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Category Archives: Southeast/Southern Asia Cuisine

A Sumptuous RePass

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Welcome one and all to another very interesting and hearty food post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s subject actually involves a type of cuisine that is as old as time and comes from an incredibly well traveled part of the world, the Khyber Pass.  While this landmark might not evoke a reaction from most readers, it is actually one of the crucial geographic features to the shifting sands and roaming armies of global empires.  It is a key link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been transversed by every conqueror from Alexander the Great, Darius I of Persia (Father of the big bad Xerxes from the movie 300), Ghengis Khan, British colonial forces, and even to the modern day with the murky conflict with the Taliban and NATO forces.  Not only was the Khyber Pass a route for war since time immemorial, but it also was a giant outpost during the heyday of the Silk Road.  With all of these populations moving to and fro in the region, naturally they were going to leave an impression on the local cuisine.  I mean, they were peddling seasonings to Europeans that we take for granted nowadays for imparting all of our food and drinks with immense amounts of flavor like black pepper, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, ginger,  and even nutmeg to name a few.  Basic white girls in Fall wouldn’t even be a trending meme in American culture if it wasn’t for the Khyber Pass!  A giant historical stretch, I know, but a definite reality we have to deal with.cowwl  Thankfully, when Janice and I visited the Oak Park location of the Khyber Pass restaurant chain, there wasn’t any pumpkin but plenty of spice on the menu.

It was a cold and frozen drizzle kind of a day, so what better way to cut through the terrible weather than some soul-warming Indian food? IMG_5972 We walked in around the lunch hour after finding some parking in the back, and it was not terribly packed.  It was very welcoming with its warm colors and interesting decorations. IMG_5967

This takes all spice to another level

This takes all spice to another level

IMG_5969

Tea, anyone?

Tea, anyone?

We were quickly seated, and we noticed that they had a lunch buffet special for $15.  Based on my experience with previous buffets, I didn’t have any qualms, so we informed the waiter we were interested in getting our money’s worth since we were starving.  According to Khyber Pass’ website, they champion the cuisine of the Pathan people or more commonly known as the Pashtun in their language, Pashto.  Their homeland spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some famous Pashtun that you might of heard of include Harmid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and Malala Yousafzai, the famous young lady who stood up to the Taliban for women’s rights.  Clearly, it is a region that is not the easiest to live in, so their cuisine is similar to Indian food in terms of utilizing simple ingredients in a variety of ways with plenty of spice and flavor in every bite.  This was epitomized looking over the assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes along with a healthy array of curries, salads, soups, sides, and entrees.  We decided to try their half of a tandoori chicken ($12.95 or $16.95 for a whole) along with a side of naan bread to accompany our foray into the buffet.  Before we received all of our food, I got a Maharaja Premium Beer to slake my thirst, and that’s all about it did. IMG_5960 This brew from Mumbai was nothing of great note.IMG_5959  It was a thin, slightly fruity pilsner that had a very faint, bitter aftertaste.  I wouldn’t go back for another one.  However, the tandoori chicken and naan looked great.  Tandoori chicken originally was popular in the northern region of India and Pakistan called the Punjab due to the cultural practice of every home having a charcoal fired oven called a tandoor.  Just like in India, Khyber Pass roasted their chicken in a traditional tandoor after it had been marinated in yogurt, Kashmiri chilies, and turmeric. IMG_5964 However, this chicken isn’t super spicy if you don’t have a tongue of steel.  It is instead savory with swirls of flavor that are both umami yet earthy.  The naan bread we had it with also has an interesting history.  It seems like your typical, slightly leavened, flatbread that has been around since the beginning of time and the word originates from the Iranian word “n’n” which is a general word for “food” or “bread”.  However, this particular type of bread only became popular beyond the Indian subcontinent and surrounding cultures when the Roma people, more commonly known as “gypsies”, brought it during their exodus across the Central Asian steppe all the way to Europe.  Side note:  Based on genetic blood studies done in Roma communities and studying the Romani language, all signs point to an origin in India, not Romania, Ireland, or even Egypt which is where their modern nickname came from.  The Greek’s believed they came from Egypt, so they called the Roma Αἰγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi) or “those from Egypt” which then eventually made its way to the Middle English “gypcian“.  Whatever they call themselves, I can’t get enough of their bread.  IMG_5962It has more body and texture contrasts than a pita but still has its strength when dealing with soupy curries.  Khyber Pass’ naan had both a lightly buttered, crunch exterior that gave way to a moderately chewy center that sopped up all of the delicious chicken juices and the plates we got from the buffet.IMG_5966  My first plate was a mix of different items from their regular menu including:  vegetable pakora ($5.50), green salad ($5.95), chicken curry ($11.95), bhuna gosht (lamb in a light spicy sauce), bengan bhurtha (stewed eggplant; $10.95).

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

The pakora were little, deep fried vegetable fritters that were rich with flavor but not super greasy.  Plus, the smooth breading was very different than typically Western fried foods that is flakier.  Surprisingly, their green salad lived up to its name, even more impressive that it was part of their buffet, since it was bursting with fresh, verdant veggies that I topped off with the slightly tangy raita yogurt sauce.  The chicken curry was competently made but nothing to rave about.  I felt that the food overall wasn’t super spicy, so I asked them to bring some sort of hot sauce.  They brought me a Sriracha knock-off, but I told them that I wanted what they, i.e. the South Asian staff, ate.  Next thing I know, I was greeted with a cook inspired hot sauce that looked nuclear from the bright orange yellow that was emanating from the bowl.

This just looks angry.

This just looks angry.

I put it on my chicken, and it was amazing.  It was a coconut based sauce that up on the vindaloo level of spice that let me know that I, a real chilihead, was actually eating something spicy.  They were shaking their heads when I wasn’t dying from heat stroke, and that added to the long list of people from spicy food cultures being flabbergasted at my spice tolerance.  Yet, I think that it offers a more authentic experience that isn’t watered down for the locals.  Tongue searing spice aside,   I was definitely into the bhuna gosht or stewed lamb.  It added the gamey dimension that comes with lamb and fused it with a cumin and curry sauce that took it to another level of flavor awareness.  It was the clear standout on my plate and paired perfectly with a hefty piece of naan for some finger food that was finger licking good.  The bengan bhurtha was a close runner up in terms of flavor.  It consisted of minced eggplant roasted directly over a fire that then was stewed with cilantro, chilis, and onions.  The smoky flavor from the grill was unlike any other eggplant I had ever tasted, and it was melt in your mouth tender.  My second plate wasn’t as over the top as the first with dal mukhni ($10.95) and stewed vegetables as the only new entries.

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

The dal mukhni was supposed to be a four lentil stew, but it seemed quite heavy on the chickpeas.  I wasn’t impressed by it or the dal mukhni and should have gotten more of the meat dishes and bengan bhurtha.  Unfortunately, by the end of the second plate, we were stuffed and had no more room for dessert sady.  However, Khyber Pass left us with full bellies and wallets before going out into the cold.

So if you find yourself downtown or in Oak Park and are looking for an establishment with typical Indian food prices that aren’t the cheapest in the world but with plenty of authentic and unique dishes, I suggest swiping right instead of left on Khyber Pass!
Khyber Pass Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Never a Boar in the Kitchen

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What’s up people?  The weather has been relatively all over the place for a Chicago summer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try some new and consistently delicious food.  Enter Andy’s Thai Kitchen that me and my girlfriend hit up for her gusband’s birthday.  I was not really super excited about getting Thai food since it just all seems like the same thing, similar to my thoughts about Vietnamese food, but Andy’s Thai Kitchen managed to change my mind.

Bday selfie!

Bday selfie!

While the weather was quite cold outside, the interior is very warm and welcoming.

When we left it was almost closing time

When we left it was almost closing time

Not only that, but the body heat from the masses of people waiting at the narrow vestibule made the experience seem all the more chaotic.  It could almost be an homage to the organized madness that is synonymous with Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok.  Chef Andy Aroourasameruang brings the unadulterated flavors of his home, Chachoengsao Province, to Chicago in the form of one of the most unique Thai menus I’ve seen in a long while.  IMG_6086I had never been there before, but all of my other diners had visited it before.  So, I let them order most of the food for our meal aside from my entree.  First, we started the meal with the som tum tod  or fried papaya salad ($12). IMG_6087 Unfortunately, this was during Lent, and I had given up all fried foods.  So, based on the reaction of my fellow diners digging into the colorful melange of deep fried papaya sticks, giant pink shrimp, cashews, tomatoes, and green beans, they loved all of it.  It was presented differently than other mango salads I’ve seen in Thai cuisine given that the mango was actually fried and not served in its original form.  I’d recommend it though since I ate the shrimp together with the veggies.  The spicy lime dressing gave it a perfect tangy/fiery zip to keep you coming back for more.  As for the entrees, I went with the ATK signature dish:  wild boar pad ped ($11).  Basically, it was a spicy red coconut curry that had “young pepper” (whatever that is), slow cooked and stir fried boar, and Thai eggplants.  IMG_6088The curry was very rich and flavorful with a potent kick, and there was a ton of tender boar that seemed like slightly gamier beef.  It should have been tougher, but the slow cooking made it fall apart in my mouth.  The Thai eggplants were a new addition to foods I’ve never tried before, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Even though they looked like tiny halves of lime in my curry, they added more of a half-crunchy, half creamy element to the softer parts of my meal.  The only downside was that I think that they could add a wider variety of vegetables to the sauce.  As for Janice, she got the basil crispy pork belly ($10.95) which was another ATK signature dish. IMG_6091 This one wasn’t as elaborate as my curry, but it still brought big flavors that Thai cuisine is known for.  It basically was rice served with a plentiful helping of stir fried pork pieces along with mushrooms, garlic, chili, and basil leaves.  It was good but not great.  The meat was the best part with its crispy outer layer that gave way to multiple alternating layers of fat and juicy pork, but it became somewhat monotonous according to Janice.  Thankfully, the food party didn’t stop there since there was still the matter of dessert.  While most of the options had a distinctly South/Southeast Asian flavor like the fried roti or banana blanket, we had to go with the customer pick, the mango sticky rice ($7).IMG_6093  I was surprised to see what it actually looked like when it came out.  After living in Korea, I was skeptical of desserts boasting, in my eyes, typically savory elements like rice or beans.  However, this dessert might have turned my head a bit with its fresh layer of sliced mangoes and generous helping of coconut milk. IMG_6094 It was like eating a Southeast Asian version of bread pudding with the rice taking the place of the flour based dough.  I highly recommend this sweet treat.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that offers quality and unique Thai dishes, enjoy a great meal at Andy’s Thai Kitchen!IMG_6098

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La Isla Deliciosa

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Asia is one of the most interesting continents when it comes to cuisine.  You might be asking yourself, “Uh, what’s so special about sushi, korean barbecue, and orange chicken?”  Well, hate to break it to you that there is much more to Asian cuisine than that given the sheer size of the continent and number of different cultures that inhabit its regions spanning from Turkey to Japan.  This geographic spread contributes to the variety found in this corner of the world, but some country’s cuisines are more popular than others in the US.  For example, the food items I previously mentioned are probably the first cuisines that come to peoples’ minds when you say “Asian food”, i.e.  Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food.  Vietnamese and Thai food are more recent entries to the public consciousness due to increased immigration from South/Southeast Asia, and they all have their own special place in the ever expanding American palate.  However, one country that doesn’t get the foodie hype that its other neighbors receive but really should  is Filipino food.  Janice and I got well acquainted with many island delights in Chicago at Lincoln Square’s Isla Pilipina Restaurant.

We’ve walked past this place all the time around dinnertime, and it has been packed without fail.  Naturally, when we went it was no different. IMG_6255 After waiting for a table to open in the funky fresh interior that was bumping an odd mix of rap and oldies out of the overhead speakers, we finally managed to take a seat amidst the madness of the waitstaff toward the back of the restaurant. IMG_6256 Looking over the menu, I could see the influences of a number of cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.  IMG_6258IMG_6257That last one might come as a surprise to some, but Spain unified the roughly 7,000 islands into the country of the Philippines back in the 1600s.  The name of the country even comes from the name of the king of Spain at the time, Felipe (Phillip) II.  During Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish and Filipino cultures intermingled through marriage and food which still can be seen today in the names of the dishes offered at Isla Pilipina like pata, adobo, and guisado.  It’s a byob restaurant as well if you’re interested in knocking a few back with your meal.  We started the meal with a plate of 20 lumpia Shanghai ($5/ $3 for 10).  The name of this dish comes from the Hokkien (Southern Chinese) word lunpia, and they are clearly carry-overs from the mainland.IMG_6261  They’re basically deep fried mini-egg rolls that according to the menu are filled with pork, egg, jicama, green onions, carrots, soy sauce, and love.  I could especially taste the love above all of the other ingredients.  Seriously though, I quickly learned that there’s a reason why they sell them in a plate of 10 or 20 rolls.  The fried dough that envelops all of the fresh and savory meat and veggies is the best part.  These golden brown, crunchy, and flaky nuggets of heaven are paired with a semi-watery sweet and sour sauce that has some chili flakes floating in it to add a little pep to these pipsqueak poppers.  I highly recommend starting off with them and get a 20 roll plate because they go down way too easily especially if you’re sharing with others.  As for our main courses, Janice got the pancit bihon ($8) with a side of the garlic rice ($6) that apparently everyone on Yelp was raving about.  Pancit, like lumpia, comes from the Hokkien language.  It is derived from “pian i sit” which means “convenient food”.    I could see why since it was basically pan fried rice noodles with sauteed chicken and mixed vegetables.  A simple meal to be whipped together at a moment’s notice if necessary.IMG_6263 I helped myself to a couple forkfuls, and personally, I found it to be quite bland.  The ingredients were fresh and all that good stuff, but it didn’t really taste like much.  Even with the addition of lemon juice from the lemon slices that were provided on the side, I couldn’t really get into the pancit since I was more focusing on the citric tang than the actual noodles.  The same could be said about the garlic rice.  I don’t understand why everyone thought it the be all end all of side dishes. IMG_6269 True, nothing smells better than cooked garlic, but it basically was plain Jasmine rice that was superficially pan fried with garlic.  In essence, it was like long grain white rice with some garlic salt on it.  It’s better when combined with other food if anything, but it’s not rave worthy or even worth your time, in my opinion.  My entree, the lechon kawali ($11), was the opposite of these blander dishes.  This deep fried pork belly is a remnant of both Chinese and Spanish cuisine, including the Spanish name, and it was anything but a shrinking violet in this garden of eatin’.  IMG_6267It was a giant piece of pork that spanned my dinner plate, and it was even pre-cut which was piece de resistance!  Each piece of the lechon was a layer cake of different pork elements.  While the upper portions consisted more of the crunchy, salty pork skin and firm white meat, the lower echelons of the belly was where the money was. IMG_6272 I hit the jackpot every time when I reached the thin layer of fat that gave way to the most succulent and flavorful part of the pig.IMG_6274  Mixing these pieces with the garlic rice was a tasty combo, but the Filipino gravy was a bit of a mystery to me.  While part of it tasted like a sweet steak sauce, it had this hint of musty funk that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  It didn’t ruin the meal at all though.  I was definitely more satisfied with my entree than Janice’s.  If you like bacon or any type of pork product, I highly recommend the lechon, and I’ve heard good things about their pata as well.  Even though it was a lot of food for a reasonable amount of money, I still wanted to try one of the most iconic Filipino desserts:  halo halo ($6).  Meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog, not me stuttering the name of a Beyonce song, this classic and wildly popular dessert has become quite famous outside of the Philippines thanks to Filipino migration to the USA to typical hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago.  Even Anthony Bourdain has succumbed to its wildly colorful grasp.  It’s a ridiculous melange of crushed ice, red bean paste, white beans, lychee jelly, coconut shavings, coconut milk, and it was all topped off with a scoop of taro root ice cream, a slice of flan, and a cherry.  Nothing too complicated.IMG_6276 Now, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that my relationship with red bean paste is one of revulsion almost on par with my dislike of pasta, so I naturally approached this dessert with a wariness similar to an unexploded ordinance, just ready to blow up in my mouth even though I’m a veteran of trying the gross red bean paste.  Yet, it also had one of my favorite Asian dessert ingredients as well:  taro.  This purple root vegetable may look like a sweet potato, but it is the bomb (a good one) when it comes to taste.  I normally get it in bubble tea, but the ice cream on top of the halo halo tasted just the same.  I don’t know what they do to this tuber, but it literally tastes like vanilla cookies.  It’s like making potatoes taste like chocolate bars.  Mind.  Blown.  Plus, the addition of the Spanish flan, that was quickly picked up by my girlfriend, was a nice touch.  After picking at the parts I knew I liked, I dove into it spoon first. IMG_6278 Luckily, all of the other sweet elements like the coconut and lychee covered up the red bean flavor, and it was like a super diverse slushy.  I ended up mixing the taro ice cream in with the rest of the ingredients, and it was like a purple vanilla milk shake with ice chunks and the occasional sweet jelly piece.  I would definitely go for another halo-halo, but I couldn’t finish it all because it was pretty big as well for the price.

So if you’re tired of the same old sushi or Korean barbecue and/or want a lot of food for little money, set sail for Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square!
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Good But Not Gr8

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Welcome to Mastication Monologues!  If this is your first time here, prepare to be amazed with some of the most unique and delicious food adventures you’ve ever seen.  If you’re coming back, then thank you so much for your support and your views.  Remember to always tell your friends about my reviews as well.  So, today’s post deals with a cuisine that I never really dabbled seriously in until recently:  Vietnamese food.  For a majority of my life, I ate mostly Chinese or Japanese food, but then I started dating my lovely gf Janice who just so happened to live next to Little Vietnam in Chicago.  Therefore, the amount of Vietnamese restaurants I have tried now have increased greatly, and Pho 888 is one of them.

If you walk down Argyle street, you’ll be beckoned by every storefront since there is a plethora of Vietnamese eateries and Chinese bakeries like the iconic Tank Noodle shop or Bale Sandwiches, but I wanted to try Pho 888 since I had heard good things about it.  Plus, it didn’t seem as Hollywood as the more popular eateries.IMG_6026 Janice, Michael, and I hit this place up back in December a.k.a. life in the Ice Age.  So, they both wanted to get the quintessential Vietnamese dish, pho, but I was in the mood for something different.  Inside, the place was super simply furnished with plenty of chili sauces and seasonings on the table.  It’s literally a dining room and a kitchen.IMG_4917 The menu was huge like any good Asian restaurant, and the prices were pretty cheap (range of 4-12 bucks per item). IMG_4916 After a bit of deliberation, we made our choices and waited for the food to come out.  The first dish we sampled were the gỏi cuốn or “salad rolls” in English.  They consisted of bún (vermicelli noodles), cooked shrimp, herbs, greens, and it was all wrapped up in bánh tráng (rice paper). IMG_4918 These rolls were served at room temperature and were a refreshing alternative to fried spring rolls that sometimes can be too greasy.  The tương xào (hoisin sauce) that was served on the side had peanut pieces in it, but all of it put together was delectable.  The sticky rice paper was strong enough to hold all of the ingredients within its insanely thin cocoon.  Everything from the shrimp to the fresh cilantro and lemongrass made this dish really pop, and dipping the rolls in the sweet hoisin sauce blended well with the herbal notes from the vegetables.  As for the vermicelli, it provided a much needed body to the rolls and a solid foundation for the house party that was happening in my mouth.  The other appetizer we got, the fried shrimp balls, were quite the opposite experience. IMG_4920 While they looked scrumptious on the outside with their golden brown exteriors with an accompaniment of greens, pickled radish, and some sweet and sour dipping sauce on the side, what we found inside was horrifyingly gross.  IMG_4922I don’t know what was inside them, but it was like eating pre-chewed eggs mixed with seafood with the consistency of cream cheese.  I’ll just leave you with that image.   On the plus side, my main course came out soon thereafter I tasted one of these horrid appetizers.  I got the chả tôm (shrimp cake) and pork combo that was paired with more noodles, greens, pickled radish and carrot salad, fresh cucumbers, rice paper, and a bowl of warm water to make my own gỏi cuốn.  IMG_4923I tried a bit of the shrimp cake, but I really didn’t like it.  It was more fishy tasting than the fresh shrimp from the salad rolls we ate earlier in the meal, and it just seemed oddly artificial with its orange, spongy, Nerf-like interior yet wrinkled, glistening exterior.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

 

That cake ain't right

That cake ain’t right

So, I focused more on eating the seasoned pork that was stir fried in a chili sauce that had plenty of personality to make up for the awkward shrimp cakes on my plate.  So, I set to making my first Vietnamese spring roll.  First, I had to take one of the rice paper disks and submerge it in the warm water.IMG_4924  Once wet, I placed it on my plate, and I placed my ingredients in the middle of the nearly invisible Vietnamese version of a tortilla.IMG_4927  Then came the tricky part.  Rolling this rice paper up into a presentable roll was way more difficult than making a taco since the edges of the rice paper were incredibly sticky which meant that if you didn’t position your toppings right while rolling, then you risked a lopsided roll that will explode all over your hands/clothes when you bite into it.  After some trial and error, I finally got the hang of it, and it was an interactive meal that I really enjoyed.  As for Michael’s and Janice’s pho, I found it to be just below Tank Noodle’s version since it seemed to be a bit more on the salty side, but it still was delicious and kept us warm against the frigid conditions outside.

So if you’re looking for a real authentic Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago that may not be the best but does have simple and fresh food for reasonable prices, check out Pho 888.
Pho 888 on Urbanspoon

One In A Milion

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Hola and Namaste to a new Mastication Monologues post!  I got to apologize for the lack of consistent posts due to a new full time job that has been quite time consuming, but I promise that today’s entry will be all killer and no filler in the form of a great Latin fusion eatery in Chicago known as Vermilion.

Fusion in food is as common as the intermingling of cultures.  For example, America is a nation of immigrants, and our food reflects that concept of culinary cross-pollination.  Even traditional barbecue draws elements from Spanish, African, and Native American cooking traditions.  However, Vermilion focuses on a menu based on mixing Indian and Latin American cuisine.  What that means is that the super savory and aromatic Indian dishes get a spicy south of the border kick many are familiar with in Mexican cooking, but that is only part of the picture.  Janice and I went for our second to last reservation during Restaurant Week, and it was on a Sunday night after a delicious lunch at Demera.IMG_5908  The interior was super hip and sleek with a black, red, and white motif.IMG_5909IMG_5910  We were quickly seated in the dining room as a blend of Spanish pop and Bollywood hits bounced out of the speakers overhead.  I would also recommend dressing up a bit since Vermilion is a bit more upscale than most Latin and Indian restaurants.  We both went with the $33 restaurant week dinner which consisted of a standard three course meal with an appetizer, entree, and dessert.  However, our waiter surprised us with a free, little taster plate with a chef’s creation.IMG_5912  These petite squares that we were face to face with was a fried plantain chip topped with mango pico de gallo and resting on a sweet, brown tamarind chutney.IMG_5914  It was a mini t-bomb (taste bomb) of flavor where the sweet backbone of the canape was supported by the chutney, mango, and plantain, but was then tempered by the sour lime juice and semi-savory aftertaste of the fried plantain.  As for the appetizer stage of our meal, I went with a Bombay frankie and Janice got the pumpkin squash curry leaf soup.  The frankie was great. IMG_5915 It is one of India’s favorite street food snacks, and I can see why. IMG_5916 It consisted of a fried flatbread known as a roti that was then filled with chunks of chicken coated in Indian spices like cardamom and curry, but the best part was the shot glass of mint curry on the side.  It wasn’t toothpaste minty, but it gave the spicy sauce a cool aftertaste.  Janice’s squash soup was just as delicious. IMG_5917 It came with an Indian cracker on the side known as a pappad or papadum depending on where you’re at in India.  The soup was extremely creamy and rich with a pepper infused oil that gave each curry-filled spoonful a mild kick.  These bold flavors warmed us up for our entrees that came soon thereafter.  I got the Brazilian feijoada which I was pretty excited to try since it is considered to be the national dish of the South American nation.  Contrary to popular preparation which utilizes black beans and a dark, purplish-brown broth which is a mix of the aforementioned beans and various meats stewing in the dish, Vermilion’s take on it was a mix of Indian and Latin flavors.  First, the color of the stew was a vibrant red that contained a mound of white rice and a rice cracker in the middle that acted like a nacho with taco dip.IMG_5920  As for the rice, it was an element more in touch with its Brazilian roots, but I didn’t see any traditional farofa (manioc flour roasted with butter and bacon) on the side which made me quite sad.  As for the contents of the actual dish, there were red beans (supposedly black beans according to the menu), large chunks of succulent chicken, and hunks of spicy Portuguese chorizo sausage.  Not only was the meat spicy, but the actual stew had an Indian vindaloo flavor to it which means that it was super spicy with a smoky background.  This fiery quality was also a sign of Indian/Latin fusion since a typical Brazilian feijoada isn’t spicy.  Even though it wasn’t the most traditional dish, it was innovative, warm, and hearty.  Perfect for a cold day like it was when we went.  Janice didn’t go down the super spicy route and got the heart of palm Valencia paella.IMG_5922  It consisted of large rings of the pulp found in the middle of palm trees, curried Indian rice, and a bit of orange zest.  IMG_5923Neither of us found it to be as interesting as the feijoada since it just tasted like curry.  However, our meal got more interesting in the wrong way since we found a hair in Janice’s paella.  Thankfully, they replaced it for free with a dish of her choice, so she got the feijoada as well.  It got even better when our desserts came.  I got the mango cardamom flan which was out of this world.IMG_5924  The flan had the perfect firm yet gooey texture and was infused with cardamom.  It was soaking in a mango escabeche (a word originally from the Persian “al-sikbaj” meaning a meat dish soaking in a sweet and sour sauce) or syrup which imparted an incredibly but not overwhelming sweetness to a mostly neutral tasting dessert.  The coconut foam on top tied this entire dish together perfectly since it was both light and sweet.  If you wanted to cleanse your palate after all that sweet flan and heavenly foam, you could follow the trail of  pitted, juicy lychees covering mini mounds of cranberries to the end of the plate.  I jumped from one plate to another to get a taste of Janice’s date chocolate rice pudding that had a little bit of cinnamon and clove to add a savory yin to the semi-sweet yang with the date chocolate. IMG_5927 I never was a big fan of rice pudding though, so it didn’t capture my imagination as much as our final dessert.  Since Janice didn’t make a big deal about finding the hair in her food, our waiter brought out the most popular dessert to our table for free.IMG_5928  It was a flourless chocolate lava cake that was covered in a subtly spicy dark chocolate mole sauce…words can’t describe how satisfying and incredibly rich this dessert was.  It was further embellished with an undulating raspberry syrup trail that led to a creamy, small ball of vanilla bean and coconut ice cream that rested on some fresh sliced strawberries.  These desserts were by far the best part of the entire meal, and the service was superb.

So, even though things got a little hairy midway through the dinner, Vermilion managed to win us over with its creative food (especially the desserts!) and great service.  I highly recommend this restaurant if you are tired of the same old ethnic eateries.
Vermilion on Urbanspoon

Un-Ba-Le-Vable Flavors

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Things on my blog have been picking up as of late since I’ve survived my first semester teaching in upper academia, so these posts are keeping me sane in the flurry of bureaucracy and final exam writing.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I like writing them!  Today’s post once again brings me to Chicago’s Uptown Little Vietnam neighborhood.  It’s a diverse enclave of Chicago’s ethnic rainbow which boasts a plethora of eateries serving a wide variety of foods from Far East and Southeast Asia.  However, the Vietnamese community is the largest; ergo, I’ve sampled just the tip of the pho iceberg when it comes to fully exploring their culinary representatives.  Ba Le Sandwich shop is one of the best and most popular eateries in the area, and my first visit there was fantastic.

Ba Le’s storefront is at the heart of Little Vietnam at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway and opposite the iconic Tank Noodle where you can get some hot pho soup to chase this newly arrived cold weather away.IMG_4846  Walking into the establishment, past the small Buddhist shrine at the entrance, I was greeted with a sleek and modern interior that boasted a full wall of treats like freshly cut coconuts, Vietnamese head cheese or giò thủ , and a large vareity of chè or sweet pudding/jello treats.  IMG_4217IMG_4212 IMG_4214 IMG_4213On the right hand side of the shop, there were sushi roll packs next to a mini French bakery that was bursting at the seams with macaron mini-mountains.  IMG_4216Delectable remnants of the French colonization of Indochina as they were, I was interested in something more substantial and what Ba Le is known for:  banh mi.  If you want a historical explanation of the sandwich, hit up my Portland food truck adventure here.  Looking over the menu, they also offered side dishes like the famous gỏi cuốn translucent shrimp rolls, noodle salads, fried rice, and egg rolls.  As for the banh mi sandwiches, I went for the Chinese Pork or xá xíu ($4.95), and they do cater to vegetarians with banh mi, btw!   The sandwich was quite big for the price as I took it to one of Ba Le’s window counters you can eat at while watching the locals go about their daily business.  I wasn’t doing much people watching because I was severely distracted and gobsmacked at how delicious this sandwich was.IMG_4218  It was the culinary equivalent of Saul, future St. Paul, being knocked off his horse and converting to Christianity after hearing the voice of God. Oh_Lawd___by_deadprez132001 I don’t know what it was that made this sandwich stand out from the thousands of other sandwiches I tried.  Perhaps it was the extremely fresh French baguette that was just the right ratio of crispness to softness.  IMG_4220Maybe my weakness for mayonnaise combined with the fresh-from-the-garden cilantro, jalapeno peppers, daikon radish, onions, and carrots.  I think the pork helped as well since it was served in the char siu (叉燒) style which originates in China.  It is basically barbecued pork that is roasted while being coated with honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and five spice powder.  What you get is a tender cut of pork that is both sweet and slightly salty, a perfect fauna compliment to the unspoiled flora of my unwrapped Garden of Eden.  Long story short, it was ecstasy in my mouth, and it wasn’t very heavy compared to many Western sub sandwiches.

So if you want a heavenly bite of Vietnamese culture for hellishly low prices, check out Ba Le Sandwich Shop in Chicago!
Ba Le Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Throwback Post: Drop and Rijstaffel in Amsterdam

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Howdy, Mastication Monologues readers!  I’ve been finding it harder as of late to keep up with my posts due to all of the fun happenings with the girlfriend and the job hunt.  It seems like my inbox has been filling up with new places to write about, and I’m not even done with this throwback Europe series.  It is nearing the end though, so I will have plenty of new restaurants to talk about in the near future.  Anyway, back to the throwback vein of things.  Today’s post brings us to the old but vibrant port city of Amsterdam.

I visited this city twice while living in Spain, but I found the second time around a lot more enjoyable.  The first time I went there, for my birthday, it was deathly cold and windy.  Northern Europe in the beginning of winter, go figure.

So. cold.

So. cold.

As we walked around the city, we were almost run over by the prodigious hordes of bikes that are all over the city.  If you go there, keep your wits about you because you will get cracked if you’re too engrossed in a guide book or your smart phone.  I found Amsterdam to be a quaint city that would have been more enchanting in the summer since I was more focused on not having my hands and nose fall off due to the chilly arctic winds. HPIM2076 HPIM2072The canals and narrow houses harken back to the golden era of trade for the Dutch trading companies in global trade led by their innovated flat bottom barges that were useful in the canals of the city and the rest of the Netherlands.  We managed to see the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, and the infamous Red Light District and a few coffeehouses while we were there.

Rijksmuseum

Oude Kerk (Old Church)

The latter two are the most notorious parts of Amsterdam for different reasons.  The Red Light District since the canals are lined with full sized glass doors with each one sporting a lady one could spend time with for a fee.  However, contrary to popular belief that an area filled with prostitutes is extremely dangerous, it was one of the safest places in Amsterdam we walked in as there were men, women, and even old couples strolling past the sex shops.

I don't think sex AIDS would be easy to sell

I don’t think sex AIDS would be easy to sell

There were even police on almost every corner, taking pictures of any of the working girls is prohibited in the Red Light District (you will get your camera confiscated by the authorities), and CCTV cameras watch out for troublemakers.  The Dutch government, being liberal leaning since the 1400s, deems these window sex workers legal, collect taxes from them, and even require the girls to get regular medical exams to identify and prevent the spread of communicable diseases.  As for the coffeehouses, not only do they serve caffeine-laden beverages but also marijuana if they have the proper license.  The smell is inescapable if you walk down the street in some areas, but it is nothing that is out of control in terms of people overindulging in public.  The Dutch government is also cracking down on foreigners coming into the coffeehouses due to drug tourism and gangs attempting to sell hard drugs to coffeehouse customers.  While these two aspects of Amsterdam seem to be the most popular in the collective imagination, I’d like to talk about two unique Dutch foods I tried while there:  drop and rijstaffel.

My meeting with drop or licorice in English came in the train station under Shiphol Airport as we were waiting for our train to the main train station in Amsterdam.  I had heard that drop was the most popular Dutch candy, and lo and behold I found some in a vending machine.  Turns out that the Dutch consume the most licorice in the world, but I heard that this drop was definitely an acquired taste.  This particular variety was half and half nibs where one half of the piece was fruit flavored while the other was the signature black drop. Dutch-drop The first bite of this Dutch candy left me greatly puzzled since it didn’t taste like normal black licorice.  After a bit of research, it turns out that it is flavored with ammonium chloride which gave it a salty yet stinging flavor.  Out of my group of friends, I was the only one who enjoyed the chewy, mystery chemical licorice.  Later on during our trip, we tried a Dutch specialty known as rijstaffel.  The word “rijstaffel” in Dutch literally means “rice table” since it is a style of dining that originated in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial period in the 1600s and continued through to 1945.  The Dutch traders wanted to eat elaborate meals that encompassed all of the interesting Indonesian dishes that existed throughout the archipelago, so the rijstaffel was born.

Land o' Pleny

Land o’ Plenty

First, the servers would bring out a large plate of rice, and put it in the middle of the table.  Then, anywhere from 10 to 100 smaller dishes, depending on how many diners there were, were brought out and combined with the rice.  Indonesia has done away mostly with the rijstaffel since their independence in 1945, but this Dutch colonial tradition still is going on strong in Amsterdam as we experienced a slice of history.tumblr_m16qwm2bCe1qczjobo1_500  I remember the chicken satay served with sambal kacang (peanut sauce) was particularly delicious along with the bebek betutu (duck roasted in banana leaves) that was extremely tender with an essence of banana baked into the meat.  Some of the other common dishes include nasi kuning (Indonesian yellow rice), nasi goreng (fried rice), lumpia (spring rolls), and babi kecap (pork belly in sweet soy sauce).  I could go on forever with the other small plates since we had about 20 different dishes for about 30 Euros, but I highly recommend the rijstaffel if you want a unique Amsterdam dining experience.

I’ve Seen and Eaten Things, Man…Delicious Things

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Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooood morning, Mastication Monologues readers!  Today’s post deals with a country’s cuisine that I have over the years become more acquainted with due to the increased prevalence of said eateries in the Chicagoland area and throughout the world.  While Japanese and Chinese food are the two most popular forms of Asian cuisine in America, Southeast Asia, specifically Thai and Vietnamese food, has thrown its hat into the ring with some wonderful dishes.  While I do like my Thai food as shown on my blog, today’s restaurant is a cozy Vietnamese place called Nha Hang Viet Nam in Chicago.

As I said before, Vietnamese food has quickly grown into the ever-expanding and shifting profile of the American culinary landscape.  Some of the key dishes that have assisted this jump in popularity include Gỏi cuốn or spring rolls and the banh mi sandwiches which could be considered one of the original forms of Asian fusion.  At Nha Hang Viet Nam, I expected that they would have these, but anything else would be a mystery to me. The outside of the restaurant blended in with the rest of the Little Saigon area around Argyle, and yet seemed a bit like a place that they would hold a scene from the Deer Hunter at due to the bars on some the windows.IMG_3196  The shady exterior gave way to a welcoming interior that was almost like walking into a family’s kitchen it was that small.  Not only did the size add to the intimacy of the establishment, but the family was all sitting at one big table waiting to serve us.  We had the place to ourselves essentially aside from another Vietnamese couple.  Upon going over the menu, I had no clue where to start as they had everything from the aforementioned spring rolls and sandwiches along with soups, noodles, vermicelli, fried rice, various meats (fish, pork, beef), and desserts.  While I was pouring over the vast menu, I found an item on the drink menu that caught my eye:  fresh pennyworth juice ($3.50).  What is pennyworth juice?  No, it doesn’t cost a penny (although it probably would in Vietnam), but it has been used in Indian, Chinese, and African traditional medicine.  In Vietnamese, it’s called rau má or “mother vegetable”, and I’m not quite sure what sort of motherly comforts this drink brought to me during my meal.  When it came out, it looked like something from one of the recent body detox diets. IMG_3191 Not only was it frothy, but it had a deep verdant hue that intrigued me.  While I’ve had good luck picking random drinks of menus in Jamaican and Cuban restaurants, I wasn’t quite sure if I won the grand prize with this drink.IMG_3190  I appreciated how cold it was compliments of the ice, but the taste was complex and semi-indescribable.  It had some grassy notes yet a herbal, semi-spicy after taste that could be likened to cilantro almost.  It was a glass of funk that set the stage for my appetizer:  the bánh xèo or “sizzling cake” ($7.95).  Our waiter was incredulous that I ordered it just for myself since he said it was for two people, and he was right in terms of the size.IMG_3192  However, he never met someone like me with a Cookie Monster appetite when hungry.  As I started down at the large yellow pancake, I wondered how to eat it since it had a plethora of mint leaves, cilantro leaves, and lettuce leaves on the side.  Our waiter then explained that I could cut a piece of the pancake, wrap it up in a lettuce leaf, and then dip it in the fish sauce on the side, similar to the ssam bap I tried in Korea.  The pancake itself was made of rice flour and tumeric, and then on the inside there were plenty of bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork. IMG_3193 I tried a piece of it by itself, and it was a rich, buttery, fried piece of heaven that only got better when dipped in the thin, sweet fish sauce.  Slowly but surely, I completed my search and destroy mission against the pancake that was as big as my face.  When the dust settled, my main entree, the com bo nuong or steamed rice with grilled beef, came out.IMG_3194  It came with a delicious, salty miso that had bits of cilantro floating on the surface and rings of green scallion bobbing about the bowl.  As for the dish, the beef was savory and juicy.  I pumped it up a notch with some red chili sauce to satisfy my love for spicy food.  The mysterious part of the meal was the noodles on the side.IMG_3195  While I could ascertain that they were indeed noodles, I couldn’t tell what type of meat was lurking between the strands, perhaps tripe.  It was also a mostly dry side with a generous dusting of some type of powder that I guessed could possibly be dried mung bean or soy beans.  It wasn’t the highlight of the meal, but I wasn’t complaining at that point.

So if you want to try simple but delicious Vietnamese food for great prices in a hidden gem, try Nha Hang Viet Nam!  Đi đi mau!

Nha Hang Viet Nam on Urbanspoon

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

Goooooooood Afternoon, Vietnam! (Portland, Part 5)

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So today’s post is going to be short and savory like the meal I will be entailing.  While I decided to have one of my spooky baked treats from Voodoo Doughnuts for breakfast on Friday morning, I decided that lunch would take place at one of the many food cart villages that can be found throughout Portland.  The concierge told me when I checked in to check out Alberta Street’s food carts, but it was a bit too far out of the way for my liking.  So, I remembered that I passed by a large pod of carts when going down SW 5th Ave. to the Pioneer Square stop in the heart of downtown Portland.  Even though it was raining, it didn’t put a damper on my experience.

As I made my way down the block long and deep hamlet of food hawkers, there was so much affordable food diversity it made me want to fall to my knees and praise the sustenance gods.  After living in a monoculture for a year like Korea, you really appreciate the diversity of the USA. IMG_2655 However, Korea was represented with two carts that seemed to push both fusion and traditional Korean cuisine.IMG_2659IMG_2658  Along with noms from the Land of the Morning Calm, they had Indian, Mexican, Greek, Iraqi, Italian, Chinese, American, Thai, and Vietnamese eateries.IMG_2589 IMG_2588 The last option would end up being my lunch for the day as I finally chalked off a basic foodie necessity in the great book of “Food You Must Try”:  banh mi.  For those who are new to Vietnamese cuisine, a banh mi is essentially a Vietnamese sandwich, but it is much more than a sliced piece of bread stuffed with a plethora of mouth-watering ingredients.  It was born out of Vietnamese subjugation by the French during the Age of Colonialism.  When two very different cultures come in contact, you can be certain if anything will be exchanged, it will be different types of food and drink.  While the Vietnamese introduced the French to indigenous specialties like pho, the French brought their wizardry with baked goods to the people of Vietnam.  The ubiquitous French baguette quickly became integrated into the Vietnamese food landscape in the form of banh mi.  The locals took the baguette recipe, compliments of their European overlords, and tweaked it to have a slightly lighter consistency than the ones found back in La Patrie (France).  After that, the Vietnamese people filled these baguettes with Vietnamese ingredients to give birth to one of the most famous examples of fusion food before it became a buzzword coined by Mr. Puck.  I had never tried it before much to the dismay of some of my friends, so when I saw the very unassuming Vietnamese cart that didn’t even have a sign up, I knew I had to try it.IMG_2661  If they didn’t have to advertise, they must be good.  The head cook beckoned me over with a hello and a smile, and after looking over the large list of banh mi, spring rolls, and pho, I got the grilled pork banh mi ($3).  As soon as I finished my transaction, I turned around to see a crowd behind me, so perhaps I either beat the lunch rush or led the charge to try something new.  It eventually was handed to me, and it looked absolutely beautiful. IMG_2664 It tasted just as sublime as well.  First, I crunched my way through the crispy crust of the baguette to the chewy white interior which really did taste airier than a French baguette.  I then reached the promised land of juicy grilled pork, onions, verdant peppers, pickled carrots, and plenty of cilantro for an herbal punch right in the taste buds. All of this, combined with the sweet and spicy Sriracha sauce, left me greatly satisfied and ready to take on the rest of the day.  I highly recommend banh mi and checking out Portland’s food cart scene.

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