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Costa Rica (Day 5)- Sloth Sanctuary = BOO-YA, Grandma!

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BARKBARKWOWOFOFUFFUFUFWOOFFBARKBARK!!!!!!!  We awoke in Costa Rica on day five of our vacation to the calming sound of a loudly barking pack of dogs at 5 am.  We had made friends with them the night before when we arrived at Kenaki Lounge, so I would have thought that they would have at least kept the woofing to a minimum before 8 am.

So friendly at night.

So friendly at night.

Instead, we found that the entire pooch army had encamped right outside our door with the big Great Dane literally like a giant rock wedged up against our sliding door.  With a bit of finesse and good humor, we got the big guy out of the way, and he greeted me with a smooch.IMG_5231  The sun hadn’t risen yet, but our lodging was quite luscious in the daytime.  IMG_5232We set out to see the beach that was right across the dirt road in front of our hotel, and after a bit of bushwhacking through some mud and palm trees, we finally managed to reach the Caribbean Sea.IMG_5234  The sunrise was absolutely beautiful; I really couldn’t say that about the beach.  Compared to the clear, sapphire waters on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, the turgid waters were silty and poo colored like the sand on our sandals.  It was more jungle-esque with more bugs too, but both were pretty in their own unique ways.  After walking back, we managed to find a normal path that we could have taken initially instead of jumping over soggy, muddy ditches.  We arrived back at our room to be summoned for a fresh breakfast of fruit and gallo pinto, of course, to be eaten on the deck in the open air.

Our view over breakfast

Our view over breakfast

IMG_5250IMG_5244  The starfruit were my favorite additions to the fruit plate since they were juicy yet sour which provided a nice contrast to the juicy watermelon and sweet pineapple.   On the side, we had a hot cup of tea along with a mix of papaya and orange juice. IMG_5245 Normally, I’m not a huge fan of papaya (the orange slice on the fruit plate) since it doesn’t really taste like much aside from the occasional hint of fecal matter.  I know it sounds odd, but that’s just my impression of it.  By the time we were chowing down on the last delicious remnants of our breakfast, our driver Rigoberto had arrived to whisk us to what we had been waiting for the entire trip:  the sloth sanctuary!!  When we arrived, we could hardly contain our excitement as everything sloth was surrounding us (even the road signs). IMG_5255 Our first close encounter with one of the slow creatures was with Buttercup; the local sloth diva that I ate fruit with before Janice broke down like a fan-girl. IMG_5260 We went on a canoe ride throughout the neighboring lagoon complete with pooping and screaming howler monkeys whose hoots echoed through the thick jungle air.  We then experienced such highlights like meeting baby sloths, feeding two toed sloths, and shaking hands with three toed sloths. IMG_5533 IMG_5298 Some fun facts we learned about the sloths include:  they’re related to armadillos and anteaters; they’re cold blooded mammals; and they can move as fast as an average human jogging if necessary.  Sadly, we eventually had to leave the wonderful paradise, but that meant that Rigoberto was going to bring us to a great Costa Rican restaurant that served food that was grilled right in front of your eyes.  Unfortunately, when we got there, the guy waved us away, but it was a blessing in disguise.  We went across the street to another Costa Rican greasy spoon diner called “Soda El Oasis“. IMG_5308 It looked a world away from the first soda we went to given that everything looked spotless from the walls to the silverware even though it was in the middle of a small town called Pocora. IMG_5307 Looking over the menu, which was just a whiteboard on the wall, I went for an order of carne ahumada (smoked meat), a cheese empanada, and a blackberry milkshake. IMG_5306 Janice got arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), and it was absolutely mind-blowing.  I don’t know if it was the spices, or the way they fried the rice, but it made me wish I got a side order of it.  As for my plate, the meat was off the hook or perhaps the grill with the wood-smoked flavor that thoroughly permeated every juicy bite. IMG_5309  The casado combined with the chayote mixed very well with the pork, and the light, mixed salad on the side countered the heartier half of the plate.  As for the empanada, it was a semi-fail since they gave me a chicken one instead of cheese.IMG_5311  It was good but not great by comparison to the rest of the meal.  Once we finally completed the long trek back to San Jose and bid farewell to good, ol’ Rigoberto, we decided to descend into the madness that was downtown San Jose in the middle of rush hour.  Our cab driver was trying his best to make his way through the chaotic and severely congested streets as hordes of people streamed past our windows and a thick blanket of exhaust wafted through my nostrils.  Eventually, we arrived at the main cathedral in the heart of San Jose.  It was rebuilt after an earthquake according to a security guard who proceeded to give me an entire history of the site after I crossed myself upon leaving.  We also saw the National Theater and the Central Market located on Avenida Central. IMG_5320IMG_5324 It was super busy like everywhere else in the area and was pickpocket central, so be wary with your possessions when walking through the masses.  We hit up a local bakery to get some pastries for next day’s breakfast, and I couldn’t wait to try them.  It made me even hungrier by the time we got back to the condo.  Word on the street was that La Casa de Mi Abuela (My Grandmother’s House in Spanish) was the place to eat at in San Jose, and strangely enough it was run by an expat Canadian.  It was in a strip mall nearby our timeshare that seemed quite abandoned, but the exploration was worth it.IMG_5325  We were the only people in the restaurant, so we got extremely personal service.  IMG_5326Turns out the owner was originally from New Brunswick, but it seems that the pura vida lifestyle called him back.  He was super friendly and polite like all Canadians I’ve met which was one of many pluses for this establishment.IMG_5327IMG_5328  I was quickly acquainted with the only downside of the restaurant:  the bathroom.  It was the dirtiest thing in probably the whole of Costa Rica as the owner winced when I asked him where it was.  He handed me a bottle of hand sanitizer, and bade me the best of luck.  Goody.  I undid the lock on the bathroom door (always promising), walked in, and it looked like I was going to get shanked if I didn’t do my business fast enough.  I hustled, and returned to order my meal.  Out of all of the small places throughout Costa Rica we went to, that bathroom was the dirtiest place we saw, and we went to small truck stop bathrooms in the jungle.  Bathroom antics aside, I got an order of the ribs with a glass of guanabana and blackberry juice.  Janice got the homemade pork sausages with mixed veggies and hand-ground mustard sauce.  While waiting for our meat to be grilled on the griddle out front,IMG_5329IMG_5331 we were treated to some complimentary garlic bread, rice, Nicaraguan red beans, and a homemade spicy sauce.  Everything was delicious, including the beans and rice. IMG_5342 Surprisingly, we weren’t sick of them because they were different than the typical black beans of the casado or kidney beans in gallo pinto, but rather they were bigger and slightly harder.  Plus, the spicy sauce was a slighty sweet and smoky bbq flourish that I was digging.  The garlic bread was sliced into irregular squares, but the owner went hard on the garlic cloves and the butter. I was in heaven.IMG_5332  The party really got started when I asked the owner if he had any guaro or sugar cane liquor, the local alcoholic beverage of choice.  He gave me another sideways look and just matter-of-factly asked, “Why?”.  I responded that I just wanted to try it, so he brought out two shot glasses.  He bade us luck, and I took it down while Janice sipped it. IMG_5335IMG_5341 I would liken it to a slightly sweet, slightly watered down vodka that isn’t as disgusting as Korean soju.  The owner was acting like it was Spirytus, but clearly he wasn’t of a stronger constitution like moi.  Janice also got the same drink as me, so she mixed it in with her juice.  Like vodka, it mixed very well.  Alcohol aside, the guanabana and blackberry juice was the ideal combo of sour and sweet to be paired with our savory plates that were eventually placed in front of us. IMG_5330 My ribs looked delectable, and I could smell the rich pork flavor wafting past my nostrils. IMG_5346 I took a bite, and it made me smile like a three toed sloth.  The food coma that would ensue later would make me move just as fast as they do.  I splashed some of the spicy bbq sauce from the beans and rice on top of the pork ribs, and it really gussied them up to go to the food jamboree in my stomach.  I really appreciated the ribs’ grease level since it was just the right amount that enhanced the flavor, but did not result in my hands looking like I washed my hands with baby oil.  Janice’s pork sausages by themselves were ok.IMG_5343  True, they had a softer casing that didn’t have a signature pop like Chicago hot dogs have, but the handground mustard sauce saved this dish. IMG_5344 It was a combo of Dijon and honey that enriched the pork but didn’t overwhelm my tastebuds.  The sauteed veggies on the side were competently made, but nothing really noteworthy.  By that point, we were thoroughly stuffed.  We paid the bill and made our way home looking at the stars in the darkness while holding hands hoping our trip would never end.

The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues.  Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.

IMG_4175It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer.  IMG_4178Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds).  I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. IMG_4164 It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer.  It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night:  the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). IMG_4167 If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel.  This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter:  Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt.  The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so.  It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta.  With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market.   I still would recommend this appetizer though.  Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50).  The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. IMG_4166 The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika.  It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread.  IMG_4168This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards.  Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. IMG_4169 It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese.  It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere.  Our main dishes finally came.  I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50).  The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side.IMG_4170  The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn.  Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. IMG_4174 As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. IMG_4172 IMG_4171Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end.  IMG_4173The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok.  However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor.  Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75).  IMG_4176It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions.  The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper.  I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second.  The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.  It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.

So if you are in the Evanston area and looking for a fusion restaurant that I could liken to a more affordable Girl and the Goat, check out The Cellar!
The Cellar Beer and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Qué Guay de Paraguay!

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Hola a todos y bienvenidos a un capítulo nuevo de Mastication Monologues!  For those who don’t habla the espanol, I basically said, “what’s up and welcome!”.  Anyway, the reason why I busted out the Spanish is because I tried Paraguayan food for the first time today.  Now, if you don’t really know South America, there are basically two countries that dominate the world’s imagination when anyone mentions the continent:  Brazil and Argentina.  These two nations have become so famous thanks to their futbol teams/players, food, women, and not to mention the fact that they’re gargantuan and take up most of the continent.  Therefore, little landlocked Paraguay doesn’t stand a chance to have its voice heard on the global stage when it’s being drowned out by samba, tango, and pan pipes from Bolivia.

Poor Paraguay in yellow

Poor Paraguay in yellow

Somehow a slice of this South American minnow landed in Itaewon in Seoul in the form of the restaurant Comedor or “dining room” in Spanish.  It’s located at 130-3 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (서울시 용산구 이태원동 130-3).  You can get there by walking out of exit 4 of Itaewon Station and turn around. Take a right at the intersection and then take another right at the small alley. Comedor will be on your left across from Wolfhound Pub.

IMG_0996

The inside is very cozy and could probably hold only 10 people max at a time, but I personally preferred it to a large, noisy place.  There was only one waitress in the place which added to the homey atmosphere.  The menu consisted of individual empanadas (small pockets of meat, cheese, and vegetables) ranging from (4,000-6,000 W), menu of the day, and sides like chipa which is a native Paraguayan bread.  I ended up getting the combo platter (14,000 W) which consisted of three different types of empanadas, regular chipa bread, cheesy chipa bread, and a beverage.  For my beverage, I wanted to get mate tea (cocido 4,000 W, caliente and terrere varieties 6,000 W) which is the national drink of Paraguay and consists of brewing the leaves of the yerba mate plant.  Even though it wasn’t part of the combo deal, my waitress didn’t charge me for it probably because I spoke Spanish with her (hint hint for all you hispanohablantes out there).

When it came out, I didn’t know where to start first, but who was I kidding?  I was going straight for the empanadas.

Starting at right and going clockwise:  cheesy chipa, corn and cheese empanada, chicken empanada, beef empanada, and regular chipa in the middle

Starting at right and going clockwise: cheesy chipa, corn and cheese empanada, chicken empanada, beef empanada, and regular chipa in the middle

First, there was the cheese and corn one.  It was a great combination since the corn was very sweet, and the cheese was slightly salty and gooey.  The flaky pastry crust was a golden blanket that kept these two ingredients piping hot which really brought out the flavors even more. IMG_1002 I splashed some of the spicy Tabasco-esque sauce from the side bowl on top of a piece, and it was a spicy, salty, sweet fiesta in my mouth.  Next came the chicken empanada.IMG_1003  I wasn’t really blown away by this empanada since the chicken was on the dry side, but the pastry was still executed to excellence.  As for the final beef empanada, I was a bit surprised because not only did it have seasoned ground beef in it but also hard boiled egg crumbles. IMG_1005 This added an extra flavor/texture dimension to another possibly pedestrian empanada.  So out of the three I tried, the cheese and corn one stood head and shoulders above its less flavorful companions.  Then there were the two types of chipa bread whose name comes from the indigenous Guaraní language of Paraguay that still is widely spoken.  I tried the cheesy chipa first, and it was like corn bread mixed with Cheetos in a good way, i.e.  it wasn’t as radioactively orange, and I didn’t get the cheese dust all over my fingers.  Once I forked every last crumb down, I attacked the yuca chipa bread.  IMG_1006It was a great last piece of the platter because it was very similar to the Brazilian pão de queijo or “cheese bread”.  It’s exactly what it sounds like.  The actual bread was ever so crispy on the outside but quite soft/pliable which gave way to a moderate, interior coating of fresh white cheese.  To drink, it was a bit of folly on my part.  As I said before, I ordered mate tea, but there are three different types on the menu:  cocido (cooked), caliente (hot), and terere (cold in Guaraní).  I got the cocido thinking it was the traditional mate served out of a gourd with a metal straw, but instead I got the gentrified version of it in a fine china teacup.  Qué lastima!   Turns out the other two were the traditional versions.  Nevertheless, it was a potent brew that reflected its indigenous roots in every sip through a mostly herbal flavor profile while being consumed in a European manner.  One could say it was a microcosm of Paraguayan society within one cup of tea.

So if you’re tired of eating the same old tacos and nachos at Vatos in Itaewon, try out Comedor for some rare South American fare.

I See A Bowl of Noodles, I Want To Paint It Black

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Hello to everyone out there in cyberspace.  Today on Mastication Monologues, I am going to tell you about a Korean dish that I heard about very briefly in reference to Black Day in Korea where single people come together to hangout (kind of like an antithesis to the much commercialized Valentine’s/White Day) and eat a meal called jajangmyeon.

I actually had it today for lunch with my coteachers at my new elementary school.  They initially told me they were going to be ordering “Korean Chinese” food.  I knew that Incheon had the largest Chinatown in Korea, but I didn’t know what exactly they meant by this fusion term.  I asked for clarification, and they said, “You can get fried rice or black noodles.”  Done.  I was going to get the bizzare sounding black noodles.  Originally I was thinking that they were going to be black due to the addition of squid’s ink, but what faced me was very different.Jajangmyeon_1_by_eggnara  It was a massive mound of wheat noodles staring back at me in a dark dark brown sauce.  I found out that it is nearly identical to the Chinese noodle dish zhajiangmian (fried sauce noodles) hence the teachers basically telling me it’s a Chinese dish that the Koreans adapted to claim it as their own. It wasn’t an ideal dish to eat with chopsticks, but I managed to eat it all.  It wasn’t the prettiest thing, but the savory taste of the noodles was spectacular.  It was semi-sweet in nature with a salty pork taste permeating every noodle laden mouthful.  There were also onions in the sauce that kind of gave it a nice zing on occasion.  On the side, there was the ever-present Kimchi, but I had some bright yellow, pickled radishes that I never had before.  It actually tasted like a pickled cucumber back home.  I didn’t touch the raw onion since I was at work, but the black fish sauce added a potent, semi-jarring element to the sweet noodle sauce.  I also sampled some Korean deep-fried dumplings that looked like Chinese pork empanadas.  They were fresh but semi-pedestrian.  Of course, I washed it all down with a cup of Coca Cola.  Hooray for globalization!  This was definitely a cool look into Chinese-Korean relations in regard to food, and I’d probably get these black noodles again.  Maybe I’ll do so during a trip to Incheon’s Chinatown.  To be continued…

The Delicious Bay of Pigs

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Hello to all of my fellow gourmands and gastronomes out there!  Welcome to another article of Mastication Monologues.  Today I am going to be reviewing a little place in Chicago that is considered to have the best Cuban food in the entire city.  I’m talking about 90 Miles Cafe at 2540 W. Armitage.  There is another location located at 3101 North Clybourn Avenue, but I don’t know if it’s any different from the one I went to on Armitage.  Anyway, I was surprised that we even had Cuban restaurants in Chicago given that our Mexican population is much larger than any other Hispanic group, and obviously we’re a lot farther away from Cuba than Florida.  Last time I checked, we weren’t Miami with classic 1920’s art deco hotels, white sand beaches, and a more recent scourge of the sports world *CoMiamiHeatLebronJamesugh*.  Even though my expectations were not that high coming into this establishment, I was pleasantly surprised.

First, the outside was brightly colored and even had the signature buoy one could find in Key West that proclaims its status as the southernmost point in the contiguous United States on the roof.  I loved this decoration since it brought me back to when I actually went to Key West and got my picture taken with said tourist site.  Once inside, it was a very cramped area near the entrance, but when you move towards the larger dining area, it is actually quite cozy.  It’s also byob, so we ended up bringing Casillero del Diablo which was a Cabernet Sauvignon and had hints of black cherries which elegantly complimented my meal:  puerco rostizado.

La estrella de mi cena (The star of my dinner)

When it came out, I was very excited because it definitely looked like something that you’d get in an abuelita’s kitchen in Havana.  It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but I started with the roasted pork that apparently was infused with guayaba and mixed with pan-fried onions (yum!).  I’m as crazy for pan-fried onions as Tony Montana was in Scarface for da money, da power, and da women.  The pork itself was flavorful, tender, and had a slight sweet aftertaste which surprised me because I thought that the onions would overpower the guayaba.  Moving on from the main part of the entrée, I then attacked the rice and black beans like Castro’s forces against Bautista’s armies.  The rice was an average white long grain rice, but the beans were submerged in a black, pork based broth.  I wasn’t a huge fan of them being served like this, but they still were quite flavorful.  Anyway, I poured them into the rice, and it made for an interesting little goulash of sorts that I mixed with the pork on occasion.  The last item on my plate I saved till the end of the meal because I had never tried them before:  fried plantains or more commonly known as maduros (lit. “matures” or “ripes”).  I don’t know why I had never tried them before, but I was so glad that I did at 90 Miles Cafe because they were excellent.  The breading was even and slightly sweet and buttery which went along with the firm and ever so creamy texture of the plantains.

You don’t have to be a promoter of Marxism, smoke cigars, or rock a sweet beard to enjoy this cafe

So if you’re looking for an authentic slice of the forbidden island of Cuba, end your culinary embargo and head on over to 90 Miles Cafe in Chicago.

“The only things that the United States has given to the world are skyscrapers, jazz, and cocktails. That is all. And in Cuba, in our America, they make much better cocktails.”
Federico Garcia Lorca

90 Miles Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon

90 Miles Cuban Cafe on Foodio54

Looks Like Hell Can Freeze Over…Sort Of

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Hello all.  Welcome to another installation to Mastication Monologues.  I was looking over my blog as of late, and I was seriously slacking the past couple of months in terms of keeping up with my culinary adventures around the world.  Therefore, I am backtracking a bit, so bear with me.  Today I would like to tell you about an interesting restaurant called Chino Latino located at 2916 Hennepin Avenue South  Minneapolis, MN 55408.  It is located in a very nice part of the city, and there is ample street parking.

The fancy exterior of the restaurant

My girlfriend told me about this place awhile ago, so when I came up to visit we went there for dinner.  The decor is eclectic with different types of Latino and Asian artwork covering the walls of the entrance, i.e. papel picado from Dia de los Muertos and Thai shadow puppets .  Some of the pictures were borderline creepy, but I was here for the food, so I was ready to get down to business.  The interior of the actual dining room is two levels, but I did not care for the lighting.  It was too dark which made reading the menu a bit of a chore.  There’s a difference between mood lighting and trying to save on the electric bill.  Either that or I’m getting too old as I approach my quarter-life crisis.  Yet I digress once more, back to the food.

The interior of the restaurant

Even before I saw the menu, I knew that I was in for a treat as I saw that they had my favorite hot sauce on the table:  Yucateco Habanero salsa verde (Warning:  this sauce doesn’t mess around with people who think Pepper Jack cheese is spicy).  Our waitress was very helpful in explaining to me some of the different menu items, and the overall concept of their establishment which aims to deliver street food from countries which the Equator runs through.  As I looked over the different entrees, I was torn in many different directions by the different curries, satays, tacos, and noodles.  However, I was won over by a seemingly simple, borderline appetizer, dinner:  Habanero Hell Poppers.

One of the reasons why I chose this option from all of the others was the fact that there were three mini sticks of dynamite on the menu around the poppers.  Now, normally I take these “heat measurements” with a grain of salt and a good-natured chuckle since they are geared towards people who are not used to eating really spicy food.  However, since we were in an Equatorial restaurant I knew they’d be bringing the heat like their geographical location namesake, and I have a bit of a daredevil streak in me when it comes to food.  So when I ordered them, the waitress looked at me like I was a madman.  Always a good sign that you’re ordering a meal with some real cojones.  They came out on a medium-sized platter with four large poppers, a slice of lime, and a strange cup filled with an orange substance.  Upon closer inspection, there was a paper that came along with the food that in so many words states that if you complain about how spicy the poppers are, you’re going to be made fun of by the staff at Chino Latino and your friends.  Challenge accepted!

Great Balls of Fire!

I tucked into the poppers with gusto, and I finally found a spicy meal that lived up to all of the fanfare.  First off, it was hot temperature-wise.  The breading was light and airy and not greasy.  The Habanero peppers on the inside were fresh, and the Habanero infused cream cheese was hotter than napalm.  So, I would definitely let them cool off before you start wolfing them down.  The first one really started with a bang of spice along with a slightly acrid taste that comes along naturally with the skin of the Habanero.  By the time I finished the fourth and final popper, I definitely had the spicy food sweats; they’re not as scary as meat sweats but are definitely more painful.  However, I then tried the orange substance in the small ceramic cup, and it turned out to be blood orange sorbet.  It was like a plane dropping water on a moderate forest fire.  The embers were still smoldering, but the blaze was extinguished.  The actual sorbet was delicious with a light, even texture and a rich blood orange flavor.

So if you’re a fan of various types of Latino, Southeast, or Caribbean foods, check out Chino Latino in Minneapolis.  However, if you’re looking for a memorable dinner, try the Habanero Hell Poppers because as Kurt Cobain said, “It’s better to burn out than fade away”.

Chino Latino on Urbanspoon

Chino Latino on Foodio54

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!

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