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You Can Bring a Horse to Water, But He’d Prefer a Burger (Au Cheval)

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I never thought that I would be back this soon, this deep into the jungle that is graduate school at Northwestern University, but here I am!  Back for a limited time on Mastication Monologues, but hopefully I will be able to write more once this mad quarter is finished.  This year has been flying by, and I have visited and eaten at tons of great locations across Chicagoland.  However, today’s review involves a restaurant/diner known best for its hotly-touted cheeseburger.  In a foodie city like Chicago where we love our meat based dishes, especially hamburgers, the previous sentence will elicit a different response almost every time you ask someone from Chicago depending on where they are living in the city.  We even have the Billy Goat Diner made famous by Saturday Night Live and a curse featuring a certain Northside team that is currently trying to break the same curse and win the World Series.  Go Cubbies!  Yet, Au Cheval is one of the most highly regarded establishments across the city when it comes to the signature American dish of cheeseburger and fries. (Quick note:  Two other great restaurants, Cochon Volant and Small Cheval, have similar burgers minus the typical long lines)

Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop/Fulton Meat Packing District a.k.a. Google Headquarters new backyard, it is the flagship on a block of heavy culinary hitters including Stephanie Izzard’s so-famous-you-need-reservations-six-months-ahead-of-time Girl and the Goat  (highly recommend this restaurant too).  Au Cheval is relatively new in a city of numerous old establishments that have withstood the test of time, and based on our experience, there exists the distinct possibility that this burger joint might become part of the city’s fabric if it hasn’t already.  Janice and I met up with our friends Katelin and Dan for lunch.  They have metered street parking that we took advantage of, or you can reach it by taking the L (subway for you non-Chicagoans).  It is a very popular eatery if you couldn’t tell based on my description before, and they do not take reservations.  Because of this fact, it is often subject to mob scenes of people lining up outside during peak lunch and dinner hours to sample their offerings.  Luckily, we managed to beat the lunch rush and were immediately seated in their slightly dim, modern diner. img_9045 As I surveyed the tiny interior, I wasn’t blow away by my surroundings, but I’m a gourmand, not an interior designer.  img_9024Dan and I started the meal off with their Mad Town Nut Brown that was dark, had 7 different malts, and had nice hazelnut notes. img_9026 Au Cheval also offers a wide variety of mixed drinks, shots, and non-alcoholic beverages.  Food-wise, I could describe them as a very upscale diner that managed to find a twist on simple creations like bologna sandwiches or scrambled eggs served with fois gras. img_9025 Breakfast offerings aside, Janice and I were there for the burger that has been proclaimed by the Food Network, Forbes, etc. as “The Best Burger in America” for multiple years. They had a single ($10.95) or double patty ($12.95) option for an upcharge as well as the egg and bacon.  We followed Dan’s advice for choosing the double patty with egg and bacon.  He followed suit, and Katelin ordered the raw vegetable salad with apple and blue cheese ($10.95).  Surprisingly, before you could say “Da’ Bears”, our burgers were in front of us in their full glistening glory as well as a side of fries. img_9036

Our taste buds are ready

Our taste buds are ready

First, let’s discuss the much talked about burger.img_9032  Now, I am not typically a fan of the egg-on-burger trend that has been sweeping America, but visually this fried egg seemed like a work of pure art with its off-center sun in the sumptuous solar system of flavors in front of me.  Plus, if an egg is on top of a burger, it is described as being “on horseback” hence the name of the restaurant being “Au Cheval”.  Then there was the slabs of pure pork that were stacked like massive redwood planks over two serious beef patties donning flowing robes of American cheese.  The Eastern European side of me also appreciated the dill pickle spear on the side to cut through the grease.  Once I stacked it all together, it was a soaked monument to gastronomic greatness.  img_9040I hefted this sandwich to my maw and was immediately drawn into the aromas of beef and sweet pork belly like bees to honey.  I was smitten at first chomp.  The beef was grilled to medium rare perfection while the cheese was omnipresent yet not overwhelming.  I was partial to the pork belly that shone through and enhanced the flavor profile with a maple syrupy sweetness that your run-of-the-mill, crispy, thin bacon could not accomplish in a million dinner parties.  The only downsides to this burger were the aforementioned egg which kind of made the brioche bun hard but not impossible to grip, and the bottom part of the bun which left my burger hanging by my fingertips  at the end of this white-knuckle ride of a meal.  The fries on the side were just as great as the burger with a palatable amount of salt and just the right amount of fry to their golden hued exteriors.img_9027  Katelin said her salad was delectable too even though it wasn’t served between two pieces of bread or hiding beneath a sea of gooey cheese.img_9029  A good option if you want to balance your cholesterol out after downing one of Au Cheval’s incredibly rich burgers.

We left the restaurant to a sunny afternoon with bellies full and greatly satisfied.  I could now see what the hubbub was all about when we would go by the establishment and see people jostling for position in line.  Great restaurant owners know great ingredients which in turn lead to great burgers.  This chain of events was displayed during our visit to Au Cheval, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to try a burger worthy of having the word “greatest” in its title.  You might disagree with me about it being the be-all, end-all of burgerdom, but it is a high quality burger for a very reasonable price even with a bit of a wait.  So, if you don’t know where to go for lunch or have time to wait during dinner, gallop over to Au Cheval!
Au Cheval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Mother of All Posts: 4 Great Mother’s Day Restaurants

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Finally I am free to write!  I’m very sorry that I haven’t been able to write lately since I’ve been going through a whole sort of life transition with going into a completely new career, but that doesn’t mean that I will forget about loving and writing about food.  Today’s post deals with four great brunch places for tu mama, and is presented to you by my blog, Mastication Monologues, and OpenTable.com in honor of Mother’s Day.  If you want to check out more great picks for Mother’s Day and make reservations for your family, check out OpenTable’s Mother’s Day promo page with plenty of offers!

1.  Kanela

Kanela is one of the best brunch places that I’ve been to in Chicago, and I’m sure they will pull out all of the stops to make your mom feel special. IMG_4818 I would highly recommend making reservations for this place since the place isn’t huge and is very popular with the locals.  It’s on the northside of Chicago nearby the iconic Wrigley Field, and while the Cubbies might be the lovable local losers, you won’t lose anything except your mind with Kanela’s delish dishes.  I would highly recommend their monkey bread to start off with one of their smoothies on the side.IMG_4808  For the entree, you can’t really go wrong.  If you like sweet things, I’d recommend the red velvet french toast.  However, if savory is the name of the game, try the spicy Feta omelet that is jam packed with whipped semi-spicy cheese and all wrapped up in a layer of fluffy eggs.

2.  M. Henry

Then there is M. Henry in the Andersonville/Little Sweden neighborhood which is also on the northside of Chicago.  IMG_3298While it doesn’t specialize in meatballs and cold herring as the area would suggest, they have plenty of noms for your mom to enjoy.  Everyone swears by their extremely fruity bread pudding aside from me, but try it for yourself and let me know what you think.  While I got their granola pancakes that were also swimming in fruit juice, my girlfriend’s huevos borrachos were fantastic for a savory option. IMG_3293 It’s not my cup of tea, but everyone else that has been there has raved about it.  So I’d still recommend trying to fight the crowds at this very popular brunch establishment.

3.  Bongo Room

While the name might sound like a funky, nighttime hangout, it’s actually quite a quaint and modern breakfast restaurant that is serving up unique and mouth-watering fare for the masses.  It’s actually right down the street from M. Henry, so if it’s too full there, you can always pop on over to the Bongo Room.  IMG_3644Once again, I cannot stress the importance of making reservations!  I’ve been there twice, and you get GIGANTIC portions for the price.  My personal favorite are the white chocolate and pretzel pancakes. IMG_3647 Not only are they bigger than your face, but they combine the best of both sweet and salty that everyone loves with chocolate covered pretzels.  If you don’t have that big of a sweet tooth, they also have plenty of options for you savory lovers out there.

4.  Walker Brother’s Pancake House

Finally, there is the oldest of the bunch in the form of the Walker Brother’s Pancake House.  If you like a lot of history and a lot of great food for delicious prices, I highly recommend this Chicagoland favorite.  The original one that I went to in my first post about it (you can read it in this section’s title). IMG_4201 This place was bumping when we went there for breakfast, and I’m sure it will be bursting with patrons on Mothers’ Day.  They have a very extensive menu filled with classics like bacon and eggs and other more exotic entries like blue crab Benedict which is like eggs benedict with the addition of some decadent crab meat.  I, however, was following Janice’s lead when I went there.  If you’re really hungry, go for the pancakes since they are gargantuan and oh sooooo good.  I would recommend the apple cinnamon pancake or the Dutch baby pancake.  IMG_4199The former can be served a la mode which is totally worth it while the latter is a lot less intense, but still filled with plenty of mouth-watering powdered sugar and lemon juice for a tart and sweet contrast. IMG_4197 Plus, the surroundings of dark wood and Tiffany glass aren’t too hard on the eye either.

So there you have it.  Four great Mothers’ Day locations for brunch in the Chicagoland area that focus on quality food at prices that are easy on the old wallet.  If you want to make reservations at any of these establishments or others, please check out OpenTable.com.  Bon appetit!

Costa Rica (Day 6/Final)- Chasing Waterfalls

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Well, it has finally come to this.  The end of our Costa Rican adventure.  It was a wonderful time, and in this post I plan on covering the final two days of our Central American trek.

Our penultimate day kicked off with another super delicious, home-made breakfast that consisted of a quarter of a watermelon, bakery from the night before, and some interesting fruit juice.IMG_5572  First, there was the juice.  When walking through the supermarket the night before, I found this juice of the cas fruit.  Before running into it, the first thing I would have thought of when I heard the word “cas” would be of a terrible Korean beer, but this discovery was worlds apart.IMG_5351  Turns out the cas fruit is a variety of guava grown in Costa Rica, and the juice was a bit more sour than sweet.  It had elements of pear, apple, lime, and orange to be a refreshing glass of juice.  Then there were the pastries. *Cue drooling*.  First, there was my dulce de leche roll that basically was a cinnamon roll with the frosting replaced with that sweet sweet caramel.IMG_5353  It was soft, filled with cinnamon, and super decadent. IMG_5355 My only regret was not microwaving it when I had the chance to get that “fresh-out-of-the-oven” taste and feel. IMG_5356IMG_5359 IMG_5357Janice’s choice, the pupusa de queso, was a surprisingly delicious breakfast addition.  IMG_5352What kind of threw me for a loop was that the Costa Ricans called this a pupusa when I was more acquainted with a more savory and tortilla based variety from El Salvador. IMG_5354 Plus, it was stuffed with a savory cheese that wouldn’t have worked too well without the sugary crust that spanned from stern to bow.IMG_5358  It was a great contrast that left me pleasantly satiated by the end of our breakfast.  These treats were a prelude to our trip to the Poas Volcano.  It was an extremely clear day which was great for us since we were able to see the entire volcano crater complete with the aromatic smell of sulphur dioxide in the air.  How romantic! IMG_4232 After sauntering back down the side of the smouldering mountain, we loaded into the mini-bus to go to the waterfall garden.  However, before we arrived there, we stopped at a roadside store that specialized in strawberries.  In Costa Rica, the land of abundant wildlife and produce, what is grown is dependent on the altitude and climate.  So, in addition to those two factors, the volcanic soil proved to be the ideal environment for growing the sweet fruits. IMG_5379 I tried some from Janice’s purchase and other fellow passengers’ cups, but they didn’t taste any different than the ones from back home.  We arrived at the La Paz animal sanctuary and waterfall garden which was a menagerie of some truly unique flora and fauna specimens like parrots that could sound like crying babies and treasure beetles that looked like they were dipped in precious metals.  Before going to see the waterfalls, we got free samples of a coconut pudding similar to one Janice bought when we were in Sarchi along with a cube of very bland cheese. IMG_4331 The coolest part of the waterfall garden was the magia blanca (“white magic” in Spanish) cataract whose name derives from the optical illusion achieved by staring at the middle of the falls for roughly 20 seconds. IMG_5443 Then, we moved our eyes to the right to see the cliff moving upward against the water.  After we finished with this adventure through the mountains, we went for lunch at another strawberry market and restaurant.  The steak was good but nothing noteworthy.  Janice’s beef stew was a lot tastier since each piece was melting in my mouth. IMG_5457IMG_5460 The strawberry smoothie was a lot better than their intact brethren since it was sweeter due to probable added sugar.IMG_4344  We peaced out of there to get to San Jose, and at night our entire tour group met up for one last meal together.  Our guide, Christian, swore by this place, La Cascada Steakhouse, as one of the best eateries in San Jose.IMG_5478  Fitting that it was also named after a waterfall in Spanish.  It looked moderately more fancy compared to the soda diners we hit up in days past. IMG_5464 IMG_5463 I started the night off with a Pilsen beer that was to a T exactly what the name suggested:  a disappointing pilsner style brew.  IMG_5461On the table, there was a bread and tortilla basket complimented with three different sauces along with butter.  I was a personal fan of the spicy ketchup mix combined with the garlic-laden Chimichurri sauce.IMG_5465  I ordered the Cascada house special, and Janice got the Tierra y Mar (“Surf and turf” basically in Spanish).  While waiting for our food, I decided to get a pic of the grill when one of the servers initiated a conversation with me in Spanish.  I explained to him that I wrote a food blog, so he gave me the lowdown about the grill.  Apparently what sets this steakhouse apart from others was that the grill was that it was coal fueled as opposed to the wood or gas varieties.IMG_5467  This showed in the food when our meals came out.  My steak was expertly grilled and super juicy with a smoky flavor. IMG_5471 Janice’s shrimp and steak combined were super decadent while the side of potato, black beans, and fried plantains were ok. IMG_5473 Surprisingly, we had room for dessert.  I got the apple pie a la mode, and the Tico take on this slice of ‘Murika was pretty damn tasty, especially the carmelized sugar goblet holding the delicious vanilla ice cream.IMG_5474  I loved Janice’s coconut flan that was more bread pudding-esque than the jigglier versions I’ve tried before.IMG_5475  One of our fellow travelers ordered the tres leches (“three milks” in Spanish) cake that was rich yet simple with a creamy topping and vanilla undertones. IMG_5476 It was a bittersweet sign that our time together was coming to a close.

Some of the people in our group.

Some of the people in our group.

The final full day consisted of our ziplining adventure throughout the San Lorenzo canopy which was absolutely exhilarating and ended our trip on literally a high note. IMG_5542 Before becoming airborn, we had some deliciously sweet vanilla pudding puffs for breakfast from the same bakery in downtown San Jose where we got the dulce de leche roll.IMG_5482IMG_5483  After flying through the jungle and over mountains at speeds reaching 50-60 mph (96.5 kph), that worked our appetites up.  So, we hit up the sangria bar at the Best Western down the street.  We kept it simple with a margarita pizza which I guess translates to a regular cheese pizza in Costa Rica.  My dark Bavaria beer was like any of the other beers I had in Costa Rica:  disappointing with minimal taste.IMG_5490IMG_5491  So much for having a full bodied beer on vacation.   The chocolate mousse dessert was a tantalizing dessert that went well with our sweet sangria to top off the night and our journey.IMG_5493IMG_5494

It was hard to say goodbye to the friends that we made along the way, and the wonderful country we explored for that week.  However, reality set in as we passed the marimba players at the airport playing the Chicken Dance, and we walked up to security to return home to freezing Chicago.  It was a perfect vacation, and we stayed classy all the way to the end.   We wouldn’t have done it any other way.IMG_5507

Bro-ing Out with the Apple of My Eye

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If it’s your first time on here or you’re a longtime fan, you’re in for a treat.  I’m all about finding and trying new and unique restaurants, and today’s establishment definitely falls into both categories.  Well, maybe not so much new, but its menu choices are certainly memorable.  Cutting to the chase, I’m talking about Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  It has been around since 1960, and is considered by Zagat and James Beard the best breakfast place-bar none in the Chicagoland area.  It is so popular that there are now six locations around the Chicagoland area, but in this post, my girlfriend and I visited the original location that opened in 1960 in Wilmette.

I’ve heard of the Walker’s Bros. before, and I wondered what made them so special compared to all of the other types of chain breakfast restaurants or even little hole in the walls I’ve visited in the past.  Breakfasts in America are much more varied compared to breakfasts in other countries, so I feel like I’ve seen it all when it comes to ordering something tasty to fill my piehole with in the morning.  Boy, was I wrong after eating with the Bros.  The exterior of the restaurant just radiated history like it was a living time capsule, but the cars were slightly less hulking and more chock full o’ plastic compared to the motorcoaches of yesteryear.IMG_4201  Walking through the door, however, that hasn’t changed since they first opened it (or so it seemed).  It was full of beautiful stained glass windows and ornate woodcarvings coating the walls. IMG_4200 We were promptly seated in one of the side dining rooms, and we were treated to a perfect view of one of the enormous ceiling lights that were designed in the Tiffany style. IMG_4193 Not only were we taking in the surroundings but also the menu contents.  Janice had been here before, so she automatically knew what she was going to get:  the Dutch Baby pancake ($8.50).  As for me, I was having trouble trying to pick something since everything looked great!  Eggs?  French toast? Crepes?  Waffles?  I was at the pancake house, so I plumped for the apple pancake ($9.95) with the additional $1.95 for French vanilla ice cream on top.  Got to do it big when you’re rollin’ with the Bros.

When our plates came out, I was taken aback since I had never seen anything like it.  Janice’s Dutch Baby wasn’t like a small, screeching, blonde child wearing wooden shoes but rather something that looked like a cross between a taco salad shell and a danish.IMG_4198  What it actually was was an oven-baked pancake that was topped with a healthy sprinkling of powdered sugar. IMG_4197 The kicker was the lemon juice she spritzed over the pancake that really brought it to life.  I personally thought that it was a unique dish as it was less like a bready pancake and more like a lighter, buttery crepe that sizzled over my palate with the sweet powdered sugar combining with the raw sour power of the lemon juice.  Thankfully, the pancake itself wasn’t outshone by the lemon juice.  Then there was the apple pancake….where to start? IMG_4199 It was advertised as an “Original Pancake House tradition”, and that it was stuffed with some apples and cinnamon glaze.  Simple.  I’ve had apple pancakes before where they slice some apples on top and put a slightly thicker syrup over the flapjacks and fruit to leave you full but just moderately satisfied.  My apple pancake from Walker Bros. was the Steve Jobs of the breakfast world.  A revolutionary just doing what it wants to do no matter what.  It’s not for the faint of heart but rather for those with a well endowed sweet tooth, i.e. yours truly.  The exterior seemed to be lacquered with the Sinikiang (fun fact:  Sinikiang or Xinjiang is the Northwestern province of China that is home to the Uighur community and a majority of China’s Muslim minorities.  Also, it was a stop along the famed Silk Road where spices like cinnamon were traded.) cinnamon and sugar glaze so that it shimmered under the ornate lights and beckoned me to tuck into it. IMG_4196 I could see that it was piping hot as its snow white toupee was slowly trickling down its undulating surface through each nook and cranny.  Upon slicing it open, I was greeted with slices of cinnamon apples, pure white dough and more sugar glaze.  It was like an apple pie and a cinnamon roll had a delectable love child.  I was in absolute heaven with every bite, and this is one tradition I hope Walker Bros. never retires.

So if you want a piece of Chicagoland history along with some wonderfully innovative and delicious breakfast items for great prices, run, don’t walk to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  Their pancakes will make you flip!

Walker Bros Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon

My Burger From Tokio

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Whew!  Finally done with all of my Florida food posts.  If you haven’t seen any of them, just scroll further down the page to get caught up in the narrative that is my life as a gourmand.  Today’s entry on Mastication Monologues checks off another foodie milestone for me.  It’s not something as crazy as when I ate a live octopus or scorpions, but it is an iconic fusion meal that has popped up on menus in areas of the USA with significant Asian populations like Chicagoland in this case.  My adventure begins with getting in touch with my good friend Carolyn who suggested Tokio Pub, and after looking over the menu online, I knew it was for me when I saw the dish in question.

So we met up in Schaumburg and were quickly seated at the height of dinner which I appreciated.

Our waitress was a laugh and a half with her saucy personality which contributed to our dining experience.  We ordered drinks first, and I got a pint of Fixed Gear Ale ($6).  It was an slightly murky but amber colored brew that had a definite bite with woody notes and a hoppy finish.  As for the food, the menu goes from various sushi offerings to ramen soups to the mysterious sounding hot rock dishes.  That final option left me somewhat intrigued, but Carolyn explained that you can cook your own food at your table utilizing piping hot pieces of stone.  While this interactive dining experience was tempting, I saw another limited per diem item:  the ramen burger.  I’ve been seeing this novelty dish shoot to the top of every foodie’s list, and I’ve even seen recipes in magazines as to how to properly prepare this fusion item.  So after a bit of anticipation, I finally was face to face with destiny. IMG_3026 IMG_3027 As I picked it up, I felt the golden, slippery layers between my fingers and quickly took my first bite.  It was a texture fiesta as I crunched through the outer noodles to the more giving secondary ramen layer which was quickly overtaken by a juicy beef patty, average greens, and a soy molasses that made it a divine treat to eat the meat.  IMG_3030Within five minutes, I had destroyed this piece of art and quickly turned my sights on the cucumber salad.  It was an understated compliment to the savory burger.  Not only were the cucumbers fresh and crispy, but the brine had a semi-sweet tang that cut through the greasy noodle taste.  Although the burger was slightly hefty, I knew I had to try their fried coconut bao (dumpling in Mandarin) dessert ($5).  The presentation alone made me quite fidgety while taking the picture.IMG_3031  It was like my own super-fattening version of Treasure Island.  The golden-brown dumpling treasure chest opened up to spill out coconut cream onto the caramel sand while the scoop of slowly melting ice cream was like a majestic mountain eroding to once again return to the sea, i.e. my stomach. IMG_3032 It was a fitting end to a rich dinner.

So if you’re looking for Asian fusion food with great service and moderately expensive prices in Schaumburg, check out Tokio Pub.

Tokio Pub on Urbanspoon

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