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My Neighbor Tokoro

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Hello…helllooo..helloooooo….Is anyone still left out there that reads this blog?  It seriously has been way too long since I have posted any new content on Mastication Monologues, but such is the life of someone working on a 2nd Bachelor’s degree.  Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel is near, and I am looking forward to some mental rest and relaxation.  Thankfully, I won’t slack too much though because I have plenty of great reviews and food adventures to bring to you.  Today’s review involves Tokoro Sushi in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

My fiancee, then girlfriend, suggested we try the new eatery when it opened last year, and we have been back since.  However, our first visit wasn’t the most enjoyable compared to the second time.  There is mainly street parking and there are plenty of public transportation options for those of you rocking Ventra cards on the bus or L.  The interior of Tokoro looks like any other sushi restaurant complete with bamboo prints and assorted Japanese tchotchkes.  Fitting given the name of the restaurant in Japanese literally means “place”, i.e. this could be the interior of any of the other million, lower/middle rung Chicago sushi restaurants.  They have a BYOB policy and a free corkage service which helps if you care for a glass of chardonnay to go with your unagi.  Upon sitting down, we looked over their extensive sushi menu and saw most of the the typical Japanese restaurant offerings from lunch specials, soups, gyoza dumplings, sushi rolls, sashimi, and even hibachi offerings for diners searching for something a bit more substantial.  Janice and I preferred to try the figurative treasure chest of sushi that lay before  us in the menu, so we got the “all you can eat” sushi option for 20 bucks.  Some people always wonder or straight up deny that the all you can eat option is a waste of money, but when you think about it, there is some method to the madness.  Based on current trends of fishing, human consumption, and sushi demand from around the world, the price of fish, especially the fatty toro tuna, is only going to sky rocket.   Therefore, placing a cap on your wallet but not on your stomach makes perfect sense to me especially if you were as hungry as we were.  Then again, who knows if most sushi restaurants actually use the fish advertised on the menu.  The results are often times surprising.  Either way, that didn’t stop us from enjoying some good, not great sushi.  Thankfully, we got a complimentary bowl of miso soup which I think should come free with each meal in Japanese restaurants because it is such a simple but satisfying soup to make.  IMG_6101This traditional Japanese soup consists of a kelp/fish based broth and a soy based paste called, you guessed it, miso.  I have never seen it anywhere, but there are also red and mixed color miso pastes used in miso soup.  However, I greatly enjoy the white miso which is typically used in American Japanese restaurants because it is salty, savory, and has a taste that envelopes your entire body with a warmth that is enhanced with the soft cubes of tofu and slightly crunchy scallion strands.  Definitely great for the cold Chicago winters.  Once we drained our bowls, it was time to dive into our sushi.  Side note:  the service was absolutely terrible the first time around in terms of waiting for food, but thankfully they have improved their turnaround time from ordering to bringing out your order.  Our first platter consisted of the crazy tuna roll, spicy tuna roll, and mountain roll.IMG_6102

The crazy tuna roll, the one closest to the wasabi in the picture above, consisted of the rice rolled around a tuna and pepper mix and topped with slices of tuna and a sriracha chili sauce. IMG_6103 I didn’t find it to be too spicy, but it went down just fine.  The mountain roll was next which left the biggest impression on me for this round. IMG_6104 The inside was a cool cucumber and creamy avocado duo, but the real fire came from the spicy crab and spicy mayo on top that was festooned with a sprinkling of crunchy tempura crumbs.  I liked it the most out of the three selections due to the contrast between the relatively understated interior and the more eye-catching exterior.  Kind of a case of sushi superficiality, but this is a roll whose cover really makes the book a must read.  The same could not be said about the spicy tuna roll which was like the crazy tuna roll minus the “crazy” part. IMG_6105 I’m a big spicy food eater, and I didn’t think it lived up to its fiery moniker.  So it was not a big draw for me.  It was just a transition to the next sushi round we ordered.  We amped it up with a volcano roll, a kiss on fire roll, another mountain roll, and got some actual sushi on the side with a tomago, shrimp, and a piece of yellowtail.IMG_6106  I’ve already spoken about the mountain roll, but the volcano roll and kiss on fire roll were bolder than the first round participants.  The kiss on fire roll (between the raw fish and fried roll) did actually bring some spice since below the tuna there was a raw jalapeno pepper resting in wait for our unsuspecting taste buds.  I always like being kept off kilter sometimes during my dining experience, and I would recommend this roll for those who do like a bit of spice with their rolls.  Then there was the volcano roll.  Frying actual sushi is a crime against humanity, yet with rolls it kind of works.  The light, rice flour based batter goes well with the delicately constructed rolls, especially one that was bulging with spicy tuna, crab, avocado, cream cheese, and eel sauce and spicy mayo streaks across the sliced roll.  I think this was more of a luxury roll than a spice-centric entree due to the amount of ingredients that went into it.  I’d still recommend it though if you’re looking for a bit more heft to your typical sushi roll.  I did not have the tomago (egg) sushi, the shrimp, or the yellowfin, but Janice said they were all competently made but not mind-blowingly fresh/delicious.IMG_6107

So, if you’re looking for a solid, middle of the road sushi restaurant on the far northside of Chicago, roll on over to Sushi Tokoro!

Sushi Tokoro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

To Live and Pie in Wicker Park

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Welcome one and all to another great blog post from Mastication Monologues!  Things have been picking up as of late since it’s the holiday season.  In between studying and braving the Walking Dead-esque crowds at the mall, I managed to squeeze in a trip to a Chicago bakery that was truly memorable in terms of its concept and approach to classic desserts.  If you’re a sweets lover, strap yourself in for a wild ride!  If not, prepare to be amazed!

The adventure all started back when I received an email from A Baker’s Tale saying that they were huge fans of my blog at the bakery, and they wanted to invite me to an exclusive event for local bloggers.  Naturally, I said yes, and informed Janice that we had some serious business to take care of.  Baked goods business.  I looked it up, and I saw it was located in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area which has been recently gentrified.  What this means is that you can’t walk more than five feet without running into an ironic mustache or fixie bike.  However, the exterior of A Baker’s Tale exuded neither a hint of pretentiousness nor any sort of kitchyness. IMG_7877 Walking in, we were immediately greeted by the employees and eventually the owner, Christine, who’s in the middle of the pic below. IMG_7923 I didn’t know where to look first in this coffee shop+bakery+fun house.  Once more bloggers and vloggers and what have you arrived, Christine explained that she loves literature and baking which in turn translated to the Alice in Wonderland and other literature inspired establishment that surrounded us.  Since I am also a fellow librophile, I couldn’t get enough of the homages to many classic works.IMG_7882 IMG_7884From the classic book prints,IMG_7917 the talking doorknob statue,IMG_7921 whimsical cakes,IMG_7889IMG_7887 IMG_7886IMG_7890 hedgemazed trip to the bathroom,IMG_7929 and the breathtaking tree overshadowing our tasting tables with leaves made of pages from Alice in Wonderland, IMG_7888IMG_7933there was no detail left on the sideline as we quickly made our way over to the tasting table. IMG_7878 I was late, so late, for a very important date…with some bakery!  IMG_7926IMG_7918IMG_7880Surprisingly, there was no door mouse, march hare, or Mad Hatter when we sat down.  As more bloggers began to stream in and take their seats around the table, I was half driven to yell, “Change places!” to get in the spirit of Mr. Carrol’s work, but I decided to focus more on the diverse spread of pastries in front of us like a very late high tea.  IMG_7879We started with a plate of a mini cherry pie, a passion fruit raspberry cheesecake, and a s’more bar.IMG_7924  While none of them made me shrink or grown into a giant like Alice when speaking with the doorknob, they were big on flavor.  First, there was the mini cherry pie that was a version of their normal sized pie.  It was topped with hearts as an homage to the Queen, but I felt like a king with this royally decadent dessert.  The crust was buttery and mixed with the sweet and tart filling to perfection.  I then had the passion fruit raspberry cheesecake.  It was filled with a burst of tropical flavor that was like a mix between an orange, mango, and lime that kind of gave the whipped cheesecake a slight key lime pie vibe on the aftertaste. However, if you’re not into tart flavors, it might be a bit overwhelming for you like it was for my gf, Janice.  As good as these first two desserts were, they were beneath the third option:  the s’mores bar.  These desserts date as far back as the 1930s from a Girl Scout campfire cooking manual, or so the legend goes.  However, A Baker’s Tale version of it presented it in the least messy way possible.  One of my personal pet-peeves with traditional s’mores is how the crunchy graham crackers explode with every bite and can’t keep the blazing hot marshmallow inside to save its own inanimate life.  I quickly learned upon the first bite that these bakers really can work magic.

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 3: Devour

Step 3: Devour

The graham cracker base was soft yet substantial and topped with a house-made marshmallow fluff that sported a rich, chocolate accent that tied it all together to perfection.  Plate two wasn’t as over the top in terms of bombastic flavors, but it was a solid entry to the tasting event.  IMG_7907The chocolate chunk and peanut butter cookies (both also were available in gluten free versions at the tasting as well) were good but not great probably because they weren’t the most decadent options.  Case in point, they were overshadowed by the toffee chocolate cheesecake that was presented in a Reese’s peanut butter cup form.  From the Oreo cookie crumb crust to the creamy filling that had ample pieces of chocolate coated toffee and a thin layer of gooey caramel on top, this dessert checked all the boxes for me.  Moving from there, the next plate was the belle of the dessert ball.  It consisted of three, vibrant, expertly-crafted macarons sporting three very different flavors:  pistachio (green), raspberry (red), and elderberry (blue). IMG_7932According to the almighty Wikipedia/internet, macarons originated in Venetian monasteries in the 9th Century A.D. but were brought to France when Catherine Medici, an Italian noblewoman, married King Henry II of France.   Their popularity began to rise during the French Revolution when two nuns in the city of Nancy made the cookies to pay for their rent; however, the original version of these desserts were basically a cookie.  The modern version of the macaron with two cookies and a filled center came about in the 1830s in Paris where it was known as the Gerbet, named after the supposed inventor, or the macaron parisien.  They were then brought over the USA and sometimes confused with the coconut-based macaroon.  Actually, the word “macaroon” is just the English translation for the French “macaron“.  Whatever it’s called, these little morsels went down too easily.  My personal favorite was the pistachio because it was sweet but not too sweet whereas the elderberry one was a bit too saccharine for my palate (surprising, I know).  The outer cookies had that thin, crisp shell that gave way to feathery interiors that led to the thin but incredibly rich layer of flavored cream. IMG_7916 Ils sont tres delicieux!  Finally, there was the somewhat sweet and savory plate.  Whereas the other plates contained straight up desserts, the scone platter mixed it up in terms of flavors and textures.  Scones have an interesting history to say the least.  Their name has many different origins including the Middle Dutch schoonbrood or “pure bread”, the Scots Gaelic’s sgonn or “large mouthful”, or perhaps after the Scottish town of Scone.  They were not as cutesy at they look today because before baking powder, a scone was a large, flat, unleavened oat cake made on a griddle.  Thankfully, A Baker’s Tale did not harken back to the scone’s roots.IMG_7931 The two on display were the vanilla scone and the jalapeno white cheddar scone.  I thought I would prefer the former over the latter, but in reality, it was the opposite.  Yes, both were denser and somewhere between moist and arid that scones should be compared to the aforementioned cookies and cakes, but somehow the savory option won me over.  I personally think it was because it was such a sharp contrast to the mountains of sweet stuff I hoovered up over the course of the tasting, but I was partial to the clear pepper notes that came out in every bite that resulted in me showering the floor with crumbs.  Don’t hate me because I’m so debonair.IMG_7908  I highly recommend the jalapeno scones if you don’t have much of an affinity for all things sugary sweet.

As the night went on and my sugar levels reached their optimum level of satisfaction, we called it quits.  We departed A Baker’s Tale with a warm farewell from the owners and thoughts of the wonderful experience we had the priviledge of enjoying.  I highly recommend a visit to this very welcoming bakery that boasts desserts that are as satisfying as a finishing a great read where all of the ends are tied up and the villains receive their just desserts.  Lucky them!IMG_7937
A Baker's Tale Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ann Extraordinary Brunch

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Hello and happy Fall to all (or Autumn for the international crowd)!  It has been way too long since my last post, about a month to be exact, and I’m planning on changing that fact right now.  If you’ve been wondering why the silence on the foodie front, it’s due to my path to speech pathology grad school.  However, that hasn’t extinguished my passion for tasty morsels and bring all the best recommendations to you, the readers.  Today’s post focuses on the Chicago diner cornerstone Ann Sather.

I’ve heard every opinion of these diners ranging from sheer ecstasy when talking about their famous cinnamon rolls to ambivalence to the opposite end of the spectrum with upturned noses looking for greener brunch pastures.  Instead of turning my interest away from this supposedly inferior diner to other, more modern establishments, it only intensified my curiosity when Janice, Michael, and I visited the Broadway cafe location, but there are other locations on the northside Chicago with one on Belmont and another on Granville.  Now, with a name for a restaurant like Ann Sather, you can safely bet that there is a story.  According to their website, Ann Sather was a real woman who bought the original restaurant over 70 years ago on Belmont from the previous Swedish owners of the property.  She was a stickler for quality, simple food made from scratch with a mix of American breakfast staples, Swedish classics, and a bit of Ann’s ingenuity. Ann eventually passed the baton in the mid 1990s to a southsider named Tom Tunney who actually is a Chicago alderman as well.  Even with the changing faces in charge, their decades of quality food and service shone through during our visit.   IMG_5754The Ann Sather cafe had plenty of personality on the inside with lots of Swedish inspired artwork which brightened up a rather gray and drizzly day.  I don’t know if it was my sweet tooth on a rampage or the warm orange/yellow motif, but I knew I needed to get some of their famous, daily handmade cinnamon rolls into my belly.IMG_5752  When they came out, they looked like the best $3.50 I spent.  When I sunk my teeth into one of these rolls, I was transported to culinary Valhalla on a boat of soft, cinnamon spiced dough covered in a rich, sugary sauce with a vanilla hint.IMG_5747  I wish I could have had an entire pan of them, but I knew I had to slow my roll (see what I did there) because I needed room for my actual breakfast entree.  Perusing the menu, I didn’t know where to begin.IMG_5746  Their wraps and omelets looked way to good to just pick one, but I couldn’t jump off that sugar train after taking down those cinnamon rolls like a great white shark to a seal.  Sadly, I don’t have a week on the Discovery Channel or the Food Channel devoted to me yet, so I got to keep practicing with more great eats like what I ordered next.  I finally settled on the daily special which was their cinnamon roll French toast ($7.50).  It was an interesting transformation of the dulcet treats I just devoured.  Instead of being doused with the sticky, soupy icing, a sprinkling of powdered sugar covered the plate and rolls like the semi-flurries that were fluttering past our window outside. IMG_5748 The fine white covering was punctuated with bright raspberries and blueberries and a tan layer of granola that blended into the rolls’ surface.  However, I didn’t know that the magic of the dish lie in wait for me because when I cut open the meal for my first bite,

Presto...

Presto…

I was greeted with a cream cheese filling.

change-o!

change-o!

It wrapped the plate together to perfection.  The French toast transformation of the cinnamon rolls replaced an overwhelming pool of pure sugar with more subtle, nuanced elements that complimented each other to make a Swedish-American original.  The berries, treading the fine line between sweet and tart, provided a contrast to the powdered sugar and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, cream cheese filling.  I actually liked that the cream cheese centers were not too chunky or heavy but instead whipped to keep the rolls from turning into a culinary quagmire.  Plus, let’s not forget the granola, dude!  It was just enough to form a thin, rough coating to provide a satisfying and groovy crunch to the majority of the squishier ingredients, and the honey coating on each piece of the granola made me feel like these rolls and I were meant to bee.  I highly recommend this daily special if they have it available, and I have to note that my fellow diner’s choices were great as well.

In closing, I have to say that my visit to Ann Sather’s quashed all of the negative publicity with their food that is clearly made with plenty of care and quality ingredients along with a very affordable price tag in a brunch town where some prices are just plain criminal at times.  So, if you want to get a piece of Chicago’s breakfast history, roll on down to Ann Sather!
Ann Sather Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Isla Deliciosa

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Asia is one of the most interesting continents when it comes to cuisine.  You might be asking yourself, “Uh, what’s so special about sushi, korean barbecue, and orange chicken?”  Well, hate to break it to you that there is much more to Asian cuisine than that given the sheer size of the continent and number of different cultures that inhabit its regions spanning from Turkey to Japan.  This geographic spread contributes to the variety found in this corner of the world, but some country’s cuisines are more popular than others in the US.  For example, the food items I previously mentioned are probably the first cuisines that come to peoples’ minds when you say “Asian food”, i.e.  Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food.  Vietnamese and Thai food are more recent entries to the public consciousness due to increased immigration from South/Southeast Asia, and they all have their own special place in the ever expanding American palate.  However, one country that doesn’t get the foodie hype that its other neighbors receive but really should  is Filipino food.  Janice and I got well acquainted with many island delights in Chicago at Lincoln Square’s Isla Pilipina Restaurant.

We’ve walked past this place all the time around dinnertime, and it has been packed without fail.  Naturally, when we went it was no different. IMG_6255 After waiting for a table to open in the funky fresh interior that was bumping an odd mix of rap and oldies out of the overhead speakers, we finally managed to take a seat amidst the madness of the waitstaff toward the back of the restaurant. IMG_6256 Looking over the menu, I could see the influences of a number of cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.  IMG_6258IMG_6257That last one might come as a surprise to some, but Spain unified the roughly 7,000 islands into the country of the Philippines back in the 1600s.  The name of the country even comes from the name of the king of Spain at the time, Felipe (Phillip) II.  During Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish and Filipino cultures intermingled through marriage and food which still can be seen today in the names of the dishes offered at Isla Pilipina like pata, adobo, and guisado.  It’s a byob restaurant as well if you’re interested in knocking a few back with your meal.  We started the meal with a plate of 20 lumpia Shanghai ($5/ $3 for 10).  The name of this dish comes from the Hokkien (Southern Chinese) word lunpia, and they are clearly carry-overs from the mainland.IMG_6261  They’re basically deep fried mini-egg rolls that according to the menu are filled with pork, egg, jicama, green onions, carrots, soy sauce, and love.  I could especially taste the love above all of the other ingredients.  Seriously though, I quickly learned that there’s a reason why they sell them in a plate of 10 or 20 rolls.  The fried dough that envelops all of the fresh and savory meat and veggies is the best part.  These golden brown, crunchy, and flaky nuggets of heaven are paired with a semi-watery sweet and sour sauce that has some chili flakes floating in it to add a little pep to these pipsqueak poppers.  I highly recommend starting off with them and get a 20 roll plate because they go down way too easily especially if you’re sharing with others.  As for our main courses, Janice got the pancit bihon ($8) with a side of the garlic rice ($6) that apparently everyone on Yelp was raving about.  Pancit, like lumpia, comes from the Hokkien language.  It is derived from “pian i sit” which means “convenient food”.    I could see why since it was basically pan fried rice noodles with sauteed chicken and mixed vegetables.  A simple meal to be whipped together at a moment’s notice if necessary.IMG_6263 I helped myself to a couple forkfuls, and personally, I found it to be quite bland.  The ingredients were fresh and all that good stuff, but it didn’t really taste like much.  Even with the addition of lemon juice from the lemon slices that were provided on the side, I couldn’t really get into the pancit since I was more focusing on the citric tang than the actual noodles.  The same could be said about the garlic rice.  I don’t understand why everyone thought it the be all end all of side dishes. IMG_6269 True, nothing smells better than cooked garlic, but it basically was plain Jasmine rice that was superficially pan fried with garlic.  In essence, it was like long grain white rice with some garlic salt on it.  It’s better when combined with other food if anything, but it’s not rave worthy or even worth your time, in my opinion.  My entree, the lechon kawali ($11), was the opposite of these blander dishes.  This deep fried pork belly is a remnant of both Chinese and Spanish cuisine, including the Spanish name, and it was anything but a shrinking violet in this garden of eatin’.  IMG_6267It was a giant piece of pork that spanned my dinner plate, and it was even pre-cut which was piece de resistance!  Each piece of the lechon was a layer cake of different pork elements.  While the upper portions consisted more of the crunchy, salty pork skin and firm white meat, the lower echelons of the belly was where the money was. IMG_6272 I hit the jackpot every time when I reached the thin layer of fat that gave way to the most succulent and flavorful part of the pig.IMG_6274  Mixing these pieces with the garlic rice was a tasty combo, but the Filipino gravy was a bit of a mystery to me.  While part of it tasted like a sweet steak sauce, it had this hint of musty funk that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  It didn’t ruin the meal at all though.  I was definitely more satisfied with my entree than Janice’s.  If you like bacon or any type of pork product, I highly recommend the lechon, and I’ve heard good things about their pata as well.  Even though it was a lot of food for a reasonable amount of money, I still wanted to try one of the most iconic Filipino desserts:  halo halo ($6).  Meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog, not me stuttering the name of a Beyonce song, this classic and wildly popular dessert has become quite famous outside of the Philippines thanks to Filipino migration to the USA to typical hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago.  Even Anthony Bourdain has succumbed to its wildly colorful grasp.  It’s a ridiculous melange of crushed ice, red bean paste, white beans, lychee jelly, coconut shavings, coconut milk, and it was all topped off with a scoop of taro root ice cream, a slice of flan, and a cherry.  Nothing too complicated.IMG_6276 Now, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that my relationship with red bean paste is one of revulsion almost on par with my dislike of pasta, so I naturally approached this dessert with a wariness similar to an unexploded ordinance, just ready to blow up in my mouth even though I’m a veteran of trying the gross red bean paste.  Yet, it also had one of my favorite Asian dessert ingredients as well:  taro.  This purple root vegetable may look like a sweet potato, but it is the bomb (a good one) when it comes to taste.  I normally get it in bubble tea, but the ice cream on top of the halo halo tasted just the same.  I don’t know what they do to this tuber, but it literally tastes like vanilla cookies.  It’s like making potatoes taste like chocolate bars.  Mind.  Blown.  Plus, the addition of the Spanish flan, that was quickly picked up by my girlfriend, was a nice touch.  After picking at the parts I knew I liked, I dove into it spoon first. IMG_6278 Luckily, all of the other sweet elements like the coconut and lychee covered up the red bean flavor, and it was like a super diverse slushy.  I ended up mixing the taro ice cream in with the rest of the ingredients, and it was like a purple vanilla milk shake with ice chunks and the occasional sweet jelly piece.  I would definitely go for another halo-halo, but I couldn’t finish it all because it was pretty big as well for the price.

So if you’re tired of the same old sushi or Korean barbecue and/or want a lot of food for little money, set sail for Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square!
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Cinfully Delicious

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A common phrase in English is “the breakfast of champions” which is often used to describe a specific foodstuff or collection of drink and food that will transform someone into a winner.  However, a tougher title to achieve is “champion of breakfasts”, especially in a big and competitive market like Chicago.  Now, I’ve had my fair share of flapjacks, scramblers, and skillets, and it’s really just the tip of the bacon-wrapped iceburg.  Not all diners are created equal though.  Kanela is one of those special franchises that has slowly, but surely, taken over the Chicago breakfast scene.

κανέλα” or Kanela means “cinnamon” in Greek, and this Greek American establishment of the same name is a temple to this once rare ingredient.  I love my spices and seasoning, but I think that cinnamon is my favorite.  Whether it’s in rolls, doughnuts, or French toast, I can’t get enough of the powdery and savory spice.  So, when I heard that we would be paying a visit to it for a morning meal, I was over the moon.  It had a modest exterior that belied its popularity as people were milling outside waiting for a table. IMG_4818 Thankfully, there is free parking nearby and on the street if you’re looking to take a large group to enjoy all of the great breakfast options we soon thereafter started sampling.  The place was absolutely poppin’ on a Sunday morning, go figure, but we got a table for two in no time. IMG_4817 We started the meal off with drinks.  Janice got a Bloody Mary that was extra spicy and made with Absolut Peppar vodka to give it that peppy kick to wake you up and/or chase the mad dog of a hangover from last night away.  IMG_4802As for me, I went the healthier route with the PB & J smoothie ($6) which consisted of peanut butter, blueberry, strawberry, and organic agave nectar which is a slightly healthier alternative to regular sugar but much better than artificial sweeteners.IMG_4805  Fun fact:  the agave is the same plant that tequila is derived from as well, but don’t expect any sort of alcoholic punch with this natural sugar substitute. Surprisingly, this large glass of cooling ambrosia isn’t as sweet as you would imagine. IMG_4803 It managed to capture the soul of the elementary lunch school staple with a splash of peanut butter mixing with the sweet fruits and syrup but in a much more understated manner.   Once we had our beverages in hand, we started the food fest by sharing an order of monkey bread ($4).  It came out and looked simply sinfully delicious.IMG_4808  I often wondered why people call it “monkey bread” since it doesn’t look like something a monkey would eat or shaped like some sort of simian.  After a bit of research, the origin of the sweet treat’s name is shrouded in mystery, but one theory postulates that its cracked and bumpy surface bears a certain resemblance to the bark of the monkey puzzle tree that grows in South America.  With one bite of this appetizer, we went ape.  Each piece we pulled apart from the bread was more flavorful than the one that preceded it.  The cinnamon dusted on top combined with the honey drizzled on top made it taste like a mixture between a dulce de leche roll I had in Costa Rica and a classic cinnamon roll.IMG_4807  Plus, it was slightly warm that pushed this dessert to the next level.  For our entrees, Janice got the duck confit hash ($12) while I ordered the spicy feta omelet ($11).  First, I have to mention that if you are any type of Greek restaurant or even just a restaurant owned by a Greek, you will get giant portions for your money.  Kanela holds to this axiom.  The duck confit hash looked mouth-wateringly good especially with the orange truffle vinaigrette that really piqued my interest and taste buds. IMG_4809IMG_4813 Thankfully the duck wasn’t too greasy either which can often be a pitfall when ordering the fowl for a meal.  As for my spicy feta omelet, I really loved the fresno pepper garnish that served as a flashpoint of the meal. IMG_4814 Its bright red skin immediately drew my attention at the newborn baby-sized omelet that was lying in front of me.  IMG_4815The ends weren’t that packed with any sort of filling, just fluffy eggs.  However, I soon got to the business end of things as I was greeted with a thick pocket of tyrokafteri cheese, red onion, and tomatoes. IMG_4816 My advice for anyone wanting to get this is that it’s not terribly spicy, and make sure that you love feta cheese because there’s half of Greece’s supply in just this one omelet.  So if you aren’t as big of a cheesehead as me, then consider yourself warned.  It’s not for the faint hearted.  The onions made a minimal impression on my palate, and the tomatoes were negligible.  The potatoes on the side were not too greasy or too dry, and they worked well when mixed with the omelets or just on their own.

By the end of meal, we were stuffed and satisfied with our trip to Kanela.  For the price, portion sizes, and overall quality of ingredients, Kanela can’t be touched.
Kanela Breakfast Club on Urbanspoon

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

The Saint Baby Back Rib Day Massacre

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Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.

W. C. Fields
Chicago is truly a world-class city with amazing attractions and a truly intriguing history.  Whether that be the foundation of the city by a black pioneer to the Great Fire to the legacy that is Ditka and Da Bulls/Michael Jordan, but nothing is more iconic than the era of Prohibition.  While New York may have been known as a rough and tumble city up until recently, Chicago has been filled with gangsters, murders, and crooked politicians from day one until now.  They don’t call it Chiraq (Chicago + Iraq) for nothing.Gun-Control-Chicago  While the small gang block squabbles today have been tearing apart communities on the West and South sides, Al Capone infamously instilled a wave of fear throughout the city utilizing mental and physical intimidation.  It speaks volumes about the man’s influence given that there are still tours highlighting his hangouts, Valentine’s Day Massacre site, and his numerous speakeasies.  One such former speakeasy still exists in Chicago in the form of Twin Anchors.  While the actual building dates back from 1881 and the restaurant from 1932, the food and brews served there are timeless.
The facade of the building is extremely inconspicuous, but surprisingly it was the favorite hangout for Frank Sinatra and even was used in the Dark Knight as a scene with Two Face (you can see the same anchors in the windows).

IMG_3514IMG_3515  While Janice and I didn’t expect to see Ol’ Blue Eyes or Harvey Dent meting out his unique form of justice during our visit, the bar was hopping just like during the “dry” era of Prohibition.IMG_3517  There was a twenty minute wait, but suddenly we got a table right at the entrance in the dining room after a two minute wait.IMG_3518 It didn’t look like the interior had changed since the 1940s or 1950s, and it really was a no-nonsense sort of place with their “Positively…no dancing!” sign above the entrance. IMG_3521 The modern touches were mainly all of the signs from modern tv programs that have interacted with this wonderful eatery including the fitting period series Boardwalk Empire.  While I wasn’t sure what to order since I had never been there, and I was feeling the effects of some day drinking, Janice helped me out.  We split a full rack of their famous ribs ($23 or $16.50 for half) and picked our complimentary sides:  onion rings for me and baked beans for Janice.  To drink, I got an Obsidian Stout.  If you’re not into ribs, they do have other forms of meat like steaks, shrimp, chicken or sandwiches or salads if you’re taking it easy on the old cholesterol.  Before the ribs arrived, we got a basket of crackers, small packages of sesame breadsticks, and big slices of black rye bread with butter on the side.  It was like being at one of the South side family restaurants but on the North side.  I half expected a free cup of soup to come along with the meal, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.  The rye bread was great though since it was fresh, hearty, and earthy with plenty of caraway seeds.  My beer came out first, and it wasn’t anything that grabbed my attention.IMG_3523  It was a solid, chocolate and coffee tinged porter that also had a hoppy bite that proved to be the ideal partner for the culinary experience I was about to undergo.

Civilized

Civilized

Eventually the ribs came out, and they didn’t look like anything new or special. IMG_3524 However, Janice informed me that they were slathered in their Prohibition sauce which was to die for.  I asked her if it was because like Prohibition it was spicy and illegal, and my prediction was correct.  Apparently, it is a smoky sauce infused with cracked black pepper, brown sugar, and a hint of the dastardly hot ghost pepper.  I have tangled with the ghost pepper before in a challenge and won, and it didn’t put a damper on this dinner either.  I have to say that these were, sauce-stained hands down, the best ribs I’ve ever eaten.  Not only was there plenty of meat on every rib, but it literally fell off the bone when I gently picked each piece up.  The sauce to meat ratio was ideal since each piece was at least 90 percent coated with a thin layer of the sweet, smoky, and spicy marinade.  I could swim in it though since it was that lip-smacking good.  Lord, there was a minimal amount of fat on these ribs, and my plate looked like the remnants a summer feast at Hannibal Lecter’s house.

Savage

Savage


 IMG_3529My face and hands looked the part by the time I was done as well.  Janice said she never saw someone eat ribs so fast as well.  The onion rings were scrumptious, but I was simply in awe still from the ribs.  I tried some of Janice’s baked beans too which had pieces of shredded pork in it.  IMG_3527It was a great twist on a classic bbq side.  I could only get one forkful in since I was ready to keel over.  To say I was merely satisfied with the meal, would have done the chef a disservice.

Long story short, if you enjoy history, bars with character, and/or food that is out of this world, sail off to Twin Anchors!

Twin Anchors on Urbanspoon

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