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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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South Carolina (Day 4)- Gettin’ Our Kicks with Nana (Nana’s Seafood, Kickin’ Chicken)

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Finally, I have arrived at the terminus of our South Carolina adventure and not a moment too soon (six months later).  Welcome back to Mastication Monologues where I spread the word of both good food and great times!  This post is the final installment in one of my travel series, and this one was not lacking in terms of major events.  From eating at one of the finest restaurants in the Southern United States to finally asking the love of my life to be with me forever and ever, it was an exhilarating journey from beginning to end.

So, we began our final day in the Holy City with a walking tour around Charleston’s downtown area.  We bided our time looking around the gift shop which boasted plenty of Charleston’s signature golden rice and colonial porcelain, but eventually we found our tour guide, Michael Trouche.  He was in charge of Charleston Footprints Touring Company, and we would highly recommend them if you’re looking for a very informative and affordable tour of the town from a Charlestonian whose family has been there since its founding.  We learned many interesting tidbits about the houses we otherwise would have walked past none the wiser.

Oldest house in Charleston

Oldest house in Charleston from the 1600s

He took us from the waterfront, IMG_8446to the intimate streets where scenes from Porgy and Bess took their inspirations, IMG_8447IMG_8442IMG_8448to even his family’s home that was huge yet still had that antiquated Southern charm.IMG_8445  He even showed us the house where Francis Marion, the real life planter and politician who Mel Gibson portrayed in the movie the Patriot, jumped from a third story balcony to the street below because he was embarrassed that he couldn’t toast to beginning a rebellion against their British overlords.  Why?  Because Marion was a teetotaler.  Even though he didn’t drink, he still managed to have fun by some how escaping the party with a broken leg on a horse and then waging a successful guerrilla war against the Crown’s troops during the war.  The most eye catching of the waterfront properties was Rainbow Row (not Road, Mario Kart fans).  IMG_8450These Georgian style buildings were originally bustling warehouses and storefronts, but they fell into disrepute once the Charleston economy was devastated by the Civil War.  However, in the 1920s they were redone with Caribbean flair in the form of their present day colorful facades.  Not only do they look pretty, but they keep the buildings cool in the sweltering summers thanks to their chromatic appearances.  We also got a taste of local business as we stopped into a local antique store that had everything from paintings to moonshine and of course Janice made friends with the resident poochy!

Just a little excited

Just a little excited

As our tour came to an end, we had worked up a mighty hunger, and I insisted that we should try Nana’s Seafood and Soul Takeout.  I read that it had some of the best and most affordable seafood in the Lowcountry, and it lived up to the hype and then some.  It’s actually such a small place we drove past it at first and had to back it up to make sure it was the right storefront.  IMG_8459When we walked in, it was a much different crowd than we encountered in most of the other restaurants in Charleston. IMG_8462 IMG_8461First, it was simply decorated, and it could only seat maybe 10-12 people, 20 if you really wanted to sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  Second, it was exclusively African American in terms of patrons and staff aside from us, but us integrating the place didn’t stop us from having a wonderful time there.  They have mainly seafood options along with some classic chicken wings and sides for rock bottom prices and generous portions.  IMG_8460Need I say more?  Janice also asked if they had their famous garlic blue crabs ($18)  that they only serve when they receive them which isn’t very frequently.  As for me, I purchased their shrimp and oysters ($12).  We also talked with the owner who took our order which was a nice touch not found in many other restaurants in the US. Once we put in our orders, we took a seat at one of the small formica topped tables right next to a group of alumni from historically black fraternities and sororities and soaked in the atmosphere.  Our meals came out in carry out styrofoam containers even though we were dining in which already was a signal to me that we were in for a treat.  Janice opened hers first, and was greeted with a mountain of blue crabs which would be at least double in any other more touristy restaurant in downtown Charleston.IMG_9118  My shrimp and oyster lunch had a bit more variety with my crustaceans and bivalves being of the fried variety.  All of which didn’t surprise me since we were in the Dirty South, but the real rarity that came with this kind of food was the surprisingly green and fresh salad that accompanied my seafood. IMG_9119 Plus, I would have expected maybe some dirty rice or a helping of collard greens, but that Nana always keeps you guessing!  While we got down to business with our food, it was only the beginning of the Trump train where he was quoting the Bible and acting like a Christian who loves all people.  Funny enough, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day when we visited, and it was funny to see that everyone in that establishment, regardless of color, knew that Trump was talking nonsense.  Hopefully that spirit carries into November this year.  Politics aside, the food was mouthwateringly good and aesthetically pleasing.  The breading on my shrimp was very light and not greasy at all, but I don’t think the oysters went too well with the fried batter since they were runnier and didn’t lend themself to being fried to perfection.  I think crab or maybe the scallops would have been a better choice.  The fries I forgot to mention kept the “heart healthy” meal keep on going, and I tried to insert some green salad between each fried mouthful.  I think my heart was still beating by the end compliments of the lettuce and cucumbers.  Let me say that don’t think I was going to get too healthy on this trip because we shared a cup of potato salad ($2).IMG_9120  It was perfectly made with diced potatoes, plenty of mayo, and just a right amount of paprika on top. Then there was Janice’s meal.  Talk about having to work for your supper.  I never had fresh crab out of the shell before this visit, so Janice was the Master Yoda to my Luke.

Skilled she is

Skilled she is

Once I got the hang of it, I found the savory and garlickly meat to be worth the work. IMG_9122 If they have these armor plated morsels available, I’d highly recommend them.  Unfortunately, with pride comes one downfall as Janice was having trouble with a particular leg section.  So I thought I could break the shell with my fingers, which I did, but much to my chagrin the crab also sliced my thumb open.  So, I went into the bathroom in the back of the restaurant which was the definition of bare bones, but there was at least soap and water to wash the wound off.  However, we didn’t have a bandaid, so the owner ran out to her car and got me one. IMG_9126 Now that’s some Southern hospitality!  We actually managed to polish off our meals, and we were off to see some last highlights of Charleston.

Pretty she is

Pretty she is

Like a boss!

Like a boss!

We left Nana’s with great memories, full stomachs, and a “See y’all later!”.  We moved beyond the city to the Sullivan Island beach which was covered with plenty of dead starfish for some reason. IMG_9129 Even though it was an all you can eat bonanza for the seagulls, it didn’t ruin the pristene beach on our perfect vacation as a newly engaged couple.IMG_9133  We also went to Fort Moultrie which was originally made of palmetto palm trees during the American Revolution.  Thanks to the supple nature of these native trees, the British naval cannonballs literally bounced off the walls of the rebel-defended fort.  Hence, today we have the nickname of South Carolina, “The Palmetto State”.  It was not the wooden version I was expecting, rather how the fort looked circa World War II when our servicemen had to watch out for those pesky U-boats.  IMG_8464It was an ok experience looking out over the water and walking through the creepy underground bunkers, IMG_8465but its not something to go out of your way for unless you’re really into history like yours truly.  Our final bite to eat was at a local chain nearby our Air BnB called the Kickin’ Chicken. IMG_9135IMG_8472

Somebody's excited!

Somebody’s excited!

It’s like your typical laid back sit down restaurant with a focus on all things poultry with a Southern twist.  IMG_8471We went quite early for dinner, so the place wasn’t too kickin’.  The menu had a mix of bar food and Southern American classics like chicken and waffles.  We were more interested in their signature Kickin’ sandwiches.  Janice got the namesake sandwich ($9), and I got the Santa Fe Wrap ($9).  Clearly, the prices weren’t anything ridiculous, but we also weren’t going to go overboard since we were still stuffed from Nana’s before.  When our plates came out, we weren’t that impressed. IMG_9136 Janice’s was kind of bland with average bacon, a moderate amount of provolone cheese, and not the best chicken we had during the trip.  My Santa Fe wrap was a bit of a let down too.IMG_8469  It did bring the flavors of the Southwest alive with the inclusion of Tex Mex ingredients like peppers, salsa, onions, cheese, and the jalapeno cheddar wrap, but just barely above flat line.  Perhaps we would have been better off ordering the more bar food-esque options because these sandwiches left us wanting.  Once again it proved that small, family owned businesses are typically provide better quality and priced food and drinks.  Although it was the last impression we had of Charleston, it did not leave a sour taste in our mouth because it was drowned out with the great memories we made together on the road to many more in the future.IMG_9134

Nana's Seafood & Soul Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Kickin' Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 2): Hoppin’ John and a Carolina Fried Chicken Ring

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Welcome back to Mastication Monologues, and if you haven’t been back here lately, I am currently recounting the tale of when Janice and I went to Charleston, South Carolina.  Here’s the first installment for your reading pleasure.  The second day is also full of history, good eats, and one of the greatest moments of my life:  proposing to Janice.  So, buckle up because you’re about to read one of the greatest love stories since Jon Snow and Ygritte minus the whole being shot through with a bunch of arrows and tragic death part.

After that first day of gallivanting about the Chuck, as the locals call Charleston, we decided to get out of the hubbub of the city and visit the Middleton Plantation.  However, before we even left the house, I realized that this was the day I would propose to Janice.  I was planning on doing it at the Angel Oak tree after visiting the Middleton Plantation, but now I needed to figure out how to carry the ring.  I could have worn my coat, but it was a warm day outside.  Luckily, before we left Chicago, I had stowed a piece of gauze in one of my jean pockets.  So, when Janice was showering, I went to my backpack where the ring was hidden in my backpack back at the security line in Chicago.  I took out the box, which was too big for my jean pockets, and removed the beautiful ring.  I wrapped it in the gauze, removed some business cards from an interior pocket in my wallet, and placed the ring in that very same pocket.  Mission partially complete.  I played it cool when Janice asked if I was ready to go,ee6cff1497840b03205d99e31d1c1cf3 and we made our way to the Middleton Plantation.

At the current moment in America, race relations are continuing to grow tenser as the country becomes more diverse, and the race interactions established at the outset of our country through slavery and immigration can be seen today at this opulent 7,000 acre estate.  We decided to do the entire tour package, with included a house tour and carriage ride, but we had free time before we got to meet the horsies.  So, we decided to stroll about the grounds and marvel at the natural wonders that were planted and landscaped to perfection.  Some of the highlights were seeing the oak trees that dotted the walkways that ranged anywhere from 200 to 900 years old. IMG_8307 IMG_8308 IMG_8310 IMG_8311 IMG_8312 Mind you, the plantation was first established in 1730, and it actually is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States.  Eventually, it was time to hitch a ride with a born and bred Charlestonian and two old ladies, horses that is.  Janice could hardly contain her excitement as they clip clopped their way to the pickup point and into Janice’s heart.

Cue emotional music

Cue emotional music

IMG_8314

We climbed aboard the old carriage and took off as our driver explained the history of the plantation to us.  IMG_9177The Middleton plantation was not mainly a working plantation but rather a country estate.  That is not to say that there weren’t slaves who worked there, but they were either employed as house servants, lumberjacks to harvest the timber, rice planters in the large rice paddies off the Ashley River, or grow and collect indigo to a lesser extent.IMG_9169  This was not your stereotypical cotton plantation.  The real money was in the signature gold grain Carolina rice which was well suited for the humid Carolina weather and the planters’ profit margins.  We went about the ground looking at the farm house complete with one of the male horses who wanted to bust out of his pen and the famous layabout known as Rocky the guinea hog. IMG_8315 There was also one of the former slave houses next to the animal pens.  We learned that the slave quarters were raised off the ground because it was a way to offer a bit of cool air in an otherwise brutal environment.IMG_9233  By the time we reached the end of our journey, the horses were ready to get some hay and a nap, but we still managed to get some pics with these local celebrities.

Bffls!

Bffls!

All of that excitement going 2 miles per hour with a slight breeze in our hair worked up our appetites, so Janice and I decided to try the plantation restaurant which was housed in a former guest house.  IMG_8323We were led to the main dining room that was overlooking the lily pond. IMG_8322 We looked over the menu which was filled with plenty of Low Country classics. We quickly made our choices since we had to finish our meal before our house tour.  Janice got an order of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and cornbread, and I got the pecan smoked pork shoulder with Carolina gold mustard sauce.  Before they brought out our food, they also asked if we wanted sweet tea, regular tea, or water.  Naturally, I went for the sweet tea, and Janice got the unsweetened tea.  I was so happy with my sweet tea for one main reason:  it was actually sweet.  McDonalds back home always would promote their sweet tea during the summertime, and I love my sweet iced tea.  When I got it, it tasted like plain black tea poured over some ice.  Naturally, I had to go to the South where they know how to make it correctly.  Then the food came out, and we had to hold ourselves back from going full Cookie Monster on these enticing plates.  My pecan smoked pork shoulder took me to hog heaven. IMG_8320 It was melt-in-your mouth tender, and the smoky flavor mixed perfectly with the slightly sweet mustard sauce.   The creamed green beans were good but not great.  However, I enjoyed the Hoppin’ John on the side.  This southern staple has been around as long as African slaves have been in the USA, and the name is thought to have come from the possible corruption of the Haitian creole for pigeon peas or “pois pigeons” ([pwa pi jahns]).  It was a scaled back version of the richer version that southerners serve on new year’s day with green elements like kale or peppers to symbolize luck and money.  The rice was perfectly cooked with a bit of salt and pepper with plenty of black beans, and I would highly recommend mixing it with the pork.  Janice was equally satisfied with her fried chicken. IMG_8321 The breading was light and gave way to the juicy all white meat chicken below the surface.  I was more of a fan the plantation cornbread since it didn’t skimp on the butter and sugar compared to the more crumbly and savory cornbread at Husk.  While I am averse to eating any type of pasta (yes, I’m a monster), Janice gave the macaroni and cheese two thumbs up.  The collard greens were ok, but not as satisfying as the ones at Hominy Grill.  By the time we were finished, we had to get up and get moving because it was almost time to start our house tour.  Janice was going to pay the bill, but she couldn’t find her credit card.  I paid the bill instead, and we assumed it must have been left in the car.  As we walked past the house for the house tour to see one of the oldest trees on the estate, we heard someone call out, “Excuse me!”.  We turned around to see two older women walking toward us, and they asked Janice if her name was “Janice Kim”.  She replied in the affirmative, and it turned out that two different people had found her drivers license and her credit card in two different areas and turned both in to the visitors’ center.  This was a prime example of Southern hospitality and manners.  We decided to pick the cards up when we would leave, so we went to snap some pictures with the 900 year old oak tree, the same river where they blew up the British ships in the movie the Patriot, and the burned down houses.IMG_9181 IMG_9183IMG_8324IMG_9173  After successfully being insignificant next to this natural giant, we went to our house tour.  It was originally built in 1755, but is only one of the original three houses left standing.  The main house and the north flanker house were burned down by Union troops during the Civil War.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any pictures, but we were up to our necks in historical facts including the lodging being home to Henry Middleton’s son, Arthur, who signed the Declaration of Independence.  We highly recommend checking out the rich mahogany interiors if you love architecture, history, shiny things, and/or how high class society lived.  By the time we emerged from that time capsule, we had to make a decision about what we wanted to see before they closed up the Angel Oak park.  We decided to pick up the all important credit card and drivers license and check out the gift shops.  Janice was on the hunt for souvenirs while I was secretly having time anxiety and subsequent sweats. Visit http://kratomcrazy.com for help on how to fight anxiety in a natural way. She would ask me for opinions on magnets and rice while I was starting to run in place (in my head).  Janice eventually picked up my vibe, and we got to the car quickly.  We had to make the ride from northern Charleston down to John’s Island quick because we had about a hour before the park closed.  Thankfully, we made it with enough time, and on the way, Janice was seriously doubting whether or not I was ever going to propose to her.  She wasn’t joking, and neither was I.  Perfect timing to put a ring on it.  I realized I had to get the rock out of the interior pocket of my wallet, and I managed to do so as Janice rushed toward the tree with her selfie stick.IMG_9186  The Angel Oak is estimated to be over 1500 years old and what a more romantic place to pop the question?  It is one of the biggest and most sprawling trees I’ve ever seen.  We took some pictures on one side of the tree, and I was analyzing the best place to do the deed. IMG_9187 Cue the palm sweat and shifty eyes.  Janice was none the wiser as we walked under the massive branches.IMG_9188  We moved to the back side of the tree, and there wasn’t anybody around.  This was it.  My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest as I fumbled for the ring in the gauze and placed it in my hand.  She turned around and everything I had planned to say went out the window.  I said that it was a fitting place since she was my angel.  I could see she was shaking her head due to the high levels of cheesiness in the atmosphere, but then she knew something was afoot when I dropped to my knee.  I choked out my request to spend the rest of my life with her, and her response was like something out of Shakespeare:  *cue crying, some laughing* “I’m holding my selfie-stick”.  Just like in the movies!  I was still waiting on my knee with the ring in my hand as she was more worried about her contraption.  Eventually she took the ring and put it on her finger while still profusely crying with me on bended knee.  Janice finally said “yes” through the tears, and I could get out of the power lunge of the century.  It felt like we were floating on air beneath this relic of antiquity, and we even had an audience eventually who clapped for us. IMG_9191 Once we finally got a picture in front of the tree with her new ring, we proceeded to let the world know of our engagement.IMG_8337  We were then at a loss at what to do next, so I suggested that we could go for a romantic stroll along the river walk in downtown Charleston.  It was the perfect setting as new fiance and fiancee as we watched the sunset, poochies running in the park, and the Citadel cadets getting some fresh air.IMG_8333IMG_8431 All of the aforementioned events had made us quite hungry, so luckily I managed to find a romantic restaurant to celebrate known as High Cotton.

High Cotton oozed class.  IMG_8345It seemed like we stepped into a time machine to an old mansion complete with an antique bar, dark wood accents, and tropical ceiling fans.IMG_9099 IMG_9098 IMG_9097  It is a moderately dressy place, so don’t expect to fit in with your tank tops and jorts.  We were seated at a table in the main dining room, and our waiter informed us of Charleston’s restaurant week which meant there was a special menu where we were able to choose an appetizer, entree, and dessert for the low low price of $40.  Overall though, High Cotton is a restaurant that focuses on local ingredients and classic Low Country recipes.  We also told him of our very recent engagement, so he treated us to a pair of complimentary champagne flutes.  For our appetizer round, I got the fried green tomatoes napoleon which were the bread to a pimento cheese sandwich and surrounded by pickled shrimp. IMG_8340 I found it to be satisfying and surprisingly light even though it was deep fried, and the pimento cheese was like a thick, spicy cheddar with the consistency of peanut butter.  The shrimp were also pleasing even though they were pickled.  Janice’s blue crab soup was ok. IMG_9100 It was savory with a hint of sweetness that came along with the blue crab.  We moved on to our entrees with gusto.  My 8 oz. beef tenderloin with Bearnaise sauce, horseradish mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts were fit for a king.  IMG_8341Everything was phenomenal.  The mashed potatoes were creamy with just the right amount of sinus-clearing horseradish.  The Brussels sprouts were roasted and slightly burnt and crunchy but not terribly charred.  As for the meat and sauce, it was grilled to optimum juiciness which wasn’t overshadowed by the rich Bearnaise sauce.  Can’t say enough good things about this dish.  Janice’s shellfish and ravioli had a lot of fresh seafood from the nearby harbor including clams, shrimp, and crab along with peas and ravioli in a Parmesan sauce.  IMG_9101I didn’t try the ravioli, but the clams were extraordinarily good.  Our waiter said that the clams in the Low Country are actually better than oysters, but they don’t get the hype they deserve because they aren’t as sexy as their supposed aphrodisiac cousins.  Couldn’t agree more with him.  Janice thought the plate overall was ok though.  Thankfully, dessert didn’t disappoint.  I ordered the chocolate bread pudding complete with candied pecans, bourbon caramel, and vanilla ice cream.  Need I say more? IMG_8342 It was slightly warm which melted the ice cream which went along with the smoky caramel and crunchy pecans.  It infused the semi-sweet, spongy dough of the bread pudding with a heavenly taste.  Janice went with one of her favorite desserts:  the vanilla bean creme brulee with a Carolina twist with tea infused citrus segments. IMG_9102 The burnt sugar on top was a golden brown with a luscious and moderately rich cream below.   By the time we reached the final spoonful, we were not only in love with each other but with High Cotton’s fare, atmosphere, and service.  We made our way out and enjoyed a bit of the jazz quartet in the bar that was not performing when we first walked in.  However, it was a classy end to a day filled with viewing history past, making history of our own, and plans for the future.  If you’ve successfully made it to the end of this post, congrats and there are plenty more adventures to come!

Middleton Place Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
High Cotton 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

A Sumptuous RePass

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

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

This takes all spice to another level

This takes all spice to another level

IMG_5969

Tea, anyone?

Tea, anyone?

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

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

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

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

This just looks angry.

This just looks angry.

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

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

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

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

Picking Up and Eating the Tab(erna)

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

The real O.G.s

The real O.G.s

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

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

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

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

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