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Category Archives: Far East Asian Cuisine

Chinese/Japanese/Korean Cooking

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

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My Neighbor Tokoro

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Hello…helllooo..helloooooo….Is anyone still left out there that reads this blog?  It seriously has been way too long since I have posted any new content on Mastication Monologues, but such is the life of someone working on a 2nd Bachelor’s degree.  Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel is near, and I am looking forward to some mental rest and relaxation.  Thankfully, I won’t slack too much though because I have plenty of great reviews and food adventures to bring to you.  Today’s review involves Tokoro Sushi in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

My fiancee, then girlfriend, suggested we try the new eatery when it opened last year, and we have been back since.  However, our first visit wasn’t the most enjoyable compared to the second time.  There is mainly street parking and there are plenty of public transportation options for those of you rocking Ventra cards on the bus or L.  The interior of Tokoro looks like any other sushi restaurant complete with bamboo prints and assorted Japanese tchotchkes.  Fitting given the name of the restaurant in Japanese literally means “place”, i.e. this could be the interior of any of the other million, lower/middle rung Chicago sushi restaurants.  They have a BYOB policy and a free corkage service which helps if you care for a glass of chardonnay to go with your unagi.  Upon sitting down, we looked over their extensive sushi menu and saw most of the the typical Japanese restaurant offerings from lunch specials, soups, gyoza dumplings, sushi rolls, sashimi, and even hibachi offerings for diners searching for something a bit more substantial.  Janice and I preferred to try the figurative treasure chest of sushi that lay before  us in the menu, so we got the “all you can eat” sushi option for 20 bucks.  Some people always wonder or straight up deny that the all you can eat option is a waste of money, but when you think about it, there is some method to the madness.  Based on current trends of fishing, human consumption, and sushi demand from around the world, the price of fish, especially the fatty toro tuna, is only going to sky rocket.   Therefore, placing a cap on your wallet but not on your stomach makes perfect sense to me especially if you were as hungry as we were.  Then again, who knows if most sushi restaurants actually use the fish advertised on the menu.  The results are often times surprising.  Either way, that didn’t stop us from enjoying some good, not great sushi.  Thankfully, we got a complimentary bowl of miso soup which I think should come free with each meal in Japanese restaurants because it is such a simple but satisfying soup to make.  IMG_6101This traditional Japanese soup consists of a kelp/fish based broth and a soy based paste called, you guessed it, miso.  I have never seen it anywhere, but there are also red and mixed color miso pastes used in miso soup.  However, I greatly enjoy the white miso which is typically used in American Japanese restaurants because it is salty, savory, and has a taste that envelopes your entire body with a warmth that is enhanced with the soft cubes of tofu and slightly crunchy scallion strands.  Definitely great for the cold Chicago winters.  Once we drained our bowls, it was time to dive into our sushi.  Side note:  the service was absolutely terrible the first time around in terms of waiting for food, but thankfully they have improved their turnaround time from ordering to bringing out your order.  Our first platter consisted of the crazy tuna roll, spicy tuna roll, and mountain roll.IMG_6102

The crazy tuna roll, the one closest to the wasabi in the picture above, consisted of the rice rolled around a tuna and pepper mix and topped with slices of tuna and a sriracha chili sauce. IMG_6103 I didn’t find it to be too spicy, but it went down just fine.  The mountain roll was next which left the biggest impression on me for this round. IMG_6104 The inside was a cool cucumber and creamy avocado duo, but the real fire came from the spicy crab and spicy mayo on top that was festooned with a sprinkling of crunchy tempura crumbs.  I liked it the most out of the three selections due to the contrast between the relatively understated interior and the more eye-catching exterior.  Kind of a case of sushi superficiality, but this is a roll whose cover really makes the book a must read.  The same could not be said about the spicy tuna roll which was like the crazy tuna roll minus the “crazy” part. IMG_6105 I’m a big spicy food eater, and I didn’t think it lived up to its fiery moniker.  So it was not a big draw for me.  It was just a transition to the next sushi round we ordered.  We amped it up with a volcano roll, a kiss on fire roll, another mountain roll, and got some actual sushi on the side with a tomago, shrimp, and a piece of yellowtail.IMG_6106  I’ve already spoken about the mountain roll, but the volcano roll and kiss on fire roll were bolder than the first round participants.  The kiss on fire roll (between the raw fish and fried roll) did actually bring some spice since below the tuna there was a raw jalapeno pepper resting in wait for our unsuspecting taste buds.  I always like being kept off kilter sometimes during my dining experience, and I would recommend this roll for those who do like a bit of spice with their rolls.  Then there was the volcano roll.  Frying actual sushi is a crime against humanity, yet with rolls it kind of works.  The light, rice flour based batter goes well with the delicately constructed rolls, especially one that was bulging with spicy tuna, crab, avocado, cream cheese, and eel sauce and spicy mayo streaks across the sliced roll.  I think this was more of a luxury roll than a spice-centric entree due to the amount of ingredients that went into it.  I’d still recommend it though if you’re looking for a bit more heft to your typical sushi roll.  I did not have the tomago (egg) sushi, the shrimp, or the yellowfin, but Janice said they were all competently made but not mind-blowingly fresh/delicious.IMG_6107

So, if you’re looking for a solid, middle of the road sushi restaurant on the far northside of Chicago, roll on over to Sushi Tokoro!

Sushi Tokoro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Woochon Clan Ain’t Nothing to Mess With

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Fire.  It can both cleanse or soil, sustain or end life, or perfectly cook or singe delicious, mouth watering meat.  Chicago has always been known for their meat products.  At one point, we were known as the “Hog-butcher to the world” compliments of one Carl Sandburg due to the presence of the now defunct Union Stockyards that were an engine of industry and the employer of the immigrant masses that called Chicago their new home.  Although these legions of cattle and pigs no longer stream into the city by the millions, the ethnic communities have remained a very integral part of Chicago.  They are constantly in flux depending on the decade and world politics.  On the northside of Chicago, there has long been a large and tightly knit Korean community.  Going down Lawrence Avenue, you can still see some of the remnants of the once thriving Koreatown that my girlfriend tells me about when she was younger.  Thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965, it allowed these Korean immigrants to finally come in families and establish business that brought the pleasures of the home country to the US of A.  However, due to changing demographics and the rise of the Latino population in America, Koreatown now has more of a Latin American and Middle Eastern flavor due to the original Korean families moving to surrounding northern suburbs.  However, that doesn’t mean that the food has gone anywhere!  Even though I have lived in South Korea and have eaten my fair share of different Korean foods, I’m always down for a quick pop over to a new restaurant that my girlfriend swears by.  She hasn’t steered me wrong yet!  In this case, we went to Woo Chon Korean BBQ .

It is a very tiny restaurant that is wedged between a Korean store that is both grocer and video store next door that has all of your K-drama needs.  However, if you want to get some of the best barbecue in the city, this is your place.  IMG_6023The waitstaff is also probably some of the nicest you can find in a Korean restaurant since they aren’t known for having the same rules as found in American restaurants.  They might be a bit gruffer or forward compared to your typical server in a T.G.I.Fridays, but they know how to make some delicious food.  We were quickly seated at one of their simple tables which are a bit cramped if you are six feet or taller like yours truly.  We decided to start with kimchi pajeon or a type of savory Korean pancake.  It is derived from a Chinese green onion pancake (cōngyóubǐng) yet different because it is made from an egg based mix.  The name “pajeon” literally means “green onion (pa) + pancake (jeon)”.  While the ingredients seem quite obvious, there are many varieties of jeon that can be filled with different meats, seafood, or in this case, the signature fermented Korean lifeforce known as kimchi. IMG_6013 Typically, Janice’s family gets the haemul jeong or fish, shellfish, and octopus pancake, but I can’t get enough of kimchi in any form.  It was a ton of food to start off the meal for a reasonable price. IMG_6014 It is kind of bready yet filled with crunchy green onions and spicy, crisp pieces of hot and spicy fermented cabbage. IMG_6015 As we moved our way through this perfect pancake,  they quickly began putting out the banchan or little plates of random Korean snacks like pickled cucumbers, cellophane noodles, pickled radish, and even the mysterious acorn jelly that looks like cut up, corrugated pieces of rubber.  It’s not at terrible as it sounds but not my cup of tea.  As well as bringing out the small plates, the server also provided us with a blazing hot bowl of coals for cooking our orders of kalbi or beef short ribs.IMG_6016  Korean bbq has been a bit of a recent phenomenon in American cuisine, but it is a form of dining as old as time.  In Korea, eating beef was a great privilege since the cattle were beasts of burden, and the Koryo Buddhist dynasty of rulers forbade the consumption of meat.  However, in the 13th Century, those crazy Mongols invaded and removed the ban.  They were pragmatic nomads, but they knew good food too.  However, beef didn’t become prevalent on Korean tables until the latter half of the 20th Century as South Korea quickly became the advanced nation we now know.  History lesson over, we threw the raw pieces of meat on the grill with a satisfying sizzle and pop. IMG_6019 Once Janice grilled them to perfection, we mixed them with rice, doenjang (soybean paste), and banchan in leaves of lettuce to create ssam bap or what could be described as lettuce wraps with plenty of savory flavors to enjoy.  IMG_6021We also got a side of pre-prepared dwegi bulgogi or sliced pork loin that is sauteed in a soy based sauce infused with ginger, gochujang (chili sauce), garlic, sugar, and rice wine.  IMG_6018It wasn’t on the menu but highly recommend this Korean classic.  It also has a bit of a spicy kick to it if you’re not feeling the more mild grilled meats.  I loved mixing the pork’s zing with the green onions that came with the kalbi. IMG_6017 It provided a definite earthiness that mellowed out the grease of the meat. We also got an order of moo guk or literally “radish soup”.  IMG_6022If there’s one thing Korean soups and stews are known for, or at least what I’ve noticed, is being absolutely as hot as the surface of the sun, temperature-wise.  While it takes a bit of time to cool off, the taste alone is worth it.  Plus, if you’re looking for a bowl of comfort food during these cold Chicago months, step aside mac ‘n’ cheese, get a warm and filling bowl of soup.   By the end of the meal, we were stuffed to the gills with great food, and we were ready to take on the cold climes outside.

So if you’re looking for a more low-key Korean bbq place that isn’t packed with everyone who wants to experience the novelty of grilling meat at their table, I’d recommend Woo Chon Korean BBQ.  Oh yeah, and the food is mouth-watering to say the least and easy on the old wallet.
Woo Chon Korean BBQ Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Toronto (Day 2): Falling In Love Is Just Peachy

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Oh, Canada!  You have provided me with such great material that I can’t wait to tell everyone about day two of our adventures in Toronto.  Today’s post mainly revolves around our trip to Niagara Falls and to an extremely popular restaurant with a unique and fun to say name.

We woke up to a wonderfully gray sky that quickly developed into a legitimate downpour.  That combined with the speedy Canadian drivers made the trip all the more hazardous.

Jan Jan just being trip photographer

Jan Jan just being trip photographer

Luckily, we made it to the famous falls in one piece, but there was no sign of the rain abating.  We ran through the drops and around the hordes of tourists to the visitors’ center to get our adventure passes, and what an adventure we had.  First, there was the cutesy video they showed us that was pure edutainment explaining how the falls were formed via an anthropomorphic beaver and owl.  That then led to a large chamber that highlighted Niagara’s Fury which amounted to a 360 degree screen that went along with a 4-D movie complete with rain which meant we had to wear ponchos through the entire film.  The only time I felt scared/disturbed was afterward in the gift shop that the movie chamber was connected to, naturally.  The main reason why I was scared was due to the demonic looking beaver plushes. IMG_6922 However, not all was disturbing since we had fun11692670_10105957316152539_8144874219333573867_n and made some friends along the way. 11745424_10105957240139869_5129336564047481268_n We quickly moved on to the fun nature walk that went along the Niagara river, and it was weird to think that we were in another country even though the USA was literally a stone’s throw away in the form of New York State.  Due to the rain, there also weren’t a lot of tourists on this part of the tour, so we were delighted with that development while soaking in the beautiful surroundings.  My socks also soaked up the river when a huge wave crashed against the rocks right where we were standing.  After all of that walking, we worked up an appetite, so we decided to try another Canadian tradition that Aaron recommended:  Pizza Pizza.  When Janice and I first heard him say it, we thought it was Little Caesar’s due to the mascot’s signature catchphrase.  We were wrong!  Turns out it is a Canadian institution that apparently also claims to have done a lot of pizza firsts like putting pineapple on a pizza, using delivery bags, and using virtual advertising.  It’s their go-to for fast food pizza;  it’s not amazing but not terrible, as Aaron put it.  We agreed with his assessment. IMG_6928 We both got slices of veggie pizza that was fresh and covered with peppers, onions, and mushrooms.  We also split a side of fries that were well made, and I spiced it up with this lemon pepper seasoning they offered on the side.  ‘Twas a nice sour and spicy kick to the delicious fries.  I’d recommend trying this Canadian culinary staple.  Once we were fueled up, we got on the Hornblower ship to see the falls.  IMG_6948It was cool, wet, and wild as the wind was blowing up our ponchos a la Marilyn Monroe.11703117_10105957315548749_8925081409671534301_n  After taking a ton of pictures while looking like sea hobos wearing trash bags, we left Niagara for Toronto.  We had a delicious dinner date planned at David Chang’s Momofuku.  It was another restaurant that was participating in Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant week, so we were excited to finally be able to try this high end establishment.  The head chef who created Momofuku, David Chang, is one of the biggest names in the cooking game.

Momofuku the creation of superstar chef David Chang brings his food to Toronto. The much anticipated resto is famous for noodles and pork buns. (Photo by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Momofuku the creation of superstar chef David Chang brings his food to Toronto. The much anticipated resto is famous for noodles and pork buns. (Photo by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

He has tons of accolades, experience, and a personality/temper that is larger than life that also reflects his passion for finding and creating good food with simple ingredients.  This outlook on cooking has resulted in Momofuku expanding to a ton of other franchises like Ma Peche, Ssam Bar, and Milk Bar in NYC.  IMG_6959IMG_6994The Toronto location we were at was relatively new and consisted of five different mini-restaurant areas:  Shoto, Daisho, Milk Bar, Nikai, and Noodle Bar.IMG_6961  Clearly, there is a lot of Asian influence in his menus based on the names of the restaurants.  The interior was super busy but modern in design.IMG_6967IMG_6968Noodle Bar was at the bottom with communal seating while the other areas were more traditional in nature.  I’d highly recommend making reservations at Momofuku before you go.  If you’re wondering, Momofuku actually means “lucky peach” in Japanese, and I think a bit of that luck rubbed off on us since they put us right at the bar in front of the open kitchen.  It was all hustle bustle in the narrow corridor as we watched these artists whip together bowls of ramen, appetizers, and boil noodles like their lives depended on it. IMG_6971IMG_6966 We were ready to eat with the same gusto.  The menus were handed out to us, and we had a lot of tough decisions to make in a first world problems sort of way. IMG_6964 In the end, we made our choices which consisted of four courses for 25 bucks, and they came out very quickly based on how the chefs were working.  The first course took the form of a fancy fried jalapeno pepper for me. IMG_6978 It was stuffed with cream cheese and sturgeon, apparently and had a side of ssam sauce. IMG_6979 It was ok, and I didn’t even taste the sturgeon.  The ssam sauce pepped up the tiny pepper a bit with a sweet hint, but I’ve had better ones at your average bar.  Janice’s slightly larger hot and honey chicken wing was a better choice.  IMG_6976IMG_6977It lived up to its name with a garlic, sriracha, and scallion glaze that was both savory and sweet with a subtle spiciness.  After those tidbits, we got our bun course.  They were clearly inspired by the Chinese buns used for Peking duck, and they were hearty little buggers.  I’d recommend these menu items for appetizers.  My spicy lamb bun was very interesting. IMG_6985 The fluffy light bun encased a hunk of spiced lamb, bean sprouts, lettuce, and spicy mayo.  Biting into it, it tasted just like an Asian inspired gyro sans tzatziki sauce.  Janice’s pork bun was average. IMG_6986 Yeah, the ingredients were fresh, and it was well made.  It was just a bit blander compared to my vivacious lamb bun.  Then our entrees finally came out.  My very  extremely spicy noodle bowl was vibrant in terms of presentation and flavor.  Our waiter was pretty skittish when I said I wanted it spicy and even described it as “stupid spicy”, but I was skeptical of his assessment given my previous tussles with fiery meals.  He brought it out with a side of soy milk just to make sure the white boy didn’t lose his mind and taste buds,IMG_6981 but I think I lost them a long time ago when I discovered ghost pepper sauce.  It was spicy but with plenty of savory, smoky flavor.  It could have been a bit better if there was some sort of meat in it, but I was still happy with my choice.IMG_6982 If you like spicy food and have a tolerance for habanero or higher fire, then get this dish.

Good to the last ember

Good to the last ember

My girlfriend tried a bit, but immediately ran to her glass of water.  Janice’s Momofuku ramen was more savory than spicy. IMG_6983 It looked exactly like the ramen I tried in Japan, and it was just as tasty.  The fish cake, eggs, and melt in your mouth pork all were bobbing in a rich beef based broth.  IMG_6984The pork was exceptional with clear layers of succulent meat and juicy fat.

Absolutely gorgeous

Absolutely gorgeous

The noodles were plentiful and slurp-worthy,

She liked it just a little bit

She liked it just a little bit

so it was much more of a solid choice if you appreciate good ramen and less brash flavors compared to my spicy noodles.  Rounding out the meal were our desserts.  I decided to try Milk Bar’s cereal soft serve. IMG_6989IMG_6990 It looked like a run of the mill vanilla cup of ice cream, but its taste was unique.  It literally tasted like milk and cereal!  It was a cool concept, and I’d recommend it.  Janice was less satisfied with the crispy coffee panna cotta or “cooked cream” in Italian. IMG_6991 She was entertained with the chocolate balls on top that looked like rabbit poopIMG_6992 and the coffee layer was delicious, but the custard wasn’t up to snuff. IMG_6993 We left the restaurant greatly satisfied, and it was a pleasing end to a very eventful day.  If you’re into Asian cuisine or comfort food or both, head on down to Momofuku if you have a chance.
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Some Really Mean Cuisine

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Ah, Spring!  You have been nothing but cryptic so far in Chicago.  You have teased us with near bearable temperatures only to blindside the city with waves of freezing rain, snow, and chilly winds.  While the weather might get you down, you definitely should hit up one of the top dim sum places I have ever ate at, including America, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  The name of this wonderful eatery is MingHin Cuisine.  My girlfriend had been there before and had nothing but great things to say about it.  It is located in the New Chinatown on the northside of Cermak Road right next to the famous Lao Sze Chuan.IMG_5718

When I arrived before Janice, I was greeted with a horde of anxious diners waiting for a table in the bustling main rooms or the side tea room that is devoted solely to the warm brews.  IMG_5719So, I put our name in and got a post it with a number on it.  It’s a simple but functional system they have for alerting customers when their tables are ready.  You have to try and hear your number on the Post-It note being shouted out first in Chinese and then in English above the din of the restaurant.  Eventually, they yelled out my number, and they quickly seated me. IMG_5743 They offered me a selection of teas to sample while I was waiting, so I plumped for a pot of chrysanthemum tea.  Janice took a seat opposite me soon thereafter, and we sipped on the tea that oddly looked like urine.  IMG_5721Thankfully, there was no trick to be had there, but it wasn’t Janice’s cup of tea.  I found it to be quite interesting with its earthy and highly herbal personality, but a bit more intense than the green or black teas I’m used to.  While the tea was warming our bellies, we looked over the two different menus on the table. IMG_5720 One consisted of the dim sum options we could pick from while the other menu was more focused on barbecue.  After much intense deliberation and taking into account Janice’s recommendations from her previous visits, we made our choices.  IMG_5737

The first dishes that came out were from the barbecue menu.  We tried the barbecued spare ribs and the crispy Macau style pork belly ($5.95 each).  Both were fantastic. IMG_5725 The honey spare ribs were lip-smacking good minus the bones, but the taste was similar to Korean kalbi ribs with a soy marinade that was both sweet with a little salt mixed in.  Then there was the pork belly. IMG_5728 Talk about a contrast of flavors and textures.  The top of the meat had a thin yet crunchy skin of sugar and perhaps a bit of cinnamon that was the perfect compliment to the multi-layered and uber-tender and juicy pork.  IMG_5731These nuggets came with a side bowl of sugar to dip them in, but I found it to be a bit excessive.  We also had a side of fried sticky rice, but I was not impressed at all by this bland and flavorless pick.  We moved on from the meaty opening salvo to more traditional dim sum options like the barbecue pork buns, fried sesame balls, siu mai, shrimp egg rolls, and chao zhou dumplings. IMG_5741 All of the dim sum plates are priced based on size with small ($3.15), medium ($3.85), large ($4.25), and special ($5.50).  I won’t go into tons of detail with most these plates since I’ve tried these a million times over.  I did love my bbq pork buns because they were fluffy and filled with that sweet sweet char siu style pork.  As for the sesame balls, the ones at MingHin are my new favorite ones because they aren’t filled with my old enemy of the Far East:  red bean paste. IMG_5733 Instead, they are filled with a more neutral and less obnoxious white bean paste.  What I found out at a later visit is that if you get the giant fried sesame ball, they just give you fried slices of the chewy rice paste that is coated with plenty of savory sesame seeds and no beans to be found.  Another stand out in this meal were the chao zhou dumplings I ordered.  They were filled with pork, but two huge surprises were the crunchy peanuts and the slightly spicy kick with each dumpling.  Another great pick were the shrimp egg rolls. IMG_5739 They were slightly addicting with their crunchy, golden-brown exteriors that were light and not greasy at all with plenty of shrimp inside.  While all of these choices were quite standard, I knew I had to try something new, something slightly frightening to those who are happy to stick with the tried and true favorites.  Enter the pork knuckle and lotus root. IMG_5734 When it was placed in front of me, it looked intimidating, but I’m not one to back down from a culinary challenge.  I picked up a piece of the burgundy flesh, and it was oddly soft.IMG_5742  It was like eating ginger-flavored jelly.IMG_5735  It was slightly unsettling but not terrible once I got used to it.  I also tried one of the lotus roots as well, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I’m glad I tried it, but I won’t get it again.  I’ll just stick to chicken feet.  By the end of the meal, we were quite happy with the food we got and for the reasonable price.

So, if you’re looking for a new and high quality dim sum eatery, check out MingHin Cuisine!  It’s a small slice of culinary amid the jungle of restaurants, and it’s fun for the whole family!  Afterward, you can check out everything Chinatown has to offer including their square of zodiac signs among many other sights.

Tame rabbits love it

Tame rabbits love it

And wild tigers love it too!

And wild tigers love it too!

MingHin Cuisine on Urbanspoon

The Hub of All the Hubbub

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Another meal, another post.  What that means for you, the reader, is another great dining experience on Mastication Monologues.  What makes it so great?  Well, in Chicago there’s a little thing called Restaurant Week.  While Chicago is filled with oodles of restaurant that could make any week a restaurant week, but what makes Restaurant Week so special is that there are tons of great deals in restaurants you might have never known existed.  The cuisines range from some delicious, downhome cookin’ diners to Michelin starred establishments and even Alinea, three time winner of Elite Travel’s award as the best restaurant in the world.  While we don’t have reservations at such a prestigious eatery, today I bring you Hub 51, a gastropub/lounge/dance club with a classy atmosphere and super diverse menu.

Hub 51 is located in the upscale River North area of Chicago that is, go figure, just north of the Chicago river.  The sleek exterior exuded an air of subtle confidence, and upon entering the place I could see why.l  It was ultra modern in design from the bar to the dark wood chairs, and eventually we were seated in a leather bound booth that was very comfortable and spacious.IMG_5763IMG_5764  Looking over the menu, they had quite the eclectic menu including American, Mexican, and even Japanese food. However, we were all about trying the Restaurant Week menu where we got three courses for only $33!

Course one consisted of two dishes that were as far apart culinary-wise as apples and oranges.  First, we have exhibit A:  the spinach and artichoke dip.IMG_5772  While I recently wrote about another type of spinach artichoke dip, this was another animal.  Instead of being served with bread, it was paired with super light yet slightly too salty tortilla chips.  Thankfully the dip was a mix of gooey cheese and plenty of spinach that keep the saltiness to a minimum. IMG_5774 However, I didn’t feel like they had as many artichoke pieces as I’ve had in other similar appetizers.  Where as the artichoke dip was more on the fattening side, the Brussels sprouts salad was very refreshing and healthy.  The Brussels sprouts were fresh and crunchy which were also complimented with a few almonds sprinkled in amongst the greens.  IMG_5775I really enjoyed the Manchego cheese chunks that were dispersed as well throughout the greens, and I found the buttery Spanish cheese to pair well with the salty almonds.  The Medjool dates were a worthy sweet element in this appetizer and were countered with the slightly sour mustard vinaigrette.  All of it taken together, the Brussels sprouts appetizer was an option that both danced across the palate with a crunchy and sweet panache but lingered with the aftertaste of the vinaigrette.  I think round one went to team salad but just barely.  In addition to these Restaurant Week choices, Kaitlin and Dan got an order of the homemade hummus (($8.95) and an ahi tuna poke ($14.95).  Both were equally amazing in their own ways.  I love hummus in any form, so I was intrigued by the dukkah spices element of the dish.  While I recognized the typical, fresh cucumber and carrot spears, pita bread, and hummus with virgin olive oil in the middle, but then there was a dried powder on the side of the plate closest to me.  IMG_5768After some research, it turns out that dukkah or duqqa is an Egyptian condiment that consists of dried nuts, herbs, and spices that are then crushed to near powder like consistency.  The name “dukkah” is only fitting given that it comes from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”.  Luckily, it didn’t really pound out any of the other flavors on the plate but rather supported the zingy hummus with a crunchier texture that went well on either the vegetables or bread.  As for the ahi tuna poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), I was less enthused to try it since I’m not a huge fish fan.  On the other hand, I had tried one before and enjoyed it. IMG_5767 This Hawaiian dish is named after the Hawaiian verb meaning “to section or cut” which made sense since there was plenty of cubed, ruby red tuna chunks.  Along with that, there were two large rice crackers, plenty of avocado, and all of it was stewing in a soy based, wasabi-infused sauce.  Although the tuna was raw, it was not fishy by any stretch of the imagination since it was combined with the creamy avocado, super-flavorful sauce, and slightly chewy yet crunchy rice cracker. IMG_5771 The poke disappeared faster than a pack of Pokemon cards circa 1998.

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

Round two kicked off with the main entrees.  While Janice and I got the braised beef short ribs, Kaitlin got the pulled pork tacos ($16.95), and Dan got the knife and fork open faced BLT sandwich ($10.95).  While I didn’t eat a lot of the tacos, I managed to try one of the Niman Ranch braised pork shoulder filled tortillas, but I wasn’t terribly wowed with the naturally raised pork. IMG_5778 It was slightly spicy but not terribly flavorful compared to other tacos I’ve tried in my life.  As for the BLT, it looked like it was just a mini-mountain of toppings, but the bread was keeping a low profile under a pile of lettuce.  IMG_5779The best part of that plate was the bacon (when isn’t it?) because it wasn’t too crispy with just the right amount of fat and salt combined with a glaze that almost gave it a honey-like quality.  The downfall of the dish was the blue cheese and vinaigrette laced bread. It was way too bold and left an overwhelming residual flavor on my palate after trying a few samples of Dan’s entree.  Finally, I got around to my braised short ribs.  It was served with red potatoes, glazed carrots, and a small tub of horseradish cream. IMG_5782 While it looked delicious, my experience was quite the opposite.  I found it to be too salty and filled with fat deposits.  It left me feeling bloated and greasy, and the horseradish sauce didn’t even salvage this plate.  The glazed carrots and potatoes were tasty, but I was really disappointed with the supposed star of my dining experience.  Thankfully, dessert stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.  First, there was Martha’s special occasion carrot cake.  It had three orange layers of light, fluffy cake that focused more on the spice element of carrot cake instead of the vegetable. IMG_5785 I would say that it had definite elements of nutmeg and ginger.  Between each layer of mouth-watering cake, there was a thick helping of cream cheese that was decadence incarnate, but it was not so sweet that it felt like I was going to develop diabetes.  The whipped cream on the side with a light powdering of cinnamon cemented this plate as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Then there was Grandma Bea’s chocolate pudding pie.  I don’t know Grandma Bea, but I wish she would invite me over for dinner and dessert more often after tasting this selection.  It was a different beast than the carrot cake but equally scrumptious. IMG_5783I personally preferred the graham cracker crust that not only had some granulated sugar mixed into it along with a hint of cinnamon in each forkful.  As for the filling, it was fluffy and rich with plenty of dark chocolate flavor.  Kaitlin made it a s’more for a dollar more, and it was quite interesting. IMG_5786 It looked like a series of white fish scales on top of a carp, but thankfully there was nothing fishy about it.  They went over the top of the marshmallows to brown them like at a campfire, and then taken all together it really did taste like a s’more minus the smoky flavor imparted by a bonfire.  The only downside to the marshmallow layer was that they were all stuck together, so sometimes someone would almost take all of the marshmallows with them when they just wanted one with a bite of the pie.  If I had to pick one, I’d choose the carrot cake because its cream cheese frosting was unbelievably addicting.

So with restaurant number one down for Restaurant Week in Chicago, I would recommend Hub 51 to anyone looking for an entertaining night out in a hip atmosphere with slightly more expensive fare than in other parts of the city.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

Loco For The Yoko

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Ah sushi.  Just one facet of Japanese cuisine that has taken the world by storm.  Most people think of this food as being super Japanese and simply means “raw fish”.  On the contrary, sushi was originally invented in Southeast Asia, and sushi actually refers to the vinegar laden rice that upholds the meal.  It wasn’t until the early 1800s in Japan when the sushi and sashimi (raw fish slices) were combined as we consume it now.  It was referred to as Edo (Tokyo’s old name) style sushi.  While most people focus on the quality of the fish, in reality the sushi rice is considered of greater importance to the overall dining experience.  In Japan, a sushi chef can’t begin to serve fish until he has mastered the art of preparing the perfect batch of sushi rice.  If you want a great movie to see the training and art of sushi at its finest and most old-school, check out Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  While I’ve experienced sushi in Tokyo, I managed to find a little slice of the homeland just around the corner from my house in Westmont, IL in the form of Yokohama Japanese Restaurant.

Now it may not be in the most glamorous place in the world: in a small strip mall next to train tracks and a water silo, but as I’ve learned throughout my travels around the world, never judge a restaurant by its appearance (however hidden, strange, or non-descript it might be).  IMG_4858When we walked through the door, we were actually the only people in the restaurant, and the stoic sushi chef who was meticulously scrubbing down his workstation greeted us with a konichiwa! IMG_4872 We were quickly seated and had our menus placed in front of us.  IMG_4859Looking over the menu, they had a plethora of sushi options that ranged from individual pieces (~$1.50~4 per piece) to combination platters of sushi and sashimi (~$20-25).  We naturally started with drinks, and I wasn’t sure what to get until I saw something called Ramune under the sodas.  So when it came to my table, Janice knew what it was, but I was greatly confused looking at this uniquely shaped bottle.  IMG_4862Our waitress popped the top of the bottle with something that looked like a metal rod, and suddenly a glass marble of sorts dropped into the middle of the neck yet somehow didn’t fall to the bottom. IMG_4865 It turns out that this bottle was introduced to Japan by a Scottish chemist who was selling lemonade soda which was subsequently promoted by local papers as a preventative for cholera.  When I tried to drink it, it was really hard to imbibe the lemon-lime soda I could liken to a more subtle Sprite in nature.  I had to somehow use my tongue to push it up while allowing enough space for the soda to flow.  I eventually was like a sugar crazed rabbit flicking my tongue on the end of one of those water bottles that attach on the side with the metal spigot.  Long story short, Janice finally figured out that the strangely notched neck had a resting place for the marble which didn’t help since I already had finished 3/4ths of the bottle.  The thirst was real.

Regardless of my sufferings in the name of quenching my thirst, we ordered our food.  Janice got a mix of spicy hotate (scallop) rolls, California kani (crab) rolls, and a tamago sushi roll.  As for me, I was quite hungry, so I got a katsudon.  We waited quite awhile for our food which was kind of surprising given that we were the only people in there, but it was a sign that they were making everything fresh and taking care to make each piece perfectly.  Before we got our main course, we received complimentary bowls of miso soup and a kind of noodle salad.  IMG_4863I love miso soup in any form because it was warming our souls on that frigid night along with the wonderful earthy, savory umami flavor that Japanese cooking is notorious for.  IMG_4864The noodle salad was ok, and the white dressing that it was drowning in tasted kind of like ranch but not as tangy.  Eventually, our food came out, and the care the staff took in preparing the meal showed through in every piece of sushi. IMG_4869 The spicy scallop rolls weren’t terribly spicy, but the seaweed wrapping mixed with the slightly salty scallops to perfection. IMG_4871 I was more of a fan of the California rolls since they had a mix of smooth avocado, sweet crab meat, and crunchy cucumbers. IMG_4870 The tobiko fish eggs on the outside were the icing on the cake or the crown on these king crab rolls since they added a salty contrast to the vinegar soaked sushi rice.  As for the tamago, it was a part egg and part rice sushi roll was a bit too bland for me, but it’s wildly popular in Japan and elsewhere in the Far East.  So much so that even famous Korean rapper G-Dragon perhaps unknowingly sported a dodgy hairdo paying tribute to the eggy treat.rambut-g-dragon-sushi  Then there was my katsudon.  The word katsudon is a portmanteau of the Japanese words tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and donburi (rice bowl dish).

The bowl...

The bowl…

Surprise surprise, that’s exactly what my meal was:IMG_4868  a moderately sized bowl packed with rice on the bottom and then topped with a melange of egg, fried noodles, and fried pork cutlet pieces.  I couldn’t go wrong with all of that protein and carbs, and I really didn’t.  The pork was plentiful and lightly fried with a crumb-laden crust.  Mixing the pieces with the rice and noodles proved to be quite the hearty meal that filled me up but did not leave me bloated, uncomfortable with a greasy taste in my mouth, and with a bad case of the meat sweats.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied with our meal, and the price we paid wasn’t bad at all compared to more glamous/popular sushi joints.  So, if you want to get quality sushi at reasonable prices with friendly service, check out Yokohama Japanese Restaurant in Westmont! Sayonara!

Yokohama Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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