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Never a Boar in the Kitchen

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What’s up people?  The weather has been relatively all over the place for a Chicago summer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try some new and consistently delicious food.  Enter Andy’s Thai Kitchen that me and my girlfriend hit up for her gusband’s birthday.  I was not really super excited about getting Thai food since it just all seems like the same thing, similar to my thoughts about Vietnamese food, but Andy’s Thai Kitchen managed to change my mind.

Bday selfie!

Bday selfie!

While the weather was quite cold outside, the interior is very warm and welcoming.

When we left it was almost closing time

When we left it was almost closing time

Not only that, but the body heat from the masses of people waiting at the narrow vestibule made the experience seem all the more chaotic.  It could almost be an homage to the organized madness that is synonymous with Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok.  Chef Andy Aroourasameruang brings the unadulterated flavors of his home, Chachoengsao Province, to Chicago in the form of one of the most unique Thai menus I’ve seen in a long while.  IMG_6086I had never been there before, but all of my other diners had visited it before.  So, I let them order most of the food for our meal aside from my entree.  First, we started the meal with the som tum tod  or fried papaya salad ($12). IMG_6087 Unfortunately, this was during Lent, and I had given up all fried foods.  So, based on the reaction of my fellow diners digging into the colorful melange of deep fried papaya sticks, giant pink shrimp, cashews, tomatoes, and green beans, they loved all of it.  It was presented differently than other mango salads I’ve seen in Thai cuisine given that the mango was actually fried and not served in its original form.  I’d recommend it though since I ate the shrimp together with the veggies.  The spicy lime dressing gave it a perfect tangy/fiery zip to keep you coming back for more.  As for the entrees, I went with the ATK signature dish:  wild boar pad ped ($11).  Basically, it was a spicy red coconut curry that had “young pepper” (whatever that is), slow cooked and stir fried boar, and Thai eggplants.  IMG_6088The curry was very rich and flavorful with a potent kick, and there was a ton of tender boar that seemed like slightly gamier beef.  It should have been tougher, but the slow cooking made it fall apart in my mouth.  The Thai eggplants were a new addition to foods I’ve never tried before, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Even though they looked like tiny halves of lime in my curry, they added more of a half-crunchy, half creamy element to the softer parts of my meal.  The only downside was that I think that they could add a wider variety of vegetables to the sauce.  As for Janice, she got the basil crispy pork belly ($10.95) which was another ATK signature dish. IMG_6091 This one wasn’t as elaborate as my curry, but it still brought big flavors that Thai cuisine is known for.  It basically was rice served with a plentiful helping of stir fried pork pieces along with mushrooms, garlic, chili, and basil leaves.  It was good but not great.  The meat was the best part with its crispy outer layer that gave way to multiple alternating layers of fat and juicy pork, but it became somewhat monotonous according to Janice.  Thankfully, the food party didn’t stop there since there was still the matter of dessert.  While most of the options had a distinctly South/Southeast Asian flavor like the fried roti or banana blanket, we had to go with the customer pick, the mango sticky rice ($7).IMG_6093  I was surprised to see what it actually looked like when it came out.  After living in Korea, I was skeptical of desserts boasting, in my eyes, typically savory elements like rice or beans.  However, this dessert might have turned my head a bit with its fresh layer of sliced mangoes and generous helping of coconut milk. IMG_6094 It was like eating a Southeast Asian version of bread pudding with the rice taking the place of the flour based dough.  I highly recommend this sweet treat.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that offers quality and unique Thai dishes, enjoy a great meal at Andy’s Thai Kitchen!IMG_6098

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One In A Milion

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Hola and Namaste to a new Mastication Monologues post!  I got to apologize for the lack of consistent posts due to a new full time job that has been quite time consuming, but I promise that today’s entry will be all killer and no filler in the form of a great Latin fusion eatery in Chicago known as Vermilion.

Fusion in food is as common as the intermingling of cultures.  For example, America is a nation of immigrants, and our food reflects that concept of culinary cross-pollination.  Even traditional barbecue draws elements from Spanish, African, and Native American cooking traditions.  However, Vermilion focuses on a menu based on mixing Indian and Latin American cuisine.  What that means is that the super savory and aromatic Indian dishes get a spicy south of the border kick many are familiar with in Mexican cooking, but that is only part of the picture.  Janice and I went for our second to last reservation during Restaurant Week, and it was on a Sunday night after a delicious lunch at Demera.IMG_5908  The interior was super hip and sleek with a black, red, and white motif.IMG_5909IMG_5910  We were quickly seated in the dining room as a blend of Spanish pop and Bollywood hits bounced out of the speakers overhead.  I would also recommend dressing up a bit since Vermilion is a bit more upscale than most Latin and Indian restaurants.  We both went with the $33 restaurant week dinner which consisted of a standard three course meal with an appetizer, entree, and dessert.  However, our waiter surprised us with a free, little taster plate with a chef’s creation.IMG_5912  These petite squares that we were face to face with was a fried plantain chip topped with mango pico de gallo and resting on a sweet, brown tamarind chutney.IMG_5914  It was a mini t-bomb (taste bomb) of flavor where the sweet backbone of the canape was supported by the chutney, mango, and plantain, but was then tempered by the sour lime juice and semi-savory aftertaste of the fried plantain.  As for the appetizer stage of our meal, I went with a Bombay frankie and Janice got the pumpkin squash curry leaf soup.  The frankie was great. IMG_5915 It is one of India’s favorite street food snacks, and I can see why. IMG_5916 It consisted of a fried flatbread known as a roti that was then filled with chunks of chicken coated in Indian spices like cardamom and curry, but the best part was the shot glass of mint curry on the side.  It wasn’t toothpaste minty, but it gave the spicy sauce a cool aftertaste.  Janice’s squash soup was just as delicious. IMG_5917 It came with an Indian cracker on the side known as a pappad or papadum depending on where you’re at in India.  The soup was extremely creamy and rich with a pepper infused oil that gave each curry-filled spoonful a mild kick.  These bold flavors warmed us up for our entrees that came soon thereafter.  I got the Brazilian feijoada which I was pretty excited to try since it is considered to be the national dish of the South American nation.  Contrary to popular preparation which utilizes black beans and a dark, purplish-brown broth which is a mix of the aforementioned beans and various meats stewing in the dish, Vermilion’s take on it was a mix of Indian and Latin flavors.  First, the color of the stew was a vibrant red that contained a mound of white rice and a rice cracker in the middle that acted like a nacho with taco dip.IMG_5920  As for the rice, it was an element more in touch with its Brazilian roots, but I didn’t see any traditional farofa (manioc flour roasted with butter and bacon) on the side which made me quite sad.  As for the contents of the actual dish, there were red beans (supposedly black beans according to the menu), large chunks of succulent chicken, and hunks of spicy Portuguese chorizo sausage.  Not only was the meat spicy, but the actual stew had an Indian vindaloo flavor to it which means that it was super spicy with a smoky background.  This fiery quality was also a sign of Indian/Latin fusion since a typical Brazilian feijoada isn’t spicy.  Even though it wasn’t the most traditional dish, it was innovative, warm, and hearty.  Perfect for a cold day like it was when we went.  Janice didn’t go down the super spicy route and got the heart of palm Valencia paella.IMG_5922  It consisted of large rings of the pulp found in the middle of palm trees, curried Indian rice, and a bit of orange zest.  IMG_5923Neither of us found it to be as interesting as the feijoada since it just tasted like curry.  However, our meal got more interesting in the wrong way since we found a hair in Janice’s paella.  Thankfully, they replaced it for free with a dish of her choice, so she got the feijoada as well.  It got even better when our desserts came.  I got the mango cardamom flan which was out of this world.IMG_5924  The flan had the perfect firm yet gooey texture and was infused with cardamom.  It was soaking in a mango escabeche (a word originally from the Persian “al-sikbaj” meaning a meat dish soaking in a sweet and sour sauce) or syrup which imparted an incredibly but not overwhelming sweetness to a mostly neutral tasting dessert.  The coconut foam on top tied this entire dish together perfectly since it was both light and sweet.  If you wanted to cleanse your palate after all that sweet flan and heavenly foam, you could follow the trail of  pitted, juicy lychees covering mini mounds of cranberries to the end of the plate.  I jumped from one plate to another to get a taste of Janice’s date chocolate rice pudding that had a little bit of cinnamon and clove to add a savory yin to the semi-sweet yang with the date chocolate. IMG_5927 I never was a big fan of rice pudding though, so it didn’t capture my imagination as much as our final dessert.  Since Janice didn’t make a big deal about finding the hair in her food, our waiter brought out the most popular dessert to our table for free.IMG_5928  It was a flourless chocolate lava cake that was covered in a subtly spicy dark chocolate mole sauce…words can’t describe how satisfying and incredibly rich this dessert was.  It was further embellished with an undulating raspberry syrup trail that led to a creamy, small ball of vanilla bean and coconut ice cream that rested on some fresh sliced strawberries.  These desserts were by far the best part of the entire meal, and the service was superb.

So, even though things got a little hairy midway through the dinner, Vermilion managed to win us over with its creative food (especially the desserts!) and great service.  I highly recommend this restaurant if you are tired of the same old ethnic eateries.
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Costa Rica (Day 3)- Fruits of Our Travels

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you haven’t been following my blog, you are in the middle of my Costa Rican travel series where I recount all of the wild and woolly adventures I find myself in throughout the country (Day 1 and Day 2).  Day 3, today’s post, takes me to a land of oxcarts, hidden volcanos, and hot springs.  Let’s start at the beginning.

The morning started off with a snag as we were locked in our condo complex that was preventing us from getting breakfast before meeting up with our group.  Thankfully, my Spanish came in handy, and we were at Denny’s before you could say “Buenos dias!”.  There really wasn’t anything of note at the American diner aside from the delicious pancakes.  The real highlights came later in the day as we first traveled in the morning to Sarchi which is famous in Costa Rica for their handmade ox carts.  They were a lot more popular and common before the advent of automobiles in the countryside, but now they are mostly used for decorative purposes or collecting.  Before we went to the workshop, our group stopped at a local bakery in the town square that was opposite the largest ox cart in the world!IMG_5147IMG_5152  Before seeing this behemoth, we perused all the different types of breads and pastries that were on sale. IMG_5153 It seemed like they had a lot of different types of bread puddings with different flavors ranging from coconut (Janice’s choice) to pineapple.  I, on the other hand, got a creme pastry that looked somewhat like a brazo de gitano (literally “gypsy’s arm”) dessert from Spain.IMG_5145  It had everything I wanted for breakfast:  soft pastry dough and plenty of sweet and light whipped filling. IMG_5146 The only downside was the excessive dusting of powdered sugar on the outside that was delicious initially but in the end left me looking like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. IMG_5599I saved it for later though since it was quite a good amount of sugar in a short period of time.  We had a tour of the Taller Eloy de Sarchi, and some of the artwork was simply spectacular.  The colors were so bright and vibrant it looked like the animals were going to jump out at us.  IMG_5165Thankfully, it was just some fancy artwork, and we moved on toward our next destination in the form of the Arenal Volcano.  Once more, we had another roadside stop for food along the way.  This was one of many reasons why I loved our travel group!  This time, it was at a local fruit stand that had some recognizable produce like pumpkins, plantains, and pineapples, but then there were more exotic samples of Costa Rica’s countryside such as purple sweet potatoes and yuca.

Left to right:  pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

Left to right: pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

IMG_5174For example, a smaller cart of these odd red fruits that were a bit before the larger fruit shop we were occupying caught Janice’s eye.  She said that they looked like the combination of an apple and a pear.  One of the women in our group bought them, and lo and behold Janice was right.  Our guide informed us that they are known as Malaysian apples.  While their exterior appearance was bold and intriguing, their taste was the polar opposite.IMG_5178  It tasted like a super bland pear that could only be “enhanced” with the salt in a small accompanying bag the fruit hawker supplied our fellow traveler. IMG_5177 Another interesting entry was the green oranges that were in the same bin as yellow fruits that were completely beyond anything I’ve ever seen. IMG_5175 I bought one of the fruits that was slightly smaller than a baseball, and I found out I had to crack it open in order to eat it.IMG_5176  The exterior was the only normal thing about it.  Opening it was an adventure as I cracked through the thin yellow exterior and was quickly fingering through a white, dry, spongy material.IMG_5179  After moving beyond that, I was greeted with a grey, slimy seed pouch that was held in place with small white tendrils.  I learned that the proper way to eat this fruit called a granadilla (“small pomegranate” in Spanish) was to slurp up the black seeds along with the amniotic sack that was holding them.IMG_5181  The craziest thing were the edible and very crunch seeds.IMG_5184  It was overall a good purchase because it was actually quite delicious beyond its bizarre appearance that I could liken to a sweet orange with a tangy lime zing aftertaste.  We also bought some mangos for breakfast later on.  Our visit to the Arenal Volcano was a bust because it was completely obscured by fog and drizzle, but lunch was wonderful.  It was at a very unique restaurant called Restaurante Tobogán or “Slide Restaurant” in Spanish. IMG_5190 Why would it have such a random name?  Well, because this establishment literally had a giant water slide coming out of the top of it which led to a pool on the side that I’m sure would have been bumping if the weather was more agreeable.IMG_5191  I got the steak fajitas which once again were a lot different from the Mexican variety since there were no sizzling tabletop grills or tortillas to be seen.  The same juicy pieces of grilled steak and onions were there, but they were accompanied with a Costa Rican classic known as casado or “married/married man”. IMG_5187 It consisted of white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and a mixed salad.  The name is said to either have originated from customers asking to be served as married men and have the same food in the restaurant as they would at home, or a more plausible explanation would be that the beans and rice are forever linked in gastronomic matrimony.  It was during this meal I was also introduced to salsa Lizano which I could liken to a sweet Worcestershire sauce with a hint of spice.IMG_5186  It went great with the fajitas and beans and rice offering a salty/spicy contrast.  I also enjoyed a cool, refreshing glass of guanábana or sour sop juice.  I had tried it previously in south London in a Jamaican restaurant, and I loved it since it seemed like a sweet limeade of sorts.  However, the Costa Rican variety wasn’t as sweet and a lot frothier.  After the meal, we went to Baldi hot springs which was extremely relaxing along with us being able to fly down some water slides since we weren’t able to go down the one earlier in the day. IMG_5198 We had dinner at Baldi’s buffet, and most of it I had already tried aside from the Costa Rican version of tamales.  They were very similar to the Mexican version with the cornmeal base encasing seasoned chicken and pork, but the main difference was that they were wrapped in banana leaves and boiled instead of being baked in corn husks.  It was a calming end to a hurried day as we bonded with our fellow travelers over dinner and subsequently rode our food comas all the way back to San Jose for our next adventure.

 

Nosh Pit

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What’s happenin’, everyone?  Today is going to be another snack post about a bunch of small items I have been sampling as of late in Korea.  Recently, my parents came to visit me during my summer break, and we traveled to many familiar places for me like Incheon’s Chinatown and some new places like Busan where I tried poisonous blowfish and penis fish (See:  Food Porn).  Another new locale that we checked out was the DMZ, but I didn’t know that I would be eating any sort of local delicacies when I went there.

A couple of months ago, there was a lot of fear back home in the States about whether or not Kim Jong Un really was going to start World War III just to solidify his power.  Yet Korean people really couldn’t care less.

South Korea in a nutshell

South Korea in a nutshell

That was the general  vibe I got when I finally made it to the 38th parallel.  While we were absolutely forbidden to make any sort of gesture that would be used for North Korean propaganda or could be seen as a provocation for war while at the JSA, in other places it seemed like we were in some sort of theme park with colorful sculptures you could take pictures with.  They even had souvenirs you could take home with you saying, “Hey, I survived going to the world’s most militarized border!”  For me, I was more interested in the food and drinks you could buy.  While there was North Korean liquor, I wouldn’t trust them making any sort of alcohol.  It’s probably half kerosene and half paint thinner (then again, it sounds like soju).  However, I couldn’t turn down the Paju chocolate (5,000 W).IMG_0598  It looked like normal milk chocolate but the difference was that it was studded with black soybeans known as seoritae. IMG_0599 I’m assuming that the South Koreans close to the border made it since Kim Jong Un is no Willy Wonka and would only kill children if they were disrespecting the glorious Juche philosophy.  Either way, I was genuinely surprised.  The chocolate wasn’t quite as sweet as chocolate back home, but it was quite creamy while the beans brought a subtle earthy element and a light crunch to each satisfying bite.  I wouldn’t mind buying it as a snack if they actually made it outside of that one tiny region of Korea.  My second snack treat came to me via Incheon’s Chinatown.

Incheon may not be the prettiest city in the world, but there are certain areas that are nicer than others.  One of my favorite areas is Chinatown which is a bit different from the Chinatowns back home in say Chicago or San Francisco.  While the American ones are more just neighborhoods celebrating a particular ethnic enclave, Incheon’s is more like a neighborhood built more for industrial purposes since Chinese workers are seen as cheap labor here just like in the US back in the 1800s with the construction of the railroads.  However, that doesn’t mean they lack certain treats that give you a view into their own cultural heritage.  I saw many different types of mooncakes, but I also noticed the mountains of round orbs that looked like bread.  I bought one, and I saw on the sign they were called 공갈빵 or gonggalppang which literally means “hole bread”.

You're pretty

You’re pretty

While it looked completely solid, as soon as I bit into it, it shattered like an egg shell.

What's on the surface matters most

What’s on the surface matters most

I found out that there was nothing inside it except cinnamon.  This made it even better since I love anything cinnamon flavored, and by the time I finished it I wasn’t extremely stuffed.

I'm not shallow though

I’m not shallow though

It was almost like a large, cinnamon-coated pita chip in semi-cibatta form.  Then there is the funky ice cream from Fell + Cole that I fell in love with.

Yesterday, a blurb came up on my Facebook stalker feed that the annoying people from Eat Your Kimchi (an expat Korea blog) went to a gastronomic ice cream parlor in Hongdae called Fell + Cole that sold really off-the-wall flavors.   So I decided to give it a shot since it’s blazing hot out in Korea, and I had a taste for something cold.  Here’s the easiest way to get there:  1. Go to Sangsu Station (line 6) and take Exit 1 and just walk straight.  2. Turn right on your first street, it’s not a big main road, it’s just a side street.  3. The street will split left and right but just stick right and you’ll hit Fell + Cole.IMG_0626  If you’re curious, the name comes from the intersection where the owner lived in San Francisco while studying for his MBA.  When I walked in, it was a lot smaller than I anticipated, but it was very well decorated with a laid-back Cali vibe.IMG_0617

Frontroom

Frontroom

View from my solitary ice cream island of a table

View from my solitary ice cream island of a table

The owner was very friendly and allowed me to sample some of the flavors.  I settled for the double cup (8,000) of Makkeoli (rice wine) ice cream and mango hibiscus sorbet.  He gave me two pretty decent scoops, and I was definitely blown away by both of the flavors.The mango was on top, and I greatly enjoyed its tropical sweetness that was paired with a slight floral undertone.

So simple, yet so tasty

So simple, yet so tasty

As for the Makkeoli ice cream, I liked it better than the sorbet simply because I don’t know how they made it taste like a mind-blowing, decadent vanilla yet still maintaining that gentle bite from the wine.

Buried, semi-alcoholic treasure

Buried, semi-alcoholic treasure

Sadly, they didn’t have their bacon ice cream or their Sichuan pepper cream or their perilla leaf ice cream, but now I have three more excuses to visit this hip and modern boutique of icy delights!  I highly recommend this place to anyone looking for a place to beat the Korean heat.

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