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Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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A Berry Good Breakfast

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Sweden.  It is a country with many different faces.  While they are more well known for their vikings, gorgeous women, and a certain incomprehensible Muppet chef, Swedish cuisine in general isn’t very well known or as popular as other European countries’ foods like Italy, France, or Spain.  The reason being, I think, is that Sweden’s food culture reflects the cold and often times harsh environments the various Nordic tribes originally encountered when emigrating to modern day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.  I mean, the frigid winters aren’t going to cut any slack to a Swedish farmer who wants to emulate his Spanish neighbors by planting an olive farm or attempting to emulate the wine culture of the Mediterranean.  However, that is not to say that Northern European cuisine is worse than the rest of Europe, it just has different ingredients that might not agree with such a wide array of palates.  Historically, the Swedish people have emigrated en masse to America especially to the Northern Midwest region, and today they still have their own little corner of the homeland in Chicago in the Andersonville neighborhood.  You can find plenty of blue and yellow flags flying in front of storefronts, and of course there are diners offering Swedish fare.  Enter Svea’s, an 80 year old diner that is a symbol of the shrinking Swedish community that once was the second largest in the world outside of Stockholm.IMG_3782

Before walking in, the proprietors invoked their links to old Sverige with the three crowns of the royal coat of arms along with a tall ship that could have fit in with King Gustavus Adolphus‘ navy.IMG_3779  After going through their screen door, I was greeted with a small but cozy diner.IMG_3778  Surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy in the morning for breakfast, so I got to sit wherever I wanted. IMG_3771 IMG_3772 All around I could see little Swedish knicknacks and artifacts like horned viking helmets, a “God jul” or “Merry Christmas” sign on the kitchen, and a horse patterned table cloth that took me back to when I visited Stockholm.IMG_3774

A typical day in Stockholm

A typical day in Stockholm

I looked over the menu with the left side sporting more American selections like omelets and bagels, but then there were Swedish options like smorgasar (open face sandwiches), the famed “Viking” breakfast, and my choice:  Swedish pancakes with imported lingonberry sauce ($6) with a side of salt pork ($3).  The prices overall ranged anywhere from $5-$10 which is a bargain compared to other brunch places in the area.  There are dinner options as well that have the same American/Swedish split, but I’ll have to leave that for another day.  My cakes made their appearance soon thereafter and looked perfect.IMG_3775  Portion-wise, they were quite large.  I found them to be between a ‘Murikan pancake and a French crepe in terms of thickness.  Amid the sprinklings of powdered sugar, the salt pork was placed atop the pockmarked surface and strangely looked like two of the rosy horses on the table sharing a smooch.  Budding food romances aside, I placed it aside for later.  I focused first on smearing the small container of lingonberry jelly all over these wonderful pancakes and quickly tucked in since I was starving.  However, I think they could have given me a bit more jelly to actually cover both pieces instead of just one.IMG_3776  It was a simple but very well done meal.  The pancakes were substantial yet light on the stomach.  It didn’t feel like I had swallowed a bowling ball by the end of breakfast.  As for the jelly, it was sweet yet more on the tart side which gave the blander pancakes a potent punch with every forkful.  I then turned my full attention toward the salt pork.IMG_3777  I used some of the maple syrup on the side for dipping, but I could only liken the meat to a super thin and crunchy version of bacon.  It wasn’t unbearably salty and only got better with some of the gooey, sweet syrup on top.

As I went to settle the check at the front, I noticed their sign on the cash register that said, “CASH ONLY”.  In this era of credit cards, it seems a bit archaic, but luckily I’m a man of the past.  I paid for my reasonably priced and lip-smacking good breakfast that was like Ikea furniture:  cheap, functional, simple, pleasing to the eye, but way more delicious.  I highly recommend visiting Svea’s to experience an unraveling ethnic patch of Chicago’s cultural quilt.

Svea on Urbanspoon

Bongo A-Go-Go

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Happy 4th of July, ‘Murika!  What is more American than a new Mastication Monologues post about stuffing my face with delicious food that comes in gargantuan portions that would feed a family for a week?  Nothing…well, except maybe this .  Today’s restaurant review takes me to Andersonville in Chicago to the famed Bongo Room.

I had heard through the grapevine that this establishment knew how to sling some delicious brunch items to fill some growling, hungry and possibly hungover bellies.  I knew I had to check it out since I also caught wind of their portion sizes being insanely large.  I went there on a weekday morning, and I found it quite easy to park in their minuscule parking lot on the side along with procuring a table upon walking in.  However, they don’t take reservations, and if you go on a weekend, you will have to brave the hungry hordes that I often see milling about outside their doors.IMG_3644  Anyway, I was just there by myself, so I decided to sit at the bar since I didn’t want to take up one of the larger tables that were perfectly spaced and designed for the dining room.IMG_3651  The bartender gave me the main menu along with a list of specials.  It wasn’t as extensive as a Greek diner or other chain breakfast places I’ve been to, but they did have plenty of creative entries like a similar Andersonville diner, M. Henry.  I looked over the omelets, French toasts, and pancakes they had to offer, but it was like trying to pick your favorite child.  So, I asked the bartender what she would recommend, and she picked what I was leaning towards initially:  white chocolate and caramel pretzel pancakes ($10.50).

After a bit of waiting, they finally came out.  I honestly didn’t know how they managed to fit in the pretzels in this plate that looked almost like a canvas that should be hanging in the MOMA. IMG_3647 I almost felt bad that I would have to sully the milky white and golden lattice pattern that covered these monstrous cakes, but I sallied forth to my delectable date with destiny.  From the first forkful I was hooked.  The actual pancakes were light and fluffy, and the white chocolate sauce that covered them wasn’t thick like frosting but rather an extremely thin syrup made thicker with the presence of divine caramel.  This sauce was the key to the success of these pancakes while at M. Henry I was very disappointed in their bliss cakes.  M.  Henry went the healthy route with berry juice, but the problem was that they used way too much of it.  The sauce itself was too watery which the cakes absorbed too quickly, and in turn, left me with a plate of soggy flapjacks.  The Bongo Room, on the other hand, did coat their pancakes with a lot of sauce like M. Henry but with just enough to coat every inch of them and no more.  I didn’t interrupt another pancake pool party for breakfast.  Plus, the sauce was thicker which meant that it infiltrated the pores of the pancakes much slower than the thin berry juices.  Take notes, M. Henry.  You have good ideas and ingredients for bread-based recipes, but you need to tweak them to make them truly great.  Anyway, there is also the pretzel element of this dish that I found quite novel.  As I cut through my meal, I would occasionally be greeted with actual pieces of pretzels, salt and all, between the sweet folds.IMG_3649  I inquired with the bartender how they integrated these pretzel fragments into the meal, and she said that they are sprinkled in as the cakes are on the griddle.IMG_3650  Much to my surprise, they were not soggy at all and provided a great crunch to offset the more delicate pancakes.  The saltiness of the pretzels were a double edged sword since it was a masterstroke to combine it with the sweet white chocolate and caramel, but at times towards the end of the meal, the salt seemed to be a bit too much for my palate to handle.  Either way, this snowy white chocolate dish left me in a winter wonderland in the middle of summer.  I ate all of it so fast that the bartender asked if I wanted to lick the plate, but I wanted to preserve a bit of self respect after the dust settled from my feeding frenzy.

I was greatly satisfied by The Bongo Room.  From service, environment, price, portion size, and overall quality, they got it all.  Even though their menu isn’t encyclopedic in comparison to other nearby establishments, The Bongo Room makes up for it with fewer dishes done so well that they make everyone want to come back for more.  Just don’t cut in front of me while we stand in line, and I’ll see you there.

The Bongo Room on Urbanspoon

Too Much Flavor to Savor

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Hey hey, everybody!  Summer is finally here, and Mastication Monologues has another new restaurant review hot off the presses.  While it seems like I’ve been focusing a lot on fried chicken joints and burger stands lately, today’s post takes a turn for the more genteel in the form of brunch at  M.  Henry.

There are plenty of words that have entered the English language in the form of portmanteaus such as spork, frienemy, and the never-ending parade of celebrity couples like Brangelina, Kimye, and TomKat.  However, “brunch” has been around a bit longer than these limelight hoggers, and frankly I think it has offered a lot more to the world than they have.  Case in point, Punch magazine in England in 1895 first coined the term as a “Sunday meal for Saturday night carousers” that “Puts yourself in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow human beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”  Truer words have never been spoken, so I was led to M. Henry by Janice to see if their amazing brunch could do all of the above.IMG_3298  It seemed like it could based on the 20 minute wait we had to endure to finally get a table in the back room.  The interior of the establishment was tastefully decorated along with a full bakery section that greeted us complete with homemade granola, pies, and sweet rolls.IMG_3285IMG_3283IMG_3284  So we sat down in the bustling backroom, and I got acquainted with the menu. IMG_3297 If you love breakfast/brunch as much as I do, then you’ll need plenty of time to pour over the selection of mouth-watering options ranging from different egg dishes, bread based dishes, and tons of sides and vegan-friendly noms.  We started our meal off with a half order of the out of this world bread pudding ($5.75 half/$6.95 full).  Janice was over the moon about it, so I was curious to see if I’d be in orbit as well.  It came out, and it looked unlike any bread pudding I’ve seen. IMG_3286IMG_3288 The actual pudding was buried underneath a mountain of blood-red peach slices and plump raspberries.  So I took a few spoonfuls of the fruit and some chunks of the vanilla brioche pudding.  Upon eating it, I was greeted with a blast of rich vanilla flavor of the bread pudding along with the semi-sweet notes of the peaches.  The raspberries also were fresh and slightly tart that provided a nice contrast to the mellow pudding, but the seeds were a bit of a pain.  Although the ingredients were good, the presentation brought the entire dish down.  The main sticking point for me was the fruit juice that all of the ingredients were swimming in.  This caused the already soft bread pudding to become soggy.  I don’t know if we went there for the senior early bird special since they were trying to soften up our food for our dentures, but I personally prefer my bread pudding to have a bit more fortitude than the delicious but mushy pudding they served us.  If they served it on a plate with just a drizzling of the fruit juices, similar to other bread pudding recipes I’ve tried and seen, instead of a biblical flood, then it would be considerably better.  Once finished,  the waiter was back to take our order.  After much deliberation, I settled for their acclaimed bliss cakes ($9.95) with a side of candied applewood bacon ($3.75), and Janice got the black bean cakes and huevos borrachos ($9.95).  I was looking around at people eating bliss cakes in the dining room, and they looked like they were enjoying them greatly.  So I was quite excited to tuck into them when they were finally placed in front of me.  It looked like a plate out of Martha Stewart’s kitchen, and the first bite was delectable. IMG_3291 The top hotcake had a crust of brown sugar and oats for a sweet crunch for a great flavor and texture contrast to the fruity and fluffy pancakes.  After that first bite, I delved further into my meal, and my initial excitement gave way to a similar ennui that I experienced with the bread pudding.  Once again, M. Henry believed that stewing bread products in its own juices would somehow improve the quality of the meal.  This destroyed the bottom flapjack, and the creamy mascarpone cheese between the pancakes didn’t help.  I’m sure it was a good idea on the drawing board, but they should cool it with the fruit juices.  I definitely wasn’t crestfallen when I tried and subsequently destroyed my candied bacon.IMG_3294  Normally, I’m not a crispy bacon kind of guy, but these monster-sized strips were special.  M. Henry took a basic bacon strip and combined the salty, smoky flavor profile with a perfect coating of sugar to redeem an otherwise disappointing meal.IMG_3296  I tried some of Janice’s dish, mainly the huevos borrachos or “drunk eggs”, and I really should have ordered those.IMG_3293  Not only was the tortillas homemade, fresh, and thick, but the adobo mixed with the chorizo, sour cream, and avocado was a thick, south-of-the-border fiesta that couldn’t be any more at home in my mouth.  Que rico!  

By the end of the meal, I was indifferent to my experience at M. Henry.  I think I just chose incorrectly, but they do care a lot about the quality of the ingredients that they use.  That is for certain.  I’m sure there are other places in Andersonville that serve brunch, like Lady Gregory’s, but I wouldn’t say to completely avoid M. Henry’s.  It’s worth a shot.

M. Henry on Urbanspoon

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