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What A Jerk!

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Ah Cuba.  America’s Communist boogeyman 90 miles from our doorstep, but this red stronghold soon might become the hot, new Caribbean vacation spot based on current political currents.  While they have been famous due to the US embargo, exporting great baseball players, and upstanding fictional citizens like Tony Montana, Cuban food and drink is without parallel.  Nothing like a Cubano sandwich with a cigar and a rum cocktail on the side.  What more could you ask for?  Well, at Cafecito in the South Loop area of Chicago, a full menu of Cuban sandiwiches, salads, and entrees.  While there are neither alcoholic drinks nor cigars to blow smoke in other diners’ faces, they do have Cuban cortadito coffees that are the java equivalent of speed mixed with rocket fuel.

Just don't have too much like Tony here did.

Just don’t have too much like Tony did.

I went there around noon after teaching at Roosevelt U.  IMG_4510If you do not like crowds or waiting in line, pick some other time to go. IMG_4507 Looking over the menu, I had no clue which sandwich to pick because they all looked so scrumptious.  Would I go with the Perfect Cuban sandwich in Chicago ($5.79) or the Spanish stylized “Elveez” made of sweet plantains, guava jelly, and peanut butter($4.99)?  Instead, I got the Jerk sandwich since I wanted to see their take on the traditional Jamaican spiced dish in handheld form ($6.19).  To drink, it was hot outside, so I looked at their “batidos” or milkshakes in English.  IMG_4497One selection that caught my eye was the mamey option.  I had absolutely no clue what it was, but I knew I had to try it.  After the meal, I found out through a little research that mamey is actually the natural fruit of Cuba, so it was my own way of saying “Viva la revolucion!”.  They take your name, and then you have to wait amongst the waiting throngs until they shout you out.  The waiting time flew by as I inspected the walls that were decked out with all types of accolades to Cafecito’s place in sandwich Valhalla.  IMG_4508After taking in all of the hype, my time had come to finally see if this sandwich was all that and a side of chips.  First, I took a sip of my mamey milkshake. IMG_4502There were hints of sweetness, but it really didn’t taste like anything I could definitely put my finger on.  Maybe it could be likened to  a blander version of a taro bubble tea, but it’s a huge shot in the dark.   However, the Jerk sandwich was full of flavor.IMG_4504  While I wouldn’t liken it to the bold and savory spices known to the world through Jamaican cuisine, but there was a definite red pepper undertone to give the meal a great punch with every pressed/toasted bite of the fresh Cubano baguette.  I personally thought that they heaped a bit too much lettuce on top which got in the way of the juicy, all-white chicken breast that was slathered with habanero lime mayo. IMG_4505 With the mayo, I couldn’t really taste it over the red onions, but I love mayo in any way, shape, or form. IMG_4506 Taken as a whole, it was a fresh sandwich with plenty of high quality ingredients but with the improper ratio of certain ones like red onions and lettuce.  Maybe next time, I’d try their Cuban pork sandwich.  Overall, it was a visit that was well worth the walk down from work.

So if you want to get a bit of Miami’s Cuban sandwich scene, rumba, don’t walk, on down to Cafecito!  It’s not the best sandwich in Chicago I’ve tried, but it is a unique and popular local eatery.

Cafecito on Urbanspoon

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Bearing the Grunt of Good Food

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Welcome to the 220th post on Mastication Monologues!  It has been quite a trip, but what better way to celebrate another small milestone than going to the first ever Lettuce Entertain You restaurant:  R.J. Grunts.  It still is as funky as it was back in the 1970s, and the food is as unpretentious as their self-deprecating menu humor.

This food adventure was prefaced by an enchanting time at the zoo with my girlfriend Janice at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Adult Night.  After enjoying seeing the animals chilling at night in their habitats sans shrieking urchins scurrying about, we stumbled upon the mythical establishment.  IMG_4093We walked in on a Saturday night, and it was packed.  However, we were able to get a table for two right away.  We walked past happy, chatting diners along with an epic salad bar that seemed to have every condiment under the sun along with some interesting sides like various neon colored Jellos. IMG_4107 When we sat down, I surveyed the walls that were coated with pictures of random people who I never really found out who they were.  However, the menu was a work of art, and it was gigantic as shown by my semi-hidden boo. IMG_4094

Hide and Seek at our own table

Hide and Seek at our own table

Not only was it hulking in terms of size, but also food and drink options.  One of the most interesting items on the menu was the temperature soup.  What it consists of is the soup of the day that costs the same temperature based on what it says on the lakeside thermometer, i.e. if it’s 32 degrees, you pay $0.32 for your soup.  It can be added to your entree with the following three conditions:  1.  The salad bar doesn’t come with it, 2.  They won’t pay you if it’s -0 F, and 3.  It’s only valid with purchase of an entree.  While it was intriguing, I was much hungrier and looking for something more substantial.  Thus, I came to the burger part of the menu.  After looking it over, I decided to get the Yowza Burger (a common phrase used as an exclamation of excitement during the 70s like in Happy Days) for $12.95 and a hand-dipped creamy caramel shake ($6).  Janice got the Grunt Burger ($11.95) but no shake.  They came out after a bit, and they didn’t look spectacular.IMG_4111  However, I made the mistake of judging a burger by its bun. It was stacked with enough spicy things to make someone yell its name, but with someone who has dead tastebuds after years of heat challenges, it wouldn’t trouble many chiliheads.IMG_4112  Normal people, maybe.  I really liked the pepper jack, spicy ketchup, and peppercorns that were coating the burger.  It was different kinds of spice that activated different parts of the palate along with the crunch from the smoked bacon and occasional peppercorn lodged in the juicy patty.  I personally preferred my girlfriend’s Grunt burger because there were a ton of fried onion strings and crumbly/melted blue cheese chunks on the Angus patty.  IMG_4125Two great, strong flavors and differing textures that would make me happy but sorely needing a breath mint by the end of the meal.  Then there were the fries that were more like potato chips but not really.  I really enjoyed them since they were unique, exquisitely fried, and were just the right amount of crispy leaning more toward the softer end of things.  The piece de resistance was the  milkshake I had there.IMG_4105  I’ve had my fair share of ice cream treats, both good and disgusting, but this was one of my top three milk shakes I’ve ever tried.  The butterfat of the ice cream mixing with the rich milk and sweet caramel created a cool ambrosia that washed over my palate with wave upon wave of dulcet notes that made me happy until there was none left.  I had no shame when taking it down in public like a sweet fiend.  It was a creative, classic all American meal for a fun date night.

Short hair, don't care

Short hair, don’t care

So if you’re looking for a restaurant with plenty of history, character, innovative dishes, and moderate prices, look no further than the blast from the past, R.J. Grunts.  Dy-no-mite!!

R.J. Grunts on Urbanspoon

Pigging Out In Hongdae

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Hello and bonjour everybody!  The summer is slowly but surely floating along as I’m struggling to cope with this unbearable heatwave that has struck Korea.  Energy-draining and lung-flattening humidity aside, I finally managed to make it out to a new restaurant in Hongdae in Seoul.  Now, I’ve been perusing a food blog or two trying to find newly opened places or niche cuisine eateries, but my friend’s birthday party turned me on to a pretty standard restaurant with some offbeat choices.  I’m talking about Beale St.  located at 363-28 Seokyo Dong Mapo Gu.  It’s right next to Burger B, the original establishment we were going to check out.

Their sign is like the sun.  If you look directly at it, you will go blind.

Their sign is like the sun. If you look directly at it, you will go blind.

When I saw the name of the restaurant, Beale St., I was brought back to one of my most enjoyable vacations to Memphis, Tennessee.  I went with my family to Memphis to see Elvis’ Graceland and of course, taste that delicious barbecue.  Beale St. is the main thoroughfare in downtown Memphis.  Check out my other post that I wrote about another burger joint in Memphis with absolutely mammoth, mouth-watering onion rings (Click Here For The Post).   Naturally, I saw that the walls in Beale St. were festooned with various types of American kitsch like old gas advertisements, instruments, and even a Graceland sign.IMG_0651  Anyway, to the food.  Looking over the menu, I saw that they were staying true to Memphis’ barbecue legacy with a laundry list of classics like a half/full rack of ribs (23,000 W/43,000 W, respectively), burnt ends (16,000 W), and their chicken “boobs” (10,000 W) that apparently are bbq chicken breasts (tee hee, you so funny, Beale St.). They have a great beer and liquor selection that would be rare to find in other restaurants in Korea.  They also have the menu from Burger B next door, so you can order a burger like almost everyone else in my party group did.  I heard they were pretty good based off their reactions, but I went for two off-beat choices from Beale St.:  chicharron popcorn (4,000 W) and boudin (pronounced “boo-dahn”) ball (5,000 W).  They were both washed down with a heavenly vanilla-caramel milkshake (7,000 W).

First, there was the chicharron popcorn.  Most people know what popcorn is, but I’m pretty sure no one at my table knew what the slightly bizarre items were on top of the popcorn.  Growing up in the Chicago area where we have the 4th highest population of Mexicans in the USA, I was exposed at an early age to the different foods of that culture like chicharrones.  While the chicharrones may look like some sort of puffy rice cake, they are actually pieces of pork skin that are seasoned and deep fried in order to make a tough, inedible piece of the pig edible.  So when they came out, it was a basket of popcorn loaded to the top with chicharrones.

Porky popcorn pleasure

Porky popcorn pleasure

Normally when eating chicharrones, you’d like to put some hot chili sauce on them to give them a bit of a flaming zing, but Beale St. thought of that for me.  They managed to put a semi-sweet glaze over each curled piece, and then doused them with a perfect amount of dry chili rub.  The popcorn was prepared in the same fashion that really was a change of pace from your typical butter laden bucket you’d find at your local movie theatre or at home.  As for my other mini-entree, I was intrigued to see how they interpreted the Cajun boudin balls.  For those who don’t really know that much or anything about Cajun cooking, let me explain.  The Cajun culture arose from French-speaking Acadians who immigrated from Canada to what is modern day Louisiana in the USA back in the 1700s during French and British hostilities in the Seven Years War.  The Acadians created their own ethnic and cultural enclave that has left an indelible mark on Louisiana especially on the music scene with zydeco, their own variety of French still spoken today, and especially the food realm with their rustic French inspired dishes.  This leads me to what boudin is.  It’s a pork sausage that can be made with blood (boudin rouge) or without (boudin blanc) and stuffed with ground pork, Cajun spices, and dirty rice (Cajun rice cooked with pieces of liver and gizzards).  The balls, however, were made by rolling this filling into small spheres and deep frying them.  Given this explanation, I was a bit confused that they had Cajun food like gumbo, jambalaya, and boudin in a restaurant focused on cuisine from Tennessee.  Maybe they mixed up Memphis’ Beale St. with New Orleans’ Bourbon St..  Either way, I was satisfied even though the balls really could have been bigger for the price.IMG_0655  The bread crumb shell was a beautiful golden brown while the inside was a bit too mildly seasoned for proper Cajun cuisine, but they tried to make up for it by using a spicy Korean gochujang-based sauce that was drizzled over these tasty nuggets.  The overall quality of the rice and pork melange was superb though.  I assumed the Korean owners would get right these parts of the boudin right since they’re two staples of the Korean diet. IMG_0656 On the side, there was a lovely clover salad that was gingerly dressed in a sweet vinaigrette that provided a light balance to the dense, meaty richness of the boudin.  Finally, there was the milkshake…lord, the milkshake. IMG_0652 It was simple in presentation, but flavor-wise it was quite elaborate.  Whilst the buttercream element of the vanilla started off each sip, there would be a lightning bolt of sugary caramel that would flash across my palate and hit my pleasure zone every time. I would recommend this twist on an ice cream shop classic to anyone.

Overall, Beale St. has a slight identity crisis with the items on their menu, and they are a bit on the expensive side.  Regardless of the price, if you want well made burgers, barbecue, and Cajun cuisine, you will not be disappointed.  To quote the immortal Cookin’ Cajun, Justin Wilson, “I guarantee!“.

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