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Pole Position

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I just keep on chugging along on here churning out one great review after another.  In fact, I just recently passed my 200th post on my blog, so if this is your first time coming to my page, check it out here.  It showcases the variety of cultures and native dishes I’ve sampled throughout the years and my travels.  I hope you enjoy it.  Today’s post hits a little closer to home culturally since I’m going to be talking about Polish food.

Chicago occupies a special place in Polish history given that it has long been a hub for Polish immigrants coming to America due to the need for cheap labor in the Union Stockyards starting in the latter half of the 19th Century.  So many immigrants ended up coming to my hometown that it now has more people of Polish descent than the Polish capital of Warsaw.

The Pope approves this message

The Pope approves this message

I am one of those people of Polish descent, and my family enjoys many aspects of the culture from the music to the food.  I’ve been trying to learn more Polish, but I have a long way to go to master the extremely difficult language that seems to be an alphabet soup with special vowels and an avalanche of consonants rammed together. 350px-PolishDumskis However, it doesn’t take much to love the cuisine.  I can only describe it as a mix between German and Russian food with some Polish ingenuity and heartiness to endure very hard times.  Typically, my family and I enjoy classic Polish dishes like pierogis, kielbasa, kapusta, and kolaczki at family celebrations, and I’ve visited some great Polish restaurants in my grandparents’ neighborhood by Midway Airport.  However, they seemingly can never make (insert food here) as well as babcia (grandmother), but I recently visited a Polish restaurant that made it feel like you’re sitting in your babcia’s  kitchen.  The place in question is called Podhalanka located in the Polish Triangle area on Division.

The outside looks more like a place you’d come to get keys made than a restaurant.  IMG_3793My girlfriend had never been to a Polish restaurant, so I was honored to bring her somewhere to get a taste of my culture.  We walked through the door to find a spartan interior that had a bar and plenty of long tables covered in plastic, Kmart tablecloths. IMG_3788 In typical Polish fashion, there was no inanely grinning hostess at the front to greet us.  Instead, there was a gruff looking woman in an apron who mumbled something when we walked in.  We then scanned each other to see if she spoke English and I Polish.  I just said “Table for two”, and we had our pick of seats.  She gave us menus slower than other customers for some reason.  Looking over the selection, I could tell that this stuff was no-frills and just like what I saw in the motherland when I visited Krakow.  While I wanted to go for my comfort zone with a dish like gołąbki (literally:  pidgeons, really stuffed pork cabbage rolls) or kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet), I knew I had to get the zurek (white borscht) ($3.80) and sztuka miesa w sosie chrzanowym (boiled beef with horseradish sauce) ($10.50).  The curmudgeon of a woman who greeted us at the door, who I assumed was the owner, took our orders quite quickly.  Janice ordered her food, the pieczen wieprzowa (roast pork) ($10.50), but then the old woman was suddenly aglow when I properly pronounced each of the choices for my order.  Looks like I still got skillz.  The old woman said ok, and I thanked her in Polish which she appreciated.  While we were waiting, I looked at all of the random Polish souvenirs and cultural artifacts referencing various parts of Polish culture like the newly sanctified Karol Wotyla a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, the Polish white eagle, and the black Madonna or Our Lady of Czestochowa.  My zurek came out first, and I was pumped.  It was a translucent broth punctuated with small bits of dill floating on the surface and large chunks of sausage bobbing in the tasty sea.IMG_3789  From the first to the last gulp, I loved this piping hot bowl of goodness.  IMG_3794The broth itself was sour and meaty yet tinged with a dill bite I really enjoyed. IMG_3797 As for the disks of kielbasa, they were substantial, flavorful, and plentiful throughout the bowl.  While I was enjoying this super soup, we also got a basket filled with slices of white rye bread.  It was a slice (pun intended) of the restaurants in my grandparents’ neighborhood complete with the little packages of butter.  The bread crusts were especially helpful when used to mop up some of the soup.  While I was midway through my soup, she brought out a salad complete with the basic vegetables used in 90 percent of Polish recipes bar cabbage and potatoes. IMG_3790 It wasn’t anything spectacular with the cucumbers and tomatoes slathered in a semi-sweet dressing and a purple pile of pickled beets on the side, but all of the ingredients were really fresh.  My personal favorite were the pickled beets since they were super tangy.  Right as we finished the salad, our main entrees finally emerged.  Both of our dishes looked similar in the fact that they were large pieces of meat slathered in a gravy or sauce with a side of mashed potatoes.  After that, the commonalities ended.  Janice’s roast pork didn’t taste like much, but my boiled beef had a life of its own.IMG_3791  The beef was extremely tender and thankfully enhanced with the feisty horseradish sauce with a slight sinus-clearing kick in each forkful.IMG_3792  Said sauce extended to the mashed potatoes, and I use the term “mashed” in the loosest sense.  It was more like semi-clumped potatoes, but like the beef, there were no seasonings to be had here aside from the horseradish sauce.  Either way, it was a hearty meal that made me think of home.  I’d like to go back there to try some of the pierogi or perhaps some potato pancakes.

I paid the bill, and I saw that I got charged for the soup and salad, but Janice did not for her salad.  Perhaps the old lady was kind hearted after all and made my visit complete.  So, if you’re on the northside and want to try some great, down-home Polish cooking at reasonable prices, check out Podhalanka.  The service might be a bit brusque, but you’ll just have to trust babcia on this one.

Podhalanka on Urbanspoon

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All About My Cheddar

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Top o’ the morning to ye and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post involves an Irish pub with plenty of class and delicious food.  I’m talking about Lady Gregory’s located on the north side of Chicago.  The name references a female Victorian Irish playwright who penned “Playboy of the Western World”, a play made infamous due to its scandalous reference to underpants.  Ohhhhh my! She faced plenty of resistance and even death threats from audiences until Teddy Roosevelt saw the play and praised it.  Looks like the king of “Bully!” stopped the bullies, and Lady Gregory’s menu contains the same sassyness the original Lady Gregory possessed.  It ranges from flatbreads, salads, soups, burgers, and big plates.  Plus, they have plenty of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to wet your whistle.IMG_3254

As for the layout of the restaurant, it has both indoor and outdoor seating.  Janice and I chose to sit inside, so we were ushered past the impressive wrap-around bar to the area known as “the library”.IMG_3253  Why?  Simple.  It’s an actual library that has walls stocked with reading material to go along with your eats and a few board games as well if you’re not entertained with simple conversation.IMG_3252  After looking over the menu, I went for the ultimate grilled cheese ($10) and a side of champ ($3.50).  My meal eventually came out, and it looked great.  When they say the grilled cheese is “ultimate”, they mean that every element of the sandwich is coated, stuffed, and/or infused with cheese.  *Cue Homer moment*.  It was unlike any other grilled cheese moment I’ve had in other parts of Chicago or in my life.  First, the bread was a Parmesan encrusted sourdough that had plenty of crunch, cheesy flavor, and consistency to support the flavor bomb that was ticking between the slices. IMG_3247 When I bit through the beautiful bread, I was greeted by an avalanche of lava hot cheeses:  Gruyere, Irish white cheddar, mozzarella, and brie to be exact.  While these smooth and flavorful cheeses were cascading down my palate, I also managed to catch some of the mashed tomatoes in the waves of dairy along with some delightfully smoky yet sweet, candied bacon pieces. IMG_3251  I’d highly recommend this delightfully rich in flavor but not in price plate.  The free pickle on the side only “sweetened” the deal with its sour, dill crunch.  As for the champ, it’s an Irish take on mashed potatoes.  Called brúitín in Gaelic or “poundies”, this side takes basic mashed potatoes and combines them with butter, green onions, and milk.IMG_3250  A simple food that packs plenty of complex sensations into a humble bowl.  While the potatoes were extremely creamy, the rich butter contrasted with the semi-strong green onions that introduced a bit of attitude like a champion side dish should have.

So if you want to have some great versions of simple meals that won’t cost you a pot o’ gold, check out Lady Gregory’s!

Lady Gregory's on Urbanspoon

Bring Money to Get This Honey

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Hey, everyone!  Sorry for the wait, but I’ve been busy as of late with tutoring.  However, I hope you’re ready for a finger-lickin’ good blog post today on Mastication Monologues!  While I have my affinity for certain fried chicken chains over others, Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago has quickly become one of the best places I’ve ever had the artery-clogging, guilty pleasure.IMG_3048

After a fun day out on the town with my friend Janice, we decided to try Honey Butter Fried Chicken for lunch dinner or as we called it, “linner”, or perhaps “dunch” would work just as well.  That portmanteau was born out of the fact we went to eat around 5 pm since we’re old people deep down inside.  I didn’t expect the restaurant to be as busy as it was at that time of day.IMG_3047  We went in line, and there was a sense of pressure as the line continued to form behind us.  As my pulse quickened and my eyes scanned over the fried chicken, sandwhich, and sides options, I eventually went for a four piece chicken platter ($15; too expensive) and a side of schmaltz smashed potatoes ($2.75).  We quickly jumped off to the side as the tide of customers ebbed forth, and we decided to sit out on the patio that is in the back of the restaurant.  However, Chicago that day decided to live up to its nickname the Windy City by greeting us with chilly blasts of wind that made us retreat into the main dining room (though the Windy City name doesn’t come from the weather phenomenon).  Once settled in a more comfortable eating environment, bar the proximity of the tables to each other which invades a bit of your privacy, our food was brought out to us.  It was smaller than I was anticipating for the price, but I was judging a crusty brown book by its cover.

So. much. fat.

So. much. fat.

I started with the corn muffins.  These little nuggets of sweet, fluffy goodness were appropriately stamped with honey bees and honeycombs.  My taste buds were abuzz after slathering the muffins with hefty helpings of the free honey butter on the side that were both creamy and not too sweet.  You only get one complimentary tub with your chicken platter, but they just decided to give me another one because they’re cool like that.  As for the chicken, while it doesn’t have the potent punch of Popeye’s spicy chicken strips, the breading was superb by being both bursting with flavor and not that greasy.  The meat was succulent, and the best part was that the breast pieces were completely boneless which gave me a lot more chicken than I was anticipating.  My duck fat mashed potatoes were excellent, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t like gravy on their mashed potatoes.  I think it was because the light, salty flavor of the duck fat in the gravy wasn’t as overpowering as a beef based sauce.  The actual taters were light and whipped.  I even had some room in my bulging tummy for a bit of Janice’s creamed corn that was wild.

Not your granddaddy's creamed corn

Not your granddaddy’s creamed corn

While the corn was run of the mill, it was kicked up a notch with Thai green curry.  What that meant for each forkful was that the buttery corn flavor brought a subtle citrus zest that really surprised me in a good way.  By the end of the meal, I was happier than a rooster in a hen house.

So if you’re looking for a new take on fried chicken that goes beyond the standard establishments and normal price range, check out Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Going Out With A Bang

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‘Ello everyone!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  I am currently writing this while rocking a food baby to sleep on this cold November evening.  Even though I may have had a bit of a rough day today, I still managed to have a dinner that chased away the blues and the cool weather.  I ended up going out to a British gastropub called Chequers located at 100 West Burlington Avenue  La Grange, IL 60525.

At first I had looked up some reviews on Yelp to see what exactly I should expect from this restaurant, and I did not see many good comments.  Now, I did take these reviews with a grain of salt since some foodies out there are quite demanding of establishments, and the British aren’t known for their culinary prowess.  However, I was pleasantly surprised.  Upon walking through the doors, I was greeted with a beefeater cutout and plenty of kitschy 19th century pictures of England and advertisements for travel, beer, and stereopticons(well, maybe not that last one).  The service was very prompt, and the actual interior was quite cozy for a winter night.  To drink, I went with a Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale since it was on special, and I do love my pumpkin flavored items aside from the pumpkin lattes or whatever they are at Starbucks.

A fine brew for a bite

I know I’m going to get a lot of hate mail from that statement, but c’est la vie.  Anyway, the actual beer was quite tasty.  It had an orange amber hue that embodied a light, spicy flavor with a slight pumpkin aftertaste with every sip.  It provided a classy undertone to the overtures of our larger than life appetizers:  onion rings and Welsh rarebit.

Appetizers fit for Godzilla

The former was pretty straight forward in terms of presentation since there are only so many ways one can cut up onions and fry them.  However, these rings were literally big enough to be worn as bracelets.  Even though these monstrous rings could serve as earrings for Shaq, their taste was equally large.  The breading was crisp and buttery and thankfully not very greasy.  The accompanying sauce was a tasty spicy ranch with a horseradish and black pepper foundation.  With the latter appetizer, the Welsh rarebit, I have always wondered of what it consisted?  For the longest time, I would think that it involved rabbit meat in some form since “rarebit” looks similar when glanced at very quickly.  However, I would cross off another food on my bucket list since I found out that it is the rough English equivalent of fondue sans the forks and mini-pot of cheese.  Instead, it is a small casserole dish of melted Cotswold cheese (the very same that people chase in the Cotswold Games), stout, mustard, and Cayenne pepper.  This spread was then supposed to be eaten on the toast points provided with the dish, and the bread was a wheat rye that was nicely toasted.  The melted cheese was quite smooth and savory, akin to a Gouda, while I could taste the hearty stout mingling with the semi-sweet mustard.  ‘Twas good to say that I had it, but I don’t know if I would get it again.

Shhh! Don’t wake the sausages

Once we managed to somehow destroy these two appetizers (it was mainly me), I got down to business with my main dish:  bangers and mash.  Now I know that there are certain Britishisms that make Americans go tee-hee, i.e. fags, bangers, and rubbers (translations:  cigarettes, sausages, and erasers), but this meal made my stomach go tee-hee with how delicious it was.  First, the sausages were roasted in a stone ground mustard sauce that still had the seeds in it which was a nice rustic touch.  Its semi-sweet/acidic yellow mustard taste complimented the pork based sausage perfectly.  As for the sides, the mash was smoother than Cool Whip and somehow incredibly buttertastic without having an entire irrigation system of Land O’ Lakes extending slowly across my plate.  The steamed vegetables were pretty pedestrian, but they were adequately prepared.  It was a hodgepodge of cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, and carrots.

By the time we finished, the pumpkin bread pudding for dessert was a long way away in my mind.  I had bigger problems to deal with like attempting to maintain consciousness on the border of a food coma.  So if you’re looking for a slice of jolly old England with an American twist in regard to portion sizes, cheque out Chequers!

Chequers on Urbanspoon

Chequers of Lagrange on Foodio54

Which Came First: The Chicken or the Hot Sauce?

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Howdy y’all!  It’s time for another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today I am going to be writing about a certain restaurant chain that has a special, deep-fried spot in my heart (and no I’m not talking about Atherosclerosis) but rather that golden brown, Cajun breading that comes on Popeye’s’ Chicken.  My favorite Popeye’s is located at 5711 S. LaGrange Road in Countryside IL.  There is a closer location on Cass Ave., but I no longer patronize that location due to its lackluster biscuits that are more akin to hardtack than buttermilk pillows, and a bout of food poisoning they served to me with a side of bland chicken.  But I digress.

The actual establishment is nothing too extravagant as there are numerous Cajun knickknacks hanging about the entrance, and Mardi Gras related memorabilia festooning the wall space between each table.  Many are quite humorous such as the following pics:

A Little African-American Vernacular English Anyone?

Sadly No Beignets Here

I Don’t Get It

After taking in all of this colorful scenery (including the hot sauce case that contains a bottle that should not belong in there. See if you can figure out this riddle when you go there), I got down to business by ordering the five chicken strip meal (which comes in either mild or spicy varieties and then two sides which can be either a biscuit and Cajun fries, mashed potatoes, dirty rice, or cole slaw).

“Some Mashed Potaters…mmm hmmm” a la Slingblade

As far as side dish affinities go, I normally choose the biscuit and the extra biscuit side which is an approximation of what God would eat for dinner if he resided south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Chicken-wise, I usually go for the spicy variety which I would liken to a slightly hotter paprika that resides under the crispy breading that doesn’t get spicier than a standard jalapeno heat.  Plus, if you decide to order traditional, whole pieces of chicken, you can also get it in regular and spicy varieties (unlike the Colonel who just has one flavor that relies on a mysterious recipe which still tastes bland to me).

However, I always manage to douse these strips with some good ol’ fashioned Louisiana Hot Sauce that is  in ample supply on the table in bottles.  Even though there are some people who complain that after eating fried chicken they have an unsavory “stuffed with grease” feeling, I can assure you that Popeye’s chicken is fried lightly enough to not turn off even the most finicky eater.  The preparation is a world away from the Cass Avenue location where even their freshest chicken seems a day old in terms of succulence and overall flavor/aroma, and their breading seems as mediocre as the service.  Not only that, but they also only give out hot sauce in packets…this isn’t Taco Bell, people.  Anyway, moving on to the sweeter part of my meal:  the biscuits!

Even the food smiles back at you!

Biscuits have long been a part of Southern cuisine whether being served alone or smothered in artery clogging, chunktastic white sausage gravy.  At Popeye’s Chicken, they are merely served as a side to the savory chicken which can be complimented with some decadent squirts of honey as shown in the bottle on the right in the photo (also served in packets at the Cass Ave. location).  Once again, this is where the Countryside location outdoes the Cass Avenue Popeye’s.  The former manages to combine flour, shortening, and buttermilk to form a porous yet firm, buttery-rich mini-pillow of ecstasy that teeters on the edge of culinary perfection whilst adding honey to its warm interior.Biscuit Enhancement...Trust Me, I'm a Doctor  On the other hand, the biscuits at the Cass location nearly always seem to have the consistency of a saltine in terms of flakiness, dryness, and saltiness which leaves me with a general sense of regret having subjected my palate to such arid dreariness.   I also must comment on the other side dishes that I have tried with my chicken dinners.  First, there are the Cajun fries where are like normal French fries but are fried to a dark brown hue and covered in a pepper based seasoning that is not too overbearing in terms of spice (they can be hit or miss though so tread with caution).  Then there is the dirty rice which is not as unsanitary as it sounds because it merely is a white rice dish that mixes in either sausage or chicken liver to give the rice an alleged “dirty” look to it (with this dish, either you really like it or you really hate it kind of like Brussels sprouts).  The final side I’ve had is the mashed potatoes which is my mom’s favorite, but they are worth the price because the sausage gravy nicely compliments the finely mashed potatoes and does not drown out their flavor.

Overall, Popeye’s Chicken at Countryside is a restaurant everyone should try if you’re looking for some great fried chicken and sides for a good price if KFC/Chick-Fil-A/Church’s has you clucking for something different.  In the immortal phrase of the  Cajun chef Justin Wilson, “”I ga-ron-tee!” (J’vous garantis! for all the Francophones out there) that this restaurant will leave you satisfied as demonstrated by my love for their biscuits/chicken.

I Got Double Vision!

Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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