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Once You Go Black, You Don’t Go Back

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December in Chicago.  Perfect time for some ice cream, right? Absolutely!  Especially when the creamery in question is as creative as Black Dog Gelato.  A few months ago I went to this establishment with my lovely girlfriend after a long day of listening and sampling some delicious treats as a lucky participant in the Taste Talks Convention in Chicago.  It was the perfect compliment to the savory tour de force that is Green Street Smoked Meats.

As I previously mentioned, we managed to score tickets to Taste Talks, and one of the meetings we went to was all about the future of ice cream.  Who was there?  Jenny Oloroso, the owner and founder of Black Dog Gelato.  We learned so much from her like how much care, creativity, and gastronomic chemistry goes into creating quality gelato from scratch.  What this means for the consumer is they get to enjoy a light but ultra-rich product that is churned out in limited size batches each day which is how Black Dog Gelato is operated.  Once they run out of a flavor, tough luck!  However, with flavors such as white chocolate banana curry, cucumber rosewater sorbet, and sesame fig chocolate chip, get in quick to get the pick of the litter. IMG_4433 When we arrived, it wasn’t too hopping in the middle of the cold and rainy afternoon. IMG_4431 The warm interior beckoned us to peruse the selection in front of us in the glass case and pick some winners.  IMG_4430Janice got a cup of goat cheese cashew caramel and butterscotch bourbon pecan while I got a cup of Mexican hot chocolate and maple cayenne bacon ($4.50 approximately each).

Left:  goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan Right:  Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

Left: goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan
Right: Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

All of it tasted like a million bucks though.  The goat cheese cashew caramel was an interesting blend that was quite enjoyable even though one would think that the strong flavor profile of the goat cheese would overwhelm the other elements.  On the contrary, it was tempered by the sweet caramel and salty cashews to form the perfect blend of savory and sweet.  As for the butterscotch bourbon pecan, it was a lot less crazy than the first entry since it tasted like a more decadent butter pecan with a slightly boozy kick with each spoonful.  Janice loves her bourbon, so she was in heaven.  I was satisfied with it as well.  Then there were my crazy gelati.  The Mexican hot chocolate was your typical chocolate ice cream; a chocolate ice cream that also happened to be full of chili pepper.  It was exactly what I wanted.  This homage to its Aztec forefathers was both sweet with a slightly spicy kick that slowly but surely engulfed my tongue with a smoldering, but not overwhelming, kiss.  As for the maple cayenne bacon gelato, it wasn’t as good as the ones Janice picked or the Mexican hot chocolate.  True, I could taste each individual ingredient like the sweet maple syrup or the fiery cayenne, whose sibling I had already visited in the hot chocolate, but the bacon proved to be this selection’s undoing.  I’ve always loved bacon (tooting my meat product hipster horn) before the entire bacon craze hit the nation, but this gelato was an example of the fine line between madness and genius leaning towards the former.  The bacon was hogging the spotlight and left a greasy residue in my mouth.  Not a good look.  This didn’t sour my experience overall though.

Overall, I’d recommend Black Dog Gelato due to its high quality gelato and creative cornucopia of flavors for a reasonable price.

Black Dog Gelato on Urbanspoon

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Bearing the Grunt of Good Food

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Welcome to the 220th post on Mastication Monologues!  It has been quite a trip, but what better way to celebrate another small milestone than going to the first ever Lettuce Entertain You restaurant:  R.J. Grunts.  It still is as funky as it was back in the 1970s, and the food is as unpretentious as their self-deprecating menu humor.

This food adventure was prefaced by an enchanting time at the zoo with my girlfriend Janice at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Adult Night.  After enjoying seeing the animals chilling at night in their habitats sans shrieking urchins scurrying about, we stumbled upon the mythical establishment.  IMG_4093We walked in on a Saturday night, and it was packed.  However, we were able to get a table for two right away.  We walked past happy, chatting diners along with an epic salad bar that seemed to have every condiment under the sun along with some interesting sides like various neon colored Jellos. IMG_4107 When we sat down, I surveyed the walls that were coated with pictures of random people who I never really found out who they were.  However, the menu was a work of art, and it was gigantic as shown by my semi-hidden boo. IMG_4094

Hide and Seek at our own table

Hide and Seek at our own table

Not only was it hulking in terms of size, but also food and drink options.  One of the most interesting items on the menu was the temperature soup.  What it consists of is the soup of the day that costs the same temperature based on what it says on the lakeside thermometer, i.e. if it’s 32 degrees, you pay $0.32 for your soup.  It can be added to your entree with the following three conditions:  1.  The salad bar doesn’t come with it, 2.  They won’t pay you if it’s -0 F, and 3.  It’s only valid with purchase of an entree.  While it was intriguing, I was much hungrier and looking for something more substantial.  Thus, I came to the burger part of the menu.  After looking it over, I decided to get the Yowza Burger (a common phrase used as an exclamation of excitement during the 70s like in Happy Days) for $12.95 and a hand-dipped creamy caramel shake ($6).  Janice got the Grunt Burger ($11.95) but no shake.  They came out after a bit, and they didn’t look spectacular.IMG_4111  However, I made the mistake of judging a burger by its bun. It was stacked with enough spicy things to make someone yell its name, but with someone who has dead tastebuds after years of heat challenges, it wouldn’t trouble many chiliheads.IMG_4112  Normal people, maybe.  I really liked the pepper jack, spicy ketchup, and peppercorns that were coating the burger.  It was different kinds of spice that activated different parts of the palate along with the crunch from the smoked bacon and occasional peppercorn lodged in the juicy patty.  I personally preferred my girlfriend’s Grunt burger because there were a ton of fried onion strings and crumbly/melted blue cheese chunks on the Angus patty.  IMG_4125Two great, strong flavors and differing textures that would make me happy but sorely needing a breath mint by the end of the meal.  Then there were the fries that were more like potato chips but not really.  I really enjoyed them since they were unique, exquisitely fried, and were just the right amount of crispy leaning more toward the softer end of things.  The piece de resistance was the  milkshake I had there.IMG_4105  I’ve had my fair share of ice cream treats, both good and disgusting, but this was one of my top three milk shakes I’ve ever tried.  The butterfat of the ice cream mixing with the rich milk and sweet caramel created a cool ambrosia that washed over my palate with wave upon wave of dulcet notes that made me happy until there was none left.  I had no shame when taking it down in public like a sweet fiend.  It was a creative, classic all American meal for a fun date night.

Short hair, don't care

Short hair, don’t care

So if you’re looking for a restaurant with plenty of history, character, innovative dishes, and moderate prices, look no further than the blast from the past, R.J. Grunts.  Dy-no-mite!!

R.J. Grunts on Urbanspoon

Thowback Post- Gołąbki in Poland

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What is happening, everyone out there reading Mastication Monologues?!  I hope this post is finding you well as the summer is slowly drawing to a close.  Things have been happening as of late with my job hunt, so I haven’t been able to update my blog regularly.  My b.  Anyway, this post continues of the same vein of previous posts where I am recounting my culinary tales throughout Europe, and today’s entry deals with Poland.

Poland has often been at the butt of many jokes due to the apparent ineptitude of its residents, but it is a tough country that has constantly been invaded by its larger neighbors like Austria, Russia, and Germany.  However, the Polish people have stuck together through these harrowing periods of history, and today have a vibrant democracy with a booming economy.  I saw plenty of P0land’s cultural history when visiting Krakow, the cultural capital of the south.2819_1239044213300_1052047_n  It’s also close to my great-grandparents’ villages they emigrated from back in the 1910s.  So, it felt like a type of homecoming for me to reconnect with my cultural roots.  While we were wandering about the streets of the charming Eastern European city checking out such sights like the city square, the cloth hall, and the Vistula river, it made us all work up an appetite.

The main square

The main square; Cloth Hall far left and St. Mary’s to the right.

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church

2819_1239045653336_1332560_n

Old Town

Old Town

Me being dashing next to the Vistula

Me being dashing next to the Vistula

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

So we stopped into a local restaurant and looked over the menu.  They had plenty of items that one could find in Polish restaurant Stateside like in Chicago and elsewhere.  If you’ve never had Polish food, it’s very hearty and simple food focusing on vegetables that can grow in the cold winters like potatoes and cabbage along with rich pieces of meat and sausage.  One item in particular caught my eye that I knew I had to get:  Gołąbki (pronounced:  Go-wumb-key).  This dish literally means “pigeons”.  According to Wikipedia, during the Thirteen Years War the kings of Lithuania and Poland allegedly fed gołąbki to their troops before the key battle of Marienburg Castle against the German Teutonic Order of Knights.  Result:  a Polish and Lithuanian victory.  Hooray for pigeon power! Don’t worry though, none of the head bobbin’, flying rats were harmed in the making of this meal.  Instead, it is like an Eastern European version of Greek dolmathakia.3354_850557907990_896543_n    First, there is the minced pork/beef blend inside that is seasoned and mixed with onions and rice.  This hearty melange is subsequently wrapped up in boiled cabbage leaves and then drenched in a warm tomato sauce.  The boiled cabbage was semi-firm, and the tomato sauce provided a smooth, tangy background to the spiced meats inside.  While we weren’t going to be engaging in hand to hand combat after our meal, it gave us plenty of energy to tackle the rest of our trip.  Honorable mention for food in Poland goes to the spreadable lard on bread that we tried in a different restaurant. 2819_1239046293352_2136836_n It was like a spreadable, warm butter mixed with bacon chunks that was so wrong yet tasted so right.  It was an homage to my grandparents who loved to spread it on rye bread.  It’s too bad they’ll never make it back to Poland, but I’m sure I made them proud with this meal.

Just like Baba and Papa

Just like Baba and Papa

Solid Like a Rock

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What says summer more than a barbecue?  Burgers, beers, and brats abound as Americans across the country congregate in their backyards around a sizzling grill as our ancestors have done since the beginning of time.  While we’ve gone beyond grunting at each other and digging into fresh hunks of mastodon, the love for grilled meats is still going on strong as I found out at Rocks in Lincoln Park.IMG_3503

The previous night we had spent a good time enjoying some bodacious burgers and brews at George Street Pub, so we ended up at Rock’s since they had some delicious brunch options.  It didn’t strike me as anything novel in terms of decor or concept upon walking into the establishment though.  A high end pub with wood and stone accents that focuses on beer and whiskey…yawn.IMG_3495 Since it was already noon, I was in the mood for something a bit more on the lunch end of things.  They had a fair bit of appetizers, sweet plates, sandwiches, and burgers (including a four pound burger challenge).  Plus, they had a litany of beers along with plenty of whiskeys; hence the name, Rocks, as in the ice cubes.  Continuing in the trend of the weekend, I looked over the burgers and tried to find something new and interesting.  Enter El Gordo or “The Fat” ($10).  I could then choose a side from a mini list of intriguing options, but I went with the Greek fries.

When the burger came out, I was taken aback with how it was presented with all of its toppings bared to the world like a sorority girl at Mardi Gras.IMG_3499  I could see the half pound beef patty topped with pepper jack, cheddar, and provolone, three strips of bacon, pieces of onion rings, deep fried pickles, and a coating of spicy 1,000 island dressing.  I was having the meat sweats just looking at this mountain of a meal, but I put the pretzel top bun on and got ready to rock.IMG_3501  The first bite was quite intense as I cut through the gooey layer of cheese, juicy meat, crispy bacon, and sour layers of fried vegetables.  I personally thought they were gilding the rose though with this burger. IMG_3502 While I’d recommend it to anyone, it seemed like a bit too much was going on in regard to the flavor profile.  The pickles overwhelmed a lot of the flavors including the supposedly spicy 1000 island sauce.  Thankfully, the pretzel bun managed to keep all of the contents between my fingers, and I’ve found the pretzel bun to be the sturdiest variety of bread utilized in burger construction.  Good old fashioned German food engineering at work. What I was more entertained with were the Greek fries.IMG_3498  While they were similar to some taters I’ve tasted in Oregon, they were a Hellenic treat complete with actual chunks of seasoned Feta cheese.  I’m loco about my queso, and these fries fit the bill.  The creamy and crumbly pieces of goat cheese were pungent and transported the oregano coated potatoes to a cut above the rest.

So if you’re looking for another bar that serves ridiculous burgers alongside brunch items with a touch of class, roll on over to Rocks!

fRocks Lincoln Park on Urbanspoon

Teach Me How to Dougie

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Sometimes there are restaurants that achieve legendary status in cities across the world due to the novelty, quality, and/or overall service they provide year after year.  Chicago is definitely one of the most cutting edge cities in the food world due to the high presence of top chefs like Rick Bayless, Homaro Cantu, and Grant Achatz who is best known for Alinea, voted the top restaurant in the world.  However, that doesn’t mean that we also have restaurants that serve simple dishes that reflect the different ethnic neighborhoods throughout Chicago like all different types of Mexican food, Italian beef sandwiches, and Chicago hot dogs.  The last dish has a special place in the heart of many Chicagoans since we have our own unique way of serving it, i.e. NO KETCHUP!!!  Hot Doug’s, on the other hand, takes hot dogs to another universe with funky toppings and a reputation without equal in the city.  It was an adventure from the first minute Janice and I got there.

First, there was my failure with parallel parking.  We arrived there in the morning, and there already was a line that was forming down the block.  I don’t work well with an audience when it comes to pulling off this essential city parking move, and of course, I crashed and burned in front of everyone (Later that day I did it in two moves with no audience).  So, Janice did it for me in order for me to secure a place in the ever-expanding line.  I came out of my car to boos while she emerged from my car to rapturous applause.  We were celebrities!  Thus began our two hour wait…IMG_3417

While waiting in line, I heard people saying they were from all over the USA and even overseas and made it a point to visit Hot Doug’s during their stay in Chicago including a lovely couple in front of us from Seattle.  Perhaps it was the mind-blowing eats or the sad fact that Hot Doug’s is closing on October 3rd.  Either way, all of us were itching to stuff our pie-holes with the legendary tube steaks.  When the doors finally opened, we moved into the shade and were greeted with the aroma of charred meats from within.

I knew I liked this place.

I knew I liked this place.

IMG_3414 IMG_3413  Our mouths were watering as we endured the agonizing wait, but once we set foot inside, it was a colorful monument to all things hot dog.IMG_3453 IMG_3419IMG_3420 Their menu was a veritable who’s who of encased meats ranging from a classic hot dog to spicy andouille to even veggie links.  IMG_3418I didn’t know where to start since I wanted to try every single one, but unfortunately, I didn’t feel like breaking the bank or the integrity of my stomach.IMG_3421  Janice and I finally reached the counter and were greeted by the owner Doug Sohn, a charismatic owner who was also a soccer fan which further made me love the place.

Just gabbin about futbol

Just gabbin about futbol

We were on the same page about everything about the beautiful game and this World Cup, and this agreement extended to our orders.  Janice got the bacon and cheddar smoked elk sausage with smokey bacon sauce and white cheddar cheese curds ($9.00) while I went for the Sonoran Dog ($6.00) and the Foie Gras Dog ($10.00).  Since it was Saturday, we indulged in an order of duck fat fries ($4.00) which are only available on Fridays and Saturdays.  Once finding a seat, we soaked in the atmosphere as we looked at the walls which were festooned with all things sausage including a hilarious, doctored history of the hot dog.IMG_3454 IMG_3423IMG_3424  Surprisingly, our food popped out in no time, and I didn’t know where to begin first.  After a bit of deliberation and slight awe, I decided to go big with eating the foie gras first.  Foie gras has a controversial history given that the preparation involves force feeding geese to the point that their livers are engorged with fat and take on a buttery consistency.  In Chicago, there had been a ban imposed on the serving of foie gras based on its supposed barbaric treatment of the geese, and even the famous Charlie Trotter spoke out against the cruelty involved in the gourmet treat.  However, the ban was eventually lifted in Chicago in 2008.  Controversy aside, I was planning on stuffing myself like a goose on this sumptuous creation.  It’d be inhumane to let it go to waste.IMG_3427First, there were the disks of foie gras that were piled atop the duck sausage that was infused with a sweet French Bordeaux wine.  If that wasn’t enough, said foie gras was sprinkled with grains of fleur de sel or hand harvested sea salt.  The kicker was the black truffle aioli that was slathered from end to end.  Then there was the first bite.  IMG_3455The duck sausage was full of fatty goodness, but the foie gras definitely overshadowed it in a wave of creamy yet mind-numbingly rich flavor that wasn’t as gamey as I was anticipating.  The black truffles had a bit of an aromatic, slightly earthy taste, but I could mostly taste the foie gras which took away from the creation overall.  First world problems.  I know.  Moving on from that heart attack inducing dog, I said “Hola!” to the Sonoran dog.  It was a dish reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s foray into the slighty obscene and subtly sexual world of Colombian foot long hot dogs.  The toppings were extraordinary to say the least.IMG_3430  First, there was the char-grilled, jalapeño Polish sausage covered with an adequate schmeer of jalapeño mayonnaise.  With that foundation, somehow Hot Doug managed to also jam in a couple pieces of jalapeño bacon, pinto beans, tomatoes, and onions.  I’ll start off with what I didn’t like about this choice.  The onions.IMG_3456  I would normally never bad mouth the stinky little guys, but there were way too many pieces of the white, breath-ruining confetti atop my hot dog.  Everytime I took a bite, it was like Times Square on New Years Day.  White confetti was falling all over my hands and table, but I wasn’t Dick Clark and the calendar said otherwise.  Moving beyond the onion barrage, I relished (pun intended) the contrast of flavors and textures.  While the pinto beans were smooth and mild but not extra mushy, the mayo, sausage, and bacon all brought an adequate level of heat that made me plow through the dog with gusto.  The bacon also was crispy to counteract all of the softer aforementioned elements.  I took a bite of Janice’s bacon and cheddar elk sausage hot dog, and I loved it the most.  One thing that really set it apart was the charred flavor along with the natural casing that literally made each bite pop.IMG_3428  Plus, I love my cheese, so the curds were like cherries on a meaty sundae.  I’d definitely recommend this option.  Finally, there were the duck fat fries. IMG_3429 I originally thought they were going to have something drizzled on them like a poutine of sorts, but it was simply a mini-mountain of fried that were prepared in duck fat instead of corn oil.  The change made a world of difference as these fries lived up to the Yelpers’ hype since they had an almost buttery aftertaste that wasn’t impeded by a layer of salt like normal French fries.  This interesting flavor profile allowed them to be enjoyed alone or with a dollop of ketchup.

Long story short, I’d highly recommend visiting this Chicago eatery before it closes its doors in October.  Bring a chair, food, water, and plenty of patience, but the payoff is worth it!

Some very happy eaters

Some very happy eaters

Hot Doug's 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

In the Garden of Eatin’

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What’s beef? Beef is when you make your enemies start your Jeep
Beef is when you roll no less than thirty deep
Beef is when I see you guaranteed to be a ICU, check it”
-Notorious B.I.G.

While my gangster friend, Biggie, had other ideas about what “beef” meant to him in a serious context, today’s Mastication Monologues post is much more lighthearted.  While I could be considered a culinary hitman who is hired for his discerning palate and ruthless ability to deal with difficult dining experiences, I was working pro-buona at this latest establishment, Buona Beef that is.

While Philly has their cheesesteak and NYC has their monstrous pastrami sammiches, Chicago’s sandwich is one that was born out of poverty.  When Italian immigrants used to work in the Union stockyards of Chicago, they would bring home the lower quality, tougher pieces of meat.  So what would be the easiest way to stretch these meager resources for a meal?  Easy.  First, they wet roasted it in a beef broth seasoned with garlic, oregano, and other spices.  Then, they’d slice the meat extra thin to feed the most amount of mouths with the least waste possible.  These paper-thin pieces of meat were thrown back into the broth to soak up all of the flavor from the roasting period for maximum deliciousness.  From there, the Italian immigrants put the beef on Italian bread loaves, and thus the Chicago Italian beef sandwich was born.  While the times and customers have changed, the cooking process has stayed the same.  Enter Buona Beef.  This franchise started back in 1981 by the Buonavolanto family who brought Neopolitan family recipes to the mainland and brought them to the American public.  Buona Beefs can be found all throughout the Chicagoland area but nowhere else in America.  I went with my parents to the location in Darien, IL, and it was a pleasant dining experience. darien The service was quick, and the prices are reasonable.  The menu ranges from pizza, salads, pasta, and of course, da beef sandwiches!  I got the regular 7″ sandwich ($5.50), but they also have piccolo (small) and maggiore (large) sizes.  While most sandwich restaurants ask if you want everything on it, ordering an Italian beef sandwich could almost sound like a script Ron Jeremy could read.  One can be asked if they want it juicy/dipped (dipped in the beef broth), dry (sans broth), hot (with hot giardiniera on top), or sweet (with sweet peppers on top).  While my mom went for the more subdued sweet, dipped sandwich, I kicked it up a notch by getting a hot dip.  This is definitely where I parked my car. While Buona Beef offers various desserts like cannoli, brownies, gelato, and lemon knots, I knew I had to try their new maple bacon shake ($3.25) which apparently diners have been scared to try.  Since I was the first to do so, the manager was overjoyed that I ordered it.  With our orders in, we took our number, and waited for them to bring us our food.

After a brief wait, our sandwiches came out along with the shakes.  I hadn’t had one of these bad boys since coming back to America, and when I laid my eyes on it, I could remember why I missed this small, meat-laden piece of home.  While I prefer the spicy over the mild, my mom’s sandwich still looked pretty good. I think they could have given her more of the roasted, sweet peppers though. IMG_3205 As for my sandwich, it was a thing of absolute beauty.  The bread was fresh yet glistening slightly with the juice of its beefy bathtub in the back.  Plus, the vegetables, or giardiniera (jar-din-air, Chicago pronunciation), looked fantastic.  Giardiniera means comes from the word in Italian for “garden” but actually means “pickled vegetables”.  That’s why the version in Italy is called “sotto aceti” or “under vinegar”.  However, there are slightly different takes on giardiniera depending on where you are.  The West Coast version is closer to its Italian roots with just using vinegar, but here in Chicago we use olive oil.  I’ve asked friends from across the US if they’ve heard of giardiniera, but it seems to be chiefly a Chicago thang.  Typically, one can find a cornucopia of vegetables in the mild or spicy oil such as carrots, celery, olives, pimentos, cauliflower, and bell peppers.  Everyone has their own favorite blend and brand like Greco’s for me.IMG_3216  Even though they’re soaking in oil, the vegetables still maintain their crispy texture.  compliments of the pickling process.  After appreciating the beefy Botticelli in front of me,  I finally took the first bite.IMG_3211  Not only is the Italian beef sandwich unique in terms of ingredients and being a culinary representative of Chicago, but one must eat it in a certain way known as “the stance”.  I’ll let the owner of  Al’s beef, the mothership of Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago since 1938 in Little Italy, and Adam Richman explain it.  Much like Mr. Richman, I was overwhelmed by the soft, juicy bread that encased the delicate pieces of garlic and oregano-laced beef.  The giardiniera provided a much needed crunch and spice to offset the soggy sandwich.  Naturally, my basket by the end of the meal looked like a sloppy slip-n’-slide, but it hit the spot.  As for my shake, it was thick and topped with a few morsels of bacon. IMG_3208IMG_3209 Upon sipping the ivory-hued beverage, I was immediately greeted with a wave of excruciatingly sweet maple flavor that dominated the shake for the most part until I reached the latter half.IMG_3213Once I finally dove deep enough, I could find and sample the crispy creatures hiding beneath the whipped cream.  The smoky and salty flavor of the bacon combined well with the sweetness of the maple riffs, but it proved to be a bit overwhelming as I sampled the dregs.  By the end, I feel like I drank a bottle of sugar syrup which didn’t settle well with me.  I think if  Buona Beef lightened up on the syrup and evenly distributed the bacon in a smaller portion size, they’d have a real hit on their hands.

So if you want to try a unique piece of Chicago’s culinary history without having to make the trek downtown to Little Italy, try Buona Beef!

Buona Beef on Urbanspoon

Burgers That D-Fi Hunger

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Boom!  This is my 160th post!  Thanks everyone for your support, and expect me to keep on supplying quality restaurant reviews far into the future.  So, let’s start with a welcome to Mastication Monologues for first time viewers and long-time fans.  Today’s post is part two of my Florida trip.  My previous post features an off-beat pizzeria that can satisfy even the most square food lover (as if there existed such a thing).  As for today, I’ll still be pushing the boundaries of my culinary fortitude as I recount my visit to BurgerFi, a place that reinvents both burgers and desserts.

During our stay in Delray Beach, Florida, we did a bit of walking up and down the street lining the beach, and obviously there were plenty of restaurants to take advantage of the hungry swimmers and tanners.  One place that caught my attention was BurgerFi due to its modern exterior and warmly lit interior.IMG_2841  IMG_2840 IMG_2839We waltzed past their outdoor patio to find an extensive menu that focused mainly on burgers but also offered hot dogs, sides, desserts, beer, wine, and a “secret” menu that boasted some interesting choices like a quinoa burger for all those vegetarians out there. IMG_2837 I, however, went for the Breakfast All Day burger ($5.25) with a Coke de Mexico to drink ($3).  They employed a buzzer system for orders where I just took my drink back to my table to wait for my burger to emerge from the back like a tasty bear emerging from its den after a long winter.  While it was being crafted, I sat at the table enjoying my Mexican Coke that I had never tried before. IMG_2824 What separates the Mexican Coke from good old ‘Murikan Coke is that the former still utilizes regular sugar as a sweetener.  In comparison, the American entry we now imbibe is laden with unhealthy high fructose corn syrup due to our country’s ability to grow a surplus of corn and the overall bottom line for the company in regard to production costs.  What does this mean for me?  Well, a definite taste contrast for one thing.  While the American Coke could be described as a sweet but slightly acidic tasting cola, the Mexican Coke tasted a bit cleaner with a richer flavor.  Eventually, my burger was ready, and it was slightly frightening. IMG_2825 According to the menu, they start with an Angus burger and then pile on American cheese, hickory bacon drizzled with maple syrup, a fried egg, hash browns, onions, and ketchup.  With the bacon strips sticking out like crimson tongues from the mini-monster sitting in front of me, I saddled up my taste buds and rode into the maw of the beast.

Open wide

Open wide

The crunchy pieces of bacon crumbled beneath my full frontal assault, but I nearly lost my senses as the sweet mixed with the smokey and salty pork sent my head spinning…either that or I had a mini-stroke.

Doing work

Doing work

Once I passed that trial, I moved into the actual burger and was greeted with a liberal douse of egg yolk and meat juice.  This was a testament to the quality of the meat that was grilled to perfection, and the egg that added an extra texture dimension to the meal.  As for the hash browns, they were lying in wait at the bottom mixed up with the onions and ketchup to provide body to the burger.  The only downside was the bun that quickly faded away with each bite, and the aforementioned hashbrown mixture contributed to the burger succumbing to Hot Mess Syndrome or H.M.S.

Lookin' pretty rough

Lookin’ pretty rough

If H.M.S. reaches critical mass, i.e. it’s a matter seconds before your burger falls apart in your hand, then you either have to make the decision to stuff it into your mouth or let it tumble to the table.  Before long, I had reached this point, and I opted for the former option instead of letting it fall into the basket.  This lack of burger integrity left me disappointed and covered in the remnants of my meal like a lion who just polished off a zebra.  Once I wiped the scraps away from my hands and mouth, I decided to go for dessert because I was in vacation mode.  I went over the ice cream options, and I plumped for the O.M.C. or Oh My Chocolate concrete ($4).  This treat was absolutely ridiculous in construction and would probably be a tasty way to illustrate the layers of the earth.IMG_2838  They alternated between layers of chocolate custard and then accompanying layers of peanut butter, chocolate chips, sprinkles, and brownie chunks.  It was as decadent as it sounds, but I didn’t feel sick by the end of it.  It was like eating a giant, liquified Reese’s peanut butter cup with occasional crunchy chocolate chips or chewy brownie bites.  Needless to say, I was greatly satisfied by the meal as a whole as I cleaned up the slobber on the table when I finished.

So if you want to try a burger place that provides high quality and creative meals at a reasonable price, then BurgerFi is the eatery for you!
BurgerFi on Urbanspoon

I Believe I Can Fry

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Hey, everybody!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues which is my early Christmas present to the world.  Today I’ll be talking about a restaurant that Santa himself would love to dine at in place of downing his traditional fare of milk and cookies.  The place in question is called Gongdeok Town (공덕전타운) which is located at Gongdeok station going straight out exit 5.IMG_1426  Walk for about 8-9 minutes, and you’ll see it on your left amongst many narrow and claustrophobic alleyways including one that specializes in jokbal or pigs’ feet.  What should you be looking for?  Fried food as far as the eye can see.  You can smell it coming from a mile away that’s how intense this dining experience is.  So let’s begin at the start of the adventure.

First off, I would have never found this place had it not been for the luck of my friend, Steph, who found this fried food heaven on the internet.  Naturally, she shares my same sense of culinary curiosity, so we made plans to go there after a very long work week.  After going out exit five and going left, we were quite lost.  I looked to my right in the distance, and I could see an alley that seemed to be more bustling than the others, and we were greeted by incredulous looks by the restaurant owners at the fact that two waygookins (foreigners) were in this labyrinth of produce and meat.  After walking past a few eateries, I could see plates piled high with pork knuckle and no fried food.  They sent us further down the main road, and we finally saw the promised land.  They had a mind-boggling variety of tasty morsels to try that ranged in price from 500-5,000 W per piece.  IMG_1409IMG_1412

Mmm shrimp

Mmm shrimp

Lots of fried sweet potatoes, kimbap, and vegetables (left to right)

Lots of fried sweet potatoes, kimbap, and vegetables (left to right)

Some of the pajeon or Korean pancakes of egg or kimchi

Some of the pajeon or Korean pancakes of egg or kimchi

How it works is they hand you a wicker basket along with a set of tongs, and you just work your way down like a Supermarket Sweep of sorts.  Some of the labels were a bit hard to follow due to the imperfect translations and others were just very vague.

Skinflints for only 500W?  What a deal!

Skinflints for only 500W? What a deal!

Something looks a little fishy...

Something looks a little fishy…

 Nevertheless, we soldiered ahead and took a little bit everything.  Once we had our baskets filled to the brim, we brought them to the end of the line where a lady weighed our food and gave us a number.  We were then ushered inside where we found out that the smoking section is downstairs and the upper level is non-smoking and much larger and warmer. IMG_1421 Eventually they brought us our plate of food along with the bill.  For this mountain of food, it was 8,000 W between the two of us.IMG_1416 IMG_1417 Within our fried cornucopia that lied on our table just beckoning us with its golden-hued breading, we had more conventional foods like gooey Western style cheese sticks and crunchy chicken tenders that came with a complimentary drizzling of honey mustard.  Then there were pieces that were more Korean like the squid tentacles, kimchi pajeon, and various forms of sweet potato which I was semi-averse to since I prefer regular potatoes.  It still was a nice contrast to the savory, semi-greasy breading.  An interesting selection in the mix was the fried beef liver.  Texture-wise, it was quite firm, and it had a rich beefy flavor with plenty of body.  I greatly enjoyed the fried cucumbers, chilies, and pork stuffed perilla leaves as well.  Plus, they had plenty of different forms of taro root like the purple sesame seed coated balls you see on the first plate.  So for all you vegans out there, there is plenty of selection for you too aside from that last one.  There was also a mystery nugget that I chose because it looked like it had a strip of bacon in it, and I loves me some bacon.

My mystery nugget and I.

My mystery nugget and I.

 When I finally tried it, it was quite bizarre since it didn’t taste bacon or anything else for that matter.IMG_1420  It had a generic flavor of meatvegetablesbreading?? that left me generally confused along with the imposter  “bacon” strip that just tasted like burned matter.  It was quite the letdown.   Once we finished our first plate, I had to go back for a second helping since I still was hungry.

Round 2 (starting lower left corner and going clockwise):  scallop, taro ball, cheese sticks, potato bread, chilies, millet cakes.

Round 2 (starting lower left corner and going clockwise): scallop, oyster, taro ball, cheese sticks, potato bread, chilies, millet cakes.

 The scallop was quite delectable as it was rich and buttery like breading that enveloped it, and the oyster was quite good aside from a rubbery texture that might put off some diners.  The potato bread was a bit of a mystery to me at first since I was anticipating it to be stuffed most likely with pork, but it just ended up being a ball of fried dough.  Last and definitely the least favorite of all the food I tried there were the millet cakes.  They looked almost like mini-red velvet cakes minus the cream cheese frosting, but they were the opposite of the tantalizing dessert.  Not only did it taste quite musty, but it was filled with red bean paste!  Arrghhh, my Korean culinary arch-nemesis.  Foiled once again from having a completely fantastic dinner.  That minor bump aside, we ended up eating a ton of food for about 12,000 W each which is a bargain any way you slice it.

So if you’re looking for a warmer way to eat street food in the winter or perhaps need to layer up on some blubber for winter hibernation, go to Gongdeok town for some greasy good times.

Passed with Flying Flavors

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Finally, Korean winter is here complete with chilly winds that were noticeably absent during the sweltering summer along with the occasional snow storm.  It’s still not as bad as back home in Chicago, and I’m glad that I grew up in the crucible of Chicago winters it since it seems like a piece of cake  in Korea so far.  However, I don’t mind going to new restaurants that make me forget about the cold and instead feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  This is how I could describe my dining experience at the Flying Pan in Itaewon in Seoul.  It’s quite easy to get there.  You just go to the Itaewon metro stop and go out exit two.  Walk out straight until you see the Ctrl A on your left hand side.  Make a left on that street, and after walking straight for a minute, you’ll see the Flying Pan’s stairway leading down to the entrance.1550626_image2_1

First off, I knew was going to have a great time there simply based off the name of the establishment because it’s a linguistic pun.  With many Far East Asian languages like Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, it is difficult for native speakers to differentiate between the letters “L” and “R” while pronouncing words.  Therefore, the logo of the restaurant is a flying frying pan.  I don’t know if they did that on purpose or not, but I think it’s genius.  As for the decor, it’s a cozy little dining nook that could almost double as someone’s living room complete with couches, pillows, and decorative vases.

A culinary sanctuary from the cold

A culinary sanctuary from the cold

I took it all in along with the gigantic menu while waiting for my friend, Bora.IMG_1300  I could see that they had brunch options all day along with French toast, pancakes, omelets, and sandwiches.  It’s not cheap which is typical for foreign fare in Korea with a range of prices from 14,000 W to 25,000 W.  Eventually, Bora joined me, and we made our choices.  I went with the bacon French toast (15,000 W), and she got the farmer omelet (17,000 W).

Mine came out first, and I thought they could have done a bit better on the presentation instead of the slapdash creation that lay in front of me.

Ah ma cherie!

Ah ma cherie!

Then again, I could really care less what it looks like as long as it’s delectable, and boy oh boy was this French toast tres magnifique.  Most people associate French with being the language of love, and I think I needed a private moment with this mademoiselle.  Not only did it have a soft, brioche battered body, but it was further enhanced with some non-crispy bacon that was flung about its shoulders like some form of pork boa sans feathers.  The syrup was standard maple syrup, but one big surprise was the hunks of pale yellow spread that I originally thought were globs of butter.  I’m not a big fan of butter on my pancakes or French toast, but I tried some of it just to be sure.  Good thing I didn’t neglect them because they turned out to be nuggets of cream cheese.  What’s more French than putting some delicious cheese on some quality, fried bread?  The other big surprise was the secret stash of apricot marmalade that was lurking between the folds of the toast which went quite well with the smooth sweetness of the syrup and eggy-goodness of the French toast.  The strawberries were fresh and slightly tart and were the proverbial cherries on top of the masterpiece.  As for Bora’s omelet, I tried a couple bites and then a couple more as she put more on my plate since I was still hungry/she’s a sweetheart. IMG_1303 The eggs were fluffy and seemingly infused with a slightly strong tasting white cheese possibly an aged Camembert.   It was eggcellent with the grilled greens on top along with the sauteed mushrooms and roasted cherry tomatoes.  We left the restaurant for some adult libations, but my pain perdu would not be lost on me.  Definitely in the pantheon of top three best breakfast meals I’ve ever eaten…for dinner.

So, if you’re looking for some wonderful breakfast that doesn’t really have the greasy spoon prices but plenty of quality flavors, jet on down to the Flying Pan.  You’ll be over the moon once you’ve tried it.

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