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Once You Go Black, You Don’t Go Back

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December in Chicago.  Perfect time for some ice cream, right? Absolutely!  Especially when the creamery in question is as creative as Black Dog Gelato.  A few months ago I went to this establishment with my lovely girlfriend after a long day of listening and sampling some delicious treats as a lucky participant in the Taste Talks Convention in Chicago.  It was the perfect compliment to the savory tour de force that is Green Street Smoked Meats.

As I previously mentioned, we managed to score tickets to Taste Talks, and one of the meetings we went to was all about the future of ice cream.  Who was there?  Jenny Oloroso, the owner and founder of Black Dog Gelato.  We learned so much from her like how much care, creativity, and gastronomic chemistry goes into creating quality gelato from scratch.  What this means for the consumer is they get to enjoy a light but ultra-rich product that is churned out in limited size batches each day which is how Black Dog Gelato is operated.  Once they run out of a flavor, tough luck!  However, with flavors such as white chocolate banana curry, cucumber rosewater sorbet, and sesame fig chocolate chip, get in quick to get the pick of the litter. IMG_4433 When we arrived, it wasn’t too hopping in the middle of the cold and rainy afternoon. IMG_4431 The warm interior beckoned us to peruse the selection in front of us in the glass case and pick some winners.  IMG_4430Janice got a cup of goat cheese cashew caramel and butterscotch bourbon pecan while I got a cup of Mexican hot chocolate and maple cayenne bacon ($4.50 approximately each).

Left:  goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan Right:  Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

Left: goat cheese caramel cashew and butterscotch bourbon pecan
Right: Mexican hot chocolate and cayenne maple bacon

All of it tasted like a million bucks though.  The goat cheese cashew caramel was an interesting blend that was quite enjoyable even though one would think that the strong flavor profile of the goat cheese would overwhelm the other elements.  On the contrary, it was tempered by the sweet caramel and salty cashews to form the perfect blend of savory and sweet.  As for the butterscotch bourbon pecan, it was a lot less crazy than the first entry since it tasted like a more decadent butter pecan with a slightly boozy kick with each spoonful.  Janice loves her bourbon, so she was in heaven.  I was satisfied with it as well.  Then there were my crazy gelati.  The Mexican hot chocolate was your typical chocolate ice cream; a chocolate ice cream that also happened to be full of chili pepper.  It was exactly what I wanted.  This homage to its Aztec forefathers was both sweet with a slightly spicy kick that slowly but surely engulfed my tongue with a smoldering, but not overwhelming, kiss.  As for the maple cayenne bacon gelato, it wasn’t as good as the ones Janice picked or the Mexican hot chocolate.  True, I could taste each individual ingredient like the sweet maple syrup or the fiery cayenne, whose sibling I had already visited in the hot chocolate, but the bacon proved to be this selection’s undoing.  I’ve always loved bacon (tooting my meat product hipster horn) before the entire bacon craze hit the nation, but this gelato was an example of the fine line between madness and genius leaning towards the former.  The bacon was hogging the spotlight and left a greasy residue in my mouth.  Not a good look.  This didn’t sour my experience overall though.

Overall, I’d recommend Black Dog Gelato due to its high quality gelato and creative cornucopia of flavors for a reasonable price.

Black Dog Gelato on Urbanspoon

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A Berry Good Breakfast

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Sweden.  It is a country with many different faces.  While they are more well known for their vikings, gorgeous women, and a certain incomprehensible Muppet chef, Swedish cuisine in general isn’t very well known or as popular as other European countries’ foods like Italy, France, or Spain.  The reason being, I think, is that Sweden’s food culture reflects the cold and often times harsh environments the various Nordic tribes originally encountered when emigrating to modern day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.  I mean, the frigid winters aren’t going to cut any slack to a Swedish farmer who wants to emulate his Spanish neighbors by planting an olive farm or attempting to emulate the wine culture of the Mediterranean.  However, that is not to say that Northern European cuisine is worse than the rest of Europe, it just has different ingredients that might not agree with such a wide array of palates.  Historically, the Swedish people have emigrated en masse to America especially to the Northern Midwest region, and today they still have their own little corner of the homeland in Chicago in the Andersonville neighborhood.  You can find plenty of blue and yellow flags flying in front of storefronts, and of course there are diners offering Swedish fare.  Enter Svea’s, an 80 year old diner that is a symbol of the shrinking Swedish community that once was the second largest in the world outside of Stockholm.IMG_3782

Before walking in, the proprietors invoked their links to old Sverige with the three crowns of the royal coat of arms along with a tall ship that could have fit in with King Gustavus Adolphus‘ navy.IMG_3779  After going through their screen door, I was greeted with a small but cozy diner.IMG_3778  Surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy in the morning for breakfast, so I got to sit wherever I wanted. IMG_3771 IMG_3772 All around I could see little Swedish knicknacks and artifacts like horned viking helmets, a “God jul” or “Merry Christmas” sign on the kitchen, and a horse patterned table cloth that took me back to when I visited Stockholm.IMG_3774

A typical day in Stockholm

A typical day in Stockholm

I looked over the menu with the left side sporting more American selections like omelets and bagels, but then there were Swedish options like smorgasar (open face sandwiches), the famed “Viking” breakfast, and my choice:  Swedish pancakes with imported lingonberry sauce ($6) with a side of salt pork ($3).  The prices overall ranged anywhere from $5-$10 which is a bargain compared to other brunch places in the area.  There are dinner options as well that have the same American/Swedish split, but I’ll have to leave that for another day.  My cakes made their appearance soon thereafter and looked perfect.IMG_3775  Portion-wise, they were quite large.  I found them to be between a ‘Murikan pancake and a French crepe in terms of thickness.  Amid the sprinklings of powdered sugar, the salt pork was placed atop the pockmarked surface and strangely looked like two of the rosy horses on the table sharing a smooch.  Budding food romances aside, I placed it aside for later.  I focused first on smearing the small container of lingonberry jelly all over these wonderful pancakes and quickly tucked in since I was starving.  However, I think they could have given me a bit more jelly to actually cover both pieces instead of just one.IMG_3776  It was a simple but very well done meal.  The pancakes were substantial yet light on the stomach.  It didn’t feel like I had swallowed a bowling ball by the end of breakfast.  As for the jelly, it was sweet yet more on the tart side which gave the blander pancakes a potent punch with every forkful.  I then turned my full attention toward the salt pork.IMG_3777  I used some of the maple syrup on the side for dipping, but I could only liken the meat to a super thin and crunchy version of bacon.  It wasn’t unbearably salty and only got better with some of the gooey, sweet syrup on top.

As I went to settle the check at the front, I noticed their sign on the cash register that said, “CASH ONLY”.  In this era of credit cards, it seems a bit archaic, but luckily I’m a man of the past.  I paid for my reasonably priced and lip-smacking good breakfast that was like Ikea furniture:  cheap, functional, simple, pleasing to the eye, but way more delicious.  I highly recommend visiting Svea’s to experience an unraveling ethnic patch of Chicago’s cultural quilt.

Svea on Urbanspoon

In the Garden of Eatin’

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What’s beef? Beef is when you make your enemies start your Jeep
Beef is when you roll no less than thirty deep
Beef is when I see you guaranteed to be a ICU, check it”
-Notorious B.I.G.

While my gangster friend, Biggie, had other ideas about what “beef” meant to him in a serious context, today’s Mastication Monologues post is much more lighthearted.  While I could be considered a culinary hitman who is hired for his discerning palate and ruthless ability to deal with difficult dining experiences, I was working pro-buona at this latest establishment, Buona Beef that is.

While Philly has their cheesesteak and NYC has their monstrous pastrami sammiches, Chicago’s sandwich is one that was born out of poverty.  When Italian immigrants used to work in the Union stockyards of Chicago, they would bring home the lower quality, tougher pieces of meat.  So what would be the easiest way to stretch these meager resources for a meal?  Easy.  First, they wet roasted it in a beef broth seasoned with garlic, oregano, and other spices.  Then, they’d slice the meat extra thin to feed the most amount of mouths with the least waste possible.  These paper-thin pieces of meat were thrown back into the broth to soak up all of the flavor from the roasting period for maximum deliciousness.  From there, the Italian immigrants put the beef on Italian bread loaves, and thus the Chicago Italian beef sandwich was born.  While the times and customers have changed, the cooking process has stayed the same.  Enter Buona Beef.  This franchise started back in 1981 by the Buonavolanto family who brought Neopolitan family recipes to the mainland and brought them to the American public.  Buona Beefs can be found all throughout the Chicagoland area but nowhere else in America.  I went with my parents to the location in Darien, IL, and it was a pleasant dining experience. darien The service was quick, and the prices are reasonable.  The menu ranges from pizza, salads, pasta, and of course, da beef sandwiches!  I got the regular 7″ sandwich ($5.50), but they also have piccolo (small) and maggiore (large) sizes.  While most sandwich restaurants ask if you want everything on it, ordering an Italian beef sandwich could almost sound like a script Ron Jeremy could read.  One can be asked if they want it juicy/dipped (dipped in the beef broth), dry (sans broth), hot (with hot giardiniera on top), or sweet (with sweet peppers on top).  While my mom went for the more subdued sweet, dipped sandwich, I kicked it up a notch by getting a hot dip.  This is definitely where I parked my car. While Buona Beef offers various desserts like cannoli, brownies, gelato, and lemon knots, I knew I had to try their new maple bacon shake ($3.25) which apparently diners have been scared to try.  Since I was the first to do so, the manager was overjoyed that I ordered it.  With our orders in, we took our number, and waited for them to bring us our food.

After a brief wait, our sandwiches came out along with the shakes.  I hadn’t had one of these bad boys since coming back to America, and when I laid my eyes on it, I could remember why I missed this small, meat-laden piece of home.  While I prefer the spicy over the mild, my mom’s sandwich still looked pretty good. I think they could have given her more of the roasted, sweet peppers though. IMG_3205 As for my sandwich, it was a thing of absolute beauty.  The bread was fresh yet glistening slightly with the juice of its beefy bathtub in the back.  Plus, the vegetables, or giardiniera (jar-din-air, Chicago pronunciation), looked fantastic.  Giardiniera means comes from the word in Italian for “garden” but actually means “pickled vegetables”.  That’s why the version in Italy is called “sotto aceti” or “under vinegar”.  However, there are slightly different takes on giardiniera depending on where you are.  The West Coast version is closer to its Italian roots with just using vinegar, but here in Chicago we use olive oil.  I’ve asked friends from across the US if they’ve heard of giardiniera, but it seems to be chiefly a Chicago thang.  Typically, one can find a cornucopia of vegetables in the mild or spicy oil such as carrots, celery, olives, pimentos, cauliflower, and bell peppers.  Everyone has their own favorite blend and brand like Greco’s for me.IMG_3216  Even though they’re soaking in oil, the vegetables still maintain their crispy texture.  compliments of the pickling process.  After appreciating the beefy Botticelli in front of me,  I finally took the first bite.IMG_3211  Not only is the Italian beef sandwich unique in terms of ingredients and being a culinary representative of Chicago, but one must eat it in a certain way known as “the stance”.  I’ll let the owner of  Al’s beef, the mothership of Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago since 1938 in Little Italy, and Adam Richman explain it.  Much like Mr. Richman, I was overwhelmed by the soft, juicy bread that encased the delicate pieces of garlic and oregano-laced beef.  The giardiniera provided a much needed crunch and spice to offset the soggy sandwich.  Naturally, my basket by the end of the meal looked like a sloppy slip-n’-slide, but it hit the spot.  As for my shake, it was thick and topped with a few morsels of bacon. IMG_3208IMG_3209 Upon sipping the ivory-hued beverage, I was immediately greeted with a wave of excruciatingly sweet maple flavor that dominated the shake for the most part until I reached the latter half.IMG_3213Once I finally dove deep enough, I could find and sample the crispy creatures hiding beneath the whipped cream.  The smoky and salty flavor of the bacon combined well with the sweetness of the maple riffs, but it proved to be a bit overwhelming as I sampled the dregs.  By the end, I feel like I drank a bottle of sugar syrup which didn’t settle well with me.  I think if  Buona Beef lightened up on the syrup and evenly distributed the bacon in a smaller portion size, they’d have a real hit on their hands.

So if you want to try a unique piece of Chicago’s culinary history without having to make the trek downtown to Little Italy, try Buona Beef!

Buona Beef on Urbanspoon

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