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Category Archives: Mexico

Topolobampo: One Bday at a Time

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I try to try as many different meals as possible while educating the reader about new cultures or the origins of popular foods.  One of the most diverse food scenes out there is Mexican cuisine.  You can go all over the USA and find some form of taco, burrito, or nachos at least even though some interpretations of these meals (especially nachos) might not be seen south of the border.  However, there has been an evolution of Mexican food as of late where different Asian cuisines have been blended to create new and crazy creations like Korean inspired bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos.  On the other hand, one of the biggest names in Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, has been trying to get to the heart of simple Mexican food after decades of living, tasting, and drinking everything from Juarez to Jalisco.  Janice and I met him during Taste Talks of Chicago where he talked about the constant evolution of food, and how meals bring people together from different backgrounds or may make them more in touch with their heritage.  How does Rick manage to do this?  At his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, they serve a rotating menu that draws on Mexico’s culinary history starting in the pre-Colombian era and ending in modern Mexican fusion along with different specialty dishes from all corners of Mexico.  I had the pleasure of paying Topolobampo a visit for my birthday last year with my lovely girlfriend, so I apologize for the delay for this mouth-watering post.

The front of the restaurant consisted of two different restaurants but both owned by Mr. Bayless.  IMG_4981It was slightly confusing trying to find the entrance because we couldn’t see a clear door for either restaurant, but it turns out they shared a common door.  Upon walking in, we were in the lobby for Frontera, the cheaper and more boisterous of the two restaurants.  We walked through the hallway past the strains of musica ranchera to the more demure Topolobampo dining room.  Instead of lots of kitchy Mexican bric a brac on the walls a la Frontera Grill, there were more oil paintings and softer music.IMG_4978  I’d also recommend putting on nicer clothes since its a classy kind of joint.01df7509f997342c67799f4f76e06f709f9e61dfc8  I could hardly contain my excitement as I looked over the menu, but we started off with some drinks.  There weren’t any prices for the food items, but there are for the drinks.  So, it seems they operate on the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” train of thought.  Janice went with a classic glass of red wine that ended up being as big as her head, and I got a mezcal margarita ($12.50).IMG_4964  Mezcal has become more popular with the rise of tequila, but still isn’t very widespread.  It is distilled from the maguey agave plant which is so revered that the Aztecs called the fermented liquid the “elixir of the gods”.  Mezcal assumed its current form when Spaniards took the Aztec agave drink called “pulque” and found a distilling process to increase its alcohol content.  While in Mexico mezcal is consumed straight, I had it mixed with the Spanish Torres 10 year brandy, bitters, lemonade, and mezcal from the very home state in Mexico that started it all, Oaxaca.  It was shaken and served tableside with much pomp, and it was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted.unnamed (2)  It was super potent, but not too sweet. IMG_4957 The hight quality mezcal and Spanish brandy left my palate with a smooth caress with each sip, and there was no burning sensation when it was going down compared with some tequilas I’ve tried.  Once we got our drinks, we got to figuring out what food to order.  At Topolobampo, diners have the option of doing a three, five, or seven course tasting menu with the eaters choosing the dishes.  A fourth option is doing a “Perfect Seven” chef-chosen seven course meal.  We each went for a 5 course tasting menu since we were starving and ready to sample everything Chef Bayless had to offer.  We expected nothing less than magic after hearing him talk about his pre-Colombian menu where he made Mexican food with no beef, chicken, cilantro, lime, or even pork! Long story short, we were blown away.  Our meal started with an off-the-menu item that we got for free.  It was a tiny stack of radioactive pink disks resting in a similarly colored liquid.IMG_4959  Our waiter explained that it was pickled watermelon and radish topped with cayenne pepper.  It was cool, sour, yet slightly spicy that primed our tastebuds for what was next.  I got the sopa azteca (Aztec soup) that consisted of a medium heat pasilla pepper infused beef stock, incredibly tender chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips.IMG_4961  It was simple yet warmed my soul on that dark and cold night.  It kind of reminded me of a Mexican take on French onion soup.  Janice’s first plate was a surprise knockout in terms of flavor.  She got the Sand and Sea which was green ceviche on a bed of tortilla sand.  If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s basically a room temperature salad made of tomatoes, onions, some kind of whitefish, and lime juice.  In true Rick Bayless fashion, he turned this Mexican coastal favorite on its head with chunks of summer flounder, serrano chiles, lime, jicama, and avocados to give it that Hulk green hue.  01cb2a19792a28dad09df6f12d856abd8ce6b359a7Coming from someone who is not a huge fish person, I loved it, and Janice, a bigger fish lover than I, loved it as well.  It didn’t have that super “fishy” taste that might accompany some dishes; I’d liken it more to a lighter and thinner guacamole in terms of taste and texture.   Next up was my beautiful girlfriend’s sunchokes.  The name “sunchoke” was invented for this tuber that is kind of like a potato in terms of appearance in the 1960’s to revive the sales of this very old plant.  However, the sun part supposedly comes from the Italian name for it “girasole” or “sunflower” due to the similar yellow flowers that grew wherever sunchokes could be found.  As for the “choke” part, that came from famous French explorer Samuel Champlain sending back samples of the veggies to France from Canada and America noting a “taste like an artichoke”.unnamed (3)  They were served in a recado blanco sauce from the Yucatan peninsula, a.k.a. the home of the Maya and every high schoolers’ Spring Break plans.  It was a simple sauce that had some garlic, oregano, and some sweet spices to give it a semi-curry character with a guero chile mixed in to give it a vibrant yellow hue.  unnamed (5)Underneath them were resting fermented kohlrabi pieces which were basically pickled turnips.  It was both spicy yet savory and slightly sweet.  The cool slice of avocado on the side cut down the spice when necessary.  They were ok but not amazing in comparison to my second dish:  the carne asada in mole negro.  Now, a lot of people love the chocolatey, spicy sauce on their enchiladas, and much to my own surprise, I am not one of them.  I love chocolate in all forms, but I normally shy away from mixing sweet and savory items.  Topolobampo made me see the upside of this pre-Colombian sauce.  First, there were the firewood-roasted pieces of ribeye that were small but extremely lean, and these exemplary cuts of meat were surrounded by smoked green beans and a small tamal of chipilin herbs. unnamed (4) Mole comes from the Aztec word for “sauce”, and legend has it that a group of nuns threw a bunch of spices together with some chocolate to make sauce for the archbishop’s meal.  He loved it and wanted to know what it was.  One of the nun’s said, “I made a mole”, and thus the legend was born.  For once, I was like the archbishop in a divine state of being when eating this plate. unnamed The Oaxacan mole wasn’t overly sweet like other moles I have tried; the chihuacle chili peppers really brought a little fire to each bite which I appreciated along with the other 28 ingredients that went into the delicious sauce.  As for the meat, it was astoundingly tender and smoky to compliment the mole.  The same could be said for the green beans.  Next, I got goat barbacoa which was served two ways.  The lower layer was slow cooked goat that could be found in a Jalisco birria stew while the top was a panchetta or cured piece of goat that was crunchier.IMG_4971  It was served with garnishes on the side that were fresh, but the goat when it was coated in the red chili sauce was rich, almost too rich for its own good.  IMG_4973While the barbacoa was melt-in-your-mouth quality, it was a bit too salty for my liking.  Janice’s tamal festivo that was stuffed with turkey, chestnuts, and coated in a red mole sauce was like a Mesoamerican take on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.IMG_4967  I was very thankful she ordered it because it was extremely comforting and hearty.  Our final round of savory plates took us to two stewed dishes.  I got the mole de olla or (pan mole) which consisted of beef short ribs wallowing in a ancho and guajillo mole while being topped with some zesty and sour prickly pear fruitIMG_4969.  IMG_4970It covered every taste bud with an explosion of flavors, and I highly recommend this dish.  Janice’s suckling pig was equally decadent. 01f8efcc2b3d20eb4e1e73a399b356a5e08d901b68The braised pork was succulent, overshadowing the greens, and further embellished with the extremely thin veils of 14-month dry cured ham resting softly atop this tiny nugget of greatness.  Even after all of these dishes, we still had room for dessert because as the maxim of high end dining held true where it was a series of small but high quality ingredients that satisfied us, but we didn’t feel stuffed.

Dessert was just as over the top and true to its Mexican roots.  The cacao tree was an homage to the sacred cacao bean that was considered a drink and food only reserved for Aztec emperors and gods.  A piece of milk chocolate bark lay across three different forms of the dark stuff. unnamed (1)unnamed (6) First, there was the moist lava cake that was made with house-made chocolate straight from Tabasco, Mexico.  Words cannot describe how delicious this element was.

So much love for the cake.

Clearly she liked it.

Next, the cacao fruit mousse was the opposite in the sense that it wasn’t extremely rich but rather a smooth and sweet raspberry and chocolate cream.  Finally, there was the rosita de cacao ice cream that was like a lip-smackingly great French vanilla combined with a generous helping of chocolate chunks from Chiapas, Mexico.  Janice got the crepas con cajeta (crepes with cream) which was just as great. IMG_4977 The crepes were slightly warm and filled with bittersweet dark chocolate ganache that became gooey due to the heat, and the pumpkin spice and pecan toffee ice cream on the side started to melt that made it perfect for the Fall.  On top of all of this, there was a meringue and warm apples that made it a mixture of European and pre-Colombian influences to make my stomach very happy.  The final two desserts were the winter buñuelo de viento and the guava atole.  The former was the antithesis to the cacao tree since it was all white errthang.01c17989af02d0e072be4bab7bc510836a68be025e  It consisted of a scoop of vanilla-brandy ice cream topped with puffed rice stewing in a warm traditional Mexican ponche or “punch” infused with hibiscus, tamarind, brandy, sugarcane, and tejocote apples.  The latter, the guava atole, was a complete nod to the Aztecs who invented the corn and flour drink.IMG_4974  On one side there was a steamed masa corn cake that was semi-sweet and moist.   Then the atole guava ice cream was on the other side where the sweetness of the tropical guava mixed with a slightly starchy element.  I liked the crunchy masa strips and flour crumbles because they brought both a change of texture along with an almost pie a-la-mode feel with the ice cream combined with the crumbles.  It was my second favorite dessert behind the cacao tree.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied, and it was a fantastic birthday from the beginning to the end even though I never found out how much everything cost haha.  If you want some gourmet Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices for high end diners, I highly recommend Topolobampo!
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

 

 

Winter bunuelo de viento

guava atole

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At the Market With My Dawgs

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Winter has finally hit Chitown harder than a raging Ditka and has been making life miserable for most aside from snow plow drivers and snowblower vendors.  However, if you’re looking for a warm and inviting restaurant in Chicago that serves up Mexican food with a twist, check out Mercadito Counter.

Now, this post is super late since I went back in the late summer/fall, but I hope that not much has changed in this funky fresh eatery.  From the instant you walk in under the papel picado, you’re transported to a modern taqueria whose menu boasts everything from tacos to Mexican hot dogs (more to follow).IMG_4519IMG_4521  Speaking of the former Mexican staple, Mercadito Counter boasts a taco eating challenge where a diner has to eat 35 tacos in an hour.  If you gobble all of them up, you get free tacos for life but only on Tuesdays.  Naturally, there’s a catch!  After agonizing over the menu for a good ten minutes, I decided to get a steak taco, a pork taco, and The Mexican hot dog, and a Nutty Mexican milkshake.  Janice got an order of onion rings, a fundido hot dog, and a lobster dog.  While waiting for our grub to arrive, we got some of the locally made salsas that were in squeeze bottles behind where we ordered our food. IMG_4518 Eventually, it all came out and looked fantastic.  I started with my tacos.  While they were immaculately presented, their size left much to be desired based on their price (roughly 3 bucks a taco).  Ay Chihuahua! IMG_4522 Surprisingly, the steak taco was a lot more flavorful than the pork taco even though the latter had roasted pineapple chunks as a sweet caress to the ancho and guajillo slathered spicy pork.  I think I enjoyed it more because the meat itself wasn’t drowned out with lots of strong flavors, and the key lime marinade was a stroke of genius.  As for my Mexican hot dog, it was my best friend.IMG_4523  It consisted of a grilled, bacon-wrapped dog covered with pico de gallo, mayo, jalapeño relish, mustard, and ketchup.  It was an excellent example of literal Mexican American cooking where the zesty pico de gallo and jalapeño relish provided a Latino slant to the more classic flavors, and the bacon strip gave the char dog a satisfying, porky crunch with each bite.  Between bites of my food, I sampled Janice’s onion rings which were delicious since they were crunchy, large, and didn’t succumb to severe onion loss that I hate when eating the greasy bar food staples.IMG_4525  What is severe onion loss?  It’s the annoying phenomenon when biting into an onion ring only to have the entire veggie slip out leaving you behind with a crunchy shell.  First world problems, I know.  I did enjoy the chipotle dip that came on the side that gave this appetizer the south-of-the-border kick it needed.   We also used the homemade salsas on the complimentary tortilla chips that came with our hot dogs. IMG_4528 There were three different types:  the chipotle tomatillo, the habanero, and the arriera.  The chipotle tomatillo was more like a common green salsa that could be found in most Mexican restaurants where there was a lot of tomato flavor with sparks of garlic and cilantro.IMG_4527  My favorite was the arriera since it was surprisingly spicier than the habanero salsa.

Habanero salsa

Habanero salsa

 

Arriera salsa

Arriera salsa

Plus, it had epazote or wormseed in it which is a herb that can poisonous in large quantities, but in small portions it alleviates gas and discomfort during digestion.  So it was a win-win especially since we were eating Mexican food.  I also took a bite of Janice’s fundido dawg that was good but not great. IMG_4526 It was basically a Mexican twist on a chili dog with chorizo instead of ground beef on top.  I didn’t take a taste of her lobster dog, but she said it was delicious and decadence embodied. IMG_4533 Speaking of super scrumptious items on the menu, the Nutty Mexican milkshake I had was mind-blowing.IMG_4531  From the powdered cocoa powder on top along with a mix of nutmeg and cinnamon blended throughout the milk chocolate ice cream.  All of which left me filled up but not ready to explode like una bomba.IMG_4532

So if you want to check out Mercadito Counter, I’d recommend a visit, but I would get the hot dogs over the tacos since they aren’t as big of a rip off in terms of the price vs. size ratio.  Inflated prices aside, the fresh ingredients, service, and flavors made this taqueria tops for the area!

Mercadito Counter on Urbanspoon

The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues.  Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.

IMG_4175It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer.  IMG_4178Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds).  I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. IMG_4164 It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer.  It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night:  the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). IMG_4167 If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel.  This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter:  Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt.  The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so.  It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta.  With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market.   I still would recommend this appetizer though.  Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50).  The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. IMG_4166 The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika.  It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread.  IMG_4168This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards.  Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. IMG_4169 It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese.  It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere.  Our main dishes finally came.  I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50).  The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side.IMG_4170  The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn.  Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. IMG_4174 As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. IMG_4172 IMG_4171Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end.  IMG_4173The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok.  However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor.  Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75).  IMG_4176It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions.  The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper.  I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second.  The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.  It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.

So if you are in the Evanston area and looking for a fusion restaurant that I could liken to a more affordable Girl and the Goat, check out The Cellar!
The Cellar Beer and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Absolute Cero

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Hola a todos and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  This really has been a post that has been long in the making, but it is not short on quality by any means.  Today’s restaurant in question is De Cero on the Near West side of Chicago.  It is a modern version of a taqueria or taco shop for y’all who don’t habla espanol.  It takes the ingredients from the Pilsen and Little Village Mexican strongholds and presents it in a more Rick Bayless upper echelon Latin cuisine fashion.

Sharing the block with other famous dining establishments like Le Chevre and Girl and the Goat (post coming soon), De Cero is a simple restaurant with open patio dining and indoor dining.  It’s simply furnished with wooden chairs and a soft lit interior.IMG_3961 IMG_3959 IMG_3960 When I went with my girlfriend and her party posse, we hung out on the bumpin patio that was occasionally ruined by spontaneous drizzle storms.  Being the Midwesterners that we are, we just sat through it and enjoyed the wonderful food and drinks.IMG_3947

First, there were the libations.  They have non-alcoholic selections like the classic Jarritos that can be found in every corner store stocked with Latin goods, but we came for the more adult beverages.  I started by wetting my whistle with a mango con chile margarita ($9.75).  Not only did it come with chile, but our waitress indulged my thirst for spicy food by letting me know I can put habanero chili powder on the edge.  When it came out, it checked all the boxes for me for a bebida perfecta (perfect drink). IMG_3948 IMG_3950 It was the perfect blend of the natural sweetness of the sunny yellow mango with the occasional hint of tequila and a bold punch of smoldering chile with each sip.  Later on in the night, I tried the jicama margarita, but it was the blander of the two options. IMG_3958 IMG_3957

As for appetizers, we got the chips and salsa entrada ($6.75) where we chose the pico de gallo, red picante, and tomatillo lime verde salsas.  A side of guacamole was thrown in there for good measure.  IMG_3953Out of the trio of super salsas, my favorite was the pico de gallo.  All of the different elements like the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and tangy lime juice were in perfect harmony which I couldn’t say the same for its compadres.  The red picante was pedestrian but a bit heavy on the smoky chile element, and the key lime green tomatillo salsa was more sour than savory which didn’t really catch my fancy.  However, the guacamole made me think “Holy moly” with each ravenous bite of the tortilla chips. IMG_3954 Even though it was the same color as toothpaste, it tread the line between chunky and smooth excellently and the cilantro pepped up this potentially bland side.  IMG_3956My girlfriend also tried the spicy goat cheese tamale ($3.75).  IMG_3969

Duck confit taco and tamale

Duck confit taco and tamale

It was nothing special.  The mild masa of the tamale drowned out the flamboyantly tasty goat cheese which left me muy triste.IMG_3971  After munching on these appetizers, the main course came out.

I got four different tacos:  spicy applewood chorizo, rajas, al pastor, and chicken mole ($3.75 each).IMG_3963  Surprisingly, I thought the best one of the four was the rajas. IMG_3967 This doesn’t mean that the other ones were huge let downs, but I felt that I tried better versions in cheaper restaurants.  Especially with the al pastor that had plenty of spiced pork shoulder but not enough pineapple.  IMG_3966The chorizo was not as spicy as I was anticipating which left me crestfallen since I’m used to Mexican sausage bringing the heat.IMG_3965  The chicken mole was more of an experiment for me since I’ve never really been a big fan of mole.  IMG_3964Even though I love chocolate, this cocoa infused sauce never really jived with my palate.  At De Cero, it was no different, but I’m sure many other people love it. The black beans that came with the tacos, however, were a nice change of pace compared to the typical brown refried bean goo they serve at every tex-mex eatery. IMG_3968 They were served whole, simmered in a pork based broth with a chunk of pork thrown in for good measure.  It was food for the soul.

By the end of the meal, I felt like a stuffed gordita, but the overall quality of the ingredients in the tacos and the zesty margaritas made De Cero a taqueria experience without equal, especially with lovely company.IMG_3973
De Cero on Urbanspoon

Nacho Average Restaurant

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Hoo doggy!  It’s heating up in Chicagoland right at the end of summer, and today’s Mastication Monologues post is a real firecracker.  If you’re looking for a fun new bar that has a giant photobooth to document a crazy night or a beer pong table to relive old glory days in college, then check out D.S. Tequila Company!

It is a restaurant that has plenty of attitude in terms of its decor and events that are held every weekend that range from trivia to bingo.  The inside is quite modern in design with mostly metal, exposed brick, and dark wood accents.  However, my favorite part of the restaurant is the patio.  1bec1e9e3d9e3d7cfe86cc15ce343653.640x427Both times I’ve been there, it was nice weather, so it was packed with partiers and diners.  In this post, I’ll just be talking about my second time there when I went with my girlfriend for lunch.  She had been raving about their nachos there, so I couldn’t say no to a Tex-Mex and personal favorite.  We sat on the patio on the oddly humid/on and off drizzing day around noon.  Due to the precipitation, we got to see their retractable roof on the patio in action, so no worries if it’s raining.  You can still get your groove on outside.  This lunch experience  was the complete opposite of the first time I went there on a rowdy Saturday night.  There were patrons calmly talking over their meals, and we proceeded to do follow suit when the menus were placed in front of us.  We started with ordering drinks.  D.S. Tequila lives up to its name with their own homemade brew ranging from blanco to anejo which you can purchase in the restaurant if you are completamente loco for the Mexican mezcals.  I ended up getting one of their frozen mug drinks ($8 for a glass/$32 a pitcher): the black and green.  It was an intriguing drink since it came out in a large beer mug, but it looked like a root beer slushy. IMG_3879 Turns out that the darker liquid was the Negra Modelo Mexican beer, and the slush was D.S. Tequila’s original margarita.  It was like an inversion of a margarita I had at Gusto Taco in Seoul.  However, I think I preferred this inverted beergarita since the full bodied lager enveloped the sugary slush, but the citrus zest made each sip really pop.  While imbibing this innovative icy beverage, Janice ordered the regular sized Texas Trash Nachos ($9.89).  I was confused why she thought that this would suffice for someone like me with a giant appetite.  I was looking at the other options on the menu like their tacos, burgers, salads, or soups, but she assured me that this would demolish even the biggest of stomachs.  She was totally right.  The nacho equivalent of Mount Doom was placed in front of us with an ominous, heavy clunk on the tabletop.IMG_3881 I didn’t know where to start.

Guess which one of us is intimidated?

Guess which one of us is intimidated?

Dive headfirst into the ingredient-rich top layer or play it safe with the unadorned chips around the borders of the plate?  I took the bull by the horns, and rode that toro through chunks of succulent steak, chunky guacamole, cool sour cream, two layers of cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and acidic pico de gallo.   Needless to say, that they all came together in one of the best nacho platters I’ve had.  The only problem, as with most nacho platters, is the refried beans foundation that often times results in soggy chips towards the end of the meal.  That would be my only complaint with the dish, but at that point, I didn’t really care because I was really hungry.  We ended up finished the entire thing, and it was a great bargain for less than five bucks a person.  I’m scared to think how big the “family size” nachos would be.

Overall, I’d recommend D.S. Tequila for a great patio experience or just a rocking good time on a weekend.  Their drinks are strong, and their portions are huge.  What more could you ask for?

D.S. Tequila Company on Urbanspoon

All Hail Cesar!

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Que tal, amigos?  If you couldn’t get enough of my food adventures on Mastication Monologues, today I’m bringing you a review of a Mexican restaurant that is well known for their murderous margaritas:  Cesar’s Killer Margaritas.  I’ve passed by it many times while gallivanting about Chicago on the Northside, but I’ve never set foot in the establishment.  Thankfully, I got an opportunity to visit for dinner recently, and it was quite an enjoyable experience.IMG_3744

When Janice and I walked in the door, there were a bunch of people waiting for a table sitting along the wall, and that immediately elicited my response of, “Great…a wait”. IMG_3747 I’ve worked as a host at a restaurant, and I know that giving an estimated table time is a very loose interpretation of how long it’s actually going to be since there are so many variables to take into account.  The hostess quoted us at 10 to 15 for a free table which is the fallback answer since it doesn’t give the customer unreasonable expectations yet doesn’t seem like an insurmountable wait.  Surprisingly, the wait was shorter than estimated, so we were hustled up and down two staircases to get to our table.  Once seated, we immediately looked over the signature margarita menu since we wanted to see if they could live up to the hype.  While they had the usual flavors like raspberry and strawberry, they had nods to Latin flavors with tamarindo and guava.  I got a frozen guava margarita ($11) while Janice got the chilled raspberry margarita ($11).  While waiting, I was systematically destroying the chips in front of me along with the watery but cilantro filled salsa roja that come complimentary with the meal.  Eventually, they were brought out to us, and they looked like any other margaritas.  However, it was a pleasant surprise that they were not too syrupy, and we could taste the liquor as well which let us know we were getting our money’s worth.IMG_3749  I found Janice’s margarita to be more interesting than mine because it contained something I’ve never seen in a margarita:  fresh fruit. IMG_3751 I don’t know if they do this with all of their flavors, but her raspberry margarita literally had whole raspberries floating amongst the ice floes of the red sea of tequila.  It was a masterstroke of tex-mex bartending.  While we were enjoying our frozen beverages, we looked over the dinner menu.  They had plenty of entrees, lighter options, appetizers, starters, and soups.  While they didn’t stray much from the tried and true tex-mex favorites, I decided to go for the steak mini burritos ($10) while Janice got the vegetarian fajitas with steak ($14).  While waiting for our plates to come out, I thought back to another Mexican dinner that I had in London which resulted in me carrying a pair of twin food babies around for the majority of the night.  Thankfully, these burritos wouldn’t destroy me like that chimichanga in Old Blighty.  Before our entrees arrived, we were hooked up with a free cup of what seemed to be tomato soup with noodles. IMG_3753 It was flavorful but nothing noteworthy since we could only taste tomatoes.    When they came out, I immediately pounced on them since these plump little buggers looked quite scrumptious under their cheese and salsa verde blanket.  IMG_3755I sliced into them, and the juicy pieces of steak, beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes came tumbling out.  I poured the sour cream all over them while spackling guacamole on each forkful.  Madre de dios, estos burritos fueron de la puta madre! (“These burritos were the bees knees!” in so many words).  The tortillas were flavorful and bursting with gooey cheese and fresh vegetables.  I think the combo of the cool sour cream and the cilantro filled guacamole gave the savory steak a herbal tinge that made my tastebuds scream “Más  Más Más!”.  The Mexican rice was average, but I didn’t even touch the beans.  As for Janice’s vegetable fajitas, they were served piping hot at our table and contained plenty of veggies one typically doesn’t find in Mexican cuisine like cauliflower, broccoli, and mushrooms. IMG_3756 She offered to make me a taco out of the ingredients in her fajita, so I got a mouthful of peppers and onions along with the same succulent steak in my mini burritos.IMG_3757  I would have helped her more with the monstrously-sized meal, but I would have needed a second stomach.  I was feeling full by that point in the meal but not to the point of sickness.  It wasn’t the most mind blowing meal in the world since Chicagoland has a ton of great Mexican eateries, but I was a happy customer with the service and food.

So if you’re looking for a fun establishment with well made dishes and unique margaritas, check out Cesar’s!

Cesar's on Urbanspoon

How I Learned to Stop Wondering and Love the Bomb

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Ah the sandwich.  One of the most simple yet fluid concepts in food.  Food has long been enveloped or contained in some sort of bread in various cultures across the world, but the actual word can be traced to 18th century England.  Edward Gibbons states that John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, would ask for his meat to be between slices of bread, so he could eat with his hands while playing cards and not get the cards dirty.  Eventually, people began to ask for their meals, “The same as Sandwich”, and a new word entered the English language.  Today, there are a million ways to put one together that range from the classic peanut butter and jelly to the straight up bizarre.  Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues features a Mexican twist on the food staple in the form of Cemitas Puebla in Chicago.

This eatery in Humboldt Park has received its fair share of publicity after appearing on the Food Network, PBS’s Check Please, and the Hungry Hound a.k.a. Steve Dolinsky from ABC 7 news.  Surprisingly, given that this establishment is located in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, it is purely Mexican, specifically from the state of Puebla.  The exterior blends into the neighborhood, and the interior is just as simple.IMG_3557  I went there around lunch, and it was hopping.  The line was moderately long, but the cooks knew how to hustle.  Looking over the menu, the cemitas were dominant, but there were other dishes like tacos, enchiladas, chalupas, and quesadillas to name a few.  I was determined to see what made these south-of-the-border super sandwiches were made of.  I decided to speak in Spanish with the lady at the cash register to maybe get a bit of extra info that the gringos wouldn’t get.  I was torn between the pata (cow foot) or the atomica (atomic) cemita, but the lady recommended the atomica because the cow foot wasn’t very popular and lower quality.  Taking her word for it, I put down $9 for the atomica cemita and a small agua de jamaica to drink ($1.25).

While waiting for my meal, the cashier got my drink from the back freezer along with a couple of squeeze bottles.  She set them down, and I asked about the different salsas in the bottles.  While the two clear ones were filled with some sort of red and green sauces, the woman pointed out the bright yellow bottle of sauce would go the best with the cemita.  I thanked her for the info started sipping on my drink.  Agua de jamaica (literally:  water of hibiscus) is a tea that can be served either hot or cold, the latter in this case, and is an infusion of hibiscus flowers and a bit of sugar.IMG_3564  It’s a great drink for a hot day with a hint of sweetness in each sip, and it has anti-oxidant properties that can lessen the effects of hypertension.  Finally, the star of the show emerged from the grill, and was brought to my table with minimal fanfare.  I was taken aback by how large the sandwich was for the price I paid and then pondered how to tackle this monstrosity?IMG_3559 The atomica consisted of breaded pieces of milanesa (breaded pork), carne enchilada (chili seasoned meat), and jamon (ham).  This meat parade was further accented with adobo chipotle peppers, Oaxacan cheese, and fresh papalo or a green herb used for seasoning. IMG_3560 I took my first bite that consisted me of unhinging my jaws like a reticulated python around a baby hippo, and it truly was a weapon of mass deliciousness. The bun was moderately toasted with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds on top, and it was strong enough throughout the meal to keep these ingredients in check and not on my pants.  Each layer of meat moved from strength to strength as the jamon was salty to compliment the milanesa breading while the breading provided a crunchy contrast to the soft carne enchilada.  I loved the stretchy Oaxacan cheese that was plentiful along with the chunks of creamy avocado.  The papalo was there, but I personally didn’t think it brought much to the table flavor and texture-wise.  Once I was acquainted with my new sandwich friend, I decided to try some of the sauces on the table.  I began with the recommended cemita sauce, and it was a peppery adobo that had a robust, peppery bite to add a savory dimension to the sandwich.IMG_3563  I moved on to the green sauce that had an uncanny resemblance to boogers, but it thankfully didn’t taste the same. IMG_3567 I’d liken it to a flavorful tomatillo salsa with hints of cilantro.  As for the red sauce in the other clear bottle, it was nothing noteworthy.  ‘Twas just another run of the mill tomato based salsa.  Much to my dismay, I wasn’t overly stuffed even though the sandwich probably had over 3,000 calories and could choke a horse.  It was a simple yet thoroughly satisfying lunch.

So if you want to try a unique piece of Mexico beyond tacos and tamales for a reasonable price, check out Cemitas Puebla.

Cemitas Puebla on Urbanspoon

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