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Cinful Prices but a Heavenly View (Cindy’s)

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Ah, another quarter done in my speech pathology program.  It has probably been the most challenging quarters so far, but I came out on the other side ready for another quarter of growth.  Plus, Summer has finally arrive in Chicago.  While I am more of a fan of winter since I am part White Walker as well as a weirdo,

If you squint closely, you might see me

I do enjoy all of the great activities the city offers when the sun is shining and everyone is out of hibernation mode.  Today’s post is a little delayed but better late than never!

While New York is often known for its skyscrapers as well as their 9/11 tower that took away the Sears Tower’s status as the tallest building in America, skyscrapers were invented in Chicago all the way back in 1884/1885.  Between then and now, we have gotten enough practice constructing these towering behemoths to include elements of work and play.  Enter Cindy’s, a.k.a. the jewel of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.

PC: Chicago Architecture Association

This establishment did not exist back in 1893 when some of the biggest names in Chicago and world industry such as Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormack, and William Wrigley (the very same as the gum company) came together to create the Chicago Athletic Association.  Mr. Wrigley even went on to adopt the association’s logo to be the symbol for a certain Northside baseball team that just broke a 108 year World Series curse.

Not too subtle, eh? PC: LoopChicagoBlog

It became a hub for the richest socialites to get their sweat on as well as some of the biggest athletes from the turn of the early 20th century such as Johnny Weissmuller who went gold five times in Olympic swimming and also was Tarzan.  It was a male-only club up until 1975, but by then it was a slowly decaying institution that eventually closed in 2007.  Thankfully, a hotel consortium reopened the doors to the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel where they restored the edifice to its former glory and then some to create a feast for the eyes.

The ballroom staircase and event room with a recreated plaster ceiling (right) PC: Chicago Architecture Association

I had never been to this hotel even though I’ve lived here all my life, but as always, my fiancée Janice/her friends managed to find a new brunch place to check out.  It was a beautiful day to enjoy the view from Cindy’s where we could look out over Millenium Park and the harbor.  It is one of the most popular skyscraper balconies in the city, so I highly recommend you make reservations.  However, based on our experience, we were not sure why it is so in demand as a brunch venue aside from its ultramodern design.  We were sat at a low bench table with a box for a table.

Plenty of room for tiny Jan Jan

We looked over the menu to find a variety of drinks and breakfast staples such as pancakes and eggs Benedict but with ridiculous prices even for sharable dishes.  25 bucks for a yogurt parfait?  Unless it came served in the holy grail, a bowl of yogurt should never cost that much.  The cocktails were not up to snuff either since their old fashion ($16) was oddly sour and my Moody Tongue porter ($25) was strangely tinny tasting.  Maybe it was an off day, but the wait staff was also not very attentive since it took a good while to get our server to exchange our drinks for better made ones.  Then there was the food.  It was the best part of the experience aside from the seating arrangement.  Our group ended up sharing a cast iron quiche Lorraine ($34), croque madame ($30), and cast iron chilaquiles ($29).  There was a lot of food that eventually was brought out to our table, but the quality still wasn’t worth the exorbitant prices.  Plus, the seating arrangement was not ideal for taller patrons like yours truly.  I say this because my knees were level with the low box table which meant I had to lean forward and downward to an extreme degree  in order to avoid spilling my food. Out of the three dishes we sampled, the chilaquiles were the best followed by the croque madame, and then the quiche.  The chilaquile’s mixture of eggs, chorizo, crema, and peppers were a much-needed punch of Latin american flavor and spice for an otherwise mild brunch.  The croque madame is a French invention originally named the croque monsieur.  The name croque monsieur roughly translates to “Mr. Bite” because it was originally designed to be a cafe sandwich to be quickly eaten in Parisian cafes.  The croque madame was a riff on the croque monsieur when a fried egg was placed atop its brioche top slice.  The floppy egg was said to resemble an old-fashioned lady’s hat, hence the “Madame” moniker.  At Cindy’s, we had many ladies in our presence with how many eggs were residing on our sandwich.  The sandwich was extremely rich and buttery with the melted Gruyère cheese and bechamel sauce, and the ham brought a very slight smoky element to the flavor profile.

So much ham hanging out with some rogue chilaquiles

The frisee salad on the side was less a side salad and more of an ornamental lawn to this monstrous mansion of meat.  This would be an idea meal for a powerlifter who needs a ton of protein really quickly after working out at the Athletic club in the hotel.  As for the quiche, this Middle Ages classic brought the original recipe back to life with plenty of egg custard, bacon, cheese, and onions.  I’m not a big egg fan, so this plate was lower on my list.  Janice loves eggs more than I do, and she said it was okay but not great.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Cindy’s for brunch, but it would be a great place to grab drinks before going out on the town on the Mag Mile, a night-cap at 2 am on Saturdays, or some hair of the dog the following Sunday morning.  Now go out there and enjoy summertime in Chicago for all it’s worth!
Cindy's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

All Hail Cesar!

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Que tal, amigos?  If you couldn’t get enough of my food adventures on Mastication Monologues, today I’m bringing you a review of a Mexican restaurant that is well known for their murderous margaritas:  Cesar’s Killer Margaritas.  I’ve passed by it many times while gallivanting about Chicago on the Northside, but I’ve never set foot in the establishment.  Thankfully, I got an opportunity to visit for dinner recently, and it was quite an enjoyable experience.IMG_3744

When Janice and I walked in the door, there were a bunch of people waiting for a table sitting along the wall, and that immediately elicited my response of, “Great…a wait”. IMG_3747 I’ve worked as a host at a restaurant, and I know that giving an estimated table time is a very loose interpretation of how long it’s actually going to be since there are so many variables to take into account.  The hostess quoted us at 10 to 15 for a free table which is the fallback answer since it doesn’t give the customer unreasonable expectations yet doesn’t seem like an insurmountable wait.  Surprisingly, the wait was shorter than estimated, so we were hustled up and down two staircases to get to our table.  Once seated, we immediately looked over the signature margarita menu since we wanted to see if they could live up to the hype.  While they had the usual flavors like raspberry and strawberry, they had nods to Latin flavors with tamarindo and guava.  I got a frozen guava margarita ($11) while Janice got the chilled raspberry margarita ($11).  While waiting, I was systematically destroying the chips in front of me along with the watery but cilantro filled salsa roja that come complimentary with the meal.  Eventually, they were brought out to us, and they looked like any other margaritas.  However, it was a pleasant surprise that they were not too syrupy, and we could taste the liquor as well which let us know we were getting our money’s worth.IMG_3749  I found Janice’s margarita to be more interesting than mine because it contained something I’ve never seen in a margarita:  fresh fruit. IMG_3751 I don’t know if they do this with all of their flavors, but her raspberry margarita literally had whole raspberries floating amongst the ice floes of the red sea of tequila.  It was a masterstroke of tex-mex bartending.  While we were enjoying our frozen beverages, we looked over the dinner menu.  They had plenty of entrees, lighter options, appetizers, starters, and soups.  While they didn’t stray much from the tried and true tex-mex favorites, I decided to go for the steak mini burritos ($10) while Janice got the vegetarian fajitas with steak ($14).  While waiting for our plates to come out, I thought back to another Mexican dinner that I had in London which resulted in me carrying a pair of twin food babies around for the majority of the night.  Thankfully, these burritos wouldn’t destroy me like that chimichanga in Old Blighty.  Before our entrees arrived, we were hooked up with a free cup of what seemed to be tomato soup with noodles. IMG_3753 It was flavorful but nothing noteworthy since we could only taste tomatoes.    When they came out, I immediately pounced on them since these plump little buggers looked quite scrumptious under their cheese and salsa verde blanket.  IMG_3755I sliced into them, and the juicy pieces of steak, beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes came tumbling out.  I poured the sour cream all over them while spackling guacamole on each forkful.  Madre de dios, estos burritos fueron de la puta madre! (“These burritos were the bees knees!” in so many words).  The tortillas were flavorful and bursting with gooey cheese and fresh vegetables.  I think the combo of the cool sour cream and the cilantro filled guacamole gave the savory steak a herbal tinge that made my tastebuds scream “Más  Más Más!”.  The Mexican rice was average, but I didn’t even touch the beans.  As for Janice’s vegetable fajitas, they were served piping hot at our table and contained plenty of veggies one typically doesn’t find in Mexican cuisine like cauliflower, broccoli, and mushrooms. IMG_3756 She offered to make me a taco out of the ingredients in her fajita, so I got a mouthful of peppers and onions along with the same succulent steak in my mini burritos.IMG_3757  I would have helped her more with the monstrously-sized meal, but I would have needed a second stomach.  I was feeling full by that point in the meal but not to the point of sickness.  It wasn’t the most mind blowing meal in the world since Chicagoland has a ton of great Mexican eateries, but I was a happy customer with the service and food.

So if you’re looking for a fun establishment with well made dishes and unique margaritas, check out Cesar’s!

Cesar's on Urbanspoon

Sea It to Believe It

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What’s up, foodie adventures!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I know it has been too long between posts, and I really do apologize.  However, summertime in Chicago can make a man very busy, busy but very hungry.  Naturally, my stomach loves to roam from country to country, but somehow it always manages to roll south of the border to get that sweet sweet Mexican food.  Luckily the Chicagoland area has plenty to offer in terms of Latino cuisine, and Casa Margarita in La Grange is a competent, but not extraordinary, representative of tex-mex cooking.

I’ve had my fair share of Mexican food whether that be in the form of enchiladas or tacos at better restaurants, but Casa Margarita is a middle of the road establishment overall when it comes to la comida mexicana.IMG_3316  It has both indoor and outdoor seating which served us perfectly on the beautiful evening we visited Casa Margarita.IMG_3314IMG_3315  While it allowed us to people watch and make friends with plenty of meandering poochies, that was also the downside since they crowded too many tables on the sidewalk.  Plus, their round tables didn’t allow for my mom, dad, and I to sit comfortably.  It would be a better experience if they utilized square tables.  While sitting down at the table, we also noticed that it was taking quite awhile to bus off our table.  My mom noted the “Help wanted” sign in the window, so that explained everything.  Luckily our waitress was a superwoman who seemed to be doing ten different things at once while still being quite cheerful.  Perhaps it was the delirium of running all over the place though.  Either way, she made up for the shorthanded staff by hustling and starting us with the typical complimentary basket of tortilla chips.IMG_3317  They thankfully weren’t super salty, and the salsa was more of a smoky, peppery salsa that was a welcome change from the typically bland, tomato salsas provided with the Latino version of the bread basket.IMG_3318  They had a full drink menu including wines, beers, non-alcoholic beverages, and surprise surprise, margaritas!  I started with a Pacifico beer ($5) since I was in the mood for a lighter beer.  This Mazatalan brew was a clear but uninspired lager that was jazzed up with a spritz of lime juice.IMG_3320  The Mexicans aren’t exactly known for their beer culture beyond the uber-popular (personally, I think gross) Coronas, and the Pacifico was a pedestrian compliment to my main platter.IMG_3323  Their menu is extensive complete with appetizers, soups, seafood, chicken dishes, beef platters, fajitas, and tacos to name a few sections.  I went with the fish tacos ($8.50).  Why fish tacos?  Well, I’ve heard many good things about them, and I’m all about trying new foods.  I’m not the biggest seafood guy, but I decided to make the plunge.  Before I began my deep-sea culinary adventure, our waitress came out with mini-bowls of chicken soup.IMG_3324  Overall, I was more of a fan of the broth than the ingredients since the “chicken” seemed like an odd intermediary between tuna and chicken. IMG_3326 I know the former is known as the latter of the sea, but I’d prefer my meat to taste like what its advertised as.  When they came out, the tacos looked quite delicious, and this book’s cover adequately represented what was under the surface.IMG_3327IMG_3328  While the tortillas weren’t as corn-laden as I expected, they were light and strong enough to keep in all of the delicious flavors.  The plentiful pieces of grilled Tilapia were buried underneath a refreshing, tangy pico de gallo and a drizzling of a slightly spicy guacamole sauce.  Taken all together, the fish gave the taco plenty of body with a clean flavor that was further embellished by the aforementioned latin elements.  I requested some hot sauce to jazz up the tacos and satisfy my need to feel a kick in the old tastebuds.  They indulged me with two of my favorite hot sauces. IMG_3336 The red Tapatio (Spanish for someone from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco in Mexico) sauce is moderately spicy with a slightly more sour flavor compared to the fiery Yucateco sauce.IMG_3334  This verdant sauce from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico ratchets up the Scoville units with that hellish heat synonymous with habanero peppers. IMG_3333 While they’re not like the ulcer-inducing fritters I tried at Salvador Molly’s, it will drop a lighter on your tongue and walk away while putting on its sunglasses and listening to your tastebuds exploding in a ball of flame.  These two condiments took this plate to another level.  I also used them to enhance the dry Mexican rice on the side and the dreary refried beans.  I also tried a bit of my mom’s shredded beef enchiladas.  IMG_3330While I’m more of a fan of cheese enchiladas, these juicy beef strings were quite succulent.IMG_3335  By the end, I was stuffed and satisfied with my mouth-watering tacos and topped off the night with a visit to my friend in the neighborhood, Truffles the bear at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.IMG_3341

As I said at the beginning of the post, there are plenty of better Mexican restaurants in the Chicagoland area, but if you’re in the La Grange area, you might as well try Casa Margarita’s fish tacos.

Casa Margarita on Urbanspoon

Nuevo Sabor That’s No Chore

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Well, here we go again.  Another weekend, another round of posts.  Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues comes off another long week and weekend of work mixed with plenty of play.  While I have been around the block when it comes to Mexican eateries, I haven’t managed to adequately compile all of them on my food blog.  However, this past weekend provided me with a perfect opportunity to make up for lost time.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a Chicago comida mexicana institution that resides in the once Bohemian, now Latino (predominantly Mexican), and perhaps in the future solely hipster neighborhood of Pilsen.  I’m talking about Nuevo Leon located at 1515 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608.341699_iPad-Large_20120905111026.jpg.resize.768x432

After our trip to a fantastic punch class at Punch House, we were absolutely starving, and what better way to celebrate making our potent libation than enjoying some hearty Mexican cuisine?  While I had been to Nuevo Leon before and knew of its delectable selection of Mexican platters, Josah and Janice were unaware of the treasures within.  They were soon put wise.  Even at 5 pm on a Saturday, there was a line streaming out the door that we had to wait in.  Our wait was only made more interesting as I was carrying our large glass container of punch which led the diners to think that I was carrying around a special bowl of motor oil or perhaps the liquefied remains of  a deceased relative.10313748_10101613763422131_1817890989632858173_n  Either way, it was a good conversation piece.  Also while waiting, I saw the signs that alerted customers to their CASH ONLY policy.  If you’re plum out of moolah, they have an ATM inside the establishment.  I also noticed that our punch would be put to good use due to Nuevo Leon’s BYOB policy.  The only restrictions they have is that patrons cannot bring in coolers, and each patron can only drink the equivalent of three beers.  Eventually we reached the front of the line and were ushered to a table in the back.  Every seat in the house was packed as we dodged servers buzzing about like bees in a constantly humming hive.  Upon sitting down, we were supplied with a basket of tortilla chips, two types of tomato based salsa, and a bowl of pickled carrot and jalapeno pepper pieces.  While the condiments were fresh and filled with plenty of south-of-the-border flavor, the chips had a slightly funky fishy flavor which I think was due to the type of oil they used in the deep fryer.  They didn’t bother me too much, but I still don’t believe the Mexican equivalent of the bread basket should taste like the catch of the day.

Our waitress greeted us, and I took over from there when it came to communicating with her.  It didn’t seem like her English was the best when she tried to speak with Josah, so this might be frustrating for patrons who might not be able to speak Spanish.  I started by asking for a carafe of ice, glasses, and straws to imbibe our punch with our entrees.  Then I put in my order for the especial cazuela ($10.50) or literally “special cooking pot” in English.  There was a funny cultural exchange as well while ordering.  Josah asked for a chimichanga, and the waitress seemed quite confused.  I then proceeded to ask in Spanish, “Se preparan chimichangas aqui?” (Do they make chimichangas here?).  The waitress then said, “Que es una chimichanga?” (What is a chimichanga?) I described it to her as “un burrito frito” (a fried burrito), but she just shrugged and said there are only burritos.    Clearly you are not going to find certain super-Amurikanized plates you have come to love at your local Chili’s or Chipotle.  However, she was quite curious about our punch we made, so I offered her a glass.  Eventually, our meals came out, and I was a bit taken aback by the humble appearance of my dish. IMG_3078 A cazuela is a stew-like meal that in this case consisted of grilled pieces of ribeye steak, onions, poblano peppers, and panela cheese.  I was anticipating more steak and vegetables, but I quickly found out that the majority of the goodness was lurking under the peppery red broth.  When combined in a tortilla with the creamy refried beans and fluffy rice on the side, it was fantastic.  The ribeye was high quality with no fat to be seen, and the vegetables were soft but not mushy.  The cheese was an interesting addition as well since it provided a slightly salty element to a mainly savory dish.  All of these elements’ flavors really popped due to the jalapeno level spice of the aforementioned broth.  I was one stuffed and satisfied diner by the end of the meal.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that is one of the most popular representatives of Mexican cuisine in Chicago without the frills of Frontera Grill or the prices of Topolobampo, then check out Nuevo Leon!

Nuevo Leon on Urbanspoon

Don’t Pupu(sa) Taco Real

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150 posts.  3 years.  Quite the milestone for Mastication Monologues.  It seems like yesterday I was just back from New York City, and finally decided to follow my parents’ advice to chronicle my food adventures for all the world to see.  Since then, I’ve been to a lot more new places and dined with some familiar and some novel faces.   I’m always up for trying new things, so I ended up going to Taco Real.  It’s located in Villa Park, IL in a very nondescript strip mall.  However, the extraordinary food I had inside belied its modest exterior.IMG_2527

Upon walking in, it was very similar to any typical small taqueria in the Chicagoland area with brightly colored walls and a couple flags representing the different cuisines served.  In this case, Mexico and El Salvador.  A majority of the menu was in Spanish which I coped with quite easily as they had many standards like tacos, burritos, and tostadas, and they also had a good portion of El Salvadorian options.  I decided to go with the signature pupusas.   You could pick your flavor which included, but were written all in Spanish on the menu, pork (puerco/chicharron), cheese (queso), grated peppers (rajas), or loroco which is a vine with edible flowers that grows in Central America.  While I was mulling over my options, I saw a plate of them going past us.  They looked like very thick, grilled corn cakes at about 4-5 inches at the widest.

Naked pupusas

Naked pupusas

They reminded me of arepas which are similar flour flatbreads that are stuffed with ingredients like the pupusas but are native to Venezuela and Colombia.  Eventually, I knew what I was going to get and went up to the counter.  I went ahead and just followed suit like the people in front of me and ordered in Spanish one arepa with cheese and pork ($2.09) and another one with the loroco ($2.09).  They also had free tortilla chips with green salsa, red salsa, pickled jalapeno peppers, and a mixed pickled vegetable salad.  They came out soon after, and I was pretty excited to try these new little pancakes.  They recommended I put some of the mixed pickled vegetable salad on top of the pupusas to eat, so I naturally obliged.IMG_2526  I wasn’t sure which was which, and I struck loroco on my first bite of playing Salvadorian roulette.  Inside the pupusa, there was plenty of rich white cheese and light green pieces of loroco.  However, I didn’t really taste much of the flowers, but the grilled and fried dough was crispy and not greasy at all.  The pickled salad also really jazzed up the pupusa with a slightly tangy hit to each bocado (bite).  The next one, pork and cheese, was a lot more flavorful since the pork was slightly seasoned which blended well with the smooth flavor of the cheese.  After finishing both of them, I was full but not stuffed like the pequeno flatbreads.

Even though I never tried the Mexican options, I would highly recommend Taco Real as a wonderful  and simple place to try Salvadorian cuisine.

Taco Real on Urbanspoon

London (Day 3)- Feel De Riddim, Feel De Ride, Sit on Down, It’s Eatin’ Time!

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After a rousing first and second day in London, day three would put them all to shame as I managed to try two different restaurants while going all out at night at some fun night clubs and bars.  However, let me start at the beginning.

It was a laid-back day where I mainly walked around the museum area of South Kensington.  I thought I would be able to knock out both the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in one day…how foolish I was.  I would highly recommend a trip to the Natural History Museum over the Victoria and Albert Museum since they have many great biological, geological, and astronomical displays.  The only downside was the hordes of school children that swarmed about every main display like screaming ants at a picnic.  After braving my own personal running of the schoolchildren, it really worked up an appetite.  So, I decided I would take a trip to south London, specifically Brixton.  This area has been known over the decades as a bastion for Caribbean immigrants along with scenes of brutal violence like riots and knife crime.  Naturally, like many ethnic enclaves in a cosmopolitan city, it has recently become trendy for students and young professionals to take up residence in Brixton.  With them comes the phenomenon of gentrification, but where I walked around in the neighborhood, I didn’t feel it was as widespread as in certain neighborhoods of Chicago (read:  Pilsen).  I was determined to visit El Negril that specializes in Caribbean food, but as always with my luck, they didn’t open until 5 pm.  So I walked back toward the tube station to find another eatery called Bamboula which drew me in with its vibrant colors. IMG_2221 Once inside, it was moderately full, and I was the only white person in there which seemed to come as a shock to the main waitress/hostess.  I was quickly seated opposite a guy who seemed to be either touched in the head or communicating with Jah while eating/paying for the bill which annoyed my waitress greatly.  Next to him was a Rasta tapping out a reggae beat on his plate between mouthfuls and seemed to be quite a devil with the ladies.  After soaking in these surroundings, I went for the lunch special of goat curry, callaloo rice, grilled plantains, and salad.  It also came with a drink, and there were so many things on the menu that I didn’t even know what they were.  True to form, I went for something called “sour sop” juice.  It all eventually came out with a wonderful presentation. IMG_2220 I started with the goat curry and the callaloo rice.  The goat was quite bony, but the chunks of meat were tender and tasted like a mix between beef and lamb.  The brown curry it was swimming in went exquisitely with the the rice which seemed to be made out Basmati rice and seasoned with some scotch bonnet peppers to give it a proper kick.  This starchy side gets its name from the callaloo leaves which were originally eaten by West Africans and then their ancestors when they arrived as slaves in Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago etc.  I could only describe them as having a very subtle spinach texture and taste.  The salad was refreshing but nothing out of the ordinary, and the plantains were delicious since they were savory yet had a bit of the sweetness of their banana relatives.  Then there was the mysterious sour sop juice.  It looked like lemonade and tasted like a sublime mix of passion fruit, pear, and pineapple juice.  Once I demolished all of my meal, I asked Princess what exactly a sour sop was, and she said that it’s a type of fruit that is native to Latin America that kind of looks like a green pear.  I sent my regards to the Rasta chef and was on my way to see the Brixton Market.
Bamboula Caribbean Restaurant on Urbanspoon
IMG_2225IMG_2222IMG_2226  It was an entire street and mini community of food hawkers that catered to the local populace with sour sop stalls, piles of callaloo, roti shops, tea houses, and plenty of reggae beats floating overhead.IMG_2227  It was like I was transported to a completely different world far from the pomp of Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.  Since I was in the mood of markets, I moved from Brixton Market to the more upscale Borough Market in the middle of London. IMG_2242 My friends recommended that I check it out even though it’s a bit more expensive/tourist ridden than the other central markets.  These negative attributes fell by the wayside as I was in some sort of culinary Valhalla as I wanted to try everything in sight, but unfortunately I think it would take at least a week to hit up every stall.IMG_2228 IMG_2229  It was a wondrous playground as I flitted from a cheese maker to a man serving paella and different curries to a chocolatier to a seasoning shop that had uber-expensive truffles on display to smell.IMG_2235 IMG_2234 IMG_2233 IMG_2232 IMG_2231 IMG_2230  I obliged, and the earthy aroma nearly knocked me over with how powerful it was.  I can see why they’re only served in small slivers as garnishes to dishes.  Eventually, I decided this would be the perfect place to get dessert, and I saw a bakery stall with a very long line that was moving quickly. IMG_2237

A mountain of meringues.

A mountain of meringues.

I jumped in line, and I immediately knew what I was going to get:  a monstrous chocolate chip cookie.  It was a bargain at only 2 pounds (~4 bucks), but it was quite possibly the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had.

Normal sized?

Normal sized?

Think again!

Think again!

It was semi-soft with rich chocolate slices spread evenly throughout along with some rich brown sugar that sang with every bite.  I liked this market too because it was mostly covered as I discovered it had been raining for awhile as I walked out to the tube station in the shadow of the Shard building.  At night, I went out with my friends Ravi, Rav, and Bob in Shoreditch to a restaurant called Chico Bandito which allegedly was a Mexican and Cuban restaurant. IMG_2244 Upon looking at the menu, I couldn’t see even one receta cubana, but the Mexican food all looked muy sabrosa.  I hit it off with our waitress hablando espanol, and she hooked us up with some festive hats as we indulged in the last ten minutes of happy hour.

Viva la hora feliz!

Viva la hora feliz!

IMG_2250 To start off, we got two plates of nachos, one traditional and the other with chorizo. IMG_2248 Both were some of the best nachos I ever had because the tortilla chips seemed to be lighter than the ones back in the USA and with less of an overpowering corn flavor that allowed the gooey cheese, cool sour cream, spicy chorizo, and zesty guacamole to really make their mark on our palates.  As for the main entree, I went for the chicken chimichanga which ended up being a softball-sized fried, stuffed tortilla. IMG_2251 It was expertly made with a crunchy exterior that gave way to a spicy monton de pollo.  The rice and mixed bean and green salad on the sides were delicious, but the problem was that the chimichanga alone ended up sitting like a bowling ball in my stomach for the next three hours.  I couldn’t even finish the rest of the meal.  I didn’t feel greasy, just extremely full which kind of put a damper on our night out when we went to Bar Kick.  I’d highly recommend checking out Chico Bandito though for quality Mexican food.   I eventually felt better by the time we made it to the dance club Concrete where they were having Biggie and Tupac night.    After a long night of dancing to 90s rap tracks,  we rode home on rent-a-bikes from the club at 2 am through the streets of London. I then realized It’s tough being a food critic and a gangsta at the same time.
Chico Bandito on Urbanspoon

Biggie approves this blog post.

Biggie approves this blog post.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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 Gusto Es Mío (The Pleasure’s Mine)

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Hey hey hey, everybody!  It’s almost the end of October already, and I’m definitely in the Halloween spirit.  I do miss the changing leaves, football, and apple cider, but tonight I had a legit taste of home to kick-off my Halloween weekend.  Although tacos aren’t really known for being synonymous with Halloween, the ones I had at Gusto Taco were frighteningly good.  Here’s their website.  If you’re going there by metro, get off at Sangsu, and come out exit 1.  Make a U-turn to your right when you come out, and walk down the street for two minutes.  You’ll see it on your left.

Oh hey, stranger!

Oh hey, stranger!

Growing up in Chicago, I’ve had my fair share of Mexican cuisine, and I’ve chronicled it in a few of my posts (See Salsa and Nopales).  Therefore, I was somewhat skeptical when all of my friends were raving that Gusto Taco had the best tacos they’ve every tried in their lives.  So when we walked in, it was a pretty basic looking place with close to no one inside. IMG_1126  I went for the pork chipotle tacos and the pollo asada (grilled chicken) tacos.  There are two tacos to each order, and the price range of tacos goes from 5,700 Won to 8,000 for the shrimp tacos.  They’re moderately sized, but I would soon find out that the flavors packed into them were larger than life.  They also have burritos, nachos, and quesadillas if you aren’t feeling like a taco fiesta is for you.  First, there were the chipotle pork tacos which everyone in my group recommended.  Looking at the various ingredients in the taco like the pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, and a light spritz of tomatillo salsa, I could see that these tacos were something special.IMG_1122  After the first bite, I could now see why my friends were acting like these tacos were the crystal meth of foreign foodstuffs.  My friend, Danielle, who was with me, asked the Walter White or perhaps the Jesse of the operation, in reality a small Korean woman, if they made their own tortillas.  Turns out that they do, and they were the best corn tortillas I’ve ever tasted.  Not only did they have that slightly oily corn character to every bite, but they were extremely resilient amid my own personal feeding frenzy.  When the guacamole hit the water, I went full-on Jaws on those pork tacos.  As for the meat, it was a strange yet refreshing fusion of typical Mexican pork with an almost gyro-esque texture but with a bit less grease.  However, I don’t know quite where the cilantro comes in since I couldn’t really taste any of it aside from in the pico de gallo.  I was thinking that there would be perhaps some sort of cilantro rub or the like on the meat.  Just make sure you’re ready to get your hands a bit dirty with grease/juices while eating them.  They also go great with a splash or two of the complimentary Tabasco hot sauce Gusto Taco provides.  As for the grilled chicken tacos, they were great but not as amazing at the pork cilantro tacos.IMG_1123  While the meat was delicious white breast chunks, it had the same ingredients from the cilantro pork tacos.  The main difference between the two tacos beyond the obvious of having two different types of meat was that the chicken tacos let the supporting cast of condiments share the spotlight which resulted in a more even taste.  A definite contrast to machísimo puerco tacos striding out across your palate like a proud matador who just dispatched an unlucky bull.  Either way, I was thoroughly satisfied with my food and service.

So if you’re looking for one of my top three places for food in Seoul (I’m not kidding), go to Gusto Taco.  If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, remember this old saying, “El perro que no anda, hueso no encuentra” (The dog that doesn’t wander will not find a bone), so wander on down to Gusto Taco.  Vale la pena! (It’s worth the effort!)

Heaven’s A Place On Earth

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Hola a todos y bienvenidos a mi blog Mastication Monologues!  Today I finally managed to go to a restaurant that has been three different visits in the making.  Now, living in Korea has made me miss a lot of things back home, but none more than the variety of food that we have back in the USA, especially any type of Latin American/Spanish cuisine.  So, I was determined to try Taco Cielo in Incheon since I heard it had the best Mexican food around.  The first three times I went there (Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, and a Wednesday evening) they were closed which left me absolutely flabbergasted that they would be closed during times that people would want to eat.  However, today was no ordinary day since I managed to survive a huge Korean deluge and a killer workout in the gym.  So I was hoping that my luck would change with this taqueria.  I eventually made my way to Taco Cielo on the Incheon 1 Line all the way to Incheon Bus Terminal.  I then left exit two, crossed the main street in front of the bus terminal, and turned right and then left when I reached the KEB.  I walked about 100 feet, and I was in front of the building where it was nestled on the sixth floor.  Here is their website.

It's up on the sixth floor.

It’s up on the sixth floor.

When I entered the elevator, I was praying that I wasn’t going to be greeted with another, “Sorry, closed” sign on the dark glass door, and it seems that it was open…sort of.  I got there at 4:45 pm on a Tuesday, and they didn’t open until 5 pm.  I have no idea what is up with their operating hours, but they were quite hospitable.  I was able to sit at a table and drink water until their kitchen opened.  Plus, they had plenty of A/C, so that was muy bueno para mi.  It had a good ambiance even though I was the only person in there, and I eventually chose two items that really caught my fancy on the menu.IMG_0613  I plumped for the beef burrito with cheese gravy (9,600 W) since it was discount Burrito Tuesday (I saved 4,000 Won), and then I picked the beef fried Mexican rice (7,000 W) to get a little Korean/Asian flavor up in my meal.  The main cook came back because he was astounded that I would order two things since he insinuated that I ordered enough food for three people.  I’m surprised he never met hungrier waygooks than me.

Anyway, the burrito came out first, and it looked like Mount Popocatepetl just erupted all over a pueblo below its mighty cumbre (summit).IMG_0607  They did not skimp on the queso fundido salsa which made me very excited since real cheese is quite rare in a land that considers quality cheese to come in tube form.  I quickly got up in its guts to find plenty of beef, lettuce, cilantro, onions, and tomatoes beneath a fresh flour tortilla.IMG_0608  It was like everything from back home managed to make the 13 hour plane ride to join me for the meal.  The beef was juicy and seasoned with a bit of cumin while the lettuce and cilantro were both freshly chopped.  The cook also double checked to see if I wanted cilantro in the first place which I found interesting because he was Korean, and most Koreans seem adverse to cilantro in dishes.  Yet I know I definitely don’t look Korean, so perhaps it was just a force of habit for him to ask me if I wanted any.  Portion-wise, the burrito was about six inches long tops, but the savory cheddar sauce definitely stole the show for the first part of my dinner.  The second act of this food telenovela was somewhat odd.

Now back home in Chicago, almost every Mexican restaurant pairs entrees with a side of beans and rice, but I knew I wanted to try the Asian twist on a Mexican classic where they combined Korean fried rice with Mexican ingredients.  What I ended up eating was certainly better than what I was expecting.

That's some funky arroz frito, tio.

That’s some funky arroz frito, tio.

When the waitress brought it out, it was a mini-mound of rice on what seemed like a Nacho Libre sized tortilla along with a square, tostada- looking tortilla.  She then recommended that I keep the fork to cut the crunchy tortilla, but I found that the tortillas were superfluous to the actual meal unless you planned on eating the rice with your hands Indian-style.  I wouldn’t recommend it though.  The actual rice was found underneath the center flaps of the larger tortilla which was drizzled with soy sauce, gochujang, and sour cream.  All of that combined with the fried Mexican rice and cilantro to create a cool, spicy, and tangy creature that can only be likened to a culinary Chupacabra.  I’ve only heard rumors about it in its natural habitat, but I’ll never forget this tortilla to mouth encounter which left me full and muy satisfecho.

So if you’re craving some Mexican food while visiting Incheon, definitely go to Taco Cielo.  It seems to be a better bargain than Vato’s Tacos in Itaewon in Seoul, but I still have to check that establishment out.  While it’s no Taco Grill like back home in my other post or Los Nopales, you definitely will feel like you died and went al cielo!

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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