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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


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


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

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

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

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

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

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

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

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

London (Day 6)- Taken to Tasca/Dressed to Empress

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the final chapter in my London food chronicles on Mastication Monologues.  While I don’t think that anything will really top the crazy dinner I had at Bunga Bunga on day 5, the last days of London were still filled with great Spanish food at La Tasca and wonderful dishes at the popular Indian eatery The Empress.

During my time in Korea, quality western food items were in short supply, but that is not to say that they were impossible to find.  I had a brief encounter with a taperia in Incheon that supposedly had great tapas but left me wanting.  I’ve lived in Spain, and this place omitted basic tapas that you would find on any menu in Spain or even in the USA.  Then with the tapas that they did have, they couldn’t even do them properly like gambas a la plancha or tortilla espanola.  So, when I landed in London, I was certain that they would at least have the know-how and mettle to pull off a decent tapateo due to the influx of Spanish immigrants or at the very least through geographical proximity to la patria compared to Korea.  I was also meeting up with my friend, Rebecca, who I had met back in 2008 in Manchester, and she also had a taste for Spanish food.  After a bit of wandering around the Covent Garden area, we finally found what we were looking for:  La Tasca.  Rebecca told me she had heard good things about it, so we went inside to see what all the hubbub was about.6905@ltgallery  The decor was filled with plenty of cultural items from the peninsula that were not too tacky, and it was surprisingly empty for the height of lunchtimeIMG_2341IMG_2340.  Oh well, more room for us.  The menu had an extensive offering of tapas of all varieties, cocidos, paellas, and meatless options for you vegetarians out there.  As for drinks, they obviously had an extensive wine menu along with many different types of beers I sampled throughout Spain.  While Rebecca went for more of the seafood options, I went more the land animal route with croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes, a Madrid favorite, L 4.70), mejillas de puerco (pork cheeks, L 5.25), and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce, L 3.35).  After a bit of catching up with an old friend, our tapas came out.  I began with the pork cheeks that were in a semi-sweet chili sauce nestled in a nest of fries.

Cheeky porky

Cheeky porky

I was greatly satisfied as the sweet sauce combined with the saltiness of the fries to further enhance the tender morsels of pork.  I moved on to the croquetas which were half-heartily presented on tufts of what seemed to be a garlic mayonnaise and garnished with sprigs of clover on top.IMG_2337  Thankfully the presentation did not foreshadow the taste as I found them to have a crunchy, light exterior that gave way to a piping hot interior flush with pieces of all white chicken and melted manchego cheese.IMG_2338  I saved my very favorite for last, the patatas bravas. IMG_2336 This specific tapa is always my personal barometer of how true a tapas restaurant is to the real article in Spain, and while they did an adequate job at La Tasca, I’ve yet to find a restaurant outside of Spain that can recreate the sauce they use.  However, the ones at La Tasca were semi-satisfying in the sense that they had the peppery spice that comes with the dish, but the ratio of mayo to tomato sauce was completely off.  Overall, it was a decent tapas meal, but I would look elsewhere if you are searching for high quality tapas.
La Tasca on Urbanspoon

Moving on from my mini-Spanish adventure, I knew before I left London I had to get some Indian food whether at was at a sit-down restaurant or getting my favorite Chicken Tikka footlong sandwich at Subway.  Either way, I needed to get my curry in a hurry.  So, my friend Ravi set up our last meal together at The Empress located just a short walk from the Aldgate East tube station in the Tower Bridge area of London.empress_indian_restaurant_london_whitechapel_1  The interior was elegantly decorated but had very dim lighting.  I don’t know if they were trying to save on their electricity bills or set the mood, but it made taking pictures of my food a bit harder along with walking through the restaurant in general.  We started off with some Cobra beers (L 3.95) that are Indian in origin but brewed in the UK.IMG_2348  It was a smooth lager that wasn’t terribly filling and had a light, slightly hoppy aftertaste.  After wetting our whistles, we perused the menu to find that they had an extensive menu offering a plethora of Indian specialties from mild paneers to taste-bud scorching phals and everything in between.  To start the feast, we got an order of papadum (Indian flatbread) that came with curry, chutney, yogurt, and pickled vegetables.IMG_2349  The flatbread was crispy and somewhat bland until you put some of the garnishes on it.  My personal favorite was the red chutney that packed a spicy punch.

(Starting at 12 o'clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

(Starting at 12 o’clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

As for the entrees, we decided to split some smaller dishes like bindi (okra), aaloo mutter (potatoes and peas), raita (yogurt sauce) but also have our own meals.  I was contemplating between the spicy vindaloo or the supposedly hellish phal, but the waiter dissuaded me from the latter saying that I’d only be tasting the spice.  I don’t know if he did that because he thought I couldn’t handle it or was just being nice, but I went for the lamb vindaloo (L 11).  All of our food came out at the same time along with some of the naan (flatbread) we ordered, and it looked and smelled delicious.IMG_2352  The taste test would prove equally fruitful.  My lamb vindaloo was filled with plenty of lamb swimming in the spiciest vindaloo sauce I’ve ever had, but it definitely brought plenty of delicious cumin and onion flavor with the flames. IMG_2353 The raita cut through the inferno with a cool, cucumber splash coupled with some of the basmati rice we ordered.  I really enjoyed the aaloo mutter as well since it was simple, hearty, not overly seasoned, and the peas weren’t soggy.  I’d say it was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had for the price I paid, and I highly recommend you seek out The Empress.
The Empress Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Even though we paid our check and got up to leave, the fun didn’t stop there.  After dinner, one of our friends suggested that my friend Bob and I should try this Indian after dinner mint that helps with digestion called paan.  We walked further down the street to the world famous Brick Lane which is regarded as the hub of the best South Indian fare in the world.  First, we walked into a respectable looking Indian bakery looking to see if they offered this paan treat, but the guy turned us away.  Then, we moved 50 feet down the street to a convenience store selling everything from rolling tobacco to an unusual amount of calculators.  I knew we were in the heart of a different community far from the glitz and glamour of more touristy spots as all of the workers referred to me as “boss” since I was the only person not of South Asian descent in the store.  I saw the cashier take our order and proceeded to roll up what looked like a medium sized oval leaf into a cone.  After scooping in something that looked like confetti and pouring some syrup inside along with rolling them up in newspapers, we walked back outside to finally try them.  Bob and I took them out of the newspaper to find what seemed to be green cocoons that were packed tightly with that flaky material I saw that man stuff inside.IMG_2356  While I was taking pictures of this mystery food, Bob popped his into his mouth, and I was frightened by his reaction. His face went quickly from a look of curiosity to a grimace to almost a portrait of pain as he subsequently ran to the nearest garbage can to spit it out.



I decided to give it a go, and I bit through the semi-bitter leaf to find the interior to be similar to sawdust in terms of texture along with pieces that almost felt like rocks.  When I chewed even further, that is when the true flavor came out that made my friend Bob pay a trip to the nearby rubbish bin.  My mouth was overwhelmed with a taste I could only liken to extremely floral potpourri mixed with cherry syrup with a heavy emphasis on the former.  It was such a mess in my mouth, and I couldn’t get it out sooner.  Unfortunately, it was thoroughly chewed which made it harder to gracefully spit out into the garbage can.  My friend who brought us there said it wasn’t good quality, so I’ll just take his word for it.  I asked him what was in it, and he said coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, camphor, anise, and the cherry syrup among other things.  Either way, it quickly shot up my list into the top three grossest things I’ve ever consumed, and it will live long in my memory.  However, it was a memorable way to say goodbye to some great guys (and the girlfriend of one of them) that I hope to see again, and I still appreciate the hospitality they showed me while in London.IMG_2359

A Meal Fit For a King or Queen

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I present to you Taj Palace in Itaewon located at 39, Usadan-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 용산구 우사단로 39 (이태원동).  Directions: Get off at Itaewon Station (Subway Line 6), exit through Exit 3.  Walk 5 minutes and enter the alley next to the fire station past Kookmin Bank.  The restaurant is located down the street.    Now, I’ve had my fair share of Indian food throughout my life due to the high population of Southern Asians in the Chicagoland area, but this meal contained probably some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had.

The palace of culinary delights

The palace of culinary delights

A bunch of friends and I made our way to Taj Palace in Itaewon for our friend Steve’s birthday, and I was a bit wary of this experience since the last time we went out for someone’s birthday in Itaewon, it ended quite badly in terms of the food (See Saved By The Bell).  The restaurant’s staircase was decorated with beaded strings , and then the actual dining room was tastefully decorated with paintings and pictures of various parts of Indian culture.  We were seated immediately, and I saw that they had a sumptuous banquet laid out against the back wall.  I had only eaten a bowl of cereal the entire day, so I was ready to explore what sort of Desi delights Taj Palace had to offer in their buffet for 18,000 Won.

Enter my first plate:

Clockwise starting with Tandoori chicken, aloo beans, butter chicken, sagg chicken, and vegetarian curry

Clockwise starting with Tandoori chicken, aloo beans, butter chicken, saag chicken, and vegetarian curry

I started with the standard Tandoori chicken that can be found on any Indian restaurant’s menu.  This chicken dish is named after the type of oven it is prepared in, a tandoor, and is first marinated in yogurt before being grilled.  Then the chunks are coated in spices like paprika which give the meat its brick red hue.  These mighty pieces of meat were excellent in terms of size, juiciness, and spice level with just the right amount of paprika to test your heat tolerance.  Then there were the oddly named aloo beans.  I say oddly because aloo is the Hindi term for “potato”, but it didn’t seem like there was a single potato in the dish.  The sauce seemed to be similar to aloo gobi since I could taste hints of savory turmeric, and the green beans were perfectly cooked.  After plowing through that bit, I made my way to the butter chicken.  What it is is pieces of boneless chicken roasted in a tandoor and then plopped into a gravy that consists of tomato puree, butter, and spices like turmeric and cardamom.  It was more of a dish for people with less of a spice tolerance, but still had plenty of great flavors where the tomato puree possessed occasional hints of garlic and some weak chili elements.  I switched gears going from one chicken dish to another as I tasted saag chicken for the first time.  It comprised boneless pieces of chicken sauteed with spinach and spices.  I’d probably say this was my second favorite dish out of the entire buffet because I love spinach to begin with, and the addition of the high quality meat along with the garam masala made it really stand out.  The last part of my first plate was my vegetarian curry piled high on my saffron rice.  It was somewhat pedestrian compared to the other samplings on my plate, but with the perfectly prepared white and yellow rice, it really brought my first mini-meal to a respectable end.  Then there was my second plate.

Clockwise:  green salad, chickpea salad, Kadhai noodles, lamb vindaloo, and dal hariyani.

Clockwise: green salad, chickpea salad, Kadhai noodles, lamb vindaloo, and dal hariyali.

On my second plate and for the whole meal, my favorite was the lamb vindaloo.  It was respectably spicy, but the only downside was the lack of lamb pieces swimming about in the devilishly red sauce.  The green salad was pedestrian compared to the other food since it didn’t possess any of the aforementioned mind and mouth boggling flavors and spices.  The lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers were fresh and verdant though.  I really liked the chickpea salad too because these small legumes are a great source of protein, had a creamy texture, and were mixed with a garlic vinaigrette that really made the flavors pop.   The kadhai noodles and the dal hariyali were nothing special, especially the former.  I thought they kind of didn’t fit in with the rest of the foods in terms of flavor, and the noodles didn’t taste like anything.  As for the dal hariyali, it was a vegetarian dish consisting of red lentils, coriander, spinach, and methi leaves.  While it possessed the same creamy texture as the chickpeas, it was on the blander side of things.  I was surprised that the coriander and methi leaves didn’t bring stronger herbal flavors to the taste spectrum.  While I was eating all of these delicious plates, they provided us with complimentary naan which is basically flatbread that can be prepared in a number of different ways. IMG_0507 This naan wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was soft, fresh out of the oven, and garnished with coriander.  I also tried their dal soup which consisted of yellow lentils, but I was indifferent to it.IMG_0509  It just tasted like beans.

However, the dessert was quite interesting.  We were all trying to figure out what to compare it to which ranged all the way from porridge to semolina, but the actual name of it is kheer.

Not a bad bowl of goop

Not a bad bowl of goop

These parallels to other foods were drawn due to the fact that it is made of boiled rice with milk and sugar, so there was a slight grainy texture to each thin, vanilla-tinged spoonful.  Plus, it was garnished with raisins and almonds which took this dessert to the next level in regard to texture.  It wasn’t mind blowing in terms of flavor, but this pudding was a pleasant surprise since it initially didn’t look like the most appetizing after-meal treat in the world.  By the time I slurped up the last drops of kheer, I was thoroughly stuffed and satisfied.

If you’re looking for great Indian food in Korea and don’t know where to turn, visit Taj Palace.  It has it all:  quality food, generous portions, and a great ambiance.IMG_0513

On Top of Mt. Everest, All Covered With Cheese….

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Hello everyone to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Even though the weather in Korea doesn’t know how to make up its mind, today was a beautiful day.  So I went out for a mini-adventure in Incheon.  I also wanted to  find an interesting restaurant on the internet in Incheon, and eventually I landed on a cuisine that I never had before:  Nepalese.  The only things I really know about Nepal is its proximity to India, being home to the mysterious Yeti, and of course, Mt. Everest.  The food?  No clue.  So after making my way to a local point of interest and hiking a mountain, I made my way to Bihanee Restaurant located right by Bupyeong Station in Incheon.IMG_0068

Upon entering, I was greeted by a Korean hostess/waitress which made me a bit nervous since I’ve seen what Koreans do with pizzas (mustard and shrimp, anyone?), so I was curious as to why they would specialize in Nepalese and Indian food.  After sitting down for a bit, all of my questions were answered when a man, who I assumed was the owner, came up to me and asked me how I was doing.  He seemed to be of Indian descent, and I saw his cook who looked Nepalese.  So much for the Korean smokescreen at the door.  Anyway, I ordered the Murg Malai Kebab (10,000 W) and a side of Himali naan (4,000 W).  I also appreciated the gigantic carafe of free, ice-cold water that really quenched my thirst after trucking up the mountain.  After patiently waiting, my food finally came out.IMG_0066  It was arranged in a very tasteful manner, and the owner explained what the sauces were that came with it without even being prompted.  So I started on the kebab which looked scrumptious, and the actual taste did not disappoint.  According to the menu, the boneless pieces of chicken are roasted in a Tandoori oven with cheese, cream, cashews, and spices.  All of these elements came together to form a harmonious flavor profile.  It was on the milder side compared to other Indian dishes, but the chicken was succulent with nutty undertones that were accented with some charred notes from the intense heat of the oven.  The sauces, one green chutney infused with cilantro and one sweet red chili sauce, definitely kept the dish from becoming too boring.  On the side, there was a fresh cabbage salad with some of the same red chili sauce on it, but I preferred the cooked, chili coated onions.  They were not spicy, but I enjoyed employing them in a tag-team of intense flavors with the green chutney when eating the chicken.  Just when I thought my appetite was down for the count, I turned my attention to the Himali naan. IMG_0067 The three enormous pieces of warm flatbread looked very enticing because they were coated in pieces of apples and cherries.  Normally, I’ve had savory naan with garlic or peas, so this Nepali twist allowed me to indulge my sweet tooth.  From the first bite, I knew that I made the right choice.  The bread was warm, soft, and pliable with just the right amount of crispiness on the surface.  In terms of flavor, it was a fitting dessert as the buttery foundation of the bread served as the canvas for the broad strokes of smooth apple and the tart, staccato cherry accents.  By the time I finished, I was thoroughly satisfied and felt it was a worthy trophy meal after such an active day.   Upon leaving, the owner asked me where I was from, and thanked me for coming in and gave me his business card.IMG_0070Just another fleeting moment of great service during my dining experience.  So if you want to try a cuisine that is as rare as the abominable snowman and more satisfying than climbing Mount Everest (individual experiences may vary), then head on over to Bihanee and Mr. Oli will treat you to a fantastic meal.

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

What Can Brown Do For You? Answer: Delicious Food

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Hello to all of the veterans and first time readers of Mastication Monologues.  If you have never seen this blog before, I write about all of my different food experiences in the Chicagoland area and during my travels in order to broaden your culinary and cultural horizons.  Plus, I would like to think that I could break certain cuisine stereotypes that exist with different types of ethnic foods.  One of the most persistent ones is with Indian and Southeast Asian food.  Often times I have heard from many people that it is too smelly or spicy or simple or causes bad things to happen to your G.I. tract, and I am here to tell you that it is not the case at all.  I recently went to a small Indian restaurant called the Little India located on 1109 West Bryn Mawr Avenue Chicago, IL 60660, and it is a great establishment in terms of hospitality and food.

At first, I was not sure what they meant when they claimed to serve “Indian fusion” cuisine, but upon closer inspection of their menu, I could see that there were some American elements like french fries and chicken soup and even a Chinese entry with Paneer Manchurian.  However, I went with a traditional Pakistani dish called Chicken Shajahani Biryani which was described as, “Chicken marinated in a yogurt sauce, herbs, spices, and served with steamed Basmati rice”, and I could only imagine it got its name from the influential Shah Jahan.  One of the reasons why I chose this dish was that I love the intermingling of tastes when mixing rice and meat together, and from a more economical standpoint, only the choices under the “Rice Dishes” on the menu automatically came with rice.  Just a heads up because my fellow diner did not have the same luck and had to order rice with her Paneer Makhani.

When they brought out our food, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the presentation of the Biryani since it looked like ordinary rice with a couple chunks of chicken put on the surface, but oh how wrong I was.

Chicken Biryani: Geopolitical alliances be damned for deliciousness!

It was also served with a small gravy boat of yogurt sauce filled with diced cucumbers and carrots.  Once I tucked into the mini-mountain of rice, I realized that I made a great choice because the rice was cooked to perfection and huge, golden nuggets of chicken were lurking under the surface.  There was also a slightly spicy hint to each bite which I expected to come with a dish like this, and the yogurt sauce provided a cool contrast to the spicy rice and chicken.  It was white, creamy, and almost seemed like a Pakistani version of the Greek tzatziki sauce that can be found on any classic gyro.  Upon seeing me intake heaping spoonfuls of the dish, the staff asked me if the spice level was alright.  Naturally, I responded with it wasn’t spicy enough, so they actually took it back to the kitchen to make it even spicier for no extra charge.  When they came back, I could see they added more red peppers to the rice, but it gave it only about a Habanero level of spiciness.  The waiter and doorman both joked with me that the cook couldn’t believe someone wanted their food spicier and that they knew what it was like to have a penchant for amping up dishes with more spice.  These chats gave the restaurant more personality than others I have been to in my life where they just want your money and don’t care much for small talk.  I ended up finishing the entire plate which was pretty substantial for the price, and I even tried some of the Paneer Makhani.

It was an odd dish with cubes of homemade cheese in a tomato and cream sauce, but the clash of the somewhat old Swiss cheese aftertaste with the smooth, spiced tomato sauce really didn’t jive well with my palate.  I think I would enjoy both elements on their own instead of combined in one bowl and eaten together with rice.

To sum up, if you want to go beyond your culinary comfort zone, wander over to The Little India to try some delicious food that will convince you that Southeast Asian food is one of the most underrated cuisines in the world.

The Little India Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Looks Like Hell Can Freeze Over…Sort Of

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

The fancy exterior of the restaurant

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

The interior of the restaurant

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

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

Great Balls of Fire!

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

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

Chino Latino on Urbanspoon

Chino Latino on Foodio54

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