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Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 3): Going With the Grain (Granary, Vendue House, Griffin)

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As if this South Carolina series couldn’t get any better, here’s part three of our Charleston chronicles!  (Part 1 and Part 2 here).  We woke up on our first day as fiance and fiancee, and we were on cloud nine.  What better way to celebrate than a brunch fit for a king and queen?  So, after doing some online sleuthing, we found that there were many rave reviews about the Granary.

It was Saturday late morning, and we were blessed with another lovely sunny day.  However, we noticed that the roads were conspicuously empty for such a splendid morning.  All was made clear when we entered the Granary.  It was located in a moderately sized strip mall, and the interior was tastefully decorated in a modern rustic style. IMG_8356 IMG_8350 It also continued in a trend I noticed of the restaurant drawing upon the Carolinian bounty of locally sourced and produced products on their menu such as the plethora of cured meats hanging in freezers right at the entrance of the establishment. IMG_8354 We also quickly realized the lack of cars and giant trucks on the streets that were typical for the previous days of our visit.  Like many parts of the South, football (not futbol or footy as it’s called across the pond or south of the border) is king, and it was no different in the Granary as all of their slick flatscreens had on various college games.  Contrary to the majority of diners, we were instead there to experience the show this Southern charcuterie powerhouse could put on.  Once we were seated in this charming setting, we got down to business.  We started our meal with the butcher plate ($16) which consisted of all house made cured meats, pickled vegetables, and salubrious spreads.IMG_8351  The bounty was spread before us, and I didn’t know where to start.  I immediately tried some of the pickles and mustard on the side since they are two elements of any savory meal I couldn’t pass up.  Unfortunately, they were of the sweeter variety, but the whole grain mustard would prove to pair ideally with most of the meats on the board.  The pickled cauliflower was also sour and crunchy which satisfied my palate much more than the pickles surprisingly.  I’ll start with my least favorite item, and that was the goose pate.  It was like a warm scoop of chocolate ice cream that was both rich and devoid of any sweetness compared to its dessert doppelganger.  However, I’m not a huge proponent of spreadable meats, so it started off with a disadvantage.  Not for me, but perhaps you might enjoy it more than I did.  Then there was the slices of pork rillette which reminded me of bologna with each bite on the accompanying pieces of olive oil kissed bread.  The two other items, the bresaola and soppressata, were the true stars in my eyes and taste buds.  The small disks of soppressata, a specialty sausage of southern Italy, consisted of spicy pork and reminded me of its mouth watering Catalan equivalent, fuet, that I gnawed on during my siesta period during the day.  If you like your fatty meats, this is the one for you.  The bresaola, on the other hand, was thinly sliced but had tons of flavor packed into every fiber.  Bresaola comes from Lombardy in northern Italy and is typically made of aged beef rubbed with salt and spices.  It is then sliced thinly as we had it that day in Charlotte, and it made a great topping for the aforementioned pieces of crusty pane italiano.  This multi-ringed circus was a prelude to the greatness that was to follow.  For our main brunch plates, we were taken aback by how well made and reasonably priced our meals were.  First, there was Janice’s Benedict Hash ($15).IMG_9105  Before I begin describing these delectable creations, I have to add if you’re eating at the Granary, come hungry because the portions are not for the faint of stomach.IMG_9103  In her plate, one could find crunchy yet tender duck confit pieces, sweet pickled peppers, roasted mushrooms, English muffin croutons, poached eggs, and hollandaise in addition to the traditional roasted potatoes.  It was everything Janice could have asked in a meal.  From the fluffy, delicately poached eggs to the plentiful duck confit scattered amongst the semi-crunchy potatoes and croutons, it was like a breakfast trail mix we would have brought along with us on all of the walking we would do for the rest of the day and night.  It was jazzed up with a dash of local Floking red jalapeno hot sauce that was like a sweeter Tabasco type of hot sauce.IMG_8353 However, my sweet tooth conquers all which segues to my French toast.  I’m going to make a bold claim, but this was the best French toast I’ve ever had. IMG_9104 It started with fried pieces of cinnamon-orange brioche that were then covered with candied pecans, bananas, and lying on a criss-cross of fresh blackberry preserves.  IMG_8352As if that wasn’t enough, there was a moderate layer of blueberry cream cheese stuffed throughout the middle of each slice.  This astounding version of a breakfast classic was topped with a generous soupcon of bourbon maple syrup which went well with the fresh banana slices.  It was a true form of Southern comfort in the morning.  Once we were finished, we made our way to the Charleston Aquarium.  As mentioned in a previous post, we had bought tickets to the main aquarium as well as the sea turtle hospital.  It is very worth it as you are able to get up close and personal with these mighty beasts of the deep who were cut down due to disease or human interference, unfortunately. IMG_9199 IMG_9198 Moving around the rest of the main facility, it wasn’t as great as Shedd in Chicago, but there were plenty of interactive exhibits for the kids that we also enjoyed.  Definitely a fun diversion in Charleston if you have young children or are looking for something to do with inclement weather.IMG_9203 IMG_9200 IMG_9207  After hanging out with Dory, Nemo, and the totally righteous sea turtles, we had to go and see the Charles Town Landing.  Many people don’t seem to know about it, but it is actually the actual site English explorers landed in 1670. IMG_8395 It is also where the current name of the city comes from:  Charles Town -> Charleston.  If you love history like me, you’d be in heaven because it looks similar to how they recreated the settlement feel to the embankments, forts, and even cannon.  However, if you’re like my fiancee, Janice, and aren’t the most interested in history, they have animals on the northern side of the nature preserve.  So we got there close to closing time, so we had roughly an hour to see both sections that were on opposite sides of the Landing.  We rushed by the animals to not see any of the animals aside from the trusty bison who were just busy being majestic.  IMG_8399I then proceeded to powerwalk/jog my way to the English galleon on the Ashley River.  On the way, I found out that I accidentally jogged across a piece of a Native American burial ground, so that could have been slightly better labelled.IMG_8400  Eventually, I made it with time to spare, and it was a lot smaller than I thought.  IMG_8407I don’t know how the original sailors survived in such cramped quarters, but I can see why they went crazy colonizing America after getting off the boat.IMG_8412 IMG_9209  Thankfully when Janice eventually met up with me, we were able to walk back and enjoy the sights of the park minus the need to sprint my heart out.IMG_8417 IMG_8404IMG_8402  By the time we got to our car, we were ready to fill our rumbling stomachs with some sustenance.  So, what better time to check out the Vendue Hotel rooftop?  This hotel is in the heart of downtown Charleston, and we had to find the elevator to get to the bar at the top of the building.  Once there, we were greeted with a tastefully decorated bar that also has one of the best views of the city. IMG_9108 IMG_9107 It was a bit too chilly to sit outside and take in the sunset over the Holy City, named for its numerous church steeples and other houses of worship, unfortunately.  Once we were done admiring this breathtaking city,  we got down to business at the bar.  Ordered some cava or Spanish champagne with a side of their pulled pork nachos.  IMG_9112IMG_9111We were celebrating our engagement like a pair of classy tourists. IMG_9110 The nachos were unique and satisfying because it combines a Southern cuisine staple with a tex-mex mainstay.  Plus, instead of having typical neon-yellow nacho cheese, they had an almost cheese gravy spread over all of the tortilla chips.  I’d highly recommend this bar food mainstay with a distinct Charlestonian character.  During our meal, we managed to crush the cava bottle, but I did manage to get an East Coast favorite:  Yuengling beer. IMG_8427 It is from the oldest operating brewery in America established in 1829, and the unique name comes from the German founders last name “Jungling” or “Young man” in German which was Anglicized to “Yuengling” (youngling in English).   As for the taste, I wasn’t a big fan of the thin and kind of hoppy red ale.  Janice got the Temple of the Dog ($11) which was a very strongly made mix of rye, chinato, bitters, and a brandied cherry for garnish.  It was like a lighter Manhattan that was potent yet refreshing.

Very refreshed right now

Very refreshed right now

By the time we finished that shared drink, we made our way down the street to the Griffon, a famous dive bar that has dollar bills coating the walls like wallpaper.IMG_8432  It has reached new popularity after appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.  It wasn’t too happening when we went in and got a nightcap, but I’d imagine it would be better later at night on the weekend.  Still we had a lot of fun!

Or at least Janice did

Or at least Janice did

We left the dark pub to walk the streets and take in the coastal charm of Charleston walking along a dock under the light of the moon. IMG_8436 An almost perfect penultimate day with plenty of excitement to come during our last day in the Dirty South.

 

The Granary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Roof Top Bar & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Griffon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Ann Extraordinary Brunch

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Hello and happy Fall to all (or Autumn for the international crowd)!  It has been way too long since my last post, about a month to be exact, and I’m planning on changing that fact right now.  If you’ve been wondering why the silence on the foodie front, it’s due to my path to speech pathology grad school.  However, that hasn’t extinguished my passion for tasty morsels and bring all the best recommendations to you, the readers.  Today’s post focuses on the Chicago diner cornerstone Ann Sather.

I’ve heard every opinion of these diners ranging from sheer ecstasy when talking about their famous cinnamon rolls to ambivalence to the opposite end of the spectrum with upturned noses looking for greener brunch pastures.  Instead of turning my interest away from this supposedly inferior diner to other, more modern establishments, it only intensified my curiosity when Janice, Michael, and I visited the Broadway cafe location, but there are other locations on the northside Chicago with one on Belmont and another on Granville.  Now, with a name for a restaurant like Ann Sather, you can safely bet that there is a story.  According to their website, Ann Sather was a real woman who bought the original restaurant over 70 years ago on Belmont from the previous Swedish owners of the property.  She was a stickler for quality, simple food made from scratch with a mix of American breakfast staples, Swedish classics, and a bit of Ann’s ingenuity. Ann eventually passed the baton in the mid 1990s to a southsider named Tom Tunney who actually is a Chicago alderman as well.  Even with the changing faces in charge, their decades of quality food and service shone through during our visit.   IMG_5754The Ann Sather cafe had plenty of personality on the inside with lots of Swedish inspired artwork which brightened up a rather gray and drizzly day.  I don’t know if it was my sweet tooth on a rampage or the warm orange/yellow motif, but I knew I needed to get some of their famous, daily handmade cinnamon rolls into my belly.IMG_5752  When they came out, they looked like the best $3.50 I spent.  When I sunk my teeth into one of these rolls, I was transported to culinary Valhalla on a boat of soft, cinnamon spiced dough covered in a rich, sugary sauce with a vanilla hint.IMG_5747  I wish I could have had an entire pan of them, but I knew I had to slow my roll (see what I did there) because I needed room for my actual breakfast entree.  Perusing the menu, I didn’t know where to begin.IMG_5746  Their wraps and omelets looked way to good to just pick one, but I couldn’t jump off that sugar train after taking down those cinnamon rolls like a great white shark to a seal.  Sadly, I don’t have a week on the Discovery Channel or the Food Channel devoted to me yet, so I got to keep practicing with more great eats like what I ordered next.  I finally settled on the daily special which was their cinnamon roll French toast ($7.50).  It was an interesting transformation of the dulcet treats I just devoured.  Instead of being doused with the sticky, soupy icing, a sprinkling of powdered sugar covered the plate and rolls like the semi-flurries that were fluttering past our window outside. IMG_5748 The fine white covering was punctuated with bright raspberries and blueberries and a tan layer of granola that blended into the rolls’ surface.  However, I didn’t know that the magic of the dish lie in wait for me because when I cut open the meal for my first bite,

Presto...

Presto…

I was greeted with a cream cheese filling.

change-o!

change-o!

It wrapped the plate together to perfection.  The French toast transformation of the cinnamon rolls replaced an overwhelming pool of pure sugar with more subtle, nuanced elements that complimented each other to make a Swedish-American original.  The berries, treading the fine line between sweet and tart, provided a contrast to the powdered sugar and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, cream cheese filling.  I actually liked that the cream cheese centers were not too chunky or heavy but instead whipped to keep the rolls from turning into a culinary quagmire.  Plus, let’s not forget the granola, dude!  It was just enough to form a thin, rough coating to provide a satisfying and groovy crunch to the majority of the squishier ingredients, and the honey coating on each piece of the granola made me feel like these rolls and I were meant to bee.  I highly recommend this daily special if they have it available, and I have to note that my fellow diner’s choices were great as well.

In closing, I have to say that my visit to Ann Sather’s quashed all of the negative publicity with their food that is clearly made with plenty of care and quality ingredients along with a very affordable price tag in a brunch town where some prices are just plain criminal at times.  So, if you want to get a piece of Chicago’s breakfast history, roll on down to Ann Sather!
Ann Sather Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Stroop and a Pancake? Bacon and a Blintz?

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Ah the Netherlands.  A land of many contrasts and confusion.  Like is it the Netherlands or Holland or both?  Even though both are generally accepted, the Netherlands is the official name of the country/kingdom while Holland is the combined name for two provinces within the country/kingdom.  Beyond the name, most people have a few common thoughts about the country.  The first thing that probably pops into the heads of many is of Amsterdam and its accompanying delights or vices depending on your moral constitution or perhaps Mike Meyer’s freakish Dutch villain Goldmember, the largest of the Low Countries has a lot more to offer.  For example, it is home to the Frisian language. It is currently an endangered language in the Netherlands, but it once was spoken throughout the North Sea’s southern coast. Not only does it have a once distinguished past, but it currently holds the position of one of most closely related languages to English, more so than German.  Some are quite clear cognates like “help” which is just the same word or “My name is…” is “Myn namme is …” in Frisian or “I’m from…” is “Ik kom fan …”.  However, don’t expect to be able to completely understand them.  While linguistic facts, Dutch ones included, are always interesting, I’m here to talk about a Dutch pancake house in Chicago that is homey and filled with delicious breakfast treats.  I’m talking about the Famous Dutch Pancake House/Pannekoeken Huis in Lincoln Square on the north side of Chicago.IMG_6518

While there are plenty of great breakfast places throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, each one seems to have its own angle.  There’s one that reflects the Swedish community in the Andersonville neighborhood or even a Greek cinnamon themed restaurant.  However, it’s not often you hear of a Dutch breakfast restaurant.  The Pancake House doesn’t serve any of the “special” treats you might assume, but rather a plethora of Dutch pancakes or pannekoeken (pronounced:  pan-eh-ko-kehn).  Although the Dutch word literally means “pancake”, they are different than the American ones we are used to.  Instead of them being thicker than a Snicker, they are more similar to their French brethren:  the crepe, a thin and airy bread that could be sweet or savory.  When we got there on a Saturday morning, we managed to beat the rush just barely around 8:30ish.IMG_6141IMG_6140  It’s a very small dining room, so be prepared to have a real cheek to jowl experience.  We looked over the menu to find a plethora of sweet and savory pannekoeken along with more common American breakfast items like eggs, French toast, and bacon.  IMG_6142After much deliberation and a recommendation from our waiter, I got the apple raisin cheese pannekoek ($9.95) and Janice got a veggie pannekoek ($8.95).  When they came out, I couldn’t believe how big they were, i.e. at least as big as a small hubcap.  However, they were thin which meant that they weren’t as heavy as American pancakes.  Janice’s veggie pannekoek looked verdant and mouth-watering.IMG_6143  She had the option of three veggies and her choice of cheese as toppings, so she went with a asparagus, mushroom, and green pepper combo along with some strips of melted Havarti cheese.  It was a great savory pancake.  While the thin dough provided a solid flavor foundation, the lightly sauteed veggies mixed well with the buttery cheese.  Definitely made this carnivore steal more than one forkful off her plate.  As for my pannekoek, it was certainly different than what I’m used to eating for breakfast.  IMG_6144While I like to keep my savory elements separate from my sweet ingredients when it comes to food, this pannekoek had me singing a different tune.  First, there was the plethora of apple slices that almost completely obscured my pannekoek and was occasionally punctuated with an amorphous blob of melted Havarti cheese.  Then our waiter hooked me up with what seemed to be syrup for my sweet pannekoek, but it wasn’t quite the same.  It turned out to be schenkstroop which derives from the words “schenk”which comes from the Dutch/German verb “schenken” meaning “to pour out”, and “stroop” meaning “syrup”.IMG_6145  Aside from the name difference, this Dutch specialty is made from sugar beets instead of the cane sugar our everyday pancake syrup is made from.  What this meant for my pannekoek experience was two things.  First, it had a much higher viscosity than American syrup which made it seem more like a thick molasses.  Second, after I made it rain all over my pannekoek, I found the schenkstroop to have a cleaner and not as overpoweringly sweet aftertaste compared to its American counterpart.IMG_6146  I thought it was perfect for this type of pancake because of the many competing flavors for my tastebuds attention.  As I mentioned before, I wasn’t a mixing savory and sweet kind of guy.  Hell, I find Hawaiian pizza to be an abomination to food lovers everywhere.  Pineapple on a pizza?  Aloha, brah (and I mean it in the “goodbye” sense).  Anyway, pizza rant over.  The creamy and slightly salty Havarti semi-neutralized the tart, gossamer-thin granny smith apple slices that melted in my mouth.  However, little did I know that the pannekoeken’s dough hid another sweet secret in the form of raisins that were baked right into the cake.IMG_6147  They were like little, chewy barnacles riding along on the underbelly of a blue whale of flavor.  I couldn’t get enough of the sweet, savory, and salty delight, but it was gone before I knew it.

So if you want to sample a cozy little corner of Holland in Chicago for very reasonable prices and great service, grab your wooden shoes and clog your way down to the Pannenkoeken Cafe!IMG_6148
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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!

Cinfully Delicious

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A common phrase in English is “the breakfast of champions” which is often used to describe a specific foodstuff or collection of drink and food that will transform someone into a winner.  However, a tougher title to achieve is “champion of breakfasts”, especially in a big and competitive market like Chicago.  Now, I’ve had my fair share of flapjacks, scramblers, and skillets, and it’s really just the tip of the bacon-wrapped iceburg.  Not all diners are created equal though.  Kanela is one of those special franchises that has slowly, but surely, taken over the Chicago breakfast scene.

κανέλα” or Kanela means “cinnamon” in Greek, and this Greek American establishment of the same name is a temple to this once rare ingredient.  I love my spices and seasoning, but I think that cinnamon is my favorite.  Whether it’s in rolls, doughnuts, or French toast, I can’t get enough of the powdery and savory spice.  So, when I heard that we would be paying a visit to it for a morning meal, I was over the moon.  It had a modest exterior that belied its popularity as people were milling outside waiting for a table. IMG_4818 Thankfully, there is free parking nearby and on the street if you’re looking to take a large group to enjoy all of the great breakfast options we soon thereafter started sampling.  The place was absolutely poppin’ on a Sunday morning, go figure, but we got a table for two in no time. IMG_4817 We started the meal off with drinks.  Janice got a Bloody Mary that was extra spicy and made with Absolut Peppar vodka to give it that peppy kick to wake you up and/or chase the mad dog of a hangover from last night away.  IMG_4802As for me, I went the healthier route with the PB & J smoothie ($6) which consisted of peanut butter, blueberry, strawberry, and organic agave nectar which is a slightly healthier alternative to regular sugar but much better than artificial sweeteners.IMG_4805  Fun fact:  the agave is the same plant that tequila is derived from as well, but don’t expect any sort of alcoholic punch with this natural sugar substitute. Surprisingly, this large glass of cooling ambrosia isn’t as sweet as you would imagine. IMG_4803 It managed to capture the soul of the elementary lunch school staple with a splash of peanut butter mixing with the sweet fruits and syrup but in a much more understated manner.   Once we had our beverages in hand, we started the food fest by sharing an order of monkey bread ($4).  It came out and looked simply sinfully delicious.IMG_4808  I often wondered why people call it “monkey bread” since it doesn’t look like something a monkey would eat or shaped like some sort of simian.  After a bit of research, the origin of the sweet treat’s name is shrouded in mystery, but one theory postulates that its cracked and bumpy surface bears a certain resemblance to the bark of the monkey puzzle tree that grows in South America.  With one bite of this appetizer, we went ape.  Each piece we pulled apart from the bread was more flavorful than the one that preceded it.  The cinnamon dusted on top combined with the honey drizzled on top made it taste like a mixture between a dulce de leche roll I had in Costa Rica and a classic cinnamon roll.IMG_4807  Plus, it was slightly warm that pushed this dessert to the next level.  For our entrees, Janice got the duck confit hash ($12) while I ordered the spicy feta omelet ($11).  First, I have to mention that if you are any type of Greek restaurant or even just a restaurant owned by a Greek, you will get giant portions for your money.  Kanela holds to this axiom.  The duck confit hash looked mouth-wateringly good especially with the orange truffle vinaigrette that really piqued my interest and taste buds. IMG_4809IMG_4813 Thankfully the duck wasn’t too greasy either which can often be a pitfall when ordering the fowl for a meal.  As for my spicy feta omelet, I really loved the fresno pepper garnish that served as a flashpoint of the meal. IMG_4814 Its bright red skin immediately drew my attention at the newborn baby-sized omelet that was lying in front of me.  IMG_4815The ends weren’t that packed with any sort of filling, just fluffy eggs.  However, I soon got to the business end of things as I was greeted with a thick pocket of tyrokafteri cheese, red onion, and tomatoes. IMG_4816 My advice for anyone wanting to get this is that it’s not terribly spicy, and make sure that you love feta cheese because there’s half of Greece’s supply in just this one omelet.  So if you aren’t as big of a cheesehead as me, then consider yourself warned.  It’s not for the faint hearted.  The onions made a minimal impression on my palate, and the tomatoes were negligible.  The potatoes on the side were not too greasy or too dry, and they worked well when mixed with the omelets or just on their own.

By the end of meal, we were stuffed and satisfied with our trip to Kanela.  For the price, portion sizes, and overall quality of ingredients, Kanela can’t be touched.
Kanela Breakfast Club on Urbanspoon

Bro-ing Out with the Apple of My Eye

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If it’s your first time on here or you’re a longtime fan, you’re in for a treat.  I’m all about finding and trying new and unique restaurants, and today’s establishment definitely falls into both categories.  Well, maybe not so much new, but its menu choices are certainly memorable.  Cutting to the chase, I’m talking about Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  It has been around since 1960, and is considered by Zagat and James Beard the best breakfast place-bar none in the Chicagoland area.  It is so popular that there are now six locations around the Chicagoland area, but in this post, my girlfriend and I visited the original location that opened in 1960 in Wilmette.

I’ve heard of the Walker’s Bros. before, and I wondered what made them so special compared to all of the other types of chain breakfast restaurants or even little hole in the walls I’ve visited in the past.  Breakfasts in America are much more varied compared to breakfasts in other countries, so I feel like I’ve seen it all when it comes to ordering something tasty to fill my piehole with in the morning.  Boy, was I wrong after eating with the Bros.  The exterior of the restaurant just radiated history like it was a living time capsule, but the cars were slightly less hulking and more chock full o’ plastic compared to the motorcoaches of yesteryear.IMG_4201  Walking through the door, however, that hasn’t changed since they first opened it (or so it seemed).  It was full of beautiful stained glass windows and ornate woodcarvings coating the walls. IMG_4200 We were promptly seated in one of the side dining rooms, and we were treated to a perfect view of one of the enormous ceiling lights that were designed in the Tiffany style. IMG_4193 Not only were we taking in the surroundings but also the menu contents.  Janice had been here before, so she automatically knew what she was going to get:  the Dutch Baby pancake ($8.50).  As for me, I was having trouble trying to pick something since everything looked great!  Eggs?  French toast? Crepes?  Waffles?  I was at the pancake house, so I plumped for the apple pancake ($9.95) with the additional $1.95 for French vanilla ice cream on top.  Got to do it big when you’re rollin’ with the Bros.

When our plates came out, I was taken aback since I had never seen anything like it.  Janice’s Dutch Baby wasn’t like a small, screeching, blonde child wearing wooden shoes but rather something that looked like a cross between a taco salad shell and a danish.IMG_4198  What it actually was was an oven-baked pancake that was topped with a healthy sprinkling of powdered sugar. IMG_4197 The kicker was the lemon juice she spritzed over the pancake that really brought it to life.  I personally thought that it was a unique dish as it was less like a bready pancake and more like a lighter, buttery crepe that sizzled over my palate with the sweet powdered sugar combining with the raw sour power of the lemon juice.  Thankfully, the pancake itself wasn’t outshone by the lemon juice.  Then there was the apple pancake….where to start? IMG_4199 It was advertised as an “Original Pancake House tradition”, and that it was stuffed with some apples and cinnamon glaze.  Simple.  I’ve had apple pancakes before where they slice some apples on top and put a slightly thicker syrup over the flapjacks and fruit to leave you full but just moderately satisfied.  My apple pancake from Walker Bros. was the Steve Jobs of the breakfast world.  A revolutionary just doing what it wants to do no matter what.  It’s not for the faint of heart but rather for those with a well endowed sweet tooth, i.e. yours truly.  The exterior seemed to be lacquered with the Sinikiang (fun fact:  Sinikiang or Xinjiang is the Northwestern province of China that is home to the Uighur community and a majority of China’s Muslim minorities.  Also, it was a stop along the famed Silk Road where spices like cinnamon were traded.) cinnamon and sugar glaze so that it shimmered under the ornate lights and beckoned me to tuck into it. IMG_4196 I could see that it was piping hot as its snow white toupee was slowly trickling down its undulating surface through each nook and cranny.  Upon slicing it open, I was greeted with slices of cinnamon apples, pure white dough and more sugar glaze.  It was like an apple pie and a cinnamon roll had a delectable love child.  I was in absolute heaven with every bite, and this is one tradition I hope Walker Bros. never retires.

So if you want a piece of Chicagoland history along with some wonderfully innovative and delicious breakfast items for great prices, run, don’t walk to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House.  Their pancakes will make you flip!

Walker Bros Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon

A Berry Good Breakfast

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Sweden.  It is a country with many different faces.  While they are more well known for their vikings, gorgeous women, and a certain incomprehensible Muppet chef, Swedish cuisine in general isn’t very well known or as popular as other European countries’ foods like Italy, France, or Spain.  The reason being, I think, is that Sweden’s food culture reflects the cold and often times harsh environments the various Nordic tribes originally encountered when emigrating to modern day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.  I mean, the frigid winters aren’t going to cut any slack to a Swedish farmer who wants to emulate his Spanish neighbors by planting an olive farm or attempting to emulate the wine culture of the Mediterranean.  However, that is not to say that Northern European cuisine is worse than the rest of Europe, it just has different ingredients that might not agree with such a wide array of palates.  Historically, the Swedish people have emigrated en masse to America especially to the Northern Midwest region, and today they still have their own little corner of the homeland in Chicago in the Andersonville neighborhood.  You can find plenty of blue and yellow flags flying in front of storefronts, and of course there are diners offering Swedish fare.  Enter Svea’s, an 80 year old diner that is a symbol of the shrinking Swedish community that once was the second largest in the world outside of Stockholm.IMG_3782

Before walking in, the proprietors invoked their links to old Sverige with the three crowns of the royal coat of arms along with a tall ship that could have fit in with King Gustavus Adolphus‘ navy.IMG_3779  After going through their screen door, I was greeted with a small but cozy diner.IMG_3778  Surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy in the morning for breakfast, so I got to sit wherever I wanted. IMG_3771 IMG_3772 All around I could see little Swedish knicknacks and artifacts like horned viking helmets, a “God jul” or “Merry Christmas” sign on the kitchen, and a horse patterned table cloth that took me back to when I visited Stockholm.IMG_3774

A typical day in Stockholm

A typical day in Stockholm

I looked over the menu with the left side sporting more American selections like omelets and bagels, but then there were Swedish options like smorgasar (open face sandwiches), the famed “Viking” breakfast, and my choice:  Swedish pancakes with imported lingonberry sauce ($6) with a side of salt pork ($3).  The prices overall ranged anywhere from $5-$10 which is a bargain compared to other brunch places in the area.  There are dinner options as well that have the same American/Swedish split, but I’ll have to leave that for another day.  My cakes made their appearance soon thereafter and looked perfect.IMG_3775  Portion-wise, they were quite large.  I found them to be between a ‘Murikan pancake and a French crepe in terms of thickness.  Amid the sprinklings of powdered sugar, the salt pork was placed atop the pockmarked surface and strangely looked like two of the rosy horses on the table sharing a smooch.  Budding food romances aside, I placed it aside for later.  I focused first on smearing the small container of lingonberry jelly all over these wonderful pancakes and quickly tucked in since I was starving.  However, I think they could have given me a bit more jelly to actually cover both pieces instead of just one.IMG_3776  It was a simple but very well done meal.  The pancakes were substantial yet light on the stomach.  It didn’t feel like I had swallowed a bowling ball by the end of breakfast.  As for the jelly, it was sweet yet more on the tart side which gave the blander pancakes a potent punch with every forkful.  I then turned my full attention toward the salt pork.IMG_3777  I used some of the maple syrup on the side for dipping, but I could only liken the meat to a super thin and crunchy version of bacon.  It wasn’t unbearably salty and only got better with some of the gooey, sweet syrup on top.

As I went to settle the check at the front, I noticed their sign on the cash register that said, “CASH ONLY”.  In this era of credit cards, it seems a bit archaic, but luckily I’m a man of the past.  I paid for my reasonably priced and lip-smacking good breakfast that was like Ikea furniture:  cheap, functional, simple, pleasing to the eye, but way more delicious.  I highly recommend visiting Svea’s to experience an unraveling ethnic patch of Chicago’s cultural quilt.

Svea on Urbanspoon

Sweet Vinndication (Portland, Part 1)

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Hey hey everyone and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I’m finally back from my four day long adventure to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, Oregon, and I have plenty of food adventures for y’all to read about.  However, I am going to switch up the style of my writing for this travelogue and instead just focus on one restaurant in each post.  Let me know if you prefer it like this, one post for one restaurant, or a recounting of each day with multiple restaurants.

While I arrived in Portland on Wednesday evening, I wasn’t feeling up to grabbing a very late lunch due to general fatigue and the wonderful Portland weather that greeted me, i.e. an annoying misty rain coming down at random intervals.  However, the next morning I suited up and was ready for my first day of my international teaching convention.  While externally I seemed raring to go, I remembered that I needed to get the fuel to get my teaching mind firing on all cylinders.  So, I remembered a breakfast place I passed while walking to a nearby Walgreens that was called Village Inn.IMG_2554  It seemed like a local place based on its location away from the heart of the downtown along with its general appearance as a greasy spoon diner.  I made a mental note of it and returned that Thursday morning.  It was another dreary gray and drizzly day, but my formal attire seemed to catch the staff off guard as I entered, valise in hand.  It looked like the average age in the place was 60, but I didn’t mind how empty it was at 8 a.m.  As I surveyed the menu, it seemed that this was a chain of sorts that smacked of the larger Denny’s corporation in regard to the general interior decor and menu boasting breakfast, lunch, and dinner entrees at all hours. IMG_2552 Plus, it brought the Baker Square vibe with their pie obsession.  Very Important Notes:  If you buy a dish on Wednesdays, you get a free slice of pie.  Plus, they offer 69 cent beverages everyday of the week from 6 am to 9 am, and kids eat free on Monday and Tuesday.  What’s not to like about this place?  After looking at the plethora of eggs, pancakes, My Very.Innportant.Breakfast option, and heart healthy plates, I went for the strawberry banana supreme French toast for $9.69.  French toast is my weakness when it comes to the first meal of the day, and I can’t say no to fresh fruit.

When it eventually came out, I was surprised that  it looked somewhat similar to the picture that advertised it in the menu except with more strawberry sauce to make it look like the set from Carrie.

C'est si bon!

C’est si bon!

Thankfully, the taste was the opposite of horrifying, and I didn’t feel like killing everyone who humiliated me by making me eat their terrible food.  The strawberries and bananas were actually fresh and not canned which I really savored.  I felt like there could have been a bit more powdered sugar, but the slices of French toast by themselves were divine.  Not only did I taste the subtle hints of vanilla in the batter with every bite, but the bread to cream ratio favored the former which I prefer.  Too much cream takes away from the flavor of the actual toast along with destroying any sort of texture contrast in the dish.  Overall, I was greatly satisfied with the food, service, and prices.  Plus, if you need to be somewhere in a hurry, they don’t mess around with your order which I appreciated.  So if you’re looking for a new breakfast restaurant that you’d like to try out for the first time or just need that coffee and pancake panacea to cure the hangover from last night, Village Inn is the place for you!

Village Inn on Urbanspoon

Beijing (Day 5)- Bruce Lee and Me

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130 posts?  Already?  Just like Rick Ross, everyday I’m hustlin’.  So today’s post on Mastication Monologues brings us to the end of my Beijing/China adventures, but that doesn’t mean that there are going to be any lame foods on display.  From breakfast to dinner, all three meals will be bringing the heat.  So let’s start at the beginning with the most important meal of the day.  I knew already of the importance of the traditional rice porridge congee has in Chinese cuisine for breakfast, but the real challenge lie in where to find a good place that serves it?  After a bit of wandering down the main street from the Zhanglizhonglu station by my hostel, I ended up at the same 24 hour restaurant I dined at the previous night as show in my previous blog post.  That meant that I was walking in when all of the night staff was swiping out while looking at me incredulously like, “This laowai’s back?  He must be quite daring.”  I found the myriad of congee options to be overwhelming where they had options that ranged from the basic plain oatmeal-esque  all the way to the most savory with full shrimp and green onions floating in a goopy sea of white.  I’ve had chicken and congee, so I went for another choice that I never saw outside of China:  brown sugar and egg congee.  I have a bit of a sweet tooth when it comes to things in the morning, so this congee fit the bill.  To drink, I went for something called “almond juice” on the menu, but it simply ended up being regular almond milk that tastes like cow milk with a sweet bite to it.IMG_3242  Eventually my porridge came out, and I was greatly intrigued because it looked quite different than the brown sugar oatmeal I like to eat.IMG_3243  However, once I had a spoonful, I was greatly satisfied as the warmth permeated my frozen body, and the brown sugar perked up my taste buds that were feeling a little sluggish that early in the morning.  By the time I finished the whole bowl, I had a cheap, tasty meal with some stick-to-your ribs staying power that would last me until lunch after walking all over the enormous Summer Palace complex.  After seeing just a fraction of the sprawling grounds where the Chinese emperors used to spend their free time and take guests to eat at their special royal restaurant, I started getting hungry.  When I got out of the Xiyuan station, I saw a modern looking strip mall across the street that had some familiar faces like the Colonel and Pizza Hut, so I decided I would see how they would be different in China after walking around the palace.  I found myself wandering to find the Pizza Hut entrance in back when I noticed more people milling out further down the strip when I finally saw one of the catchiest fast food logos I’ve ever seen:  Bruce Lee in his yellow jumpsuit from Game of Death.IMG_1724  This is one of his most famous movies where he ascends a tower while fighting a different martial artist on each level including one Kareem Abdul Jabbar who was a student of his in real life.  Being a fan of his movies, I felt obligated to go in and try the food.  It ended up being like McDonalds, but in an Asian parallel universe.IMG_1716  I say a separate universe because western burger chains in Asian countries still have their signature sandwiches or sandwiches in general, but this place had none even though everything from the menu to the setup of the restaurant was like being at McDonalds.  While I felt somewhat comfortable with the setting, I wasn’t so much with the language and neither was the girl taking my order.  Clearly they didn’t get many foreigners coming into this restaurant compared to McDonalds where they have a separate English placard they whip out at you when you step up to order.  However, after some pointing and laughing at both our communication shortcomings, I got these beef noodles and a side of hot milk boba tea. IMG_1718 Sweet Chairman Mao!  If this is what China’s version of fast food is like, Lotteria/McDonald’s/Burger King etc. take notes.  The soup tasted almost (still not as good) like something out of my adopted po-po’s (grandmother’s) kitchen when I was in Taiwan.  That isn’t disparaging it at all though.  The greens were not stale and were steamed to perfection while the noodles were plentiful and chewy.  As for the beef and the broth, the chunks were numerous and lean, and the broth was warm and absorbed all the great flavors from the ingredients that were having a pool party in it.  The only thing I’d say that took it down a couple notches was that it was a bit salty at times.IMG_1720  As for the tea, it was expertly made with just the right blend of smooth milk and savory tea, and the girl gave me lots of tapioca balls after I pantomimed that I liked tapioca.  So if you’re good at acting, you’ll be in like Flint at this place.  After looking at the chopstick wrapper, I also found out the place is called “Real Kungfu”. IMG_1721 So if you’re hungry in Beijing and looking for amazing Chinese fast food, look for Bruce Lee ready to strike.  Finally, there was my last dinner in Beijing. However, they were on a mission to find a good dumpling place.  I found the Xianlaoman dumpling house down the street from our hostel.  It was a modest looking place inside, but their dumplings were delectable.  I got the house special which ended up being generously stuffed with minced pork, a bit of broth, and some nicely cooked shrimp inside.  IMG_1725I was greatly satisfied with the dumplings even though they weren’t too filling.  After a long stroll I ended up at a Thai place on the same street that was a bit more upscale compared to the other surrounding cafes and eateries.  Since it was my last meal, I went with a mangosteen juice and a cooked pigeon. The mangosteen is known as the queen of fruits while the notoriously stinky durian is the king of fruits.  This must have been an arranged marriage because the durian’s rotten cheese scent did not jive with the sweet and refreshing flavor I experienced when I cracked open the can. IMG_1730 As for my chicken, it was great since the banana leaves kept in all of the great curry the chicken was stewed in, and every piece was pure white meat. IMG_1731 After having to eat meat that always has bones in it for more than ten months, I devoured these scrumptious morsels.  I even tried a bit of pigeon which was a bit more of a shock platter with the head still attached while the actual meat could be likened to a poor man’s chicken:  little meat on the bone and lesser flavor.IMG_1733

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