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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

Hitting It Big on the Market (Mercat a la Planxa)

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Bon dia!  Finally another post during this crazy holiday season.  It hasn’t always been the easiest to think of what great restaurant I should review next since this time of the year naturally comes with trips to various eateries as well as sampling a variety of homemade morsels.  However, today’s entry on Mastication Monologues has a special place in my heart based on the day we went there.  Next year, I will marry the love of my life, Janice, and Mercat a la Planxa was the ideal backdrop after our engagement photo shoot this past year.

It has been four years since I went back to Spain, and eight years since I lived in Barcelona for a year to finish my Spanish degree.  Although the peninsula is now a far-flung memory from my current home, it always is in the forefront of my mind, especially the food.  Therefore, when Janice said that she made reservations at one of Chicago’s premier Spanish restaurants, my taste buds were having their own tablao de flamenco in anticipation.  Needless to say, Mercat a la Planxa lived up to the hype.  The shoot before the meal went well minus my newer pair of shoes that were ripping the backs of my heels to shreds.  On top of it, it was unusually warm and humid for Fall, and neither Janice nor I are suited for hot climes.  Thankfully, we all took it in stride and much thanks to Tanya our photographer for doing an amazing job through it all (shameless plug for Tanya Velazquez Photography here!).  janicemark-18-of-43After we said our goodbyes and thanks for the enjoyable time, we eventually arrived at Mercat at the corner of Balbo and Michigan Ave.  It is very non-descript on the outside aside from a graphic printed on the windows. img_0706 The interior, on the other hand, is very sleek and modern.img_0677img_0678img_0679  Definitely made an impression on my fiancee and I given it shares a lobby with the Blackstone Hotel.  img_0704This building was known as “The Hotel of Presidents” since some kind of famous Commanders-in-Chief like FDR, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in their luxurious suites.  In addition to heads of state, huge captains of industry (Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and Vanderbilt) as well as other famous stars (Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn) have made the building their temporary home (the entire list can be found here).  Little did we know that this historical building would lead to a historical night for our palates.  Looking over the menu, I realized that Mercat was unique in the sense that they focused on Catalan ingredients and dishes since all of the items were written in Catalan.  While the southern Andalucian region gets all of the credit for what counts as being Spanish (bullfights, flamenco, sunny beaches), Catalunya on the east coast of the peninsula is firmly anti-Spanish.

Never the best of friends

Never the best of friends

It caused me some trouble when living in Barcelona since speaking Spanish before Catalan is seen as sign of being an outsider, but thankfully at Mercat they were just focused on providing the best experience possible.  As we looked over the menu at the various tapas, we saw everything from vegetable, meat, olives, paellas, and even a roast suckling pig (half of one is $220 and a full is double!).  With that final option, the price reflects the fact it can feed roughly 4 to 12 people, and it comes with its own personal meat carver and sides.  Obviously, we weren’t going to take down one of these hogs, but we were starving since we hadn’t eaten all day.  While we were trying to make our choices, our server brought a classic Catalan pre-meal food:  pan amb tomaquet (bread with tomato). img_0682 This Catalan version of Italian bruschetta is relatively new to the region.  This 18th century invention is believed to be the result of abundant tomato harvests and using the juicy veggies to soften hard bread.  I found this take on the carb-based antipasto quite refreshing compared to what is commonly found in Spain, but that also was because it was closer to bruschetta with its large tomato chunks and oregano compared to the minimalist fare found in cafeterias in Espana.  Eventually we settled on several tapas that could satisfy our ever-burgeoning appetites.  First, there were the datiles con almendras/almond-stuffed dates ($9). img_0683 These were a bit different than typical bacon-wrapped dates given they were drizzled with La Peral Asturian cheese which imparted the salty-sweetness with a milky smoothness that served as the fulcrum to balance both flavors.  Next were the gambas al ajillo ($13).img_0685  This was a definite highlight when this Catalonian bowl was still bubbling when placed in front of us.  From the size and quality of the olive oil/garlic/chili mix the shrimp was swimming in, it was the ideal tapa.  Next was my favorite tapa:  patatas bravas ($5).  These “wild potatoes” are my judge of whether or not a restaurant’s tapas are up to snuff (or if they even have them!).  Honestly, if you’re a professional chef and have mediocre/terrible fried potato chunks and a spicy mayonnaise sauce on the side, you might as well pack up your cooking utensils and find a new day job.  While that has been the case in very few of my tapateos, at Mercat they are the real deal.  They are the closest thing I have tasted outside of Spain to the same bravas I would always get at my favorite cafe on Rambla de Brasil in Barcelona.  First, the presentation was exquisite as they were lined up in a little row with the spicy sauce atop each potato like a barretina or traditional Catalonian cap.img_0695  I don’t know if they did this on purpose, but it was an excellent homage to the culture.

Messi reppin' Catalunya!

Messi reppin’ Catalunya!

img_0694These typically red hats are worn as a symbol of Catalan identity, and they can be seen now every Christmas on their traditions that revolve around poop like el caganer  (the pooping man) and el tio nadal (the pooping Christmas log).  Then there was the taste.  Most patatas bravas I’ve had, they’ve had more of a tomato based, more Mexican-style salsa sauce which isn’t even close to the original.  Mercat, however, has just the right blend of mayo, cracked black pepper, and garlic to go with the crunchy potato pieces.  I highly recommend these tapas if you want a true taste of a Spanish tapa mainstay.  Next came the albondigas/meatballs ($12).  This plate was an homage to the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine as the meatballs were made of both beef and lamb and a variety of ingredients including smoked yogurt, tahini, pickled vegetables, and almonds.img_0693  It was a hearty Mediterranean/North African inspired tapa that was further enhanced with the slight spice provided from the North African harissa chili sauce.  If you love lamb or Middle Eastern food/flavors or don’t eat pork, this is the tapa for you!  With all of these delicious plates coming our way, we knew we had to sneak some greens in their somewhere to be healthy, so we got the broquil amb cansalada ($12).  img_0692It was good but not as great as it was described on the menu.  It just tasted like some charred broccoli with the occasional hammy pancetta note.  The desserts at the end of our meal were killer regardless of my sweet tooth.  The only problem is that the desserts are quite small.  The horchata bon bons ($4 each) were addictive with a crunchy chocolate shell coating horchata ice cream and topped with cinnamon puffed rice and almond brittle. img_0697 When popped in our mouths, it had a plethory of crunchy, smooth, and rough textures and a nuttiness more common to Spanish tiger nut-derived horchata which differs from Mexican rice-derived horchata.  We also tried the financer ($14).  This small, golden cake was named either due to its resemblance to a bar of gold or its supposed popularity in the financial district of Paris since it could be carried in the pocket of traders for long periods of time without being damaged.img_0700  I don’t know if this delicate treasure of culinary creation could have done the same because it melted under the weight of the cheesecake gelato, candied almonds, and tart cherry gastrique to create a mouth-watering Catalan creation.  Finally, there were the croquetes de xocolata ($10).  This dessert was like a Salvador Dali creation.  img_0702The milk chocolate croquettes were rich to begin with, but then things took a turn for the “interesting” as we found them floating in mini rafts of banana-infused marshmallow adrift in a sea of rosemary-infused caramel and Arbequina olive oil.  Our mastication-filled maritime adventure rode the flavor wave from the bittersweet chocolate, to the sweet caramel, to the surprising whitecaps of banana and oddly fruity (in a good way) olive oil.  If you want a dessert that challenges your senses in all the best, most decadent ways, this is the dessert for you.

In sum, Mercat a la Planxa left us thoroughly satisfied with our meal and the overall dining experience.

img_0687 While there are cheaper tapas restaurants in the City and Chicagoland area, you will find it hard to discover an eatery as unique as this “Market on the Grill”.
Mercat a la Planxa 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

My Neighbor Tokoro

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Hello…helllooo..helloooooo….Is anyone still left out there that reads this blog?  It seriously has been way too long since I have posted any new content on Mastication Monologues, but such is the life of someone working on a 2nd Bachelor’s degree.  Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel is near, and I am looking forward to some mental rest and relaxation.  Thankfully, I won’t slack too much though because I have plenty of great reviews and food adventures to bring to you.  Today’s review involves Tokoro Sushi in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

My fiancee, then girlfriend, suggested we try the new eatery when it opened last year, and we have been back since.  However, our first visit wasn’t the most enjoyable compared to the second time.  There is mainly street parking and there are plenty of public transportation options for those of you rocking Ventra cards on the bus or L.  The interior of Tokoro looks like any other sushi restaurant complete with bamboo prints and assorted Japanese tchotchkes.  Fitting given the name of the restaurant in Japanese literally means “place”, i.e. this could be the interior of any of the other million, lower/middle rung Chicago sushi restaurants.  They have a BYOB policy and a free corkage service which helps if you care for a glass of chardonnay to go with your unagi.  Upon sitting down, we looked over their extensive sushi menu and saw most of the the typical Japanese restaurant offerings from lunch specials, soups, gyoza dumplings, sushi rolls, sashimi, and even hibachi offerings for diners searching for something a bit more substantial.  Janice and I preferred to try the figurative treasure chest of sushi that lay before  us in the menu, so we got the “all you can eat” sushi option for 20 bucks.  Some people always wonder or straight up deny that the all you can eat option is a waste of money, but when you think about it, there is some method to the madness.  Based on current trends of fishing, human consumption, and sushi demand from around the world, the price of fish, especially the fatty toro tuna, is only going to sky rocket.   Therefore, placing a cap on your wallet but not on your stomach makes perfect sense to me especially if you were as hungry as we were.  Then again, who knows if most sushi restaurants actually use the fish advertised on the menu.  The results are often times surprising.  Either way, that didn’t stop us from enjoying some good, not great sushi.  Thankfully, we got a complimentary bowl of miso soup which I think should come free with each meal in Japanese restaurants because it is such a simple but satisfying soup to make.  IMG_6101This traditional Japanese soup consists of a kelp/fish based broth and a soy based paste called, you guessed it, miso.  I have never seen it anywhere, but there are also red and mixed color miso pastes used in miso soup.  However, I greatly enjoy the white miso which is typically used in American Japanese restaurants because it is salty, savory, and has a taste that envelopes your entire body with a warmth that is enhanced with the soft cubes of tofu and slightly crunchy scallion strands.  Definitely great for the cold Chicago winters.  Once we drained our bowls, it was time to dive into our sushi.  Side note:  the service was absolutely terrible the first time around in terms of waiting for food, but thankfully they have improved their turnaround time from ordering to bringing out your order.  Our first platter consisted of the crazy tuna roll, spicy tuna roll, and mountain roll.IMG_6102

The crazy tuna roll, the one closest to the wasabi in the picture above, consisted of the rice rolled around a tuna and pepper mix and topped with slices of tuna and a sriracha chili sauce. IMG_6103 I didn’t find it to be too spicy, but it went down just fine.  The mountain roll was next which left the biggest impression on me for this round. IMG_6104 The inside was a cool cucumber and creamy avocado duo, but the real fire came from the spicy crab and spicy mayo on top that was festooned with a sprinkling of crunchy tempura crumbs.  I liked it the most out of the three selections due to the contrast between the relatively understated interior and the more eye-catching exterior.  Kind of a case of sushi superficiality, but this is a roll whose cover really makes the book a must read.  The same could not be said about the spicy tuna roll which was like the crazy tuna roll minus the “crazy” part. IMG_6105 I’m a big spicy food eater, and I didn’t think it lived up to its fiery moniker.  So it was not a big draw for me.  It was just a transition to the next sushi round we ordered.  We amped it up with a volcano roll, a kiss on fire roll, another mountain roll, and got some actual sushi on the side with a tomago, shrimp, and a piece of yellowtail.IMG_6106  I’ve already spoken about the mountain roll, but the volcano roll and kiss on fire roll were bolder than the first round participants.  The kiss on fire roll (between the raw fish and fried roll) did actually bring some spice since below the tuna there was a raw jalapeno pepper resting in wait for our unsuspecting taste buds.  I always like being kept off kilter sometimes during my dining experience, and I would recommend this roll for those who do like a bit of spice with their rolls.  Then there was the volcano roll.  Frying actual sushi is a crime against humanity, yet with rolls it kind of works.  The light, rice flour based batter goes well with the delicately constructed rolls, especially one that was bulging with spicy tuna, crab, avocado, cream cheese, and eel sauce and spicy mayo streaks across the sliced roll.  I think this was more of a luxury roll than a spice-centric entree due to the amount of ingredients that went into it.  I’d still recommend it though if you’re looking for a bit more heft to your typical sushi roll.  I did not have the tomago (egg) sushi, the shrimp, or the yellowfin, but Janice said they were all competently made but not mind-blowingly fresh/delicious.IMG_6107

So, if you’re looking for a solid, middle of the road sushi restaurant on the far northside of Chicago, roll on over to Sushi Tokoro!

Sushi Tokoro 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

To Live and Pie in Wicker Park

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Welcome one and all to another great blog post from Mastication Monologues!  Things have been picking up as of late since it’s the holiday season.  In between studying and braving the Walking Dead-esque crowds at the mall, I managed to squeeze in a trip to a Chicago bakery that was truly memorable in terms of its concept and approach to classic desserts.  If you’re a sweets lover, strap yourself in for a wild ride!  If not, prepare to be amazed!

The adventure all started back when I received an email from A Baker’s Tale saying that they were huge fans of my blog at the bakery, and they wanted to invite me to an exclusive event for local bloggers.  Naturally, I said yes, and informed Janice that we had some serious business to take care of.  Baked goods business.  I looked it up, and I saw it was located in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area which has been recently gentrified.  What this means is that you can’t walk more than five feet without running into an ironic mustache or fixie bike.  However, the exterior of A Baker’s Tale exuded neither a hint of pretentiousness nor any sort of kitchyness. IMG_7877 Walking in, we were immediately greeted by the employees and eventually the owner, Christine, who’s in the middle of the pic below. IMG_7923 I didn’t know where to look first in this coffee shop+bakery+fun house.  Once more bloggers and vloggers and what have you arrived, Christine explained that she loves literature and baking which in turn translated to the Alice in Wonderland and other literature inspired establishment that surrounded us.  Since I am also a fellow librophile, I couldn’t get enough of the homages to many classic works.IMG_7882 IMG_7884From the classic book prints,IMG_7917 the talking doorknob statue,IMG_7921 whimsical cakes,IMG_7889IMG_7887 IMG_7886IMG_7890 hedgemazed trip to the bathroom,IMG_7929 and the breathtaking tree overshadowing our tasting tables with leaves made of pages from Alice in Wonderland, IMG_7888IMG_7933there was no detail left on the sideline as we quickly made our way over to the tasting table. IMG_7878 I was late, so late, for a very important date…with some bakery!  IMG_7926IMG_7918IMG_7880Surprisingly, there was no door mouse, march hare, or Mad Hatter when we sat down.  As more bloggers began to stream in and take their seats around the table, I was half driven to yell, “Change places!” to get in the spirit of Mr. Carrol’s work, but I decided to focus more on the diverse spread of pastries in front of us like a very late high tea.  IMG_7879We started with a plate of a mini cherry pie, a passion fruit raspberry cheesecake, and a s’more bar.IMG_7924  While none of them made me shrink or grown into a giant like Alice when speaking with the doorknob, they were big on flavor.  First, there was the mini cherry pie that was a version of their normal sized pie.  It was topped with hearts as an homage to the Queen, but I felt like a king with this royally decadent dessert.  The crust was buttery and mixed with the sweet and tart filling to perfection.  I then had the passion fruit raspberry cheesecake.  It was filled with a burst of tropical flavor that was like a mix between an orange, mango, and lime that kind of gave the whipped cheesecake a slight key lime pie vibe on the aftertaste. However, if you’re not into tart flavors, it might be a bit overwhelming for you like it was for my gf, Janice.  As good as these first two desserts were, they were beneath the third option:  the s’mores bar.  These desserts date as far back as the 1930s from a Girl Scout campfire cooking manual, or so the legend goes.  However, A Baker’s Tale version of it presented it in the least messy way possible.  One of my personal pet-peeves with traditional s’mores is how the crunchy graham crackers explode with every bite and can’t keep the blazing hot marshmallow inside to save its own inanimate life.  I quickly learned upon the first bite that these bakers really can work magic.

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 3: Devour

Step 3: Devour

The graham cracker base was soft yet substantial and topped with a house-made marshmallow fluff that sported a rich, chocolate accent that tied it all together to perfection.  Plate two wasn’t as over the top in terms of bombastic flavors, but it was a solid entry to the tasting event.  IMG_7907The chocolate chunk and peanut butter cookies (both also were available in gluten free versions at the tasting as well) were good but not great probably because they weren’t the most decadent options.  Case in point, they were overshadowed by the toffee chocolate cheesecake that was presented in a Reese’s peanut butter cup form.  From the Oreo cookie crumb crust to the creamy filling that had ample pieces of chocolate coated toffee and a thin layer of gooey caramel on top, this dessert checked all the boxes for me.  Moving from there, the next plate was the belle of the dessert ball.  It consisted of three, vibrant, expertly-crafted macarons sporting three very different flavors:  pistachio (green), raspberry (red), and elderberry (blue). IMG_7932According to the almighty Wikipedia/internet, macarons originated in Venetian monasteries in the 9th Century A.D. but were brought to France when Catherine Medici, an Italian noblewoman, married King Henry II of France.   Their popularity began to rise during the French Revolution when two nuns in the city of Nancy made the cookies to pay for their rent; however, the original version of these desserts were basically a cookie.  The modern version of the macaron with two cookies and a filled center came about in the 1830s in Paris where it was known as the Gerbet, named after the supposed inventor, or the macaron parisien.  They were then brought over the USA and sometimes confused with the coconut-based macaroon.  Actually, the word “macaroon” is just the English translation for the French “macaron“.  Whatever it’s called, these little morsels went down too easily.  My personal favorite was the pistachio because it was sweet but not too sweet whereas the elderberry one was a bit too saccharine for my palate (surprising, I know).  The outer cookies had that thin, crisp shell that gave way to feathery interiors that led to the thin but incredibly rich layer of flavored cream. IMG_7916 Ils sont tres delicieux!  Finally, there was the somewhat sweet and savory plate.  Whereas the other plates contained straight up desserts, the scone platter mixed it up in terms of flavors and textures.  Scones have an interesting history to say the least.  Their name has many different origins including the Middle Dutch schoonbrood or “pure bread”, the Scots Gaelic’s sgonn or “large mouthful”, or perhaps after the Scottish town of Scone.  They were not as cutesy at they look today because before baking powder, a scone was a large, flat, unleavened oat cake made on a griddle.  Thankfully, A Baker’s Tale did not harken back to the scone’s roots.IMG_7931 The two on display were the vanilla scone and the jalapeno white cheddar scone.  I thought I would prefer the former over the latter, but in reality, it was the opposite.  Yes, both were denser and somewhere between moist and arid that scones should be compared to the aforementioned cookies and cakes, but somehow the savory option won me over.  I personally think it was because it was such a sharp contrast to the mountains of sweet stuff I hoovered up over the course of the tasting, but I was partial to the clear pepper notes that came out in every bite that resulted in me showering the floor with crumbs.  Don’t hate me because I’m so debonair.IMG_7908  I highly recommend the jalapeno scones if you don’t have much of an affinity for all things sugary sweet.

As the night went on and my sugar levels reached their optimum level of satisfaction, we called it quits.  We departed A Baker’s Tale with a warm farewell from the owners and thoughts of the wonderful experience we had the priviledge of enjoying.  I highly recommend a visit to this very welcoming bakery that boasts desserts that are as satisfying as a finishing a great read where all of the ends are tied up and the villains receive their just desserts.  Lucky them!IMG_7937
A Baker's Tale Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Woochon Clan Ain’t Nothing to Mess With

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Fire.  It can both cleanse or soil, sustain or end life, or perfectly cook or singe delicious, mouth watering meat.  Chicago has always been known for their meat products.  At one point, we were known as the “Hog-butcher to the world” compliments of one Carl Sandburg due to the presence of the now defunct Union Stockyards that were an engine of industry and the employer of the immigrant masses that called Chicago their new home.  Although these legions of cattle and pigs no longer stream into the city by the millions, the ethnic communities have remained a very integral part of Chicago.  They are constantly in flux depending on the decade and world politics.  On the northside of Chicago, there has long been a large and tightly knit Korean community.  Going down Lawrence Avenue, you can still see some of the remnants of the once thriving Koreatown that my girlfriend tells me about when she was younger.  Thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965, it allowed these Korean immigrants to finally come in families and establish business that brought the pleasures of the home country to the US of A.  However, due to changing demographics and the rise of the Latino population in America, Koreatown now has more of a Latin American and Middle Eastern flavor due to the original Korean families moving to surrounding northern suburbs.  However, that doesn’t mean that the food has gone anywhere!  Even though I have lived in South Korea and have eaten my fair share of different Korean foods, I’m always down for a quick pop over to a new restaurant that my girlfriend swears by.  She hasn’t steered me wrong yet!  In this case, we went to Woo Chon Korean BBQ .

It is a very tiny restaurant that is wedged between a Korean store that is both grocer and video store next door that has all of your K-drama needs.  However, if you want to get some of the best barbecue in the city, this is your place.  IMG_6023The waitstaff is also probably some of the nicest you can find in a Korean restaurant since they aren’t known for having the same rules as found in American restaurants.  They might be a bit gruffer or forward compared to your typical server in a T.G.I.Fridays, but they know how to make some delicious food.  We were quickly seated at one of their simple tables which are a bit cramped if you are six feet or taller like yours truly.  We decided to start with kimchi pajeon or a type of savory Korean pancake.  It is derived from a Chinese green onion pancake (cōngyóubǐng) yet different because it is made from an egg based mix.  The name “pajeon” literally means “green onion (pa) + pancake (jeon)”.  While the ingredients seem quite obvious, there are many varieties of jeon that can be filled with different meats, seafood, or in this case, the signature fermented Korean lifeforce known as kimchi. IMG_6013 Typically, Janice’s family gets the haemul jeong or fish, shellfish, and octopus pancake, but I can’t get enough of kimchi in any form.  It was a ton of food to start off the meal for a reasonable price. IMG_6014 It is kind of bready yet filled with crunchy green onions and spicy, crisp pieces of hot and spicy fermented cabbage. IMG_6015 As we moved our way through this perfect pancake,  they quickly began putting out the banchan or little plates of random Korean snacks like pickled cucumbers, cellophane noodles, pickled radish, and even the mysterious acorn jelly that looks like cut up, corrugated pieces of rubber.  It’s not at terrible as it sounds but not my cup of tea.  As well as bringing out the small plates, the server also provided us with a blazing hot bowl of coals for cooking our orders of kalbi or beef short ribs.IMG_6016  Korean bbq has been a bit of a recent phenomenon in American cuisine, but it is a form of dining as old as time.  In Korea, eating beef was a great privilege since the cattle were beasts of burden, and the Koryo Buddhist dynasty of rulers forbade the consumption of meat.  However, in the 13th Century, those crazy Mongols invaded and removed the ban.  They were pragmatic nomads, but they knew good food too.  However, beef didn’t become prevalent on Korean tables until the latter half of the 20th Century as South Korea quickly became the advanced nation we now know.  History lesson over, we threw the raw pieces of meat on the grill with a satisfying sizzle and pop. IMG_6019 Once Janice grilled them to perfection, we mixed them with rice, doenjang (soybean paste), and banchan in leaves of lettuce to create ssam bap or what could be described as lettuce wraps with plenty of savory flavors to enjoy.  IMG_6021We also got a side of pre-prepared dwegi bulgogi or sliced pork loin that is sauteed in a soy based sauce infused with ginger, gochujang (chili sauce), garlic, sugar, and rice wine.  IMG_6018It wasn’t on the menu but highly recommend this Korean classic.  It also has a bit of a spicy kick to it if you’re not feeling the more mild grilled meats.  I loved mixing the pork’s zing with the green onions that came with the kalbi. IMG_6017 It provided a definite earthiness that mellowed out the grease of the meat. We also got an order of moo guk or literally “radish soup”.  IMG_6022If there’s one thing Korean soups and stews are known for, or at least what I’ve noticed, is being absolutely as hot as the surface of the sun, temperature-wise.  While it takes a bit of time to cool off, the taste alone is worth it.  Plus, if you’re looking for a bowl of comfort food during these cold Chicago months, step aside mac ‘n’ cheese, get a warm and filling bowl of soup.   By the end of the meal, we were stuffed to the gills with great food, and we were ready to take on the cold climes outside.

So if you’re looking for a more low-key Korean bbq place that isn’t packed with everyone who wants to experience the novelty of grilling meat at their table, I’d recommend Woo Chon Korean BBQ.  Oh yeah, and the food is mouth-watering to say the least and easy on the old wallet.
Woo Chon Korean BBQ Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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