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A View to a Grill

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Welcome one and all to another great post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post focuses on cuisine that might not get the spotlight like other, more mainstream types of food like Chinese food or Mexican food, but that doesn’t mean that it is of lesser quality.  In this case, I’m talking about Syrian cuisine.  It is part of the Levant on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, its food shares roots with neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and even as far as Iraq.  Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has colored everyone’s thoughts about this country, but I would like to show you that there is more to Syria than the seemingly eternal struggle between Assad and the plethora of Islamic militias that shift alliances as much as the Syrian desert sands.  I had my first taste of Syrian food at Pita Pita Mediterranean (formerly Pita Pit).

The restaurant itself doesn’t look like much. IMG_5658 It’s just another storefront in another stripmall in the northern Chicago suburbs, but the food inside is like the lamp in the Disney movie Aladdin:  relatively unknown to the world unless you help Jafar with both halves of the golden scarab.  Actually, it’s not as dramatic as that given that a quick Google Maps could sort you out in a snap, but there definitely is treasure to be found when looking over their menu.  I saw typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare like kebab, hummus, and Jerusalem salad, but then there were other choices I’ve never heard of.  Naturally, I gravitated toward these options.  I started off with sampling their babha ghanouj ($3 small/$5 large) and the muthawama ($3 small/$5 large).

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Babha ghanouj (بابا غنوج) literally means “pampered papa” in reference to most likely the head of a harem, and these flavors were definitely made for royalty.  It consists of grilled and pureed eggplant that is then mixed with sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic, and yogurt.  It was also topped with a dollop of olive oil for good measure.  I found this cold spread to be both savory yet slightly tart that went very well with the light pita triangles that came with the dip.  I was more partial to the muthawama.  It was very similar to the babha ghanouj in terms of ingredients aside from replacing the eggplant with potatoes.  I think this switch made the white condiment feel more like sour cream and taste like a garlic aioli which goes great on any type of carb, be it pita or French fry.  As for my main dish, I passed over the tried and true favorites in my mind and took a dive into the great unknown with the mnazeleh ($10).  When it came out, I didn’t know what to think.  IMG_5655It wasn’t as sexy as the spreads I had before, but it looked more like an over spiced pile of onions and tomatoes.  The colors weren’t as bright either.  However, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover.  It came with a more vibrant, complimentary side of rice that was moist and lightly seasoned that I subsequently folded into the main meal.  IMG_5654What I ended up experiencing was one of the best Middle Eastern dishes I’ve eaten.  The eggplant base that upheld the tomato, onion, and beef hodgepodge was super tender to the point of disintegrating faster than Subway’s ties with Jared and was infused with the beefy goodness residing above.  The addition of the rice gave it a lot more body, and I would suggest changing the recipe to include the rice.  I recommend this plate if you’re looking for something uniquely Syrian and full of flavor.  By the end of my meal, I thought I couldn’t fit anymore, but I had to try their baklava ($2.80).  This dessert’s history is as multilayered as its filo dough.  Different countries throughout the eastern Mediterranean claim it as their own invention, but there is no definitive answer for a dessert that is as old as time.  Some scholars believe it comes from the Mongols since it might derive from the root “bayla-” meaning “to pile up”, but the “-va” ending suggests a Persian origin.  The oldest recipe, dating back to the second century B.C., of anything resembling this sweet treat is the Roman placenta cake.  You might be thinking, “Ugh!  They made cake out of placenta?!!!  Vomitrocious!”  Au contraire, mon frere.  The word “placenta” derives from the Greek word “plakous” which related to layered breads and was then transferred into Latin as “placenta” as a word meaning “cake”.  However, the Roman version had cheese, honey, and bay leaves between each layer or “tracta” instead of the nuts we use now.  The modern version of baklava is thought to have derived from Istanbul during the reign of the Ottomans where the sultan would present his elite guard, the Janissaries, with trays of baklava on the 15th day of Ramadan in a procession complete with pomp and circumstance.  At Pita Pita Grill, I was neither a Christian mercenary nor served with any great ceremony.

Cue drooling...now!

Cue drooling…now!

The baklava was dripping with honey with every forkful, but I think it was a bit too thick for its own good.  It had plenty of chopped nuts throughout the flaky dough layers, but it made it extremely frustrating to cut with a fork.  I’d prefer if it was served in smaller, easier to eat squares.  I did get a ton of baklava for the price though, and I recommend it to anyone.  Just be prepared to use some elbow grease to keep it on the plate.

So, if you’re looking for a “diamond in the rough” restaurant that is no frills in terms of presentation, go to Pita Pita Grill and discover a whole new world of delicious, Syrian food!

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Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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Bring Money to Get This Honey

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Hey, everyone!  Sorry for the wait, but I’ve been busy as of late with tutoring.  However, I hope you’re ready for a finger-lickin’ good blog post today on Mastication Monologues!  While I have my affinity for certain fried chicken chains over others, Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago has quickly become one of the best places I’ve ever had the artery-clogging, guilty pleasure.IMG_3048

After a fun day out on the town with my friend Janice, we decided to try Honey Butter Fried Chicken for lunch dinner or as we called it, “linner”, or perhaps “dunch” would work just as well.  That portmanteau was born out of the fact we went to eat around 5 pm since we’re old people deep down inside.  I didn’t expect the restaurant to be as busy as it was at that time of day.IMG_3047  We went in line, and there was a sense of pressure as the line continued to form behind us.  As my pulse quickened and my eyes scanned over the fried chicken, sandwhich, and sides options, I eventually went for a four piece chicken platter ($15; too expensive) and a side of schmaltz smashed potatoes ($2.75).  We quickly jumped off to the side as the tide of customers ebbed forth, and we decided to sit out on the patio that is in the back of the restaurant.  However, Chicago that day decided to live up to its nickname the Windy City by greeting us with chilly blasts of wind that made us retreat into the main dining room (though the Windy City name doesn’t come from the weather phenomenon).  Once settled in a more comfortable eating environment, bar the proximity of the tables to each other which invades a bit of your privacy, our food was brought out to us.  It was smaller than I was anticipating for the price, but I was judging a crusty brown book by its cover.

So. much. fat.

So. much. fat.

I started with the corn muffins.  These little nuggets of sweet, fluffy goodness were appropriately stamped with honey bees and honeycombs.  My taste buds were abuzz after slathering the muffins with hefty helpings of the free honey butter on the side that were both creamy and not too sweet.  You only get one complimentary tub with your chicken platter, but they just decided to give me another one because they’re cool like that.  As for the chicken, while it doesn’t have the potent punch of Popeye’s spicy chicken strips, the breading was superb by being both bursting with flavor and not that greasy.  The meat was succulent, and the best part was that the breast pieces were completely boneless which gave me a lot more chicken than I was anticipating.  My duck fat mashed potatoes were excellent, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t like gravy on their mashed potatoes.  I think it was because the light, salty flavor of the duck fat in the gravy wasn’t as overpowering as a beef based sauce.  The actual taters were light and whipped.  I even had some room in my bulging tummy for a bit of Janice’s creamed corn that was wild.

Not your granddaddy's creamed corn

Not your granddaddy’s creamed corn

While the corn was run of the mill, it was kicked up a notch with Thai green curry.  What that meant for each forkful was that the buttery corn flavor brought a subtle citrus zest that really surprised me in a good way.  By the end of the meal, I was happier than a rooster in a hen house.

So if you’re looking for a new take on fried chicken that goes beyond the standard establishments and normal price range, check out Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Which Came First: The Chicken or the Hot Sauce?

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Howdy y’all!  It’s time for another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today I am going to be writing about a certain restaurant chain that has a special, deep-fried spot in my heart (and no I’m not talking about Atherosclerosis) but rather that golden brown, Cajun breading that comes on Popeye’s’ Chicken.  My favorite Popeye’s is located at 5711 S. LaGrange Road in Countryside IL.  There is a closer location on Cass Ave., but I no longer patronize that location due to its lackluster biscuits that are more akin to hardtack than buttermilk pillows, and a bout of food poisoning they served to me with a side of bland chicken.  But I digress.

The actual establishment is nothing too extravagant as there are numerous Cajun knickknacks hanging about the entrance, and Mardi Gras related memorabilia festooning the wall space between each table.  Many are quite humorous such as the following pics:

A Little African-American Vernacular English Anyone?

Sadly No Beignets Here

I Don’t Get It

After taking in all of this colorful scenery (including the hot sauce case that contains a bottle that should not belong in there. See if you can figure out this riddle when you go there), I got down to business by ordering the five chicken strip meal (which comes in either mild or spicy varieties and then two sides which can be either a biscuit and Cajun fries, mashed potatoes, dirty rice, or cole slaw).

“Some Mashed Potaters…mmm hmmm” a la Slingblade

As far as side dish affinities go, I normally choose the biscuit and the extra biscuit side which is an approximation of what God would eat for dinner if he resided south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Chicken-wise, I usually go for the spicy variety which I would liken to a slightly hotter paprika that resides under the crispy breading that doesn’t get spicier than a standard jalapeno heat.  Plus, if you decide to order traditional, whole pieces of chicken, you can also get it in regular and spicy varieties (unlike the Colonel who just has one flavor that relies on a mysterious recipe which still tastes bland to me).

However, I always manage to douse these strips with some good ol’ fashioned Louisiana Hot Sauce that is  in ample supply on the table in bottles.  Even though there are some people who complain that after eating fried chicken they have an unsavory “stuffed with grease” feeling, I can assure you that Popeye’s chicken is fried lightly enough to not turn off even the most finicky eater.  The preparation is a world away from the Cass Avenue location where even their freshest chicken seems a day old in terms of succulence and overall flavor/aroma, and their breading seems as mediocre as the service.  Not only that, but they also only give out hot sauce in packets…this isn’t Taco Bell, people.  Anyway, moving on to the sweeter part of my meal:  the biscuits!

Even the food smiles back at you!

Biscuits have long been a part of Southern cuisine whether being served alone or smothered in artery clogging, chunktastic white sausage gravy.  At Popeye’s Chicken, they are merely served as a side to the savory chicken which can be complimented with some decadent squirts of honey as shown in the bottle on the right in the photo (also served in packets at the Cass Ave. location).  Once again, this is where the Countryside location outdoes the Cass Avenue Popeye’s.  The former manages to combine flour, shortening, and buttermilk to form a porous yet firm, buttery-rich mini-pillow of ecstasy that teeters on the edge of culinary perfection whilst adding honey to its warm interior.Biscuit Enhancement...Trust Me, I'm a Doctor  On the other hand, the biscuits at the Cass location nearly always seem to have the consistency of a saltine in terms of flakiness, dryness, and saltiness which leaves me with a general sense of regret having subjected my palate to such arid dreariness.   I also must comment on the other side dishes that I have tried with my chicken dinners.  First, there are the Cajun fries where are like normal French fries but are fried to a dark brown hue and covered in a pepper based seasoning that is not too overbearing in terms of spice (they can be hit or miss though so tread with caution).  Then there is the dirty rice which is not as unsanitary as it sounds because it merely is a white rice dish that mixes in either sausage or chicken liver to give the rice an alleged “dirty” look to it (with this dish, either you really like it or you really hate it kind of like Brussels sprouts).  The final side I’ve had is the mashed potatoes which is my mom’s favorite, but they are worth the price because the sausage gravy nicely compliments the finely mashed potatoes and does not drown out their flavor.

Overall, Popeye’s Chicken at Countryside is a restaurant everyone should try if you’re looking for some great fried chicken and sides for a good price if KFC/Chick-Fil-A/Church’s has you clucking for something different.  In the immortal phrase of the  Cajun chef Justin Wilson, “”I ga-ron-tee!” (J’vous garantis! for all the Francophones out there) that this restaurant will leave you satisfied as demonstrated by my love for their biscuits/chicken.

I Got Double Vision!

Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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