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Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

This Foodie Just Keeps Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along

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Welcome to a retro Masticastion Monologues?  What’s that you say, milkshakes?  Retro?  Well, today’s post focuses on the Red Robin Gourmet Burger chain that is throughout America and known by its signature jingle.  It is one of many burger joints that try to evoke the spirit of 1950s diners that rocked around the clock to strains of Elvis on the jukebox.  While the times have changed since then, and the music has become more interesting (not always better), a good burger with a side of fries will never go out of style.

I went with Janice to the location closest by me at the Oakbrook Center shopping mall.  It was a new addition to the upper level by the Nordstrom’s, but it is quite popular with families and the teenage pods that roam from shop to shop.  However, it is also a fun place to go if you want to grab a cold one with your friends. 46716679_IDs7asvk6P2fAMb1kCe5RF3goIR9CPkJrdDMEyGl8Cc We were there to get a bite to eat before seeing a movie nearby, and it was a pleasant experience.  I looked over the menu and after seeing all of the burgers, chicken sandwiches, and side salads the place had to offer, I went for the Burning Love burger ($10.49).  Janice got the Royal Red Robin burger ($10.79).  However, I didn’t want to just get a burger.  I saw that you could “style” your burger in three ways:  Pig Out with extra bacon (+$1.50), Cantina Jack with mild green chiles (+$1.00), or Fiery Ghost with a ghost pepper sauce, fresh jalapeno pepper slices, and fried ones (+$1.00).  Needless to say, if you’ve read my blog, I love everything spicy.  Whether it’s a deadly pork cutlet in Korea or gastro-intestinal shredding poppers in Portland, Oregon, I can’t say no to the tongue burning experience.  Eventually they came out, and Janice’s burger looked delicious. IMG_4562 It was like a combo of breakfast and dinner where the bacon and eggs got down with the beef patty to make an extremely rich but runny burger.  It was a flavorful meal that whetted my appetite to finally tuck into my devilish basket.IMG_4561  I had tried ghost peppers before, and it was a tough but manageable experience.  However, I was pretty disappointed with my burger, spice-wise.  I was expecting to have my taste buds blown off my tongue, but the red ghost pepper sauce didn’t even make it beyond a weak habanero.  I enjoyed the fresh and fried jalapeno pieces more since they provided a crunch and buttery finish to the salsa, chipotle aioli, and jalapeno cornmeal kaiser bun. IMG_4563 Still, it was a finger licking good burger, but if you’re a real spicehead, you won’t blink with the spice levels.  Janice tried some of the sauce on the tip of her finger, and she couldn’t handle it.  So, I think my tastebuds might be dead or perhaps zombies since I can still taste other flavors.  As for the fries, they were of the steak cut variety, probably tied for favorite along with waffle.  They were on average larger and softer than the smaller crispier ones you might find at McDonalds or Burger King, but they had the perfect ratio of fry to salt flavor.  Plus, at Red Robin they’re bottomless!  So if you feel like carbo-loading, hit up Olive Garden and Red Robin.  You’ll definitely get your money’s worth.  By the end of the meal, I couldn’t even finish all of my fries because it was all so filling and scrumptious.

So if you want to visit a new burger chain that isn’t afraid to be creative with their burgers and get a lot of food for a reasonable price, check out Red Robin! Yuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers on Urbanspoon

VizEat: Bringing People Together Through Food

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Hello to one and all to a very special edition of Mastication Monologues!  ‘Why is it so special?’ you might be thinking.  Well, while each post I put on here is special in its own unique way in terms of me trying a cuisine you may have never heard of or perhaps taking down a plate that might make you lose your appetite, today’s entry I would like to introduce you to an online foodie meetup group called VizEat.

Logo+tagline à côté

A month or so, I was contacted by the cofounder of VizEat, Camille Rumani, saying that she loved my blog, and after explaining to me what their company did, I had to spread the word.  They are a small but quickly growing company that currently operates in the following countries/cities:  France, Italy, Spain, Berlin, Bangkok, Hong-Kong, United Kingdom, Tunisia, Belgium, Israel, New York, Boston, Morocco, India, China, Switzerland, Ukraine, Romania, and the Cook Islands.  While it is clear that they have worldwide appeal, let me explain briefly what exactly VizEat does.

What Does VizEat Do?

Basically, VizEat is an online community that reaches out to a variety of people.  Whether you are a master chef, a pastry perfectionist, king of the grill, a brewmeister, someone who loves trying new food and drinks, or just want to make new friends, VizEat is the place for you. Marie-Claude's dinner, Their aim is to turn meals into experiences for people who otherwise may have never met their neighbors or tried a new dish if it hadn’t been for this social networking website.  It could also be useful in another country if you want to experience a bit of local culture through a sit down meal with natives. VizEat-Values What better way to facilitate and lubricate first impressions better than a delicious meal and a refreshing beverage?  If you are champing at the bit to know more, here is how VizEat works.

How VizEat Works

Meet-people-from-all-over-the-world

First, you have to register on their website as a host or a guest or both.

Hosts

Marie-Claude, VizEat host- Crédits Adélie Vernhes

Marie-Claude, a real VizEat host

As a host, you will post information about your meal, i.e. the price, the date of the meetup, how many seats are available, and what is on the menu.  You can also post pictures of the meal and/or yourself, so that your guests have a better idea of who they might be spending time with.  If guests are interested in your meal, you will receive reservation requests, and you are free to accept or reject them as you see fit.  The day after hosting the most amazing meal you have ever thrown, you will receive your meal payment directly on VizEat.  So, everyone in Chicago and the Chicagoland area, sign up to be hosts!  I know there are some great cooks and bakers out there, so why not share your creations with the world, make some new friends, and earn a little money on the side.  Everyone wins!

Marie-Claude interacting with her guests.

Marie-Claude interacting with her guests.

Guests

As for the guests, you can browse the hosts in any of the aforementioned locations in the “What Does VizEat Do?” section.  Once you find a host that is serving a meal you want to be a part of, you can put in your reservation.  You will only have to pay for the meal through PayPal when the host confirms it on the VizEat website.  Once confirmed, you will be able to message with your host in case you have any preferences for the food they will be serving, if you might have some food allergies, or even directions so that you don’t miss out on all the good times with new friends!

A VizEat get together in France

A VizEat dinner in France

So if this seems like something that you would enjoy, sign up by clicking on the “VizEat” picture below the different cuisines at the top of my blog and bon appetite!Magali's wine&cheese 2- Crédits Adélie Vernhes

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