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The Hub of All the Hubbub

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Another meal, another post.  What that means for you, the reader, is another great dining experience on Mastication Monologues.  What makes it so great?  Well, in Chicago there’s a little thing called Restaurant Week.  While Chicago is filled with oodles of restaurant that could make any week a restaurant week, but what makes Restaurant Week so special is that there are tons of great deals in restaurants you might have never known existed.  The cuisines range from some delicious, downhome cookin’ diners to Michelin starred establishments and even Alinea, three time winner of Elite Travel’s award as the best restaurant in the world.  While we don’t have reservations at such a prestigious eatery, today I bring you Hub 51, a gastropub/lounge/dance club with a classy atmosphere and super diverse menu.

Hub 51 is located in the upscale River North area of Chicago that is, go figure, just north of the Chicago river.  The sleek exterior exuded an air of subtle confidence, and upon entering the place I could see why.l  It was ultra modern in design from the bar to the dark wood chairs, and eventually we were seated in a leather bound booth that was very comfortable and spacious.IMG_5763IMG_5764  Looking over the menu, they had quite the eclectic menu including American, Mexican, and even Japanese food. However, we were all about trying the Restaurant Week menu where we got three courses for only $33!

Course one consisted of two dishes that were as far apart culinary-wise as apples and oranges.  First, we have exhibit A:  the spinach and artichoke dip.IMG_5772  While I recently wrote about another type of spinach artichoke dip, this was another animal.  Instead of being served with bread, it was paired with super light yet slightly too salty tortilla chips.  Thankfully the dip was a mix of gooey cheese and plenty of spinach that keep the saltiness to a minimum. IMG_5774 However, I didn’t feel like they had as many artichoke pieces as I’ve had in other similar appetizers.  Where as the artichoke dip was more on the fattening side, the Brussels sprouts salad was very refreshing and healthy.  The Brussels sprouts were fresh and crunchy which were also complimented with a few almonds sprinkled in amongst the greens.  IMG_5775I really enjoyed the Manchego cheese chunks that were dispersed as well throughout the greens, and I found the buttery Spanish cheese to pair well with the salty almonds.  The Medjool dates were a worthy sweet element in this appetizer and were countered with the slightly sour mustard vinaigrette.  All of it taken together, the Brussels sprouts appetizer was an option that both danced across the palate with a crunchy and sweet panache but lingered with the aftertaste of the vinaigrette.  I think round one went to team salad but just barely.  In addition to these Restaurant Week choices, Kaitlin and Dan got an order of the homemade hummus (($8.95) and an ahi tuna poke ($14.95).  Both were equally amazing in their own ways.  I love hummus in any form, so I was intrigued by the dukkah spices element of the dish.  While I recognized the typical, fresh cucumber and carrot spears, pita bread, and hummus with virgin olive oil in the middle, but then there was a dried powder on the side of the plate closest to me.  IMG_5768After some research, it turns out that dukkah or duqqa is an Egyptian condiment that consists of dried nuts, herbs, and spices that are then crushed to near powder like consistency.  The name “dukkah” is only fitting given that it comes from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”.  Luckily, it didn’t really pound out any of the other flavors on the plate but rather supported the zingy hummus with a crunchier texture that went well on either the vegetables or bread.  As for the ahi tuna poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), I was less enthused to try it since I’m not a huge fish fan.  On the other hand, I had tried one before and enjoyed it. IMG_5767 This Hawaiian dish is named after the Hawaiian verb meaning “to section or cut” which made sense since there was plenty of cubed, ruby red tuna chunks.  Along with that, there were two large rice crackers, plenty of avocado, and all of it was stewing in a soy based, wasabi-infused sauce.  Although the tuna was raw, it was not fishy by any stretch of the imagination since it was combined with the creamy avocado, super-flavorful sauce, and slightly chewy yet crunchy rice cracker. IMG_5771 The poke disappeared faster than a pack of Pokemon cards circa 1998.

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

Round two kicked off with the main entrees.  While Janice and I got the braised beef short ribs, Kaitlin got the pulled pork tacos ($16.95), and Dan got the knife and fork open faced BLT sandwich ($10.95).  While I didn’t eat a lot of the tacos, I managed to try one of the Niman Ranch braised pork shoulder filled tortillas, but I wasn’t terribly wowed with the naturally raised pork. IMG_5778 It was slightly spicy but not terribly flavorful compared to other tacos I’ve tried in my life.  As for the BLT, it looked like it was just a mini-mountain of toppings, but the bread was keeping a low profile under a pile of lettuce.  IMG_5779The best part of that plate was the bacon (when isn’t it?) because it wasn’t too crispy with just the right amount of fat and salt combined with a glaze that almost gave it a honey-like quality.  The downfall of the dish was the blue cheese and vinaigrette laced bread. It was way too bold and left an overwhelming residual flavor on my palate after trying a few samples of Dan’s entree.  Finally, I got around to my braised short ribs.  It was served with red potatoes, glazed carrots, and a small tub of horseradish cream. IMG_5782 While it looked delicious, my experience was quite the opposite.  I found it to be too salty and filled with fat deposits.  It left me feeling bloated and greasy, and the horseradish sauce didn’t even salvage this plate.  The glazed carrots and potatoes were tasty, but I was really disappointed with the supposed star of my dining experience.  Thankfully, dessert stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.  First, there was Martha’s special occasion carrot cake.  It had three orange layers of light, fluffy cake that focused more on the spice element of carrot cake instead of the vegetable. IMG_5785 I would say that it had definite elements of nutmeg and ginger.  Between each layer of mouth-watering cake, there was a thick helping of cream cheese that was decadence incarnate, but it was not so sweet that it felt like I was going to develop diabetes.  The whipped cream on the side with a light powdering of cinnamon cemented this plate as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Then there was Grandma Bea’s chocolate pudding pie.  I don’t know Grandma Bea, but I wish she would invite me over for dinner and dessert more often after tasting this selection.  It was a different beast than the carrot cake but equally scrumptious. IMG_5783I personally preferred the graham cracker crust that not only had some granulated sugar mixed into it along with a hint of cinnamon in each forkful.  As for the filling, it was fluffy and rich with plenty of dark chocolate flavor.  Kaitlin made it a s’more for a dollar more, and it was quite interesting. IMG_5786 It looked like a series of white fish scales on top of a carp, but thankfully there was nothing fishy about it.  They went over the top of the marshmallows to brown them like at a campfire, and then taken all together it really did taste like a s’more minus the smoky flavor imparted by a bonfire.  The only downside to the marshmallow layer was that they were all stuck together, so sometimes someone would almost take all of the marshmallows with them when they just wanted one with a bite of the pie.  If I had to pick one, I’d choose the carrot cake because its cream cheese frosting was unbelievably addicting.

So with restaurant number one down for Restaurant Week in Chicago, I would recommend Hub 51 to anyone looking for an entertaining night out in a hip atmosphere with slightly more expensive fare than in other parts of the city.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

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What A Jerk!

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Ah Cuba.  America’s Communist boogeyman 90 miles from our doorstep, but this red stronghold soon might become the hot, new Caribbean vacation spot based on current political currents.  While they have been famous due to the US embargo, exporting great baseball players, and upstanding fictional citizens like Tony Montana, Cuban food and drink is without parallel.  Nothing like a Cubano sandwich with a cigar and a rum cocktail on the side.  What more could you ask for?  Well, at Cafecito in the South Loop area of Chicago, a full menu of Cuban sandiwiches, salads, and entrees.  While there are neither alcoholic drinks nor cigars to blow smoke in other diners’ faces, they do have Cuban cortadito coffees that are the java equivalent of speed mixed with rocket fuel.

Just don't have too much like Tony here did.

Just don’t have too much like Tony did.

I went there around noon after teaching at Roosevelt U.  IMG_4510If you do not like crowds or waiting in line, pick some other time to go. IMG_4507 Looking over the menu, I had no clue which sandwich to pick because they all looked so scrumptious.  Would I go with the Perfect Cuban sandwich in Chicago ($5.79) or the Spanish stylized “Elveez” made of sweet plantains, guava jelly, and peanut butter($4.99)?  Instead, I got the Jerk sandwich since I wanted to see their take on the traditional Jamaican spiced dish in handheld form ($6.19).  To drink, it was hot outside, so I looked at their “batidos” or milkshakes in English.  IMG_4497One selection that caught my eye was the mamey option.  I had absolutely no clue what it was, but I knew I had to try it.  After the meal, I found out through a little research that mamey is actually the natural fruit of Cuba, so it was my own way of saying “Viva la revolucion!”.  They take your name, and then you have to wait amongst the waiting throngs until they shout you out.  The waiting time flew by as I inspected the walls that were decked out with all types of accolades to Cafecito’s place in sandwich Valhalla.  IMG_4508After taking in all of the hype, my time had come to finally see if this sandwich was all that and a side of chips.  First, I took a sip of my mamey milkshake. IMG_4502There were hints of sweetness, but it really didn’t taste like anything I could definitely put my finger on.  Maybe it could be likened to  a blander version of a taro bubble tea, but it’s a huge shot in the dark.   However, the Jerk sandwich was full of flavor.IMG_4504  While I wouldn’t liken it to the bold and savory spices known to the world through Jamaican cuisine, but there was a definite red pepper undertone to give the meal a great punch with every pressed/toasted bite of the fresh Cubano baguette.  I personally thought that they heaped a bit too much lettuce on top which got in the way of the juicy, all-white chicken breast that was slathered with habanero lime mayo. IMG_4505 With the mayo, I couldn’t really taste it over the red onions, but I love mayo in any way, shape, or form. IMG_4506 Taken as a whole, it was a fresh sandwich with plenty of high quality ingredients but with the improper ratio of certain ones like red onions and lettuce.  Maybe next time, I’d try their Cuban pork sandwich.  Overall, it was a visit that was well worth the walk down from work.

So if you want to get a bit of Miami’s Cuban sandwich scene, rumba, don’t walk, on down to Cafecito!  It’s not the best sandwich in Chicago I’ve tried, but it is a unique and popular local eatery.

Cafecito on Urbanspoon

Ssam Bap A Lup Bop Wop Bam Boom

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you’re thoroughly confused about my title, it’s a reference to “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and one of the many foods I tried over this past weekend in Gyeongju.  It was a great time where not only did I enrich myself in terms of friendships but also in food knowledge.  Gyeongju is located in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, and we were going there by bus to see the cherry blossoms.  Ergo, we stopped at Korean rest stops along the way to stretch and get the old bones moving again.

I soon realized that Korean rest stops are a lot more intense than rest stops in the US.  First, there are so many different types of shops in these places.  Not only are there vending machines with every type of item from coffee to sunglasses, but they even sell jewelry and CDs outside in hawker stalls.  However, I was not there to buy a techno remix of Gangnam Style nor get a brand new pair of knock off Oakleys.  I was more interested in perusing the wide variety of Korean fast food each shop was offering.  Naturally, there were a lot of fish products, but I saw something that perhaps was a bit of Konglish.  It was a food labelled, “Hot Dog Pizza”.  Now, coming from Chicago where we do both of those foods right, I was curious to see what the Koreans meant when they decided to put these two delicious items together.IMG_0036  Turns out, there was nothing even remotely resembling a hotdog or a pizza involved in the snack.  It was about a six-inch long tube of crunchy, fried, bread-crumb encrusted outside. IMG_0037 Then, I bit into a gooey center that did not contain a sausage of any kind.  Instead, I was met with a slightly more viscous sauce that I could only liken to a Chinese-American sweet and sour sauce.  It went well with the fried dough (as most fried things are inherently delicious) and left me satisfied.

After we got to Gyeongju, we biked around the city for a couple of hours which led to us working up quite an appetite.  So, we piled onto the bus for a ssam bap dinner.  We weren’t sure what exactly constituted this meal, but thanks to our rudimentary Korean skills we at least knew that it contained rice because of the word “bap”.  However, almost every Korean meal comes with rice, so it didn’t help us that much.  When we arrived and sat down, we were immediately face to face with the international food of mystery.IMG_1399  The ssam bap meal consisted of galbi and chicken mixed with various types of leafy green vegetables and grilled in a big metal bowl in the middle of our table.  Once it was fully cooked, we took the meat and rolled it up in the lettuce and pepper leaves that were provided to us on the side along with other types of banchan like the omnipresent kimchi, sour bean paste, pickled radishes, a green salad with sweet sesame dressing, and seaweed soup to name a few. IMG_1398 I should have had more rice, but I was still hungry after the meal.  However, it was more of a case of quality over quantity as the semi-spicy chili sauce the chicken was marinated in really brought some intense savory flavors rushing over my palate.  It was countered with the smooth, cool texture of the lettuce leaves.  While this dinner seemed par for the course in terms of Korean dinner, what I ate the next morning was anything but normal.

We rose early to a drizzly morning, but we still decided to see the grotto to see a giant carved Buddha statue.  As we were walking back from the amazing sanctuary, I saw people in my group were getting corn dogs and hot dogs.  I, being the natural weirdo that I am, saw beondegi in a pot next to the tube steaks everyone else was buying.  You might be wondering what beondegi is, and it is not for the squeamish.IMG_1450  It ‘s boiled silkworm pupae or little worm babies in layman’s terms.  I don’t know if I’m foolish, crazy, and/or brave, but it was an interesting experience.  They were a little bigger than kidney beans and possessed an amber hue.  I popped them into my mouth, and their exoskeletons were crunchy. IMG_1448 The insides were the tough part to stomach because texture-wise they were like smooth mashed potatoes, but the taste was somewhat overwhelming.  It tasted like hay smell mixed with manure mixed with a slight nutty undertone.  I’m glad I didn’t buy a whole cup of these little buggers, but it was worth the experience like the whole weekend making unforgettable memories.

Everything’s Bigger in Itaewon

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Hello and welcome to another installment of Mastication Monologues!  Today’s review is going to be short and sweet since I have to actually ready for a big week of teaching.  Tomorrow a new co-teacher is starting with me, and I’m quite scared since she doesn’t have any teaching experience or experience with children.  Well, at least I had a great meal today with great memories I can savor when things are possibly going downhill in the classroom.

My friend Steph and I went to Seoul to see the Tim Burton art exhibit, and it was quite the experience.  There were sooooo many people, but overall it was a fun time.  Eventually all of that walking got us really hungry.  So Steph asked me what I wanted to eat.  I might have wanted to try a new galbi place, but I really had a craving for a legit burger.  Therefore, we headed to Itaewon to The Wolfhound which apparently has the best burger in Seoul.IMG_1369  Now that might not be saying much since there aren’t many legitimate burger restaurants outside of Itaewon, but I’m always down to try new places.  It was down a side alley, but upon walking in it was like any normal Irish pub themed restaurant/bar in the States.  There was no one in the place, so it was nice to get away from the insane crowds we had to battle just to see an original sketch from the Nightmare Before Christmas.  There were a lot of great options on the menu, but I decided to go for the Big Paddy burger (about 12 bucks) since I probably wouldn’t be coming back to the restaurant in a very long time or ever again.

It came out, and I was genuinely impressed.  I could see why it is considered the best burger in Seoul.

So Western it hurts

So Western it hurts

It had a legitimate slab of beef for a patty, cheese, bacon, garlic mayo, and a hefty helping of veggies.  Plus, it came with steak fries on the side.  In Korea, those are probably as rare as a Coelacanth.  Anyway,  I quickly got down to business since I hadn’t eaten since 8:30 in the morning.

Doing work

Doing work

Upon sinking my teeth into the gargantuan burger, I was pleasantly surprised by the beef since it was well seasoned with a definite peppery aftertaste.  The bun was light but did not buckle under the pressure of the burger’s contents.  I also really enjoyed the onions, tomatoes, and lettuce since all were really fresh and were not playing second fiddle to the beef.  The bacon was also pretty good since it was western style with some seasonings on it, and it was cooked to a semi-crispy state.  The staff also provided us with pretty standard condiments like ketchup, mustard, mayo, A1 steak sauce, and Tabasco sauce.  The steak fries didn’t disappoint either.  They were very fresh, not too salty, and had fluffy white interiors.  Overall, this was the best burger I’ve had so far in Korea and closest to the American standard in terms of taste, size, and just overall quality.  So if you want a break from kimchi and seaweed, head on over to The Wolfhound for a little piece of the West in the Far East.

Only for big appetites

Only for big appetites

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