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Do the Deaux

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Bonjour, y’all!  Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is extra dirty and deep fried since I’m going to be talking about some of the most Southern cuisine there is in the United States:  Cajun cuisine.  Most people think of Mardi Gras or Hurricane Katrina when they hear anything to do with the state of Louisana, but the reality is that it is also home to one of the most unique cultures in our great nation.  The Cajun people are descendants of the Acadian (French colonists) settlers in Canada who were deported by the British in the mid-1700s en masse to the then unknown lands to the south including the original 13 colonies, i.e. America in utero.  If these French colonists weren’t imprisoned, killed, or passed away from diseases before or after the expulsion, they found themselves migrating to new and foreign places like the territory of Louisiana.  At that time, it was considered part of the Kingdom of Spain, and the Acadian refugees were welcomed by the Spanish government due to the French and Spanish governmental and Catholic links.  This new rapport led to the Acadians becoming the largest ethnic group in Louisiana, and their name slowly evolved from “Acadian” to “Cadien” to eventually “Cajun”.  With a new name for their culture, their Cajun French (however strange sounding it may be at times) and food became two pillars of local pride for these new settlers and still are going strong today.

Modern day Acadians

Modern day Acadians

Acadian food had to adapt to the new environments they found themselves in since it was a lot hotter than old frosty Canada, and the local flora and fauna were extremely different, especially in the bayou regions.  Therefore, they adapted their tastes to create dishes that emphasize the use of pork and shrimp for proteins, flavorful spices, and the “holy trinity” of green peppers, onions, and celery.  However, with the rise of New Orleans as the biggest and most important city of Louisiana also came the rise of creole cuisine.  While some may use them interchangeably, creole cuisine is more varied in ingredients and reflect the more cosmopolitan nature of the city versus the more rustic Cajun fare.  For example, a key difference is that creole cuisine uses tomatoes while Cajun dishes do not.  With the rise of celebrity chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse in the latter half of the 20th Century,

The man. The myth. The legend.

The man. The myth. The legend.

there came a regeneration of Cajun and creole cuisine that was spicier and adapted for modern tastes as the food spread out across the USA.  Enter Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.

I had never been to this local restaurant, but one of my good friends worked there and said I should try the food.  I’m not a huge seafood fan (I’m more of a land animal lover), but Janice and I ended up going here on a double date since my friend David picked it.  The restaurant itself is like a typical seafood restaurant with a large, wraparound bar to greet you in case you wanted to eat some fish or drink like one.  We were more in the mood for a bite to eat, so we met up with David and Vivian who were waiting for us.  Looking over the menu, I could see that they definitely were trying to stay true to the Cajun and creole cuisine staples along with including more general American surf and turf options.  Price-wise, it’s not the cheapest eatery in town but reasonable for a seafood restaurant like in the $20-30 range for an entree.  We decided to focus more on the Big Easy specialties starting with our appetizers.  We got the shrimp and crawfish fondue and the crispy fried alligator. IMG_5648  The fondue was definitely worth it since it was warm, gooey, and filled with plenty of shrimp and crawfish chunks.  IMG_5651The crawfish/crayfish/crawdad/ecrevisse in Cajun French wasn’t really noticeable in this dish given that they often have a slightly muddy flavor given they live and eat whatever they can find in the muck at the bottom of streams.  Hence why some call them “mudbugs”.  The garlic bread isn’t very Cajun, but it mixes well with the creamy melted cheese.  What more could you ask for in an appetizer?  Oh wait, fried goodness!  That’s the last box that the alligator checked off.  Since the Acadians settled in the swampy bayous of Louisiana, obviously they needed to find protein sources.  Therefore, it only seemed natural they would try and find a way to eat the large and plentiful alligators prowling the waters.  At Pappadeaux it wasn’t like they were plucking them out of the water right outside the door, but they do promise the highest quality of alligator meat on their website.  It was served to us on a platter with a side of fried potato sticks and dipping sauce.  I would liken it to a plate of popcorn chicken with a dirty South twist.  The meat wasn’t exactly like chicken, but it did have a similar density and similar, but not identical, flavor.  The breading had a subtle, spicy hint to it with notes of paprika, and the dipping sauce had a thousand island/special sauce vibe going on.  Once we took down those tasty treats, I ordered my shrimp étouffée.  Before it came out, I got a complimentary cup of their gumbo.  This dish’s name originates from either the West African word for okra “ki ngombo” or the Native American Choctaw word for sassafras leaves “kombo“.  The reason why the name is linked to these plants is because this state dish of Louisiana is classified as African, Native American, or French depending on the thickening ingredient.  The first two were already defined with okra and sassafrass while French creole cooks used flour and fat to thicken their gumbos.  This was a lip-smacking good taster of Louisiana.IMG_5649  From the spicy andouille sausage to the rich brown base, chopped veggies, and shrimp,IMG_5650this small bowl could do no wrong.  I couldn’t wait for my étouffée to arrive.  Étouffée comes from the French verb “étoufféer” meaning “to smother” or “to suffocate”, and I could see that most of the ingredients in this creole dish were covered in the brown roux sauce. IMG_5652 Mixing the rice together with the rest of the dish made it resemble the fusion feijoada I had at Vermilion during Restaurant Week.  It showed the mixing of different cultures like with the use of rice from Spanish and African dishes, the local shrimp from the Cajun country, and the French sauce and spices.  It wasn’t a spicy entree, contrary to popular believe about creole and Cajun cooking, and it was the perfect dish for a cold night like when we visited Pappadeaux.  I really enjoyed the amount and quality of shrimp in this dish since they weren’t too chewy or undercooked.  Plus, the rice gave the étouffée the body to be filling but not too much so.  I always love meals that involve mixing meat and rice together, so it was a match made in Cajun heaven for me.  My fellow diners also seemed pretty pleased with their choices.

So if you don’t have enough money to take a trip down to NOLA, get yourself on down to Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen!  Seaing is believe, hear?
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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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Peckish and Picking a Perfect Pepper

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t read my last post, it dealt with a super spicy ghost pepper salsa that has taken my tastebuds by firestorm.  It seems like spicy food has been popping up all over the American fast food scene as of late.  I’d like to bring you one of the most intriguing entries into this fiercely competitive arena from American fast food chain Wendy’s.

This hamburger chain is the third largest fast food chain in the world behind the two biggies McDonald’s and Burger King.

Wendy's new "Image Activation" restaurants feature bold, "ultra-modern" designs that greatly enhance the customer experience, including lounge seating with fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and digital menuboards.(PRNewsFoto/The Wendy's Company)

Wendy’s new “Image Activation” restaurants feature bold, “ultra-modern” designs that greatly enhance the customer experience, including lounge seating with fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and digital menuboards.(PRNewsFoto/The Wendy’s Company)

What sets this restaurant apart from the rest are its sandwiches.  While it does have your typical hamburgers and cheeseburgers, the patties are square, not round.  Plus, they don’t really have a “signature” sandwich compared to the more popular Big Mac or Whopper from the two aforementioned larger franchises.  Personally, I’m a big fan of Wendy’s given their commitment to providing a cleaner and tastier product everytime, and they seem to have more variety on their menu compared to McDonald’s or Burger King.  All of which brings me to the two latest Wendy’s menu items that really made me stand up and take notice of their ever-shifting menu choices.  First there was the jalapeño fresco spicy chicken sandwich.  While it was a bit on the pricey end for a fast food sandwich ($5, if I remember correctly), the quality definitely came through for a one off experience.  It’s a pretty substantial sandwich for the price as well.  I noticed the bun looked a bit different from the typical white bread buns that typically accompany their burgers and sandwiches.  Instead, it had more of an artisanal look to it as a sort of whole wheat roll.IMG_6512  I always appreciate good bread, so we were starting off on the right foot.  Then I took a big bite, and it was quality through and through.IMG_6515  The thick, juicy, all-white meat chicken cutlet was crispy and the batter was dusted with a chili powder to start off the spice party.  Then then chipotle mayo, raw onions, and verdant jalapeno pepper had my tastebuds in a very happy place.  If you like hearty sandwiches with plenty of fiery heart, this is the one for you.  This was just the slightly spicy prologue to the main objective of my Wendy’s trip:  the ghost pepper fries.  As I mentioned before, my previous post dealt with the new trend that is the ghost pepper, and it seems that Wendy’s has jumped on that wave.  Was my experience a hang ten or a complete wipe-out?  Eh, kind of in the middle.  When I opened them up, it looked like a simple mound of cheese fries with a generous helping of raw jalapenos. IMG_6516 At the outset, it was bland with the nacho cheese thoroughly covering the fries, but it became slightly spicier as I got into the heart of the dish.  At the very most, I might have had a little hint of flame here and there, but it was a low and slow burn.  Once you try a ghost pepper, you won’t forget it, and these fries weren’t anything close to a ghost pepper level of spice.  My lips weren’t super red.  My mouth wasn’t watering and in pain.  I also wasn’t in absolute fear of touching my face and having my own pepper spray party.  Long story short, if you are a real pepperhead, then the ghost pepper fries will not pique your interest or palate.  If you can’t deal with spicy food, then this will probably be spicy for you.

So, the next time you’re at Wendy’s and if you’re lucky enough before they remove these experimental items from the menu, I’d recommend the fresco chicken sandwich over the ghost pepper sandwich.  You get more bite for your buck!
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Sarajevo Fo’ Sho’!

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The Balkans have long been a forgotten corner of Europe but one of the most tumultuous and diverse regions of the continent.  A potpourri of Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins all interacting with each other, not always positively, mind you, and exchanging ideas and more importantly, food.  While this geographic region is on the Mediterranean Sea, the food is very different to their western neighbors Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.  While they might focus on the same staples like wine and olives/olive oil, their meals have more of an Eastern European and Middle Eastern vibe due to their location as a crossroads of sorts between East and West.  Instead of having to buy tickets to Europe, Janice and I managed to find a slice of Bosnia quite close to home on Chicago northside at Restaurant Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is the name of the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is an ancient and diverse city that once boasted of being the only European city with a synagogue, Orthodox Catholic, mosque, and Catholic Church in the same neighborhood.  However, much of the city was destroyed by Serbian forces in the siege during the War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s.  Once the guns fell silent, the rebuilding process began, and now it’s back to its former glory.  Due to the aforementioned violence, many Bosnian and Serbian refugees came to Chicago for a better life.  This brings me back to our visit to Restaurant Sarajevo. IMG_6128 It was quite busy around dinner time, but we also just beat the rush by going around 6 pm.IMG_6108  We looked over the menu and decided to try the cold appetizer plate ($10.07) since it contained two of our favorite food groups:  meat and cheese.  While we were waiting, we got a free basket of some delicious, warm, crusty bread.  It came pre-sliced in giant pieces, and the butter that came with it had a thicker consistency that was almost like cream cheese. IMG_6117Turns out it was a Balkan and Central Asian treat known as kaymak.  The word “kaymak” means “melt” in Mongolian which was an apt description since the spread on the warm bread was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Our appetizer came out, and it was a gigantic plate filled with savory delights. IMG_6110 IMG_6109We could see smoked beef, two types of Bosnian sausage, peppers, and Bosnian Travnik feta cheese.  It was a who’s who of European food with the Mediterranean represented in the olives and peppers and feta while the Eastern and Central European elements were present in the sausages and smoked meats.  The smoked beef was not as super smoky as you would think it would be like American barbecue, but it still was very juicy. IMG_6111 While the two meats were very distinct in flavor.  The darker of the pair was more like a salami with a salty aftertasteIMG_6113 while the more reddish sausage I could liken to a spicier Spanish chorizo. IMG_6112 As for the feta cheese, it was a great piece of the crumbly stuff when combined with the olive oil coated peppers or the sausages. IMG_6116 For the main course, we were simply awash with great choices, so we shared two entrees.  First, there was the Bosnian chorba ($4.58).IMG_6114  It was a hearty beef based stew filled with large, succulent chunks of tender veal along with bobbing potato cubes and carrots.  Definitely a great choice for the winter months, and it was a lot of soup for a great price.  Then there was our Bosnian mix plate ($19.23).  It was a family dinner for less than twenty bucks, but you really must like meat if you get this entree.IMG_6119  On one plate we had grilled veal and chicken kebab, beef sausage, cevapcicipljeskavica, mixed vegetables, chicken schnitzel, and our choice of side.  Woof.  It was totally worth it since we brought our appetites to this meal and were ready to destroy what came our way.  First, I have to say that every slice of meat was all killer and no filler, i.e. high quality cuts of meat with little to no excess fat or additives.  We learned that they make their own sausages on-site which probably explained the freshness of the meal.  The grilled veal and chicken kabab were good but nothing beyond some competently made pieces of grilled meat.  As I mentioned before, the beef sausage was filling and super fresh and did have a bit of a snap to the casing that comes with using natural casings.  Then there were the super Bosnian entries to our meal in the form of the cevapcici and the pljeskavica.  The first one, the cevapcici, actual comes from the Persian word for “kebab” and is a type of casing-less sausage.  Although during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it became associated with hadjuks or outlaws as an easy food to make while wandering the countryside. IMG_6122 I had had this mini-sausage dish before at Chicago’s Andersonville fest even though it was at a Croatian food tent and served in a fancier fashion.  It was like a Balkan version of a cocktail weenie but with more delicious, seasoned lamb and char-grilled.  As for the pljeskavica, it’s basically a lamb and beef patty that is stuffed with mozzarella cheese.IMG_6121

Once again, meat and cheese reigned supreme in this Balkan favorite, and it was so bad for you yet surprisingly not super greazy.  It also had a helping of the kaymak cheese on top just for good measure.  The chicken schnitzel was a representative of the Central European element in Bosnian cooking, and I really liked the tangy tartar sauce that combined with the super thin but tasty, golden breaded chicken cutlet.  Surprise, surprise!  We still had more food in the form of the potatoes on the side that were simply sauteed with an olive oil and oregano coating. IMG_6123 Even after all of that we managed to find some room for some decadent dessert.  We got the Bosnian chilled apple rolls ($5.50) that apparently is another Bosnian specialty.  IMG_6124IMG_6126IMG_6127It consists of a mix of chopped walnuts and apple pieces with honey that is enclosed in flaky, buttery filo dough.  Surprisingly, it was served chilled like it said on the menu which is a bit different than similar desserts that are served room temperature or even warm like Greek baklava.

In the end, we were absolutely stuffed with a ton of delicious and hearty food.  If you want a taste of a land that isn’t very well represented in America, run down to Restaurant Sarajevo!
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The Mother of All Posts: 4 Great Mother’s Day Restaurants

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

1.  Kanela

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

2.  M. Henry

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

3.  Bongo Room

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

4.  Walker Brother’s Pancake House

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

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

All Roads Lead to Good Food

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Have you ever heard of a little place called Kyrgyzstan?  While it is not as well known as its neighbor and home of Borat, Kazakhstan, or nuclear armed Pakistan, it a very interesting corner of the world with a lot of history.  The word “Kyrgyz” in Turkic languages means “We are forty” which is a reference to the forty clans the legendary Kyrgyz hero, Manas, united to fight against the Uighurs (A predominately Muslim group that resides in what is now western China).  The number forty also appears in their flag in the form of a sun with forty rays and a criss-crossed center to symbolize a yurt or traditional tent the Kyrgyz sleep in. kg It’s one of my favorite world flags, and recently I found that Kyrgyz food is right up my alley as well.  Janice and I had a double date with one of her best friends and her husband at a Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago called Jibek Jolu.  Her friend and husband raved about it, so I was curious to see what exactly Kyrgyz food consisted of.

While I never had this particular type of cuisine, I had a faint idea of what to expect given the geographic location of the Central Asian nation and its history.  First, I expected there to be a lot of meat given that most nomadic peoples rely on high energy meals focusing primarily on protein and dairy.  Second, I found out that Jibek Jolu means “Silk Road” in Kyrgyz, so there were bound be plenty of dishes that combined the influences of Chinese, Indian, and Western cooking.  Finally, given that Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic, there would be lots of Russian dishes, and Janice’s friend’s husband is Russian, so we had our cultural “in” if we needed anything.  When we walked up, it was funny to see all of the cabs parked out front due to the high number of Central Asian cabdrivers in Chicago. IMG_6056 We walked in, and the place was jammed for dinner.  IMG_6055We were quickly seated by the friendly staff, and I perused the menu options.  I wasn’t surprised with the amount of meat and root vegetables being offered, but all of that had the making for a great meal in my eyes.  The ingredients don’t have to be super fancy to make a superb meal; it’s all in the freshness of ingredients and execution.  The prices were also very reasonable compared to other Russian restaurants I have been to.  To start the meal, I wanted to try an appetizer, but a majority of them were Russian dishes.  So I went for the tandyr samsy ($4.00) which seemed more Kyrgyz since I had never seen it on a Russian menu.  Plus, it was cooked in an Indian tandoor oven which once again shows the multicultural nature of the cuisine. IMG_6045 When it came out, it reminded me of a ghost from Pac Man,

Four tandur samys

Four tandyr samys

and once I bit through the semi-crunchy crust, I was going “wakawakawakawaka” gobbling it up like the little yellow guy. IMG_6047 It was a great combination of freshly baked bread, plenty of ground beef, and some soft, stewed potatoes to give the dish a little more body.  Then there were the entrees, and each one was quite unique.  First, there was the lagman ($12) which after a bit of research turns out to be more familiar to me than I had previously thought.  Ramen noodles or just “ramen” are known the world over as a cheap snack for poor people and college students, but it turns out the word “lagman” is the Turkic word for “ramen”.  Once again, the interconnected nature of Kyrgyzstan was reflected in this lagman dish that utilized the same hand-pulled noodle techniques that originated in the 16th Century in China.  It was different than the Japanese ramen I tried in Tokyo, but it reflected the no-frills approach to cooking the Central Asian Republics take. IMG_6048 Of course, there was stewed pieces of tender beef, peppers, onions, green beans, and onions along with a beef based broth to bring the ramen bowl together.  I don’t normally say this, but I loved the noodles because they were super soft due to soaking in the aforementioned broth.  I enjoyed every slurping forkful.  We also got a small order of the meat oromo ($7.00), and they were still very substantial.  Looking at these traditional steamed pies, I could only think of the steamed dumplings in Chinese dim sum.  They had the same translucent skin as the little potstickers I’ve taken down many a time in Chinatown. IMG_6049 While the exteriors were Chinese inspired, the interiors were more Slavic in nature with beef, minced potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots.  They were kind of hard to slice and share due to the fragile skin of the pies, but they were very hearty and all of the ingredients came together like a mini beef stew in a pie.  After we tried that, I got a taste of my girlfriend’s plov ($10.00).  This entree, more commonly known today as “pilaf” which originates from the Sankrit word “pulaka” meaning “a ball of rice”, has been around since the beginning of time.  Alexander the Great comments on being served the same meal while visiting Samarkand, one of the stops for future explorer Marco Polo on the Silk Road.  Alexander’s troops took the “pilav” recipe back to Macedonia, and it spread throughout Europe as “pilaf” from the Greek word “pilafi“.  IMG_6050I didn’t think this rice dish lived up to the other entrees we tried since it just consisted of a broth-infused rice sprinkled with beef, carrots, onions, and garlic.   While moderately flavorful, it seemed to be average in comparison to the other types of food we had tried.  Then there was my kuurdak ($12) which was as elemental as food can get just short of ripping a hunk off a cow.  Turns out this entree is one of the oldest and most traditional of Kyrgyz meals.  It literally was stewed beef, potatoes, and onions. IMG_6051 Simple as it sounds, the combination was amazing in my eyes and on my tastebuds.  I would take this Kyrgyz beef over an American steak and potato dinner any day.  I don’t know what they did to the beef, but it tasted like it was char-grilled and coated in a possible garlic/olive oil mixture.  Then, the potatoes were herbal tinged and extremely tender which combined perfectly with the beef.  The icing on the cake were the raw onions since I love onions in any way, shape, or form.  It was one of the ugliest dishes at the table, but it was a definite hit as the others were sneaking bites off my plate.  The final and most hardcore of the entrees was the beef shashlik ($11.50 for two).  Janice’s friend’s husband, Ivan, ordered it, and when it came out, I couldn’t believe the presentation.  There were two extremely long knives on the plate that had chunks of tandoor cooked beef on them along with a pile of rice and a salad just in case to protect you from a heart attack from ingesting that much red meat in one sitting.  This part of the meal was as delicious as it was fun and dangerous to eat.

In Russia, you cut knife!

In Russia, you cut knife!

The Indian tandoor oven really brought out the intense flavor of the beef, and surprisingly we didn’t cut off our tongues when ripping the beef off the blades as the girls stared on in disbelief.  IMG_6054Best double date ever.

So if you want to try a cuisine you’ve possibly never heard of for a great price with friendly service, make a pilgrimage to Jibek Jolu!
Jibek Jolu on Urbanspoon

First Tine Eating Here, but Second Tine Is a Charm

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Update:  Even though this post was very negative of Knife and Tine in Chicago during Restaurant Week, we were treated to a comped meal courtesy of the management.  With this free money, we spent it very well given that their menu had plenty of great options compared to the Restaurant Week offerings.  While the food from our first visit was either bland or super salty, the food this time around was great all around since they weren’t under the gun to throw out tons of food all at once.  We started the meal with a free plate of their biscuit bread.IMG_6730  It was crumbly on the outside and soft and warm on the inside.  Plus, the giardiniera butter spread was a spicy cherry on the cake.  Moving on to the main course,  I got the bone in pork chop ($24) that was succulent and served on top of a bed of farro or an Italian wheat that tasted like fried rice with sprigs of green onion mixed in. IMG_6732 My girlfriend ended up getting the dry roasted mussels ($12). IMG_6733 I’m not a huge seafood person, but after trying one, they weren’t too bad compared to the more snot-like oysters.  My girlfriend said that they were absolutely wonderful especially with the fennel infused salsa verde.  Overall, it was a pleasant time, and I recommend a visit if you have a chance.

Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I review restaurants and bring you some of my food adventures throughout Chicago and the rest of the world!  This post is the final installation of Chicago Restaurant Week, and sadly it doesn’t live up to other great days that were filled with spicy plates and savory treasures.  Today’s review deals with the brand new eatery Knife and Tine that opened in 2014 in the chic Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago.

The outside of the restaurant was modern and clean with flagstone from corner to corner, and the inside was like most modern American gastropubs:  dimly lit and dark accents.  IMG_5952IMG_5950Upon sitting down, we were supplied with our Restaurant Week menus.  It was like most other restaurants that allowed for diners to try a three course meal for the low low price of $33 dollars, but Knife and Tine also had a $44 souped up menu that had more decadent options.  The complimentary bread that started it all off wasn’t decadent.  IMG_5935The pimento cheese spread that came on the side was a bit too salty for my liking, but it was slightly spicy that salvaged my taste buds.  To start, we got an order of the spoon bread and the pear salad.  The former actually didn’t involve any bread, rather fried pieces of whipped cornmeal.IMG_5937  This staple of Southern US cooking left much to be desired on their own.  They were quite bland, and the batter had no character whatsoever. IMG_5940 They came with a hot sauce bacon aioli (dipping sauce) that might as well have been called “cream of salt with a dash of bacon”.  On the other hand, the pear salad was light, refreshing, and balanced in terms of the earthy baby arugula, sweet pear slices, and salty Parmesan flakes that were liberally strewn about the salad. IMG_5941 Then there were the arancini which are a Sicilian dish allegedly being invented in the 10th Century A.D. during Arab rule.  As for the name, it comes from the Sicilian word “arancine” meaning orange since these fried rice balls are shaped like their fruit namesakes. IMG_5943 It was fried like the spoon bread, yet a lot more flavorful than the cornmeal stuffed bites.  Unfortunately, it was a matter of quantity over quality in terms of tastes as the pimento cheese and cheddar took over this plate, and even then it was more salty than savory.  As we moved from snacks to the main entrees, I tucked into my chicken and dumplings platter.  It looked ok, and when I had my first bite, it was a let down.  IMG_5946While the crispy skin gave the chicken a satisfying crunch, the meat was greasy, and the ricotta dumplings were bland and semi-soggy soaking up the au-jus.  As for Janice’s beef cheeks, I actually preferred the brussel sprout salad that had a tangy vinaigrette over the over roasted meat. IMG_5945 I’m sure if you really like pot roast or other really stewed meats, this would be the dish for you.  It’s not quite my cup of tea.  The bone marrow bread pudding (on the left below) was confusing since I felt like the bread part overshadowed the spreadable goodness that is bone marrow.IMG_5947  It was a case of gilding the beef cheek in this case.  I was extremely impressed with the desserts, and this isn’t just my sweet tooth talking.  The denouement of our dinner took the form of coconut lime panna cotta and a super brownie.  The panna cotta (Italian for “cooked cream”) was coated with a blueberry coulis or thick sauce and topped with sesame tuiles (French for “tiles”) or a wafer of sorts and candied ginger. IMG_5949
 This Italian version of flan was also infused with a bit of coconut and lime juice with gave it an interesting tropical feel.  My favorite part were the toppings like the crispy sesame bits that brought a savory side to a sweet dessert and counteracted the sweeter pieces of ginger.  As for the super brownie, I might as well have slapped an “S” on it and called it, “my hero”! IMG_5948 It consisted of a blondie brownie buried under more brownie bites, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and candied walnuts.  On top of this avalanche of chocotastic flavors and crunchy walnuts, it was slightly warm that left me in a food coma and drifting off to dreamland.

While many diners have raved about Knife and Tine on Yelp and Urbanspoon, I honestly don’t know if we were eating at the same place.  Based on my experience and Amy Cavanaugh of Time Out Chicago’s, don’t go to Knife and Tine unless you like overpriced and salty food.
Knife & Tine on Urbanspoon

You’ll Love Olive This Food

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Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues!  This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world.  Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.IMG_5838

It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night.  IMG_5847 IMG_5846This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room.  IMG_5839Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. IMG_5843 However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. IMG_5840 IMG_5841 Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some.  When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu.  I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy.  It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries.  While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. IMG_5849 The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy.  The Italian option was good but not great.  The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar.  As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio.  After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp.  This was 10 bucks well spent.  We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. IMG_5854 The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft.  First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_5856 It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread.  Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella.  It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself.  Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. IMG_5861 This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression.  It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really.  Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. IMG_5860 This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam.  The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.IMG_5855  Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman).  Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing.  While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t.  It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese.  I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu.  First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates.  Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound.  Why is it so expensive?  The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal.  They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat.  It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling.  Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free.  He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was.  It was my number one crostino hooves down. IMG_5872 The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget.  Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu.  Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted.  Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. IMG_5865 I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature.  As for me, I got the fig and olive salad.  It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish.IMG_5862  It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around.  There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts.  The food train didn’t stop there.  We still had our entrees to take down.  Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English.  It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. IMG_5873 I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though.  The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side.  In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine.  Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France.  However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines.  Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees.  Tajine (in Arabic طاجين‎) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya.  It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel.  This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States.  As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.  At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors.  IMG_5875On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة‎), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones).  However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish.  By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire!  We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts.  The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren.   It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. IMG_5881 IMG_5882I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. IMG_5880 It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.IMG_5885

We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food.  Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

Catching Some Delicious Zzzs

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Welcome one and all to another molto bene Mastication Monologues!  Today’s entry deals with a food that has recently been linked to the epidemic of childhood obesity:  pizza.  Sadly, kids may love this cheesy treat, but it doesn’t love them back.  Still, who can honestly admit that they don’t enjoy a fresh slice right out of the oven with your favorite toppings from your favorite spot without any of the fuss of shopping, cooking, and then cleaning dishes?  This wonderful feeling of culinary satisfaction can be found at a local pizza spot by me called Zazzo’s Pizza in Darien, IL.

While I have had my fair share of different types of pizza from different parts of the globe, Zazzo’s is one of the front runners for a great thin crust pie.  I had never really paid it much mind as I went about my business to the the various stores in the area, but one day my parents had a coupon for it.  Thus the legend was born in my knowledge of all things food.  So, I decided to bring my girlfriend to the local eatery for dinner.  I was surprised to find that this pizzeria bought out the empty storefront next to it to build a new bar and dining room which essentially gave them ten times the capacity for revenue.  They’ve come a long way from the three tables along the front windows.  The new digs had a basic sports bar vibe, so no need for any sort of fancy attire.  IMG_4888The menu had the same no-frills approach as they focused on bar food and Italian cuisine. IMG_4887 We started the meal by sharing an order of spinach artichoke dip ($9.95).  This was a great appetizer since it came with both hot, crust Italian bread along with warm pita bread triangles. IMG_4889 The dip was also warm with a nice sprinkling of fresh Parmesan cheese that gave the artichoke chunks a slightly salty and nutty aftertaste. IMG_4891 We then went for the 14″ Veggie Special thin crust pizza ($21.10).  Now, it serves three, but when I’m hungry, I can really throw down, especially when it comes to Zazzo’s.  When it came out, it was just as good as I remembered it.  IMG_4892It was large and in charge with an enticing smell that immediately tells you that you’re in for a treat.  The Veggie Special consisted of an adequate amount of mozzarella combined with mushroom, green pepper, onion, and fresh tomatoes. IMG_4896 Each ingredient was as plentiful and fresh as the next.  As for the sauce, it was just the right amount where the crust wasn’t dry, but it also wasn’t gushing out with each bite like you’re doing your best Jaws impression (the killer shark, not the killer giant from the James Bond series).  IMG_4895Then there was the crust.  I believe that this foundation of the pizza can either make or break the dish, and in Zazzo’s case I love their thin crust.  It’s not super NYC thin but not deep dish thick.  It has a light powdering of flour on the edges, and it has an almost airy like texture with a crunch that doesn’t hold back.  All of these elements make it one of the hidden gems of the pizza world in the Chicagoland area.

So if you are looking for a great pizza place in the western Chicago suburbs and don’t want to visit one of the big pizza chains like Giordanos or Uno’s, check out the pizzeria with a lot of pizzazz:  Zazzo’s Pizza!

Zazzo's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Costa Rica (Day 3)- Fruits of Our Travels

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you haven’t been following my blog, you are in the middle of my Costa Rican travel series where I recount all of the wild and woolly adventures I find myself in throughout the country (Day 1 and Day 2).  Day 3, today’s post, takes me to a land of oxcarts, hidden volcanos, and hot springs.  Let’s start at the beginning.

The morning started off with a snag as we were locked in our condo complex that was preventing us from getting breakfast before meeting up with our group.  Thankfully, my Spanish came in handy, and we were at Denny’s before you could say “Buenos dias!”.  There really wasn’t anything of note at the American diner aside from the delicious pancakes.  The real highlights came later in the day as we first traveled in the morning to Sarchi which is famous in Costa Rica for their handmade ox carts.  They were a lot more popular and common before the advent of automobiles in the countryside, but now they are mostly used for decorative purposes or collecting.  Before we went to the workshop, our group stopped at a local bakery in the town square that was opposite the largest ox cart in the world!IMG_5147IMG_5152  Before seeing this behemoth, we perused all the different types of breads and pastries that were on sale. IMG_5153 It seemed like they had a lot of different types of bread puddings with different flavors ranging from coconut (Janice’s choice) to pineapple.  I, on the other hand, got a creme pastry that looked somewhat like a brazo de gitano (literally “gypsy’s arm”) dessert from Spain.IMG_5145  It had everything I wanted for breakfast:  soft pastry dough and plenty of sweet and light whipped filling. IMG_5146 The only downside was the excessive dusting of powdered sugar on the outside that was delicious initially but in the end left me looking like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. IMG_5599I saved it for later though since it was quite a good amount of sugar in a short period of time.  We had a tour of the Taller Eloy de Sarchi, and some of the artwork was simply spectacular.  The colors were so bright and vibrant it looked like the animals were going to jump out at us.  IMG_5165Thankfully, it was just some fancy artwork, and we moved on toward our next destination in the form of the Arenal Volcano.  Once more, we had another roadside stop for food along the way.  This was one of many reasons why I loved our travel group!  This time, it was at a local fruit stand that had some recognizable produce like pumpkins, plantains, and pineapples, but then there were more exotic samples of Costa Rica’s countryside such as purple sweet potatoes and yuca.

Left to right:  pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

Left to right: pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

IMG_5174For example, a smaller cart of these odd red fruits that were a bit before the larger fruit shop we were occupying caught Janice’s eye.  She said that they looked like the combination of an apple and a pear.  One of the women in our group bought them, and lo and behold Janice was right.  Our guide informed us that they are known as Malaysian apples.  While their exterior appearance was bold and intriguing, their taste was the polar opposite.IMG_5178  It tasted like a super bland pear that could only be “enhanced” with the salt in a small accompanying bag the fruit hawker supplied our fellow traveler. IMG_5177 Another interesting entry was the green oranges that were in the same bin as yellow fruits that were completely beyond anything I’ve ever seen. IMG_5175 I bought one of the fruits that was slightly smaller than a baseball, and I found out I had to crack it open in order to eat it.IMG_5176  The exterior was the only normal thing about it.  Opening it was an adventure as I cracked through the thin yellow exterior and was quickly fingering through a white, dry, spongy material.IMG_5179  After moving beyond that, I was greeted with a grey, slimy seed pouch that was held in place with small white tendrils.  I learned that the proper way to eat this fruit called a granadilla (“small pomegranate” in Spanish) was to slurp up the black seeds along with the amniotic sack that was holding them.IMG_5181  The craziest thing were the edible and very crunch seeds.IMG_5184  It was overall a good purchase because it was actually quite delicious beyond its bizarre appearance that I could liken to a sweet orange with a tangy lime zing aftertaste.  We also bought some mangos for breakfast later on.  Our visit to the Arenal Volcano was a bust because it was completely obscured by fog and drizzle, but lunch was wonderful.  It was at a very unique restaurant called Restaurante Tobogán or “Slide Restaurant” in Spanish. IMG_5190 Why would it have such a random name?  Well, because this establishment literally had a giant water slide coming out of the top of it which led to a pool on the side that I’m sure would have been bumping if the weather was more agreeable.IMG_5191  I got the steak fajitas which once again were a lot different from the Mexican variety since there were no sizzling tabletop grills or tortillas to be seen.  The same juicy pieces of grilled steak and onions were there, but they were accompanied with a Costa Rican classic known as casado or “married/married man”. IMG_5187 It consisted of white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and a mixed salad.  The name is said to either have originated from customers asking to be served as married men and have the same food in the restaurant as they would at home, or a more plausible explanation would be that the beans and rice are forever linked in gastronomic matrimony.  It was during this meal I was also introduced to salsa Lizano which I could liken to a sweet Worcestershire sauce with a hint of spice.IMG_5186  It went great with the fajitas and beans and rice offering a salty/spicy contrast.  I also enjoyed a cool, refreshing glass of guanábana or sour sop juice.  I had tried it previously in south London in a Jamaican restaurant, and I loved it since it seemed like a sweet limeade of sorts.  However, the Costa Rican variety wasn’t as sweet and a lot frothier.  After the meal, we went to Baldi hot springs which was extremely relaxing along with us being able to fly down some water slides since we weren’t able to go down the one earlier in the day. IMG_5198 We had dinner at Baldi’s buffet, and most of it I had already tried aside from the Costa Rican version of tamales.  They were very similar to the Mexican version with the cornmeal base encasing seasoned chicken and pork, but the main difference was that they were wrapped in banana leaves and boiled instead of being baked in corn husks.  It was a calming end to a hurried day as we bonded with our fellow travelers over dinner and subsequently rode our food comas all the way back to San Jose for our next adventure.

 

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