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Topolobampo: One Bday at a Time

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Welcome one and all to Mastication Monologues where I try to try as many different meals as possible while educating the reader about new cultures or the origins of popular foods.  One of the most diverse food scenes out there is Mexican cuisine.  You can go all over the USA and find some form of taco, burrito, or nachos at least even though some interpretations of these meals (especially nachos) might not be seen south of the border.  However, there has been an evolution of Mexican food as of late where different Asian cuisines have been blended to create new and crazy creations like Korean inspired bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos.  On the other hand, one of the biggest names in Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, has been trying to get to the heart of simple Mexican food after decades of living, tasting, and drinking everything from Juarez to Jalisco.  Janice and I met him during Taste Talks of Chicago where he talked about the constant evolution of food, and how meals bring people together from different backgrounds or may make them more in touch with their heritage.  How does Rick manage to do this?  At his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, they serve a rotating menu that draws on Mexico’s culinary history starting in the pre-Colombian era and ending in modern Mexican fusion along with different specialty dishes from all corners of Mexico.  I had the pleasure of paying Topolobampo a visit for my birthday last year with my lovely girlfriend, so I apologize for the delay for this mouth-watering post.

The front of the restaurant consisted of two different restaurants but both owned by Mr. Bayless.  IMG_4981It was slightly confusing trying to find the entrance because we couldn’t see a clear door for either restaurant, but it turns out they shared a common door.  Upon walking in, we were in the lobby for Frontera, the cheaper and more boisterous of the two restaurants.  We walked through the hallway past the strains of musica ranchera to the more demure Topolobampo dining room.  Instead of lots of kitchy Mexican bric a brac on the walls a la Frontera Grill, there were more oil paintings and softer music.IMG_4978  I’d also recommend putting on nicer clothes since its a classy kind of joint.01df7509f997342c67799f4f76e06f709f9e61dfc8  I could hardly contain my excitement as I looked over the menu, but we started off with some drinks.  There weren’t any prices for the food items, but there are for the drinks.  So, it seems they operate on the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” train of thought.  Janice went with a classic glass of red wine that ended up being as big as her head, and I got a mezcal margarita ($12.50).IMG_4964  Mezcal has become more popular with the rise of tequila, but still isn’t very widespread.  It is distilled from the maguey agave plant which is so revered that the Aztecs called the fermented liquid the “elixir of the gods”.  Mezcal assumed its current form when Spaniards took the Aztec agave drink called “pulque” and found a distilling process to increase its alcohol content.  While in Mexico mezcal is consumed straight, I had it mixed with the Spanish Torres 10 year brandy, bitters, lemonade, and mezcal from the very home state in Mexico that started it all, Oaxaca.  It was shaken and served tableside with much pomp, and it was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted.unnamed (2)  It was super potent, but not too sweet. IMG_4957 The hight quality mezcal and Spanish brandy left my palate with a smooth caress with each sip, and there was no burning sensation when it was going down compared with some tequilas I’ve tried.  Once we got our drinks, we got to figuring out what food to order.  At Topolobampo, diners have the option of doing a three, five, or seven course tasting menu with the eaters choosing the dishes.  A fourth option is doing a “Perfect Seven” chef-chosen seven course meal.  We each went for a 5 course tasting menu since we were starving and ready to sample everything Chef Bayless had to offer.  We expected nothing less than magic after hearing him talk about his pre-Colombian menu where he made Mexican food with no beef, chicken, cilantro, lime, or even pork! Long story short, we were blown away.  Our meal started with an off-the-menu item that we got for free.  It was a tiny stack of radioactive pink disks resting in a similarly colored liquid.IMG_4959  Our waiter explained that it was pickled watermelon and radish topped with cayenne pepper.  It was cool, sour, yet slightly spicy that primed our tastebuds for what was next.  I got the sopa azteca (Aztec soup) that consisted of a medium heat pasilla pepper infused beef stock, incredibly tender chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips.IMG_4961  It was simple yet warmed my soul on that dark and cold night.  It kind of reminded me of a Mexican take on French onion soup.  Janice’s first plate was a surprise knockout in terms of flavor.  She got the Sand and Sea which was green ceviche on a bed of tortilla sand.  If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s basically a room temperature salad made of tomatoes, onions, some kind of whitefish, and lime juice.  In true Rick Bayless fashion, he turned this Mexican coastal favorite on its head with chunks of summer flounder, serrano chiles, lime, jicama, and avocados to give it that Hulk green hue.  01cb2a19792a28dad09df6f12d856abd8ce6b359a7Coming from someone who is not a huge fish person, I loved it, and Janice, a bigger fish lover than I, loved it as well.  It didn’t have that super “fishy” taste that might accompany some dishes; I’d liken it more to a lighter and thinner guacamole in terms of taste and texture.   Next up was my beautiful girlfriend’s sunchokes.  The name “sunchoke” was invented for this tuber that is kind of like a potato in terms of appearance in the 1960’s to revive the sales of this very old plant.  However, the sun part supposedly comes from the Italian name for it “girasole” or “sunflower” due to the similar yellow flowers that grew wherever sunchokes could be found.  As for the “choke” part, that came from famous French explorer Samuel Champlain sending back samples of the veggies to France from Canada and America noting a “taste like an artichoke”.unnamed (3)  They were served in a recado blanco sauce from the Yucatan peninsula, a.k.a. the home of the Maya and every high schoolers’ Spring Break plans.  It was a simple sauce that had some garlic, oregano, and some sweet spices to give it a semi-curry character with a guero chile mixed in to give it a vibrant yellow hue.  unnamed (5)Underneath them were resting fermented kohlrabi pieces which were basically pickled turnips.  It was both spicy yet savory and slightly sweet.  The cool slice of avocado on the side cut down the spice when necessary.  They were ok but not amazing in comparison to my second dish:  the carne asada in mole negro.  Now, a lot of people love the chocolatey, spicy sauce on their enchiladas, and much to my own surprise, I am not one of them.  I love chocolate in all forms, but I normally shy away from mixing sweet and savory items.  Topolobampo made me see the upside of this pre-Colombian sauce.  First, there were the firewood-roasted pieces of ribeye that were small but extremely lean, and these exemplary cuts of meat were surrounded by smoked green beans and a small tamal of chipilin herbs. unnamed (4) Mole comes from the Aztec word for “sauce”, and legend has it that a group of nuns threw a bunch of spices together with some chocolate to make sauce for the archbishop’s meal.  He loved it and wanted to know what it was.  One of the nun’s said, “I made a mole”, and thus the legend was born.  For once, I was like the archbishop in a divine state of being when eating this plate. unnamed The Oaxacan mole wasn’t overly sweet like other moles I have tried; the chihuacle chili peppers really brought a little fire to each bite which I appreciated along with the other 28 ingredients that went into the delicious sauce.  As for the meat, it was astoundingly tender and smoky to compliment the mole.  The same could be said for the green beans.  Next, I got goat barbacoa which was served two ways.  The lower layer was slow cooked goat that could be found in a Jalisco birria stew while the top was a panchetta or cured piece of goat that was crunchier.IMG_4971  It was served with garnishes on the side that were fresh, but the goat when it was coated in the red chili sauce was rich, almost too rich for its own good.  IMG_4973While the barbacoa was melt-in-your-mouth quality, it was a bit too salty for my liking.  Janice’s tamal festivo that was stuffed with turkey, chestnuts, and coated in a red mole sauce was like a Mesoamerican take on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.IMG_4967  I was very thankful she ordered it because it was extremely comforting and hearty.  Our final round of savory plates took us to two stewed dishes.  I got the mole de olla or (pan mole) which consisted of beef short ribs wallowing in a ancho and guajillo mole while being topped with some zesty and sour prickly pear fruitIMG_4969.  IMG_4970It covered every taste bud with an explosion of flavors, and I highly recommend this dish.  Janice’s suckling pig was equally decadent. 01f8efcc2b3d20eb4e1e73a399b356a5e08d901b68The braised pork was succulent, overshadowing the greens, and further embellished with the extremely thin veils of 14-month dry cured ham resting softly atop this tiny nugget of greatness.  Even after all of these dishes, we still had room for dessert because as the maxim of high end dining held true where it was a series of small but high quality ingredients that satisfied us, but we didn’t feel stuffed.

Dessert was just as over the top and true to its Mexican roots.  The cacao tree was an homage to the sacred cacao bean that was considered a drink and food only reserved for Aztec emperors and gods.  A piece of milk chocolate bark lay across three different forms of the dark stuff. unnamed (1)unnamed (6) First, there was the moist lava cake that was made with house-made chocolate straight from Tabasco, Mexico.  Words cannot describe how delicious this element was.

So much love for the cake.

Clearly she liked it.

Next, the cacao fruit mousse was the opposite in the sense that it wasn’t extremely rich but rather a smooth and sweet raspberry and chocolate cream.  Finally, there was the rosita de cacao ice cream that was like a lip-smackingly great French vanilla combined with a generous helping of chocolate chunks from Chiapas, Mexico.  Janice got the crepas con cajeta (crepes with cream) which was just as great. IMG_4977 The crepes were slightly warm and filled with bittersweet dark chocolate ganache that became gooey due to the heat, and the pumpkin spice and pecan toffee ice cream on the side started to melt that made it perfect for the Fall.  On top of all of this, there was a meringue and warm apples that made it a mixture of European and pre-Colombian influences to make my stomach very happy.  The final two desserts were the winter buñuelo de viento and the guava atole.  The former was the antithesis to the cacao tree since it was all white errthang.01c17989af02d0e072be4bab7bc510836a68be025e  It consisted of a scoop of vanilla-brandy ice cream topped with puffed rice stewing in a warm traditional Mexican ponche or “punch” infused with hibiscus, tamarind, brandy, sugarcane, and tejocote apples.  The latter, the guava atole, was a complete nod to the Aztecs who invented the corn and flour drink.IMG_4974  On one side there was a steamed masa corn cake that was semi-sweet and moist.   Then the atole guava ice cream was on the other side where the sweetness of the tropical guava mixed with a slightly starchy element.  I liked the crunchy masa strips and flour crumbles because they brought both a change of texture along with an almost pie a-la-mode feel with the ice cream combined with the crumbles.  It was my second favorite dessert behind the cacao tree.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied, and it was a fantastic birthday from the beginning to the end even though I never found out how much everything cost haha.  If you want some gourmet Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices for high end diners, I highly recommend Topolobampo!
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

 

 

Winter bunuelo de viento

guava atole

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Food Convention Post: Taste Talks in Chicago

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In Memoriam:  This post is dedicated to the dear memory of beloved Chicago institution, Hot Doug’s (2001-2014).  May you continue to make unique and memorable sausage creations in food Valhalla.  Check out my visit to the now defunct land of wondrous tube steaks.

Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is a unique one since it is about my first visit to a food festival that focused more on the craft and industry than purely the art of gorging oneself on grilled meats and throwing money away buying tickets for beers with skewed prices.  The festival in question is called Taste Talks, and it took place from October 3rd to October 5th.  With two events in Brooklyn in NYC and Chicago, it originally was the brainchild of the carrot-topped, Croc-rockin’ chef, Mario Batali.  However, you’re probably wondering how a small blogger like me could attend such a festival?  I actually was emailed by Paulina from OpenTable offering me a spot on the guest list.  I’d like to thank her once again for the opportunity along with OpenTable for reaching out to me.  Not only that, but I was able to get a pass for my girlfriend as well since I wanted her to share in the glory that was Taste Talks.IMG_4359IMG_4478

While we couldn’t attend the Friday kick-off event with the oyster and champagne dinner at the Kinmont Restaurant, we had essentially free reign over what we could see on Saturday.  It was a cold and drizzly day, but the first meeting we went to at the elegant Soho house.IMG_4394  While it used to be  a tannery at the turn of the 20th Century, in the 21st it is a chic and hip hotel.  We marveled at the lobby as we quickly moved to the elevators to get to the first food meeting. IMG_4392 Even the elevators were swanky as the walls were upholstered like a fine leather couch.  Thankfully we didn’t fall asleep leaning on the walls and quickly moved to the Free-Styling with Ice Cream Desserts talk.  Our panel consisted of Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Dana Cree (Blackbird), and Jessie Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato).

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

During the talk, they were all quite gracious and humorous when interacting with each other and the audience, but I could tell that they knew their stuff based on the emphasis they placed on making their ice cream and gelato from scratch.  While they said most ice cream places throughout America claim to create their ice cream by hand, in reality they just use a dairy base, throw in some sugar and flavorings, and add some toppings.  What they’re selling us is just an image of it being artisanal.  What these ladies do instead is actually break down the ingredients and balance them just right in order to get the right texture, flavor, and melting point.  The choice to do what these ladies do isn’t the cheap route in comparison to the easy peasy ice cream base method, and in reality, the government is against them.  The FDA is very meticulous when evaluating their franchises, and the big dairies are favored in the ice cream industry since they offer an easy way out for people who want to go the traditional route when making the cold treat.  The speakers even made some revealing statements like it turns out the soft serve cones at McDonalds are actually just cold, whipped, leftover animal fats, and ice cream was originally derived from excess butter at dairies.  Ice cream normally is around 10% fat, but McDonald’s, as always, manages to do it bigger than anyone else.  They also explained the differences between gelato and ice cream:  gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream, it’s smoother than ice cream due to the lack of ice crystals, and gelato is served at a higher temperature than traditional American ice cream.  Once they got tired of just talking, each chef did an ice cream demo.  First, there was Jeni Britton Bauer’s ice cream punch.

I knew we were in for a good time when there were bottles of Hennessy on deck right next to the punch bowls. IMG_4364 However, she started instead by struggling to open a bottle of Prosecco, but she eventually opened two and dumped the bubbly into the bowl. IMG_4475 Jeni followed that up with a cup of the smooth brown cognac.  Then, she proceeded to throw a bunch of scoops of different types of sorbet like lemon, strawberry, and raspberry.IMG_4369  Those neon orbs were bobbing in the brew like an extremely adult version of bobbing for apples as she ladled cup upon cup of the crimson mixture.  Janice and I sampled the beverage, and it was quite refreshing. IMG_4373 It tasted like a bubbly, adult Italian soda with rich pieces of ice cream sliding over our palates every other sip.  Next up was Jessie from Black Dog Gelato.

Jessie operated the only ice cream parlor I knew out of the three, and I have heard a lot of buzz about it.  So, I was curious to see what this wizard of cream and sugar could come up with.  She did not disappoint with her chocolate coated pumpkin ice ream pops.  First, she did a simple popsicle using her pumpkin infused gelato, but then melted chocolate using a hot plate on the side.  The pumpkin pops were lovingly caressed in the sweet elixir and then rubbed with a coating of dried coconut and strudel crumbles. IMG_4469 We could sample smaller versions of the pops, and we definitely took advantage of the offer.IMG_4383 IMG_4466 While the crunchy, milk chocolate interior gave way to a more subtle pumpkin gelato that was creamy and understated, it was quite difficult to eat as the slivers of chocolate were flying everywhere.IMG_4465IMG_4385  They probably thought it was my first time eating a cold treat based on how overjoyed I was.  The final creation came from Dana Cree which was a lemon and elderflower infused frozen yogurt that was based on a recipe that used unsweetened Greek yogurt. IMG_4388 This gave it a real tang when combined with the lemon and fragrant notes from the elderflowers.IMG_4390IMG_4389 Out of the three, my favorite was the chocolate and pumpkin pops, and I later found out how creative Jessie could be when Janice and I visited her Black Dog Gelato.  While we would have loved to talk to them for longer, we had to rush to the Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie.

This lecture took place at Kaiser Tiger at 1415 W. Randolph Street.  IMG_4404IMG_4395It was an eclectic place in terms of decor, but we were there to sample some sausages.  We arrived a bit late and soaked from the drizzle, but it was a very different vibe from the ice cream meeting.  While the ice cream baronesses were approachable and humorous, the speakers were not interested in chewing the fat.  Plus, the people there looked more of the hipster persuasion which gave it an air of pretentiousness that I wasn’t digging.IMG_4403  We just went to town on the sausage sample platter at the back of the room. IMG_4396IMG_4400 It was like a time machine for me for my time living in Barcelona.  Not only did they have the same sliced, orange-red, peppery chorizo I used to make sandwiches with during my siestas, but they also had super fatty pieces of Catalan fuet sausage that contained chewy pieces of meaty flavor.

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

I used to gnaw on a piece of the super rich sausage while working on my homework since it gave me the energy to keep my focused, and I really liked the texture contrast between the fat granules, the melt-in-your-mouth meat, and semi tough casing.

Memories

Memories

After eating our fill of artery-clogging meat, we decided to peace out early for the biggest fireside chat of fireside chats with Rick Bayless.

We boogied on back to Soho House, and we made sure to get a front row seat to see Rick Bayless who is now one of the biggest and most respected chefs in the culinary world thanks to his contributions to the Mexican food scene (he was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle due to his promotion of Mexican culture and food).  Even with all of his accolades and awards, it was unreal to be so close to someone who seemed so down to earth when talking with the audience.IMG_4406  It’s an effect that happens when you see someone on tv for so long that they take on an almost mythical status, and you expect them to be more imposing in real life like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Instead, you just find out that they are human just like you and me.  During his talk, I found out he had similar life to mine with focusing to study Spanish in college along with linguistics in graduate school.  However, cooking and food proved to be his true passion.  Perhaps I could parlay my love into a new career path like Rick.  He went on to talk about the importance of the connection between culture and food which is what I try to achieve here on Mastication Monologues, so his words really resonated with me.  Rick also highlighted the shifting perception of chefs from blue collar workers to veritable rock stars today, and he has provided culinary students with a tempered vision of the future that to get to the top:  hard work and mastery of the craft is crucial to becoming famous.  There aren’t any chefs who open Michelin 3 star restaurants right out of cooking schools.  After talking a bit about his connection to Mexican history and food with his changing menus at Topolobampo (including his 1491 menu that used no ingredients the Europeans brought over like chicken, beef, pork, cilantro, and limes), I got to ask a question during the Q and A session about the shifting demographics in the USA especially with the Latino population.  I asked if he noticed more Latino diners in his restaurants recently , and he said that he saw a lot of younger Latino diners eating his food on date nights as a way to get a taste of their ancestors and learn more about their culture.  Rick graciously thanked everyone, and I was the first person to just thank him for coming out.  IMG_4456Plus, I plugged my blog a little bit, and he seemed really interested in it.  When I said goodbye, I was still amazed that I was less than five feet away from someone I’ve seen for decades on PBS and gracing the covers of cookbooks everywhere.  Janice and I went out on a high note as we walked away from Taste Talks with a new perspective on the food industry and an excitement for the future of dining.  Also, it was a wonderful way to celebrate five happy months together : )IMG_4453

 

How I Learned to Stop Wondering and Love the Bomb

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Ah the sandwich.  One of the most simple yet fluid concepts in food.  Food has long been enveloped or contained in some sort of bread in various cultures across the world, but the actual word can be traced to 18th century England.  Edward Gibbons states that John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, would ask for his meat to be between slices of bread, so he could eat with his hands while playing cards and not get the cards dirty.  Eventually, people began to ask for their meals, “The same as Sandwich”, and a new word entered the English language.  Today, there are a million ways to put one together that range from the classic peanut butter and jelly to the straight up bizarre.  Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues features a Mexican twist on the food staple in the form of Cemitas Puebla in Chicago.

This eatery in Humboldt Park has received its fair share of publicity after appearing on the Food Network, PBS’s Check Please, and the Hungry Hound a.k.a. Steve Dolinsky from ABC 7 news.  Surprisingly, given that this establishment is located in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, it is purely Mexican, specifically from the state of Puebla.  The exterior blends into the neighborhood, and the interior is just as simple.IMG_3557  I went there around lunch, and it was hopping.  The line was moderately long, but the cooks knew how to hustle.  Looking over the menu, the cemitas were dominant, but there were other dishes like tacos, enchiladas, chalupas, and quesadillas to name a few.  I was determined to see what made these south-of-the-border super sandwiches were made of.  I decided to speak in Spanish with the lady at the cash register to maybe get a bit of extra info that the gringos wouldn’t get.  I was torn between the pata (cow foot) or the atomica (atomic) cemita, but the lady recommended the atomica because the cow foot wasn’t very popular and lower quality.  Taking her word for it, I put down $9 for the atomica cemita and a small agua de jamaica to drink ($1.25).

While waiting for my meal, the cashier got my drink from the back freezer along with a couple of squeeze bottles.  She set them down, and I asked about the different salsas in the bottles.  While the two clear ones were filled with some sort of red and green sauces, the woman pointed out the bright yellow bottle of sauce would go the best with the cemita.  I thanked her for the info started sipping on my drink.  Agua de jamaica (literally:  water of hibiscus) is a tea that can be served either hot or cold, the latter in this case, and is an infusion of hibiscus flowers and a bit of sugar.IMG_3564  It’s a great drink for a hot day with a hint of sweetness in each sip, and it has anti-oxidant properties that can lessen the effects of hypertension.  Finally, the star of the show emerged from the grill, and was brought to my table with minimal fanfare.  I was taken aback by how large the sandwich was for the price I paid and then pondered how to tackle this monstrosity?IMG_3559 The atomica consisted of breaded pieces of milanesa (breaded pork), carne enchilada (chili seasoned meat), and jamon (ham).  This meat parade was further accented with adobo chipotle peppers, Oaxacan cheese, and fresh papalo or a green herb used for seasoning. IMG_3560 I took my first bite that consisted me of unhinging my jaws like a reticulated python around a baby hippo, and it truly was a weapon of mass deliciousness. The bun was moderately toasted with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds on top, and it was strong enough throughout the meal to keep these ingredients in check and not on my pants.  Each layer of meat moved from strength to strength as the jamon was salty to compliment the milanesa breading while the breading provided a crunchy contrast to the soft carne enchilada.  I loved the stretchy Oaxacan cheese that was plentiful along with the chunks of creamy avocado.  The papalo was there, but I personally didn’t think it brought much to the table flavor and texture-wise.  Once I was acquainted with my new sandwich friend, I decided to try some of the sauces on the table.  I began with the recommended cemita sauce, and it was a peppery adobo that had a robust, peppery bite to add a savory dimension to the sandwich.IMG_3563  I moved on to the green sauce that had an uncanny resemblance to boogers, but it thankfully didn’t taste the same. IMG_3567 I’d liken it to a flavorful tomatillo salsa with hints of cilantro.  As for the red sauce in the other clear bottle, it was nothing noteworthy.  ‘Twas just another run of the mill tomato based salsa.  Much to my dismay, I wasn’t overly stuffed even though the sandwich probably had over 3,000 calories and could choke a horse.  It was a simple yet thoroughly satisfying lunch.

So if you want to try a unique piece of Mexico beyond tacos and tamales for a reasonable price, check out Cemitas Puebla.

Cemitas Puebla on Urbanspoon

Huge Flavors Under the Big Top

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Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.

While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself.  They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?).  The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”.  This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures.  However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA.  So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience.  While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes.IMG_3130  From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday.IMG_3131  However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents. IMG_3132

Main dining room

Main dining room

I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself.  While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant.  The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30.  Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink.  Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. IMG_3138 While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need.  A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. IMG_3137 What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. IMG_3153 It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.

Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers.  First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). IMG_3142 Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation.  The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch.IMG_3147  Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans.  The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking.IMG_3160  As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture.IMG_3159  All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice.  It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit.IMG_3158  After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). IMG_3145 Both were wonderful.  The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy.  Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12).  IMG_3140This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture.  The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast.IMG_3141 I’d highly recommend this appetizer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. IMG_3144 I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special.  While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo.IMG_3161  The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish.  After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25).IMG_3162  They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side.  After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). IMG_3163 The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”.  Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie.IMG_3164  I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor.  All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake.  If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again.  The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant.IMG_3166  Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers.  Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.

The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). IMG_3172 It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella.  Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat.  I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). IMG_3174 While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate.  Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried.  Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26).IMG_3182  There was a lot happening on one plate.  While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros.   While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak.  I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me.  Finally, there was the dessert.

While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu:  carmelized sweet plantains ($7).IMG_3171  Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity.  I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them.IMG_3168  I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment.  From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.

In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food.  If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!

Carnivale on Urbanspoon

Burgers That D-Fi Hunger

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Boom!  This is my 160th post!  Thanks everyone for your support, and expect me to keep on supplying quality restaurant reviews far into the future.  So, let’s start with a welcome to Mastication Monologues for first time viewers and long-time fans.  Today’s post is part two of my Florida trip.  My previous post features an off-beat pizzeria that can satisfy even the most square food lover (as if there existed such a thing).  As for today, I’ll still be pushing the boundaries of my culinary fortitude as I recount my visit to BurgerFi, a place that reinvents both burgers and desserts.

During our stay in Delray Beach, Florida, we did a bit of walking up and down the street lining the beach, and obviously there were plenty of restaurants to take advantage of the hungry swimmers and tanners.  One place that caught my attention was BurgerFi due to its modern exterior and warmly lit interior.IMG_2841  IMG_2840 IMG_2839We waltzed past their outdoor patio to find an extensive menu that focused mainly on burgers but also offered hot dogs, sides, desserts, beer, wine, and a “secret” menu that boasted some interesting choices like a quinoa burger for all those vegetarians out there. IMG_2837 I, however, went for the Breakfast All Day burger ($5.25) with a Coke de Mexico to drink ($3).  They employed a buzzer system for orders where I just took my drink back to my table to wait for my burger to emerge from the back like a tasty bear emerging from its den after a long winter.  While it was being crafted, I sat at the table enjoying my Mexican Coke that I had never tried before. IMG_2824 What separates the Mexican Coke from good old ‘Murikan Coke is that the former still utilizes regular sugar as a sweetener.  In comparison, the American entry we now imbibe is laden with unhealthy high fructose corn syrup due to our country’s ability to grow a surplus of corn and the overall bottom line for the company in regard to production costs.  What does this mean for me?  Well, a definite taste contrast for one thing.  While the American Coke could be described as a sweet but slightly acidic tasting cola, the Mexican Coke tasted a bit cleaner with a richer flavor.  Eventually, my burger was ready, and it was slightly frightening. IMG_2825 According to the menu, they start with an Angus burger and then pile on American cheese, hickory bacon drizzled with maple syrup, a fried egg, hash browns, onions, and ketchup.  With the bacon strips sticking out like crimson tongues from the mini-monster sitting in front of me, I saddled up my taste buds and rode into the maw of the beast.

Open wide

Open wide

The crunchy pieces of bacon crumbled beneath my full frontal assault, but I nearly lost my senses as the sweet mixed with the smokey and salty pork sent my head spinning…either that or I had a mini-stroke.

Doing work

Doing work

Once I passed that trial, I moved into the actual burger and was greeted with a liberal douse of egg yolk and meat juice.  This was a testament to the quality of the meat that was grilled to perfection, and the egg that added an extra texture dimension to the meal.  As for the hash browns, they were lying in wait at the bottom mixed up with the onions and ketchup to provide body to the burger.  The only downside was the bun that quickly faded away with each bite, and the aforementioned hashbrown mixture contributed to the burger succumbing to Hot Mess Syndrome or H.M.S.

Lookin' pretty rough

Lookin’ pretty rough

If H.M.S. reaches critical mass, i.e. it’s a matter seconds before your burger falls apart in your hand, then you either have to make the decision to stuff it into your mouth or let it tumble to the table.  Before long, I had reached this point, and I opted for the former option instead of letting it fall into the basket.  This lack of burger integrity left me disappointed and covered in the remnants of my meal like a lion who just polished off a zebra.  Once I wiped the scraps away from my hands and mouth, I decided to go for dessert because I was in vacation mode.  I went over the ice cream options, and I plumped for the O.M.C. or Oh My Chocolate concrete ($4).  This treat was absolutely ridiculous in construction and would probably be a tasty way to illustrate the layers of the earth.IMG_2838  They alternated between layers of chocolate custard and then accompanying layers of peanut butter, chocolate chips, sprinkles, and brownie chunks.  It was as decadent as it sounds, but I didn’t feel sick by the end of it.  It was like eating a giant, liquified Reese’s peanut butter cup with occasional crunchy chocolate chips or chewy brownie bites.  Needless to say, I was greatly satisfied by the meal as a whole as I cleaned up the slobber on the table when I finished.

So if you want to try a burger place that provides high quality and creative meals at a reasonable price, then BurgerFi is the eatery for you!
BurgerFi on Urbanspoon

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