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Absolute Cero

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Hola a todos and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  This really has been a post that has been long in the making, but it is not short on quality by any means.  Today’s restaurant in question is De Cero on the Near West side of Chicago.  It is a modern version of a taqueria or taco shop for y’all who don’t habla espanol.  It takes the ingredients from the Pilsen and Little Village Mexican strongholds and presents it in a more Rick Bayless upper echelon Latin cuisine fashion.

Sharing the block with other famous dining establishments like Le Chevre and Girl and the Goat (post coming soon), De Cero is a simple restaurant with open patio dining and indoor dining.  It’s simply furnished with wooden chairs and a soft lit interior.IMG_3961 IMG_3959 IMG_3960 When I went with my girlfriend and her party posse, we hung out on the bumpin patio that was occasionally ruined by spontaneous drizzle storms.  Being the Midwesterners that we are, we just sat through it and enjoyed the wonderful food and drinks.IMG_3947

First, there were the libations.  They have non-alcoholic selections like the classic Jarritos that can be found in every corner store stocked with Latin goods, but we came for the more adult beverages.  I started by wetting my whistle with a mango con chile margarita ($9.75).  Not only did it come with chile, but our waitress indulged my thirst for spicy food by letting me know I can put habanero chili powder on the edge.  When it came out, it checked all the boxes for me for a bebida perfecta (perfect drink). IMG_3948 IMG_3950 It was the perfect blend of the natural sweetness of the sunny yellow mango with the occasional hint of tequila and a bold punch of smoldering chile with each sip.  Later on in the night, I tried the jicama margarita, but it was the blander of the two options. IMG_3958 IMG_3957

As for appetizers, we got the chips and salsa entrada ($6.75) where we chose the pico de gallo, red picante, and tomatillo lime verde salsas.  A side of guacamole was thrown in there for good measure.  IMG_3953Out of the trio of super salsas, my favorite was the pico de gallo.  All of the different elements like the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and tangy lime juice were in perfect harmony which I couldn’t say the same for its compadres.  The red picante was pedestrian but a bit heavy on the smoky chile element, and the key lime green tomatillo salsa was more sour than savory which didn’t really catch my fancy.  However, the guacamole made me think “Holy moly” with each ravenous bite of the tortilla chips. IMG_3954 Even though it was the same color as toothpaste, it tread the line between chunky and smooth excellently and the cilantro pepped up this potentially bland side.  IMG_3956My girlfriend also tried the spicy goat cheese tamale ($3.75).  IMG_3969

Duck confit taco and tamale

Duck confit taco and tamale

It was nothing special.  The mild masa of the tamale drowned out the flamboyantly tasty goat cheese which left me muy triste.IMG_3971  After munching on these appetizers, the main course came out.

I got four different tacos:  spicy applewood chorizo, rajas, al pastor, and chicken mole ($3.75 each).IMG_3963  Surprisingly, I thought the best one of the four was the rajas. IMG_3967 This doesn’t mean that the other ones were huge let downs, but I felt that I tried better versions in cheaper restaurants.  Especially with the al pastor that had plenty of spiced pork shoulder but not enough pineapple.  IMG_3966The chorizo was not as spicy as I was anticipating which left me crestfallen since I’m used to Mexican sausage bringing the heat.IMG_3965  The chicken mole was more of an experiment for me since I’ve never really been a big fan of mole.  IMG_3964Even though I love chocolate, this cocoa infused sauce never really jived with my palate.  At De Cero, it was no different, but I’m sure many other people love it. The black beans that came with the tacos, however, were a nice change of pace compared to the typical brown refried bean goo they serve at every tex-mex eatery. IMG_3968 They were served whole, simmered in a pork based broth with a chunk of pork thrown in for good measure.  It was food for the soul.

By the end of the meal, I felt like a stuffed gordita, but the overall quality of the ingredients in the tacos and the zesty margaritas made De Cero a taqueria experience without equal, especially with lovely company.IMG_3973
De Cero on Urbanspoon

Barato? Creo que no Vato!

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Hey everybody, and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  November is in full swing, and I have been living it up as I am slowly approaching the nine month mark in Korea and my birthday!  This weekend was no different as I managed to knock another restaurant off my culinary hit-list like the food assassin that I am.  I ended up going to Vatos Urban Tacos located at Itaewon-dong 181-8 2nd Floor, Seoul.  It’s very easy to get there:  go to the Itaewon metro stop and come out exit three; walk for a while until you pass a Nike and an Adidas store.  It’ll be a couple of minutes after them on your right hand side on a hill.  You also won’t be able to miss it because there will be more people outside of the restaurant than on free sample day at Costco.  I highly recommend you make reservations in advance because this restaurant is like Jay Gatsby’s parties, i.e. everyone and their omma is invited every night of the week.  So I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about.

The interior had a modern vibe mainly with dark wood elements and wrought iron/industrial metal elements like old spigots that constituted the table frames. IMG_1194 I had already seen my fair share of pictures of people on Facebook eating the various plates that Vatos offers like tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and their monster margaritas.IMG_1186  I was kind of sad you couldn’t mix and match their taco flavors, but I eventually settled for three braised carnitas tacos (8,000 W).  To drink, I went for their peach margarita (12,500 W) because you can never go wrong with peach flavored things.  The first thing we ate were the complimentary chips with salsa which were a bit different from any other Mexican restaurant I’ve been to because the tortilla chips were not chips. IMG_1187 They were still in their original tortilla form which didn’t make much of a difference to us, but they were good with the salsa verde and spicier salsa roja which most likely had serrano peppers in it for that smoky flavor.  We also split a basket of kimchi fries (11,500 W) which were great.

A tisket, a tasket, I went hog wild on this basket

A tisket, a tasket, I went hog-wild on this basket

Not only were the fries made to perfection, but the chopped onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, and sour cream managed to dance a perfect ranchera with the spicy kimchi that was nestled amongst the western ingredients.  When they came out, they confirmed my initial fears from my friends comments about the portion sizes.  These were the smallest tacos I’ve ever eaten.IMG_1193  I mean, I know I come from a country where a side of a cow constitutes a regular serving size, but Korea is not Lilliput either.  While they were delectable, they were not the best like back home or at Gusto Taco in Hongdae.  The meat was shredded and adequately seasoned but a bit on the dry side.  As for the tortillas, they felt very flimsy when I rolled up my taco, and I’m sure if they made their tacos any bigger, there would be meat and cheese all over customers’ hands.  I also didn’t really taste any lime that they talked about in the description on the menu, but it didn’t really bother me all that much.  My peach margarita, on the other hand, was large and in charge.

Peachy keen!

Peachy keen!

It definitely was one of the best margaritas I’ve ever had since it wasn’t slushy and filled with ice chips, and every sip was a smooth draw of rich peach flavor with a minor hint of alcohol.  As for my friends, Steph got the fajita burrito (11,000 w) which was much heartier than my tacos, and one element that really stood out to me was the chipotle mayonnaise.IMG_1192  It was an oddly pleasing ingredient to throw into a burrito, so I tip my sombrero to you Vatos.  As for her bf, Daeun, he got three spicy chicken tacos (9,000 w).IMG_1191  It was a very basic type of chicken taco, and it wasn’t even that spicy.  I personally preferred my tacos since they at least had more of a flavor profile with the cilantro and onions on top.  In the end, we were all stuffed and satisfied with our meal.

So if you want to go to one of most crowded but not the best taco restaurant in Seoul, go to Vatos, but remember it’s not muy barato (cheap).

El Mago: Quite Bewitching

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It has been awhile since my last entry, but I come back with another classic edition of Mastication Monologues.  Recently, I went to El Mago Grill located at 641 E. Boughton Rd., Suite 152 I Bolingbrook, IL 60440.  It is nestled in the recently erected Promenade shopping center that combines outdoor ambiance with quaint boutique style shopping.

They Even Have Their Own Doorman

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El Mago, to begin with, means “The Wizard” in Spanish, and it truly was a magical experience for my family and I.  First off, we used this sweet Groupon deal where we managed to get the guacamole appetizer, two Hechizo margaritas, and two entrées for fifteen dollars…a pretty good deal I say, amigo!  Anyway, the interior of the restaurant is quite contemporary in design with plenty of bright colors of the American Southwest and Mexico, desert tones/woodwork, and other elements from Mexico like the varieties of tequila that constitute the entire wall behind the bar or the menagerie of luchador (think Nacho Libre) masks that adorn another wall opposite of where you enter the establishment.

We started with the complementary tortilla chips and three different types of salsa.  The first one was a red chile árbol based sauce that was slightly spicy with a smoky aftertaste that only the dried chile árbol could produce.  The second salsa was an interesting twist on a jalapeño based recipe that also incorporated peanuts to provide a mellower flavor that is considered quite spicy for those who can’t handle the heat (I was not phased by any means).  Finally, I decided that out of these three salsas, the salsa verde that was made with cilantro and green tomatillos was my favorite by far.  It wasn’t very spicy, but it had a slightly sour wash over your palate that was further enhanced with the texture of the seeds from the tomatillos.

The Moe, Curly, and Larry of the salsa world

To drink, I ended up imbibing the Hechizo margarita.  Even though its name implies a magical spell, I, a mere muggle, was not held under its sway.  It was quite watered down and had way too much mixer in it; however, they might have just made it with less panache given the fact we were using a Groupon.  So, splash some cash and see if it actually does make a difference.  Soon enough, our guacamole appetizer arrived, and the aftermath looked brutal (the bowl was picked clean like a zebra on the Serengeti).  Gory comparisons aside, the actual guacamole was quite fresh and creamy.  I could taste every single element of this goopy concoction from sweet tomatoes to the very slight hint of the lime juice.  It was definitely a nice departure from the typical guacamole in other Mexican restaurants that have the consistency and taste of bland mashed potatoes.  Plus, it definitely helped when it came to stomaching the tortilla chips that were abnormally salty ( Dead Sea level), but if that’s your thing, then more power to you.  Once that tasty ordeal was over, it was onto the main course.  Little did I know I was about to receive the culinary beatdown of a lifetime.

Amazing guacamole next to a sub par margarita

I decided to order the Ropa Vieja (or “old clothes”, strange name, I know) which consists of shredded beef brisket, farmer’s cheese, sweet plantains, and refried black beans.  When it came out to me, I didn’t know whether to poke it to see if it was going to bite back or to say a prayer to see if I would make it out alive (it was a monstrous portion of food).  The beef brisket alone took up half the plate, but it was so tender you could eat it with a spoon since it was stewed in its own seasoned juices.  The sweet plantains really gave the plate a full body and made it even harder for me to finish.  However, it was my first time venturing into the realm of the use of plantains in cooking, but I can now say that I am looking forward to trying other Latin plantain dishes in the future, i.e. jibaritos and mofongo.  The actual plantains were not soggy by any means, had an underlying sweetness, and seemed to be almost like the potato portion of a steak dinner but with south of the border flavors.  As for the black beans, it complimented the plantains to give it a very Cuban feel to the dish, but they were not like the ordinary refried beans they serve at run of the mill Mexican establishments because you could still see the individual beans in the enormous globule that occupied the left third of your plate.  In addition to all of this food, they provided me with a “very spicy salsa”, but I was not impressed.  So, I managed to finagle with our waitress in Spanish to actually get me a salsa that would make my taste buds and do the lambada (I didn’t quite say this in Spanish…lost in translation haha).  Two salsas later, the chef actually whipped up a Habañero based sauce, that finally provided me with a kick that I was looking for, and I provided a show for the Mexican staff as they couldn’t understand how a güero like me could speak Spanish and eat such spicy food?

They should rename this “El Montón” (the heap)

I just chalk it up to being adventurous in terms of traveling, eating, and learning about new cultures…you can go far with an open mind.   As a whole, this meal was very filling while providing new/unusual flavors and textures and definitely worth the money if you’re looking for something off the beaten path of tacos, enchiladas, and tostadas.

In closing, El Mago Grill is a pretty good cantina for those traditional aforementioned Mexican favorites or dishes you perhaps never have heard of like the Ropa Vieja.  Plus, the very fact that the chef  made up a sauce for me on the spot really made me think that good food is like platform 9 and 3/4s in Harry Potter, “You just have to believe that its there”…now go out and find those good eats!  Buena suerte!

Mago Grill & Cantina on Urbanspoon

Mago Grill and Cantina on Foodio54

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