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We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

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Wepa!! That was my reaction when I visited my first Puerto Rican restaurant.  If you don’t know what that means, “wepa” is a common exclamation in the Puerto Rican community to signify happiness or a way to encourage someone.

Basically "Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream 'wepa'"

Basically “Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream ‘wepa'”

I didn’t need any encouraging when I walked through the doors of hidden Chicago gem, Cafe Central.

I’ve had my fair share of comida latina that has ranged from Colombian to Cuban, but I had never tried the food from what many consider the United States’ 51st state.  If you’re unaware of this connection, let me drop a bit of historical knowledge.  Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe who called it Borikén which eventually was transformed into Borinquen in Spanish when Colombus and later Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish run cities.  With the Europeans came the colonization of the island and importation of slaves from Africa.  This system continued up until the late 1890s until the USA beat Spain in the Spanish American War which led to the USA claiming Puerto Rico as a United States territory which has continued to today.IMG_6706  What that means is that all Puerto Ricans from the island are US citizens, but it has also resulted in increased Puerto Rican migration to urban centers on the US mainland like Chicago and NYC, especially.  In Chicago, the hub of all things boricua (Puerto Rican in modern Spanish) is typically Humboldt Park minus the current trend of the usual gentrification. larger However, this symbol of Chicago Puerto Rican roots is still going strong in the West Town neighborhood just west of Humboldt Park.  It was established back in 1952 a bit further south but relocated to its present location in the mid-1960s.  It still exists today as a representative of Puerto Rican culture in diner form.  The exterior doesn’t look like much, and the interior is just as simple but comfortable.IMG_6720IMG_6719  We beat the lunch crowd around 11:30, and the meal started with some fresh bread that seemed to be of the French variety with a magical sauce on the side.  Although Janice and I thought that this verdant food of the gods tasted like the Argentinian steakhouse staple chimichurri sauce, we were misteaken (pun intended!).IMG_6703  Instead, it was Puerto Rican sofrito, a mixture of recao (cilantro), sweet garlic, olive oil, and mild peppers.  It was an oily, herbal, yet garlicky and chunky spread that was wonderful with the fresh bread.  I washed it down with a cool Malta India which is a carbonated barley, hops, and water drink which is like a non-alcoholic beer combined with a root beer with a Caribbean twist.  IMG_6701It has a very distinctive taste, but I would recommend this unique Puerto Rican beverage.  It was similar to its Cuban counterpart I tried when down in Florida.  Then we started the meal for realz.  We looked over the menu, and I could see all of what makes Puerto Ricans I’ve met so proud of their culinary culture.  Pork, rice, and beans are the name of the game for the most part, but there are also sandwiches and caldos or soups to sample.  We started off with the ground pork empanada and two plates of mofongo ($3.60 each).  Empanadas are like your typical stuffed savory pastry, but the ones at Cafe Central are sin igual. IMG_6707 They have less thick pastry dough compared to other varieties I’ve tried and more like thin, crispy dough that was all killer and no filler when it came to the amount of seasoned meat you got.  IMG_6708Then there was mofongo.  I had only heard about it from my dad quoting Sandford and Son or from Puerto Ricans I’ve worked with in the past, but I can see why they loved it so much.  It is a symbol of the African influence on Puerto Rican cuisine as it comes from the West African staple fufu which is a mash of starchy vegetables.  In this case, its a ball of mashed plantains stuffed with pieces of chicarrón or garlic pork rinds. IMG_6709 It’s basically a ball of mashed sweet yet savory starch where we’d occasionally stumble upon a chewy yet crunchy nugget of glory. IMG_6711 Highly recommend this piece of the island.  IMG_6710It’ll feel like you ate a mini-cannonball though, so save room!  As if that wasn’t enough, we then had our main entrees.  Janice ended up getting the house specialty which is off the menu:  el lechón or roast pork ($10).  I can see why they keep it off the menu because they’d be serving nothing but this gigantic plate of soul warming food. IMG_6712 First, the strands of Monte Puerco were super tender and melted in your mouth but also had a hint of a salt and pepper rub to make it just that much more flavorful. IMG_6713 Not bad for an homage to the national dish of the island.  On the side, it was a Puertorriqueño parade on the plate with el arróz con gandules y habichuelas or rice with peas and beans.  Naturally, there were some tiny pork chunks in the rice which pepped up the rice a bit, but the rice itself was super rich with flavor. IMG_6714 The beans were also different than the refried beans in Mexican cuisine, and I liked them a lot better because they were stewed in a pork stock and were light.  As for me, I got the roast pork jibarito ($7.95).  This super Puerto Rican sandwich, meaning “little yokel” in Spanish, was actually introduced to Chicago straight from the Caribbean back in 1996 at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park.  I’ve always wanted to try this Puerto Rican iconic meal because it combines my love for quirky food and sandwiches.  Think of your typical bread based sandwich, but then take out the slices and replace them with flattened and fried plantains.  IMG_6715Then insert lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, American cheese (Thanks, Tio Sam), and your choice of meat.  I did like the locals and got, you guessed it, the roast pork.  When in San Juan! (or is it Chicago?)IMG_6716 It looked great, but I didn’t know where to start out of fear of this seemingly delicate work of street art would disappear in my clumsy grasp.  It was actually quite the opposite.  The fried plantains were surprisingly sturdy under pressure from one hungry hungry hippo, i.e. me, and the flavor was out of control.  Basically, take the lechón and combine it with the sweetness of the mofongo and the savory elements of the mayo and cooked onions. IMG_6718 Plus, the texture transitions from the crunch of the plantain to the soft pork, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomatoes blew my mind since they were in quintessential harmony.  If there’s one plate I’d recommend, it would be this.  Even over the lechón I just promoted.  By the end, we were in peak food coma mode.  If only we could then retreat to a cabana in Limón to nap the rest of the day away.  Unfortunately, our food adventure ended there, but we were extremely satisfied.

I can’t emphasize the greatness that is Cafe Central.  It’s a lot of delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food served in huge portions for a reasonable price.  What more could you ask for in a restaurant?  Absolutamente nada.  Buen provecho!
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What A Jerk!

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Ah Cuba.  America’s Communist boogeyman 90 miles from our doorstep, but this red stronghold soon might become the hot, new Caribbean vacation spot based on current political currents.  While they have been famous due to the US embargo, exporting great baseball players, and upstanding fictional citizens like Tony Montana, Cuban food and drink is without parallel.  Nothing like a Cubano sandwich with a cigar and a rum cocktail on the side.  What more could you ask for?  Well, at Cafecito in the South Loop area of Chicago, a full menu of Cuban sandiwiches, salads, and entrees.  While there are neither alcoholic drinks nor cigars to blow smoke in other diners’ faces, they do have Cuban cortadito coffees that are the java equivalent of speed mixed with rocket fuel.

Just don't have too much like Tony here did.

Just don’t have too much like Tony did.

I went there around noon after teaching at Roosevelt U.  IMG_4510If you do not like crowds or waiting in line, pick some other time to go. IMG_4507 Looking over the menu, I had no clue which sandwich to pick because they all looked so scrumptious.  Would I go with the Perfect Cuban sandwich in Chicago ($5.79) or the Spanish stylized “Elveez” made of sweet plantains, guava jelly, and peanut butter($4.99)?  Instead, I got the Jerk sandwich since I wanted to see their take on the traditional Jamaican spiced dish in handheld form ($6.19).  To drink, it was hot outside, so I looked at their “batidos” or milkshakes in English.  IMG_4497One selection that caught my eye was the mamey option.  I had absolutely no clue what it was, but I knew I had to try it.  After the meal, I found out through a little research that mamey is actually the natural fruit of Cuba, so it was my own way of saying “Viva la revolucion!”.  They take your name, and then you have to wait amongst the waiting throngs until they shout you out.  The waiting time flew by as I inspected the walls that were decked out with all types of accolades to Cafecito’s place in sandwich Valhalla.  IMG_4508After taking in all of the hype, my time had come to finally see if this sandwich was all that and a side of chips.  First, I took a sip of my mamey milkshake. IMG_4502There were hints of sweetness, but it really didn’t taste like anything I could definitely put my finger on.  Maybe it could be likened to  a blander version of a taro bubble tea, but it’s a huge shot in the dark.   However, the Jerk sandwich was full of flavor.IMG_4504  While I wouldn’t liken it to the bold and savory spices known to the world through Jamaican cuisine, but there was a definite red pepper undertone to give the meal a great punch with every pressed/toasted bite of the fresh Cubano baguette.  I personally thought that they heaped a bit too much lettuce on top which got in the way of the juicy, all-white chicken breast that was slathered with habanero lime mayo. IMG_4505 With the mayo, I couldn’t really taste it over the red onions, but I love mayo in any way, shape, or form. IMG_4506 Taken as a whole, it was a fresh sandwich with plenty of high quality ingredients but with the improper ratio of certain ones like red onions and lettuce.  Maybe next time, I’d try their Cuban pork sandwich.  Overall, it was a visit that was well worth the walk down from work.

So if you want to get a bit of Miami’s Cuban sandwich scene, rumba, don’t walk, on down to Cafecito!  It’s not the best sandwich in Chicago I’ve tried, but it is a unique and popular local eatery.

Cafecito on Urbanspoon

Huge Flavors Under the Big Top

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Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.

While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself.  They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?).  The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”.  This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures.  However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA.  So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience.  While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes.IMG_3130  From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday.IMG_3131  However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents. IMG_3132

Main dining room

Main dining room

I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself.  While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant.  The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30.  Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink.  Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. IMG_3138 While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need.  A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. IMG_3137 What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. IMG_3153 It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.

Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers.  First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). IMG_3142 Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation.  The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch.IMG_3147  Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans.  The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking.IMG_3160  As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture.IMG_3159  All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice.  It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit.IMG_3158  After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). IMG_3145 Both were wonderful.  The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy.  Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12).  IMG_3140This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture.  The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast.IMG_3141 I’d highly recommend this appetizer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. IMG_3144 I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special.  While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo.IMG_3161  The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish.  After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25).IMG_3162  They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side.  After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). IMG_3163 The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”.  Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie.IMG_3164  I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor.  All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake.  If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again.  The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant.IMG_3166  Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers.  Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.

The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). IMG_3172 It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella.  Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat.  I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). IMG_3174 While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate.  Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried.  Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26).IMG_3182  There was a lot happening on one plate.  While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros.   While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak.  I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me.  Finally, there was the dessert.

While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu:  carmelized sweet plantains ($7).IMG_3171  Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity.  I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them.IMG_3168  I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment.  From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.

In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food.  If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!

Carnivale on Urbanspoon

Pork You Can Eat With A Fork

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Buenos dias a todos y bienvenidos a un nuevo capitulo de Mastication Monologues!  Alright, enough with the espanol for all you non-Spanish readers.  I was just welcoming everyone to today’s chapter which features some Caribbean treats in Delray Beach, Florida.  “Florida” is actually a Spanish name given to the peninsula by explorer Ponce de Leon.  It means “Flowery land”, and the culinary landscape of the state is filled with beautiful blooms reflecting the ethnic seeds that were sewn throughout the history of the territory.  From soul food eateries that are remnants of its history as a slave state to the many Cuban restaurants that are a more recent reflection of the politics in the region.  Today’s entry involves Zucra which is a Latin establishment that is a bit hard to find but worth the trek.

They have ample parking which is nice in comparison to most restaurants in downtown Delray Beach.  It’s a very cozy place with indoor and outdoor seating.IMG_2910  They seemed surprised that we wanted to sit outside but indulged us nevertheless.  The view isn’t much to boast about, but we did watch a guy drive a car with the emergency brake on the entire time.  We told him about it as he passed by, and he said, “I don’t care.  It’s only my friend’s car.”  Some friend he was.  Looking over the menu, we could see that they mainly specialized in Cuban cuisine that ranged from sandwiches to soups.IMG_2912 IMG_2911  My meal started off with a step into the unknown with a drink that my waiter couldn’t accurately describe aside from the name, Malta, and that it was good.  Great.  It came out with my parents’ waters, and it simply looked like a glass of Coca Cola.  IMG_2913However, the bottle said otherwise as I tried to decipher what this “Hatuey” ($2.50) truly was.  I could only describe the taste as a semi-flat soda that had hints of some type of cereal and caramel.  Upon looking at the bottle closer and on Wikipedia, it turns out that it is a non-alcoholic drink that is essentially non-fermented beer.IMG_2914  It originated in German as a “Malzbier” or “malt beer” but now is made throughout Latin America and even Africa.  My mom didn’t care for it too much when she tried it, and I agree that it’s an acquired taste that I came to love by the end of the glass.  As for the food, I got the lechon asado or grilled pork ($11.95); my mom got the ropa vieja ($10.95); and my dad got a bowl of the black bean soup ($4.95).  Our meals came out, and they all looked muy sabrosos (tasty). IMG_2915 My grilled pork was tender and succulent which I couldn’t say the same about a lot of other types of grilled pork meals I’ve had.  On the side, I loved the grilled plantains that seemed to be roasted to a crisp, but in reality, they were simply black, soft slices of banana flavored fiesta.  The arroz moros was the only weak point of my platter.  While there were plenty of black beans cooked into the rice, it was on the dry side that didn’t help the blandness that permeated through every grain.  It went down easier when mixed in with my roasted pork.  I tried a bit of my mom’s ropa vieja, literally “old clothes” but really shredded beef, which was amazing from the small forkful I pilfered.IMG_2916  Not only was it melt-in-your mouth good, but it had a spicy ole! that really took the dish to another level.  I didn’t try my dad’s black bean soup since I was stuffed by the end of the meal, but he seemed to be greatly satiated.IMG_2917

So if you want a taste of Cuba without having to rumba on down to Miami or pay a brazo and a pierna at another nearby eatery Cabana, pay a visit to Zucra.

<a href=””><img alt=”Zucra Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon” src=”; style=”border:none;width:200px;height:146px” /></a>

Poppin’ Molly, I’m Sweatin’! (Portland, Finale)

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Well, I’ve finally managed to come to the end of my sojourn through the wilds of Portland’s culinary scene, and this final post is a fitting finale to the adventure.  Fitting in the sense that I manage to go out in a blaze of glory instead of just fading away a la Kurt Cobain minus the whole dubious suicide and artistic angst.  Instead, I grapple with another spicy food challenge at local eatery Salvador Molly’s.  It’s a bit outside of the city center, and you have to take a bus out to the hill country to get there.  However, it’s a unique dining experience that you can’t get anywhere else in Portland.

Now, I’ve survived my fair share of uber-spicy food that would make any normal human’s taste buds melt immediately.  The medium of fiery madness has ranged from soup, chicken wings, and even a deep fried pork cutlet, but Salvador Molly’s Great Balls of Fire challenge managed to switch it up once more pushing me to my culinary, physical, and mental limit.  The exterior of the restaurant gives off a hippie/Caribbean vibe with its tropical plants and vibrant color schemes, and the interior is even more fascinating.IMG_3881IMG_3880  Buddhist prayer flags were streaming overhead while the walls were adorned with African folk art murals along with Mexican artisanal crafts. IMG_3882 Upon sitting down and scanning the menu, I could see that they had food from all corners of the globe including the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hawaii to name a few.  I was initially drawn to the Jamaican Roti wraps, but I decided to go for Pele’s Volcano sandwich ($9.50) since it had some interesting ingredients.  Along with this, I asked to get the Great Balls of Fire challenge (7 balls, $7.95).  The waitress was hesitant, and asked me if I wanted to just try one to make sure I knew I was getting into.  The only thing I knew was that they were made out of habenero peppers, and I could eat those no problem.  So once I agreed to it, she wrote it down on her paper pad like a death sentence for a doomed prisoner.  While I was waiting, I saw that on the wall next to my table there was a couple of pictures on the wall chronicling the brave souls who pitted their wits against the flame-infused orbs and survived.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

In my mind, I could see my picture going up there as well by the end of my meal.  That’s half the battle with food challenges, envisioning yourself triumphing over the massive obstacle placed in front of you.  Eventually both came out, and the sandwich looked more intimidating than the food challenge.IMG_2693  I knew I was in real trouble when they made me sign the waver saying that I couldn’t sue them if needed a colostomy compliments of their tortuous habanero appetizer.IMG_2692  They also pointed out the warning sign next to my table that was in other parts of the restaurant as well.IMG_2691  Not too scary at all, but I had a plan.  I wouldn’t be rushing headfirst into the gates of hell without a trusty thick coating to my stomach which was what the Pele sandwich was for.  It different than what I was expecting because it was more like a toaster oven pizza than a traditional sandwich.   As for its name, Pele is the goddess of volcanoes in Hawaiian culture, and I was expecting real fireworks to be happening on my palate.  Instead, it was more like a poorly made sparkler in the middle of a rainstorm.  Lots of fizzle and no sizzle.  A majority of the mediocrity derived from the toasted but cold and soggy, compliments of the toppings, bread.  The pork was average, but the only redeeming factor was the tamarindo bbq sauce that was tangy and sweet with a slightly herbal aftertaste compliments of the tamarind infusion in the sauce.  I was more partial to the hurricane garlic fries that took my taste buds by storm with their crispy exteriors and garlicky interiors.

My eyes then turned to my rotund morsels that threatened my existence as onlookers at another table bade me good luck before I dug in.IMG_2694  They even took out their camera phones to take a few snapshots before I possibly spontaneously combusted mid-meal.IMG_2696  They then got their food but always kept one eye on me as I began the challenge.  I gnawed on the first one as I put my figurative toe in the lava pool to make sure it was just right.  Inside the first fritter, it seemed to be filled with pieces of habanero and cheesy batter, and the spice was coming in hot and heavy waves over my tongue.  It was manageable though as I quickly popped balls 2-6 into my mouth with gusto.  The other diners’ jaws fell on their tables as they couldn’t believe that I devoured the fireballs just as quickly as they came to my table.  However, I was starting to feel a rumbling in my tummy as my mouth was more or less numb, sweat covered my face, and my heart was racing.  The final morsel slid down my gullet while leaving deep, spicy, smarting claw marks on my palate. I mopped up the sweet mango salsa as I gallantly destroyed the Great Balls of Fire Challenge.  The waitress was impressed as she took my picture for the “Great Wall of Flame”, and I got to write a memorable quote on it for everyone to see when they walk into the restaurant. IMG_2699 Once the fanfare ended, I sat there digesting the weapon-grade fritters that were smoldering in my stomach.  I asked for a cup of milk to quell the firebomb that was spreading throughout my gastro-intestinal tract.  I left that restaurant to walk through a monsoon, but I was more troubled with the sensation that felt like someone was disemboweling me.  I could see why they made me sign the waiver because they could have been in real legal trouble with people with less fortitude than I.  I struggled with the pain these little hellions brought for the rest of the afternoon/evening, so I warn everyone that the Great Balls of Fire Challenge will burn you if you don’t have the stomach for it.

So if you want a slightly overpriced menu that really highlights the diversity of Portland’s population or try your hand at consuming edible fireballs, check out Salvador Molly’s!
Salvador Molly's on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

A mountain of meringues.

A mountain of meringues.

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

Normal sized?

Normal sized?

Think again!

Think again!

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

Viva la hora feliz!

Viva la hora feliz!

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

Biggie approves this blog post.

Biggie approves this blog post.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Delicious Bay of Pigs

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Hello to all of my fellow gourmands and gastronomes out there!  Welcome to another article of Mastication Monologues.  Today I am going to be reviewing a little place in Chicago that is considered to have the best Cuban food in the entire city.  I’m talking about 90 Miles Cafe at 2540 W. Armitage.  There is another location located at 3101 North Clybourn Avenue, but I don’t know if it’s any different from the one I went to on Armitage.  Anyway, I was surprised that we even had Cuban restaurants in Chicago given that our Mexican population is much larger than any other Hispanic group, and obviously we’re a lot farther away from Cuba than Florida.  Last time I checked, we weren’t Miami with classic 1920’s art deco hotels, white sand beaches, and a more recent scourge of the sports world *CoMiamiHeatLebronJamesugh*.  Even though my expectations were not that high coming into this establishment, I was pleasantly surprised.

First, the outside was brightly colored and even had the signature buoy one could find in Key West that proclaims its status as the southernmost point in the contiguous United States on the roof.  I loved this decoration since it brought me back to when I actually went to Key West and got my picture taken with said tourist site.  Once inside, it was a very cramped area near the entrance, but when you move towards the larger dining area, it is actually quite cozy.  It’s also byob, so we ended up bringing Casillero del Diablo which was a Cabernet Sauvignon and had hints of black cherries which elegantly complimented my meal:  puerco rostizado.

La estrella de mi cena (The star of my dinner)

When it came out, I was very excited because it definitely looked like something that you’d get in an abuelita’s kitchen in Havana.  It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but I started with the roasted pork that apparently was infused with guayaba and mixed with pan-fried onions (yum!).  I’m as crazy for pan-fried onions as Tony Montana was in Scarface for da money, da power, and da women.  The pork itself was flavorful, tender, and had a slight sweet aftertaste which surprised me because I thought that the onions would overpower the guayaba.  Moving on from the main part of the entrée, I then attacked the rice and black beans like Castro’s forces against Bautista’s armies.  The rice was an average white long grain rice, but the beans were submerged in a black, pork based broth.  I wasn’t a huge fan of them being served like this, but they still were quite flavorful.  Anyway, I poured them into the rice, and it made for an interesting little goulash of sorts that I mixed with the pork on occasion.  The last item on my plate I saved till the end of the meal because I had never tried them before:  fried plantains or more commonly known as maduros (lit. “matures” or “ripes”).  I don’t know why I had never tried them before, but I was so glad that I did at 90 Miles Cafe because they were excellent.  The breading was even and slightly sweet and buttery which went along with the firm and ever so creamy texture of the plantains.

You don’t have to be a promoter of Marxism, smoke cigars, or rock a sweet beard to enjoy this cafe

So if you’re looking for an authentic slice of the forbidden island of Cuba, end your culinary embargo and head on over to 90 Miles Cafe in Chicago.

“The only things that the United States has given to the world are skyscrapers, jazz, and cocktails. That is all. And in Cuba, in our America, they make much better cocktails.”
Federico Garcia Lorca

90 Miles Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon

90 Miles Cuban Cafe on Foodio54

Looks Like Hell Can Freeze Over…Sort Of

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Hello all.  Welcome to another installation to Mastication Monologues.  I was looking over my blog as of late, and I was seriously slacking the past couple of months in terms of keeping up with my culinary adventures around the world.  Therefore, I am backtracking a bit, so bear with me.  Today I would like to tell you about an interesting restaurant called Chino Latino located at 2916 Hennepin Avenue South  Minneapolis, MN 55408.  It is located in a very nice part of the city, and there is ample street parking.

The fancy exterior of the restaurant

My girlfriend told me about this place awhile ago, so when I came up to visit we went there for dinner.  The decor is eclectic with different types of Latino and Asian artwork covering the walls of the entrance, i.e. papel picado from Dia de los Muertos and Thai shadow puppets .  Some of the pictures were borderline creepy, but I was here for the food, so I was ready to get down to business.  The interior of the actual dining room is two levels, but I did not care for the lighting.  It was too dark which made reading the menu a bit of a chore.  There’s a difference between mood lighting and trying to save on the electric bill.  Either that or I’m getting too old as I approach my quarter-life crisis.  Yet I digress once more, back to the food.

The interior of the restaurant

Even before I saw the menu, I knew that I was in for a treat as I saw that they had my favorite hot sauce on the table:  Yucateco Habanero salsa verde (Warning:  this sauce doesn’t mess around with people who think Pepper Jack cheese is spicy).  Our waitress was very helpful in explaining to me some of the different menu items, and the overall concept of their establishment which aims to deliver street food from countries which the Equator runs through.  As I looked over the different entrees, I was torn in many different directions by the different curries, satays, tacos, and noodles.  However, I was won over by a seemingly simple, borderline appetizer, dinner:  Habanero Hell Poppers.

One of the reasons why I chose this option from all of the others was the fact that there were three mini sticks of dynamite on the menu around the poppers.  Now, normally I take these “heat measurements” with a grain of salt and a good-natured chuckle since they are geared towards people who are not used to eating really spicy food.  However, since we were in an Equatorial restaurant I knew they’d be bringing the heat like their geographical location namesake, and I have a bit of a daredevil streak in me when it comes to food.  So when I ordered them, the waitress looked at me like I was a madman.  Always a good sign that you’re ordering a meal with some real cojones.  They came out on a medium-sized platter with four large poppers, a slice of lime, and a strange cup filled with an orange substance.  Upon closer inspection, there was a paper that came along with the food that in so many words states that if you complain about how spicy the poppers are, you’re going to be made fun of by the staff at Chino Latino and your friends.  Challenge accepted!

Great Balls of Fire!

I tucked into the poppers with gusto, and I finally found a spicy meal that lived up to all of the fanfare.  First off, it was hot temperature-wise.  The breading was light and airy and not greasy.  The Habanero peppers on the inside were fresh, and the Habanero infused cream cheese was hotter than napalm.  So, I would definitely let them cool off before you start wolfing them down.  The first one really started with a bang of spice along with a slightly acrid taste that comes along naturally with the skin of the Habanero.  By the time I finished the fourth and final popper, I definitely had the spicy food sweats; they’re not as scary as meat sweats but are definitely more painful.  However, I then tried the orange substance in the small ceramic cup, and it turned out to be blood orange sorbet.  It was like a plane dropping water on a moderate forest fire.  The embers were still smoldering, but the blaze was extinguished.  The actual sorbet was delicious with a light, even texture and a rich blood orange flavor.

So if you’re a fan of various types of Latino, Southeast, or Caribbean foods, check out Chino Latino in Minneapolis.  However, if you’re looking for a memorable dinner, try the Habanero Hell Poppers because as Kurt Cobain said, “It’s better to burn out than fade away”.

Chino Latino on Urbanspoon

Chino Latino on Foodio54

El Mago: Quite Bewitching

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It has been awhile since my last entry, but I come back with another classic edition of Mastication Monologues.  Recently, I went to El Mago Grill located at 641 E. Boughton Rd., Suite 152 I Bolingbrook, IL 60440.  It is nestled in the recently erected Promenade shopping center that combines outdoor ambiance with quaint boutique style shopping.

They Even Have Their Own Doorman


El Mago, to begin with, means “The Wizard” in Spanish, and it truly was a magical experience for my family and I.  First off, we used this sweet Groupon deal where we managed to get the guacamole appetizer, two Hechizo margaritas, and two entrées for fifteen dollars…a pretty good deal I say, amigo!  Anyway, the interior of the restaurant is quite contemporary in design with plenty of bright colors of the American Southwest and Mexico, desert tones/woodwork, and other elements from Mexico like the varieties of tequila that constitute the entire wall behind the bar or the menagerie of luchador (think Nacho Libre) masks that adorn another wall opposite of where you enter the establishment.

We started with the complementary tortilla chips and three different types of salsa.  The first one was a red chile árbol based sauce that was slightly spicy with a smoky aftertaste that only the dried chile árbol could produce.  The second salsa was an interesting twist on a jalapeño based recipe that also incorporated peanuts to provide a mellower flavor that is considered quite spicy for those who can’t handle the heat (I was not phased by any means).  Finally, I decided that out of these three salsas, the salsa verde that was made with cilantro and green tomatillos was my favorite by far.  It wasn’t very spicy, but it had a slightly sour wash over your palate that was further enhanced with the texture of the seeds from the tomatillos.

The Moe, Curly, and Larry of the salsa world

To drink, I ended up imbibing the Hechizo margarita.  Even though its name implies a magical spell, I, a mere muggle, was not held under its sway.  It was quite watered down and had way too much mixer in it; however, they might have just made it with less panache given the fact we were using a Groupon.  So, splash some cash and see if it actually does make a difference.  Soon enough, our guacamole appetizer arrived, and the aftermath looked brutal (the bowl was picked clean like a zebra on the Serengeti).  Gory comparisons aside, the actual guacamole was quite fresh and creamy.  I could taste every single element of this goopy concoction from sweet tomatoes to the very slight hint of the lime juice.  It was definitely a nice departure from the typical guacamole in other Mexican restaurants that have the consistency and taste of bland mashed potatoes.  Plus, it definitely helped when it came to stomaching the tortilla chips that were abnormally salty ( Dead Sea level), but if that’s your thing, then more power to you.  Once that tasty ordeal was over, it was onto the main course.  Little did I know I was about to receive the culinary beatdown of a lifetime.

Amazing guacamole next to a sub par margarita

I decided to order the Ropa Vieja (or “old clothes”, strange name, I know) which consists of shredded beef brisket, farmer’s cheese, sweet plantains, and refried black beans.  When it came out to me, I didn’t know whether to poke it to see if it was going to bite back or to say a prayer to see if I would make it out alive (it was a monstrous portion of food).  The beef brisket alone took up half the plate, but it was so tender you could eat it with a spoon since it was stewed in its own seasoned juices.  The sweet plantains really gave the plate a full body and made it even harder for me to finish.  However, it was my first time venturing into the realm of the use of plantains in cooking, but I can now say that I am looking forward to trying other Latin plantain dishes in the future, i.e. jibaritos and mofongo.  The actual plantains were not soggy by any means, had an underlying sweetness, and seemed to be almost like the potato portion of a steak dinner but with south of the border flavors.  As for the black beans, it complimented the plantains to give it a very Cuban feel to the dish, but they were not like the ordinary refried beans they serve at run of the mill Mexican establishments because you could still see the individual beans in the enormous globule that occupied the left third of your plate.  In addition to all of this food, they provided me with a “very spicy salsa”, but I was not impressed.  So, I managed to finagle with our waitress in Spanish to actually get me a salsa that would make my taste buds and do the lambada (I didn’t quite say this in Spanish…lost in translation haha).  Two salsas later, the chef actually whipped up a Habañero based sauce, that finally provided me with a kick that I was looking for, and I provided a show for the Mexican staff as they couldn’t understand how a güero like me could speak Spanish and eat such spicy food?

They should rename this “El Montón” (the heap)

I just chalk it up to being adventurous in terms of traveling, eating, and learning about new cultures…you can go far with an open mind.   As a whole, this meal was very filling while providing new/unusual flavors and textures and definitely worth the money if you’re looking for something off the beaten path of tacos, enchiladas, and tostadas.

In closing, El Mago Grill is a pretty good cantina for those traditional aforementioned Mexican favorites or dishes you perhaps never have heard of like the Ropa Vieja.  Plus, the very fact that the chef  made up a sauce for me on the spot really made me think that good food is like platform 9 and 3/4s in Harry Potter, “You just have to believe that its there”…now go out and find those good eats!  Buena suerte!

Mago Grill & Cantina on Urbanspoon

Mago Grill and Cantina on Foodio54

¿Cómo Ni Hao Ma?/In Cod We Trust

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This post is a two-part feature on two restaurants I went to in New York City recently. I took one of the Bus Tours to New York from Moncton. Restaurants here come from completely opposite ends of the culinary spectrum, but the result was the same both times:  me being extremely satisfied and delving into a deep food coma soon thereafter.  The two establishments I speak of are Flor de Mayo and the Chip Shop.

When I was originally looking at restaurants to try in NYC, I was deciding to go the Adam Richman Man vs. Food route and perhaps try the curry challenge at Brick Lane or the seppuku wing challenge at Buffalo Grill in Brooklyn…thankfully I realized that I didn’t feel like being cooped up in a bathroom while my temporary glory from the previous day was painfully all for naught.  Thus, this one restaurant, Flor de Mayo, caught my eye.  It was advertised as a Chinese Cuban restaurant with apparently the best Peruvian chicken in the country.  Those three nationalities in one establishment had my mind spinning with ideas of what exactly they would serve there, but I´d be sure the Cuban and Chinese cuisine would serve up some decent pork at least.  However, I did have worries that it would be some sort of pretentious fusion restaurant that attempts to combine Asian flavors with some sort of Latin dish or just completely think outside the box in terms of presentation and flavor combinations.

With my fears in hand, I reached the surprisingly unassuming storefront located at 484 Amsterdam Ave. between 83rd and 84th St.  Upon entering the very claustrophobic entrance, I could see that this place was the real deal.  Mostly locals were waiting for tables as the wait staff promptly seated us after a less than ten minute wait.  The seating was a bit cramped with the waiters and waitresses running all over the place like mad men/women, but I think it added to the atmosphere of the place.  Looking over the menu, I didn’t know where to start because not only did it have classic Cuban delicacies like congri (red beans and rice), black bean soup, and even mofongo for the Puerto Rican crowd, but also Spanish tapas, Chinese classics, and Peruvian chicken.

Naturally, I went with what they did the best, Peruvian chicken, which also came with a choice of fried rice/noodles all for about 12 dollars.  The wait time from ordering to receiving my food was pretty average for a busy place (around 25 minutes), but I couldn’t believe how much food I got such a small amount of money…

The half chicken was roasted with a slightly seasoned skin that nicely complimented the fall-off-the-bone, succulent meat.  As for the fried rice, it was not greasy at all, but they really did pack a lot on the plate as you can see by the mini-cannonball-esque pile of bbq pork fried rice.  On the side, I received a slightly spicy relish that was a mix between gazpacho and pico de gallo, but provided a nice cooling sensation on the palate to balance out the piping hot chicken.  Long story short, Flor de Mayo was a great bargain dining experience, but they did not sacrifice quality for quantity which was all the more amazing which is aptly demonstrated through the aftermath of my dinner…

Needless to say, I enjoyed the food

Flor de Mayo on Urbanspoon

Switching gears away from strange and intriguing culinary mixtures of East vs. West, the Chip Shop located at 383 Fifth Ave. (at 6th St.) in Brooklyn, NY provided a slice of England/Scotland with many classics brought back from old Blighty, including their namesake:  fish and chips (French fries to us in the Colonies).  It is quite easy to get there by subway or bus, and the neighborhood is quite interesting to walk through with many different types of specialty shops and boutiques (even a superhero shop where you can dress up as your favorite crime-fighter or super villain).  The actual dining establishment is pretty tiny, but I learned it was bigger when the English ex-pat owner originally opened it up.

Me before my arteries were clogged with fried goodness

though business may be slower, they still provide the option for you late at night to get take-out fried goodies at their side window or even bring in your own food to fry.

Upon entering the restaurant, the walls were coated with various types of British memorabilia from throughout the ages, including the usual Beatles/Queen Mum/Rolling Stones/James Bond pictures, but also some less common ones like Bovril/Marmite/Pingu and Ali G (Booyakasha!).  Upon looking at the menu, I could see that their prices were a bit higher than average with the cod and chips being $14, but I resolved to get it and a fried item.  Along with the plethora of British favorites:  the English breakfast, Welsh rarebit, bangers and mash, chicken parmos, and various curries, the Chip Shop also sold other foods to go for cheap (including a tin of mince pies I pounced on for $1).  The drinks also came from across the pond which surprised me as they actually had Lucozade of all things on their soft drink menu (it’s like a carbonated version of Gatorade for those not acquainted with British beverages).

Anyways, I finally got my fish and chips which was gigantic compared to some of the fish and chips servings I’ve purchased in London from street vendors.

English food with American sized portions

Upon tucking in, I found that the batter was superb since it was light, buttery, but not too greasy.  It also made up for the cod which I found to be too flaky for my liking, and having it piled on top of the chips made it a lot harder to eat.  The chips were fried to perfection with a creamy inside which tasted good with the tartar sauce or the malt vinegar that came with the fish.  Once I finally destroyed my main course, I decided to represent the mighty Scotland by ordering a fried Mars Bar instead of the fried pizza slice…I definitely made the right choice.

One small step for my mouth, one large problem for my cholesterol

It was a bar of pure fried decadence as I needed to pause in between bites for fear that I might develop type II diabetes if I carried on any faster.  Strangely enough, I think the haggis I had in Glasgow was actually better for my health than this tiny candy bar.  Calories and Atherosclerosis aside, I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who doesn’t really have the money to fly to Great Britain to try some standard fare that is prepared to an extraordinary standard.  As I received my bill after a satisfying meal, their slogan was a great mixture of British wit and American roots which sums up the wicked deep-fried humor of the Chip Shop.

Chip Shop on Urbanspoon

Flor De Mayo Restaurant on Foodio54

Park Slope ChipShop on Foodio54

The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live.  ~Confucius”

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