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Whatever Floats Your Goat (Duck Duck Goat)

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Ah Tuesday.  The most underwhelming day of the week.  It doesn’t have the anticipation of a Friday or the dread of a Monday or even the satisfaction of getting over the peak of the work week on a Wednesday.  Thankfully, I have a wonderful Mastication Monologues post about a restaurant that will have you wishing for the weekend.

Stephanie Izard is one of the highest profile female restaurateurs who has cultivated an enormous following through her various eateries in the West Loop/slowly gentrifying Fulton Market area of Chicago, including the famed Girl and the Goat which I have also written about.  Now, she has taken her legend to another level by becoming an Iron Chef as well as opening a Chinese inspired restaurant called Duck Duck Goat, a much better alternative to a goose, I think.

Izard just making noodles (PC: WGN)

It is easy to get to by public transportation or with a car, and when we walked in, it was very busy with the lunch crowd.  From the neon lights in the front window to every inch of the interior, Izard has attempted to recreate the kitschy 1950s Chinese restaurants that tried to slap as many random artifacts on the walls and used as many brightly colored wallpapers in each room.  Even though it sounds like a madhouse, it was pleasant on the eye in its tacky glory as we took a seat at the center island bar while we waited for our third diner to join us.  We decided to try some of their mixed drinks since they looked too good to pass up.  I got the Bebop and Woksteady, the bartender appreciated by Ninja Turtle knowledge on that one, and Janice got the Lucky Duck.  I won’t go into every single detail of what went into these elaborate drinks, but I greatly enjoyed my cocktail.  It was a mix of mezcal, pineapple juice, and orange juice with lime salt coating the rim.  If you’ve never had mezcal before, it is an acquired taste.  Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) word “Mexcalli” (Mesh-calee) meaning “over-cooked agave” because it comes from the same agave plant tequila is made from.  However, since it is overcooked, it has a strong smoky flavor which I think gives it a more complex flavor than tequila.  The Aztecs believed the agave plant was holy and contained the nectar of the gods, and the Bebop and Woksteady was just that.  The smokiness of the mezcal was enhanced with the lime salt yet had an understated sweetness that kept it from becoming a poor man’s chelada.  Janice’s Lucky Duck was a rum based drink that tasted like a sweet, bubbly lemonade with a low-key bitter undertone.  Eventually, Janice’s friend Joe arrived, and we were seated at the table.

Looking over the menu, they even extended the same old-school Chinese vibe to the layout and pictures.  Before we got our food, Joe and Janice went on to get the Try Try Again and the Good Health cocktails.  We quickly learned that you couldn’t go wrong with their mixed drinks since everything we had was delicious and dangerous since they tasted like candy.  However, I went off the beaten path to keep it real with the Chinese menu and got an adult bubble tea.  I got the Honey Please which was milk tea infused with honey whiskey.  While I am partial to a great bubble tea, especially of the taro variety, I wasn’t too pleased with Duck Duck Goat’s take on this Taiwanese drink mainly because they went too heavy on the whiskey and light on the tea.  Once we refilled out cups, we got down to business with the foodstuffs.  Overall, the prices were more on the pricier end compared to other dim sum/Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and Chicagoland, but we learned that the price tag was justified.  It was interesting because it wasn’t as full on American Chinese as I anticipated yet it was more like an intermediate selection of more Western friendly Chinese traditional dishes with a classic Izard twist.  Plus, all menu options were on the small to medium end and meant to be shared with your fellow diners.

Chinese food has been around since the 1800s in the United States due to a high influx of Chinese immigrants to the West coast to build the railroads.  Most of the workers came from southern regions of China, especially the town of Taisan (台山市), and brought with them food that had to be either adapted for their American customers or made as close to the real deal for their fellow Chinese immigrants without having all the necessary ingredients.  Traditional Cantonese dishes do have some similarities to the modern day orange chickens and chop suey, but most mainland Chinese view American Chinese food as foreign food that their favorite tv characters eat out of white take-out boxes.  Instead of heavily-sauced meat dishes, we started with char siu bao or pork buns.  We got the baked version (叉燒餐包) which was different from the steamed type often served at many dim sum restaurants in Chinatown.  The dough was amazing.  Soft and topped with green scallions, but the filling was kind of disappointing.  I was expecting the red, sweet minced pork in all previous char siu dishes I’ve tried, but instead it was more like shreddednpork with little seasoning.  I would still recommend trying them for the dough alone.  Next up, the extremely lightly pan-fried jiaozi ( 鍋貼).  The name behind these dumplings come from many sources.  Some believe it comes from the Chinese word for “horn” like on a bull, others the early word for “money”, or possibly the word “jiao’er” meaning “tender ears” because an ancient Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner made them for his patients who had frostbitten ears.  No matter its origin story, it was a wonderful choice.  They were filled with beef short rib and bone marrow whose saltiness was sinfully rich and filling.  I highly recommend these dumplings.  Then came the chiu chow fun gor which were shrimp dumplings that were showered  with modestly sweet peanut-soy sauce and pickled red peppers.  They were also more multi-layered in terms of flavor compared to the char siu bao or the next choice in our feast.  Following these dumplings, we got, surprise surprise, xiao long bao (小籠包) or soup buns.  These unique dumplings were invented in Shanghai but quickly spread throughout China.  The ones served at Duck Duck Goat were served in the southern Chinese style with translucent skin and filled with traditional pork, crab, and broth.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of getting to know these dumplings, do not pop them in your mouth immediately, or you will be scalded with hot soup on your tongue and elsewhere.  They were just as good as the ones I had at Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong!  They were complimented very well with a lip-smacking earthy soy sauce on the side.  Finally, we ended the dumpling part of our dinner with ham sui gok (咸水饺/咸水角) or glutinous rice goat dumplings.  These were new to me, and I typically would avoid rice cake due to my experiences in Korea.  However, the crunchy, fried exterior gave way to a chewy interior that was stuffed with seasoned goat.  I would preferred it if it was served with a hoisin or spicy sauce to make this dish really pop, but Iron Chef Izard knows what’s best.  Transitioning from more tame dumplings, we went full throttle into more traditional Chinese fare that could drive more squeamish diners away:  duck hearts.  I had previously eaten parts of a duck I never thought I would when hosted by my friend David’s family in Taipei (非常谢谢!), but this is another part that I ended up loving.  Izard nailed the dish by roasting them until they had a good char and served them halved on a puddle of mild sesame-horseradish sauce.  Given the heart is pure muscle, it almost tasted like cubes of sirloin with a slight kick from the horseradish.  Hands down my second if not top dish we had at dinner. As if we couldn’t eat any more, Janice recommended that we should try the slap noodles.  The reason why they’re called “slap” is because they are slapped on the kitchen counter to remove any excess flour as they’re stretched to perfection by hand (example here).  I personally wasn’t wowed with these thicker, somewhat crispy noodles that were canoodling with shrimp, goat sausage, bean sprouts, and a strange red vegetable we couldn’t identify.  My theory was that they were cooked tomatoes.  Joe and Janice preferred it more than I did, but I think my preference for thinner or crispier noodles may have clouded my perceptions.  Noodle-wise, I was definitely feeling the chilly chili noodles.  Perhaps I liked it because it was more Korean in nature because it had the spicy ramen-esque noodles, pickled cucumbers, and was cold like naengmyeon.  Surprisingly, we had room for dessert in the form of baonuts (see what they did there?).  These deep-fried bao were similar to the char siu bao earlier in our meal, but these were more like warm doughnuts and filled with rich, dark chocolate frosting.  They were well-executed as a Chinese version of a Western doughnut, but it was nothing super innovative.

Our experience at Duck Duck Goat was definitely memorable.  I would highly recommend a visit if you’re tired of eating the same old Panda Express and want to expand your Chinese food horizons but are not yet ready to go full throttle with some chicken feet or stinky tofu.  Just remember to come hungry and be willing to share your food with others, if possible!


Duck Duck Goat Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Diego (Day 2):  A Lambo, Gelato, and Rollin’ in Dough (Donut Bar, Nado Gelato, Village Pizza)

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Ah San Diego.  Home to the Chargers, the Padres, and their most famous mustaschioed ambassador, Ron Burgundy.  While we were visiting the city, we never got into antics like the Channel 4 news team like an anchorman street fight or having our beloved pet dog punted off the Coronado bridge, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a memorable time (I did get a new suit though for the wedding!).  47002647Our first day was fun, but Saturday was a non-stop rollercoaster that had plenty of thrills and a couple spills because we did eat and drink our fair share like any good tourists should.

If you didn’t read my first post, you can check it out here because our morning involved Janice’s friend and local fixer Amber who I introduced before.  Sadly, Ellie the schnauzer was not there to keep us company.  So, she brought us to a local breakfast favorite for both locals and tourists:  Doughnut Bar.  Now, coming from Chicago which has its fair share of fancy doughnut bakeries, I didn’t know what the big deal was about a company that specialized in creating mind-boggling sweets.  The line that stretched down the block that we soon found ourselves in spoke otherwise to my doubts.IMG_9625 IMG_9635  Amber recommended getting there the earlier the better as in like 8 am or 9 am if you want your choice of doughnuts because once the fried treats are gone, they close the entire store.   As we slowly shuffled like a horde of bleary eyed zombies toward our sugary host, something bright and shiny caught my eye.  It was just the Doughnut Bar owner’s new Lamborghini Aventor with a custom paint job. IMG_9629 I don’t know why other people weren’t as enthused as I was about this beauty of a machine just chilling on the side of the road.  It was a sign that it was going to be a great day on west coast.  Thankfully, the line moved quickly because we needed to get our sugar fix on before running off to get ready for the wedding ceremony!  I was having some second thoughts about rushing in and out after we set foot inside.  It was very modern and quirky with plenty of hilarious doughnut themed swag and artwork.IMG_9637 IMG_9640 IMG_9641  The true objets d’art were spread out in front of us like some type of heavenly bounty graced with every color and flavor of the rainbow.  According to Amber, they also switch around their menu and offer vegan options, so they know how to cater to people from all walks of life and keep them on their toes at the same time.  Janice and I didn’t know where to start because all of the doughnuts were calling our names.IMG_9643  There were chocolate ones,IMG_9644 ones made in homage to the local MLB All Star Game,IMG_9642 IMG_9646 cake batter,IMG_9647 and even one with a motherloving Pop Tart baked in the middle!IMG_9645 I didn’t want to look directly into its frosting for fear it would put the diabetic evil eye on me.  Plus, some honorable mentions among many.  IMG_9650 IMG_9649 IMG_9648We eventually made our choices, and they are not the cheapest doughnuts in the world at roughly 2-4 bucks a doughnut.  However, most of them are huge as you’ll see later in the post, and they are some of the most unique doughnuts you’ll ever taste.  Janice and I got a box of the Homer doughnut (mmmm sprinkles), a bacon infused cinnamon roll, a peanut butter cup doughnut, a Mexican hot chocolate doughnut, a Nutella doughnut, and a red velvet. IMG_9651 In addition to our to-go box, we got a French toast doughnut which was a doughnut fried and served up like regular French toast. IMG_9752 IMG_9754 This was an homage to the origin of doughnuts.  According to Wikipedia, some believe the word “doughnuts” came from the Dutch North American settlers who made oliekoek or “oil cake”, but the more compelling origin comes from a mid 19th century tale of an American boy punching holes in his fried dough because the centers were often raw.  This allowed for his dough to cook thoroughly and looked like the traditional doughnuts we eat and enjoy today.  However, the “nuts” part might have originally referenced the fried bits they poked out from the middle and have been referenced in writing as a uniquely American recipe as early as the early 1800s by none other than Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving.  We enjoyed every bite of this fried piece of Americana as we chilled upstairs surrounded by plenty of interesting paintings and wall art.IMG_9757 IMG_9660 IMG_9659 IMG_9658 IMG_9656  The French toast doughnut also came with a side of butter, honey, and syrup.IMG_9755  I just went with the syrup, but it seemed almost like gilding the lily with how delicate and light the doughnut was.  It was an excellent investment and got us amped up for the very long day ahead of us.IMG_9756  Highly recommend this option if you have the chance to snag one from the hungry masses.  As we were leaving, there was still a plethora of people lining up outside, but I managed to sit in the Lambo which fulfilled one of my lifetime dreams. IMG_9664 Could this day get any better?  Oh yeah!  We got suited and booted and went also with our friend Kathy to the church on Coronado island.

Burt Macklin on the case!

Burt Macklin on the case!

 

Much better

Much better

We made it just in time, IMG_9760and it was a great service.  Personally, I think the flower girl and ring bearer stole the show until the bride’s grandparents came out.

Awwwww

Awwwww

They were so old but in such good shape and happy.  IMG_9763Definitely restored my faith in humanity.  The ceremony went off without a hitch,

The wedding party

The wedding party

and afterward I found myself once again face to face with another beautiful automobile.IMG_9680  This time around it was a classic Rolls Royce that the bride and groom were riding off in, IMG_9681but I wouldn’t have minded if they gave Janice and me a ride just around the block.  Instead, we wished them well and needed to find something to eat before the reception.  Walking around the beautiful isthmus of Coronado, we eventually found Fire and Fly Pizzeria.  It was bright and airy inside with outdoor seating in the front and rear of the establishment.  IMG_9683They seemed to specialize in brick oven fired, Neopolitan style pizzas.  They offer both premade and make your own pizza options in addition to a few sides.  We got an order of two broccoli and tomato pizzas and one chicken pesto pizza ($9 each).  I also got a local brewed Coronado beer ($6).  They were promptly cooked and served as we made our way to the back patio to enjoy the beautiful day and engaging food. IMG_9687IMG_9686 The pizza that Janice and I shared, the broccoli and tomato sans tomato, was good but too bland for my taste.  I’m a man of fiery foods, so the mix of mozzarella, ricotta, and herb garlic olive oil was a bit too safe for my palate.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a quality pizza, but I’d get a different pizza the next time around.  I preferred the chicken pesto pizza that our friend Kathy got because it was coated with a healthy, almost excessive top layer of arugula which gave way to pieces of chicken that were intermixed with mozzarella, pesto, and roasted peppers.  As for my California Amber, I realized that I wasn’t a fan from the first sip.  IMG_9685It had a slight pine/resin aftertaste which turned me off instantly, but it seemed like a trend in California to serve mainly lighter beers like lagers and IPAs.  What does a guy got to do to get a good stout/porter?  Still, Fire and Fly was an excellent place to grab a bite to eat before the wedding reception.  We finished our lunch and walked around the isthmus toward the Del Coronado hotel and decided to get some gelato at Nado Gelato.  IMG_9695It was a non-descript cafe that we strolled into and managed to beat the local crowd from the beach.IMG_9692 IMG_9693  A clear sign we made a good decision.  After looking over their numerous, mouth-watering flavors, IMG_9691 IMG_9689Janice and I got a small cup of the giandua (chocolate hazelnut) and salted caramel.  IMG_9690 IMG_9694It was reasonably priced and extremely high quality.  After learning so much from local Chicago ice cream shop owners in another post, we could tell from the rich, nutty flavor complimented by the salt in the caramel that we found the jewel in the crown of Coronado’s dessert scene.  Highly recommend this tiny spot if you’re looking for something sweet to cool you off.  Eventually, we reached the historical Hotel Del Coronado.  It was originally built in 1888 and didn’t look a year over 100.IMG_9765  Seriously though, it was a reception location that was without equal that I’ve been to in a wedding and hotels I’ve stayed in for my entire life.  We walked through the dark wood lobby under antique crystal chandeliers and past the wrought iron elevator up to the penthouse suite for pre-cocktail hour drinks.  Long story short, the views were terrible, and it was a mainly forgettable time.  If the written word doesn’t convey my sarcasm, I’ll let the view do the talking.

Life is hard

Life is hard

Before we made our way to the cocktail hour, we managed to witness a special part of Sabrina and Thompson’s wedding:  the Chinese tea ceremony.  I thought it was going to be a traditional Chinese ceremony to compliment the Catholic ceremony before, but it was more of a symbolic uniting of families through Sabrina and Thompson serving tea to the new members of their expanded familial network.IMG_9703  In return, they received lucky red envelopes containing many monies I assumed.  However, the real show stopper were the gifts for the bride and groom.  Thompson got a spiffy new watch, but Sabrina managed to wear half of Fort Knox’s gold in the form of two giant bracelets and a gold chest plate.  IMG_9768Once the ceremony concluded, we made our way through the hotel like some sort of entourage.  Jokingly, the girls said I looked like a secret service agent escorting some gold covered celebrity and her squad through to the afterparty.  Little did they know, I was trained by Burt Macklin from Parks and Recreation. 48164ac277ed50a145d31d4620cc4caf Luckily, we made it safely to to the very bright back lawn that was right next to the Pacific Ocean.  IMG_9704No big deal.  The setting was picturesque, the drinks were flowing, and the seagulls were out for burgers, mini-sliders to be exact.  They swooped down on us to steal food, but luckily we were looking stylish and freaked out in our sweet sunglasses party favors. IMG_9713 Their family dog, Bebe, however, was non-plussed looking so stylish in a bowtie. IMG_9705 Eventually, the clock struck the reception hour, and we were led to the back ballroom that was enormous and overlooking the same rear lawn where we were enjoying some classic wild animal attacks.  I won’t get bogged down in every minute detail of the reception in this post because it’s long enough.  In a nutshell, minus the odd band music, we made some new friends and got down with old ones even when the dancefloor was dead sometimes. IMG_9726 IMG_9717IMG_9720The food was par excellence (a dessert bar and a macaroni bar? yeah, that happened), and our one bartender we always went to made sure that everyone was having a great time.  By the time the band’s encore finished, Janice and I made our way past our fellow partygoers outside the hotel entrance who, like us, needed a comfortable bed.  However, our night didn’t end there.  Back at the Air BnB we tried some of the doughnuts from the first part of the post.  I loved the Homer doughnut because it was simple, iconic, and fitting for someone with a big appetite like me.  IMG_9771The Mexican hot chocolate one wasn’t that memorable even with the toasted marshmallows, but the Nutella doughnut was delectable as well as the red velvet one.  By that time, our friend Kathy had made it back as well, and we passed out after an incredibly long day with heads filled with memories and bellies stuffed with amazing eats.

Donut Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fire + Fly Artisan Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nado Gelato/Botega Italiana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Number One Sun, Wah You So Good?

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In the beginning, there was meat.  Meat, meet fire.  Fire + meat = a dawn of a new culinary era.  Fast forward from the caveman days to today, and this elemental fixture of meat roasting over a fire drives our entire food industry.  It has been elaborated upon by different cultures and chefs to the delight of generations of eaters around the world.  Today’s entry focuses on a restaurant whose entire existence revolves around not only the glorification of roasted meat but the ceremony of serving said meat.  If you’ve new to Hong Kong style barbecue, then I highly recommend visiting Sun Wah BBQ located in the Little Vietnam/Edgewater neighborhood on the North side of Chicago.

While there are plenty of top quality Vietnamese restaurants surrounding Sun Wah, this is the number one place to go for Hong Kong barbecue in the area. IMG_4700 I haven’t tried any places similar to Sun Wah in Chinatown, but I’m sure they’re out there.  However, I have tried actual Hong Kong barbecue while in Hong Kong along with some other more serpentine delights.  While Sun Wah doesn’t get as crazy as they do back in the homeland, they do offer plenty of quality plates to choose from.  Their crown jewel is their Peking duck service where you can get a full meal for $40.  Note:  Remember to call ahead to order it when making a reservation since they can run out of ducks!  After I tried Peking duck in its home city, Beijing, I can say that Sun Wah’s quality is the same as in China with a couple small differences that I’ll address later.  Now, I’ve been throwing around the word “barbecue” left and right in this article, but let’s not get American and Hong Kong barbecue conflated.  While American barbecue focuses on using savory/spicy sauces and different types of wood to smoke the meat, HK barbecue utilizes sweet and aromatic glazes to be rubbed on the meat before being placed on a fork and roasted over a fire.  Any way you slice it, I love them both!  Anyway, back to the meal.  Janice, I, and her whole family went there for her mom’s birthday.  It was very large and busy inside, and we could inspect the hanging ducks in the front window while we waited for our table to be ready. IMG_4681 IMG_4682 Once seated, we went ahead and ordered some starters like pan fried soft shell crab, butterfly shrimp, and stir fried Shanghai bok choi.  While I’m not a huge seafood fan, I enjoyed the soft shell crab. IMG_4684 It was crunchy yet soft on the inside, and the breading was light and buttery.  Just goes to show that deep-frying things improves food every time.  The butterfly shrimp were really decadent yet so so good.  IMG_4685Not only were they fried but wrapped with bacon.  *Cue the heavens opening*.  As for the bok choi, it was good but not great. IMG_4686 True, it wasn’t fried, but you can only do so much with greens.  Eventually, the pièce de résistance came out:  the Peking duck. IMG_4690 The preparation hasn’t changed much since 500 A.D., but as the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  With this meal, I wouldn’t change a thing.  First, they wheeled the roast duck to the side of our table to slice it in front of our eyes.IMG_4691  This was very different from my experience in Beijing.  Instead of being in a deserted open air courtyard in a small hutong, it was brightly lit and surrounded by friendly faces.  The duck in Beijing had the neck and head still attached while the Sun Wah duck had it chopped it off before it even came to our table.  Another key difference was the serving style.  While in Beijing, they brought each plate out with each component of the duck:  skin (the most coveted part of the meal) first, then a bit of meat, and then a connected meat and skin combo with a bisected roasted duck head that I ate.  At Sun Wah, time is money, so they just heaped it all on one plate even with drumsticks. IMG_4694 They then gave us warm and squishy bread buns, julienned carrots and onions, hoisin sauce, and fried rice on the side. IMG_4693 Beijing differed in the fact that they didn’t have carrots, but instead had onions, cucumber, and a thick sweet bean/hoisin sauce.  Also, instead of sliced buns, the Beijing Peking duck was eaten with steamed pancakes that were like rice tortillas.  Plus, they also gave me horseradish and sugar on the side that they didn’t at Sun Wah.  Even though Sun Wah was slightly different, it didn’t mean that it was inferior in any aspect.  When all of the aforementioned ingredients were combined in one of the fresh and fluffy buns, it was amazing!IMG_4698  From the crunchy sweet skin to the tender duck and fresh vegetables jazzed up with the sweet soy notes, it was a parade of flavors and textures that resulted in culinary perfection.  Finally, they took the remaining bones and residual meat into the back to make a thin but rich duck broth filled with crunchy winter melon.IMG_4695IMG_4696  It was a warming end to a sumptuous dinner, and a wonderful way to celebrate with Janice’s family.  Plus, for a dinner for five, it was less than 100 bucks!  Not a bad bill for the duck (pun totally intended).

So if you want to get some of the best Peking duck in Chicago or perhaps the country, visit Sun Wah BBQ!

Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Furama Is Fureal

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Welcome one and all to another spectacular edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today finds me absolutely freezing my toes off, but that hasn’t changed much from the previous week or so since the weather has been less than tropical.  January in Chicago, go figure.  However, today’s post will put you in a sunny mood if you are craving Dim Sum right now or ever for that matter.  I mean, can’t go wrong with Chinese tapas!  Variety is the spice of life.  If you have been to Chinatown in Chicago, you’ll find that their dim sum menus are often reserved for dinners starting roughly after 5 pm.  However, at Furama in the Edgewater/Little Vietnam neighborhood, you can overdose on the little plates of goodness from 9:30 am to 8 pm!!!  The prices for each choice range from $3 for extra small plates to $7 for extra large plates.

The exterior doesn’t look like it has changed in 50 years, and I was alright with that. IMG_4705 Inside, we had to climb stairs, similar to Three Happiness in Chinatown, to the main dining room. IMG_4702 It was spacious and somewhat filled with people on a Sunday morning.IMG_4706  There was a stage in the front of the dining room which raised my hopes for some live entertainment, but sadly no one came out to bust a move or serenade us.  No matter, the food was plenty of fun by itself.  First, there are an army of servers zooming around with carts like some sort of culinary chariot race calling out what they have to offer in both Chinese and English. IMG_4707 We could mark down what we wanted on a card, and they could get it for us, or we could just pick something off their cart.  We opted for the latter, and the first thing we picked was the 猪肠粉 or rice noodle roll ($3.50).  I must warn you that if you do not have excellent chopstick skills, this slippery mass will be extremely difficult to eat.IMG_4708  After living for a year in South Korea, I thought I was the Mr. Miyagi of eating with chopsticks, but these noodles were so hard to pick up.  The shrimp inside were cooked perfectly, but the slippery and savory soy drenched noodles had to come later when I used Mr. Fork to be less than cultured.  Next, we got an order of the pork chow mein noodles ($9.25).  IMG_4709They were crispy but a bit too greasy for my liking.  In the background you can also see the pan fried shrimp and chive dumplings/韭菜虾饺 ($3.75).  Those were great since the crispy rice skin gave way to chunks of shrimp and plenty of verdant onions.  The 蒸餃 spinach and shrimp dumplings were really eye-catching.IMG_4710  I had never seen a spinach-infused dough used before in dim sum, so we helped ourselves to a plate ($3.75).  The spinach in the chewy dough didn’t make much of a difference, but the greens and shrimp found on the inside were very lightly seasoned which left the earthy veggie tones come through and blend nicely with the shrimp. IMG_4712 Our next stop on our dim sum adventure was my call when I heard them shout “叉燒!” or “Char siu!” ($5.60).  I may not know a lot of Cantonese/Mandarin, but I know that this pork option is off the hook or more like off the fork since more like it since char siu literally means “fork-roast”.  What makes it so great?  Well, consider this the ancient form of barbecue where they use a molasses-based rub that creates a sweet crust on the pork skin and permeates throughout the meat.  IMG_4711It is then treated with some red food coloring to make it really stand out along with a bath of spices and wine on certain occasions.  When all of these ingredients come together, you get a plate of pork chunks that are both savory yet sweet that no Western pit boss could get close to.  We then stepped it up to get 叉烧包烤 or baked cha siu bao which are Cantonese baked pork buns.IMG_4713  I had tried the 蒸 (steamed) bao in Hong Kong, and I think I prefer them over the baked version.  Still, these buns were delicious.  Their shiny exteriors concealed a moderate pocket of the aforementioned sweet meat, but I feel like they skimped on the meat and focused more on the bread.IMG_4715  After we had our fill of savory treats, we hit up the dessert cart.  We got 煎堆 (Jin deui) or sesame buns ($3.50), sweet rice pastry ($3.50), and  蛋挞 egg custard tarts ($3.50). IMG_4716 I had the sesame buns before, and it’s probably the only time I’ll willingly eat red beans in Asian cuisine (click here to see my reaction to red bean in Korea). IMG_4714 I think it’s because it’s surrounded by sweet, super chewy mochi (rice dough) and drowned out by savory sesame seeds.   I really was a fan of the sweet rice pastries which utilized the same rice dough in the shrimp rolls we got to start this entire meal.  Instead of floating in soy sauce, they were coated with coconut and filled with chopped peanuts and sweet syrup. IMG_4718 Talk about decadent yet not really.  It was a Taoist dessert with a mix of sweet yin to the subtly savory yang.  Finally, there were the egg tarts that were competently made but nothing like what I tried in Macau or Lisbon where they are originally from.  These tarts made their way into Cantonese cuisine in the 1940s via the Portuguese colony of Macau, and now they are served in dim sum halls from San Francisco to NYC.  By the end, we were stuffed like the dumplings we just destroyed yet in a Buddha state of bliss.IMG_4719

So if you want some delicious dim sum that you can get any day of the week at reasonable prices, definitely make the trip up to Furama!
Furama on Urbanspoon

Costa Rica (Day 4)- Willy Wonka In the Jungle and Dining In a Drug Port

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It is almost the new year, and that means that I got to squeeze in these last few Costa Rica posts before starting anew in 2015 (fingers crossed).  What does the future hold for Mastication Monologues?  The sky is the limit I think if I keep up the great material, and all you readers out there keep on enjoying my posts.  Plus, I just got picked up to write for Localeur, named by Forbes as one of the top travel apps of 2015, so things are already turning up Milhouse.  More to come on that.  Anyway, today’s entry is going to be quite the sweet treat that began over breakfast back in San Jose.  If you want to read from the beginning of our vacation, click here.

Day 4 in Costa Rica started with a fresh breakfast of delicious mangos that were served up in an exquisite manner by Janice. IMG_5202 We had bought them a day earlier at a roadside fruit stand that went beyond apples and oranges.  After taking a bite, I became ravenous and destroyed the rest of the super sweet and satisfying pulp.  Having all of this fresh fruit around was yet another reason we came to love Costa Rica.  We met up with our group and proceeded northeast from San Jose toward Braulio Carillo National Park.  Before we got there, we had a rest stop at a roadside restaurant and gas station.  We were still hungry after our mango breakfast, so Janice and I got empanadas to go.  It was the perfect mini meal.  They were fried and greasy which I loved, and they were stuffed with a ton of ingredients. IMG_5206 Janice’s had a lot of smooth but not very bold cheese, but mine was a whole lot better.  IMG_5208It was filled with gallo pinto which we first had on day two before our Pacific cruise and chicharrones or fried pork skins. IMG_5209 It was best breakfast for on-the-go Ticos (“Costa Ricans” in the local dialect) which combined semi-savory rice, hearty beans, and crunchy yet chewy pieces of pork.  When we finally arrived at the national park, we started on the trail toward the chocolate presentation the forest rangers had prepared for us.  At one point in time, we passed over a huge river while being hooted at by a family of howler monkeys.  The jungle was getting more and more humid as the drizzle came down around us like a wet blanket. We eventually reached the theobroma, the variety of chocolate grown there (“food of the gods” in Greek), trail that led to the presentation pavilion.IMG_4072IMG_4080  Being a chocolate lover, I was greatly intrigued being in the heartland of where one of my favorite types of candy originated.  We started with an introduction to the cacao pods that grow in the jungle, and the white seeds that can be found in the fruits. IMG_4125IMG_4081 Our guide gave out free seed samples to eat, and the key was to suck on them until the white pulp melted away.IMG_4083IMG_4085  It tasted like lychees actually, but then the seeds were needed for the next step in the chocolate making process.  IMG_4086We learned that the early Mesoamericans ate and spit out these seeds throughout Latin America while migrating since it gave them energy for the long hikes.  These migrations combined with seed spitting led to the spread of cacao plants both north and south of Costa Rica.  After handing our slobber-coated seeds back to our guide, he showed us the second step in chocolate production:  fermentation.IMG_4088  These seeds are placed in a large box with micro-organisms that eventually results in a completely pure bean consisting of cacao solids and cocoa butter. IMG_4090 We could taste the beans, and it could be likened to a 80% cacao dark chocolate bar.IMG_4097IMG_4098IMG_4094  The next step in the process took a turn for the historical.  The presenters took out a large volcanic stone basin known as a metate and a super hot stone called a metlapil, both Nahuatl words for the Mayan tools used in chocolate grinding.  As one of the guides got down to business, he offered us the chance to try our hands at making coarse cocoa powder.  I went first, and I couldn’t believe how stoic the guide was when he was using the metlapil.  I could only hold it for two seconds at a time tops it was so hot.  Janice tried it too, but she was smart and used her long sleeps as oven mitts. IMG_4101IMG_4102 After a couple more minutes of playing Mayan hot potato, a semi-fine cocoa powder resided in the metate.  However, our main guide informed us that when Spanish nuns arrived after the Conquistadores, they realized they could make this bitter Mayan treat a lot more palatable for Spanish tastes by adding sugar and cinnamon to the mix.  IMG_4105We also got a chance to try a European grinder that was a lot more labor intensive, but you weren’t burning your fingerprints off in the process.IMG_4107IMG_4109  Once finished, we took the very fine powder and mixed it with hot water to make one of the most sacred drinks of the Maya. IMG_4113 It was only served to the upper classes, priests, and kings.  The Mayan chocolate drink was then made to be frothy by pouring it back and forth between cups to get the ideal espuma or foam on top.  You can see a Mayan illustration of the process behind our guide in the picture below.  IMG_4116 However, the Spaniards disliked this drink, known in Nahuatl as cacagua, because it was bitter and literally means “poo water” in Spanish (caca + agua), and probably tasted like it to them before the addition of sugar and cinnamon.  We also saw how the Spaniards made the drink frothy by using what looked like a 16th Century egg beater. IMG_4117 Then, in true Maya fashion, we were allowed to put in some classic additives the chocolate producers would introduce to their varieties to make them more popular.  In this instance we had corn starch, ground pepper, chile, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Right to left:  corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Right to left: corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Too bad they didn’t allow us to mix in some tobacco and smoke it as the Maya once did.  Instead of scorching my lungs, I went for a literal hot chocolate with a lot of chile, some ground pepper, a dash of vanilla extract, and some corn starch to thicken the drink.  It was plenty spicy, but I didn’t note any thickening of the watery mixture. IMG_4123 The chocolate was sublime as we sipped to the sound of the gently falling rain and the rustling of agoutis in the underbrush and calls of exotic birds in the distance.  After that, we heard that the chocolate powder to make chocolate bars is first pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cacao solids.  This is where our guide dropped a huge bomb on us:  white chocolate is not chocolate!!  What it actually is is a bar of cocoa butter, sugar, and condensed milk.  Basically it’s eating a bar of fat with no chocolate involved.  After pressing, the cacao solids are then melted in a kiln and the result is liquid deliciousness.IMG_4124  We got to eat spoonfuls of the milk chocolate goop along with two fresh chocolate shapes. IMG_4126IMG_4129 IMG_4130 To end the demonstration, we got a bag of cocoa beans that we could cook at home or exchange for post cards.  IMG_4131Like Gollum, I kept my precious to eat at home.  On our walk back through the forest we saw real cocoa pods on the trees that were infected with a fungus that shut down the chocolate plantation that used to be in that very same jungle.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

This fungus devastated the chocolate industry in Costa Rica, and that’s why the biggest chocolate producers are in West Africa now.  We went back to the entrance for lunch which was another buffet with rice and beans, but there were also three new items on the menu:  heart of palm, fried yuca, and chayote. IMG_4135 The heart of palm is a vegetable that literally comes from within certain palm trees, and I could liken it to a non-offensive artichoke.  The fried yuca literally tasted like deep fried potato slices, and the chayote tasted like squash.

Heart of palm and chayote

Heart of palm and chayote

For dessert, there was flan that was not too runny that I really enjoyed especially with the drizzle of super sweet caramel on top.IMG_4139  Once we finished our tour in the national park, our bus driver took us back to the roadside restaurant and gas station where we got our empanadas in the morning.  Janice and I broke off from the group with our new driver, Rigoberto, to go to the Caribbean coast since we were going to see the Sloth Sanctuary the next day.  After a long drive and night had fallen, our cordial driver stopped in the port city of Limón.  Our condo owner, Mark, warned us of drug trafficking and violence in the town, and it fit the bill.  Large groups of shady guys hanging out on street corners.  Prostitutes chilling outside truck depots.  Kids lighting off firecrackers in huge groups of people that could have been mistaken for gunshots.  Rigoberto, a native Costa Rican, looked super wary as we parked the car outside a typical Costa Rican greasy spoon diner or a “soda” in Costa Rican Spanish called Happy Landing.  He made sure we left nothing in the car, and looking at our surroundings I could see why when he said many people don’t like to come to this area.  We walked in, and the place could have used new lights and a new coat of paint.  IMG_5221 IMG_5220We looked at the menu, and it was all Chinese food!  Classic Costa Rican cuisine haha.  I decided to get the chow mein, and Janice just got fried chicken.  While we were waiting, Rigoberto got randomly pulled into a convo with a guy who had at least ten empty beer bottles in front of him on the table (see pic above; drunky is in plaid).  Eventually, my food came out, and it was the most ridiculous Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten some interesting things in China. IMG_5223 IMG_5224 They fried the noodles, and put them on the side like a bread basket or something like that.  The ingredients were all mushed together and not very flavorful.  Janice’s fried chicken came out way later than my plate or Rigoberto’s for some reason, but this diner was not worth stopping for.  We safely made our way out of the drug port and deeper into the dark jungle to find our hotel.  Rigoberto hadn’t been to the coast since 1986, so he was as lost as we were.  Google Maps to the rescue!  We eventually had to traverse a dirt and gravel path in the jungle to get to our destination, Kenaki Lodge, that was across from the beach.  The gates opened, and we were greeted by a French woman and her poochy parade.IMG_5228  We quickly became friends with them, including my best bud the Great Dane. IMG_5227 It was a long day of adventures and food sampling that left us looking forward to the day to come as we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach.

Happy Is the Stomach That Wears the Crown

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Well, the summer is just rolling by, and the weather is getting as wild as some of the food adventures on which I’m embarking.  Today’s post is another addition to my already extensive Far East collection of restaurant reviews, but it serves up some new dishes that I’ve never tried before.  While I’ve experienced some dim sum that has been out of this world, I’m always up for trying novel places like Triple Crown in Chicago’s Old Chinatown.

I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews about this location from my friends who are of Chinese/Taiwanese ancestry since some have said that they’ve sold out to Western tastes while others have conjectured that they still keep it old school with some of their menu selections.  Adventure time!  I went there with my girlfriend since we had a craving for dim sum, and luckily, they indulged us in the afternoon when other diners only serve the Chinese version of tapas at night. IMG_3682 After scaling the stairs, we were greeted with a spacious dining hall that was sparsely populated, but I’m sure come dinner time it would be packed.IMG_3681  It was tastefully decorated but unusually warm as if the air conditioning didn’t work, clearly an air conditioning repair is in order.  It didn’t help they gave us hot tea to drink upon sitting down.  While living in Korea, I learned the best method for allegedly cooling down is to consume hot food and drinks in order to make it not seem as sweltering outside…it doesn’t work for me, but who knows?  So we looked over the dim sum menu, and it was quite minuscule compared to the selection at other competitors.  Triple Crown’s normal entree menu is quite encyclopedic though ranging from fried rice and orange chicken to more old-school dishes like tripe and duck tongues.  We saved those options for another day though.  After picking a smattering of dim sum plates, we waited for about 20 minutes for the first wave to emerge.   We were greeted by three steamed char siu barbecue pork buns and three scallion and shrimp cakes.  I started with the bbq pork buns since I love pork and savory sauces.IMG_3683  The chewy, white exterior gave way to a blood red interior that immediately gave me a minor case of the meat sweats.  The pork was tender and slathered in a semi-sweet yet tangy sauce. IMG_3685 I still think they could have been better with a meat to bread ratio that leaned toward the former rather than the latter, but I did enjoy them from the first to the last gooey bite.  As for the shrimp and scallion cakes, they were much more interesting since the delicate, translucent covering gave way to a plethora of verdant onions that provided a real pep to the chunks of plain shrimp. IMG_3684IMG_3686 I like my shrimp, but the scallions were the only saving grace of this dim sum choice since the shellfish weren’t even seasoned.  While we were gobbling down the first wave, the second installment invaded our table with a trio of fried sesame balls and a quartet of siu mai/shumai dumplings.  I’ll start with the latter first since they have an interesting background.  While many scholars contend that these uniquely shaped dumplings originated in Inner Mongolia, they quickly became associated with Cantonese cuisine in the West due to this population’s mass diaspora throughout Europe and America.  In Chinese, “shumai” literally means “to buy and sell”, and while we did buy them, I wasn’t completely sold on them. IMG_3688 The outer dough was chartreuse, but didn’t bring much to the table (pun intended) in terms of flavor.  On the other hand, the interior was adequately prepared.  It seemed to be a mix of pork seasoned with soy sauce and ginger that reminded me of a Swedish meatball sans sauce.  Nothing really mind blowing though even with the generous helping of orange fish roe atop the meat like an ill-fitting ginger toupee.  Our meal took a turn for the better with the fried sesame buns.  IMG_3687While they did contain a hefty helping of one of my few bugbears in Far Eastern cooking, sweet red bean paste, I loved the copious amounts of savory sesame seeds that jived all meal long with the crunch exterior encasing a chewy rice cake interior.  I hated eating plain rice cake or “tteok” in Korea, but the Chinese managed to find a way to make it much more palatable.  I’d highly recommend these if you’re looking for a dim sum plate that has great textural and taste variety.  As we were working on this penultimate round of dishes, the piece de resistance emerged:  the chicken feet.  While they’re more commonly known as “phoenix talons” in Chinese, these chicken feet are another one of my must-have’s when going out for dim sum.  While most people, including my girlfriend, are disgusted at the sight of me chomping on the chickens’ tootsies, they’re truly missing out a delicious delicacy. IMG_3689 The feet are boiled, deep fried, and then seasoned with a black bean sauce that is sweet with a hint of spice.

Getting cold feet.  Hiyo!

Getting cold feet. Hiyo!

I’m not going to say that it’s for everyone since there are a lot of bones and cartilage to deal with and not a ton of meat, but what meat there is, it’s mind blowingly tender along with the slightly crispy skin.  IMG_3762It’s a mind over matter sort of choice, but you’d be crazy not to try it.

By the end of the meal, we were stuffed and paid only 20 bucks total for two people for a ton of good food.  While I’ve been spoiled by dim sum restaurants overseas or other local establishments with bigger menus, I’d still recommend Triple Crown if you’re looking for a new Chinatown eatery or even want to try dim sum for the first time.

Triple Crown Restaurant on Urbanspoon

MSG’s Alright With Me

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Hey everybody, and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Many great events have been happening as of late including my blog now being featured on the acclaimed food blogging website TheBesty.  You can find the article here, and they will be featuring some of my restaurants in a few upcoming YouTube videos.  So stay tuned!  Self promotion aside, today I’d like to tell you all about Oriental Taste, a simple but yummy eatery located at 106 63rd St, Willowbrook, IL 60527  that has quickly become my family’s go-to Chinese restaurant when we crave some Asian cuisine.

While this place may not be as famous as some of the other Chinese establishments I’ve visited both in the States and abroad in China and Taiwan, it still manages to do serve some quality Cantonese-inspired American Chinese food at a great price.  It’s quite simply furnished both inside and outside,ls but this is a case of not judging a book by its cover as their menu will both intrigue and excite you.ls (1)  They have everything from classic egg rolls and potstickers to many different varieties of fried rice and noodles dishes.  If you’re feeling adventurous, they also have Cantonese specialties that are closer to some of the dishes I saw while vacationing in Hong Kong.  In all the years my family has been going there, it seems like we’re always the only non-Asian people who actually sit down in the restaurant to eat, but overall, it seems their carry-out business is the real money maker.  We’ve never tried their carry-out services, so I can’t offer my own opinion on the overall efficiency of this part of the business.  Anyway, for this dinner, I decided to get a plate of bbq pork chow mein, and my mom ordered the ever-popular kung pao chicken.  After a good while of looking at the various duck carcasses and pieces of meat in the display case next to the register, our entrees came out with a side of white rice and a full pot of tea.  I focused mainly on my wonderfully arranged plate that was overflowing with noodles. IMG_2752 I took three forkfuls of the noodle nest along with the morsels nestled in its golden tangles.  Each mouthful was a who’s who of textures and flavors as the noodles were prepared in the crispy, Hong Kong style, and the barbecued pork strips were succulent but not greasy, thankfully.  I’m also partial to bean sprouts, so this dish was perfect for me.  These translucent, crispy tubes were paired perfectly with the crunchy green onions that popped up every so often to pep up the meal.  IMG_2753The kung pao chicken was quite scrumptious as the juicy pieces of chicken were pure white meat, and the soy based sauce covering every inch of the plate provided a spicy zing to each mouthful.  I liked the peanuts that were added to supply a crunchtacular counterpoint to the chewier chicken and firm onion and pepper elements of the meal.

So if you’re looking for quality American Chinese fare without the bells and whistles of other chains or upscale restaurants, check out Oriental Taste in Willowbrook, IL.  It’s a hidden gem that won’t be under wraps for long.

 
Oriental Taste on Urbanspoon

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