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

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

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

Our taste buds are ready

Our taste buds are ready

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

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

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.

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