticed more people milling out further down the strip when I finally saw one of the catchiest fast food logos I’ve ever seen:  Bruce Lee in his yellow jumpsuit from Game of Death.IMG_1724  This is one of his most famous movies where he ascends a tower while fighting a different martial artist on each level including one Kareem Abdul Jabbar who was a student of his in real life.  Being a fan of his movies, I felt obligated to go in and try the food.  It ended up being like McDonalds, but in an Asian parallel universe.IMG_1716  I say a separate universe because western burger chains in Asian countries still have their signature sandwiches or sandwiches in general, but this place had none even though everything from the menu to the setup of the restaurant was like being at McDonalds.  While I felt somewhat comfortable with the setting, I wasn’t so much with the language and neither was the girl taking my order.  Clearly they didn’t get many foreigners coming into this restaurant compared to McDonalds where they have a separate English placard they whip out at you when you step up to order.  However, after some pointing and laughing at both our communication shortcomings, I got these beef noodles and a side of hot milk boba tea. IMG_1718 Sweet Chairman Mao!  If this is what China’s version of fast food is like, Lotteria/McDonald’s/Burger King etc. take notes.  The soup tasted almost (still not as good) like something out of my adopted po-po’s (grandmother’s) kitchen when I was in Taiwan.  That isn’t disparaging it at all though.  The greens were not stale and were steamed to perfection while the noodles were plentiful and chewy.  As for the beef and the broth, the chunks were numerous and lean, and the broth was warm and absorbed all the great flavors from the ingredients that were having a pool party in it.  The only thing I’d say that took it down a couple notches was that it was a bit salty at times.IMG_1720  As for the tea, it was expertly made with just the right blend of smooth milk and savory tea, and the girl gave me lots of tapioca balls after I pantomimed that I liked tapioca.  So if you’re good at acting, you’ll be in like Flint at this place.  After looking at the chopstick wrapper, I also found out the place is called “Real Kungfu”. IMG_1721 So if you’re hungry in Beijing and looking for amazing Chinese fast food, look for Bruce Lee ready to strike.  Finally, there was my last dinner in Beijing. However, they were on a mission to find a good dumpling place.  I found the Xianlaoman dumpling house down the street from our hostel.  It was a modest looking place inside, but their dumplings were delectable.  I got the house special which ended up being generously stuffed with minced pork, a bit of broth, and some nicely cooked shrimp inside.  IMG_1725I was greatly satisfied with the dumplings even though they weren’t too filling.  After a long stroll I ended up at a Thai place on the same street that was a bit more upscale compared to the other surrounding cafes and eateries.  Since it was my last meal, I went with a mangosteen juice and a cooked pigeon. The mangosteen is known as the queen of fruits while the notoriously stinky durian is the king of fruits.  This must have been an arranged marriage because the durian’s rotten cheese scent did not jive with the sweet and refreshing flavor I experienced when I cracked open the can. IMG_1730 As for my chicken, it was great since the banana leaves kept in all of the great curry the chicken was stewed in, and every piece was pure white meat. IMG_1731 After having to eat meat that always has bones in it for more than ten months, I devoured these scrumptious morsels.  I even tried a bit of pigeon which was a bit more of a shock platter with the head still attached while the actual meat could be likened to a poor man’s chicken:  little meat on the bone and lesser flavor.IMG_1733

Beijing (Day 1)- A Bug’s Life

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Things have taken a turn for the amazing for my blog as I’m quickly approaching the 130 post mark, and more and more of people are liking Mastication Monologues as I get the good word about different types of food out to the world.  Thanks to everyone for your support, and keep on viewing, commenting, and liking!  Today will be no different as I continue my recap of my vacation mastication adventures.  This series will be talking about all the wonderful things I tried while staying in Beijing, China.

Now, I’ve had my fair share of Chinese food which ranges from hot pot to some delicious dim sum to even tongue-numbing Sichuan cooking, but mainland China definitely knew how to push my buttons and boundaries as the daring gourmand that I am.  My first food experiences started, oddly, with a trip to McDonalds.  Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Mark, why would you want to go to a worldwide chain that has been slowly eroding local eating customs since 1955?’  Well, dear readers, while I do like my McDonalds back in the USA, I also like to try it in different countries to see what sort of unique options they offer that cater to the tastes of the local population.   At this Beijing branch they had most of the standard burgers, but I was drawn to the beef or chicken rice wrap.  I got one of those along with a taro pie for dessert.  The beef wrap was delicious since the meat was flavorful along with some good, not great, fried rice. IMG_1456IMG_1457IMG_1458 I was more partial to the taro pie.  IMG_1459Think your classic McDonalds apple pie, but beneath the cinnamon-sugar encrusted dough there are sweet, steaming pieces of purple taro inside.  IMG_1461It’s going on the list of foods they need to bring to the US along with the chicken tikka sandwich from Subway shops in England.  Once we figured out where to go, we decided to visit the Donghuamen (东华门) night market .  It was a bit hard to find, but it’s by Wangfujing metro station.  We stopped for a traditional Beijing beverage/food called nai lao.  It’s basically Chinese yogurt you can drink through a straw out of these small porcelain jugs.IMG_1463  They’re everywhere, and you pay about 80 cents to stand there and drink it.  We were in a tiny convenience store that could have doubled as a closet, but the old couple that ran it were very friendly while we were standing there and slurping the sweet yogurt.IMG_1462   After some wanderings, we eventually found the market.IMG_1465

My own Elysian fields

My own Elysian fields

You can’t miss it with it’s red lanterns and seemingly endless array of bizarre foods such as scorpions, snakes, lizards, testicles, starfish, goat penis, and spiders to name a few.IMG_1467IMG_1470  There are also more normal options like dumplings (amazing designs as shown below), corn dogs, and even fried ice cream!IMG_1486IMG_1485  I, however, went for the gusto immediately with a starfish.  IMG_1469It was absolutely terrible.  Imagine taking food, burning it to a crisp, shaping it into a star, and serving it on a stick.  I ate about 3/4ths of it before I gave up.  It was gross through and through.  I moved on to a much more appetizing prospect in the form of a spider.IMG_1471  This was a million times better than the starfish.  I don’t know if it was the savory seasoning he put on it, or the fact there was a bit of meat to the spider after crunching through the exoskeleton.IMG_1472  Either way, I followed it up with a giant centipede which immediately fell into the same category as the starfish.  It was just as bad, but I think the guy over-salted it after frying it. IMG_1475 So it tasted like I was chugging a salt shaker while eating a lot of crunchy legs and gooey body segments.  If you haven’t vomited all over your computer at this point, I don’t eat anything else weird in this post.  I instead got something a bit sweeter that is another Beijing staple:  糖葫芦 or tanghulu.  At first, I was looking at the fruit a bit sideways because it looked like they were all frozen in ice. IMG_1483IMG_1481 I naturally assumed that since my hands were quickly becoming ice blocks compliments of the lovely northern Chinese winter.  I was sorely mistaken though as it turns out the ice is actually a hardened sugar coating that the vendors dip the skewers of apples, kiwi slices, pineapple bits, and grapes in before serving.  I went with a Chinese grape skewer, and it was the opposite of my extreme foods. IMG_1482 It was insanely sweet to the point of it almost hurting my teeth.  I think if I got the apples or the intriguing sesame seed stuffed apples, it would have been better.  I’d recommend trying at least one skewer though since they’re literally everywhere much like the yogurt bottles.  I have to add a slight caveat to Donghuamen Market though.  It seemed like a bit of a tourist trap.  I found there were other more local markets serving the same fare for slightly lower prices.  Just my two cents.   After all of that strenuous eating and walking for miles, we went to a Belgian beer bar called Beer Mania.  It was a cozy little party place that had a vast array of Belgian beers that almost made me think I was back in Brussels kicking it in the Delirium Tremens bar.  The only downside was the live music was ear-splittingly loud.  Thankfully they gave up playing after ten minutes of being ignored, so we could enjoy our beer in peace.  I went with a Guillotine which ended up being a pretty bold pale ale from Belgium.  IMG_1489It had a slightly apple aroma which then transitioned into a sweet introductory taste that packed a bitter aftertaste punch right in the tastebuds.  After that one brew, we were both pretty tired after walking around all day, so we called it a night.  I was quite satisfied with the night since I could knock off so many food challenges by just moving from left to right about 15 feet.  What a country!

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