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Once You Go Black, You Don’t Go Back

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December in Chicago.  Perfect time for some ice cream, right? Absolutely!  Especially when the creamery in question is as creative as Black Dog Gelato.  A few months ago I went to this establishment with my lovely girlfriend after a long day of listening and sampling some delicious treats as a lucky participant in the Taste Talks Convention in Chicago.  It was the perfect compliment to the savory tour de force that is Green Street Smoked Meats.

As I previously mentioned, we managed to score tickets to Taste Talks, and one of the meetings we went to was all about the future of ice cream.  Who was there?  Jenny Oloroso, the owner and founder of Black Dog Gelato.  We learned so much from her like how much care, creativity, and gastronomic chemistry goes into creating quality gelato from scratch.  What this means for the consumer is they get to enjoy a light but ultra-rich product that is churned out in limited size batches each day which is how Black Dog Gelato is operated.  Once they run out of a flavor, tough luck!  However, with flavors such as white chocolate banana curry, cucumber rosewater sorbet, and sesame fig chocolate chip, get in quick to get the pick of the litter. IMG_4433 When we arrived, it wasn’t too hopping in the middle of the cold and rainy afternoon. IMG_4431 The warm interior beckoned us to peruse the selection in front of us in the glass case and pick some winners.  IMG_4430Janice got a cup of goat cheese cashew caramel and butterscotch bourbon pecan while I got a cup of Mexican hot chocolate and maple cayenne bacon ($4.50 approximately each).

Left:  goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan Right:  Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

Left: goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan
Right: Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

All of it tasted like a million bucks though.  The goat cheese cashew caramel was an interesting blend that was quite enjoyable even though one would think that the strong flavor profile of the goat cheese would overwhelm the other elements.  On the contrary, it was tempered by the sweet caramel and salty cashews to form the perfect blend of savory and sweet.  As for the butterscotch bourbon pecan, it was a lot less crazy than the first entry since it tasted like a more decadent butter pecan with a slightly boozy kick with each spoonful.  Janice loves her bourbon, so she was in heaven.  I was satisfied with it as well.  Then there were my crazy gelati.  The Mexican hot chocolate was your typical chocolate ice cream; a chocolate ice cream that also happened to be full of chili pepper.  It was exactly what I wanted.  This homage to its Aztec forefathers was both sweet with a slightly spicy kick that slowly but surely engulfed my tongue with a smoldering, but not overwhelming, kiss.  As for the maple cayenne bacon gelato, it wasn’t as good as the ones Janice picked or the Mexican hot chocolate.  True, I could taste each individual ingredient like the sweet maple syrup or the fiery cayenne, whose sibling I had already visited in the hot chocolate, but the bacon proved to be this selection’s undoing.  I’ve always loved bacon (tooting my meat product hipster horn) before the entire bacon craze hit the nation, but this gelato was an example of the fine line between madness and genius leaning towards the former.  The bacon was hogging the spotlight and left a greasy residue in my mouth.  Not a good look.  This didn’t sour my experience overall though.

Overall, I’d recommend Black Dog Gelato due to its high quality gelato and creative cornucopia of flavors for a reasonable price.

Black Dog Gelato on Urbanspoon

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OpenTable: A Land of Delicious Opportunities

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Chicago. The Windy City. The City of Broad Shoulders. Whatever you’d like to call it, I just call it home. It is a city known for its skyline, architecture, and especially the food. The dining culture in Chicago is unique due to a variety of factors, but I plan on highlighting the cultural diversity that contributes greatly to the food scene throughout our great metropolis. Although there are numerous communities scattered throughout Chicago, I only have room for five ethnic groups, so get ready for some great Italian, Polish, Chinese, German, and Mexican dishes.  You can find most of them online on OpenTable’s Chicago restaurants  page where you can then make reservations to enjoy all the great meals they have to offer.

1.  Al’s Beef

IMG 3211 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelWhen most people think of Italian food, they think of pasta or pizza, but how about beef? Italian beef is a Chicago invention that originated in the Little Italy neighborhood on the Near West Side on Taylor Street. Like many great dishes, it was born out of necessity in hard times. During the Great Depression, Italian families had to make the most out of the cheap cuts of beef they were able to afford. Therefore, they first soaked it in spiced broth to soften up the tough pieces of meat, and then they cut it into razor thin pieces to be eaten on a roll. Thus the Italian beef sandwich was born.

Today, there are many Italian beef sandwiches throughout Chicago and the Chicagoland area, but Al’s Beef on Taylor Street is the original sandwich stand starting all the way back in 1938. It has been featured on the Today show, Man Vs. Food, the History Channel, and even Good Morning America as one of the best sandwiches and restaurants in America. Al’s Beef may have a big reputation, but it is an extremely simple establishment. It’s a modestly sized building with a small parking lot alongside it. Upon walking in, you’ll be greeted with a simple menu that includes not only Italian beef sandwiches but also other Chicago specialties like Chicago Polish sausage, Chicago style hot dogs, and Italian sausage. I always go for the Italian beef sandwich since that is Al’s specialty, and it’s prepared the same way they did back in 1938.

You can order it depending on what kind of toppings you like: plain, sweet (grilled mild green peppers), hot (giardiniera or pickled vegetables), or cheese for an extra charge. Once you’ve picked your topping, then you have the option of how much of the seasoned beef broth you’d like on your sandwich. It ranges from dry (obviously with none) to wet (a little bit on top of the sandwich) to dipped (the authentic Chicago experience with the whole sandwich dipped in the broth). Once you have your sandwich, you can either order a soda or water to drink. Not much selection here, folks.

When it comes to actually consuming the meal, Al’s Beef is interesting in the sense that there are no traditional tables to sit at. Instead, there are only chest high counters that go around the inside of the establishment. Therefore, you must master the Italian stance. What this consists of is putting your forearms on the edge of the counter and moving your feet back about two feet. This provides stability and avoids getting any of the sandwich on your clothes. If you have room, I’d recommend walking across Taylor Street to Mario’s Italian Lemonade for dessert to taste another relic of Italian American pride in Chicago. So, if you want a one of a kind piece of Chicago Italian culture for a great price, check out Al’s Beef.

 1079 W Taylor St, Chicago, Illinois
(312)226-4017
http://www.alsbeef.com/ 
 
2. Podhalanka

IMG 3789 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelI stumbled upon an intriguing infographic that showed the top language, excluding English and Spanish, in all 50 states in the United States. Illinois’ third biggest language and ethnic group is people of Polish descent. At one time, there were more Polish people in Chicago than the Polish capital of Warsaw. While this is no longer true, Polish cuisine and culture is extremely strong throughout the city. I am one of the millions of people of Polish descent in Chicago, so I only felt it necessary to highlight a restaurant representing this community.

While there are tons of Polish restaurants I’ve tried around my grandparents’ neighborhood surrounding Midway Airport, I’d like to tell you more about a hidden gem on the North Side called Podhalanka. It is located in the Polonia Triangle, considered the oldest and most prominent of Chicago’s Polish enclaves. Therefore, Podhalanka is the real deal when it comes to no-frills Polish food for a great price. If you’ve never tried Polish food, this would be the most authentic you could get without hopping on a plane and landing in Krakow. This restaurant may have never been on the Food Channel or on Good Morning America, and frankly, Podhalanka doesn’t really care. They just care about providing scrumptious food with plenty of love to their customers.

While the inside and outside of the restaurant might lack of cutting edge design, it more than makes up for it through the food that is spectacular and the overall atmosphere. Podhalanka is filled with plenty of local flavor as the walls are festooned with various artifacts of Polish culture, and the bar is often occupied by old timers taking down some soup with a beer. The wait staff is also colorful as they are gruffer than your average American waiter, but they aren’t mean spirited.

Looking over the menu, they have a variety of soups, salads, and meat dishes. The wait staff might also just tell you what to get if you’re overwhelmed with the selection of foreign dishes. I’d highly recommend the Kotlet Schabowy which is a breaded pork cutlet that is huge and has a perfect, golden-brown bread crumb crust around a tender piece of pork.

Another great dish would be the żurek or sour rye soup. It’s not as gross as it sounds. Rather it’s more like a creamy soup filled with large chunks of hearty Polish kielbasa and a slightly sour aftertaste to offer a little zing with every spoonful. I had for my entree the Sztuka Miesa W Sosie Chrzanowym or boiled beef with horseradish sauce when I visited Podhalanka, and if you like cleaning out your sinuses while chowing down on a stick-to-your-ribs type of meal, I’d highly recommend it. So if you’re looking for a great Polish diner with giant plates for tiny prices, checkout Podhalanka.

 1549 W Division St, Chicago, Illinois
(773)486-6655
http://chicago.menupages.com/restaurants/podhalanka/menu

3. Cemitas Puebla

IMG 3559 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelThe Mexican community in Chicago has steadily been growing in the past couple of decades, and now one can find tacos, burritos, and quesadillas in restaurantes throughout the ciudad (city, for those of you who don’t habla espanol). However, there is one Mexican restaurant in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, Humboldt Park, that really took me by surprise. I’m talking about Cemitas Puebla.

I originally saw it on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and I vowed that I had to visit it after seeing these mouthwatering sandwiches being made. They’ve also been featured on the local ABC News Chicago branch’s “Hungry Hound” segment and PBS.

So why choose Cemita Puebla over all the other Mexican taquerias in Chicago? Because they offer a unique dish from Puebla, Mexico that I have not seen anywhere else in the country. There is only street parking for this establishment, so make sure to get there before the lunch crowd rushes in. The outside of the restaurant is simple and advertises their appearance on the Food Network, and the inside operates on a typical line up and “Can I take your order?” system. The clientele are mostly families and locals from nearby businesses.

Their menu has a range of different cemitas along with other Mexican staples like tacos, burritos, and chalupas. However, I went for the signature cemita atomica or “atomic cemita” along with a cup of agua de jamaica or “hibiscus water”, a popular drink throughout Latin America that is kind of like sweet, red Kool-aid. The cemita I ordered consisted of a grilled, sesame topped bun piled high with breaded pork, roasted pork, and plain ham along with queso fresco, fresh avocado, and two complimentary bottles of mild and spicy tomatillo sauce on the side. I was living in hog heaven south of the border with this pig-tacular sandwich. It is a great place for lunch or dinner that is a bit out of the way, but it is a piece of Mexico that isn’t often represented in the Chicago culinary landscape.

 
3619 W. North Avenue, Chicago, Illinois
http://www.cemitaspuebla.com/
 
4. The Berghoff

berg 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelI chose the Berghoff since it is a pillar of Chicago’s ethnic and culinary background. Germans have resided in Chicago since the 1800s. Although their presence isn’t as large as it once was, the German community’s identity still remains strong especially during Oktoberfest when everyone is a little German to celebrate the harvest and that delicious beer that Deutchland makes.

What makes the Berghoff so unique is that it is a purely Chicago institution that opened in 1898 as a men’s only saloon that served free corned beef with the purchase of a stein of beer. Their beer sales were severely affected during the era of Prohibition, but when the ban was repealed in 1933, the City of Chicago issued the Berghoff liquor license number 1.

This tradition continues even today along with still being run by the Berhoff family in the form of the great-granddaughter of the Berghoff’s founder, Herman Berghoff. While they maintain many of their traditions, the menu has expanded to feature more contemporary favorites, including gluten-free dishes, which are side by side with typical German meals.

The interior is amazing with the rich, dark wood carvings and stained glass windows. It is a slightly more formal place, so I’d recommend not walking in with torn jeans or tank tops. They also do group events in their cafe and even cater for parties if you want to host a large party.

When I was there, I got and highly recommend the seasonal ox joint with pumpkin gnocchi. It was large, hearty, and had fall-off the bone meat. I haven’t tried their other plates, but if you’re a beer lover, they have a wide range of lagers, pilsners, and seasonals to quench your thirst. I’d also suggest visiting this German restaurant for their Oktoberfest celebration that is one of the best in Chicago. For the kids, The Berghoff makes their own root beer which became popular at The Berghoff during Prohibition, and there are other non-alcoholic drinks for those who would rather not imbibe while dining. So if you’re looking to raise a stein of beer with a friend or go out with a special someone while sampling some Old World fare, I’d highly recommend The Berghoff.

 
17 West Adams, Chicago, Illinois
(312)427-3170
http://www.theberghoff.com
 
5. Three Happiness

img 0800 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelChinese food is a cuisine of fusion and variety due the presence of numerous ethnic groups within the country along with traders from other lands over centuries bringing their own ingredients from their homelands to the Middle Kingdom. In the United States, we are used to the American Chinese classics like orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, and various fried rices. These dishes have their roots in Cantonese cuisine since most of the Chinese immigrants who emigrated to the USA during 1800s came from this southern region of China. However, there is much more to Chinese food than just fried meats covered in sweet sauce and cookies containing often cryptic fortunes.

I’d like to talk more about the Chinese tradition of dim sum which can be found throughout Chicago’s Chinatown. Although it is not as big as San Francisco’s Chinatown, Chicago’s Chinatown is the second oldest in America after Chinese laborers fled violent clashes with white settlers on the West Coast. It has plenty of great sights to enjoy like the Chinatown mural, the square, and the Chinese New Year celebrations. However, I’d like to highlight Three Happiness as a great restaurant for both traditional American Chinese fare and delicious dim sum.

There are two Three Happineses: the original next to the Chinatown gate or the new one next to the Chicago fire department. I’ll be talking about the new Three Happiness. I’ve been going there since I was little, and they have plenty of space for big parties or just a table for two. It gets pretty loud inside during peak hours, so it wouldn’t be the best spot for a romantic, candlelit dinner.

When it comes to the typical American Chinese dishes, I’d recommend their shrimp fried rice since it isn’t very greasy and the shrimp are plentiful and large. Their sweet and sour pork is great too because of the slightly spicy kick to the thick sauce that coats every piece.

I also would suggest trying dim sum which is like Chinese tapas where you have to order a few small dishes and then share them with everyone. How it works is that you’re given a list with pictures of the small plates, and you check off what you want. The server then takes it, and your plates come out to you in waves. Out of all the dim sum plates I’ve tried I’d recommend the sesame buns which are small pieces of fried, rice dough coated in sesame seeds. Inside there is a slight dab of red bean paste that isn’t overwhelming like how other places do these sesame balls. I’d also get the pork bao which are fluffy, white buns that are steamed and filled with barbecue pork. Watch out for these because they are addictive!

The last dim sum plate I’d recommend are the chicken feet just because they are not for the faint of heart and quite unique. While there isn’t a lot of meat on these poultry tootsies, it is entertaining to eat them while trying to strip the meat off the cartilage while savoring the sweet, orange marinade. Brush up on those chopstick skills! (seriously though, they have forks). So, if you want to taste a bit of authentic Chinese culture and take a walk on the wild side beyond Panda Express, check out Three Happiness and Chicago’s Chinatown.

 
2130 S. Wentworth Ave, Chicago, Illinois
(312)791-1228
http://chicago.menupages.com/restaurants/new-three-happiness/

Food Convention Post: Taste Talks in Chicago

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In Memoriam:  This post is dedicated to the dear memory of beloved Chicago institution, Hot Doug’s (2001-2014).  May you continue to make unique and memorable sausage creations in food Valhalla.  Check out my visit to the now defunct land of wondrous tube steaks.

Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is a unique one since it is about my first visit to a food festival that focused more on the craft and industry than purely the art of gorging oneself on grilled meats and throwing money away buying tickets for beers with skewed prices.  The festival in question is called Taste Talks, and it took place from October 3rd to October 5th.  With two events in Brooklyn in NYC and Chicago, it originally was the brainchild of the carrot-topped, Croc-rockin’ chef, Mario Batali.  However, you’re probably wondering how a small blogger like me could attend such a festival?  I actually was emailed by Paulina from OpenTable offering me a spot on the guest list.  I’d like to thank her once again for the opportunity along with OpenTable for reaching out to me.  Not only that, but I was able to get a pass for my girlfriend as well since I wanted her to share in the glory that was Taste Talks.IMG_4359IMG_4478

While we couldn’t attend the Friday kick-off event with the oyster and champagne dinner at the Kinmont Restaurant, we had essentially free reign over what we could see on Saturday.  It was a cold and drizzly day, but the first meeting we went to at the elegant Soho house.IMG_4394  While it used to be  a tannery at the turn of the 20th Century, in the 21st it is a chic and hip hotel.  We marveled at the lobby as we quickly moved to the elevators to get to the first food meeting. IMG_4392 Even the elevators were swanky as the walls were upholstered like a fine leather couch.  Thankfully we didn’t fall asleep leaning on the walls and quickly moved to the Free-Styling with Ice Cream Desserts talk.  Our panel consisted of Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Dana Cree (Blackbird), and Jessie Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato).

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

During the talk, they were all quite gracious and humorous when interacting with each other and the audience, but I could tell that they knew their stuff based on the emphasis they placed on making their ice cream and gelato from scratch.  While they said most ice cream places throughout America claim to create their ice cream by hand, in reality they just use a dairy base, throw in some sugar and flavorings, and add some toppings.  What they’re selling us is just an image of it being artisanal.  What these ladies do instead is actually break down the ingredients and balance them just right in order to get the right texture, flavor, and melting point.  The choice to do what these ladies do isn’t the cheap route in comparison to the easy peasy ice cream base method, and in reality, the government is against them.  The FDA is very meticulous when evaluating their franchises, and the big dairies are favored in the ice cream industry since they offer an easy way out for people who want to go the traditional route when making the cold treat.  The speakers even made some revealing statements like it turns out the soft serve cones at McDonalds are actually just cold, whipped, leftover animal fats, and ice cream was originally derived from excess butter at dairies.  Ice cream normally is around 10% fat, but McDonald’s, as always, manages to do it bigger than anyone else.  They also explained the differences between gelato and ice cream:  gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream, it’s smoother than ice cream due to the lack of ice crystals, and gelato is served at a higher temperature than traditional American ice cream.  Once they got tired of just talking, each chef did an ice cream demo.  First, there was Jeni Britton Bauer’s ice cream punch.

I knew we were in for a good time when there were bottles of Hennessy on deck right next to the punch bowls. IMG_4364 However, she started instead by struggling to open a bottle of Prosecco, but she eventually opened two and dumped the bubbly into the bowl. IMG_4475 Jeni followed that up with a cup of the smooth brown cognac.  Then, she proceeded to throw a bunch of scoops of different types of sorbet like lemon, strawberry, and raspberry.IMG_4369  Those neon orbs were bobbing in the brew like an extremely adult version of bobbing for apples as she ladled cup upon cup of the crimson mixture.  Janice and I sampled the beverage, and it was quite refreshing. IMG_4373 It tasted like a bubbly, adult Italian soda with rich pieces of ice cream sliding over our palates every other sip.  Next up was Jessie from Black Dog Gelato.

Jessie operated the only ice cream parlor I knew out of the three, and I have heard a lot of buzz about it.  So, I was curious to see what this wizard of cream and sugar could come up with.  She did not disappoint with her chocolate coated pumpkin ice ream pops.  First, she did a simple popsicle using her pumpkin infused gelato, but then melted chocolate using a hot plate on the side.  The pumpkin pops were lovingly caressed in the sweet elixir and then rubbed with a coating of dried coconut and strudel crumbles. IMG_4469 We could sample smaller versions of the pops, and we definitely took advantage of the offer.IMG_4383 IMG_4466 While the crunchy, milk chocolate interior gave way to a more subtle pumpkin gelato that was creamy and understated, it was quite difficult to eat as the slivers of chocolate were flying everywhere.IMG_4465IMG_4385  They probably thought it was my first time eating a cold treat based on how overjoyed I was.  The final creation came from Dana Cree which was a lemon and elderflower infused frozen yogurt that was based on a recipe that used unsweetened Greek yogurt. IMG_4388 This gave it a real tang when combined with the lemon and fragrant notes from the elderflowers.IMG_4390IMG_4389 Out of the three, my favorite was the chocolate and pumpkin pops, and I later found out how creative Jessie could be when Janice and I visited her Black Dog Gelato.  While we would have loved to talk to them for longer, we had to rush to the Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie.

This lecture took place at Kaiser Tiger at 1415 W. Randolph Street.  IMG_4404IMG_4395It was an eclectic place in terms of decor, but we were there to sample some sausages.  We arrived a bit late and soaked from the drizzle, but it was a very different vibe from the ice cream meeting.  While the ice cream baronesses were approachable and humorous, the speakers were not interested in chewing the fat.  Plus, the people there looked more of the hipster persuasion which gave it an air of pretentiousness that I wasn’t digging.IMG_4403  We just went to town on the sausage sample platter at the back of the room. IMG_4396IMG_4400 It was like a time machine for me for my time living in Barcelona.  Not only did they have the same sliced, orange-red, peppery chorizo I used to make sandwiches with during my siestas, but they also had super fatty pieces of Catalan fuet sausage that contained chewy pieces of meaty flavor.

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

I used to gnaw on a piece of the super rich sausage while working on my homework since it gave me the energy to keep my focused, and I really liked the texture contrast between the fat granules, the melt-in-your-mouth meat, and semi tough casing.

Memories

Memories

After eating our fill of artery-clogging meat, we decided to peace out early for the biggest fireside chat of fireside chats with Rick Bayless.

We boogied on back to Soho House, and we made sure to get a front row seat to see Rick Bayless who is now one of the biggest and most respected chefs in the culinary world thanks to his contributions to the Mexican food scene (he was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle due to his promotion of Mexican culture and food).  Even with all of his accolades and awards, it was unreal to be so close to someone who seemed so down to earth when talking with the audience.IMG_4406  It’s an effect that happens when you see someone on tv for so long that they take on an almost mythical status, and you expect them to be more imposing in real life like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Instead, you just find out that they are human just like you and me.  During his talk, I found out he had similar life to mine with focusing to study Spanish in college along with linguistics in graduate school.  However, cooking and food proved to be his true passion.  Perhaps I could parlay my love into a new career path like Rick.  He went on to talk about the importance of the connection between culture and food which is what I try to achieve here on Mastication Monologues, so his words really resonated with me.  Rick also highlighted the shifting perception of chefs from blue collar workers to veritable rock stars today, and he has provided culinary students with a tempered vision of the future that to get to the top:  hard work and mastery of the craft is crucial to becoming famous.  There aren’t any chefs who open Michelin 3 star restaurants right out of cooking schools.  After talking a bit about his connection to Mexican history and food with his changing menus at Topolobampo (including his 1491 menu that used no ingredients the Europeans brought over like chicken, beef, pork, cilantro, and limes), I got to ask a question during the Q and A session about the shifting demographics in the USA especially with the Latino population.  I asked if he noticed more Latino diners in his restaurants recently , and he said that he saw a lot of younger Latino diners eating his food on date nights as a way to get a taste of their ancestors and learn more about their culture.  Rick graciously thanked everyone, and I was the first person to just thank him for coming out.  IMG_4456Plus, I plugged my blog a little bit, and he seemed really interested in it.  When I said goodbye, I was still amazed that I was less than five feet away from someone I’ve seen for decades on PBS and gracing the covers of cookbooks everywhere.  Janice and I went out on a high note as we walked away from Taste Talks with a new perspective on the food industry and an excitement for the future of dining.  Also, it was a wonderful way to celebrate five happy months together : )IMG_4453

 

Death Metal Delight

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Art can be manifested in various mediums.  While paintings and sculptures can be found all over the world from the beginning of humanity, music has a special place in the collective soul of mankind.  It can reflect a gamut of emotions, cultures, and innovations in technology (or hatred of said technology).  An eatery in Chicago called Kuma’s Corner  (Kuma means “bear” in Japanese) manages to fuse metal music culture with a menu focused exclusively on creatively named and constructed burgers.  What could be better than that?

Now, I’m not a huge fan of death metal or really heavy rock music outside of listening to it on my workout mix, so I was curious to see why so many people kept on raving about their burgers even though they seemed like the last people to be headbanging or howling along with the gutteral lead singers.  The exterior looked pleasant enough, but as soon as I walked in, I was greeted with a wall of people and fierce chords being pumped out of the speakers overhead.IMG_3730  I was surprised though since I heard from friends that the music was turned up to 11, but I didn’t find that to be the case.IMG_3718IMG_3719  Since I was dining alone, I was immediately seated at the bar, but I’d recommend bracing yourself for a wait if you’re going there around lunchtime.  The bartender along with every other employee there was friendly and covered in tattoos.  Not only did the artwork decorate my server’s arms, but I even found her probable inspiration all over the bathroom walls as every square inch was covered with tattoo samples.IMG_3728IMG_3729  After sitting down and pouring over the burger options, I noticed that they had very creative names paying tribute to different rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Megadeath, Slayer, and Plague Bringer to name a few.  Not only were the names intimidating, so were the options since they all looked so delicious.  After bringing it down to two choices in my head, the Plague Bringer and the Goatsnake, I asked my bartender which she’d recommend out of all of them.  Surprisingly, she said those two were her favorite.  She then gave me time to think about it, and even said she’d surprise me if I couldn’t make up my mind.  After some deliberation, I told her I’d take the Goatsnake ($10) along with a complimentary side of handcut fries, but I could have also picked chips or a salad instead of the fries.  If you’re not feeling like a burger, they do have appetizers, salads, and sandwiches.  After waiting for some time and slobbering on myself while checking out other peoples’ burgers, my burger was placed in front of me.  I didn’t know where to start. IMG_3721 It was overflowing my plate, and the guy next to me even asked me what I got since it looked so much more intense compared to his burger.  Jackpot!  This creation named after the doom metal group from California caught my eye because of its creative ingredients.IMG_3722  While there was a pile of fried red onion strings on top, I’ve had that on other burgers I’ve destroyed at other restaurants.  The holy trinity of ingredients that piqued my interest was the herbed goat cheese, poblano and corn relish, and Cholula lemon vinaigrette.  I could see the first two elements, and the third one could only be experienced.  I put my top bun on and was ready to rock my socks off. IMG_3724 Wow!  From the first bite, I knew I was dealing with a unique burger.    The patty was hearty and juicy but was borderline greasy.  It didn’t take away from the bold flavors that were more radical than a face-melting guitar solo.  The goat cheese was plentiful and provided a strong flavor background for the rest of the star ingredients like Lars Ulrich’s drumming for Metallica.  As for the corn and poblano pepper relish, it supplied a counterbalance of texture and a hint of spice that I enjoyed.  Finally, there was the most outrageous yet memorable part of the burger which was the Cholula lemon vinaigrette.  With every bite, my palate was awash with a spicy citrus punch that went especially well with the goat cheese that almost made it seem like they did an homage to Chicago’s saganaki legacy unintentionally.  Once I demolished my main dish, I turned my attention to the fries.  They were on the less crispy side which I perfer and weren’t too salty.  I wasn’t sure, but I believe the ketchup had a bit of spice in it.  Either way, these fries couldn’t measure up to the burger magnum opus I experienced moments before.  The bartender finally saw the feeding frenzy was over, and offered me a round of applause with how thoroughly I cleaned my plate.  I applaud you too, Kuma’s Corner, for your passion for creating insanely delicious burgers.

So if you’re tired of the same old burger joints that use the same old ingredients in the same old bar and grill environment, bear crawl on over to Kuma’s Corner and party on!

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon

Raising the Bar

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Bars are normally just known as watering holes for groups of friends on the town or creepers trying to cruise for some ladies (all dependent on what part of town you’re in, of course).  Their drink selections can range from the mundane to the most elaborate with the rise of microbreweries and the sudden rise of professional mixologists, a.k.a. hipster bartenders.  However, it’s not often that people associate fresh and/or gourmet food with bar food.  True, it may be delicious, deep fried, and coated/stuffed/infused with many different types of cheese but nothing for more elegant palates.  This was the case with Jimmy’s Grill in downtown Naperville.

Originally, Jimmy’s was your more typical waterhole that was the starting point of the night with a couple drinks before going to some of the more dance-centric establishments.  The food?  Just burgers, fries, nachos, and more fried foods up the wazoo.

Meh

Meh

These guilty pleasures were of average quality and served more as a lining for your stomach for the bender to come rather than a culinary experience.  However, I recently visited it for the first time since coming back from Korea.  Not only do they have a new logo and color scheme, but according to the menu, they have a new chef in the form of Travis Rodriguez and new management.  Looking over the menu, I could see that they really upheld their pledge to utilize, “house braised, grass fed meats, free range chicken, fresh seafood, and baked goods.”  I mean hummus?  tartare? asparagus?  Talk about the transformation of the ugly duckling.  After much deliberation, I decided to get the Cubano sandwich ($11) which came with a free side of vinegar chips, salad, or fries.  I went with the last option.  My dad got the Picasso burger with Swiss cheese on top ($11), and my mom got the pulled pork sandwich ($11).

After a good amount of time taking in the new environs and checking out their ginormous tvs on the patio, they brought out our meals.  My Cuban sandwich looked great and tasted even better. IMG_3375 Not only did it have the signature grill marks thanks to the panini-esque grill called the plancha, but I could see all of the key ingredients that have made the Cuban sandwich a Miami staple since the early 1960s when Cuban refugees fled Castro’s Commie paradise.  From the first bite, I was hooked.  The bread was light, crispy, and chewy and gave way to a one-two punch of juicy pork loin and a hefty layer of succulent ham slices. IMG_3376 Next came the melted Swiss cheese that gave the sandwich a slightly nutty yet mellow flavor that served as a contrast to the sour pickle slices and tart yellow mustard drizzled over all of the bread.  They didn’t spare any expense with any of the ingredients which led to a meal packed with plenty of sassy Latino flavor to the last cheesy bite.  The French fries were expertly fried and very lightly salted which scored major points with me.  Moving on from there, I luckily was able to steal a nibble from my mom’s barbecue pulled pork sandwich that came with a side of apple jicama slaw and onion rings.IMG_3369  The pork was messy yet heavenly with the sweet sauce that coated every strand, and the onion rings were perfect in terms of breading composition and onion stability within the crunchy shell. IMG_3371 I didn’t get to try my dad’s burger since I didn’t fancy a ruptured stomach, but he took it down like a champ. IMG_3373IMG_3372 Ergo, I’d only assume it was delicious.  I did try the vinegar potato chips on the side, and they were crispy yet oh so sour with plenty of white vinegar bite.

Overall, I’d highly recommend checking the newly improved Jimmy’s Grill.  Not only is the food delicious but also nutritious for a reasonable price.

Jimmy's Grill on Urbanspoon

Man’s Stomach’s Best Friend

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Today’s entry on Mastication Monologues is a short one and the penultimate in my Florida food chronicle.  My final lunch on vacation took place in an eatery called Dune Dog Cafe located at 775 N. Alt A1A  Jupiter, Florida.  I didn’t know what really to expect in terms of food, but my parents were raving about it.

So when we arrived, it was a small, tropical shack of sorts that was all open air dining which once again made me wonder what they did when the winds and rain picked up as they always seemed to do in the afternoon in Florida?IMG_2972IMG_2968IMG_2737  Pondering aside, it looked like the natives were quite restless as a line streamed out the front of the hut as we attempted to find a spot in their meager parking lot.  After about 45 minutes of leaning up against our rental car, baking in the noon sun, and watching crowds of urchins wrestle with each other as their mothers attempted to corral them, our reservation name was called.  We made our way around to the back part of the restaurant.  It was more relaxing since we didn’t have hordes of hungry diners giving us the evil eye for not eating quickly enough.  After looking over the menu that had mainly American food like burgers, salads, hot dogs, and chicken wings, I went for the last option.  Ten wings with half barbecue sauce and half sesame sauce.  The prices were very reasonable (5-12 dollars for a meal.  Apparently, one of the waiter’s mom’s worked with my mom’s friend who we were eating with, so we got a free appetizer called “Yankee nachos”.IMG_2969  Being Yankees ourselves, we found it interesting that they see us as people who only eat potatoes instead of tortilla chips.  Regional differences aside, this was one tasty platter.  It consisted of waffle fries piled high with all the classic nacho toppings like two types of cheddar, olives, guacamole, onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos.  Once we all polished that off, my wings came out, and they looked like a smaller version of Hooter’s wings that I am ever so fond of. IMG_2970 As for the taste, I was greatly satisfied.  Not only was there plenty of meat, but the crisp batter, smoky barbecue sauce, and slightly aromatic sesame sauce really made me think that something this great for the cheap price was fowl.  Actually, the only thing that ruffled my feathers was the bleu cheese dressing that seemed oddly acidic.  Nevertheless, as I wiped the sticky saucy aftermath from my fingers and mouth, I could see that Dune Dog truly did live up to the hype.

So if you want to check out a great family restaurant that has a beach vibe far from any sandy shore, hit up Dune Dog Cafe.

Dune Dog Cafe on Urbanspoon

Poppin’ Molly, I’m Sweatin’! (Portland, Finale)

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Well, I’ve finally managed to come to the end of my sojourn through the wilds of Portland’s culinary scene, and this final post is a fitting finale to the adventure.  Fitting in the sense that I manage to go out in a blaze of glory instead of just fading away a la Kurt Cobain minus the whole dubious suicide and artistic angst.  Instead, I grapple with another spicy food challenge at local eatery Salvador Molly’s.  It’s a bit outside of the city center, and you have to take a bus out to the hill country to get there.  However, it’s a unique dining experience that you can’t get anywhere else in Portland.

Now, I’ve survived my fair share of uber-spicy food that would make any normal human’s taste buds melt immediately.  The medium of fiery madness has ranged from soup, chicken wings, and even a deep fried pork cutlet, but Salvador Molly’s Great Balls of Fire challenge managed to switch it up once more pushing me to my culinary, physical, and mental limit.  The exterior of the restaurant gives off a hippie/Caribbean vibe with its tropical plants and vibrant color schemes, and the interior is even more fascinating.IMG_3881IMG_3880  Buddhist prayer flags were streaming overhead while the walls were adorned with African folk art murals along with Mexican artisanal crafts. IMG_3882 Upon sitting down and scanning the menu, I could see that they had food from all corners of the globe including the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hawaii to name a few.  I was initially drawn to the Jamaican Roti wraps, but I decided to go for Pele’s Volcano sandwich ($9.50) since it had some interesting ingredients.  Along with this, I asked to get the Great Balls of Fire challenge (7 balls, $7.95).  The waitress was hesitant, and asked me if I wanted to just try one to make sure I knew I was getting into.  The only thing I knew was that they were made out of habenero peppers, and I could eat those no problem.  So once I agreed to it, she wrote it down on her paper pad like a death sentence for a doomed prisoner.  While I was waiting, I saw that on the wall next to my table there was a couple of pictures on the wall chronicling the brave souls who pitted their wits against the flame-infused orbs and survived.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

The few, the proud, the spiceheads.

In my mind, I could see my picture going up there as well by the end of my meal.  That’s half the battle with food challenges, envisioning yourself triumphing over the massive obstacle placed in front of you.  Eventually both came out, and the sandwich looked more intimidating than the food challenge.IMG_2693  I knew I was in real trouble when they made me sign the waver saying that I couldn’t sue them if needed a colostomy compliments of their tortuous habanero appetizer.IMG_2692  They also pointed out the warning sign next to my table that was in other parts of the restaurant as well.IMG_2691  Not too scary at all, but I had a plan.  I wouldn’t be rushing headfirst into the gates of hell without a trusty thick coating to my stomach which was what the Pele sandwich was for.  It different than what I was expecting because it was more like a toaster oven pizza than a traditional sandwich.   As for its name, Pele is the goddess of volcanoes in Hawaiian culture, and I was expecting real fireworks to be happening on my palate.  Instead, it was more like a poorly made sparkler in the middle of a rainstorm.  Lots of fizzle and no sizzle.  A majority of the mediocrity derived from the toasted but cold and soggy, compliments of the toppings, bread.  The pork was average, but the only redeeming factor was the tamarindo bbq sauce that was tangy and sweet with a slightly herbal aftertaste compliments of the tamarind infusion in the sauce.  I was more partial to the hurricane garlic fries that took my taste buds by storm with their crispy exteriors and garlicky interiors.

My eyes then turned to my rotund morsels that threatened my existence as onlookers at another table bade me good luck before I dug in.IMG_2694  They even took out their camera phones to take a few snapshots before I possibly spontaneously combusted mid-meal.IMG_2696  They then got their food but always kept one eye on me as I began the challenge.  I gnawed on the first one as I put my figurative toe in the lava pool to make sure it was just right.  Inside the first fritter, it seemed to be filled with pieces of habanero and cheesy batter, and the spice was coming in hot and heavy waves over my tongue.  It was manageable though as I quickly popped balls 2-6 into my mouth with gusto.  The other diners’ jaws fell on their tables as they couldn’t believe that I devoured the fireballs just as quickly as they came to my table.  However, I was starting to feel a rumbling in my tummy as my mouth was more or less numb, sweat covered my face, and my heart was racing.  The final morsel slid down my gullet while leaving deep, spicy, smarting claw marks on my palate. I mopped up the sweet mango salsa as I gallantly destroyed the Great Balls of Fire Challenge.  The waitress was impressed as she took my picture for the “Great Wall of Flame”, and I got to write a memorable quote on it for everyone to see when they walk into the restaurant. IMG_2699 Once the fanfare ended, I sat there digesting the weapon-grade fritters that were smoldering in my stomach.  I asked for a cup of milk to quell the firebomb that was spreading throughout my gastro-intestinal tract.  I left that restaurant to walk through a monsoon, but I was more troubled with the sensation that felt like someone was disemboweling me.  I could see why they made me sign the waiver because they could have been in real legal trouble with people with less fortitude than I.  I struggled with the pain these little hellions brought for the rest of the afternoon/evening, so I warn everyone that the Great Balls of Fire Challenge will burn you if you don’t have the stomach for it.

So if you want a slightly overpriced menu that really highlights the diversity of Portland’s population or try your hand at consuming edible fireballs, check out Salvador Molly’s!
Salvador Molly's on Urbanspoon

My Glorious Food Revolution- Day 2 in N. Korea

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Wow, I can’t believe I’ve made it past the 125 post mark, but what better way to push on than with my second day of traveling and eating through North Korea.  New Years Day was godawful since we had to wake up at 7 am to get breakfast and then get out of the hotel to start touring at 8 am.  The actual breakfast was quite run-of-the-mill in terms of what was offered for both Korean and Western tastes.IMG_1619  There were random breads and cakes for Western palates along with the stewed shoestring potatoes and some pickled radish soup.  I did enjoy the unnaturally verdant green apple soda they were serving though.

The leaders are also there to make sure you're still on a diet.

The leaders are also there to make sure you’re still on a diet.

We eventually made our way to the mausoleum of both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.  It was quite impressive as waves of soldiers filed passed us with their chests gleaming with medals.  Very Soviet Union a la Brezhnev.

For lunch, we were going to a restaurant that specialized in 냉면 a.k.a. naengmyeon or cold noodles.

Not set up for foreigners at all...

Not set up for foreigners at all…

IMG_1642They brought out other side dishes that are also common to South Korea like pork mandu or dumplings along with spicy kimchi.

Donkatsu or pork cutlet

Donkatsu or pork cutlet

IMG_1644The cold noodles were pretty tasty even though none of us were feeling too hot.  I liked that the waitresses also provided us with spicy mustard and vinegar to really liven up the dish with a little sour and sinus scorching kick.

The famous Pyongyang cold noodles.

The famous Pyongyang cold noodles.

However, the oddest part of the meal was the one I was the most familiar with…or so I thought.  They provided us with plates of hotdogs alongside our Korean food, but when I took a bite of one, I was in another dimension of gastronomy.

Nothing like some oddly plastic hotdogs.

Nothing like some oddly plastic hotdogs.

Texture-wise it was like any other tube steak, but the taste was unnerving because it literally tasted like cotton candy.  I don’t know if that is because they share the same love for sweet things like their Southern brethren, or if it was made from people.  Either way, it redefined the idea of sweet meats.  I left lunch with a very satisfied stomach after the naengmyeon but with the most peculiar taste in my mouth after those hot dogs.  For dinner, we had a version of hot pot that I never had before.  Normally, a hot pot dinner involves literally a large heated pot in the middle of the table that everyone shares while their food cooks within the smoldering cauldron as show in a few of my other posts (1, 2, Taiwan).  In North Korea, they put aside the collectivism for once and gave us our own pots.IMG_1665IMG_1666  They ignited the gas underneath each pot, and then we could throw our ingredients (pork, bean sprouts, peppers, lettuce, etc.) into the boiling water.IMG_1670IMG_1668

There were also various spices and seasonings we could use like chili pepper, black pepper, salt, and even MSG.  Naturally, I decimated the chili powder cask which gave me just the right spice level that I enjoy while still savoring the stewed meat and vegetables.

Just a little spice with a raw egg to cook at the very end.

Just a little spice with a raw egg to cook at the very end.

There was also a raw egg on the side that you plopped in right before you were about to eat it in order to fry it instantly.

That's one fine lookin' jjigae.

That’s one fine lookin’ jjigae.

Day 2 was a day of more traditional Korean food that I really enjoyed along with the occasional bizarre element like the hot dogs.  They left me wondering what they were going to throw at me for day 3.

Kicking Ass and Eating Wings

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Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  My latest food adventure took me to, surprise surprise, Itaewon.  My two friends, Youngmi and Bora, heard that I liked my really spicy food challenges.  So, they threw down the gastronomic gauntlet and lead me to J.R. Pub in Itaewon.  It’s easy to get there.  Go to the Itaewon metro stop and go out exit 4.  Make a u-turn to your left and follow the sidewalk.  You’ll see a Taco Bell on the other side of the street on your left.  Continue down the sidewalk until you get to a large alleyway and make a right.  You’ll see on your right hand side a sign for the Wolfhound Pub, and right next to it is J.R. Pub.  Here’s the address: 128-4 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul South Korea.

If you have read my blog before, you know that I am quite the daredevil when it comes to hellishly spicy dishes (see what I did there).  If not, check out some of my posts (Hell Hath, Cuckoo, Devil With Wings ).  Youngmi and Bora were very surprised that I was actually going to try it, and even advised me to bring milk and eat something beforehand.  Nothing like coating the stomach before ingesting hellfire!  Looking over the menu, they had most bar food standards like burgers, various barbecue meals like pulled pork sandwiches, wings, and pizza.  I ordered the spiciest wings the ladies were telling me about, the Kick Ass wings (8,000 W), and they got the pulled pork sandwich and some chicken fingers.  While we were waiting they told me about the last time they ate it, and they rushed to the bar to get milk after just one tiny bite.  Definitely instilled a lot of confidence in me.  Eventually they came out, and I could smell the evil that lurked under the lava-red surface of the chicken.IMG_1201  If you want to see me going to town on these bad boys, check out the link at the end of the post.

So young and innocent

So young and innocent

 When I took my first bite, I was greeted with a jalapeno level of spice with a familiar smoky background that quickly ratcheted up to a mini-inferno in my mouth.  It felt like the Drop-Dead Donkatsu challenge all over again, but I was determined to take them down.  I was extremely focused on withstanding the heat.  With each mouthful I could feel the beads of sweat starting to form on my apparently reddening face, and the hiccoughs were coming on strong.  I’ve found that’s my death rattle when it comes to my spice tolerance.  In the video you can see them starting around the third wing along with my stunning forehead vein making a grand entrance.  By the fourth one, it felt like I replaced my Mentos with blazing charcoal briquettes.  The fresh maker?  More like the pain train coming into dead taste buds station.  The ranch sauce that came with the wings was zesty and managed to take a bit of the edge off the heat.

..and my face is on fire

..and my face is on fire

 I rested for a bit while trying the ladies’ pulled pork sandwich, fries, and chicken fingers.  The sandwich was good from what I could tell using the last bits of my functioning tongue, and the chicken fingers had more of a panko breadcrumb covering that made for a nice change of pace in terms of texture.  Bora even got in on the action and wanted to redeem herself by eating one of the wings.IMG_1205  She performed admirably even though she still ran to the bar for some ice.  Eventually, I made my way to the top of Mount Doom and banished these wings to the pit of my stomach.

Fighting!

Fighting! The guy behind me can’t believe I finished it.

 Bora said that they weren’t as spicy as the first time they tried them, so maybe I’ll have to come back for round two.

Good times

Nice face, Youngmi!

 

Either way, I had a great time at J.R. Pub with even better company.  They have quality food for reasonable prices along with an amiable atmosphere and good service.  Now if you want to see my eternal struggle with the wings, check out this link.

Taiwan (Part 3)- Hot Pot to Trot in Taipei

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Hey everybody!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  While I’m still here keeping it cool and kickin’ it live in South Korea, I am slowly but surely winding down the last of my Chinese adventure posts where I try some weird and wacky foods that you just can’t find in Korea or anywhere else for that matter.  Today is a bit on the tamer side where I started off my day with a typical Taiwanese breakfast with my friend David’s family.

We went to a really small place that specialized in three key elements of a Taipei breakfast:  fantuan, youtiao, and soy milk.  First, there is the youtiao.  A lot of people back home in the States skip breakfast because they’re in a hurry or just don’t feel like whipping up a bowl of cereal (as if that takes a long time).  In Taipei, you can get the youtiao to go, and I know I would make it an occasional part of my morning routine.  The reason being is that youtiao is basically fried dough or the Taiwanese version of a doughnut.

Fried dough and milk?  I'll take it!

Fried dough and milk? I’ll take it!

You can eat it plain or dip it in some soy sauce if you’re looking for a savory side to your doughnut.  It wasn’t sugary at all like Western doughnuts, but it had a rich, buttery flavor and was not sopping in grease which was refreshing.  We even got a more modernized version of it with a  piece of youtiao and a mini egg and green onion omelet stuffed inside a sesame and poppy seed coated flatbread which is called  shāobǐng yóutiáo (燒餅油條) or youtiao flatbread.IMG_2587  I could only relate it back to a heartier and better version of the Egg McMuffin.  The flatbread was light and airy while the sesame seeds interacted well with the green onions in the eggs.  The other part of my breakfast was a fantuan which consisted of the aforementioned youtiao, pork floss, and pickled radish encapsulated in a layer of sticky rice.  While it was roughly the size of a potato, I was full after eating just one.  The cooks packed in a lot of tender, savory pork along with old, stiff youtiao that provided a spine of stability to the otherwise squishy foodstuff.  I washed all of it down with a iced cup of soymilk which was slightly sweetened but still maintained an earthiness that reminded me that I was drinking soybeans.  You can get your soymilk either iced or served warm in a bowl on the side like soup. Once we filled up on a lot of deep fried carbs, Christie and I were off again on another sight seeing adventure which would eventually bring us to the top of the Taipei 101 tower where we tried a beer float since we had two for one coupons.  It was pretty much a cup of Taiwanese beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it.

Classiest drink on top of the world

Classiest drink on top of the world

It wasn’t anything special, but it got better towards the end when the ice cream melted and blended with the light lager.

Christie obviously enjoyed her free drink

Christie obviously enjoyed her free drink

After the Taipei 101 Tower while we were walking and talking, I brought up how much I enjoyed taro root in my boba tea, so she took me to a dessert stand that was kind of like a make-your-own-sundae but focused mainly on taro root paste.IMG_0934  For about 200 TWD, you can get three different ingredients in your bowl.  I picked the taro root paste, tapioca balls, and pineapple.  They had other ingredients like this clear jelly, kiwi slices, and red bean paste to name a few.

Oodles of ingredients

Oodles of ingredients

They lumped all of it into a bowl along with some shaved ice so that it became more like a soup I had to scoop into my mouth.IMG_0937  Obviously, my favorite part was the tapioca balls because they were chewy and sugary, but the lumpy taro root kind of put a damper on my sugar rush since it was just a lumbering giant in a room of nimble tapioca sprites. Another sweet deal (pun intended) that they don’t charge you for is you can add as much ice and sugar syrup to your dessert.  I didn’t think mine was that sweet, so I gave it another ladle full of the syrup.  It was a bad choice.  I could only finish 3/4ths of it before I had to stop because it felt like my teeth were going to fall out, and I was about to have insta-Diabetes.  Word to the wise and Lil’ Wayne, go easy on the syrup.  I didn’t eat anything after that, and we had a brisk walk to multiple parks and temples before sitting down with the family for a late dinner in the middle of a typhoon rainstorm.

This dinner was like deja-vu for me once again because we were having hot pot.  I had had it before with the Wu family on New Year’s Eve 2012, and it had more of a spicy flair to it thanks to the Sichuan peppers they used in the pot.  However, Christie couldn’t take the really spicy stuff, so we only had a medium spice level on one side and a mild broth on the other.  However, that didn’t stop me from trying some new items on the menu like ligaments, Mitsuyaki jelly, and shrimp paste tempura.

Like bobbing for apples but more dangerous

Like bobbing for apples but more dangerous

How hot pot works is that you literally have a pot that is heated until boiling in the middle of the table, and then you throw everything in and eat it when it’s fully cooked.  Easy peasy.  I personally preferred the spicier side, per usual, and the contents of the pot did not disappoint.  For my first plate, I went all meat lovers on it.

Ligament on the left, beef up top, and two pieces of duck blood

Ligament on the left, beef up top, and two pieces of duck blood

I had duck blood which was as good as the Moon Cake dinner’s version but a bit spicier due to the broth it had been simmering in.  Then there was the pork and beef which were high quality cuts with very little fat and sliced almost paper thin to almost dissolve on the tongue.   Then there were my ligaments.  Now, they might sound like some terrible eats, but I have to disagree.   True, it may have taken a bit of chewing, but the rubbery texture gives way eventually and soaks up a lot of the flavor from the other meats bobbing in the devilish red soup.  When I was done gnashing away on the ligaments, I moved on to my second plate.IMG_0944  Here we can see the pork meatballs that were original residents in the spicy side of the bowl until I relocated their savory and seasoned selves to a new one floor house in my stomach.  Then there were the nuggets of shrimp paste that congealed and cooked in the spicy broth to create small shrimp clumps that tasted fried yet were boiled.  The lamb was on par with the beef and pork.  The final part of my plate consisted of the jelly noodles that I had never seen before.  IMG_0940They weren’t really that different from other Asian noodles in terms of taste and texture, but they looked more gelatinous and almost alien-like with their pre-cooked color compared to their more beige-hued state after stewing in the spicy broth.  Then there was my drink that was unlike anything I’ve ever had.

Darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.  Yeah, right.

Darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Yeah, right.

To get drinks in this hot pot restaurant, you just got up and grabbed a bottle from the back freezers.  I saw normal stuff like Lipton iced tea and lemonade, but I saw a dark bottle with everything written in Chinese.  Naturally, I took the plunge.  It was an experience right off the bat.  First, to open the bottle, you had to use a sharp edge on the top of the cap to open the safety seal over the mouth of the bottle.  Then as I poured the extremely dark brown liquid into my cup, my dining companions informed me that it was plum juice, but I must drink it with ice to combat the strong taste.  I thought, ‘Really?  I thought plums were supposed to be sweet, and I love plums.  How bad could it be?’  It was unlike any plum I have ever tasted.  Instead, it tasted like I was drinking a bottle of barbecue sauce.  I don’t know if the ice mitigated any of the strong flavor, but it had all the smoky, mesquite-tinged makings of a grade A sauce to slap on a rack of ribs or some chicken breast.  That was a strange finish to an otherwise flawless dinner, and my night didn’t end there as I went out to two clubs in Taiwan while walking though a typhoon multiple times in the process.  If it wasn’t for my strong “plum” juice, I’d have withered in the face of the howling wind and rain instead of getting my groove on.

Hot pot dinner, I hardly knew ye

Hot pot dinner, I hardly knew ye

Next up, the last chapter in my Taiwan adventures where I eat the head of an animal.  A capybara?  A rabbit? A rat? You’ll just have to wait and see!

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