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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

San Diego (Day 1): I’m Going Back, Back To Cali (Yankee Pier, Lemonade)

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Time is fleeting.  Summer 2016 is flying by in the Chi per usual as kids are going back to school, and parents are happy the little monsters are out of their hair.  The last of the street festivals are attempting to be crammed into the few days of nice weather we have left before winter comes to our metropolis a la Game of Thrones (hopefully sans the army of the dead).  Luckily, I have another wonderful travelogue to bring a bit of sunshine to your day through the magic of our trip this summer to San Diego, California.

Janice had originally informed me of one of her child hood friends, Sabrina, was going to get married about a year ago, and when I finally found out where the wedding was going to be, I couldn’t be more excited.  It turned out it was going to be in San Diego, specifically Coronado Island.  The reason for my excitement was that I hadn’t been back to California in ages, and I was aching for some of that humidity-free fresh air and West coast sunshine, a definite change from this Chicago summer known more for humidity, heat, and destructive lighting storms. 21dbbc4ca53ea93620d40f5ea967b488c7fe99ae6f2b79b50d8f7ca5ab123e9d No wonder we Midwesterners are so tough.  Janice and I had an ungodly early flight, so by the time we reached our layover in San Francisco, another fun place to visit in California, we needed something to eat for breakfast beside the miniscule treats they handed out to placate us in the coach section.  As we strolled to our gate, we found a restaurant that seemed to be quite popular with our fellow travelers:  Yankee Pier.  They are a chain that has a stand alone location and another one in the San Francisco aiport, so they had a menu and service to compliment the need for people on the run.  However, this focus on culinary efficiency didn’t sacrifice the quality of the food.  I got some sort of Mexican omelet that was liberally garnished with cilantro and filled with peppers, chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocado which was a major game changer.IMG_9601  With a couple splashes of Tabasco hot sauce, I turned this fiesta in my mouth from mas o menos to un bombazo!  There was plenty of flavor to savor in this omelet, and I’d recommend it if you like Mexican flavors in general.  It was so good I even caught Janice in the act of sneaking a bite or three from my plate. IMG_9603 Also, I really enjoyed their sourdough toast because it wasn’t very crispy and more on the chewy end.  Sourdough is actually part of San Francisco’s identity since it was brought to the state by French bakers in the 1840s during the famous gold rush, and Yankee Pier’s version of the iconic bread did not disappoint.  Overall, if you’re looking for a delicious meal that is also mindful of your travel time restrictions, I’d highly recommend Yankee Pier.  Once we downed our food, we were on a plane further south to San Diego.

Life is terrible

Life is terrible

Upon landing we were picked up by Janice’s friend Amber and another little companion I was not expecting.  I got in the back seat and was face to face with Ellie the Schnauzer.  She was such a good lil’ poochy, but she was ready to show us around the town with her owner.IMG_9774  Eventually, we found a place to park and walk around.IMG_9623 IMG_9610  Eventually, we had worked up a bit of an appetite, so Amber took us to one of her favorite local eateries:  Lemonade.  Apparently, it has locations all over the Golden State due to its popularity as a purveyor of healthy salads, sandwiches, and (not so healthy) sweets.  Oh yeah, and they do have their own homemade lemonades, of course! (Sorry, Beyonce fans).  IMG_9622 IMG_9621We didn’t know what to get because there was so much to choose from, IMG_9611 IMG_9612 IMG_9613IMG_9614 IMG_9615but we went with two of the cold salads:  the blt panzanella ($2.75) and the edamame salad ($2.50).  It was cafeteria style, so they scooped a generous helping of each on our plate as we slid down the line.  We also wanted to try one of the sandwiches and purchased the tomato and mozzarella ($6.95).   IMG_9616They also have a plethora of sinfully decadent looking desserts, but we did not give into them.  IMG_9617 IMG_9618 It was time to pay for our goods, and we had fun with the employees having samples of their lemonades behind the counter.  It’s not just your mother’s lemon and sugar based summer drink.  We tried the carrot ginger, hibiscus limeade, and blood orange lemonades.  The best part was that you could mix and match as many flavors as your thirsty heart desired at no extra charge.  In the end, we made a mix of the blood orange and the hibiscus tea.  IMG_9619 IMG_9776It resulted in a deep burgundy hued drink with a slightly tangy and almost cherry-esque tinged flavor profile that would cool us off after running around with Ellie the tour guide and Amber. IMG_9777 We took a seat on the patio in the front, and while the ladies were catching up, poochy was enjoying her time on my lap/losing her cool over my drink.

So calm

So calm

Maybe not

Maybe not

Eventually, we got to eating our salad and our freshly made sandwich.  The salads were fresh and light since we didn’t want to fill up before the rehearsal dinner for Sabrina’s wedding.  IMG_9620The edamame salad was seasoned with a vinaigrette and pepped up with pickled radishes, sesame seeds, and carrots.  I particularly enjoyed each firm bean imparting an earthy note to each forkful.  The panzanella was my choice (on the left), and is an antiquated recipe.  This Italian salad has been referenced in literature as early as the 16th century as a “salad of onions served with toast”.  While it has shifted in focus from onions as a base to tomatoes, it doesn’t take anything away from this hearty side dish.  This savory salad consisted of basically a BLT sandwich with arugula vinaigrette soaked pieces of bread, turkey bacon, avocado, and tomatoes.  It’s definitely a salad for those who don’t love traditional salads, i.e. healthy ones.  As for the sandwich, it wasn’t anything of note.  Yes, it was fresh and handmade, but I’ve had a caprese sandwich before. IMG_9781 I’d like to try one of their other more noteworthy creations the next time we’re in town.  Once we downed our amazing meal, we bade Amber and Ellie farewell (but not forever) and made our way to our airBnB.  We donned our finest duds and Uber-ed over to the picturesque Coronado golf club for the bride and groom’s rehearsal dinner. IMG_9782 While we were wasting time before everyone showed up, we played some Pokemon Go, and I got caught in the act. IMG_9783 Eventually, both families and their friends arrived, and we had to stop being antisocial.  It was a great night meeting Janice’s friends from long ago, the bride’s giant family, and eventually bonding with a good number of the younger folks of the wedding party going around catching Pokemon.  Also, the food and drink was phenomenal.  We went to the restaurant that catered the event on our last day, so I’ll save my review for that post.  It was such a great time overall, in fact, we stayed until the staff kicked us out of the clubhouse.  If this first day was any indication of how the rest of our visit in San Diego was going to transpire, I couldn’t wait for the big day tomorrow!  IMG_9784Stay tuned for part 2…

Yankee Pier Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lemonade Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Topolobampo: One Bday at a Time

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I try to try as many different meals as possible while educating the reader about new cultures or the origins of popular foods.  One of the most diverse food scenes out there is Mexican cuisine.  You can go all over the USA and find some form of taco, burrito, or nachos at least even though some interpretations of these meals (especially nachos) might not be seen south of the border.  However, there has been an evolution of Mexican food as of late where different Asian cuisines have been blended to create new and crazy creations like Korean inspired bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos.  On the other hand, one of the biggest names in Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, has been trying to get to the heart of simple Mexican food after decades of living, tasting, and drinking everything from Juarez to Jalisco.  Janice and I met him during Taste Talks of Chicago where he talked about the constant evolution of food, and how meals bring people together from different backgrounds or may make them more in touch with their heritage.  How does Rick manage to do this?  At his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, they serve a rotating menu that draws on Mexico’s culinary history starting in the pre-Colombian era and ending in modern Mexican fusion along with different specialty dishes from all corners of Mexico.  I had the pleasure of paying Topolobampo a visit for my birthday last year with my lovely girlfriend, so I apologize for the delay for this mouth-watering post.

The front of the restaurant consisted of two different restaurants but both owned by Mr. Bayless.  IMG_4981It was slightly confusing trying to find the entrance because we couldn’t see a clear door for either restaurant, but it turns out they shared a common door.  Upon walking in, we were in the lobby for Frontera, the cheaper and more boisterous of the two restaurants.  We walked through the hallway past the strains of musica ranchera to the more demure Topolobampo dining room.  Instead of lots of kitchy Mexican bric a brac on the walls a la Frontera Grill, there were more oil paintings and softer music.IMG_4978  I’d also recommend putting on nicer clothes since its a classy kind of joint.01df7509f997342c67799f4f76e06f709f9e61dfc8  I could hardly contain my excitement as I looked over the menu, but we started off with some drinks.  There weren’t any prices for the food items, but there are for the drinks.  So, it seems they operate on the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” train of thought.  Janice went with a classic glass of red wine that ended up being as big as her head, and I got a mezcal margarita ($12.50).IMG_4964  Mezcal has become more popular with the rise of tequila, but still isn’t very widespread.  It is distilled from the maguey agave plant which is so revered that the Aztecs called the fermented liquid the “elixir of the gods”.  Mezcal assumed its current form when Spaniards took the Aztec agave drink called “pulque” and found a distilling process to increase its alcohol content.  While in Mexico mezcal is consumed straight, I had it mixed with the Spanish Torres 10 year brandy, bitters, lemonade, and mezcal from the very home state in Mexico that started it all, Oaxaca.  It was shaken and served tableside with much pomp, and it was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted.unnamed (2)  It was super potent, but not too sweet. IMG_4957 The hight quality mezcal and Spanish brandy left my palate with a smooth caress with each sip, and there was no burning sensation when it was going down compared with some tequilas I’ve tried.  Once we got our drinks, we got to figuring out what food to order.  At Topolobampo, diners have the option of doing a three, five, or seven course tasting menu with the eaters choosing the dishes.  A fourth option is doing a “Perfect Seven” chef-chosen seven course meal.  We each went for a 5 course tasting menu since we were starving and ready to sample everything Chef Bayless had to offer.  We expected nothing less than magic after hearing him talk about his pre-Colombian menu where he made Mexican food with no beef, chicken, cilantro, lime, or even pork! Long story short, we were blown away.  Our meal started with an off-the-menu item that we got for free.  It was a tiny stack of radioactive pink disks resting in a similarly colored liquid.IMG_4959  Our waiter explained that it was pickled watermelon and radish topped with cayenne pepper.  It was cool, sour, yet slightly spicy that primed our tastebuds for what was next.  I got the sopa azteca (Aztec soup) that consisted of a medium heat pasilla pepper infused beef stock, incredibly tender chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips.IMG_4961  It was simple yet warmed my soul on that dark and cold night.  It kind of reminded me of a Mexican take on French onion soup.  Janice’s first plate was a surprise knockout in terms of flavor.  She got the Sand and Sea which was green ceviche on a bed of tortilla sand.  If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s basically a room temperature salad made of tomatoes, onions, some kind of whitefish, and lime juice.  In true Rick Bayless fashion, he turned this Mexican coastal favorite on its head with chunks of summer flounder, serrano chiles, lime, jicama, and avocados to give it that Hulk green hue.  01cb2a19792a28dad09df6f12d856abd8ce6b359a7Coming from someone who is not a huge fish person, I loved it, and Janice, a bigger fish lover than I, loved it as well.  It didn’t have that super “fishy” taste that might accompany some dishes; I’d liken it more to a lighter and thinner guacamole in terms of taste and texture.   Next up was my beautiful girlfriend’s sunchokes.  The name “sunchoke” was invented for this tuber that is kind of like a potato in terms of appearance in the 1960’s to revive the sales of this very old plant.  However, the sun part supposedly comes from the Italian name for it “girasole” or “sunflower” due to the similar yellow flowers that grew wherever sunchokes could be found.  As for the “choke” part, that came from famous French explorer Samuel Champlain sending back samples of the veggies to France from Canada and America noting a “taste like an artichoke”.unnamed (3)  They were served in a recado blanco sauce from the Yucatan peninsula, a.k.a. the home of the Maya and every high schoolers’ Spring Break plans.  It was a simple sauce that had some garlic, oregano, and some sweet spices to give it a semi-curry character with a guero chile mixed in to give it a vibrant yellow hue.  unnamed (5)Underneath them were resting fermented kohlrabi pieces which were basically pickled turnips.  It was both spicy yet savory and slightly sweet.  The cool slice of avocado on the side cut down the spice when necessary.  They were ok but not amazing in comparison to my second dish:  the carne asada in mole negro.  Now, a lot of people love the chocolatey, spicy sauce on their enchiladas, and much to my own surprise, I am not one of them.  I love chocolate in all forms, but I normally shy away from mixing sweet and savory items.  Topolobampo made me see the upside of this pre-Colombian sauce.  First, there were the firewood-roasted pieces of ribeye that were small but extremely lean, and these exemplary cuts of meat were surrounded by smoked green beans and a small tamal of chipilin herbs. unnamed (4) Mole comes from the Aztec word for “sauce”, and legend has it that a group of nuns threw a bunch of spices together with some chocolate to make sauce for the archbishop’s meal.  He loved it and wanted to know what it was.  One of the nun’s said, “I made a mole”, and thus the legend was born.  For once, I was like the archbishop in a divine state of being when eating this plate. unnamed The Oaxacan mole wasn’t overly sweet like other moles I have tried; the chihuacle chili peppers really brought a little fire to each bite which I appreciated along with the other 28 ingredients that went into the delicious sauce.  As for the meat, it was astoundingly tender and smoky to compliment the mole.  The same could be said for the green beans.  Next, I got goat barbacoa which was served two ways.  The lower layer was slow cooked goat that could be found in a Jalisco birria stew while the top was a panchetta or cured piece of goat that was crunchier.IMG_4971  It was served with garnishes on the side that were fresh, but the goat when it was coated in the red chili sauce was rich, almost too rich for its own good.  IMG_4973While the barbacoa was melt-in-your-mouth quality, it was a bit too salty for my liking.  Janice’s tamal festivo that was stuffed with turkey, chestnuts, and coated in a red mole sauce was like a Mesoamerican take on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.IMG_4967  I was very thankful she ordered it because it was extremely comforting and hearty.  Our final round of savory plates took us to two stewed dishes.  I got the mole de olla or (pan mole) which consisted of beef short ribs wallowing in a ancho and guajillo mole while being topped with some zesty and sour prickly pear fruitIMG_4969.  IMG_4970It covered every taste bud with an explosion of flavors, and I highly recommend this dish.  Janice’s suckling pig was equally decadent. 01f8efcc2b3d20eb4e1e73a399b356a5e08d901b68The braised pork was succulent, overshadowing the greens, and further embellished with the extremely thin veils of 14-month dry cured ham resting softly atop this tiny nugget of greatness.  Even after all of these dishes, we still had room for dessert because as the maxim of high end dining held true where it was a series of small but high quality ingredients that satisfied us, but we didn’t feel stuffed.

Dessert was just as over the top and true to its Mexican roots.  The cacao tree was an homage to the sacred cacao bean that was considered a drink and food only reserved for Aztec emperors and gods.  A piece of milk chocolate bark lay across three different forms of the dark stuff. unnamed (1)unnamed (6) First, there was the moist lava cake that was made with house-made chocolate straight from Tabasco, Mexico.  Words cannot describe how delicious this element was.

So much love for the cake.

Clearly she liked it.

Next, the cacao fruit mousse was the opposite in the sense that it wasn’t extremely rich but rather a smooth and sweet raspberry and chocolate cream.  Finally, there was the rosita de cacao ice cream that was like a lip-smackingly great French vanilla combined with a generous helping of chocolate chunks from Chiapas, Mexico.  Janice got the crepas con cajeta (crepes with cream) which was just as great. IMG_4977 The crepes were slightly warm and filled with bittersweet dark chocolate ganache that became gooey due to the heat, and the pumpkin spice and pecan toffee ice cream on the side started to melt that made it perfect for the Fall.  On top of all of this, there was a meringue and warm apples that made it a mixture of European and pre-Colombian influences to make my stomach very happy.  The final two desserts were the winter buñuelo de viento and the guava atole.  The former was the antithesis to the cacao tree since it was all white errthang.01c17989af02d0e072be4bab7bc510836a68be025e  It consisted of a scoop of vanilla-brandy ice cream topped with puffed rice stewing in a warm traditional Mexican ponche or “punch” infused with hibiscus, tamarind, brandy, sugarcane, and tejocote apples.  The latter, the guava atole, was a complete nod to the Aztecs who invented the corn and flour drink.IMG_4974  On one side there was a steamed masa corn cake that was semi-sweet and moist.   Then the atole guava ice cream was on the other side where the sweetness of the tropical guava mixed with a slightly starchy element.  I liked the crunchy masa strips and flour crumbles because they brought both a change of texture along with an almost pie a-la-mode feel with the ice cream combined with the crumbles.  It was my second favorite dessert behind the cacao tree.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied, and it was a fantastic birthday from the beginning to the end even though I never found out how much everything cost haha.  If you want some gourmet Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices for high end diners, I highly recommend Topolobampo!
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

 

 

Winter bunuelo de viento

guava atole

Costa Rica (Day 1): Eating With Royalty

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Merry Christmas and happy holiday season to everyone out there in cyberspace!  I hope this post finds you well, and you have been enjoying plenty of delicious dishes at some rockin’ parties.  Today begins the recounting of our (Janice and I) adventure to Costa Rica.  Why Costa Rica you might ask?  Well, it was the same price as a ticket to Texas, and we wanted some place warm.  So, why not go to a place that is a bit more exotic and less like King of the Hill? Then there is the question as to what exactly Costa Rica offers over more popular Latin American destinations like Brazil or Argentina or Mexico?  Easy.  A country that is an anomaly in the region in the sense of being a more European enclave surrounded by more indigenous/mestizo nations.  A country that has not had a standing army since 1948.  A country with the largest sloth sanctuary in the world (more to come on this particular Costa Rican highlight).  Another fun fact is that our trip to the land of Pura Vida is that it was one of my best vacations ever thanks to my lovely travel partner and delicious food that we sampled all over the country.  Day one takes us to a local favorite in San Jose, the capital city.

When we landed in the country, we were greeted with sun, smiles, and warm weather.  Coming from typically frigid Chicago, I could only turn to Janice, chuckle, and say, “This is December”.  This became a common refrain when we witnessed something absolutely beautiful that would be instead frozen solid or coated in a sludge of melted snow if it was up north in Chi-town.  While being driven from the airport to our condo, we talked with the driver, Rigoberto, about what would be a good, local place to grab dinner.  He recommended La Princesa Marina (The Marine Princess), and soon thereafter, our condo owner also confirmed that it would be a perfect way to kick off our vacation.

We caught a ride with the condo owner, and eventually arrived at the door.IMG_5082  I couldn’t give you directions there since Costa Rican street names aren’t the best, and most locals rely on landmarks to show you the way.  Ergo, the biggest thing by the establishment is the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica shown below (the national soccer stadium build by the Chinese curiously enough).  IMG_5086It was moderately packed when we walked into the place since local soccer club, Saprissa, was getting ready to play the final game of the season against neighboring Heredia. IMG_5080 Apparently this is one of the big, rowdy hangouts when the big matches happen.  Luckily, we came there way before kickoff, so we weren’t caught up in any type of hubbub. IMG_5081 Most of the staff were rocking their Saprissa jerseys though.  Janice and I just had our game faces on as we were looking over their giant menus that were in both English and Spanish, and there were two columns of prices that indicated the price before and after tax.  I never saw that anywhere else in the world.  Obviously, La Princesa Marina is a seafood place, and Costa Rica is known for their amazing frutas del mar.  Naturally, we kicked it off with two different types of ceviche, camaron con aguacate (shrimp with avocado; 3,690 colones/$6.80) and corvina con aguacate (sea bass which is a local specialty with avocado; 3,320 colones/$6).  NOTE:  They accept both Colones and USD in Costa Rica in most places, but the exchange rate is really messy when trying to convert between the two which made it difficult for us to determine what was a good or bad deal.  They say use USD, but I’d recommend using Colones because it’s less of a headache.

Sloths!

Sloths!

To drink, I got a Costa Rican Bavaria Gold ( 1,905/$3.50).  That came out first, and it was nothing special. IMG_5065 It was a pilsner that was slightly bitter and had hoppy notes, but it was pretty watery overall.

When they all came out, I was pleasantly surprised.  Now, I’m not a big fish guy beyond shrimp and tuna fish sandwiches, but this ceviche really won me over.  Ceviche has a colorful history that stretches back over 2,000 years in Peru (originally called siwichi in Quechua) that was first invented by Inca populations that then adopted the citrus fruits like oranges, limes, and lemons that the Spanish explorers brought with them compliments of their former Moorish overlords.  The dish basically hasn’t changed since then since it still consists of raw fish that is “cooked” by the citric acid from the aforementioned fruits, in this case lemon and lime.  However, it was a bit different than Mexican ceviche I’ve tried that had tortilla chips on the side instead of the saltines the Costa Ricans preferred.  Plus, it had a lot more liquid in it which was similar to an Ecuadorian variety I sampled at a family friend’s party.  Either way, I sampled both and liked the shrimp ceviche better. IMG_5068 I found the corvina to be good, pure white sea bass, but it didn’t have the chewier texture that the shrimp brought to the table.IMG_5066  For both, I loved the combination of smooth avocado with the onions, cilantro, and tangy citrus juices that I kicked up a notch with a trusty local hot sauce that I could liken to a kind of Tabasco. IMG_5071 I wasn’t a huge fan of the saltines as a means of transporting the tasty ceviche from bowl to mouth due to the crumbliness of the cracker, so I guess I enjoy the Mexican ceviche more in that aspect.  Once we were almost done with our ceviches, our main plates came out.

First, there was my arroz de la casa (rice of the house;  4,180/$7.75) which was a ton of cooked rice that was seasoned and filled with shrimp, pork, chicken, and a mix of vegetables. IMG_5074 It was similar to the rice side dish found in almost every Mexican restaurant in terms of the orange hue, slightly buttery flavor, and corn and peas lurking amongst the grains, but the meat really jazzed up this side dish to make it one of the highlights of the meal.  My lomo en salsa jalapeña (sirloin in jalapeño pepper sauce; 5,535/$10) was also fantastic.IMG_5072  The steak was seared to perfection, and the spicy sauce was filled with onions, peppers, and extra spicy jalapeño slices.  Not only did I have the huge slab of meat in front of me, but there was a cup of fried plantains, plain white rice, and black beans on the side.   IMG_5075I ignored the rice, but the fried plantains were wonderful since they tasted like a mix of caramel and bananas.  As for the black beans, they were interesting since there literally was a piece of pork sticking out of the ebony muck like the sinking Titanic.  However, this doomed piece of pork imparted its flavor to the beans that were scrumptious, and soon thereafter had a one way ticket to my stomach.  Then there was Janice’s mixed plate of shrimp, fish filets, and octopus (plato surtido de camaron, filet, y pulpo 7,380/$13). IMG_5076 Even with the wonderful seafood in the ceviche, Janice was quite disappointed with this mixed plate, and she loves seafood which is saying something.  It looked like the shrimp were cooked and marinated in some type of butter/olive oil sauce with herbs, but I didn’t try them or the fish filets. IMG_5077 The filets just looked like fried pieces of corvina, so I’m sure they weren’t anything special. IMG_5079 As for the octopus, if they were cut in slightly smaller pieces with a pinch of paprika, I would say it was just as good as the pulpo gallego I had in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. IMG_5078It was so fresh that the suction cups still would stick to the plate, and it was neither too chewy nor too soggy.  Definitely the king of this sea platter.

When it came time to pay, I found out that I had go up to a cashier window that looked more at home in a liquor store than a restaurant since it had bars on the window and a small opening where receipts and money were exchanged.  While paying, this was where I first found out how screwy the currency was since our bill came out to roughly $50 bucks.  I paid in USD, and I got Colones back and mixed change, i.e. there were 100 colon coins, 500 colon coins, and then some nickles thrown in there for fun.  Seriously?  Nickles?  Either way, La Princesa Marina was a filling and satisfying way to kick off our vacation, and got us ready for the adventures to come.

 

Top of the Tabla

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Bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  The weather has been absolutely perfect as of late here in Chicago, but I feel like the chill of the Fall will be here sooner rather than later.  With it, comes a longing for hearty food and more robust drinks  in terms of spices and general ingredients.  Ergo, I’d like to put forth a new restaurant review of Las Tablas, a Colombian steakhouse that gives you gargantuan portions of delicious food for reasonable prices to fortify you for Chicago’s terrible winter.  IMG_4076

We went to this eatery earlier in the summer for one of Janice’s friends birthdays, so they were easily able to accommodate our enormous party.  The interior of the establishment was simple and some of the most eye-catching decorations were pictures on the wall of different people who seemed to have a bit of a weight problem.  These rotund subjects were signature pieces of “the most Colombian of Colombian artists”, Fernando Botero.  His unique take on artwork has created quite a following throughout the world, and it was an authentic piece of the homeland as we sat down and perused the menu.  We started with drinks.  While Las Tablas is BYOB, you can also order drinks off their menu.  We split a pitcher of sangria since it was a fun summer drink for the extremely humid night. IMG_4081 It wasn’t anything special though.  The wine was semi-acidic and didn’t really possess any of bold sweetness that comes from the sugar and fruit floating in the blood-red elixir.  The food, however, didn’t let us down.  They have plenty of authentic Colombian appetizers and entrees to choose from.  Even though its a steakhouse, vegetarians never fear!  They do have veggie friendly options for you.  For example, the aborrajado ($6) I got was vegetarian but not vegan friendly.  According to the menu, the aborrajado is a specialty from the coastal region of Colombia that consisted of a sweet plantain filled with guava jelly and topped with melted cheese. IMG_4084 While that seemed like an odd mix of ingredients, it actually jived pretty well.  Apparently, the banana was supposed to be fully fried according to Wikipedia, but my plate was semi-fried and was gooier if anything.  If you get this appetizer, let it cool off for a long time.  Although it smells like a freshly baked apple and banana pie, you will get a blazing mouthful of napalm.  Not a good look when out with friends for a fun time speaking from experience.  When I finally let it cool down enough, I found it to be a unique but tasty dish.  If you have a sweet tooth and a love for chewy, salty cheese then this is the ideal appetizer for you.  The guava and banana were a dynamic duo that teamed up with the cooked cheese on top for a sweet and salty treat.  I was semi-full after it, but I still had to choose an entree.  After looking over the numerous meat options, I got the bandeja paisa (literally:  “country tray”) ($21).  My girlfriend got a combinacion ($21) with a plantain, skirt steak, yuca, potato, and baby calamari.

When both of the plates came out, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach.  My girlfriend’s plate was especially eye catching with the slightly char-grilled baby octopodes (or octopi if you’re all about mixing Greek and Roman pluralizations).IMG_4085  Some of them were quite chilling to look at on other peoples’ plates where they had faces similar to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Creepy cephalopods aside, they were quite delicious with a nice firm texture and a great charred aftertaste mixed in with the semi-buttery flesh.  As for my plate, where to begin? IMG_4087 First, there was the rib-eye steak.  Lord, was it perfect.  Juicy, tender, and bursting with rich, meaty flavor.  The other meat element, the fried pork belly, looked very similar to another type of bacon I tried that also tricked me in Hungary.  It was a lot harder to eat than the steak because of the tough pork skin it was attached to, but that didn’t stop me from getting my hands dirty and perhaps scaring some of my fellow diners in the process. IMG_4117 You don’t mess with a man and his bacon.  It was worth the greasy face and fingers with each nugget oozing salty and porktastic notes that were probably as addictive as Pablo Escobar’s finest wares.  The beans were ok, but they were enhanced when I mixed them in with the freshly sliced avocados, white rice (that was on the dry side), and the fried egg atop the mini rice mound.  The arepa on the side was also quite tasty since it was filled with more of the cheese that was melted on top of the aborrajado from earlier in the meal.  It was like a South American version of a Mexican quesadilla, and I’ve tangled with the Salvadorian version of an arepa on an earlier food adventure.  There was no way I was going to finish all of this food, so I threw in the towel by the time I finished all the meat, arepa, and avocados.  I couldn’t stuff myself any more with rice and beans.  In the haze of my food coma, I knew I experienced something special that night from a place I had never been to before but hope to experience one day.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

So if you want a taste of Colombia without having to hop on a plane, check out Las Tablas for some of the best steaks this side of the equator!

Las Tablas on Urbanspoon

I Found My Thrill…

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Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  For those first viewing this site, I review restaurants in Chicago/the Chicagoland area/anywhere I’ve traveled.  Today will be a short but savory post.  Most people say that eating a hearty breakfast is the cornerstone to a productive day, but I’ve found that most people are too busy (or can’t schedule their time properly) in the morning to even grab a bite to eat.  However, if you do have more than five minutes to rush out the door, I would like to tell you about a great breakfast restaurant for any type of eater.  It is called Blueberry Hill located at 7340 Illinois 83 Darien, IL.

I have been to this establishment many times after hearing my mom rave about the variety of items they offer, and the high quality of said items.  I’m pleased to let you know that her claims were not some sort of culinary El Dorado or Utopia.  One of the only downsides about this restaurant is that it gets very crowded in the morning on weekends, and it stays open only until three p.m.  So bring your appetites and patience when dining here because you might have to battle the hordes for a table.  Thankfully, when I most recently ate there, it was crowded per usual, but we managed to get a table in fifteen minutes thanks to their efficient wait staff.  As I looked over the menu, I was sucked into their lunch options, but I decided to get a breakfast item since it is their signature meal.  Finally I saw something that caught my eye:  an avocado, bacon, and tomato omelet.  I also chose the complementary side of Greek toast instead of the side of pancakes.  A quick aside, for those not from Chicago/Chicagoland, Greek toast is basically thicker slices of toast that have sesame seeds on the crust.  Apparently it’s called Texas Toast in other parts of the country according to my friends.

Big portion, even bigger flavor

Big portion, even bigger flavor

When it finally came out, I was confronted with an omelet that most likely was made with an ostrich egg in terms of the overall size of it.  The first bite was nice and fluffy with tiny pieces of crunchy, but not burnt, smoked hickory bacon and large chunks of creamy avocado.  Unfortunately, the tomatoes were not as plentiful as the aforementioned two items, but they were still quite fresh when I stumbled upon them in the yellow fields of the omelet.  I kicked it up a notch with a couple soupçons of Louisiana Hot Sauce to give my meal a bit of that south-of-the-border/Mason Dixon line taste.  The Greek toast was perfectly toasted with a golden brown hue and a thick coating of sesame seeds on the crust.  There were even small slices of fresh cantaloupe and an orange slice on the side to provide some sort of healthy twist to this extremely unhealthy meal.  I ate both, but the orange slice had a prodigious amount of seeds in it.  So chomp away at your own peril.  If there was any part of the meal that really did not impress me was the steaming potatoes that were the side to the omelet.  They were essentially chopped potatoes that were steamed and therefore devoid of any real flavor.  However, most people would be stuffed after eating that gigantic omelet, so perhaps they don’t put as much effort into improving the potatoes.  Either way, I was very satisfied with the meal.

So if you want to give breakfast and your stomach the respect they deserve, roll out of bed and down to Blueberry Hill to find your gastronomic thrill!

Blueberry Hill Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Blueberry Hill Pancake House on Foodio54

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