RSS Feed

Tag Archives: beans

Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

Posted on

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)

Posted on

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

We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

Posted on

Wepa!! That was my reaction when I visited my first Puerto Rican restaurant.  If you don’t know what that means, “wepa” is a common exclamation in the Puerto Rican community to signify happiness or a way to encourage someone.

Basically "Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream 'wepa'"

Basically “Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream ‘wepa'”

I didn’t need any encouraging when I walked through the doors of hidden Chicago gem, Cafe Central.

I’ve had my fair share of comida latina that has ranged from Colombian to Cuban, but I had never tried the food from what many consider the United States’ 51st state.  If you’re unaware of this connection, let me drop a bit of historical knowledge.  Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe who called it Borikén which eventually was transformed into Borinquen in Spanish when Colombus and later Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish run cities.  With the Europeans came the colonization of the island and importation of slaves from Africa.  This system continued up until the late 1890s until the USA beat Spain in the Spanish American War which led to the USA claiming Puerto Rico as a United States territory which has continued to today.IMG_6706  What that means is that all Puerto Ricans from the island are US citizens, but it has also resulted in increased Puerto Rican migration to urban centers on the US mainland like Chicago and NYC, especially.  In Chicago, the hub of all things boricua (Puerto Rican in modern Spanish) is typically Humboldt Park minus the current trend of the usual gentrification. larger However, this symbol of Chicago Puerto Rican roots is still going strong in the West Town neighborhood just west of Humboldt Park.  It was established back in 1952 a bit further south but relocated to its present location in the mid-1960s.  It still exists today as a representative of Puerto Rican culture in diner form.  The exterior doesn’t look like much, and the interior is just as simple but comfortable.IMG_6720IMG_6719  We beat the lunch crowd around 11:30, and the meal started with some fresh bread that seemed to be of the French variety with a magical sauce on the side.  Although Janice and I thought that this verdant food of the gods tasted like the Argentinian steakhouse staple chimichurri sauce, we were misteaken (pun intended!).IMG_6703  Instead, it was Puerto Rican sofrito, a mixture of recao (cilantro), sweet garlic, olive oil, and mild peppers.  It was an oily, herbal, yet garlicky and chunky spread that was wonderful with the fresh bread.  I washed it down with a cool Malta India which is a carbonated barley, hops, and water drink which is like a non-alcoholic beer combined with a root beer with a Caribbean twist.  IMG_6701It has a very distinctive taste, but I would recommend this unique Puerto Rican beverage.  It was similar to its Cuban counterpart I tried when down in Florida.  Then we started the meal for realz.  We looked over the menu, and I could see all of what makes Puerto Ricans I’ve met so proud of their culinary culture.  Pork, rice, and beans are the name of the game for the most part, but there are also sandwiches and caldos or soups to sample.  We started off with the ground pork empanada and two plates of mofongo ($3.60 each).  Empanadas are like your typical stuffed savory pastry, but the ones at Cafe Central are sin igual. IMG_6707 They have less thick pastry dough compared to other varieties I’ve tried and more like thin, crispy dough that was all killer and no filler when it came to the amount of seasoned meat you got.  IMG_6708Then there was mofongo.  I had only heard about it from my dad quoting Sandford and Son or from Puerto Ricans I’ve worked with in the past, but I can see why they loved it so much.  It is a symbol of the African influence on Puerto Rican cuisine as it comes from the West African staple fufu which is a mash of starchy vegetables.  In this case, its a ball of mashed plantains stuffed with pieces of chicarrón or garlic pork rinds. IMG_6709 It’s basically a ball of mashed sweet yet savory starch where we’d occasionally stumble upon a chewy yet crunchy nugget of glory. IMG_6711 Highly recommend this piece of the island.  IMG_6710It’ll feel like you ate a mini-cannonball though, so save room!  As if that wasn’t enough, we then had our main entrees.  Janice ended up getting the house specialty which is off the menu:  el lechón or roast pork ($10).  I can see why they keep it off the menu because they’d be serving nothing but this gigantic plate of soul warming food. IMG_6712 First, the strands of Monte Puerco were super tender and melted in your mouth but also had a hint of a salt and pepper rub to make it just that much more flavorful. IMG_6713 Not bad for an homage to the national dish of the island.  On the side, it was a Puertorriqueño parade on the plate with el arróz con gandules y habichuelas or rice with peas and beans.  Naturally, there were some tiny pork chunks in the rice which pepped up the rice a bit, but the rice itself was super rich with flavor. IMG_6714 The beans were also different than the refried beans in Mexican cuisine, and I liked them a lot better because they were stewed in a pork stock and were light.  As for me, I got the roast pork jibarito ($7.95).  This super Puerto Rican sandwich, meaning “little yokel” in Spanish, was actually introduced to Chicago straight from the Caribbean back in 1996 at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park.  I’ve always wanted to try this Puerto Rican iconic meal because it combines my love for quirky food and sandwiches.  Think of your typical bread based sandwich, but then take out the slices and replace them with flattened and fried plantains.  IMG_6715Then insert lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, American cheese (Thanks, Tio Sam), and your choice of meat.  I did like the locals and got, you guessed it, the roast pork.  When in San Juan! (or is it Chicago?)IMG_6716 It looked great, but I didn’t know where to start out of fear of this seemingly delicate work of street art would disappear in my clumsy grasp.  It was actually quite the opposite.  The fried plantains were surprisingly sturdy under pressure from one hungry hungry hippo, i.e. me, and the flavor was out of control.  Basically, take the lechón and combine it with the sweetness of the mofongo and the savory elements of the mayo and cooked onions. IMG_6718 Plus, the texture transitions from the crunch of the plantain to the soft pork, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomatoes blew my mind since they were in quintessential harmony.  If there’s one plate I’d recommend, it would be this.  Even over the lechón I just promoted.  By the end, we were in peak food coma mode.  If only we could then retreat to a cabana in Limón to nap the rest of the day away.  Unfortunately, our food adventure ended there, but we were extremely satisfied.

I can’t emphasize the greatness that is Cafe Central.  It’s a lot of delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food served in huge portions for a reasonable price.  What more could you ask for in a restaurant?  Absolutamente nada.  Buen provecho!
Click to add a blog post for Cafe Central on Zomato

A Capital Idea!

Posted on

Welcome one and all to part deux of Restaurant Week on Mastication Monologues!  If you’re not sure what Restaurant Week is in Chicago, then I highly recommend reading my first post at Hub 51.  Today’s post is somewhat in the similar but even classier vein of high end dining for low low prices.  While I’m all about trying new and exotic foods, my meal at Capital Grille in Chicago was classic steakhouse dining at its finest.  While it’s not one of the old stalwarts of steak in the home of the dearly departed Union stockyards, I really enjoyed my experience at this establishment.

While walking to Capital Grille, I saw that they had valet parking which is a great deal in a part of down that isn’t known for cheap/free parking.  The outside was just a hint of the regal interior inside that had all the pomp of a classic steakhouse down to the dark wood bar and portraits of random white guys sporting some facial hair that would make any modern day hipster proud. IMG_5810IMG_5834IMG_5833 IMG_5832 Capital Grille even has personal wine kiosks for clients who are willing to pony up the cash for their pinot noir, but the coolest thing I thought was that they even had a cabinet for wine for what seemed to be for anyone who is or has served in the armed forces. IMG_5835 I was quickly led to the table for our guys night out that quickly became a double date plus two dudes.  Still, it was a good time had for all as we kicked off the dinner with some drinks.  I got a glass of the Jameson 12 year Reserve.IMG_5815  This drink was smoother than James Bond and Ron Burgundy in a velvet room.  It was the perfect compliment to the free bread basket that was filled to the brim with crisp flatbreads, warm slices of black rye bread, and rock hard rolls (not a fan, personally). IMG_5813 So, since it was Restaurant Week, I went with the accompanying $33 menu which was a bargain for a three course meal.  For my first course, I went with the wedge with blue cheese and applewood smoked bacon.  Initially, I had to ask the waitress what a “wedge” was since I was curious what this wedge consisted of, and she sarcastically answered that it was a type of salad.  When it came out, it all made sense.  Looking at it, it seemed like the laziest salad ever created. IMG_5817 It literally was a quarter of a head of lettuce with dressing and bacon pieces adorning it and sliced tomatoes placed at the foot of this odd looking dish.  So, I proceeded to sliced the lettuce piece to bite-sized pieces along with mixing it up with the extremely decadent ranch, blue cheese chunks, and bacon.  It was the Paula Dean of salads given how fattening it was yet oh so tasty with the tangy dressing mixing with the salty bacon and pungent blue cheese.  It was only a prelude to the epic entree that came out soon thereafter in the form of the 14 oz. bone-in, dry aged sirloin steak along with a side of mashed potatoes and french beans with heirloom tomatoes. IMG_5824 Funnily enough, the girls at the table got the smaller, 8 oz. filet mignon, but that didn’t take away from its quality. IMG_5823 When I dug into the sirloin, it was heaven in meat form.  I got it medium rare which meant that it still was a bit bloody but well done enough to keep in all of the juicy flavors. IMG_5825 It was superbly succulent, and a generously sized piece of steak for the price.  The sides were equally exquisite.  The mashed potatoes were creamy and buttery, and the beans were neither too firm nor too soft.IMG_5822  Then there were the desserts…lord, the desserts.  First, I got the flourless chocolate espresso cake.IMG_5830  It was like a slice of fudge that wasn’t as sugary and not as crumb based as a typical slice of cake.  This texture combined with the intense dark chocolate flavor with coffee hints in each forkful made it hard to beat, and the raspberry sauce was the icing on a cake without equal.  My other dining companions tried the creme brulee which looked lip-smacking good, but sadly I didn’t get to try it. IMG_5831 However, based on their gleaming white bowls at the end of the dessert course, I could only assume they liked it!

So if you want to try a slice of Chicago’s steak culture in the heart of the city, check out Capital Grille.
The Capital Grille on Urbanspoon

Costa Rica (Day 4)- Willy Wonka In the Jungle and Dining In a Drug Port

Posted on

It is almost the new year, and that means that I got to squeeze in these last few Costa Rica posts before starting anew in 2015 (fingers crossed).  What does the future hold for Mastication Monologues?  The sky is the limit I think if I keep up the great material, and all you readers out there keep on enjoying my posts.  Plus, I just got picked up to write for Localeur, named by Forbes as one of the top travel apps of 2015, so things are already turning up Milhouse.  More to come on that.  Anyway, today’s entry is going to be quite the sweet treat that began over breakfast back in San Jose.  If you want to read from the beginning of our vacation, click here.

Day 4 in Costa Rica started with a fresh breakfast of delicious mangos that were served up in an exquisite manner by Janice. IMG_5202 We had bought them a day earlier at a roadside fruit stand that went beyond apples and oranges.  After taking a bite, I became ravenous and destroyed the rest of the super sweet and satisfying pulp.  Having all of this fresh fruit around was yet another reason we came to love Costa Rica.  We met up with our group and proceeded northeast from San Jose toward Braulio Carillo National Park.  Before we got there, we had a rest stop at a roadside restaurant and gas station.  We were still hungry after our mango breakfast, so Janice and I got empanadas to go.  It was the perfect mini meal.  They were fried and greasy which I loved, and they were stuffed with a ton of ingredients. IMG_5206 Janice’s had a lot of smooth but not very bold cheese, but mine was a whole lot better.  IMG_5208It was filled with gallo pinto which we first had on day two before our Pacific cruise and chicharrones or fried pork skins. IMG_5209 It was best breakfast for on-the-go Ticos (“Costa Ricans” in the local dialect) which combined semi-savory rice, hearty beans, and crunchy yet chewy pieces of pork.  When we finally arrived at the national park, we started on the trail toward the chocolate presentation the forest rangers had prepared for us.  At one point in time, we passed over a huge river while being hooted at by a family of howler monkeys.  The jungle was getting more and more humid as the drizzle came down around us like a wet blanket. We eventually reached the theobroma, the variety of chocolate grown there (“food of the gods” in Greek), trail that led to the presentation pavilion.IMG_4072IMG_4080  Being a chocolate lover, I was greatly intrigued being in the heartland of where one of my favorite types of candy originated.  We started with an introduction to the cacao pods that grow in the jungle, and the white seeds that can be found in the fruits. IMG_4125IMG_4081 Our guide gave out free seed samples to eat, and the key was to suck on them until the white pulp melted away.IMG_4083IMG_4085  It tasted like lychees actually, but then the seeds were needed for the next step in the chocolate making process.  IMG_4086We learned that the early Mesoamericans ate and spit out these seeds throughout Latin America while migrating since it gave them energy for the long hikes.  These migrations combined with seed spitting led to the spread of cacao plants both north and south of Costa Rica.  After handing our slobber-coated seeds back to our guide, he showed us the second step in chocolate production:  fermentation.IMG_4088  These seeds are placed in a large box with micro-organisms that eventually results in a completely pure bean consisting of cacao solids and cocoa butter. IMG_4090 We could taste the beans, and it could be likened to a 80% cacao dark chocolate bar.IMG_4097IMG_4098IMG_4094  The next step in the process took a turn for the historical.  The presenters took out a large volcanic stone basin known as a metate and a super hot stone called a metlapil, both Nahuatl words for the Mayan tools used in chocolate grinding.  As one of the guides got down to business, he offered us the chance to try our hands at making coarse cocoa powder.  I went first, and I couldn’t believe how stoic the guide was when he was using the metlapil.  I could only hold it for two seconds at a time tops it was so hot.  Janice tried it too, but she was smart and used her long sleeps as oven mitts. IMG_4101IMG_4102 After a couple more minutes of playing Mayan hot potato, a semi-fine cocoa powder resided in the metate.  However, our main guide informed us that when Spanish nuns arrived after the Conquistadores, they realized they could make this bitter Mayan treat a lot more palatable for Spanish tastes by adding sugar and cinnamon to the mix.  IMG_4105We also got a chance to try a European grinder that was a lot more labor intensive, but you weren’t burning your fingerprints off in the process.IMG_4107IMG_4109  Once finished, we took the very fine powder and mixed it with hot water to make one of the most sacred drinks of the Maya. IMG_4113 It was only served to the upper classes, priests, and kings.  The Mayan chocolate drink was then made to be frothy by pouring it back and forth between cups to get the ideal espuma or foam on top.  You can see a Mayan illustration of the process behind our guide in the picture below.  IMG_4116 However, the Spaniards disliked this drink, known in Nahuatl as cacagua, because it was bitter and literally means “poo water” in Spanish (caca + agua), and probably tasted like it to them before the addition of sugar and cinnamon.  We also saw how the Spaniards made the drink frothy by using what looked like a 16th Century egg beater. IMG_4117 Then, in true Maya fashion, we were allowed to put in some classic additives the chocolate producers would introduce to their varieties to make them more popular.  In this instance we had corn starch, ground pepper, chile, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Right to left:  corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Right to left: corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Too bad they didn’t allow us to mix in some tobacco and smoke it as the Maya once did.  Instead of scorching my lungs, I went for a literal hot chocolate with a lot of chile, some ground pepper, a dash of vanilla extract, and some corn starch to thicken the drink.  It was plenty spicy, but I didn’t note any thickening of the watery mixture. IMG_4123 The chocolate was sublime as we sipped to the sound of the gently falling rain and the rustling of agoutis in the underbrush and calls of exotic birds in the distance.  After that, we heard that the chocolate powder to make chocolate bars is first pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cacao solids.  This is where our guide dropped a huge bomb on us:  white chocolate is not chocolate!!  What it actually is is a bar of cocoa butter, sugar, and condensed milk.  Basically it’s eating a bar of fat with no chocolate involved.  After pressing, the cacao solids are then melted in a kiln and the result is liquid deliciousness.IMG_4124  We got to eat spoonfuls of the milk chocolate goop along with two fresh chocolate shapes. IMG_4126IMG_4129 IMG_4130 To end the demonstration, we got a bag of cocoa beans that we could cook at home or exchange for post cards.  IMG_4131Like Gollum, I kept my precious to eat at home.  On our walk back through the forest we saw real cocoa pods on the trees that were infected with a fungus that shut down the chocolate plantation that used to be in that very same jungle.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

This fungus devastated the chocolate industry in Costa Rica, and that’s why the biggest chocolate producers are in West Africa now.  We went back to the entrance for lunch which was another buffet with rice and beans, but there were also three new items on the menu:  heart of palm, fried yuca, and chayote. IMG_4135 The heart of palm is a vegetable that literally comes from within certain palm trees, and I could liken it to a non-offensive artichoke.  The fried yuca literally tasted like deep fried potato slices, and the chayote tasted like squash.

Heart of palm and chayote

Heart of palm and chayote

For dessert, there was flan that was not too runny that I really enjoyed especially with the drizzle of super sweet caramel on top.IMG_4139  Once we finished our tour in the national park, our bus driver took us back to the roadside restaurant and gas station where we got our empanadas in the morning.  Janice and I broke off from the group with our new driver, Rigoberto, to go to the Caribbean coast since we were going to see the Sloth Sanctuary the next day.  After a long drive and night had fallen, our cordial driver stopped in the port city of Limón.  Our condo owner, Mark, warned us of drug trafficking and violence in the town, and it fit the bill.  Large groups of shady guys hanging out on street corners.  Prostitutes chilling outside truck depots.  Kids lighting off firecrackers in huge groups of people that could have been mistaken for gunshots.  Rigoberto, a native Costa Rican, looked super wary as we parked the car outside a typical Costa Rican greasy spoon diner or a “soda” in Costa Rican Spanish called Happy Landing.  He made sure we left nothing in the car, and looking at our surroundings I could see why when he said many people don’t like to come to this area.  We walked in, and the place could have used new lights and a new coat of paint.  IMG_5221 IMG_5220We looked at the menu, and it was all Chinese food!  Classic Costa Rican cuisine haha.  I decided to get the chow mein, and Janice just got fried chicken.  While we were waiting, Rigoberto got randomly pulled into a convo with a guy who had at least ten empty beer bottles in front of him on the table (see pic above; drunky is in plaid).  Eventually, my food came out, and it was the most ridiculous Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten some interesting things in China. IMG_5223 IMG_5224 They fried the noodles, and put them on the side like a bread basket or something like that.  The ingredients were all mushed together and not very flavorful.  Janice’s fried chicken came out way later than my plate or Rigoberto’s for some reason, but this diner was not worth stopping for.  We safely made our way out of the drug port and deeper into the dark jungle to find our hotel.  Rigoberto hadn’t been to the coast since 1986, so he was as lost as we were.  Google Maps to the rescue!  We eventually had to traverse a dirt and gravel path in the jungle to get to our destination, Kenaki Lodge, that was across from the beach.  The gates opened, and we were greeted by a French woman and her poochy parade.IMG_5228  We quickly became friends with them, including my best bud the Great Dane. IMG_5227 It was a long day of adventures and food sampling that left us looking forward to the day to come as we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach.

Costa Rica (Day 2)- Cruisin’ For Brews, Beans, and Bites

Posted on

As this Chicago winter rolls on, I seriously think that Janice and I brought back some of the sunny warm weather with us from Costa Rica.  Seriously, there has been little to no snow in Chicago, and I´m loving it!  However, today’s post is day 2 in my Costa Rica travelogue.  By the way, If you haven’t read day one on my blog, I highly suggest it if you are a seafood lover.

Anyway, day two kicked off with a classic Costa Rican breakfast that is a little bit different than the ol’ eggs, bacon, and pancakes as big as your face back in ‘Murika.  Instead, we were greeted with the quintessential Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, tortillas, and two different types of plantains.   IMG_5097First, there is gallo pinto (“spotted/painted rooster” in Spanish) whose name is derived from the ingredients bearing a resemblance to a type of cockerel.  As for its origins, some believe the dish came over with the African slaves that migrated into Latin America while others believe it came from Spain where its known as cristianos y moros (Christians and Moors).  Whatever you call it, it was delicious.  It wasn’t heavy but very filling and flavorful.  I could see that it came from humble but rich roots with the black beans mixed in with the seasoned and fried rice.  It made a great filler for the tortillas on the side to make small breakfast burritos which do not exist in traditional Costa Rican fare (not every Latin American country has tacos and burritos!).  I do have to say that the Costa Rican tortillas were better than any of their Mexican counterparts I’ve tried.  They are both corn based, but the Costa Rican ones were super resilient compared to their relatives up north.  That scored big points on my foodie scorecard.  As for the two different plantains, there were both baked and fried varieties.  While down in Costa Rica, I also learned the difference between plantains and bananas, and it isn’t the difference in size.  While bananas can be eaten raw, plantains must be cooked if they are to be consumed by humans.  If I had to pick one or the other, the fried ones were my jam like during day one, and they were the ideal sweet compliment to the savory rice and beans.  Once we finished our breakfast to the tunes of a marimba band, we were off on a catamaran to Isla Tortuga on the Pacific coast.IMG_5096  What better to go with the pristine view of the Gulf of Nicoya than a cold, Costa Rican beer?  So, I got an Imperial which is the official beer of Costa Rica.  IMG_5103Once again, this supposed king of beers was a mere pretender to the throne.  It was an average, light lager that was crisp and non-offensive for a beautiful day.  Once we landed on the postcard that was Isla Tortuga, we enjoyed snorkeling, swimming, and some breathtaking views.  IMG_4022When it came time for lunch, it was anything but normal.  First, we were summoned to the feast via a conch shell.  Then we got a full salad bar that was freshly made in the kitchen hut.  The mixed salad was verdant and coated in a semi-sweet vinaigrette, but I was more partial to the cucumber and onion mix.IMG_4005  It was smooth and filled with some funky dill that made a potentially bland salad really pop.  IMG_4007IMG_4006The real star of the show though was the local peccary that Janice quickly made friends with.  Apparently this wild pig has been coming by the cookouts for over 15 years, and the marimba music was almost like its intro song.IMG_4010  It was very friendly and fell over whenever someone would pet it.IMG_5112  I could see that it was smarter than it looked since it worked the room by getting free food from each table.  Lunch was much more elaborate in the form of a full meat and veg platter complete with a Hibiscus flower for a flourish.  This meal didn’t even need a flower to be fancy and eye catching.  IMG_4014The chicken breast was muy sabroso  (very tasty) with just the right amount of char-grilled flavor to compliment the sweeter, coconut based curry sauce that had specks of the white fruit sprinkled on top.  The bread was warm and soft, but the butter was oddly bland.  I especially enjoyed the vegetable hash on the side that consisted of pan-fried carrots and cassava strands.  As for dessert, it was a rich but understated tres leches cake whose vanilla laced crumbs were topped with a drunkenly placed strand of whipped cream.IMG_4018  It, like most other Costa Rican meals, was fresh, filling, but not heavy like most American meals.  It gave us the energy to take on a lame banana boat ride and to savor the final views of that enchanting island that immediately made us realize of the beauty Latin America had to offer.IMG_5120

Costa Rica (Day 1): Eating With Royalty

Posted on

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: