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Tag Archives: Middle East

A View to a Grill

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Welcome one and all to another great post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post focuses on cuisine that might not get the spotlight like other, more mainstream types of food like Chinese food or Mexican food, but that doesn’t mean that it is of lesser quality.  In this case, I’m talking about Syrian cuisine.  It is part of the Levant on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, its food shares roots with neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and even as far as Iraq.  Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has colored everyone’s thoughts about this country, but I would like to show you that there is more to Syria than the seemingly eternal struggle between Assad and the plethora of Islamic militias that shift alliances as much as the Syrian desert sands.  I had my first taste of Syrian food at Pita Pita Mediterranean (formerly Pita Pit).

The restaurant itself doesn’t look like much. IMG_5658 It’s just another storefront in another stripmall in the northern Chicago suburbs, but the food inside is like the lamp in the Disney movie Aladdin:  relatively unknown to the world unless you help Jafar with both halves of the golden scarab.  Actually, it’s not as dramatic as that given that a quick Google Maps could sort you out in a snap, but there definitely is treasure to be found when looking over their menu.  I saw typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare like kebab, hummus, and Jerusalem salad, but then there were other choices I’ve never heard of.  Naturally, I gravitated toward these options.  I started off with sampling their babha ghanouj ($3 small/$5 large) and the muthawama ($3 small/$5 large).

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Babha ghanouj (بابا غنوج) literally means “pampered papa” in reference to most likely the head of a harem, and these flavors were definitely made for royalty.  It consists of grilled and pureed eggplant that is then mixed with sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic, and yogurt.  It was also topped with a dollop of olive oil for good measure.  I found this cold spread to be both savory yet slightly tart that went very well with the light pita triangles that came with the dip.  I was more partial to the muthawama.  It was very similar to the babha ghanouj in terms of ingredients aside from replacing the eggplant with potatoes.  I think this switch made the white condiment feel more like sour cream and taste like a garlic aioli which goes great on any type of carb, be it pita or French fry.  As for my main dish, I passed over the tried and true favorites in my mind and took a dive into the great unknown with the mnazeleh ($10).  When it came out, I didn’t know what to think.  IMG_5655It wasn’t as sexy as the spreads I had before, but it looked more like an over spiced pile of onions and tomatoes.  The colors weren’t as bright either.  However, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover.  It came with a more vibrant, complimentary side of rice that was moist and lightly seasoned that I subsequently folded into the main meal.  IMG_5654What I ended up experiencing was one of the best Middle Eastern dishes I’ve eaten.  The eggplant base that upheld the tomato, onion, and beef hodgepodge was super tender to the point of disintegrating faster than Subway’s ties with Jared and was infused with the beefy goodness residing above.  The addition of the rice gave it a lot more body, and I would suggest changing the recipe to include the rice.  I recommend this plate if you’re looking for something uniquely Syrian and full of flavor.  By the end of my meal, I thought I couldn’t fit anymore, but I had to try their baklava ($2.80).  This dessert’s history is as multilayered as its filo dough.  Different countries throughout the eastern Mediterranean claim it as their own invention, but there is no definitive answer for a dessert that is as old as time.  Some scholars believe it comes from the Mongols since it might derive from the root “bayla-” meaning “to pile up”, but the “-va” ending suggests a Persian origin.  The oldest recipe, dating back to the second century B.C., of anything resembling this sweet treat is the Roman placenta cake.  You might be thinking, “Ugh!  They made cake out of placenta?!!!  Vomitrocious!”  Au contraire, mon frere.  The word “placenta” derives from the Greek word “plakous” which related to layered breads and was then transferred into Latin as “placenta” as a word meaning “cake”.  However, the Roman version had cheese, honey, and bay leaves between each layer or “tracta” instead of the nuts we use now.  The modern version of baklava is thought to have derived from Istanbul during the reign of the Ottomans where the sultan would present his elite guard, the Janissaries, with trays of baklava on the 15th day of Ramadan in a procession complete with pomp and circumstance.  At Pita Pita Grill, I was neither a Christian mercenary nor served with any great ceremony.

Cue drooling...now!

Cue drooling…now!

The baklava was dripping with honey with every forkful, but I think it was a bit too thick for its own good.  It had plenty of chopped nuts throughout the flaky dough layers, but it made it extremely frustrating to cut with a fork.  I’d prefer if it was served in smaller, easier to eat squares.  I did get a ton of baklava for the price though, and I recommend it to anyone.  Just be prepared to use some elbow grease to keep it on the plate.

So, if you’re looking for a “diamond in the rough” restaurant that is no frills in terms of presentation, go to Pita Pita Grill and discover a whole new world of delicious, Syrian food!

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Is That Falafel In Your Pocket, or Are You Just Hungry?

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Disclaimer:  Watch out how you pay here.  They stole my credit card number, so caveat emptor!

Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere!  Welcome to another entry to Mastication Monologues.  A bit of time has passed since my last post, but I guess that’s what happens when grad school rears its ugly head.  Anyway, today I’m going to be reviewing a new place that I have never been to before, but I was very happy after eating there.  It is called Falafill and is located at 72 E Adams St Chicago, IL 60604.  It would make a great pit stop before or after visiting the world-famous Art Institute which is less than five minutes away.

They do have an ingenious logo

Now, I’ve had my fair share of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food with gyros, baklava, doner kebab, and dolma etc. all over the US/Europe, so I was wondering how good this place could be when my friend described it as a place where you create and garnish your own falafel.  All I kept on thinking of was some sort of Middle Eastern Fuddruckers, but I highly doubted they would have one pound falafels for me to tackle in a demonstration of my gastronomic might.  So I decided to visit to see what all of the hubbub was, and I was immediately greeted with free samples outside of the door.  I took the traditional falafel sample which was coated in a typical yogurt based cucumber sauce.  The falafel itself was quite crisp and flavorful with a crumbly, chickpea-based interior that was packed with spice and herbs.  However, I ended up getting the curry falafel which was made of lentils instead of the traditional chickpea falafel I sampled at the door.  When they brought it out to me at the same counter I ordered it at, I was surprised at how large they were as they lay there in the gaping maw of the pita bread that looked more substantial than a traditional unleavened pocket.  With our falafel bread mini-baskets in hand, we got down to business at the “mezza bar” that contained literally a bevy of sauces (babaganouge, hummus, jalapeno and cilantro, harissa, tzatziki, garlic), tabbouleh, and plenty of pickled vegetables like beets and peppers among many other garnishes.

So many dressings and so little time

I was like a kid in a candy store with all of these fresh and powerful flavors, but I festooned my falafel with a helping of babaganouge, hummus, tabbouleh, jalapeno and cilantro sauce, and harissa sauce.  When picking a seat, I noticed something that I didn’t really care for:  communal seating.  At this location, they only had seats along the wall where you face a wall/window or one large table where you sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  I just didn’t like it since it seemed like an invasion of privacy sometimes with conversations, but I guess it wouldn’t matter if you were just there for a quick bite to eat.  Anyway, back to the food.  After semi-attempting to figure out how to lift the pita out of its box without having its contents cascade down the front of my shirt, I just gave up and used a fork.

An example of their falafel with pickled beets, giardiniera, and tabbouleh.

This kind of made me sad and wished that they embraced more of a gyro type of pita that provides more of a wrap/taco kind of sandwich instead of this Muppet-mouthed piece of pocket bread.  Nevertheless, once I took a bite of what was lurking inside the bread, I was thoroughly satisfied.  Below the perfectly fried crust, the curry falafels had the sultry taste of yellow curry.  This boldness was mitigated by the cool hummus, babaganouge, and the freshly made tabbouleh.  However, the harissa sauce and the jalapeno and cilantro managed to jazz up the falafels chilling at the bottom of the bread pocket with a lively and savory kick of spicy flavor.  Plus, once I finished a couple of the top falafels, I was able to lift the bread and eat it like an actual sandwich.  I do have to say that their artisanal baked bread was delicious, fresh, and did not buckle under the stress of the contents of the sandwich.  So, perhaps next time I will order their bowl option to see if that works a bit better in terms of the logistics of eating it.

So if you’re tired of the hamburgers, hot dogs, Italian beefs, and Mexican dishes that are standard Chicago fare, try a new take on Mediterranean food by getting your fill of falafels at Falafill!

Falafill on Urbanspoon

Falafill on Foodio54

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