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You Can Bring a Horse to Water, But He’d Prefer a Burger (Au Cheval)

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I never thought that I would be back this soon, this deep into the jungle that is graduate school at Northwestern University, but here I am!  Back for a limited time on Mastication Monologues, but hopefully I will be able to write more once this mad quarter is finished.  This year has been flying by, and I have visited and eaten at tons of great locations across Chicagoland.  However, today’s review involves a restaurant/diner known best for its hotly-touted cheeseburger.  In a foodie city like Chicago where we love our meat based dishes, especially hamburgers, the previous sentence will elicit a different response almost every time you ask someone from Chicago depending on where they are living in the city.  We even have the Billy Goat Diner made famous by Saturday Night Live and a curse featuring a certain Northside team that is currently trying to break the same curse and win the World Series.  Go Cubbies!  Yet, Au Cheval is one of the most highly regarded establishments across the city when it comes to the signature American dish of cheeseburger and fries. (Quick note:  Two other great restaurants, Cochon Volant and Small Cheval, have similar burgers minus the typical long lines)

Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop/Fulton Meat Packing District a.k.a. Google Headquarters new backyard, it is the flagship on a block of heavy culinary hitters including Stephanie Izzard’s so-famous-you-need-reservations-six-months-ahead-of-time Girl and the Goat  (highly recommend this restaurant too).  Au Cheval is relatively new in a city of numerous old establishments that have withstood the test of time, and based on our experience, there exists the distinct possibility that this burger joint might become part of the city’s fabric if it hasn’t already.  Janice and I met up with our friends Katelin and Dan for lunch.  They have metered street parking that we took advantage of, or you can reach it by taking the L (subway for you non-Chicagoans).  It is a very popular eatery if you couldn’t tell based on my description before, and they do not take reservations.  Because of this fact, it is often subject to mob scenes of people lining up outside during peak lunch and dinner hours to sample their offerings.  Luckily, we managed to beat the lunch rush and were immediately seated in their slightly dim, modern diner. img_9045 As I surveyed the tiny interior, I wasn’t blow away by my surroundings, but I’m a gourmand, not an interior designer.  img_9024Dan and I started the meal off with their Mad Town Nut Brown that was dark, had 7 different malts, and had nice hazelnut notes. img_9026 Au Cheval also offers a wide variety of mixed drinks, shots, and non-alcoholic beverages.  Food-wise, I could describe them as a very upscale diner that managed to find a twist on simple creations like bologna sandwiches or scrambled eggs served with fois gras. img_9025 Breakfast offerings aside, Janice and I were there for the burger that has been proclaimed by the Food Network, Forbes, etc. as “The Best Burger in America” for multiple years. They had a single ($10.95) or double patty ($12.95) option for an upcharge as well as the egg and bacon.  We followed Dan’s advice for choosing the double patty with egg and bacon.  He followed suit, and Katelin ordered the raw vegetable salad with apple and blue cheese ($10.95).  Surprisingly, before you could say “Da’ Bears”, our burgers were in front of us in their full glistening glory as well as a side of fries. img_9036

Our taste buds are ready

Our taste buds are ready

First, let’s discuss the much talked about burger.img_9032  Now, I am not typically a fan of the egg-on-burger trend that has been sweeping America, but visually this fried egg seemed like a work of pure art with its off-center sun in the sumptuous solar system of flavors in front of me.  Plus, if an egg is on top of a burger, it is described as being “on horseback” hence the name of the restaurant being “Au Cheval”.  Then there was the slabs of pure pork that were stacked like massive redwood planks over two serious beef patties donning flowing robes of American cheese.  The Eastern European side of me also appreciated the dill pickle spear on the side to cut through the grease.  Once I stacked it all together, it was a soaked monument to gastronomic greatness.  img_9040I hefted this sandwich to my maw and was immediately drawn into the aromas of beef and sweet pork belly like bees to honey.  I was smitten at first chomp.  The beef was grilled to medium rare perfection while the cheese was omnipresent yet not overwhelming.  I was partial to the pork belly that shone through and enhanced the flavor profile with a maple syrupy sweetness that your run-of-the-mill, crispy, thin bacon could not accomplish in a million dinner parties.  The only downsides to this burger were the aforementioned egg which kind of made the brioche bun hard but not impossible to grip, and the bottom part of the bun which left my burger hanging by my fingertips  at the end of this white-knuckle ride of a meal.  The fries on the side were just as great as the burger with a palatable amount of salt and just the right amount of fry to their golden hued exteriors.img_9027  Katelin said her salad was delectable too even though it wasn’t served between two pieces of bread or hiding beneath a sea of gooey cheese.img_9029  A good option if you want to balance your cholesterol out after downing one of Au Cheval’s incredibly rich burgers.

We left the restaurant to a sunny afternoon with bellies full and greatly satisfied.  I could now see what the hubbub was all about when we would go by the establishment and see people jostling for position in line.  Great restaurant owners know great ingredients which in turn lead to great burgers.  This chain of events was displayed during our visit to Au Cheval, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to try a burger worthy of having the word “greatest” in its title.  You might disagree with me about it being the be-all, end-all of burgerdom, but it is a high quality burger for a very reasonable price even with a bit of a wait.  So, if you don’t know where to go for lunch or have time to wait during dinner, gallop over to Au Cheval!
Au Cheval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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At the Market With My Dawgs

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Winter has finally hit Chitown harder than a raging Ditka and has been making life miserable for most aside from snow plow drivers and snowblower vendors.  However, if you’re looking for a warm and inviting restaurant in Chicago that serves up Mexican food with a twist, check out Mercadito Counter.

Now, this post is super late since I went back in the late summer/fall, but I hope that not much has changed in this funky fresh eatery.  From the instant you walk in under the papel picado, you’re transported to a modern taqueria whose menu boasts everything from tacos to Mexican hot dogs (more to follow).IMG_4519IMG_4521  Speaking of the former Mexican staple, Mercadito Counter boasts a taco eating challenge where a diner has to eat 35 tacos in an hour.  If you gobble all of them up, you get free tacos for life but only on Tuesdays.  Naturally, there’s a catch!  After agonizing over the menu for a good ten minutes, I decided to get a steak taco, a pork taco, and The Mexican hot dog, and a Nutty Mexican milkshake.  Janice got an order of onion rings, a fundido hot dog, and a lobster dog.  While waiting for our grub to arrive, we got some of the locally made salsas that were in squeeze bottles behind where we ordered our food. IMG_4518 Eventually, it all came out and looked fantastic.  I started with my tacos.  While they were immaculately presented, their size left much to be desired based on their price (roughly 3 bucks a taco).  Ay Chihuahua! IMG_4522 Surprisingly, the steak taco was a lot more flavorful than the pork taco even though the latter had roasted pineapple chunks as a sweet caress to the ancho and guajillo slathered spicy pork.  I think I enjoyed it more because the meat itself wasn’t drowned out with lots of strong flavors, and the key lime marinade was a stroke of genius.  As for my Mexican hot dog, it was my best friend.IMG_4523  It consisted of a grilled, bacon-wrapped dog covered with pico de gallo, mayo, jalapeño relish, mustard, and ketchup.  It was an excellent example of literal Mexican American cooking where the zesty pico de gallo and jalapeño relish provided a Latino slant to the more classic flavors, and the bacon strip gave the char dog a satisfying, porky crunch with each bite.  Between bites of my food, I sampled Janice’s onion rings which were delicious since they were crunchy, large, and didn’t succumb to severe onion loss that I hate when eating the greasy bar food staples.IMG_4525  What is severe onion loss?  It’s the annoying phenomenon when biting into an onion ring only to have the entire veggie slip out leaving you behind with a crunchy shell.  First world problems, I know.  I did enjoy the chipotle dip that came on the side that gave this appetizer the south-of-the-border kick it needed.   We also used the homemade salsas on the complimentary tortilla chips that came with our hot dogs. IMG_4528 There were three different types:  the chipotle tomatillo, the habanero, and the arriera.  The chipotle tomatillo was more like a common green salsa that could be found in most Mexican restaurants where there was a lot of tomato flavor with sparks of garlic and cilantro.IMG_4527  My favorite was the arriera since it was surprisingly spicier than the habanero salsa.

Habanero salsa

Habanero salsa

 

Arriera salsa

Arriera salsa

Plus, it had epazote or wormseed in it which is a herb that can poisonous in large quantities, but in small portions it alleviates gas and discomfort during digestion.  So it was a win-win especially since we were eating Mexican food.  I also took a bite of Janice’s fundido dawg that was good but not great. IMG_4526 It was basically a Mexican twist on a chili dog with chorizo instead of ground beef on top.  I didn’t take a taste of her lobster dog, but she said it was delicious and decadence embodied. IMG_4533 Speaking of super scrumptious items on the menu, the Nutty Mexican milkshake I had was mind-blowing.IMG_4531  From the powdered cocoa powder on top along with a mix of nutmeg and cinnamon blended throughout the milk chocolate ice cream.  All of which left me filled up but not ready to explode like una bomba.IMG_4532

So if you want to check out Mercadito Counter, I’d recommend a visit, but I would get the hot dogs over the tacos since they aren’t as big of a rip off in terms of the price vs. size ratio.  Inflated prices aside, the fresh ingredients, service, and flavors made this taqueria tops for the area!

Mercadito Counter on Urbanspoon

Bearing the Grunt of Good Food

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Welcome to the 220th post on Mastication Monologues!  It has been quite a trip, but what better way to celebrate another small milestone than going to the first ever Lettuce Entertain You restaurant:  R.J. Grunts.  It still is as funky as it was back in the 1970s, and the food is as unpretentious as their self-deprecating menu humor.

This food adventure was prefaced by an enchanting time at the zoo with my girlfriend Janice at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Adult Night.  After enjoying seeing the animals chilling at night in their habitats sans shrieking urchins scurrying about, we stumbled upon the mythical establishment.  IMG_4093We walked in on a Saturday night, and it was packed.  However, we were able to get a table for two right away.  We walked past happy, chatting diners along with an epic salad bar that seemed to have every condiment under the sun along with some interesting sides like various neon colored Jellos. IMG_4107 When we sat down, I surveyed the walls that were coated with pictures of random people who I never really found out who they were.  However, the menu was a work of art, and it was gigantic as shown by my semi-hidden boo. IMG_4094

Hide and Seek at our own table

Hide and Seek at our own table

Not only was it hulking in terms of size, but also food and drink options.  One of the most interesting items on the menu was the temperature soup.  What it consists of is the soup of the day that costs the same temperature based on what it says on the lakeside thermometer, i.e. if it’s 32 degrees, you pay $0.32 for your soup.  It can be added to your entree with the following three conditions:  1.  The salad bar doesn’t come with it, 2.  They won’t pay you if it’s -0 F, and 3.  It’s only valid with purchase of an entree.  While it was intriguing, I was much hungrier and looking for something more substantial.  Thus, I came to the burger part of the menu.  After looking it over, I decided to get the Yowza Burger (a common phrase used as an exclamation of excitement during the 70s like in Happy Days) for $12.95 and a hand-dipped creamy caramel shake ($6).  Janice got the Grunt Burger ($11.95) but no shake.  They came out after a bit, and they didn’t look spectacular.IMG_4111  However, I made the mistake of judging a burger by its bun. It was stacked with enough spicy things to make someone yell its name, but with someone who has dead tastebuds after years of heat challenges, it wouldn’t trouble many chiliheads.IMG_4112  Normal people, maybe.  I really liked the pepper jack, spicy ketchup, and peppercorns that were coating the burger.  It was different kinds of spice that activated different parts of the palate along with the crunch from the smoked bacon and occasional peppercorn lodged in the juicy patty.  I personally preferred my girlfriend’s Grunt burger because there were a ton of fried onion strings and crumbly/melted blue cheese chunks on the Angus patty.  IMG_4125Two great, strong flavors and differing textures that would make me happy but sorely needing a breath mint by the end of the meal.  Then there were the fries that were more like potato chips but not really.  I really enjoyed them since they were unique, exquisitely fried, and were just the right amount of crispy leaning more toward the softer end of things.  The piece de resistance was the  milkshake I had there.IMG_4105  I’ve had my fair share of ice cream treats, both good and disgusting, but this was one of my top three milk shakes I’ve ever tried.  The butterfat of the ice cream mixing with the rich milk and sweet caramel created a cool ambrosia that washed over my palate with wave upon wave of dulcet notes that made me happy until there was none left.  I had no shame when taking it down in public like a sweet fiend.  It was a creative, classic all American meal for a fun date night.

Short hair, don't care

Short hair, don’t care

So if you’re looking for a restaurant with plenty of history, character, innovative dishes, and moderate prices, look no further than the blast from the past, R.J. Grunts.  Dy-no-mite!!

R.J. Grunts on Urbanspoon

Five Fingers Full of Burger Fury

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s post is not about a food that is extremely disgusting like some of my posts in Beijing or Korea, but rather a dish that has been adapted throughout the world for local tastes.  What might that be?  The hamburger.  This simple, extremely meaty riff on a classic sandwich is often considered to be the quintessential American food alongside hot dogs and apple pie, compliments of a certain clown and golden arches.  However, today I will be talking about Five Guys, the new kid on the block when it comes to expansive burger chains.IMG_3101

Although the franchise started back in 1986, it hadn’t really caught on like wildfire until 2003 when they expanded to their current status of having over 1,000 locations in 47 states and 6 Canadian provinces.  The concept behind Five Guys is simple:  fresh, made to order burgers with handcut French fries that are made each day.  The quality shone through on the most recent occasion I visited since I have already been there.  Their menu isn’t very elaborate offering mainly hamburgers or cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and some sandwiches that cater to the vegetarian crowd.  This time around, I got a cheeseburger ($6.20) and a side of Five Guys fries ($2.50).  You also have plenty of options to choose from in terms of toppings to put on the burger, so I went “all the way” with mayo, lettuce, pickles, ketchup, mustard, grilled onions, and no mushrooms but you can get them if you like grilled fungus on your burger.  The cool part about Five Guys was that I could watch them make the burger from grill to completed product along with my fries in the deep fryerIMG_3102.  They were efficiently assembled, and I received my order in a paper sack.  I opened up my mini aluminum silo of beef to find a burger that was stacked with two substantial patties and two slices of American cheese along with all of the toppings I mentioned.  I had to step back and admire this bad burger with the same reverence that Edmund Hillary probably had before scaling Everest, but I sallied forth into the wilderness that was my cheeseburger. IMG_3107 From the first bite, I was hooked.  The juicy beef patties and creamy cheese laid the foundations for the lighter condiments to shine especially the savory grilled onions.  The ingredients were superb, but construction-wise, this burger was a real leaning tower of flawed artistry. IMG_3108 Bigger doesn’t always equal better especially when trying keep the burger together.  I suffered from a mix of Newtonian physics and plate tectonics in food form where the patties would rub together with the liquid condiments and would slip in the opposite direction of where I was biting.  Thus, half my burger almost ended up flying out the back end of the bun onto the table top.  Never a good look.  Once I demolished that beefy behemoth, I turned my attention to the wonderful fries that were spilling out of the cup and filled some nooks and crannies of the bag.IMG_3104  These fries were obviously hand cut due to their irregular shape and still having the skins on them.  I noticed the slightly nutty flavor the peanut oil imparted to this classic partner to the burger.  They toed the line in terms of being too salty, but then again, I’m not a huge salt fan.  Based on previous experiences, I wouldn’t recommend their Cajun fries because they always seem to overdo the seasoning which makes the fries taste more like a spicy salt lick than potatoes.

Overall though, I’d highly recommend Five Guys burgers and regular fries that are pure Americana.  I pledge allegiance to the pure flavor of the United States of Burgerdom, and you should too!

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

 

Another Grand Canyon

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Hello everyone and welcome to the 45th edition of Mastication Monologues!  Hooray for me and my wandering tastebuds!  Today I will be reviewing a relatively new restaurant that I didn’t even know existed until I was given a free burger coupon for them from my dad.  It’s called Canyons Burger Company and is located at 243 W 63rd St Westmont, IL.

Since I never really heard of this restaurant, I was walking into it without any sort of preconceived notions about their menu.  However, I was surprised at the variety of burgers and other items they served like salads and chicken tenders.  I decided to get the Blue Bayou burger since I seem to be in a Cajun state of mind as of late (see my previous post for Heaven on Seven) and a side of regular fries.  They also offered onion rings and sweet potato fries, but I didn’t feel like being that big of a fatty after coming from the gym.  Another great option that I liked was that they provided me a wide range of sauces and topping to choose from for free.  Therefore, in addition to the blue cheese and Cajun seasonings, I got ketchup, mustard, chipotle mayo, lettuce,  tomato, red onion, pickles, and sliced jalapenos piled on the burger.  Once my order was entered, they gave me a number, and eventually they brought it to my table.  It did take an unusually long time to cook my food since I was the only person in the place, but I’ll wait for food if it’s high quality.IMG_1097

Eventually my food was delivered, and upon first glance it looked quite delicious.  Once I finished taking my pictures like a weirdo, I realized that there were no blue cheese crumbles as advertised on the menu.  Instead there was a some sort of blue cheese spread coating the burger. Plus, the Cajun spices were not on the meat but rather on the cheese.  Even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I got to work on the burger.  The first bite was delicious and flavorful with each element having its own voice amid a very busy flavor profile.  The vegetables were fresh and crispy, and the beef was expertly grilled to a nice brown hue while still maintaining a good amount of juice for flavor.  I really enjoyed the jalapenos because they were fresh and not pickled.  All of which provided a crispy texture change and a spicy bite that hooked up well with the chipotle mayonnaise.  The mystery blue cheese spread worked well with its powerful flavor made spicier with the Cajun seasoning.  Even though it seemed like a real cheeseburger in paradise sans the terrible Jimmy Buffett singing, I didn’t enjoy the fact that the bottom bun seemed to disappear quicker than the top one.  This became a serious problem towards the end of the burger when the chipotle mayo threatened the integrity of my burger through its own slippery yet savory self.  Thankfully I possessed the dexterity to keep the burger intact, but I wish the bread they used was a bit more substantial.  Taste-wise, it was ideal with a slightly buttery taste to bring out the richness of the beef but not overwhelming the other ingredients.   As for the fries, it was a substantial amount for the price I paid, but it was not a case of quantity over quality.  In my case, I prefer my fries to be on the softer side, so these golden-brown sticks were modicums of delectability.  Plus, they were not overly salted/seasoned which drives me crazy sometimes like with the oft-praised Five Guys Cajun Fries that are seasoned into oblivion.  By the time I finished the fries, I was thoroughly satisfied with the meal.

So if you’re looking for a burger place beyond the clown, the king, and that red-headed girl, try Canyons Burger Company!

Canyons Burger Company on Urbanspoon

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