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Nice to Meat You!

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Zdravo, friends!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t recognize my initial greeting, it was just one way to say “Hello” in Bosnian.  This Balkan nation goes back to time eternal, but after millennia of shifting borders and political alliances have managed to achieve stability and a high standard of life for its citizens.  974e3dc3acc579a582b38880adf839b8The name of Bosnia and Herzegovina is disputed, but many scholars believe that Bosnia is derived from the Bosna river while Herzegovina is a bit more complicated.  A Bosnian nobleman adopted the title Herceg (“duke” in Bosnian) and combined it with the ending “-ovina” meaning “land”.  Once again, a rich guy stamping his name on a piece of land like Pennsylvania and America, for example.  Anyway, moving on from monikers, today’s post involves Kiko’s Meat Market, a homey piece of the Balkan nation located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood which is home to numerous immigrants from the Balkans.

It was a cold night when Janice and I finally made our way into this mysterious restaurant right across the street from one of numerous magic shops that inhabit this part of town for some odd reason.  I didn’t know what to expect from an establishment with the term “meat market” in the title.  IMG_7665IMG_7666Was it going to bring me back to my life as a deli counter worker in the now defunct Chicago-based, all things Slavic emporium Bobak’s Sausage Company, or perhaps something more fitting in the Boystown neighborhood?  It was neither.  There is street and paid parking on the surrounding streets, and the staff were very friendly to us upon entering.  We heard more Bosnian and Serbian conversations than English as we were escorted to our seats which only added to the ambiance of traveling to another corner of the world without even needing a passport.  As for the actual decor, it wasn’t anything over the top or notable.IMG_7664 IMG_7659  It was a basic diner that reminded me of some of the Polish diners that used to be all over on the Southwest side around my grandparents house.  Not only was it a restaurant, but it was connected to a Balkan grocer and deli where you could buy different types of meats and treats from the old country.IMG_7661IMG_7660IMG_7662  Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for some sausage or bakery or waiting for the waitress to come to your table like I did. Before we got a chance to look over the menu, we ordered our drinks.  I got a Jelen beer which is a Serbian pale lager.  The name of the beer in Serbian means “deer” hence the majestic wildlife on the label. IMG_7646 It was nothing of note.  In fact, it reminded me of every beer from Southern Europe, i.e. thin and inoffensive.  Not surprising when these brews come from wine cultures.  On top of the liquid bread, we were provided the old fashioned sliced kind. IMG_7647 It may not look like much, but it was clearly homemade with the warm, pliant middle and just crusty enough edges that were enhanced by the accompanying European butter that was smoother and not as salty as its American counterpart.  These were just warning shots before the bomb that was dropped in the form of the entrees:  the sampler platter (Mješano meso) and the cabbage rolls (sarma).  The cabbage rolls looked similar to the gołąbki my Polish family makes for most, if not all, family get-togethers.  It consisted of a soft and slightly sour exterior of translucent, pea green cabbage that was doused in a beef and tomato sauce.  IMG_7650These little rolls were camping between two mini-mountains of mashed potatoes that were enhanced with a generous dollop of sour cream like fresh powder in the Alps.IMG_7651  We quickly cut into the rolls and were met with a rice and beef blend that was kind of different from the pork, rice, and pea mixture found in my family’s Polish counterpart.  It was everything I love about Eastern European cooking:  warm, comforting, and hearty.  The cool sour cream cut through the bit of grease that accompanied the meat.  The mashed potatoes were anonymous in a plate full of character and bold flavors.  After that first act, it was time to step up to the plate and take on the champ.  The sampler platter was the Andre the Giant of our meal:  just one giant hunk of meat (thankfully, better looking though).

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Actually, to be specific it consisted of a variety of Bosnian meats including chevapi, sausages, chicken, veal kebobs, and veal liver all served within traditional a traditional Balkan pita bread with a side of fries, salad, and ‘kajmak’ cheese.  We asked our waitress if it was going to be enough food before we ordered it, and once it was in front of us, we could see why she laughed at our naivete.  I felt like I was King Arthur putting Excalibur back into its stone home, IMG_7649but instead of having my crown rescinded, we were both blessed with a bountiful meal.  Naturally, the bread was warm and much more substantial than a Greek pita and baked to perfection.  The kajmak cheese was like a Balkan version of brie that went very well on the warm bread.  The chevapi weren’t new to us since we’ve tried other countries’ versions of these miniscule skinless sausages.  They’re essentially char-grilled pieces of beef and pork that just go down way too easy. IMG_7652 The sausages were all made in house, and they seemed to be pork based.  I was more particular to their chicken that absorbed a little bit of each of the other meats’ flavors which isn’t surprising since every meat seems to taste like chicken.  Long story short, if you’re a carnivore, this sampler platter is just for you.  The veal kebobs were very tender, juicy, and bursting with flavor.  We both tried a bit of the veal liver, but we weren’t fans of the unique, grainy texture that accompanies liver.  Then again, we were also saving room for dessert like the smart people we are.  Even though we felt like we were ready to burst, Janice jumped for the tiramisu while I went for the more exotic tufahija.  Tiramisu isn’t Bosnian, rather Italian, and is a more recent invention around the 1960s.  The origin of the name of the dessert is up for debate including the name of a Veneto baker’s apprentice’s maiden name, but a layer cake by any other name would taste as sweet and coffee-tastic.  It was a welcome change from the heavier plates we chowed down on earlier. IMG_7653IMG_7654 From the coffee soaked bottom layer to the heavenly light cream on top, it was a dessert fit for my classy bella donna.  As for my tufahija, it is a relic of centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.  This is clearly evident since the name is derived from the Arabic word “tuffàh” (تفاحة‎) meaning “apple” in English, but the dessert itself originates in Persia.  It consisted of a cold, skinned apple soaked in sugar water and then stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream.  IMG_7655It was so wildly different compared to everything I had that dinner, nay I’ve had in dessertdom, and I loved every minute of it.  The apple was slightly moist and chilled but not soggy somehow.  As I moved my way through the dessert, the core was filled with crunchy, basically raw walnuts that provided a much needed crunch and offset the sweet, but not overly so, apple.IMG_7657  These elements by themselves were wonderful, and the whipped cream was good up to a point.  I think it was a bit excessive with the wavy white sea this dessert was bobbing in.  I would highly recommend this dessert though if you’re looking to break away from traditional end platters to your meal.

We left Kiko’s with very happy and stuffed bellies with another full meal of leftovers in our doggy bag, so you will definitely get your money’s worth at this eatery.  If you’re a carnivore or looking for a new and unique restaurant that also serves one of Chicago’s many Balkan communities, you got to get to Kiko’s Meat Market!
Kiko' s Market & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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A Sumptuous RePass

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Welcome one and all to another very interesting and hearty food post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s subject actually involves a type of cuisine that is as old as time and comes from an incredibly well traveled part of the world, the Khyber Pass.  While this landmark might not evoke a reaction from most readers, it is actually one of the crucial geographic features to the shifting sands and roaming armies of global empires.  It is a key link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been transversed by every conqueror from Alexander the Great, Darius I of Persia (Father of the big bad Xerxes from the movie 300), Ghengis Khan, British colonial forces, and even to the modern day with the murky conflict with the Taliban and NATO forces.  Not only was the Khyber Pass a route for war since time immemorial, but it also was a giant outpost during the heyday of the Silk Road.  With all of these populations moving to and fro in the region, naturally they were going to leave an impression on the local cuisine.  I mean, they were peddling seasonings to Europeans that we take for granted nowadays for imparting all of our food and drinks with immense amounts of flavor like black pepper, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, ginger,  and even nutmeg to name a few.  Basic white girls in Fall wouldn’t even be a trending meme in American culture if it wasn’t for the Khyber Pass!  A giant historical stretch, I know, but a definite reality we have to deal with.cowwl  Thankfully, when Janice and I visited the Oak Park location of the Khyber Pass restaurant chain, there wasn’t any pumpkin but plenty of spice on the menu.

It was a cold and frozen drizzle kind of a day, so what better way to cut through the terrible weather than some soul-warming Indian food? IMG_5972 We walked in around the lunch hour after finding some parking in the back, and it was not terribly packed.  It was very welcoming with its warm colors and interesting decorations. IMG_5967

This takes all spice to another level

This takes all spice to another level

IMG_5969

Tea, anyone?

Tea, anyone?

We were quickly seated, and we noticed that they had a lunch buffet special for $15.  Based on my experience with previous buffets, I didn’t have any qualms, so we informed the waiter we were interested in getting our money’s worth since we were starving.  According to Khyber Pass’ website, they champion the cuisine of the Pathan people or more commonly known as the Pashtun in their language, Pashto.  Their homeland spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some famous Pashtun that you might of heard of include Harmid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and Malala Yousafzai, the famous young lady who stood up to the Taliban for women’s rights.  Clearly, it is a region that is not the easiest to live in, so their cuisine is similar to Indian food in terms of utilizing simple ingredients in a variety of ways with plenty of spice and flavor in every bite.  This was epitomized looking over the assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes along with a healthy array of curries, salads, soups, sides, and entrees.  We decided to try their half of a tandoori chicken ($12.95 or $16.95 for a whole) along with a side of naan bread to accompany our foray into the buffet.  Before we received all of our food, I got a Maharaja Premium Beer to slake my thirst, and that’s all about it did. IMG_5960 This brew from Mumbai was nothing of great note.IMG_5959  It was a thin, slightly fruity pilsner that had a very faint, bitter aftertaste.  I wouldn’t go back for another one.  However, the tandoori chicken and naan looked great.  Tandoori chicken originally was popular in the northern region of India and Pakistan called the Punjab due to the cultural practice of every home having a charcoal fired oven called a tandoor.  Just like in India, Khyber Pass roasted their chicken in a traditional tandoor after it had been marinated in yogurt, Kashmiri chilies, and turmeric. IMG_5964 However, this chicken isn’t super spicy if you don’t have a tongue of steel.  It is instead savory with swirls of flavor that are both umami yet earthy.  The naan bread we had it with also has an interesting history.  It seems like your typical, slightly leavened, flatbread that has been around since the beginning of time and the word originates from the Iranian word “n’n” which is a general word for “food” or “bread”.  However, this particular type of bread only became popular beyond the Indian subcontinent and surrounding cultures when the Roma people, more commonly known as “gypsies”, brought it during their exodus across the Central Asian steppe all the way to Europe.  Side note:  Based on genetic blood studies done in Roma communities and studying the Romani language, all signs point to an origin in India, not Romania, Ireland, or even Egypt which is where their modern nickname came from.  The Greek’s believed they came from Egypt, so they called the Roma Αἰγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi) or “those from Egypt” which then eventually made its way to the Middle English “gypcian“.  Whatever they call themselves, I can’t get enough of their bread.  IMG_5962It has more body and texture contrasts than a pita but still has its strength when dealing with soupy curries.  Khyber Pass’ naan had both a lightly buttered, crunch exterior that gave way to a moderately chewy center that sopped up all of the delicious chicken juices and the plates we got from the buffet.IMG_5966  My first plate was a mix of different items from their regular menu including:  vegetable pakora ($5.50), green salad ($5.95), chicken curry ($11.95), bhuna gosht (lamb in a light spicy sauce), bengan bhurtha (stewed eggplant; $10.95).

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

The pakora were little, deep fried vegetable fritters that were rich with flavor but not super greasy.  Plus, the smooth breading was very different than typically Western fried foods that is flakier.  Surprisingly, their green salad lived up to its name, even more impressive that it was part of their buffet, since it was bursting with fresh, verdant veggies that I topped off with the slightly tangy raita yogurt sauce.  The chicken curry was competently made but nothing to rave about.  I felt that the food overall wasn’t super spicy, so I asked them to bring some sort of hot sauce.  They brought me a Sriracha knock-off, but I told them that I wanted what they, i.e. the South Asian staff, ate.  Next thing I know, I was greeted with a cook inspired hot sauce that looked nuclear from the bright orange yellow that was emanating from the bowl.

This just looks angry.

This just looks angry.

I put it on my chicken, and it was amazing.  It was a coconut based sauce that up on the vindaloo level of spice that let me know that I, a real chilihead, was actually eating something spicy.  They were shaking their heads when I wasn’t dying from heat stroke, and that added to the long list of people from spicy food cultures being flabbergasted at my spice tolerance.  Yet, I think that it offers a more authentic experience that isn’t watered down for the locals.  Tongue searing spice aside,   I was definitely into the bhuna gosht or stewed lamb.  It added the gamey dimension that comes with lamb and fused it with a cumin and curry sauce that took it to another level of flavor awareness.  It was the clear standout on my plate and paired perfectly with a hefty piece of naan for some finger food that was finger licking good.  The bengan bhurtha was a close runner up in terms of flavor.  It consisted of minced eggplant roasted directly over a fire that then was stewed with cilantro, chilis, and onions.  The smoky flavor from the grill was unlike any other eggplant I had ever tasted, and it was melt in your mouth tender.  My second plate wasn’t as over the top as the first with dal mukhni ($10.95) and stewed vegetables as the only new entries.

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

The dal mukhni was supposed to be a four lentil stew, but it seemed quite heavy on the chickpeas.  I wasn’t impressed by it or the dal mukhni and should have gotten more of the meat dishes and bengan bhurtha.  Unfortunately, by the end of the second plate, we were stuffed and had no more room for dessert sady.  However, Khyber Pass left us with full bellies and wallets before going out into the cold.

So if you find yourself downtown or in Oak Park and are looking for an establishment with typical Indian food prices that aren’t the cheapest in the world but with plenty of authentic and unique dishes, I suggest swiping right instead of left on Khyber Pass!
Khyber Pass Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Picking Up and Eating the Tab(erna)

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Hola a todos y bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  If you couldn’t tell, the flavor of today’s post is Spanish, and what a wonderful flavor that is.  Spain is known for many things:  sun, bullfights, and flamenco to name a few, but few may truly appreciate what a giant Spain is in the culinary world.  It seems like only recently that tapas have become truly popular in the United States, and we are feeling the full force of molecular gastronomy, a technique of manipulating the molecular composition of food and drink in order to render them in a different form, that was pioneered in Europe, first in France and then in Spain.  Two names of chefs/magicians that immediately spring to mind in regard to this food movement are Ferran Adrià, head of the famous but now defunct El Bulli, and José Andrés, restauranteur and one of Anthony Bourdain’s besties.

The real O.G.s

The real O.G.s

However, these giants of the food world would contend that what they do isn’t molecular gastronomy.  Tomato/tomahto.  These advanced ideas have made their way even to Chicago as found at Grant Achatz’s Alinea, widely considered the best restaurant in the world, or at the wildly innovative Moto which was owned by the late kitchen mad scientist, Homaro Cantu.  However, I’m not here to talk about molecular gastronomy but rather tapas.  I’ve had my fair share of tapas after living in Spain, and this has served as the measuring stick for all other taperías outside of the peninsula.  I’ve had some charming tapateos and others not so much, but I found La Taberna Tapas to be a perfect place to get some delicious finger food in the Chi.

Janice and I went here back in the winter wonderland half of this year to meet two of her friends from out of town, and it was a the perfect venue to do so.  The parking on the street is plentiful even though you have to pay for it.IMG_5682  The interior was dark but welcoming, and the live music started soon after we sat down.  IMG_5699 IMG_5698 IMG_5696Thankfully even though it was flamenco dancing and guitar, it wasn’t overwhelming like other restaurants that I’ve been to with live music acts.  IMG_5695I get that you’re enthusiastic about your craft, but there’s a fine line between passion and being obnoxious.  Tread lightly when I’m eating, brah.  Before I get to the foodstuffs, let me have a moment for the beers I tried.  Both of them came from the super verdant and Celtic influenced northwestern corner of Spain known as Galicia, and the Hijos de Rivera brewery that has been making these beers will be celebrating its 110 year anniversary.  Perhaps their longevity could be down to them keeping the operations 100 percent Spanish and keeping it in the family.  Who knows?  I have to say though that when living in Spain, I wasn’t too impressed overall with Spanish beers, but the Estrella Galicia ($5) IMG_5692had a lot more taste than the more grating on the palate Estrella Damm from Cataluña.  This brew from Hijos de Rivera was a slightly bitter lager that went down smooth and heightened the bold flavors of the tapas that were to make their appearance soon.  The Estrella Galicia wasn’t an upper echelon type of libation, but it’s just something refreshing to sip on.  The 1906 Reserva Especial ($5) from the gallego brewery was better since it poured with a good amount of head and had more notes of caramel and grass throughout each sip. IMG_5685 It was another solid, if not spectacular, Galician beer.  Anyway, now onto the good stuff:  the tapas!

First, we had the pinacho de pollo that consisted of grilled chicken breast, sauteed bell peppers and onions, and garnished with a basil aioli and pistashio pesto.  IMG_5683I would recommend this segundo plato since it is a bit more filling than the dainty plates that we followed this one up with.  Not only is it satisfying, but the ingredients are superb.  The succulent, pure white chicken was further amped up by the basil aioli and pesto.  These elements combined with the veggies made for a complete dish that also was quite easy on the eyes.  The torre de berenjena y tomate ($7) or tower of eggplant and tomato kind of fell flat in my mind and mouth.  IMG_5684It didn’t seem that spectacular with some mushy slices of eggplant in a pool of bland tomato sauce.  I’d skip this tapa unless you’re vegetarian.  Another tomato based tapa that I always enjoy, and it was no different here, was the queso de cabra ($7) or goat cheese.  IMG_5691It consists of is a chunk of goat cheese that is baked in a tomato basil sauce topped with truffle oil with a side of tomato and garlic rubbed pieces of toasted bread.  What more could you ask for?  Well, for one thing, I would suggest that they make it more even ratio of cheese to tomato sauce since I felt like we got cheated out of the earthy cheese that goes so perfectly with the seasoned and warm tomato sauce on the crusty bread.  On the plus side, we followed it up with two of my favorite tapas:  patatas bravas ($7) and dátiles con tocino ($7).  With the former, it is hands down my favorite tapa.  It’s nothing fancy since it just consists of cubed and fried potatoes and a paprika infused aioli.  So easy, yet never reproduced Stateside surprisingly.  This version of my favorite tapa was almost like what I inhaled back in Barcelona yet not.IMG_5686  The white sauce was more on the mild side, and the potatoes were also covered in a chunkier tomato sauce bordering on an Italian marinara.  As for the dátiles con tocino, they were the same like I´ve had before yet different.  IMG_5688These sweet and gooey chunks of heaven were put to bed with a crunchy snuggie of bacon, but I think the sweet sherry reduction was a bit too much a case of gilding the lily.  We weren´t only sampling creatures of the land but also the sea.  The script flipped when they brought out our pulpo a la plancha or grilled octopus ($9).IMG_5690  This was another salute to Galicia which is known for quality grilled octopus seasoned with paprika.  I didn’t taste much of the almond pesto, but the squirt of lemon over it with the herb coated potatoes made it a good mix of surf and tuber turf.  The final two tapas we had wouldn’t really be considered true tapas.  The pincho punta de res ($7) is a supposed to be an homage to Basque culinary traditions where the word actually comes from the Spanish “pinchar” meaning “to pierce”.  If you go to the Basque Country in northern Spain, you will notice that all of their “tapas” are actually pierced with toothpicks and not just served in a dish.  Therefore, I don’t understand how these pinchos are Moorish as indicated on La Taberna’s menu.  IMG_5693Origin’s aside, I thought these skewers were more like taking a page from the Brazilian steakhouse than a tapería, but this didn’t take away from the high quality of the peppered steak that was paired with a generous helping of tenderly caramelized onions and a cup of sinus clearing horseradish sauce.  Surprisingly, we still had a bit of room left at the end of the meal for another classic Spanish dish in the form of paella con pollo y conejo or paella with chicken and rabbit ($12).  The word “paella” comes from the Latin “patella” or Old French “paelle“, both of which mean “pan”.  The origin of the dish is a bit shrouded in mystery, but the most likely origin is from Valencia on the east coast of Spain during the reign of the Moors (8th Century-15th Century A.D.).  The Valencian people managed to use the old Roman irrigation systems to grow more rice which was brought to the peninsula by the Islamic rulers.  They then took the rice, local seafood, and cooked them together in a pan.  The popularity of the dish soon grew in the following centuries to other parts of Spain like Madrid where they added other types of meat, like the variety we ate at La Taberna, and eventually became world renowned.  I visited Valencia during my residence in Spain, and I got a tin of paella from the mercado central, and it was a jump up from La Taberna’s version.  La Taberna’s paella was good but not the best ever.  IMG_5694It was well made with plenty of peppers, peas, onions, and even a Latin American twist with chile de árbol that gave the meal a smoky undertone.  The smoke enhanced the chicken and rabbit, but these meat elements didn´t shine as much as the cooked veggies, in my opinion.  I´d still recommend this paella though if you´ve never had it before and want one of Spain´s signature meals.

So in closing, if you want to have a taste of Spain´s delights for a date night or just a fun night out of culture and culinary adventures, get down to La Taberna Tapas for a tapateo you won´t forget!

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Too Good To Leaf

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

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

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

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

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

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

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

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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A Place Drinkers Hold Beer

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Markets have been around since the beginning of establish civilizations.  They are meeting places where people from all corners of the earth can come to exchange goods, news, and ideas.  These markets can take many forms.  There are traditional ones that still exist today like supermarkets or farmer’s markets, or the advent of the internet has led to the rise of the all powerful online marketplace.  Along with markets, alcohol has been the cornerstone of most nation states throughout history.  Whether that be airag, the milky spirt sipped on by one Ghengis Khan, or the wine that filled the goblets of the Caesars throughout the history of the Roman Empire, alcohol has been a double edged sword that has existed for man’s pleasure or survival in the case of areas where watersheds were too polluted to drink from.  Given all of this information, it would only seem natural to place both of these concepts together into a market that sells beer or today’s restaurant:  Beer Market.

They have many different locations throughout the Chicagoland area, but my parents and I visited the franchise branch in Bolingbrook’s Promenade shopping center.IMG_5617  It wasn’t too busy when we walked in since we eat dinner earlier than the average bear or bird in this context. IMG_5613 It was like any other modern American gastropub with exposed brick, dark accents, wooden chairs, and random neon beer signs.  We sat down and were greeted with a monstrous beer menu.  As I leafed through the 25 pages of beers, I was overwhelmed with making a selection.  However, once I was finished reading the tome, I settled for a kolsch to go along with my bratwurst entree.  What better than a German beer to accompany a German meal?  My mom got the cole slaw burger which I had a natural aversion to since it was carrying the stepchild of potato salad in my eyes when it comes to picnic side dishes.  When all of it came out, it didn’t look like the most appetizing meal in the world, but I’d let the flavors do the talking.  Kolsch or Kölsch beer is a German beer that was invented in Cologne in English or Köln, hence Kölsch.  It is a light yellow, pale ale which is quite rare in the land of lagers, but thankfully the hops are not over the top.  Instead, it has a bit more body than your average lager and a more floral/fruity quality to it.  Definitely more of a summer beer if you’re looking for something light and crisp.  It paired very well with my bratwurst.  The word bratwurst comes from the German words “brät” or “finely chopped meat” and “wurst” or “sausage”.   They were actually made popular throughout the USA compliments of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise where even today brats still outsell hot dogs.  Beer Market’s take on the bratwurst had slight riffs on the original sausage.  IMG_5614First, it was soaked in beer to give it even more flavor and seal in the juiciness.  Then, it was buried in a heap of grilled onions that were great, and the brown mustard had a kick to it that was an homage to another ballpark staple.  The sausage and onions were not served on your typical white bread bun or roll but a pretzel bun.  So, the pretzel-mustard-brat combo in short was a home run.  My mom’s cole slaw burger seemed ok presentation-wise, but she wasn’t too satisfied overall.IMG_5616IMG_5615  She said it was average at best, so I think you should check out their other menu items.  So if you’re a beer lover or are looking for a more upscale, solid but not spectacular bar and eatery than the dive on the corner, then check out Beer Market.
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We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

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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!
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Toronto (Day 3): 10,000 Leagues Over the Jenga Sea

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues and part three in my Canadian food adventures.  Day one consisted of a mouthful of Dirty South cookin’ while day two was a yin and yang of cool waters and fiery dinners.  Day three was interesting in its own respect.  We started off the day nice and early at the Ripley’s aquarium which was pretty entertaining with lots of interesting exhibits and marine specimens.  While the Shedd in Chicago has a lot more of the big animals like belugas and dolphins, the Toronto had bested our hometown museum with a larger variety of strange creatures.  For example, the giant sawfish that was chilling on the aqua tube we walked through as tons of other fish, sharks, and even turtles swam around us. Oh, boy, I would not want to see that stuff from my kayak seat.11692502_10105957338687379_774183563389597382_n 11695737_10105957338243269_4334976029450824065_n  The jellyfish exhibit was probably my favorite part since the cool blacklit chambers really made the little guys look like aliens. IMG_7035 Janice, however, was going bananas over the puffer fish and even crawled into the middle that was intended for the children school groups.  I captured her passion with this pretty cool picture.

In heaven

In heaven

Then there were the petting areas where we had some hands-on action with the sea-beasties.  Janice was freaking out with the horseshoe crabs,IMG_7013 and I finally overcame my fear of petting stingrays…by petting one as big as me.

They can smell my fear

They can smell my fear

Unfortunately, none of the small, petable sharks  were feeling calm enough to be friendly with the guests.  Overall, we highly recommend a visit while you’re here, but try to go in the morning since there will be less hordes of shrieking children.  We proceeded to walk to the nearby turntable that turned out to also be the Steamwhistle brewery.IMG_7044  If you’re into beer and/or classic trains, this is your paradise.

Just try not to get run over

Just try not to get run over

We finally got in after a bit of waiting, and they didn’t even have any food for lunch. IMG_7046 IMG_7045 On the plus side, we got to see the inside of the brewery, get some taster beers, 11707573_10105957366192259_8561669485023787245_n 11750695_10105957366152339_6453658988414354508_nand find our next party bike.11223302_10105957366232179_7567314927165861357_n  The brew that we had there tasted like a slightly hoppy IPA that was light and good for a hot day.  So, instead of just sitting there and waiting for the food truck to come in, we moved onto the harborfront since we had a kayak lesson in the afternoon.  After a moderate constitutional, we found ourselves looking out over Lake Ontario, a perfect backdrop for lunch.  We stumbled upon, surprise surprise, another brewery.  This one was called Amsterdam Brewery, and thankfully it wasn’t jazzed up like some sort of cheesy homage to the Dutch capital.  IMG_7059We got a seat on the patio where there was thankfully some shade, IMG_7050 IMG_7049but it seemed like they were training a lot of new staff.  Thankfully, our waitress was very on the ball since we had a deadline to stuff our faces and make it to the lesson on time.  First world problems.  The meal started with da beers.IMG_7048  Even though the flights looked tempting, they had to wait.  Instead, I got their all natural blonde while Janice got their Big Wheel amber ale.  These big glasses quickly came out, and we had different experiences.  IMG_7051My blonde seemed quite bland and slightly sour, but Janice’s Big Wheel was a tasty balance of caramel undertones and a hoppy aftertaste.  Moving on to food, their menu was a standard  bar and grill mix of mostly sandwiches, pizza, and a few slightly ethnic items thrown in there for good measure.  I enjoyed their code for pairing the food with the beer through a letter system next to each food option like C for a crisp beer next to the fish and chips.  We picked a few things to share before going to burn them off on the water.  First, there were the sweet chili rib ends ($11).  IMG_7052IMG_7053These pork chunks were delectable minus the occasional bone chip we had to make sure not to swallow.  Definitely not a plate for the little ones.  However, the flavor was definitely grown and developed through a mix of sweet chili sauce and a braise of lemongrass, lime leaves, and ginger.  It kind of was like an Asian sweet, spicy, yet tangy twist on an American favorite.  I recommend them.  Then we had to get the Canadian classic dish:  poutine ($8).  This melange of gravy, cheese curds, and French fries was born in rural Quebec in the 1950s, but the origin of the name is highly disputed. IMG_7054 Some believe that it is a Frenchified version of the English word “pudding” while others conjecture it comes from the Quebecois French slang for “mess” or “leftovers”.  There are even links back to France with regional dialects boasting cognates like the southern Provencal word, “poutité” or “hodgepodge” in English.  Whatever you want to call it, it is a super rich comfort food that will make you want to check your cholesterol levels when you’re done.  I’m not a huge fan of the soggy fries that soak up a lot of the gravy on the bottom, but the perfect forkful that combines the beefy with the salty fry and tangy cheese is without parallel.  Speaking of the cheese, at Amsterdam they use Thornloe cheese that has been a Canadian institution since 1940.  Plus, it was founded by a guy named Rene Laframboise or Rene The Raspberry.  Now that’s a cheese company I want to patronize!  To balance this heavy plate, we rounded out the main course with some of the hoisin chicken lettuce wraps ($12).  These were the opposite of the poutine:  light, sweet, and fresh.IMG_7055  They were basically like make your own tacos, but instead of tortillas we had super verdant leaves of lettuce.  The chicken and veggies were stir fried in a light teriyaki sauce, and we received the dark hoisin sauce and a pepper seed laden sauce on the side.  All of these plates together were a great value for good food, and we still had a little bit of room to split a dessert.  We got the flourless chocolate torte ($7) which was totally our jam, literally, given that the raspberry coulis (coo-LEE; from the Latin colare “to strain”) was the perfect compliment to the sinfully sweet slice.IMG_7056  An added bonus was the whipped cream, fresh strawberry, and a mysterious gooseberry that made its way onto our plate. IMG_7057 I had never even seen one of these fruits in real life, so I didn’t know what to expect from it.  Our waitress warned us that some diners didn’t care for its “interesting” and super sour taste.  So, I braced myself for the worst when I popped the small, bright yellow berry in my mouth and bit down.  I was greeted with a more neutral, partially earthy flavor washing over my palate.  It barely left an impression on me before it was gone.  Guess the kayak gods were smiling on us as we got the check and were running to the kayak dock.  It was a glorious day for a paddle, and before we knew it, we were in our dual kayak.  Our task of getting to the channel islands was harder than expected since we had to try to not get run over by the numerous boats and water taxis that were creating giant waves as well.  As if that wasn’t enough, there were airplanes zooming overhead because the landing strip was out by the islands.  Definitely got the blood pumping.  Eventually, we got to the islands and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon on the calm waters.  It’s also a great experience if you want some fantastic photo ops for the Toronto skyline like we got. 11540821_10105957366820999_7769503925293810602_n Going back to port was maybe that just much harder given the constant paddling we had done for the previous three hours.  By the time we reached the dock, we were ready for a nap before going out with Aaron and Alyssa.  Once we regroups, we were back at the harborfront with the gang, and funny enough they were going to bring us to Amsterdam Brewhouse!  Instead we wandered about taking in the Friday night surroundings,11745761_10105957366975689_7832020117414013761_n including Janice climbing into this contraption that looked like Dr. Seuss’ pimp-mobile.11694806_10105957367190259_489136461148223093_n  Just par for the course.  Eventually, we decided to go out to a bar or two for food and drinks.  We hit up the Wellington first for food and then the Banknote.  Unfortunately, I don’t have pics for the Wellington, but it had some great nachos.  It’s a cozy bar/restaurant too.  The Banknote, on the other hand, was a great bar for late night shenanigoats.  It was there that I tried another one of the Canadian beers that was also offered at the Amsterdam brewhouse:  the Boneshaker IPA.  Boneshaker TBS Bottle Shot1It was surprisingly palatable given that I’m not the biggest fan of the typically hop-heavy IPA style of beers.  Luckily, my bones weren’t shaking too much given that we played over three hours of Jenga that they have at their main long table.11249766_10105957367329979_2502322992411108169_n 11709773_10105957367389859_5852861961107866960_n  Then again, when you’re having a good time with great company, it’s bound to happen.11695752_10105957367903829_7768437875094248237_n  Talk about a wild Friday and penultimate night in TO!11695777_10105957367604429_5737441334686934831_n
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