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Temenaks in Tenerife (Day 1: Noche de San Juan, Sunset Cruise)

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Welcome back once again to another entry of Mastication Monologues!  I may or may not have more free time to write on this blog now that I have officially graduated from my speech pathology program, but my wife and I actually just came back from a magical honeymoon in the mysterious land of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.  When we eventually settled on the location, I was very excited because I wanted to go somewhere in Spain, but a location I had never been before so my wife and I could explore together.

The Canary Islands are a series of volcanic islands that are off the west coast of Morocco that truly are a hidden gem and basically Hawaii for Europeans who are searching for fun in the sun, i.e. English, German, and Russian tourists mostly.  However, when we told people stateside where we were going, we were greeted with typically an uncertain, “Oh cool.  That’s awesome.” followed by, “So where are they exactly?”  However, they wished us well and to have plenty of fun which we obviously did.  Funny enough though, the islands are not named after the chirpy birds that were used in mine shafts rather the birds were named after the islands.  Numerous theories about the islands’ name abound.  One involves the Romans calling the islands Canariae Insulae or “Island of Dogs” due to the presence of the dogs the indigenous Guanche tribes bred, worshipped as gods throughout the island, and even mummified them to be buried with their owners.  When the Spanish arrived in the 1490s, they described the same large, powerful dogs killing wolves that were attacking their livestock, and today this ancient breed is known as the Prensa Canario as shown below.  Another theory is that the Romans named the islands after the large amount of seals or “sea dogs” they saw on the shores.  Instead of starting our travels in the Eternal City like the ancient travelers, we left Chicago on an overnight flight.  We decided to start our honeymoon off right with a light dinner at Hub 51 at O’Hare airport.  We had been to Hub 51 in Chicago before with friends (delicious food), so we knew they wouldn’t disappoint us.  We got a delicious, not too dry Giuliana prosecco in addition to sharing guacamole and chips.  The chips were on the thin, cantina-style side which sometimes was a drawback if we wanted to really pile on the rich but not too spicy guacamole.  We also wanted to try their Brussels sprout salad, but we had a stroke of luck when they said they were out of the Brussels sprout salad.  We switched it up and ordered the Sonoma salad instead which was delectable from the mixed greens to the fresh slices of grapefruit that offset the sweeter vinaigrette and candied walnuts.  With our bellies full and ready to depart the Windy City, we eventually arrived in London-town  and had a layover in “beautiful” Gatwick airport.  During our time there, we decided to grab some food before our next leg to the islands. We ended up at Garfunkle’s which seemed like England’s take on a Chili’s with general burgers as well as more traditional British fare in the form of fish and chips and a chicken pie which we ordered.  While the fish and chips weren’t as authentic as getting it from a chippy or a fish and chip shop for those who don’t speak British English, the breading was light and crispy with plenty of delicious cod beneath.  Their chips were a bit stale which I didn’t care for, and their mushy peas were a bit too mint heavy.  Janice’s chicken pie was more satisfying with layers of creamy mashed potatoes, seasoned chunks of chicken, a hearty cream sauce, and a side of carrots and broccolini.  After our bite to eat, we grabbed brews to watch the Belgium v.s. Tunisia.  Funny enough, the beers my wife got were from Portland, Maine that her and her friends get when they’re in Connecticut.  It was a quite hoppy IPA, but thankfully it was something light before the second leg of our trip that finally brought us to Tenerife.

Flying into Tenerife, it looked like a more desert-covered version of what I would expect Hawaii to be.  The most breathtaking portion of the island was seeing the looming Mount Teide above the clouds.  It is a still active volcano that the native Guanche people called Echeyde.  They viewed the peak as a portal to hell and the home of a powerful demon, Guayota, who was imprisoned there as punishment for kidnapping the god of sun and light, Magec.  The subsequent eruptions of the volcano, the most recent in 1909, were seen as Guayota attempting to escape.  We were swiftly shuttled from the southern airport on the island of Tenerife to our hotel in Los Alcantilados Los Gigantes.  However, it wasn’t just any special night, it was La Noche de San Juan or Saint John’s night which was adopted by the Catholic Spanish from the pagan Guanche people who originally celebrated the date to ring in the summer solstice.  We could see the traditional giant bonfires dotting the countryside as the local Canarios were burning old belongings to signify a new start to the year.  When we finally arrived to our hotel, we were exhausted yet at the same time exhilarated and ready to find a beach party to experience a unique cultural celebration.  Our first meal wasn’t quite a leap into the unknown at the restaurant across the street from our hotel with a Margarita Italian-style, thin crust pizza with mugs of typical, thin, Spanish lager native to the Canary Islands called Dorada.  Once we were fueled up, we began our hunt for the beach party for San Juan.  We received conflicting information from the waitress and the front desk worker, but they both said that there was a giant wooden sardine to be burned.  We had to be there simply for the randomness.  It soon began a wild goose chase of people telling us to just find the beach in addition to randomly attempting to find the party with a German family.  Suddenly, the skies in front of us lit up with glittering explosions, and Janice and I immediately ran toward them, leaving the Germans in our wake.  We finally found the hidden route to the beach party and were faced with only the finest Euro-techno beatz Tenerife had to offer. I asked the bartender about the burning sardine, and it already happened two hours ago on the beach!  Still, the thrill of the hunt was entertaining, and we enjoyed the ambiance.  After a cold Dorada looking out over the revelers on the black sand beach and the pile of ashes from the wooden sardine in the background, we decided to call it a night.

Our first morning in Tenerife was breathtaking as we enjoyed the iconic cliffs or alcantilados right outside our window.  We then went downstairs to experience the interesting buffet that our hotel had to offer.  It was very European with plenty of cereals, cold cuts, and a bread wall.  You heard me right.  It was literally a wall of fresh bread that you could slice your own piece of baguette, boule, or rye.  I swear I saw Janice kneeling in front of it praising the carb gods, but maybe it was just my jet lag.  I helped myself to a variety of fresh fruits like the Canarian banana that is smaller than the ones found stateside, but are much sweeter and probably the best I’ve ever had.  They also had churros and melted chocolate (not pictured here) which constitute a typical Spanish breakfast.  There was also a sopressata spread that was salty and spicy in all the right ways.  At midday, we decided to watch the England vs Panama game at one of the many local British bars. The food was nothing to brag about compared to what was to come, but I tried a corned beef and Branston pickle sandwich, something I never tried before. While in America, we think of salty, crunchy pickled cucumbers, Branston pickle is an English made spread that consisted of chunks of pickled carrots, onions, and turnips in a sweet, slightly spicy brown sauce.  Apparently it’s very popular in English pubs on cheese sandwiches.  It was okay on a very simple sandwich, but it did not set my palate alight compared to other meals we would have this trip.  After enjoying the 5-0 thrashing of Panama and plenty of airhorn blasts from the barkeeps, we had a date with a private sunset cruise from Puerto Colon.

It was a glorious day, as are most days in the Canaries, and we set sail out on the Atlantic Ocean with Captain Marco and Captain Jan Jan. 

Captain Jan Jan showing us around

We were treated to delicious Spanish cava or champagne and (in counterclockwise order below) a mix of Spanish cheeses, mild and spicy Spanish chorizo, and melt-in-your mouth jamon iberico (Iberian ham).Between the appetizers and the main course, we were treated to something unbelievable:  30-35 pilot whales swimming around our boat.  Captain Marco said he never saw anything like it before because these whales are naturally shy around humans and boats.

Part of a family pod with a little baby whale in the middle

Eventually, all that excitement made us hungry, and we had a mouth-watering mixed paella that contained fresh mussels, tiny clams, plentiful rings of calamari, and juicy pieces of sausage and chicken.  It was followed up by a decadent chocolate torte and an apple tart that were too good for words.  As came into port, we were brought to a lookout point to watch the sunset.  A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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These Are a Positively Delicious Discovery (BienMeSabe)

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*Opens door*  Hello?  Anyone still here?  Well, for those of you still around and searching for my latest restaurant review, look no further!  Welcome back to Mastication Monologues, and it truly has been too long.  I’m in my final quarter of my graduate speech pathology program, and for once I found some time to write a post about a cuisine that is often overlooked in the pantheon of Latin cuisine:  Venezuelan food.  Although Venezuela is typically known for their beauty queens winning Miss Universe, their political turmoil, or Fred Armisen’s portrayal of an obnoxious Venezuelan ambassador on Parks and Rec, their food really should be their most famous export.  Today I will be reviewing a wonderful Venezuelan restaurant called BienMeSabe located at 1637 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60613.

Bienmesabe” literally translates to “It tastes good to me”.  My wife and I were saying that and more throughout our entire experience at this wonderful paradoxically hidden yet well known gem to the locals and Venezuelan baseball players and managers like Ozzie Guillen, Miguel Montero, and Carlos Zambrano.  The restaurant is run by Chef Pedro Ron, a professionally trained chef from the Culinary Institute of Caracas, who has owned restaurants in Venezuela and in the USA.  Even before we entered the restaurant, we admired their homage to their indigenous populations on the side of the restaurant outside.   Their charming patio was calling our name in addition to their extensive menu.  On his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Colombus regarded Venezuela as a “paradise on earth”, and the country has been blessed with a bounty of assorted produce and various ingredients that are the result of a melange of indigenous, Spanish, Italian, and African flavors as highlighted throughout their menu.  We started our meal with drinks.  BienMeSabe offers your typical soft drinks but also fruit smoothies and Venezuelan beverages.  Naturally, I went for the most authentic drink possible recommended by our waiter, and I ended up getting a small chicha or a rice milk smoothie ($5.75 small/$11.75 large).  The word “chicha” has a murky origin since it can be found in various forms from Mexico to Argentina, but the Royal Spanish Academy states that it most likely comes from the word “chichab” or “corn” in the Panamanian indigenous Kuna language.  The Venezuelan version relies on rice that is boiled and mixed with milk, condensed milk, and cinnamon which results in a rich, creamy vanilla milkshake/horchata-esque beverage that is poured over ice.  It would be a great drink on a hot summer day.  We were quite hungry that day, so we wanted to get an appetizer. We eventually landed on the tostones  from the Spanish verb “tostar” or “to toast” ($7.25).  These twice fried plantains hit the spot.  They were nestled beneath a comforter of Caribbean cheese, crema, slightly spicy chili sauce, and green onions.  If you’re looking for a savory, salty, yet light treat, these would be great right next to a cool beer.  It was then time for the main course:  las arepas!  Structurally, an arepa is like the love child of an English muffin and a tortilla.  It has a maize base and the heft of an English muffin minus the nooks and crannies.  Plus, it is one of the few aspects of Venezuelan cuisine that has remained unchanged since pre-Colombian times and is still popular to this day.  Currently, 70% of Venezuelans eat arepas for at least one of their meals as a side, and they function like bread for sandwiches typically.  BienMeSabe has a great variety of ingredients, both for meat lovers and vegans, to fill their homemade arepas.  I decided to go with the more authentic bochinche (Venezuelan Spanish for “a loud social gathering”) arepa ($13.95).  I could see why its name was apt because it was a house party packed with chunks of sausage, plantains, homemade cheese, and fresh avocado slices. Talk about an interesting guest list!  From the first bite, I was ready to join the fiesta.  The sausages were covered in a chili sauce that had a low and slow burn that was balanced with the cool, more neutral cheese and savory avocado.  The plantains provided occasionally sweet notes to the mainly savory meal but were not out of place.  The garlic sauce on the side were the perfect compliment to the sausages.  The best part was that the arepa held up to some serious munching a large amount of ingredients in a small package.  I couldn’t say the same as some burgers or tacos that I’ve tried in the past.  If you’re not in the mood for arepas, BienMeSabe also has salads, burger, traditional grilled Venezuelan meats, and fish entrees.

Overall, I highly recommend BienMeSabe if you’re tired of typical tacos and burritos and want to experience freshly made Venezuelan cuisine in cozy surroundings.

Simply Bowled Over (Brazilian Bowl, Chicago)

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Bemvindo to another chapter in the epic food-filled saga that is Mastication Monologues!  Things have been a bit more laid back as of late as I enjoy the wondrous time in school known as Spring Break where the pressures of the typical quarter fall away.  Thankfully, with this free time I’m able to commit myself to at least writing more than usual, and you all get to read about a new cuisine you might have never have tried before.  Talk about a win-win!  Not only that, but this is officially my 300th post!  It has been a long time coming, but let’s get down to the food.  Today’s featured restaurant is Brazilian Bowl located on 3204 North Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657, but there is another location on Lawrence Avenue in the Little Korea neighborhood further north in Chicago.

I’ve always been a fan of trying different types of food from throughout Latin America, but typically Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban food take center stage in Latin American cuisine.  Boiling down this giant geographical area to three countries is doing the rest of the nations’ cuisines a major disservice.  Brazil, on the other hand, occupies a unique position in both the continent and the food world.  Not only is it the largest country in South America, but it is predominantly Portuguese-speaking while swimming in a sea of Spanish speakers.  The size of the country has also led to an interesting blend of cultures.  Brazil’s Amazonian region is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world that is inhabited with Amerindian tribes who have lived in the sadly shrinking rainforest for over 12,000 years now.  Add into that mix, Brazil imported 40% of all African slaves to the Americas as well as being home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. This intermingling of cultures led to Brazil having a diverse food scene as well.  Thankfully, Brazilian Bowl manages to go beyond the southern regional specialty of churrascaria or grilled meats made famous through chains like Fogo de Chao.

There’s not just meat in Brazilian food.

My friend Drew brought me out to try this local eatery since he had been going on and on about how good their food was.  It was a small establishment in the form of a cafeteria-style eatery where we ordered at the counter and had them bring our meals over to our table.  Looking over the menu, they had a variety of dishes including hotdogs, hamburgers, salads, empanadas, traditional Brazilian plates, fresh fruit juices, and of course, make your own bowls.  I looked beyond anything else and went with Drew’s recommendation:  feijoada ($10.95).  I had tried an Indian fusion version of the Brazilian national dish before during Chicago’s Restaurant Week, but I never was face to face with this mythical creature.  While we were waiting for our food to come out, I also managed to see that they were selling a variety of Brazilian snacks and ingredients in the front like a mini mini-mart.  I didn’t indulge, but a package of bread crumbs reminded me to also request an order of the pão de queijo (5 for $4.50; 2 minimum or 10 maximum per order).  Eventually, the staff brought us our food, and it was a mountain of food for the price.  Feijoada (derived from the Portuguese word for “bean”) takes many forms depending on the region of Brazil it comes from, but Brazilian Bowl focuses on the Rio de Janeiro version which includes four different types of meat (blood sausage, pork, beef, and ribs), black beans, collard greens, pico de gallo, farofa, and a bed of rice which serves as the foundation for the hearty meal.  While many conjecture that the stew comes from the era of when African slaves would make the most of the pork scraps they would get on the plantations in addition to African ingredients like collard greens and farofa or cassava flour, others say that the dish arose from Brazil’s black bean boom.  Both upper and lower sections of Brazilian society enjoyed the beans, but the elites preferred to eat the black beans with a stew of meat and vegetables, a carryover tradition from Northern Portugal.  Whatever the origin, this was a meal that was both hearty and overflowing with flavor.  The meats were plentiful and tender with an emphasis on the smoky blood sausage and blended perfectly with the black beans.  The pico de gallo was fresh and slightly tangy due to some lime juice they mixed in.  The collard greens were sauteed and brought even more color and some crunch to an otherwise mostly chewy bowl of ingredients.  When mixed together, the entire melange was like the sambadrome during Carnival in my mouth.

Dramatic recreation of our meal’s flavors (photo credit: AP)

The only downside was the farofa which basically blended into the background, so I’m not sure why it was included.  It was just what I needed to warm-up on a cold Chicago night.  Our meal didn’t end there though.  The pão de queijo or Brazilian cheese bread was the perfect side.  This bread originated in the slave communities of northeastern Brazil in the 17th Century.  Originally, slaves would make a bread out of cassava roots with no cheese, but as the mining communities grew in wealth over time, the slaves were able to make the bread with cheese inside as well as with imported wheat that normally wouldn’t stand up to the intense heat of the region.  The little lumps of bread were piping hot with Parmesan crusts on the outside and even more on the inside.  The interesting part of the interior was that the cheese was thick and taffy-like instead of being more rubbery or stretchy like melted mozzarella.  Definitely worth a try if you’re not looking for extremely exotic cuisine.  Finally, we reached dessert.  I tried an order of brigadeiros ($1 per piece) and a slice of bolo prestigio ($4 per slice).  The brigadeiros has an uncertain past, but they are balls of sticky, sweet condensed milk and chocolate.  If you have a sweet tooth and/or are a chocoholic without any loose fillings, these are for you.  As for the bolo prestigio, it was very similar to the brigadeiros in regard to the chocolate and same sprinkles on the outside.  However, the condensed milk was combined with coconut milk to create a choco-coco masterpiece.  Plus, the cashier gave me basically half the cake when I ordered in Portuguese.  I don’t know if it made any difference, but overall Brazilian Bowl does not skimp on portion sizes.  Drew and I only had a few bites of the rich cake before we drew our dining experience to an end.

Brazilian Bowl was a great recommendation on behalf of my friend, Drew, and I highly recommend everyone try this simple but culturally and culinarily enriching establishment.  Bom apetite!
Brazilian Bowl Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Living High on the Hog (Peckish Pig)

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Wow, where has all the time gone?  My first quarter in grad school has come and gone.  I came out on the other side of stats class a little older due to stress, but overall I’m ready to go into quarter numero dos starting January 3rd.  The holidays are currently upon us in Chicagoland, and the weather is definitely playing its part.  We have it all:  -30 F temperatures, icy streets, and snow covered sidewalks.  Luckily, these bleak conditions are ideal for writing some wonderful Mastication Monologues posts that I’m sure you have all been clamoring for due to my prolonged hiatus.  Today’s post involves the Peckish Pig, Evanston’s first brewpub.img_9872

Chicago has always been a city that has enjoyed its adult beverages.  My parents have always told me about how many bars there were in the old neighborhoods they would frequent, and how now most have them have gone away due to changing regulations and consumer tastes, among other influences.  However, the rise of craft beers has been seized upon by many purveyors of food, and they have been reaping the benefits ever since.  Case in point, the Peckish Pig which is always overflowing with patrons come rain or shine, so I would recommend making a reservation ahead of time if you’re not willing to wait.  Janice and I tried this eatery when it was a bit warmer this year, but the laid-back, gastropub ambiance is a warm welcome for most diners even in the dead of a Chicago winter. img_9870

There's always one person creeping on me when I take pictures.

There’s always one person creeping on me when I take pictures.

We started our meal with some libations to cool ourselves off.  The Peckish Pig had an extensive drink list, both alcoholic and non alcoholic.  I was interested in their beers given we were in a brewery while Janice was naturally drawn to the mixed drinks.  She went with the shoemaker ($11), and I got a cherry beer.  The shoemaker was toe-tappingly good with a mix of Belle Meade bourbon, amaretto, amaro, and walnut bitters to cut through the sweetness with an ever-so-slight earthiness. img_9849 My cherry beer was not as elating since it seemed to only be “cherry” in terms of hue.  img_9850They could take some notes from the Belgian Kriek makers if they are looking for a refreshing beer that is both colored and flavored nearly exactly like the sundae toppers.  I would not recommend this beer if you are a fan of fruit beers that are bursting with flavor.  At least it looked pretty if that was any consolation.  Moving on to the appetizer round, we let our grumbling stomachs lead the way.  After looking over their options (there are vegetarian options, by the way!), we decided to try their selection of European meats and cheeses ($15 for a medium and $20 for a large plank) as well as their Brussels sprouts ($7).  When both arrived at our table, we could see why the name of the establishment was the Peckish Pig.  The portions for the price were gigantic, so we were quite excited to tuck into the wonderful repast in front of us.  First, there were the Brussels sprouts.  img_9852The typical scourge of kids’ palates at dinnertime is actually one of Janice and my favorite foods.  Therefore, we expected this version with bacon and brown butter to be a highlight of the meal, but similar to my cherry beer, it did not live up to the hype.  Yes, it contained all of the aforementioned ingredients on the same plate; however, together they did not taste like anything.  It only tasted like some more well done pieces of bacon along with the bitter, almost burnt flavor of the roasted Brussels sprouts.  We were not impressed.  Thank the culinary gods the charcuterie version of Noah’s Ark came ashore on our table.  Where to begin?img_9851  At the top left, there was the Manchego cheese that was a bit better than your typical Manchego which is known for being crumbly and moderately grainy.  It was a bit part player to the other elements on the chopping block.  Next, there was the Gloucester cheddar with chives; the very same of the famous Cotswold Games where they roll a wheel of the delicious dairy down a hill while people give chase and try to catch it.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out here (Fast forward to 2:09 for the rolling).  This was the double variety of the cheddar which meant that it had a very sharp cheddar tang to it which was enhanced by the chives.  Definitely one of my favorites.  To the right of the cheddar was the Stilton blue cheese that was the standout favorite of mine.  It paired particularly well with the apricot jam because the potent funk of the cheese was soothed by the dulcet tones of the fruit spread.  Finally, there was the ash-cured goat cheese that had a hint of smoke to its flavor profile but was not much different from the run-of-the-mill spreadable cheese.  Following the cheese top half, there were the meats.  The salami on the left was slightly spicy which I enjoyed as I moved on to the Spanish chorizo.  I personally prefer the peninsular sausage over its Mexican equivalent due to its low greasiness and high piquancy.  Next to the red disks of chorizo was a fellow Spanish product: Serrano ham.  It is Spain’s take on Italian prosciutto, and I highly recommend trying some in this lifetime.  It is both delicate yet filling with a bold, peppery flavor.  Finally, the Peckish Pig plank treated us to some duck meat which was rich but nothing of note.

We definitely overestimated how hungry we were and the portion sizes at the Peckish Pig when we ordered our food because we also got an order of the hog wings ($13). img_9859 You’ll never see wings this big at another restaurant unless pigs fly.

Slightly intimidating

Slightly intimidating

img_9862 These pork shanks were marinated in a hoisin sauce that was sweet and tangy with a soy base to represent its Far East roots.  If you’re looking for an app that is gargantuan in size and flavor, I highly recommend this tribute to marinated meat.

Good all the way to the bone

Good all the way to the bone

For the entree, I got a duck sandwich ($14).  Mind you, you might be wondering how I survived this marathon of delicious food, but I only ate half of the sandwich.  img_9853img_9854Nevertheless, I greatly savored the meal that on paper should not have left the runway but in practice soared like a Concorde.   The panini-style foccacia was fresh and crunchy and contained a true yin and yang of flavor profiles.img_9858  First, the smoky duck was enhanced by the coffee bacon.  You read that right.  Coffee bacon.

Grounds for imprisonment...in my stomach

Grounds for imprisonment…in my stomach

Once more the Peckish Pig kitchen managed to finagle some coffee-cured piggy into a dish we tried, and it was executed to perfection.  With all of these smoky and savory flavors swirling around my tongue, I appreciated the neutral brie that brought them under control and allowed for the sweet and spicy apricot spread to compliment the rest of the sandwich.  It was a very unique sandwich that expertly balanced sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, and umami between two pieces of foccacia.  Talk about a mouthful!  At this point, we thought it wasn’t possible to finish another bite, dessert was calling our name.  We found room for the English sticky toffee pudding ($7).  It was a sumptuous feast for both our eyes and taste buds.img_9868  The moist cake was studded with small chunks of delicious toffee and swimming in a thin pool of custard cream and caramel sauce.  If anything, skip the meal and just have dessert.  It is definitely worth it.

Overall, the Peckish Pig is a casual restaurant that would be ideal for catching up with old friends and family or perhaps you would like to try one of Chicagoland’s many brewpubs.  I would also recommend it for its attention to both meat-lovers and vegetable fans as well as its extensive drink menu.
Peckish Pig Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

You Can Bring a Horse to Water, But He’d Prefer a Burger (Au Cheval)

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I never thought that I would be back this soon, this deep into the jungle that is graduate school at Northwestern University, but here I am!  Back for a limited time on Mastication Monologues, but hopefully I will be able to write more once this mad quarter is finished.  This year has been flying by, and I have visited and eaten at tons of great locations across Chicagoland.  However, today’s review involves a restaurant/diner known best for its hotly-touted cheeseburger.  In a foodie city like Chicago where we love our meat based dishes, especially hamburgers, the previous sentence will elicit a different response almost every time you ask someone from Chicago depending on where they are living in the city.  We even have the Billy Goat Diner made famous by Saturday Night Live and a curse featuring a certain Northside team that is currently trying to break the same curse and win the World Series.  Go Cubbies!  Yet, Au Cheval is one of the most highly regarded establishments across the city when it comes to the signature American dish of cheeseburger and fries. (Quick note:  Two other great restaurants, Cochon Volant and Small Cheval, have similar burgers minus the typical long lines)

Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop/Fulton Meat Packing District a.k.a. Google Headquarters new backyard, it is the flagship on a block of heavy culinary hitters including Stephanie Izzard’s so-famous-you-need-reservations-six-months-ahead-of-time Girl and the Goat  (highly recommend this restaurant too).  Au Cheval is relatively new in a city of numerous old establishments that have withstood the test of time, and based on our experience, there exists the distinct possibility that this burger joint might become part of the city’s fabric if it hasn’t already.  Janice and I met up with our friends Katelin and Dan for lunch.  They have metered street parking that we took advantage of, or you can reach it by taking the L (subway for you non-Chicagoans).  It is a very popular eatery if you couldn’t tell based on my description before, and they do not take reservations.  Because of this fact, it is often subject to mob scenes of people lining up outside during peak lunch and dinner hours to sample their offerings.  Luckily, we managed to beat the lunch rush and were immediately seated in their slightly dim, modern diner. img_9045 As I surveyed the tiny interior, I wasn’t blow away by my surroundings, but I’m a gourmand, not an interior designer.  img_9024Dan and I started the meal off with their Mad Town Nut Brown that was dark, had 7 different malts, and had nice hazelnut notes. img_9026 Au Cheval also offers a wide variety of mixed drinks, shots, and non-alcoholic beverages.  Food-wise, I could describe them as a very upscale diner that managed to find a twist on simple creations like bologna sandwiches or scrambled eggs served with fois gras. img_9025 Breakfast offerings aside, Janice and I were there for the burger that has been proclaimed by the Food Network, Forbes, etc. as “The Best Burger in America” for multiple years. They had a single ($10.95) or double patty ($12.95) option for an upcharge as well as the egg and bacon.  We followed Dan’s advice for choosing the double patty with egg and bacon.  He followed suit, and Katelin ordered the raw vegetable salad with apple and blue cheese ($10.95).  Surprisingly, before you could say “Da’ Bears”, our burgers were in front of us in their full glistening glory as well as a side of fries. img_9036

Our taste buds are ready

Our taste buds are ready

First, let’s discuss the much talked about burger.img_9032  Now, I am not typically a fan of the egg-on-burger trend that has been sweeping America, but visually this fried egg seemed like a work of pure art with its off-center sun in the sumptuous solar system of flavors in front of me.  Plus, if an egg is on top of a burger, it is described as being “on horseback” hence the name of the restaurant being “Au Cheval”.  Then there was the slabs of pure pork that were stacked like massive redwood planks over two serious beef patties donning flowing robes of American cheese.  The Eastern European side of me also appreciated the dill pickle spear on the side to cut through the grease.  Once I stacked it all together, it was a soaked monument to gastronomic greatness.  img_9040I hefted this sandwich to my maw and was immediately drawn into the aromas of beef and sweet pork belly like bees to honey.  I was smitten at first chomp.  The beef was grilled to medium rare perfection while the cheese was omnipresent yet not overwhelming.  I was partial to the pork belly that shone through and enhanced the flavor profile with a maple syrupy sweetness that your run-of-the-mill, crispy, thin bacon could not accomplish in a million dinner parties.  The only downsides to this burger were the aforementioned egg which kind of made the brioche bun hard but not impossible to grip, and the bottom part of the bun which left my burger hanging by my fingertips  at the end of this white-knuckle ride of a meal.  The fries on the side were just as great as the burger with a palatable amount of salt and just the right amount of fry to their golden hued exteriors.img_9027  Katelin said her salad was delectable too even though it wasn’t served between two pieces of bread or hiding beneath a sea of gooey cheese.img_9029  A good option if you want to balance your cholesterol out after downing one of Au Cheval’s incredibly rich burgers.

We left the restaurant to a sunny afternoon with bellies full and greatly satisfied.  I could now see what the hubbub was all about when we would go by the establishment and see people jostling for position in line.  Great restaurant owners know great ingredients which in turn lead to great burgers.  This chain of events was displayed during our visit to Au Cheval, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to try a burger worthy of having the word “greatest” in its title.  You might disagree with me about it being the be-all, end-all of burgerdom, but it is a high quality burger for a very reasonable price even with a bit of a wait.  So, if you don’t know where to go for lunch or have time to wait during dinner, gallop over to Au Cheval!
Au Cheval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 1): Everyday I’m Husklin

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Finally, done with final exams and my 2nd Bachelor’s Degree!!! The feeling is amazing, and what better way to celebrate than starting the story of our journey to Charleston, South Carolina? Oh yeah, and also asking my wonderful girlfriend to marry me!  So, like any good tale, let’s start at the beginning.

Before we left for Charleston, we had been talking about when we would get married and types of engagement rings Janice wanted.  In fact, she was the occasional Debbie Downer thinking that I might never pop the question.  Little did she know I had already ordered and secretly stashed the ring at home.  *Cue maniacal laughter*  Once we got to the airport, the game was afoot.  Through a series of strategic positioning choices while walking, like holding her left hand in my right hand because the ring was in my left pocket, and taking advantage of classic airport situations, like the madness at the security lines and Janice’s subsequent rage at everyone’s incompetence, I managed to sneak the ring in my backpack.  This is where it would stay until later in our trip.  Keep that in mind, readers.  The flight and nighttime jaunt to our Air BnB was relaxing, and we were ready to explore the city the next day.  We woke up to a slightly cool day that was punctuated with plenty of intermittent rain and wind as we were off to brunch at our first Charleston restaurant.  From the outset, we knew this was going to be an eventful day since we were greeted with biblical floods throughout downtown Charleston.  IMG_9076Not only were we learning the streets, but we were also playing our own version of Oregon Trail in our rental car which also oddly had a dial instead of an actual gear shift.  Definitely was freaking me out.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.


 Fording all of those rivers really whipped up our appetite, and we finally arrived at Hominy Grill (thankfully we didn’t lose any oxen!). IMG_9078IMG_9079 This tastefully and colorfully decorated historical Charleston house was a symbol of the deep roots that run through the east coast port town.  Charleston was one of the richest cities in the original 13 colonies due to cash crops like rice, indigo, and timber that were harvested by the slaves that were subsequently brought over to do all the dirty work.  Although the institution of slavery is based on the concept that one group of people is viewed as being less than human and more like chattel or general investments, the power of good food can still make the oppressed class make their voices heard even when other parts of their culture might be done away with by the ruling class.  In fact, it is often the case around the world that some of the best food comes from the lower classes since they have to make the most of what they could afford.  That would be a common theme throughout our trip as we ate signature Southern American dishes that have African roots but appeased the taste buds of the English colonists.  Hominy grill brought plenty of this blended South Carolinian culture.  We loved the antique interior which also kept the quaint colonial vibe when I noticed they weren’t playing any music in the restaurant. IMG_9094 IMG_8203 I don’t know if it’s a Chicago thing, but we more often than not have music going on in restaurants.  So, it was a welcome change to just hear the sound of families and friends enjoying good food.  The meal began not with a bread basket rather a paper container of boiled peanuts.  IMG_9080While these are now a common Southern snack, they trace their roots back to Africa.  They are commonly sold as a street food in Ghana even to this day, and in the South they can also be called “goober peas” which reminded me of a popular Civil War my mom would randomly sing.  I had actually never had them, so we tucked into them.  It was weird because the normally crunchy shells peeled off like a loose skin, and the peanuts had an almost meaty quality to them.  I can see why they could be a good snack food, but I prefer my honey roasted variety.  I did like that we got more than we bargained for because for some reason it seemed that there were a lot of three and even four nut shells.  IMG_9081We kept the food festival going with two appetizers in the form of fried green tomatoes ($6) and hushpuppies ($5).  IMG_9082I had had hushpuppies before, but never like this.  The first people to have made them were Native Americans in the Southern United States, but they became popular during the Civil War.  Their name supposedly came from the Confederate soldiers using them to make their dogs be quiet or “hush the puppies”.IMG_9083  I can see why because I was making my barking stomach curl up and sleep in a food coma.  IMG_9086I didn’t really get the jalapeno flavor or spice in them as advertised in the menu, but the subtly sweet sorghum butter was a fitting compliment to the crunchy and salty crust.  The real star of the appetizer round was the fried green tomato plate.  IMG_9084It was another Southern fried treat which consisted of unripe tomatoes coated in batter and fried with a side of ranch dressing.  It might have been the Midwesterner in me which embraced the ranch dressing, but the creamy richness was a match made in heaven with the semi-juicy and sour interior and crispy exterior.  As if that wasn’t enough food, we managed to move on to our entrees.  Hominy Grill is a Michelin starred restaurant with not super Michelin prices serving plenty of Southern comforts, and we stayed true to what Hominy Grill is good at.  Janice ended up getting the Shrimp and Grits ($19) which was different than most grits I’ve ever had.  They were more like a very fine risotto compared to the creamier grits that I tried in Georgia or have seen at soul food events.IMG_9089  The shrimp were perfect and the scallions and bacon brought a savory edge to the smooth plate.  Then there was my choice:  the Nasty Biscuit ($10.50). IMG_9087 If there was one plate to sum up Southern cuisine, this tried to roll every element into one meal (minus delicious barbecue).  It was a buttermilk biscuit with a piece of fried chicken in the middle bobbing in a sea of sausage gravy and cheddar cheese.  Straight.  Up.  Nasty. (in a good way, naturally)  There was no easy way to eat this symbol of Southern madness/genius, but it was as heart stoppingly good as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t have to eat for another week with the amount of calories this bomb contained, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants something that’s more southern than Colonel Sanders, the Dukes of Hazard, and Nascar combined.  We also got a side of collard greens since Janice likes them, and we needed to keep the southern food train rolling. IMG_9088 I never really tried them before this moment, but I would liken them to an earthier spinach.  Not something I’d go out of my way to eat, but thank God I got something green to eat in this sea of deep fried goodness.  Somehow, some way we managed to make room for their famous homemade buttermilk pie.  Good lawd, I have never had a pie like this, but it was the lightest pie I’ve ever eaten.  IMG_9091First, it was chilled which made it seemed more lithe than the cumbersome fried food we had before.  Then the filling was like consuming a sweet treat that was like a suave vanilla custard that caressed our overworked palates.  Finally, the crust.  It was minimally intrusive compared to your typical lard based pie crust which made all the difference in this belt buster of a meal.  We came super hungry and left super satisfied. IMG_9093 Can’t praise the Hominy Grill restaurant and staff enough.

Thankfully, we walked like crazy afterward along Charleston’s harbor.  Since the weather was craptacular, we thought we could wait out the rain in the Charleston aquarium, but unfortunately we missed the last tour for the biggest draw:  the sea turtle hospital.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We cut our losses, and got tickets for the next day and instead went to Fort Sumter which just so happened to be next door.  Well, actually it was the national park museum commemorating the flashpoint of the beginning of the Civil War, and it was chock full of historical goodness that we appreciated.IMG_8206  The actual fort consisted of us getting on a ferry boat and going out to an island in the harbor.  IMG_8208It was windy and cold, and I was smart enough to not bring a jacket (or I’m just that tough).  IMG_8220We landed and it was the perfect time to go since the weather scared away the hordes of tourists.  The fort was a mere shadow of its former self, but I could imagine how terrible it must have been for the defenders to be behind its ramparts and being shelled day after day. IMG_8225IMG_8229 IMG_8230 IMG_9156 IMG_9157My favorite part of the visit consisted of the flag lowering ceremony that was similar to how the former Union defenders would do at the end of each day.  It was an extremely windy day, and it was more challenging than you may think.  IMG_8240Think about a fifty foot piece of heavy canvas flying and whipping at you violently, but luckily teamwork saved the day. IMG_9160IMG_9161 IMG_8245Going back on the ferry, thankfully the weather let up to take in the many beautiful views of Charleston skyline and bridge. IMG_8251 IMG_9163I later learned that Janice had thought I was going to propose to her on the ferry which surprised me.  That big event will come later in the story at a more unique location!  Instead, we continued to walk off our heavy lunch along the broad avenues of Charleston’s historical downtown.  I could not get enough of how much history was around every corner.  Surprisingly, we were hungry again, so we had to try a little place called Husk. IMG_8260 It is in a late 19th Century mansion and led by a James Beard award winning chef, so we threw ourselves at the mercy of their menu.  Janice wisely got reservations before we even landed in Charleston, so we checked in just below the steep staircase.  IMG_8270We still had to wait for a table though since the entire establishment was hopping.  Thankfully, they had a smaller guest house next door that was converted into a two tiered bar. IMG_8268 IMG_8267 The drink menu was Charleston through and through with references to parts of the city (the Four Corners of Law) and southern flavors.  We were quickly seated upstairs at one of their rustic wooden tables.  We started off with a Turcotte’s Tipple ($11) and a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch ($9).  IMG_8264Janice’s tipple drink was an homage to the rider of the Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and it was a bourbon based, grapefruit-infused drink that was as fleet footed as its steed namesake.  IMG_8266If you’re looking for a light, understated fruity drink for a hot summer day, this is your best bet.  As for mine, it was taken straight from a 1783 recipe from the archives of the Preservation Society of Charleston.IMG_8265  It was much stronger than Janice’s front porch refreshment due to the rum and the peach brandy, and it combined with black tea and lemon juice to add a spiked sweet/iced tea flavor to the mix.  I’d liken this drink to a British version of a Manhattan.  Even though we were next door, Husk’s staff actually came to get us upstairs in the guest house to lead us to our table in the main house.  Now that’s what I call service!IMG_8302  We were shown upstairs past their homemade pickled vegetables and firewood for the ovens to one of the front dining rooms that had a view of the second floor porch. IMG_8300IMG_8272 Janice also got a Copperhead ($11) which a whiskey with a hint of absinthe that was like a licorice infused Old Fashion. IMG_8276 As for food, we got a complimentary basket of fresh pretzel rolls that were small, warm orbs of heavenly dough with a side of whipped creamy butter.IMG_8274IMG_8277  The culinary dream that happened soon thereafter was the stuff of legend.  First, we got fried chicken skins with kimchi mayo, black garlic mayo, and scallions ($11) and glazed pig ear wraps ($12).  The former was continuing with the southern fried theme from our Hominy Grill lunch.  The people at Husk could sell them at any national chicken chain as a guilty pleasure and make a fortune.  IMG_8278They were just the right amount of crunchy, salty, savory, and spice with the kimchi mayo.  As for the glazed pig ear wraps, they were like a southern version of Korean ssam bap. IMG_8282 The cook had similar strips of pork that were a bit tougher than kalbi, but they did have some pickled cucumbers and red onion to keep in line with this Korean fusion dish.  I would highly recommend both of these appetizers.  We moved on to the entrees where Janice got the heritage pork ($34) and the bacon cornbread ($8) while I got the flat iron steak ($34).  I thought that combining the hottest ingredient/breakfast food since sliced bread with a delicious southern staple would have yielded an unforgettable pairing to our flawless dishes, but alas, we were not impressed since it was actually on the dry and crumbly side. IMG_8285 Thankfully, my flat iron steak was assembled to perfection with medium rare steak, mushrooms, broccoli, and shishito peppers. IMG_8288 The steak were burgundy nuggets of bliss and the vegetables were expertly sauteed.  Kudos to the addition of the shishito peppers that gave the mostly mild ingredients a nearly undetectable hint of sweet spiciness.  I thought Janice’s pork plate was ok, and she didn’t feel it warranted the price tag.IMG_8286  I could see why because the pork, while flavorful, was too much of the same flavors.  There wasn’t that element, like my peppers, that always kept you guessing with every forkful.  Finally, there was the dessert, and what a dessert it was.  It was a caramel bread pudding that consisted of a brown butter crumble and cinnamon ice cream with flower blossoms for decoration. IMG_8289 Now, I’ve had my fair share of bread puddings, some good and others not so good (contrary to popular opinion), and this was hands down the best I’ve ever had.  It wasn’t too hot or too cool.  The crumbles were spiced and just in the perfect ratio to the soaked bread below that was filled with luscious caramel.  The warmth of the skillet made the cinnamon ice cream atop this work of art melt and soak into each spoonful.  I was having my own When Harry Met Sally moment by the time we sadly hit the end of our metal clad sweet secret.IMG_8292IMG_8295IMG_8294  After we paid and did a short nightly jaunt around one of Charleston’s main streets, we made our way home after a successful first day in Charleston.  Stay tuned for the next chapters in our journey and the road to our engagement proposal!IMG_8298

Hominy Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Husk Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nice to Meat You!

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

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

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

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

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

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