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Tierra del Fuego

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What’s up, everyone out there!  Welcome to another funky-fresh edition of Mastication Monologues!  While the weather has been getting better, that means that more and more people are getting out and about in Chicagoland.  During much colder times, Janice and I visited the Firehouse Grill in Evanston and had a wonderful time there.IMG_4356

IMG_4357The overall ambiance is of the general pub variety, so no need to bust out your Sunday best when checking out this casual eatery.  Looking over the menu, it wasn’t pages and pages of items, but what Firehouse does offer is tons of variety on every page.  You want bacon wrapped jalapenos?  Pierogi?  Sweet smoked pork tacos?  You got it!  We started our meal with a couple of drinks.  I got the decadent cookie dough milkshake ($5) while Janice got the Secret Stache Stout.  My drink was as delicious as it sounds with plenty of creamy vanilla ice cream jam-packed with pieces of chocolate chip encrusted cookie dough, IMG_4351IMG_4352IMG_4479and Janice’s beer was a super stout with hints of vanilla and chocolate throughout the ebony brew. IMG_4353 As for an appetizer, Janice was feeling the warm pretzel with the warm cheese sauce on the side ($7). IMG_4354 We shared it, but I don’t think it was worth it.  True, the bread was warm, soft on the inside, and slightly crispy on the outside, but it was on the smaller end along with an extremely liberal coating of salt atop it.  Not my style.  However, my entree ended up being the Gaucho Burger ($13).  It was simple but everything I enjoyed in a burger.  The goat cheese was plentiful, and the chimichurri sauce on the side was the icing on this cake of beef. IMG_4355 I could now see why they called it the Gaucho Burger because of two clearly Argentinian cultural items.  First, the gauchos were like Argentina’s answer to America’s cowboys, but they dressed a little differently, din’t carry guns but a giant knife instead, and were more prone to violence even over extremely small things.  Second, there is the chimicurri sauce that is an icon of Argentine cooking.  The South American country is well known for its high quality steak, which was connected to the gaucho’s herds of cattle, but instead of slathering A1 on a nice porterhouse, they dip pieces into this garlic, oregano, and olive oil based sauce.  The name of the sauce is unknown, but I think the most logical answer is that it comes from the Basque word “tximitxurri” which roughly translates to “A mix of several things in no order”.  Whatever it means, I didn’t care in that moment as I combined it all into one hearty and flavorful burger.  The bun was sturdy and fresh with a light coating of flour on the bottom that made it easier to grip even though it was never going to fall apart in the first place.  The bold and notable goat cheese melted on the medium well beef and combined very well with the garlic and herbal notes from the chimichurri’s olive oil.  I was greatly satisfied with my meal, and Janice was as well.

So if you’re looking for a solid choice to eat some comfort bar food or try a new twist on an old favorite, check out Firehouse Grill in Evanston!
Firehouse Grill on UrbanspoonS

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Topolobampo: One Bday at a Time

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I try to try as many different meals as possible while educating the reader about new cultures or the origins of popular foods.  One of the most diverse food scenes out there is Mexican cuisine.  You can go all over the USA and find some form of taco, burrito, or nachos at least even though some interpretations of these meals (especially nachos) might not be seen south of the border.  However, there has been an evolution of Mexican food as of late where different Asian cuisines have been blended to create new and crazy creations like Korean inspired bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos.  On the other hand, one of the biggest names in Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, has been trying to get to the heart of simple Mexican food after decades of living, tasting, and drinking everything from Juarez to Jalisco.  Janice and I met him during Taste Talks of Chicago where he talked about the constant evolution of food, and how meals bring people together from different backgrounds or may make them more in touch with their heritage.  How does Rick manage to do this?  At his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, they serve a rotating menu that draws on Mexico’s culinary history starting in the pre-Colombian era and ending in modern Mexican fusion along with different specialty dishes from all corners of Mexico.  I had the pleasure of paying Topolobampo a visit for my birthday last year with my lovely girlfriend, so I apologize for the delay for this mouth-watering post.

The front of the restaurant consisted of two different restaurants but both owned by Mr. Bayless.  IMG_4981It was slightly confusing trying to find the entrance because we couldn’t see a clear door for either restaurant, but it turns out they shared a common door.  Upon walking in, we were in the lobby for Frontera, the cheaper and more boisterous of the two restaurants.  We walked through the hallway past the strains of musica ranchera to the more demure Topolobampo dining room.  Instead of lots of kitchy Mexican bric a brac on the walls a la Frontera Grill, there were more oil paintings and softer music.IMG_4978  I’d also recommend putting on nicer clothes since its a classy kind of joint.01df7509f997342c67799f4f76e06f709f9e61dfc8  I could hardly contain my excitement as I looked over the menu, but we started off with some drinks.  There weren’t any prices for the food items, but there are for the drinks.  So, it seems they operate on the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” train of thought.  Janice went with a classic glass of red wine that ended up being as big as her head, and I got a mezcal margarita ($12.50).IMG_4964  Mezcal has become more popular with the rise of tequila, but still isn’t very widespread.  It is distilled from the maguey agave plant which is so revered that the Aztecs called the fermented liquid the “elixir of the gods”.  Mezcal assumed its current form when Spaniards took the Aztec agave drink called “pulque” and found a distilling process to increase its alcohol content.  While in Mexico mezcal is consumed straight, I had it mixed with the Spanish Torres 10 year brandy, bitters, lemonade, and mezcal from the very home state in Mexico that started it all, Oaxaca.  It was shaken and served tableside with much pomp, and it was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted.unnamed (2)  It was super potent, but not too sweet. IMG_4957 The hight quality mezcal and Spanish brandy left my palate with a smooth caress with each sip, and there was no burning sensation when it was going down compared with some tequilas I’ve tried.  Once we got our drinks, we got to figuring out what food to order.  At Topolobampo, diners have the option of doing a three, five, or seven course tasting menu with the eaters choosing the dishes.  A fourth option is doing a “Perfect Seven” chef-chosen seven course meal.  We each went for a 5 course tasting menu since we were starving and ready to sample everything Chef Bayless had to offer.  We expected nothing less than magic after hearing him talk about his pre-Colombian menu where he made Mexican food with no beef, chicken, cilantro, lime, or even pork! Long story short, we were blown away.  Our meal started with an off-the-menu item that we got for free.  It was a tiny stack of radioactive pink disks resting in a similarly colored liquid.IMG_4959  Our waiter explained that it was pickled watermelon and radish topped with cayenne pepper.  It was cool, sour, yet slightly spicy that primed our tastebuds for what was next.  I got the sopa azteca (Aztec soup) that consisted of a medium heat pasilla pepper infused beef stock, incredibly tender chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips.IMG_4961  It was simple yet warmed my soul on that dark and cold night.  It kind of reminded me of a Mexican take on French onion soup.  Janice’s first plate was a surprise knockout in terms of flavor.  She got the Sand and Sea which was green ceviche on a bed of tortilla sand.  If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s basically a room temperature salad made of tomatoes, onions, some kind of whitefish, and lime juice.  In true Rick Bayless fashion, he turned this Mexican coastal favorite on its head with chunks of summer flounder, serrano chiles, lime, jicama, and avocados to give it that Hulk green hue.  01cb2a19792a28dad09df6f12d856abd8ce6b359a7Coming from someone who is not a huge fish person, I loved it, and Janice, a bigger fish lover than I, loved it as well.  It didn’t have that super “fishy” taste that might accompany some dishes; I’d liken it more to a lighter and thinner guacamole in terms of taste and texture.   Next up was my beautiful girlfriend’s sunchokes.  The name “sunchoke” was invented for this tuber that is kind of like a potato in terms of appearance in the 1960’s to revive the sales of this very old plant.  However, the sun part supposedly comes from the Italian name for it “girasole” or “sunflower” due to the similar yellow flowers that grew wherever sunchokes could be found.  As for the “choke” part, that came from famous French explorer Samuel Champlain sending back samples of the veggies to France from Canada and America noting a “taste like an artichoke”.unnamed (3)  They were served in a recado blanco sauce from the Yucatan peninsula, a.k.a. the home of the Maya and every high schoolers’ Spring Break plans.  It was a simple sauce that had some garlic, oregano, and some sweet spices to give it a semi-curry character with a guero chile mixed in to give it a vibrant yellow hue.  unnamed (5)Underneath them were resting fermented kohlrabi pieces which were basically pickled turnips.  It was both spicy yet savory and slightly sweet.  The cool slice of avocado on the side cut down the spice when necessary.  They were ok but not amazing in comparison to my second dish:  the carne asada in mole negro.  Now, a lot of people love the chocolatey, spicy sauce on their enchiladas, and much to my own surprise, I am not one of them.  I love chocolate in all forms, but I normally shy away from mixing sweet and savory items.  Topolobampo made me see the upside of this pre-Colombian sauce.  First, there were the firewood-roasted pieces of ribeye that were small but extremely lean, and these exemplary cuts of meat were surrounded by smoked green beans and a small tamal of chipilin herbs. unnamed (4) Mole comes from the Aztec word for “sauce”, and legend has it that a group of nuns threw a bunch of spices together with some chocolate to make sauce for the archbishop’s meal.  He loved it and wanted to know what it was.  One of the nun’s said, “I made a mole”, and thus the legend was born.  For once, I was like the archbishop in a divine state of being when eating this plate. unnamed The Oaxacan mole wasn’t overly sweet like other moles I have tried; the chihuacle chili peppers really brought a little fire to each bite which I appreciated along with the other 28 ingredients that went into the delicious sauce.  As for the meat, it was astoundingly tender and smoky to compliment the mole.  The same could be said for the green beans.  Next, I got goat barbacoa which was served two ways.  The lower layer was slow cooked goat that could be found in a Jalisco birria stew while the top was a panchetta or cured piece of goat that was crunchier.IMG_4971  It was served with garnishes on the side that were fresh, but the goat when it was coated in the red chili sauce was rich, almost too rich for its own good.  IMG_4973While the barbacoa was melt-in-your-mouth quality, it was a bit too salty for my liking.  Janice’s tamal festivo that was stuffed with turkey, chestnuts, and coated in a red mole sauce was like a Mesoamerican take on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.IMG_4967  I was very thankful she ordered it because it was extremely comforting and hearty.  Our final round of savory plates took us to two stewed dishes.  I got the mole de olla or (pan mole) which consisted of beef short ribs wallowing in a ancho and guajillo mole while being topped with some zesty and sour prickly pear fruitIMG_4969.  IMG_4970It covered every taste bud with an explosion of flavors, and I highly recommend this dish.  Janice’s suckling pig was equally decadent. 01f8efcc2b3d20eb4e1e73a399b356a5e08d901b68The braised pork was succulent, overshadowing the greens, and further embellished with the extremely thin veils of 14-month dry cured ham resting softly atop this tiny nugget of greatness.  Even after all of these dishes, we still had room for dessert because as the maxim of high end dining held true where it was a series of small but high quality ingredients that satisfied us, but we didn’t feel stuffed.

Dessert was just as over the top and true to its Mexican roots.  The cacao tree was an homage to the sacred cacao bean that was considered a drink and food only reserved for Aztec emperors and gods.  A piece of milk chocolate bark lay across three different forms of the dark stuff. unnamed (1)unnamed (6) First, there was the moist lava cake that was made with house-made chocolate straight from Tabasco, Mexico.  Words cannot describe how delicious this element was.

So much love for the cake.

Clearly she liked it.

Next, the cacao fruit mousse was the opposite in the sense that it wasn’t extremely rich but rather a smooth and sweet raspberry and chocolate cream.  Finally, there was the rosita de cacao ice cream that was like a lip-smackingly great French vanilla combined with a generous helping of chocolate chunks from Chiapas, Mexico.  Janice got the crepas con cajeta (crepes with cream) which was just as great. IMG_4977 The crepes were slightly warm and filled with bittersweet dark chocolate ganache that became gooey due to the heat, and the pumpkin spice and pecan toffee ice cream on the side started to melt that made it perfect for the Fall.  On top of all of this, there was a meringue and warm apples that made it a mixture of European and pre-Colombian influences to make my stomach very happy.  The final two desserts were the winter buñuelo de viento and the guava atole.  The former was the antithesis to the cacao tree since it was all white errthang.01c17989af02d0e072be4bab7bc510836a68be025e  It consisted of a scoop of vanilla-brandy ice cream topped with puffed rice stewing in a warm traditional Mexican ponche or “punch” infused with hibiscus, tamarind, brandy, sugarcane, and tejocote apples.  The latter, the guava atole, was a complete nod to the Aztecs who invented the corn and flour drink.IMG_4974  On one side there was a steamed masa corn cake that was semi-sweet and moist.   Then the atole guava ice cream was on the other side where the sweetness of the tropical guava mixed with a slightly starchy element.  I liked the crunchy masa strips and flour crumbles because they brought both a change of texture along with an almost pie a-la-mode feel with the ice cream combined with the crumbles.  It was my second favorite dessert behind the cacao tree.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied, and it was a fantastic birthday from the beginning to the end even though I never found out how much everything cost haha.  If you want some gourmet Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices for high end diners, I highly recommend Topolobampo!
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

 

 

Winter bunuelo de viento

guava atole

The Sooper Gift of Gab

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Welcome to another mouth-watering slice of Mastication Monologues where the reviews are real, and the food is plentiful!  Today’s post is about Korean cuisine, a corner of the world I am very well acquainted with due to my time living there last year.  While working there as an elementary school EFL teacher, I sampled a wide variety of drinks, snacks, and meats that many Western diners would be repulsed by.  When I came back to America, I still had a hankering now and then for spicy kimchi and other savory bites, so thankfully Korean cuisine in Chicago has expanded beyond Koreatown.  Plus, my girlfriend, who is Korean American, has given me the inside scoop to some of the hidden gems across Chicagoland like San Soo Gab San.IMG_4325

When we got there, I knew it was going to old-school just based on the tiny parking lot that tested my mettle and growling stomach.  Once I squeezed into a tiny spot, I walked into the establishment.  It was very simply furnished and not too busy on a Sunday afternoon.  The silver vents over the grills were all throughout the restaurant, and the brusque Korean waitresses just told us to sit at a table very quickly.  Once taking our seats, they brought out the banchan or little dishes you get for free that come along with your meal.  They can range from the basic kimchi to boiled peanuts to even these clear gel noodles that were absolutely bizarre since they were chewy yet slightly crispy and didn’t have any taste. IMG_4331 It was unlike anything I saw back in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I also have to say that at San Soo Gab San that they gave so many samplers that we could barely see the table top, but the quantity did not take away from the quality.  The amount and variety of banchan was very different from any restaurant I saw in South Korea.  When our waitress finally came over, we got an order of wang kalbi (grilled ribs) ($19.95), heuk gumso tang (goat meat soup) ($9.95), and yuk gae jang (hot and spicy shredded beef soup) ($7.95).

It took a bit of time to come out, but when it did I was afraid of getting a steam burn from the blazing hot soup and ribs.  Eyebrow-scorching heat aside, I couldn’t wait to dig into the meal.IMG_4327  Once it finally subsided a bit, I went to town on the spicy beef soup in front of me.  It was hearty and super scrumptious with plenty of seasoned meat along with clear rice noodles that were extra tender and melt-in-your mouth greens. IMG_4326 As for the spice factor, I’d liken it to maybe a slightly dull jalapeno level of heat.  Nothing like other super-spicy Korean foods I’ve tried before, but it let me know I was still alive.  The more interesting part of the meal was the goat meat soup.  While I had tangled with some goat curry before in London, I wanted to see the Korean take on this atypical meat on American menus.  Janice was telling me about how delicious the soup was, and it really did live up to the hype. IMG_4330 There were a lot more greens in this stew, but the goat meat was lip-smacking good.  It wasn’t quite like beef since it had a slightly gamier taste that could be likened to a less intense lamb.  The best part of the meal was the wang kalbi. IMG_4328 I didn’t really dig the fact that there was way more bone than meat, but the beef that was on the bone was extra succulent.  I especially enjoyed the parts close to the bone that were a bit more difficult to remove, but once stripped from the bone, proved to be like a beefy, cartilaginous chew-toy for this hungry dog.  With a bit of jaw power and gumption, I took it down with gusto.   I highly recommend these ribs.

By the end of my meal, I was full, satisfied, and not bloated even though it looked like the banchan were never touched there were so many little dishes.  So, if you want a no frills Korean barbecue/cuisine experience in the Chicagoland, hit up San Soo Gab San!

San Soo Gab San on Urbanspoon

Throwback Post: Mămăligă in Romania

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What is up, everyone out there?  Welcome to the first installation of many on Mastication Monologues that is a retro series of food adventures I undertook throughout Europe while living in Barcelona.  I know there are many stereotypical dishes to try throughout Europe like fish and chips in England, baguettes and pate in France, or tons of different tapas in Spain to name a few.  Believe me, I’ve tried them, and they all were delicious.  Instead, I’d like to highlight more unique plates and snacks that you might have never even heard of and might want to try or maybe not.  Today’s post brings us to the farthest eastern point of my wanderings:  Romania.

Romania is an anomaly in Eastern Europe.  Not only do they speak a language that falls into the Romance category alongside French, Italian, and Spanish while being surrounded by Slavic neighbors, but their most famous celebrity is the infamous prince of the night, Dracula.  I went there in December with my friends Kevin, Steph, Jesus, and Jillian, and it was probably the best trip I ever took during my time abroad.

We all approve of our new house.

We all approve of our new house.

My travel companions, the wild environs including wild dogs in the airport, and just the general randomness that seems to be more prevalent in Eastern Europe made it a journey to remember.  n1949958_46935972_9877The food was a mix of Slavic and Latin flavors with a leaning more toward the former, and one meal that really stood out to me was something called mămăligă.

Since it was the beginning of December, it was quite chilly, so we didn’t spend a lot of time sitting in parks and enjoying the local flora and fauna in Bucharest.  We quickly found a folk restaurant and appreciated the warm room and comfortable places to sit.  It looked like a more upscale place based on the spotless floors and walls, but it also seemed more traditional in its decor.  While many restaurants in America may give you a free bread basket or tortilla chips with salsa on the side, this place supplied us with a complimentary plate of assorted pickled vegetables along with a free shot of vodka.  I’m sure the pickled cucumbers and spicy peppers were used to chase the strong spirit, and the alcohol warmed us up quite quickly.  We looked over the menu, and I couldn’t really decide what to get.  The staff didn’t speak much English, but I saw there were terrible English translations under the Romanian items.  One caught my eye called balmoş (sometimes spelled balmuş).  It just said it was made of  mămăligă, butter, cheese, sour cream, and eggs.  The waiter seemed happy with my choice, and it really piqued my attention once it came out.  it was served in a small bowl.  It looked like a yellow and white porridge with bits of sausage on top.  After doing some research afterward, the yellow was the mămăligă or a porridge made of yellow corn.800px-MamaligaBranza  It is normally boiled with water and can serve as a substitute for bread, but for this balmoş it was boiled in sheep milk.  Along with that fun tidbit, I found out that this dish is a specialty with Romanian shepherds.HPIM2109  So, I grabbed a spoon and dug into the bowl to find layers of sour cream, telemea (a type of feta cheese), caş (a type of fresh curdled ewe cheese), urdă (a type of curdled cheese).  Thank God for Wikipedia to explain all of those cheeses to me.  The cheeses were strong and pungent yet softened by the sour cream and porridge.  It wasn’t a huge bowl, but it really stuck to my ribs for the rest of the day/night.  I could tell that the Romanian shepherds perfected this recipe for long, lonely stretches in the wild.  However, I was surrounded by friends and having the time of my life in Romania.

So if you want perhaps a Romanian vegan take on chili or are in Bucharest and looking for a fading piece of the past, try the mămăligă!

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

London (Day 3)- Feel De Riddim, Feel De Ride, Sit on Down, It’s Eatin’ Time!

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After a rousing first and second day in London, day three would put them all to shame as I managed to try two different restaurants while going all out at night at some fun night clubs and bars.  However, let me start at the beginning.

It was a laid-back day where I mainly walked around the museum area of South Kensington.  I thought I would be able to knock out both the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in one day…how foolish I was.  I would highly recommend a trip to the Natural History Museum over the Victoria and Albert Museum since they have many great biological, geological, and astronomical displays.  The only downside was the hordes of school children that swarmed about every main display like screaming ants at a picnic.  After braving my own personal running of the schoolchildren, it really worked up an appetite.  So, I decided I would take a trip to south London, specifically Brixton.  This area has been known over the decades as a bastion for Caribbean immigrants along with scenes of brutal violence like riots and knife crime.  Naturally, like many ethnic enclaves in a cosmopolitan city, it has recently become trendy for students and young professionals to take up residence in Brixton.  With them comes the phenomenon of gentrification, but where I walked around in the neighborhood, I didn’t feel it was as widespread as in certain neighborhoods of Chicago (read:  Pilsen).  I was determined to visit El Negril that specializes in Caribbean food, but as always with my luck, they didn’t open until 5 pm.  So I walked back toward the tube station to find another eatery called Bamboula which drew me in with its vibrant colors. IMG_2221 Once inside, it was moderately full, and I was the only white person in there which seemed to come as a shock to the main waitress/hostess.  I was quickly seated opposite a guy who seemed to be either touched in the head or communicating with Jah while eating/paying for the bill which annoyed my waitress greatly.  Next to him was a Rasta tapping out a reggae beat on his plate between mouthfuls and seemed to be quite a devil with the ladies.  After soaking in these surroundings, I went for the lunch special of goat curry, callaloo rice, grilled plantains, and salad.  It also came with a drink, and there were so many things on the menu that I didn’t even know what they were.  True to form, I went for something called “sour sop” juice.  It all eventually came out with a wonderful presentation. IMG_2220 I started with the goat curry and the callaloo rice.  The goat was quite bony, but the chunks of meat were tender and tasted like a mix between beef and lamb.  The brown curry it was swimming in went exquisitely with the the rice which seemed to be made out Basmati rice and seasoned with some scotch bonnet peppers to give it a proper kick.  This starchy side gets its name from the callaloo leaves which were originally eaten by West Africans and then their ancestors when they arrived as slaves in Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago etc.  I could only describe them as having a very subtle spinach texture and taste.  The salad was refreshing but nothing out of the ordinary, and the plantains were delicious since they were savory yet had a bit of the sweetness of their banana relatives.  Then there was the mysterious sour sop juice.  It looked like lemonade and tasted like a sublime mix of passion fruit, pear, and pineapple juice.  Once I demolished all of my meal, I asked Princess what exactly a sour sop was, and she said that it’s a type of fruit that is native to Latin America that kind of looks like a green pear.  I sent my regards to the Rasta chef and was on my way to see the Brixton Market.
Bamboula Caribbean Restaurant on Urbanspoon
IMG_2225IMG_2222IMG_2226  It was an entire street and mini community of food hawkers that catered to the local populace with sour sop stalls, piles of callaloo, roti shops, tea houses, and plenty of reggae beats floating overhead.IMG_2227  It was like I was transported to a completely different world far from the pomp of Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.  Since I was in the mood of markets, I moved from Brixton Market to the more upscale Borough Market in the middle of London. IMG_2242 My friends recommended that I check it out even though it’s a bit more expensive/tourist ridden than the other central markets.  These negative attributes fell by the wayside as I was in some sort of culinary Valhalla as I wanted to try everything in sight, but unfortunately I think it would take at least a week to hit up every stall.IMG_2228 IMG_2229  It was a wondrous playground as I flitted from a cheese maker to a man serving paella and different curries to a chocolatier to a seasoning shop that had uber-expensive truffles on display to smell.IMG_2235 IMG_2234 IMG_2233 IMG_2232 IMG_2231 IMG_2230  I obliged, and the earthy aroma nearly knocked me over with how powerful it was.  I can see why they’re only served in small slivers as garnishes to dishes.  Eventually, I decided this would be the perfect place to get dessert, and I saw a bakery stall with a very long line that was moving quickly. IMG_2237

A mountain of meringues.

A mountain of meringues.

I jumped in line, and I immediately knew what I was going to get:  a monstrous chocolate chip cookie.  It was a bargain at only 2 pounds (~4 bucks), but it was quite possibly the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had.

Normal sized?

Normal sized?

Think again!

Think again!

It was semi-soft with rich chocolate slices spread evenly throughout along with some rich brown sugar that sang with every bite.  I liked this market too because it was mostly covered as I discovered it had been raining for awhile as I walked out to the tube station in the shadow of the Shard building.  At night, I went out with my friends Ravi, Rav, and Bob in Shoreditch to a restaurant called Chico Bandito which allegedly was a Mexican and Cuban restaurant. IMG_2244 Upon looking at the menu, I couldn’t see even one receta cubana, but the Mexican food all looked muy sabrosa.  I hit it off with our waitress hablando espanol, and she hooked us up with some festive hats as we indulged in the last ten minutes of happy hour.

Viva la hora feliz!

Viva la hora feliz!

IMG_2250 To start off, we got two plates of nachos, one traditional and the other with chorizo. IMG_2248 Both were some of the best nachos I ever had because the tortilla chips seemed to be lighter than the ones back in the USA and with less of an overpowering corn flavor that allowed the gooey cheese, cool sour cream, spicy chorizo, and zesty guacamole to really make their mark on our palates.  As for the main entree, I went for the chicken chimichanga which ended up being a softball-sized fried, stuffed tortilla. IMG_2251 It was expertly made with a crunchy exterior that gave way to a spicy monton de pollo.  The rice and mixed bean and green salad on the sides were delicious, but the problem was that the chimichanga alone ended up sitting like a bowling ball in my stomach for the next three hours.  I couldn’t even finish the rest of the meal.  I didn’t feel greasy, just extremely full which kind of put a damper on our night out when we went to Bar Kick.  I’d highly recommend checking out Chico Bandito though for quality Mexican food.   I eventually felt better by the time we made it to the dance club Concrete where they were having Biggie and Tupac night.    After a long night of dancing to 90s rap tracks,  we rode home on rent-a-bikes from the club at 2 am through the streets of London. I then realized It’s tough being a food critic and a gangsta at the same time.
Chico Bandito on Urbanspoon

Biggie approves this blog post.

Biggie approves this blog post.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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