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Category Archives: Middle Eastern/Mediterranean Cuisine

A View to a Grill

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Welcome one and all to another great post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post focuses on cuisine that might not get the spotlight like other, more mainstream types of food like Chinese food or Mexican food, but that doesn’t mean that it is of lesser quality.  In this case, I’m talking about Syrian cuisine.  It is part of the Levant on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, its food shares roots with neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and even as far as Iraq.  Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has colored everyone’s thoughts about this country, but I would like to show you that there is more to Syria than the seemingly eternal struggle between Assad and the plethora of Islamic militias that shift alliances as much as the Syrian desert sands.  I had my first taste of Syrian food at Pita Pita Mediterranean (formerly Pita Pit).

The restaurant itself doesn’t look like much. IMG_5658 It’s just another storefront in another stripmall in the northern Chicago suburbs, but the food inside is like the lamp in the Disney movie Aladdin:  relatively unknown to the world unless you help Jafar with both halves of the golden scarab.  Actually, it’s not as dramatic as that given that a quick Google Maps could sort you out in a snap, but there definitely is treasure to be found when looking over their menu.  I saw typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare like kebab, hummus, and Jerusalem salad, but then there were other choices I’ve never heard of.  Naturally, I gravitated toward these options.  I started off with sampling their babha ghanouj ($3 small/$5 large) and the muthawama ($3 small/$5 large).

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Babha ghanouj (بابا غنوج) literally means “pampered papa” in reference to most likely the head of a harem, and these flavors were definitely made for royalty.  It consists of grilled and pureed eggplant that is then mixed with sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic, and yogurt.  It was also topped with a dollop of olive oil for good measure.  I found this cold spread to be both savory yet slightly tart that went very well with the light pita triangles that came with the dip.  I was more partial to the muthawama.  It was very similar to the babha ghanouj in terms of ingredients aside from replacing the eggplant with potatoes.  I think this switch made the white condiment feel more like sour cream and taste like a garlic aioli which goes great on any type of carb, be it pita or French fry.  As for my main dish, I passed over the tried and true favorites in my mind and took a dive into the great unknown with the mnazeleh ($10).  When it came out, I didn’t know what to think.  IMG_5655It wasn’t as sexy as the spreads I had before, but it looked more like an over spiced pile of onions and tomatoes.  The colors weren’t as bright either.  However, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover.  It came with a more vibrant, complimentary side of rice that was moist and lightly seasoned that I subsequently folded into the main meal.  IMG_5654What I ended up experiencing was one of the best Middle Eastern dishes I’ve eaten.  The eggplant base that upheld the tomato, onion, and beef hodgepodge was super tender to the point of disintegrating faster than Subway’s ties with Jared and was infused with the beefy goodness residing above.  The addition of the rice gave it a lot more body, and I would suggest changing the recipe to include the rice.  I recommend this plate if you’re looking for something uniquely Syrian and full of flavor.  By the end of my meal, I thought I couldn’t fit anymore, but I had to try their baklava ($2.80).  This dessert’s history is as multilayered as its filo dough.  Different countries throughout the eastern Mediterranean claim it as their own invention, but there is no definitive answer for a dessert that is as old as time.  Some scholars believe it comes from the Mongols since it might derive from the root “bayla-” meaning “to pile up”, but the “-va” ending suggests a Persian origin.  The oldest recipe, dating back to the second century B.C., of anything resembling this sweet treat is the Roman placenta cake.  You might be thinking, “Ugh!  They made cake out of placenta?!!!  Vomitrocious!”  Au contraire, mon frere.  The word “placenta” derives from the Greek word “plakous” which related to layered breads and was then transferred into Latin as “placenta” as a word meaning “cake”.  However, the Roman version had cheese, honey, and bay leaves between each layer or “tracta” instead of the nuts we use now.  The modern version of baklava is thought to have derived from Istanbul during the reign of the Ottomans where the sultan would present his elite guard, the Janissaries, with trays of baklava on the 15th day of Ramadan in a procession complete with pomp and circumstance.  At Pita Pita Grill, I was neither a Christian mercenary nor served with any great ceremony.

Cue drooling...now!

Cue drooling…now!

The baklava was dripping with honey with every forkful, but I think it was a bit too thick for its own good.  It had plenty of chopped nuts throughout the flaky dough layers, but it made it extremely frustrating to cut with a fork.  I’d prefer if it was served in smaller, easier to eat squares.  I did get a ton of baklava for the price though, and I recommend it to anyone.  Just be prepared to use some elbow grease to keep it on the plate.

So, if you’re looking for a “diamond in the rough” restaurant that is no frills in terms of presentation, go to Pita Pita Grill and discover a whole new world of delicious, Syrian food!

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The Hub of All the Hubbub

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

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

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

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

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

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

Hong Kong (Part 2)- Stank Bomb and Russian Gangsters

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In continuance with my previous post, Hong Kong Part 1, I bring you another installation of Mastication Monologues!  This post features some a very odd food along with some just plain tasty Turkish cuisine.  However, I’m going to start at the beginning of my day where I started it off right with a proper Hong Kong breakfast.

Now most tourists wouldn’t really know where to go to get breakfast in Hong Kong since it really isn’t a city known for its flapjacks and French toast.  This is where I found the glory that is known as 茶餐厅 or a cha chaan teng or literally “tea food hall”.  What these cozy little restaurants are known for are their plates that combine both western and eastern staples to create the original Asian fusion scene in Hong Kong.  Before World War II, Western foods were considered luxury items, so no one could afford them.  However, after WWII, locals wanted to emulate their British rulers by offering cheap versions of Western food for the common people.  Thus, the cha chaan teng was born providing the once rare Western food items like cakes and breakfast items to the public along with cheap Cantonese favorites.   The cha chaan teng I went to was called Tsui Wah Restaurant, and they are all over Hong Kong. IMG_2310 I was quickly seated, and there were no other foreigners in the dining room aside from myself.  I knew I came to the right place again. IMG_0750 I picked the 31 HK satay beef and ramen noodle breakfast platter.  With this eastern entree came a side of scrambled eggs, a western bun with butter, and a cup of “silk stocking” tea or milk tea which is called the former because of its color and smoothness.  It consists of black tea and condensed or evaporated milk, and is a key part of any Hong Kong citizen’s daily life which is just another carry over from the British colonial legacy.  I was quite happy with the meal overall. IMG_0747 The eggs were pretty good although somewhat on the buttery side which was kind of odd, but the roll was slightly warm which became even better with the salty butter.  Coming from Korea and their terrible bread that’s filled with sugar, this roll tasted like heaven.  As for the beef satay with noodles, it was a hearty and savory meal for the long day ahead of me.  I also appreciated that the cha chaan teng provided deep red chili flakes soaked in spicy oil on the side with salt and pepper.  I could get used to that very quickly.  The beef was tender and slightly seasoned with some cumin while the broth was salty and contained all of the juices from the meat.  The noodles were piping hot and al dente which showed that the cooks didn’t just put some boiling water in a cup and hope for the best.  As for the silk stocking tea, it was unlike any tea I’ve ever tried.  It was silky smooth like the name implies, but with a flavor profile that ranged from earthy to herbal to the more obvious milky notes from the key ingredient aside from the tea.  Overall, it was a great deal for a big meal in a real piece of Hong Kong life, but hurry to one because they’re being phased out as new chain restaurants are taking over.  For dessert, I chose one of the most bizarre foods on earth:  durian.

For those unaware what a durian is, it’s considered the “king of fruits”, and is notorious as a foodstuff that people either love or hate.  One of durian’s chief haters is the country of Singapore where it’s illegal to possess one under a fine of 5,000 dollars.  Plus, Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Food’s fame who has eaten everything from anuses and penises could not finish one bite of this fruit.  On the other hand, one of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain, loves the fruit.  So, I took it upon myself to finally get my hands on this spiky devil fruit.  I went to the Sogo department store in Central, and as soon as I walked into the supermarket in the basement, I came face to face with the enigmatic fruit.  It cost me about 24 HK for a date with foodie destiny. IMG_0751 It was already packed up in plastic, but the cashier insisted on wrapping it again and taped my bag up.  Oh boy….while walking I could still smell it through all of those precautions.  I decided it would only be fair to eat it in an open place instead of my hostel room.  I didn’t want to be subject to a blanket party like Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket.  Still, I sat down on a bench on my way up to the Peak and opened up the container. IMG_0752 I was immediately smacked in the face with a smell I could only liken to the worst body odor you could imagine combined with burnt hair and manure.  Appetizing, right?  So I started chowing down on the pieces, and first there was the texture.  It was like eating a gooey Camembert cheese, but it was fruit somehow.  Then there was the taste.

It was kind of hot outside as well.  Not the best compliment to the smell.

It was kind of hot outside as well. Not the best compliment to the smell.

I seriously enjoyed eating it because it reminded me of some really strong blue cheeses I ate before yet mixed with some slight notes of open sewer smell and roadkill just to keep it real with my adventurous palate.  If you are not an adventurous eater, I’d recommend trying durian ice cream or custard before deciding to dine with the king.  If you do take the plunge, bring a lot of gum with you if you don’t want to offend anyone for the next six to eight hours.  The stank follows you no matter what.

Finally, there was the more normal part of my day when I had dinner with my friend Tom at Turkish Kebab House in Kowloon located at G/F, 104 Woosung Street, Jordan, Hong Kong. IMG_2367 We thought about eating at Chungking Mansions, but it seemed like we’d get an intestinal worm from the open air Pakistani stalls or get rolled by the large Nigerian gentlemen selling second hand cellphones.  Instead, we opted for the small Turkish eatery which became even cozier with our fellow patrons at the table next to us.  We were pretty sure they were Russian gangsters since they had necks as wide as their heads, were constantly making calls on multiple cell phones, had tattoos, and gold chains.  It was hilarious to watch them demand that the waitress immediately clean their table off even though they weren’t done eating.  Bratva members aside, I ended up getting the kofte lamb meatballs for 55 HK which came with a side of rice or French fries.

The menu.

The menu.

I ended up getting the rice since that’s the only proper way to eat Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food, and overall it was a fantastic dinner.IMG_0765  The rice was the only downside though since it could have been at least seasoned or perhaps a pilaf, but it was just steamed white rice.  The meatballs were juicy, spiced with some chili and rosemary along with some garlic which all nicely complimented the distinctive flavor that only lamb brings to a dish.  The salad on the side was a good compliment to the savory lamb since it contained fresh greens and some roasted peppers on the side.  Another great part of the restaurant were the sauces that came with the food.  Two were tzatziki inpired creations while my favorite was the orange chili sauce that heated up the night while we watched our Eastern European comrades make deals and the typhoon rains blew past the open door.  It was a great meal only equaled by the light show which brought us eventually to a German beer hall called Biergarten located at 5 Hanoi Street, Tsim Sha Tsui (Use MTR Exit N1 or N2.) to close out the night.  Here’s their menu: http://biergarten-hongkong.com/contactus/.   I got the Kostritzer black beer which was just right after the lamb since it was full bodied and filled to the rim with deep caramel tones.

Goethe's favorite beer and just as dark as his philosophy

Goethe’s favorite beer and just as dark as his philosophy

They also had some interesting tables which would be fun to dine in for a date night or something like that.

Barrels of fun downstairs.

Barrels of fun downstairs.

Next episode involves me going to Macau and trying some classic Portuguese cuisine.  Stay tuned!

Around the World In 80 Flavors

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Annyeong hasayo and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  So this past weekend was quite action packed, and I thought it was going to be a restful day on Cinco de Mayo.  Korea had other thoughts.  Instead, I found myself outside in the middle of Seoul on a beautiful day at an international food festival.  There were tents all over the streets surrounding the Seoul city hall where people from all over the globe were offering opportunities for visitors to learn something new about a different culture through music, clothes, and my favorite, food.  It was extremely crowded for some interesting  countries that I wouldn’t have expected like Kyrgyzstan with their shish kebabs or Iraq with their own version of doner kebab.  I guess people can’t get enough of roasting meat over open flames on sticks.  Perhaps it hits some sort of primal chord within us that hearkens all the way back to our prehistoric ancestors when they felled their first woolly mammoth and had history’s first barbecue.  I wasn’t swayed by the Central Asian sensation and instead went for the funkiest things I could find from countries’ cuisines that I have never sampled before.  First up, Kenya.

After breezing through Asia, Europe, and Latin America, we went to the African stalls.  Once we got to the Kenya tent, there was a delicious aroma wafting through the air, and we quickly found the source.

Now that's fresh

Now that’s fresh

It was the smell of fried mandazi.  They looked like gigantic samosas which are fried dumplings that contain vegetables and meat, but I was greatly mistaken when I was handed a freshly fried one and took a bite.

Needs more Amurcan fattening ingredients

Needs more Amurcan fattening ingredients

It was piping hot and perfectly fried to a golden-yellow similar to the sun that was shining that day, but it was a sweet, not savory, treat.  It was kind of like a freshly fried American donut but not as sweet.  My friend Ben said that it could use some powdered sugar, and I wholeheartedly agreed.  Either that or maybe some sort of dipping sauce.  Still, mandazi was a solid first choice out of many at the fair.  Next up, Iran.

I have had Persian food before, but I never saw these two types of food they were serving:  geimeh and zereshk polo.IMG_0158  I decided to only pick geimeh because the zereshk polo was pricier.  Geimeh has roots all the way back to Mesopotamia and is a stew containing lamb, tomatoes, peas, and onions while being garnished with potato fries and jalapeno peppers.  I also got some seasoned rice and a mini salad on the side.  Overall, it was a solid choice.IMG_0161  The stew was quite hearty with large pieces of lamb that were very tender and the vegetables added extra body to the stew.  It went very well with the rice that was seasoned with tomato paste, cumin, and tumeric and contained more peas and some carrots.  The salad was fresh but was not very impressive.  However, the potato fries were a unique element to the meal because they weren’t exactly like typical French fries because they were in some sort of spice that I couldn’t quite identify.  The last two snacks came from Asiatic countries:  Singapore and Malaysia.

I already knew the Singaporian cuisine is a reflection of all of the different ethnic enclaves that occupy the tiny but rich southeast Asian nation.  So when I saw small fried vegetable fritters, I could immediately see influences from both the Indian community with their love for fried treats like samosas while the cooks were using Chinese vegetables like bean sprouts, Chinese celery, carrots, bok choi, and spring onions. IMG_0162 It was about as big as my hand, but it was kind of a let down.  While it was expertly fried, the vegetables were drowned out by the greasy aftertaste of the dough.  There in lies the fine line one treads when frying food.  Harmony has to be struck between using enough batter while allowing the internal ingredients to shine.  While the Singaporean food let me down, my final choice from Malaysia ended up being the most bizarre and my favorite food out of all of them.

I saw no one was going to the Malaysia tent, so I walked up to see they were offering sago gula melaka a.k.a. “best seller” according to their sign that had the price slashed.  It was somewhat worrisome, but I asked them what it was.  They said it was, “Sweet dessert coconut”.  Those three words together sounded great to me, so I got one cup of it.  After about ten minutes of breaking into the Fort Knox of dessert cups, I opened the container to find something that looked absolutely disgusting.

A beast and a beauty in one

A beast and a beauty in one

It looked like someone puked in the cup and then threw in some pale yellow fish eggs that had congealed into a small sponge.  I was wondering to myself how could something so terrible looking actually be delicious?  I was quickly proven wrong when I took a spoonful of the brownish-white goop.  A perfect example of never judging a book by its cover.  It literally tasted like a vanilla pastry sprinkled with coconut.  Texture wise it was different too because it was semi-gummi but quickly disintegrated after a couple good chews.  This is because sago is derived from a plant similar to the tapioca root which is used in Asian cuisine to make gelatin.  The brownish white soup was palm sugar syrup which supplied the vanilla-esque sweetness.  Sago gula melaka is the prototypical ugly duckling of desserts in my experiences, but I would recommend anyone who has a sweet tooth to try it.

Overall I had a fun time at the food festival, and it just goes to show that if you try things that may seem scary, there really isn’t anything bad about them.  So follow your stomach and go explore the culinary wilderness!

Saved By The Bell

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Hello to everyone out there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be telling you about a little birthday celebration I went to last night in Itaewon that could have ended in gastronomic tragedy, but I managed to tame my own hunger with a little piece of home.  One of the girls in my orientation group invited us out to a Moroccan food in Itaewon, the foreigner quarter of Seoul, and naturally I jumped at the chance to eat food I’ve never had before.  However, upon arrival, we found out that the restaurant was under renovation, so eventually we found an Egyptian restaurant down the main drag of the area.  It was called Ali Baba’s, and I didn’t know really what to expect from Egyptian food since I never tried this type of food either.

Upon walking into the establishment, we were greeted with a mostly empty dining room aside from one couple.  There were various tchotkes on the walls representing Egypt from plates sporting the iconic King Tut death mask to images of the pyramids at Giza.  I was more enjoying the vivacious italo-dance techno beats that were mixed with Middle Eastern rhythms and pumping out the speakers all throughout our dining experience.  Upon sitting down, we were served with unleavened flatbread which was not complimentary (1,000 W each piece) and partially undercooked.  One of my fellow diners asked our waiter/owner if they could grill the bread to at least make it less soggy, and the waiter said, “It’s fresh.  We have an oven”.  We took this as, “I have a microwave, so that’s how it is”.  This was just the beginning of the terrible service.  I ordered the shish taouk (17,000 Won) since I wasn’t quite sure what the meat was going to be roasted on a skewer.  We quickly saw that the waiter didn’t know who ordered what, and some people didn’t get their food until everyone else was done eating.  Ineptitude aside, my food was served to me in a semi-attractive arrangement with fresh greens, two tomato slices, and two cucumber slices.

Close but no cigar

Close but no shisha

However, upon tucking into the dish, I was quite disappointed.  The pieces of chicken were succulent but not very flavorful.  I feel that I could have had the same thing if I stayed at home and cooked boneless chicken breasts in my oven-less kitchen.  Shish taouk is traditionally served with rice, tabbouleh, garlic sauce, tomato sauce, or fries.  None of this was present.  Hence I felt the price did not reflect the quality of the meal.  The worst part was the fact that the waiter/owner took pictures of us while eating.  It was not only intrusive, but a terrible PR trick to make it seem like his restaurant is better than it really is.  If you want good Middle Eastern food in Itaewon, look elsewhere because Ali Baba’s is run by one thief.  High prices for mediocre food?  No thank you.

After that meal, a couple of my friends and I decided to go to Taco Bell.  Why?  1.  Taco Bell is amazing back home, and 2.  I want to see how it’s different in Korea.

Even though it's by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even though it’s by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even thought the menu is a bit smaller in terms of choices in comparison to back home, I ordered a grilled bulgogi burrito (3,500 w) and a fiesta bulgogi taco (2,700 w).  It was totally worth it.  I just find it funny how Korea adapts almost every Western chain by just stuffing bulgogi in everything.  Not that I’m complaining though.  The grilled bulgogi burrito was moderately sized and was piping hot.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

The tortilla was very strong and held in all of the contents from the first bite to the meat juice-filled end.  It was an interesting mix of delicious cheddar cheese, spicy Korean rice, onions, tomatoes, and sweet marinated beef.  It was even better with a liberal spritzing of my favorite Fire sauce that seemed a bit spicier than its American counterpart.

Layers of deliciousness

Layers of deliciousness

As for the fiesta bulgogi taco, it wasn’t that spectacular.  It was like eating a taco supreme without sour cream (beef, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes).  That Korean twist of flavor was seemingly absent in the taco regardless of the bulgogi.  This latter meal was not only more satisfying in terms of flavor and quantity, but the sad thing is that the total bill for my four friends and I at Taco Bell was equal to the price of one entree at Ali Baba’s.  Moral of the story:  Don’t trust places named after famous thieves and just go to Taco Bell.

No Sticky Wickets

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Hello everyone to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be doing a brief review of a restaurant where I tried something that I didn’t really expect to find on their menu.  The restaurant in question is Wickets Bar and Grill located at 601 N Martingale Rd (at Woodfield Rd)  Schaumburg, IL 60173.

I was meeting some college friends there just to catch up on things, and I didn’t know really what to expect from this establishment.  Based off the name, I would have thought that we were going to be eating in an imitation English gastropub of some sort due to the cricket reference in the title.  Instead, I walked into a very sleek sports bar that did not have a single Guinness poster anywhere or a cricket bat on the wall.  The menu did have the usual litany of bar food items like nachos and burgers, but I began to see a pattern emerging that was downright confusing.  Wickets offers different types of samosas for appetizers, a chicken tikka sandwich, and tandoori chicken skewers.  Why was Indian  food on a sports bar menu?  My friend and I hypothesized that there was one Indian master chef who was called upon to make these delicious treats from his homeland.  Either that or it was a nod to the popularity of cricket in South Asia and other British colonies.  Menu construction theories aside, I decided to go for the two skewer platter and a Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale to drink.IMG_1080

I had already had this particular brew from Lagunitas before, but I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with this choice.  If you haven’t had it before, it is an amber-colored beer with a clear hoppy taste that covers your palate initially, but at the end it gives you a little smooth sum sumpin’ at the end that makes you always come back for more.  If you enjoy IPAs, I would recommend this beer to you.

Stomach don't fail me now!

Stomach don’t fail me now!

As for my entrée, I went with one skewer of beef with vegetables and the other with chicken tikka tandoori with vegetables.  They were both served on a bed of basmati rice infused with herbs which was surrounded by golden flatbread triangles.  Plus, I decided to get the cucumber chive yogurt sauce that was served on the side.  Taken all together, these skewers were on point in terms of quantity and quality.  If you are not really hungry, then you will take some of this home with you.  The basmati rice with herbs was cooked to perfection, and the herbs provided the starch with whispers of rosemary and parsley.   I used the flatbread wedges as pseudo-pizza slices to put the yogurt sauce on like sauce and then piled on the meat and rice which gave the meal an Indian vibe since I was eating with my hands which I always enjoy.  The Tandoori chicken was actually quite tasty since it tasted exactly like the same dish I tried in some of the Indian restaurants I visited in London.  If you never had Tandoori chicken, it is a type of specially cooked chicken coated with the right blend of cumin, turmeric, chili, and a slightly charred aftertaste.  The beef was equally delectable since it was grilled completely through but still quite succulent.  As for the veggies, it was a mix of mushrooms, green and yellow zucchini, bell peppers, and onions.  All were adequately grilled, but they still maintained their original integrity which I enjoyed since sometimes over-grilling can lead to crumbling in  vegetables with higher water content.  Finally, the yogurt sauce was like mix between tzatziki and the Indian raita; the neutral yogurt element provided a cooling element to the slightly spicy tandoori chicken  and the cucumbers and chives provided a texture change that interacted nicely with the semi-crispy flatbread.

Overall, I was stuffed and a satisfied customer.  So if you’re looking for some delicious Indian influenced food in a very non-Indian environment, come on down to Wickets Bar and Grill!

Wickets Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Wickets Bar and Grill on Foodio54

Is That Falafel In Your Pocket, or Are You Just Hungry?

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Disclaimer:  Watch out how you pay here.  They stole my credit card number, so caveat emptor!

Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere!  Welcome to another entry to Mastication Monologues.  A bit of time has passed since my last post, but I guess that’s what happens when grad school rears its ugly head.  Anyway, today I’m going to be reviewing a new place that I have never been to before, but I was very happy after eating there.  It is called Falafill and is located at 72 E Adams St Chicago, IL 60604.  It would make a great pit stop before or after visiting the world-famous Art Institute which is less than five minutes away.

They do have an ingenious logo

Now, I’ve had my fair share of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food with gyros, baklava, doner kebab, and dolma etc. all over the US/Europe, so I was wondering how good this place could be when my friend described it as a place where you create and garnish your own falafel.  All I kept on thinking of was some sort of Middle Eastern Fuddruckers, but I highly doubted they would have one pound falafels for me to tackle in a demonstration of my gastronomic might.  So I decided to visit to see what all of the hubbub was, and I was immediately greeted with free samples outside of the door.  I took the traditional falafel sample which was coated in a typical yogurt based cucumber sauce.  The falafel itself was quite crisp and flavorful with a crumbly, chickpea-based interior that was packed with spice and herbs.  However, I ended up getting the curry falafel which was made of lentils instead of the traditional chickpea falafel I sampled at the door.  When they brought it out to me at the same counter I ordered it at, I was surprised at how large they were as they lay there in the gaping maw of the pita bread that looked more substantial than a traditional unleavened pocket.  With our falafel bread mini-baskets in hand, we got down to business at the “mezza bar” that contained literally a bevy of sauces (babaganouge, hummus, jalapeno and cilantro, harissa, tzatziki, garlic), tabbouleh, and plenty of pickled vegetables like beets and peppers among many other garnishes.

So many dressings and so little time

I was like a kid in a candy store with all of these fresh and powerful flavors, but I festooned my falafel with a helping of babaganouge, hummus, tabbouleh, jalapeno and cilantro sauce, and harissa sauce.  When picking a seat, I noticed something that I didn’t really care for:  communal seating.  At this location, they only had seats along the wall where you face a wall/window or one large table where you sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  I just didn’t like it since it seemed like an invasion of privacy sometimes with conversations, but I guess it wouldn’t matter if you were just there for a quick bite to eat.  Anyway, back to the food.  After semi-attempting to figure out how to lift the pita out of its box without having its contents cascade down the front of my shirt, I just gave up and used a fork.

An example of their falafel with pickled beets, giardiniera, and tabbouleh.

This kind of made me sad and wished that they embraced more of a gyro type of pita that provides more of a wrap/taco kind of sandwich instead of this Muppet-mouthed piece of pocket bread.  Nevertheless, once I took a bite of what was lurking inside the bread, I was thoroughly satisfied.  Below the perfectly fried crust, the curry falafels had the sultry taste of yellow curry.  This boldness was mitigated by the cool hummus, babaganouge, and the freshly made tabbouleh.  However, the harissa sauce and the jalapeno and cilantro managed to jazz up the falafels chilling at the bottom of the bread pocket with a lively and savory kick of spicy flavor.  Plus, once I finished a couple of the top falafels, I was able to lift the bread and eat it like an actual sandwich.  I do have to say that their artisanal baked bread was delicious, fresh, and did not buckle under the stress of the contents of the sandwich.  So, perhaps next time I will order their bowl option to see if that works a bit better in terms of the logistics of eating it.

So if you’re tired of the hamburgers, hot dogs, Italian beefs, and Mexican dishes that are standard Chicago fare, try a new take on Mediterranean food by getting your fill of falafels at Falafill!

Falafill on Urbanspoon

Falafill on Foodio54

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