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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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Laissez Les Bons Boefs Roulez!

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Beef.  The quintessential meat.  Hearty and filling, it can be found throughout many different cuisines served in very different forms.  If you visit Chicago, you can sample some of the best steaks in the country.  We used to be the butcher for the world with the Union Stockyards, but they have gone the way of smoking on airplanes and pay phones.

So.  much.  beef.

So. much. beef.

 

The Union stockyard gate then...

The Union stockyard gate then…

and now

and now

Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great porterhouse or t-bone.  If you’re not in the mood to drop some major paper on some of that red stuff, there are cheaper alternatives.  Enter another Chicago institution:  the Italian beef sandwich.  While other US cities have sandwiches that could be considered distant cousins to this hearty and humble meal like Philly’s cheesesteak or Pittsburgh’s Tommy DiNic’s Italian pork sandwich, the Chicago version is the best, I think.  In fact, it is so popular here that there are many restaurants that claim to have the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Today’s restaurant review revolves around one of the biggest names in the beef biz:  Mr. Beef.

Two of the biggest names in the city are Al’s Beef located in the Little Italy neighborhood and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the River North neighborhood.  Their rivalry is so notorious that it was featured on Travel Channel’s Food Wars.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I disagree who the real winner is.  Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, an Italian beef sandwich is one of those “must”s for Chicago tourists to try.  It’s in the holy trinity of a Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and the holy beef sandwich.  It arose from the Italian immigrant community’s need to make the meat last longer, so they sliced it thin, stewed it with spices, and slapped the tender meat on a fresh roll.  Thus, the Italian beef sandwich was born.  While I was working at a Mexican university that was located right next to the restaurant, I knew I had to pop over to try it since I’ve walked past it a million times but never tried their sandwiches. IMG_4930IMG_4931 So, I finally fulfilled my vow, and walked in to see a shop that is similar to other Italian delis with lots of pictures on the wall and a deli counter at one end with no fancy decorations. IMG_4932 Scanning the menu, I saw the beef sandwich I wanted, but it was 7 bucks.  I couldn’t believe how expensive it was compared to their competitors, so I was expecting this sandwich to justify the price tag.  I got it spicy which means that I got giardiniera on top.  I think giardiniera is also a Chicago thing since it comes from the Italian community also and consists of a mix of pickled vegetables and chili peppers in olive oil.  However, you can get it mild with cooked bell peppers or with no peppers at all.  Then there’s the juice factor.  You can get it dry or juicy, i.e. dipped in the same herb tinged broth the beef soaks in.  I always get mine juicy since it adds more flavor to savor, but you can get it dry to enjoy the freshness of the bread and the delicious beef.  After the brusque cashier took down my order, they set to making my sandwich.  As I was looking at the menu I saw they had other typical fast food staples like burgers, hot dogs, and sides like fries and onion rings.  Eventually, I finally got my sandwich and was ready to see what all the hubbub was about.  I got a seat in the back room at one of the super long tables you share with your fellow diners.  Once I opened up my wrapped up treasure, it looked mouth-watering. IMG_4995 From the bright verdant giardiniera to the fresh bread, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into dat beef.  The first bite was quite satisfying with a good ratio of bread to meat, but it lacked that spicy flair that comes with other dipped Italian beef sammiches.  The beef was tender and flavorful, but the giardiniera left something to be desired.  While other Italian eateries have a generous blend of veggies, I wasn’t a fan of the mainly celery based mix atop my meal.  It wasn’t as fiery as other spicy sandwiches which made it lose points, but it was innovative in the sense that the giardiniera was extremely crunchy to provide a bit of different texture to the mainly chewy sandwich.

So in the end, would I say Mr. Beef is the be-all, end all of Italian beef in Chi-town?  I’d say no.  It lacks the ingredient complexity of their competitors, and the relatively expensive price tag took it down a couple notches in my book.  However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try this fixture on the Chicago food scene.  It’s just a different take on a hometown classic, so maybe it will be better for you than for me.  Happy hunting!
Mr. Beef on Urbanspoon

You’ll Love Olive This Food

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Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues!  This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world.  Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.IMG_5838

It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night.  IMG_5847 IMG_5846This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room.  IMG_5839Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. IMG_5843 However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. IMG_5840 IMG_5841 Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some.  When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu.  I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy.  It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries.  While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. IMG_5849 The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy.  The Italian option was good but not great.  The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar.  As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio.  After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp.  This was 10 bucks well spent.  We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. IMG_5854 The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft.  First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_5856 It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread.  Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella.  It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself.  Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. IMG_5861 This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression.  It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really.  Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. IMG_5860 This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam.  The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.IMG_5855  Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman).  Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing.  While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t.  It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese.  I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu.  First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates.  Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound.  Why is it so expensive?  The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal.  They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat.  It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling.  Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free.  He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was.  It was my number one crostino hooves down. IMG_5872 The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget.  Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu.  Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted.  Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. IMG_5865 I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature.  As for me, I got the fig and olive salad.  It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish.IMG_5862  It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around.  There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts.  The food train didn’t stop there.  We still had our entrees to take down.  Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English.  It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. IMG_5873 I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though.  The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side.  In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine.  Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France.  However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines.  Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees.  Tajine (in Arabic طاجين‎) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya.  It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel.  This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States.  As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.  At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors.  IMG_5875On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة‎), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones).  However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish.  By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire!  We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts.  The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren.   It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. IMG_5881 IMG_5882I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. IMG_5880 It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.IMG_5885

We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food.  Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

Burgerville: A Wonderful Place to Meat (Portland, Part 2)

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Yo! So this is part two of my Portland travel journal where I’m chronicling my food adventures throughout the City of Roses.  Day one started off with a delicious breakfast, and today I’ll be presenting my wonderful lunch at Burgerville, a regional burger chain that started in Washington state and moved further south to Oregon.  What sets this company apart is their unique organic menu choices, commitment to improving the local communities where their restaurants are located, and even allowing bikes in their drive-thru lanes.  Talk about being progressive!IMG_2567

However, when I walked in, it was actually furnished like many other burger chains like Steak and Shake with the throwback 1950s decor complete with the signature jukebox and shiny, colorful vinyl seats.IMG_2570  The menu seemed to focus mainly on a variety of burgers living up to their namesake, but they also had a wide selection of chicken sandwiches, salads, vegetarian options, and desserts.  Not only that, but they had seasonal items for sides and offered jars of their signature sauces to take home with you.  After looking through their menu, I decided to go off the beaten culinary path and try one of their vegetarian options:  the spicy Anasazi bean burger. The Anasazi part of the name comes from the Native American tribe that lived in the Four Corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), and the beans they once farmed are offered by this small scale bean hawker.  Frankly, I was merely won over by the fact that it had some sort of spicy element in the title.  Plus, I’m trying to watch what I eat, so I appreciated the option to purchase something that’s a bit more heart healthy.  Not only did I get the meatless option, but I got the seasonal side which was a basket of rosemary shoestring potatoes and a side of Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese dipping sauce, another local Oregonian product.  When it came out, I couldn’t believe that I could order a vegetarian burger in a mainly meat burger chain restaurant and have it look this appetizing. IMG_2568 I was especially blown away simply at how verdant and fresh the lettuce looked on the burger.  Upon the first bite, I was amazed at how savory the burger tasted.  Thankfully it didn’t taste like I was eating a big pile of beans but rather a pseudo-beef patty.  The pepper jack cheese gave the meal some extra zing, and the chipotle mayo kicked up another notch that would make Emeril blush.

BAAAAAMMMMM!

BAAAAAMMMMM!

As for the French fries, I didn’t care for the size of them since I prefer my fries to be a bit bigger like crinkle fries, steak fries, or waffle fries.  Then again, size may not matter rather the motion in the ocean.  Flavorwise, it was like the perfect storm.  They were fried to the apex of flavor along with a liberal coating of rosemary seasoning and garlic olive oil.  The seasoning was borderline too saline for my palate, but I was greatly satiated by the end of the meal.

If you’re ever in the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend you try out a Burgerville location for their fresh, organic dishes and general variety of menu items.  Burgerville, it’s a community that believes in food for thought.
Burgerville on Urbanspoon

A Nest Above the Rest

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What’s up, food lovers around the world?!  Another day, another post of delicious food.  Today I’ll be talking about Crow’s Nest which is a pizza joint located in the foreigner district of Seoul a.k.a. Itaewon.  It’s located at Yongsan-gu, Itaewon 1(il)-dong, 112-2, Seoul, and you first come out of Itaewon Station Exit #2. Turn at 1st left and turn at 1st right. It will be on your left side.  I had been invited out by my friend Stephanie to hear about all of my wonderful adventures in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Naturally, I didn’t say no to trying a new pizza place since it’s one of my favorite foods.

When we got there, it was located on a new fashionable street off the main drag, but it’s located on the second floor.  I had reinjured my knee that day, so the stairs were a bit brutal.  No entrances for the handicapped in Korea for the most part.  When we eventually got to the the door, we were greeted with a large dining room and an open kitchen that was bustling with activity.  It was kind of neat with how you could see some employees throwing the pizza dough to the perfect size or laying out all the ingredients on top for each handmade pizza.  It was an honest display of craftsmanship.IMG_0991  We proceeded to the patio outside that was thankfully sheltered from the rain we just missed.  We ended up going for the half and half pizza (24,000 for 14 in. or 30,000 for 20 in.).  Some blogs say that you can do any of the pizza options, but our waitress emphatically told us you could only chose the following:  Italian sausage, margherita, pepperoni, Hawaiian.  Steph wanted the Hawaiian pizza which I think is an abomination, so I went with the Italian sausage on my half which I also appreciated that it had a mild or spicy option.  We got the 14 inch pizza which was more than enough when it came out to our table. IMG_0990 They also provided us with Parmesan cheese and spicy olive oil when we asked for it.  I didn’t try the Hawaiian side of the pizza, but mine was great especially with the powdered cheese and oil.  The crust was somewhat between the paper thin New York slice and the heartier Chicago “thin” crust pizza, but it was crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  As for the ingredients on top, thankfully the sauce wasn’t Koreanized with the odd sweet tang, and the cheese was plentiful.  The spicy Italian sausage wasn’t quite as spicy as back home in Chicago, but it partnered the oregano and onions perfectly with its ever so wonderful greasy goodness.  We polished off the pie eventually but didn’t feel stuffed which is a testament to the light crust that didn’t crumble under the pressure of being faced with two hungry diners.

So if you want to check out a legit pizza parlor in Seoul and don’t feel like going to Monster Pizza in Hongdae, check out Crow’s Nest in Itaewon.

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