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Happy Is the Stomach That Wears the Crown

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

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

Getting cold feet.  Hiyo!

Getting cold feet. Hiyo!

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

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

Triple Crown Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Three’s Happiness Too

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Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere!  It has been a long time since I last posted on Mastication Monologues, but I have finally emerged from the madness is grad school (actually I’m only in the eye of the storm right now) to bring you a new post about a type of cuisine I have never truly experienced:  Dim Sum.

Mmm So delicious and MSG laden

When many people proclaim that they enjoy “Chinese food” and then proceed to rattle off such favorites as General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, or sweet and sour chicken, this culinary adventure I embarked on was the furthest from these Panda Express concoctions.  Instead, my good friend David finally fulfilled a promise he made to me a long time ago that he would take me out to an authentic dim sum dinner, and yesterday we finally made it happen.

We ended up making our way down to Chinatown to Three Happiness Restaurant located at 2130 South Wentworth Avenue, Chicago, IL.  There is parking available nearby, and the establishment will validate your parking which eliminates a gigantic headache for anyone who has tried to find parking around the city.  It was an interesting/surprising coincidence that we were actually going to this specific Three Happiness because I had visited it on numerous occasions when I was just a young little spring roll and yet never had Dim Sum but rather the Pu-Pu platter (oh immature humor).

Poop jokes aside, we were promptly seated in the spacious and very clean dining room.  The wait staff was very helpful initially with providing us with drinks.  I say initially due to a minor incident later on in the meal that somewhat soured the experience, but spectacular food can always make up for service problems.  Now, the only previous experience I had with Dim Sum was in the basement of a YMCA during college with the Chinese Student Association, so I only knew of two or three types of plates you could order at Dim Sum.  However, my friend David explained Dim Sum perfectly by saying that there are many options to sample yet they’re portions that are just enough to share with friends kind of like tapas in Spain.  It was the perfect culinary storm as my love for sampling random foods combined with my affinity for tapas to create a wave of mass consumption that laid waste to all dumplings, cakes, and small watercraft on the table (OK, maybe not that last one).

The first round of Dim Sum consisted of turnip cakes, taro root puffs, sesame buns, and shrimp wraps.

Our waitress also provided us with a small bowl of chili sauce that looked very dangerous which made me happy.  I say happy because I love spicy food with a burning passion.  Unfortunately, often times I am disappointed by dishes in more mainstream restaurants that claim to be spicy but in reality are merely smouldering coals instead of raging infernos (i.e. any “spicy Southwest burger/spicy Asian stir fry/blazing chicken wings”).  However, realizing that I was in an authentic Chinese restaurant, I knew that they would be bringing the heat especially if I wanted to go Sichuan or get my favorite spicy mustard that makes me feel like I have Rocky Balboa inside my sinuses taking a left hook to the back of my nose.  As much as I would like to glorify the wonders of insanely spicy foods, I’m here to write about the Dim Sum.  I had already tried turnip cakes before, and the ones here were alright.  They were baked with a thin flaky crust and did not have much flavor aside from some potato-esque hints in the aftertaste.

The suspects in question going clockwise (turnip cakes, taro root puffs, shrimp wraps, and sesame buns)

The chili sauce definitely kicked them up a notch, Emeril-style BAM!.  The taro root puffs interested me as soon as I saw them on the menu, and I was not disappointed.  They looked like empanadas sporting very stiff Jheri curls, and biting into one felt like munching on a pine-cone but without the sap/pain and instead a delicious deep-fried flavor.  The inside surprised me the most where there was a meat and black bean concoction that was piping hot and quite savory with a flavor that could be most likened to a traditional meatloaf sans ketchup.  The shrimp wraps were brought to our table and had a dark brown fish sauce poured over them to provide more flavor, and it nicely complimented the cooked shrimp sleeping underneath their tender rice dough sheets.  I saved the best for last:  the sesame buns.  For some reason, a lot of great food comes in orb form like handmade doughnut holes or even pão de queijo(cheese bread) in Brazilian cuisine, and these sesame buns are no different.  They are roughly the size of a golf ball, coated in sesame seeds, and are firm with a semi-sticky texture when you bite into them.  The inside also contains a dab of red bean paste, but before you ready your barf bags, fickle eaters, I have to let you know that the paste actually carries a semi-sweet, almost vanilla wafer quality to it.  Satisfied with my first round of Dim Sum, we had a second helping.

Fried Calamari

The second round of Dim Sum delights entailed fried calamari, shrimp toast, beef and pork dumplings, and chicken feet.  My friend David order the fried calamari with sea salt which made me a bit wary since calamari seems to be more of a hit or miss dish from my experiences.  However, I was pleasantly surprised as the squid was tender and the batter was light and was adequately assisted by the sea salt to bring the squid back to its briny roots.  I did not know what to expect with the shrimp toast which led me to be pleasantly surprised when it confirmed some of my suspicions with a twist.  The shrimp was served whole on top of a slice of bread (like I assumed), but then the whole piece was completely fried which naturally made everything taste fantastic.  The beef and pork dumplings were nothing too special with the latter being encased in a thin casing of rice dough and the former looked like meatballs nestled in small pieces of cabbage that actually were chartreuse pieces of dough.  The presentation was very nice, and both of the meats were adequately seasoned and in harmony with the starch.  Once again, the last Dim Sum choice was the most interesting:  the chicken feet.

A quartet of delights going clockwise (beef dumplings, chicken feet, pork dumplings, shrimp toast)

Throughout my food expeditions both in the States and abroad, I have eaten various parts of animals, but I had never tried chicken feet.  David informed me that in Chinese, they are literally referred to as “Phoenix talons” (talk about a good marketing scheme through linguistics!), and thankfully they lived up to their fancy name.  They were baked in a soy based sauce that had some sweet elements to give the meat a slight barbecue flavor with prominent black pepper overtones.  The actual meat was juicy, falling off the metatarsal, finger-lickin’ good.  However, contrary to American customs of deboning any type of meat fit for human consumption (pink slime aside), the Chinese and many other cultures leave all of the bones in their meats to contain the various flavors obtained through the marrow and minerals.  Ergo, beware of the tiny bones lurking in the feet!

Jello Jigglers eat your heart out

The final movement to our Dim Sum symphony ended with mango pudding which was less like Jello and more like a tropical fruit version of flan without the pool of caramel.  Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with our order since we wanted BBQ pork buns for the end of the meal, and they said they were on the way.  However, we had to wait at least twenty minutes before they realized that they had made a mistake which kind of put a damper on the experience.  Nevertheless, they eventually brought out the BBQ pork buns, and they were well worth the wait.  The dough was thick and pliable, and the pork was neatly cubed and lodged within the dumpling surrounded by a sweet bbq sauce that most likely had a molasses base.

Definitely pigged out on these pork buns

In the end, I was greatly satisfied with my Dim Sum experience at Three Happiness.  If you are tired of the same old egg roll and fried rice dinner at your local Chinese restaurant, go outside your comfort zone and try some Dim Sum if you have the opportunity to do so.  My fortune at the end of the meal definitely came true, and I hope you find your own new adventures and foodie pleasures!

It came to fruition!

Three Happiness on Urbanspoon

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