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What A Jerk!

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Ah Cuba.  America’s Communist boogeyman 90 miles from our doorstep, but this red stronghold soon might become the hot, new Caribbean vacation spot based on current political currents.  While they have been famous due to the US embargo, exporting great baseball players, and upstanding fictional citizens like Tony Montana, Cuban food and drink is without parallel.  Nothing like a Cubano sandwich with a cigar and a rum cocktail on the side.  What more could you ask for?  Well, at Cafecito in the South Loop area of Chicago, a full menu of Cuban sandiwiches, salads, and entrees.  While there are neither alcoholic drinks nor cigars to blow smoke in other diners’ faces, they do have Cuban cortadito coffees that are the java equivalent of speed mixed with rocket fuel.

Just don't have too much like Tony here did.

Just don’t have too much like Tony did.

I went there around noon after teaching at Roosevelt U.  IMG_4510If you do not like crowds or waiting in line, pick some other time to go. IMG_4507 Looking over the menu, I had no clue which sandwich to pick because they all looked so scrumptious.  Would I go with the Perfect Cuban sandwich in Chicago ($5.79) or the Spanish stylized “Elveez” made of sweet plantains, guava jelly, and peanut butter($4.99)?  Instead, I got the Jerk sandwich since I wanted to see their take on the traditional Jamaican spiced dish in handheld form ($6.19).  To drink, it was hot outside, so I looked at their “batidos” or milkshakes in English.  IMG_4497One selection that caught my eye was the mamey option.  I had absolutely no clue what it was, but I knew I had to try it.  After the meal, I found out through a little research that mamey is actually the natural fruit of Cuba, so it was my own way of saying “Viva la revolucion!”.  They take your name, and then you have to wait amongst the waiting throngs until they shout you out.  The waiting time flew by as I inspected the walls that were decked out with all types of accolades to Cafecito’s place in sandwich Valhalla.  IMG_4508After taking in all of the hype, my time had come to finally see if this sandwich was all that and a side of chips.  First, I took a sip of my mamey milkshake. IMG_4502There were hints of sweetness, but it really didn’t taste like anything I could definitely put my finger on.  Maybe it could be likened to  a blander version of a taro bubble tea, but it’s a huge shot in the dark.   However, the Jerk sandwich was full of flavor.IMG_4504  While I wouldn’t liken it to the bold and savory spices known to the world through Jamaican cuisine, but there was a definite red pepper undertone to give the meal a great punch with every pressed/toasted bite of the fresh Cubano baguette.  I personally thought that they heaped a bit too much lettuce on top which got in the way of the juicy, all-white chicken breast that was slathered with habanero lime mayo. IMG_4505 With the mayo, I couldn’t really taste it over the red onions, but I love mayo in any way, shape, or form. IMG_4506 Taken as a whole, it was a fresh sandwich with plenty of high quality ingredients but with the improper ratio of certain ones like red onions and lettuce.  Maybe next time, I’d try their Cuban pork sandwich.  Overall, it was a visit that was well worth the walk down from work.

So if you want to get a bit of Miami’s Cuban sandwich scene, rumba, don’t walk, on down to Cafecito!  It’s not the best sandwich in Chicago I’ve tried, but it is a unique and popular local eatery.

Cafecito on Urbanspoon

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Huge Flavors Under the Big Top

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Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.

While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself.  They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?).  The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”.  This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures.  However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA.  So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience.  While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes.IMG_3130  From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday.IMG_3131  However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents. IMG_3132

Main dining room

Main dining room

I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself.  While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant.  The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30.  Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink.  Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. IMG_3138 While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need.  A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. IMG_3137 What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. IMG_3153 It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.

Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers.  First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). IMG_3142 Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation.  The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch.IMG_3147  Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans.  The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking.IMG_3160  As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture.IMG_3159  All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice.  It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit.IMG_3158  After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). IMG_3145 Both were wonderful.  The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy.  Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12).  IMG_3140This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture.  The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast.IMG_3141 I’d highly recommend this appetizer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. IMG_3144 I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special.  While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo.IMG_3161  The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish.  After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25).IMG_3162  They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side.  After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). IMG_3163 The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”.  Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie.IMG_3164  I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor.  All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake.  If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again.  The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant.IMG_3166  Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers.  Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.

The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). IMG_3172 It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella.  Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat.  I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). IMG_3174 While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate.  Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried.  Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26).IMG_3182  There was a lot happening on one plate.  While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros.   While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak.  I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me.  Finally, there was the dessert.

While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu:  carmelized sweet plantains ($7).IMG_3171  Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity.  I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them.IMG_3168  I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment.  From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.

In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food.  If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!

Carnivale on Urbanspoon

Pork You Can Eat With A Fork

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Buenos dias a todos y bienvenidos a un nuevo capitulo de Mastication Monologues!  Alright, enough with the espanol for all you non-Spanish readers.  I was just welcoming everyone to today’s chapter which features some Caribbean treats in Delray Beach, Florida.  “Florida” is actually a Spanish name given to the peninsula by explorer Ponce de Leon.  It means “Flowery land”, and the culinary landscape of the state is filled with beautiful blooms reflecting the ethnic seeds that were sewn throughout the history of the territory.  From soul food eateries that are remnants of its history as a slave state to the many Cuban restaurants that are a more recent reflection of the politics in the region.  Today’s entry involves Zucra which is a Latin establishment that is a bit hard to find but worth the trek.

They have ample parking which is nice in comparison to most restaurants in downtown Delray Beach.  It’s a very cozy place with indoor and outdoor seating.IMG_2910  They seemed surprised that we wanted to sit outside but indulged us nevertheless.  The view isn’t much to boast about, but we did watch a guy drive a car with the emergency brake on the entire time.  We told him about it as he passed by, and he said, “I don’t care.  It’s only my friend’s car.”  Some friend he was.  Looking over the menu, we could see that they mainly specialized in Cuban cuisine that ranged from sandwiches to soups.IMG_2912 IMG_2911  My meal started off with a step into the unknown with a drink that my waiter couldn’t accurately describe aside from the name, Malta, and that it was good.  Great.  It came out with my parents’ waters, and it simply looked like a glass of Coca Cola.  IMG_2913However, the bottle said otherwise as I tried to decipher what this “Hatuey” ($2.50) truly was.  I could only describe the taste as a semi-flat soda that had hints of some type of cereal and caramel.  Upon looking at the bottle closer and on Wikipedia, it turns out that it is a non-alcoholic drink that is essentially non-fermented beer.IMG_2914  It originated in German as a “Malzbier” or “malt beer” but now is made throughout Latin America and even Africa.  My mom didn’t care for it too much when she tried it, and I agree that it’s an acquired taste that I came to love by the end of the glass.  As for the food, I got the lechon asado or grilled pork ($11.95); my mom got the ropa vieja ($10.95); and my dad got a bowl of the black bean soup ($4.95).  Our meals came out, and they all looked muy sabrosos (tasty). IMG_2915 My grilled pork was tender and succulent which I couldn’t say the same about a lot of other types of grilled pork meals I’ve had.  On the side, I loved the grilled plantains that seemed to be roasted to a crisp, but in reality, they were simply black, soft slices of banana flavored fiesta.  The arroz moros was the only weak point of my platter.  While there were plenty of black beans cooked into the rice, it was on the dry side that didn’t help the blandness that permeated through every grain.  It went down easier when mixed in with my roasted pork.  I tried a bit of my mom’s ropa vieja, literally “old clothes” but really shredded beef, which was amazing from the small forkful I pilfered.IMG_2916  Not only was it melt-in-your mouth good, but it had a spicy ole! that really took the dish to another level.  I didn’t try my dad’s black bean soup since I was stuffed by the end of the meal, but he seemed to be greatly satiated.IMG_2917

So if you want a taste of Cuba without having to rumba on down to Miami or pay a brazo and a pierna at another nearby eatery Cabana, pay a visit to Zucra.

<a href=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/12/1575333/restaurant/Miami/Zucra-Cuban-Cafe-Delray-Beach”><img alt=”Zucra Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon” src=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/b/link/1575333/biglink.gif&#8221; style=”border:none;width:200px;height:146px” /></a>

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