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Tomatill-Oh So Good

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Hola a todos!  So I’m still living the foodie thug life while on summer vacation here in South Korea, and it is still hotter than a mother-father gentleman.  However, that doesn’t mean that this heat is stopping me from enjoying my free time before second semester starts at the end of the month.  Today I visited a new Mexican restaurant called Tomatillo which is located in Itaewon.  To get there, come out of exit 1, and then make the left you see that doesn’t go into a parking lot.  Then turn right, and it will be there on your left hand side.  Here is their website.IMG_0636IMG_0637

Originally, I was planning on trying some Paraguayan food at Comedor in Itaewon, but since it is Korean Independence Day, not only are the Koreans celebrating their liberation from the Japanese but also their ability to close down their restaurants whenever they want.  Long story short, not many restaurants were open, so we ended up at Tomatillo.  That is not to say that it was a terrible experience.  Quite the opposite.  After scanning the menu, I saw that they served Tex-Mex standards like nachos, tortilla chips with salsa, tacos, burritos, and chimichangas.  I hate to break it to them, but they were calling a taco salad a “tostada”.  Tostadas being one of my favorite Mexican dishes, I was slightly perturbed by this.  At the same time, I realized we were in Korea where they refer to guacamole as “avocado sauce”, so I can’t really be annoyed with them.  I got a barbacoa (braised beef) burrito (9,000 W), a glass of horchata (5,000 W), and a side of chocolate churros  for dessert (4,500 W).IMG_0638

The wait wasn’t too long for my food to come up, and I was quite excited to see this banquet set out in front of me.  I started on the burrito, and it was pretty damn good for Mexican food in Korea.  I mean, I still think even Chipotle would beat it in terms of overall flavor diversity though.  They also asked me if I wanted it spicy, and I replied in the affirmative.  Yet when I bit into this substantially sized burrito, I didn’t taste one hint of spice.IMG_0641  I don’t know if they just don’t have the ingredients to make it really spicy, or are just giving into their natural assumptions that Western people can’t handle spice.  Lack of supposed spiciness aside, the ingredients in the burrito were well made.  The beef was definitely well seasoned and was not too juicy/too dry.  The tortilla was soft and pliable yet held together at the height of my feeding frenzy.  I really enjoyed the Mexican rice along with the beans that were nestled in every gentle fold of the white tapestry that brought this little bundle of food together.  I think if they actually used some sort of chili sauce and more chipotle, their burritos could really go to the next level in terms of tasting like Mexican food you can get in Chicago or L.A.  Moving on to my horchata, it was really refreshing since it was ice cold and creamy but slightly different to the horchata you can get at any taqueria in Chicago.  The Korean version still had the cinnamon-notes that reminded me of home, yet it seemed too thick to be the real deal.  Oh well, just another variant just like how the original horchata in Spain tastes different from the Mexican version.  Finally, there were the churros…best part of the meal. IMG_0640 Not only did I get a good amount for my money, but they were liberally doused in cinnamon and sugar.  The chocolate was lightly drizzled on them which was different than the Spanish churros I’d get down the block from my apartment in Barcelona, but these Korean ones were perfectly fried.  They were slightly crunchy, but not overly so, and had a soft, almost creamy dough center that was still warm.  Too good.  Overally, I liked it better than Taco Cielo since it seemed not as over the top and trying hard to adopt to develop syncretic cuisine to please the locals.  So if you don’t want to battle it out with the crowds at Vato’s Tacos down the street, check out Tomatillo!

Before I finish, I just want a quick Fell and Cole blurb about two new ice cream flavors I tried:  red wine/Sichuan chili pepper and Love Potion No. 6.  For other flavors, see Nosh Pit and Where Everyone Should Bee.

So hot yet so cold

So hot yet so cold

First off, the red wine/Sichuan chili pepper ice cream was very novel yet disappointing in certain aspects.  While it had a strange tartness that persisted after each spoonful, I was crestfallen that it didn’t fulfill its potential to be a really spicy ice cream.  The chili element seemed to have been neutralized and instead used for textural support as I could feel the crunchy chili flakes running over my tongue as I slowly savored the cold wave passing over my palate.  Perhaps the cold neutralized the signature Chinese heat.  As for the second flavor, Love Potion No. 6, it was made of black rice, black beans, black sesame, and kelp.IMG_0643  Why all the black stuff you ask?  Well, this ice cream is supposedly referring to a Korean belief that ingesting these foods can roll back the years.  Hence, your grey hairs will turn black again.  I’d personally prefer more hair on my head, but I was genuinely surprised by this flavor.  I was expecting it to taste like garbage, but instead, it had a sugary taste peppered with earthy notes.  I could only liken it to the conservative flavor of a sugar cone, but every so often I could detect the light caress of the salty kelp.  If I had to choose between the two flavors, it would be hard, but I’d go with the Love Potion because its flavor wasn’t as intense as the bold combo of alcohol and crunchy pepper flakes.

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One Tasty Mofo

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Hello to everyone out there on the interwebz and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Since I’m finally recovering from the crazy Super Bowl weekend, this will be a relatively short post.  Actually, it revolves around a restaurant/bar that I tried in downtown Chicago that apparently is one, or perhaps the, sports bar to watch Chicago sports or any event for that matter.  I’m talking about Mother Hubbards located at 5 W Hubbard St  Chicago, IL 60654.

I had actually never been to this place until someone suggested that we should check it out for Superbowl Sunday.  Naturally, I am always down for a new adventure, so we made our way over to the establishment.  As soon as we walked in, I could see what all of the hullabaloo was about.  The walls were figuratively made of televisions, but it was definitely a good sign that I was not going to have to jerk my head about like a goon to catch a good view of the epic match-up between the Ravens and 49ers.  Since I didn’t feel too hungry, I decided to go with something on the lighter side of the menu.  I saw that they have the typical bar food like ribs, burgers, and Chicago hotdogs, but the “make your own grilled cheese” option seemed to be more fitting for my appetite at the time.  There were so many options that I felt almost like a manically giggling Xzibit on Pimp My Sandwich, but I repressed my foodie urges to not scare our waitress.

"Yo dawg, I heard you like grilled cheez sandwiches, so we put grilled cheez sandwiches in your grilled cheez!"

“Yo dawg, I heard you like grilled cheez sandwiches, so we put grilled cheez sandwiches in your grilled cheez!”

I ended up choosing Chihuahua and Pepper Jack topped with Guacamole and fresh jalapenos on grilled rye bread.  Plus, it came with a side of fries and a cup of homemade chicken vegetable soup.IMG_1100

When it finally came out, I was a bit underwhelmed by how small it seemed to be.  It didn’t really seem to have the bombastic presentation of a previous grilled cheese restaurant we visited (See The Big Cheese).  However, I was not planning on judging a sandwich by its crust.  In reality, I found the sandwich to be a great fusion of Latino flavors with an American comfort food staple.  Starting with the bread, it was pan-grilled to golden perfection, and the fleeting caresses of the caraway seeds provided an extra je ne sais quoi.  The cheeses were plentiful but didn’t have very strong flavors.  I know that the two aforementioned types of cheese aren’t blues by any means, but I would have appreciated a little more pop from the Pepper Jack.  As for the guacamole, I’m not sure what separated it from the avocado option on the option, but it just seemed like they mashed up an avocado for my sandwich.  There weren’t any discernible onions, tomatoes, and/or lime flavors that I am accustomed to tasting in any standard guacamole.  It wasn’t a terrible spread but merely average.  The jalapenos, on the other hand, were very fresh rings of seed packed flavor discs.  They were crunchy and  nipping my taste buds like a herd of feral Chihuahuas.  Plus, I found that even though there was a generous helping of the guacamole on top of the jalapenos, not once did I fear for the safety of my sandwich.  Normally these types of sandwiches with slippery spreads fall apart very quickly when you’re on a feeding frenzy, but Mother Hubbards makes a tasty and well-constructed bite to eat.  As for the fries and soup, the fries were pretty tasty since they were golden and crispy and barely greasy.  The soup was naturally the perfect side for the sandwich, and the hearty chunks of chicken and fresh carrots and onions fortified me against the bone-chilling Chicago winter gusts I encountered after the game.  The entire dining experience was enjoyable, and the wait staff was very attentive throughout the game.  Even though my team didn’t win, I felt I scored a mini-victory in choosing a tasty menu option.

So if you’re looking for a solid sports bar to watch your favorite team or a place to hold a boisterous get together with equally loud flavors, then come on down to Mother Hubbards!

Mother Hubbard's Sports Pub on Urbanspoon

Mother Hubbard's on Foodio54

Grilled Cheese That’s Sure to Please

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Hello everyone, and welcome to another addition to Mastication Monologues!  The time has been flying by as of late which I blame on the advancement of Christmas advertisements and the Daylight Savings Time.  However, last night I managed to slow down and enjoy a great meal at a new establishment that serves a childhood favorite with a twist.  I am talking about The Big Cheese which is located at 4229 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618.

I had actually saw in the Redeye (a local free newspaper in Chicago) that a new restaurant that specialized in grilled cheese sandwiches had opened up.  The Redeye’s restaurant reviewer had mostly good things to say about it aside from one of his/her sandwiches not being completely melted.  The same was said about the lack of melted cheese on Yelp. Nevertheless, I had to go and see what all of the fuss was about since it combines two of my favorite food groups, bread and cheese.  When my friend and I got there around 6:50 p.m., the interior was dark and the staff was just sitting there.  It turns out that their hours of operation on the internet and their sign were incorrect.  They had just closed.  However, they still let us in even though we felt bad for imposing.  To make up for our troubles, the very hospitable owner, Mike, hooked us up with a free plate of fried pickles.  They were pretty good for a little something to nibble on before the main event.  The actual breading was a bit flaky, but its buttery taste complimented the sour crunch of the pickle quite nicely.  Plus, it was served with a small cup of Ranch dressing to provide a cool tang for the palate.

Don’t judge a pickle by its breading

For my actual sandwich, I chose the Diablo Rojo (Red Devil for those who don’t habla espanol).  This was a muy picante twist on the grilled cheese.  The actual sandwich contained Toluca style chorizo, grilled jalapenos, and Chihuahua cheese, and it was all served on a Ciabatta bun.  When I bit into it, it was like a fiesta in my mouth y toda la familia was invited.  The chorizo was plentiful and was bursting with cumin and chili notes which provided an exquisite compliment to the smoky jalapeno flavor.  Unfortunately, the cheese was overshadowed by the two aforementioned elements, but it provided a glue to hold all of the contents together within the sandwich.  As for the Ciabatta roll, that was an improvisation by the cooks since they were out of regular bread, but I would recommend that they serve it on this type of bun.  It was fresh and crusty but sturdy enough to handle all of those contents without crumbling under the pressure.  With every sandwich, you can also order either soup or fries.  I ordered the fries, but they also gave me a bowl of their tomato basil soup.

A sandwich sandwiched between two killer sides

The fries were golden straws of deliciousness that were lightly powdered with Parmesan cheese, a welcomed variation that really popped with cheesy goodness when eaten with ketchup.  As for the soup, I’m not a huge crouton fan, but the actual soup was delectable.  It was a creamy sunset orange that tasted like a rich marinara sauce which also doubly served as a dipping sauce for my sandwich (a move I highly recommend).

Overall, the ambiance of the place was quite laid back, and the service provided by the server, staff, and owner was very warm like one of their signature creations.  So head on out to the Big Cheese for a little slice of paradise!

The Big Cheese On Lincoln on Urbanspoon

Everytime a Cowbell Rings a Devil Gets His Wings

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WARNING:  If you think jalapenos are spicy or if this (see 0:40 and on)happens to you when eating dry chili flakes or do not have a stomach for spicy food in general, do not try this eating challenge!!

Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere!  I am writing this post after a very eventful and historic day in my eating adventures.  Now for those who know me/read my (amazing) blog, they can tell you that I am not one to shy away from eating spicy foods.  In fact, I seem to revel in the challenge to see how much fire I can eat in one sitting.  One day a certain Man vs. Food host in conjunction with the Travel Channel highlighted a Chicago hot-spot for getting some of the fieriest chicken wings in the nation which I will be reviewing today.  The place in question is Jake Melnick’s located on 41 East Superior Street  Chicago, IL 60611.

I checked out their website to see what exactly these XXX wings were made of, and I found out that they used both the Ghost Chili and the Red Divina which is an extremely spicy strain of Habanero.  Now, the actual heat level of the peppers can vary depending on where they’re grown due to various factors such as rainfall, elevation, and sun exposure.  However, I did the Scoville unit math according to Wikipedia’s page, and their combined spiciness is equivalent to standard issue law enforcement pepper spray.  Somehow this didn’t stop me, so I went there to test my mettle.

The waitress was wary at my request of the XXX wings, and they even make you sign a legal waver containing fun phrases like, “you’re an adventurous spirit who eats chilis for fun” alongside the more litigious “you won’t sue us in case of bodily harm”.  However, since I ordered the wings, I got a free fireman hat that stated I tried the XXX wing challenge along with a cowbell that I could ring if the heat became unbearable.

My bell and my brew (IPA, fyi)

This action would lead to the staff bringing out a “cool off” tray which consisted of a glass of milk, a cup of sour cream, and some white bread.  Little did they know I had the eye of the tiger to finish off the wings.

Hell in a hand basket

When they were presented to me, I was intrigued by how they looked since they weren’t glowing or smouldering or looking like pure evil.  However, I did notice a particular pungent aroma when I moved my face closer to them lying upon each other like eight little red smouldering coals nestled in a little hibachi.  I also got a side of blue cheese just in case I couldn’t handle the heat, and the celery was complimentary.  So I started off with the first wing, and I was expecting to get punched in the face with a fireball of spice.  Surprisingly, I was greeted instead with a savory and slightly garlicky heatwave that just spread the proverbial gasoline on the inside of my mouth.

The first wing goes down for the count

The next four to six wings decided to have a firework party while playing in the aforementioned gasoline a la Zoolander.  At this point, the back of my throat was quite scratchy and almost numb.  My lips and the surrounding area on my face just felt like it was touched up by a flamethrower, and I had a good sweat going on the whole time.  Plus, I kept in mind a key element to eating any sort of spicy food with your hands:  don’t rub your eyes even if you have an itch anywhere around them. I did try a wing or two in the superbly made blue cheese sauce that had whole blue cheese crumbles in it which was so much better than the blue cheese sauces I’ve sampled at Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings.  While all of this was going on, my waitress kept coming by expecting the cowbell to be ringing out for mercy, but I just kept on truckin’ (like I’d ever stop truckin’ in the first place).  By the last wing, I downed it with gusto as my nose began to run slightly.  Perspiration aside, I knew that I had done something impressive especially judging by the shocked reaction from our waitress.  So I ended up getting my picture up on the digital Wall of Flame and the knowledge knowing that I had survived one hell of a challenge.  Unfortunately, they did not let me celebrate in true Will Ferrell fashion with adding more cowbell to the victory.

So for all of those thrill seekers/chili-heads out there, definitely try the XXX wing challenge at Jake Melnicks.  If spicy food isn’t for you, they also have a great variety of  delicious burgers (including an eight pound burger challenge), barbecue dishes with in-house smoked meats, hearty soups, savory sandwiches, and satisfying salads you can chow down on.

All done and it feels like I’ve smeared lava on my face

Jake Melnick's Corner Tap on Urbanspoon

Jake Melnick's Corner Tap on Foodio54

There’s Nopal Like Home

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Good day or night depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga where I managed to visit a very small but good Mexican restaurant.  Luckily I was invited to my friend Roberta’s bday party (muito obrigado!) to try the food at Los Nopales located at 4544 North Western Avenue  Chicago, IL 60625.  It is a bit of a ways away from La Villita or Pilsen, but I still recommend that you make the drive up.

First, I found out that it is a BYOB restaurant which is very nice since they’re not like other restaurants trying to push their kiddie-pool sized margarita specials onto your table with all of their marketing might.  However, there is a 3 dollar corkage fee for wine bottles and six packs and four dollars for margarita bottles, just fyi.  When I finally arrived after Google Maps gave me wrong directions, I walked in and noticed how small the establishment really is.  It is on the cramped side at times if really crowded, but the food/ambiance/staff more than make up for it.  The tortilla chips on the table were on the thinner side and perfectly fried without leaving that nasty, greazy residue that some Mexican restaurant chips leave on your fingers.  These munchies were accompanied by two different types of salsas:  one tomatillo blend which was a bit spicier than the tomato based mild salsa.  My fellow party-goers had also already ordered the chicken taquitos which were drizzled with sour cream and placed around a molehill of guacamole.  The sour cream did not do much to enhance the taste of the taquitos which were muy deliciosos.  The chicken was all white meat, and its flauta blanket was crispy and golden brown.  This appetizer was amped up by the guacamole which was really zesty with hints of lime and a nice consistency that wasn’t like caulk but not too soupy.

As for the main course, I ended up indulging in some chorizo tostadas.  The plate that came to me was an interesting land of contrasts.  A majority of the area was covered with two well-portioned tostadas topped with minced chorizo, diced tomatoes, crisp lettuce, and sour cream.  The meat was crumbly but highly seasoned with cumin and spices that really made each crispy tortilla mouthful pop.  That was another part of the tostada that really grabbed me was the fact that these tostadas were very sturdy and did not break when I was holding and eating them.  Then came a swath of yellow Mexican rice that was surprisingly different from the run of the mill orange Mexican rice that often contains peas, corn, and carrots.  Nevertheless, it was very delicious and was had a very slight buttery taste.  The only downside (although I’m negatively biased towards refried beans) was the large pool of what was supposed to be refried beans.  Whereas I have had some legitimately good frijoles, these were just sub par as the individual beans were destroyed into a muddled brown blob.  It definitely received the bronze olympic medal on this all around eating event.  At the end of the meal, we got some fried ice cream, but I only had one spoonful.  I know I can’t formulate an accurate judgement based off of this one spoonful, but the batter was pedestrian and was overshadowed by the ice cream.

Ain’t she a beaut?

So if you’re looking for that south of the border taste without having to book a flight to Oaxaca, head up north to Los Nopales in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Los Nopales on Urbanspoon

Los Nopales Mexican Restaurant on Foodio54

Livin’ La Vida Salsa

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Once again in my quest for exotic and authentic cuisine from all around the world, I arrived at Taco Grill which is located at 111 West Ogden Avenue, Westmont, IL.  I’ve been going there for years now, and it truly is one of the hidden gems of the Western suburbs for authentic Mexican food and beverages.  At first sight, it may seem to just be a Latino version of a greasy spoon diner:

Ground Zero for Comida Buena (Good Food)

However, when you get inside it is quaintly decorated with Mexican pottery on the walls and various painting from Mexican artists.  It has the warmth of a family owned restaurant and not the cold, plastic feeling that you just walked into a corporate  Mc-taco chain restaurant.  The staff is always cheerful and willing to explain anything on the menu if the description doesn’t do the dish justice.  There is plenty of variety in terms of selection such as:  tacos, tortas, huaraches, enchiladas, and tamales.  All of these dishes can also be made vegetarian for anyone who has specific dietary restrictions.  I normally order either the enchiladas verdes with cheese or the tacos al pastor (tacos with a type of pork roasted on a spit with pineapple mixed into the meaty melange).  However, one day was certainly different in terms of the taco filling I chose.

My inner culinary daredevil was scanning the menu when I saw that they had tacos de lengua (roughly $7 for three)…or for those who don’t habla the espanol, lengua=beef tongue.  I was pretty nervous when ordering the tongue tacos because I was wondering whether or not they would chop up the tongue to make it a bit more palatable or would I end up having to French kiss my taco in order to eat it?  During the waiting time, I paid a visit to the most comprehensive salsa bar I have ever seen in a Mexican restaurant.  There are over 20 different types of toppings ranging from the mildest pico de gallo to some sauces/relishes that would call for a colostomy bag for those uninitiated to spicy foods.  Personally, I always go for the XXX.5 or the XXXX (the spiciest) salsas, a salsa verde (green sauce) and queso fundido (melted cheese), respectively.

Upon sitting down at my table, like clockwork, the staff brought the complementary, bottomless tortilla chips that are warm from the oven and are a great bargain/compliment to the freshly made salsas.  I must emphasize that the amount of food that you get at this establishment is definitely inversely proportional to the price as I soon found out when I was face to face with my tacos de lengua.

Who knew tongue tacos would be finger licking good?

Thankfully they diced up the beef tongue into small cubes, but at the same time it was quite a shock to still see the taste buds on the individual pieces of meat (quite a surreal experience).  As shown in the picture, the tacos also had chopped onions and a good amount of cilantro with a slice of lime to provide a nice zesty aftertaste.  The actual flavor of the tongue was quite savory which I would liken to a rich hamburger, but I think eating such a meal is more of a test of mind over matter due to the texture of the meat.  I have found that many American consumers are turned off by the mere texture of a dish, i.e. the chewiness of the tongue in this case, which may not be the same problem in other cultures.  It was aptly summed up by Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain, “If the typical American eater has to chew the food more than three times, then it will be labeled as being gross”.  To compliment the tacos, I got a jarritos tamarindo (tamarind is a common flavoring in Latin America which I can only liken to a variant of iced tea flavor) which is soft drink commonly found  in Mexico.  By the time I finished, I was stuffed, satisfied, and thinking about my next adventure as a gourmand.

So many flavors…so little time

So if you’re tired of getting the typical bland burrito bowls from Chipotle or the guilty pleasures from Taco Bell’s late-night drive through (though you can never go wrong with the cinnamon twists), hurry on over to Taco Grill in Westmont for simple, authentic, but delicious food at pedestrian prices.  This establishment truly is a testament that you should not judge a restaurant solely on its paint job.

In Mexico we have a word for sushi:  bait.”  ~José Simons

Taco Grill & Salsa Bar on Urbanspoon

Taco Grill & Salsa Bar on Foodio54

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