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The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues.  Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.

IMG_4175It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer.  IMG_4178Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds).  I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. IMG_4164 It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer.  It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night:  the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). IMG_4167 If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel.  This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter:  Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt.  The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so.  It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta.  With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market.   I still would recommend this appetizer though.  Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50).  The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. IMG_4166 The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika.  It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread.  IMG_4168This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards.  Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. IMG_4169 It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese.  It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere.  Our main dishes finally came.  I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50).  The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side.IMG_4170  The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn.  Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. IMG_4174 As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. IMG_4172 IMG_4171Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end.  IMG_4173The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok.  However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor.  Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75).  IMG_4176It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions.  The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper.  I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second.  The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.  It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.

So if you are in the Evanston area and looking for a fusion restaurant that I could liken to a more affordable Girl and the Goat, check out The Cellar!
The Cellar Beer and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Death Metal Delight

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Art can be manifested in various mediums.  While paintings and sculptures can be found all over the world from the beginning of humanity, music has a special place in the collective soul of mankind.  It can reflect a gamut of emotions, cultures, and innovations in technology (or hatred of said technology).  An eatery in Chicago called Kuma’s Corner  (Kuma means “bear” in Japanese) manages to fuse metal music culture with a menu focused exclusively on creatively named and constructed burgers.  What could be better than that?

Now, I’m not a huge fan of death metal or really heavy rock music outside of listening to it on my workout mix, so I was curious to see why so many people kept on raving about their burgers even though they seemed like the last people to be headbanging or howling along with the gutteral lead singers.  The exterior looked pleasant enough, but as soon as I walked in, I was greeted with a wall of people and fierce chords being pumped out of the speakers overhead.IMG_3730  I was surprised though since I heard from friends that the music was turned up to 11, but I didn’t find that to be the case.IMG_3718IMG_3719  Since I was dining alone, I was immediately seated at the bar, but I’d recommend bracing yourself for a wait if you’re going there around lunchtime.  The bartender along with every other employee there was friendly and covered in tattoos.  Not only did the artwork decorate my server’s arms, but I even found her probable inspiration all over the bathroom walls as every square inch was covered with tattoo samples.IMG_3728IMG_3729  After sitting down and pouring over the burger options, I noticed that they had very creative names paying tribute to different rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Megadeath, Slayer, and Plague Bringer to name a few.  Not only were the names intimidating, so were the options since they all looked so delicious.  After bringing it down to two choices in my head, the Plague Bringer and the Goatsnake, I asked my bartender which she’d recommend out of all of them.  Surprisingly, she said those two were her favorite.  She then gave me time to think about it, and even said she’d surprise me if I couldn’t make up my mind.  After some deliberation, I told her I’d take the Goatsnake ($10) along with a complimentary side of handcut fries, but I could have also picked chips or a salad instead of the fries.  If you’re not feeling like a burger, they do have appetizers, salads, and sandwiches.  After waiting for some time and slobbering on myself while checking out other peoples’ burgers, my burger was placed in front of me.  I didn’t know where to start. IMG_3721 It was overflowing my plate, and the guy next to me even asked me what I got since it looked so much more intense compared to his burger.  Jackpot!  This creation named after the doom metal group from California caught my eye because of its creative ingredients.IMG_3722  While there was a pile of fried red onion strings on top, I’ve had that on other burgers I’ve destroyed at other restaurants.  The holy trinity of ingredients that piqued my interest was the herbed goat cheese, poblano and corn relish, and Cholula lemon vinaigrette.  I could see the first two elements, and the third one could only be experienced.  I put my top bun on and was ready to rock my socks off. IMG_3724 Wow!  From the first bite, I knew I was dealing with a unique burger.    The patty was hearty and juicy but was borderline greasy.  It didn’t take away from the bold flavors that were more radical than a face-melting guitar solo.  The goat cheese was plentiful and provided a strong flavor background for the rest of the star ingredients like Lars Ulrich’s drumming for Metallica.  As for the corn and poblano pepper relish, it supplied a counterbalance of texture and a hint of spice that I enjoyed.  Finally, there was the most outrageous yet memorable part of the burger which was the Cholula lemon vinaigrette.  With every bite, my palate was awash with a spicy citrus punch that went especially well with the goat cheese that almost made it seem like they did an homage to Chicago’s saganaki legacy unintentionally.  Once I demolished my main dish, I turned my attention to the fries.  They were on the less crispy side which I perfer and weren’t too salty.  I wasn’t sure, but I believe the ketchup had a bit of spice in it.  Either way, these fries couldn’t measure up to the burger magnum opus I experienced moments before.  The bartender finally saw the feeding frenzy was over, and offered me a round of applause with how thoroughly I cleaned my plate.  I applaud you too, Kuma’s Corner, for your passion for creating insanely delicious burgers.

So if you’re tired of the same old burger joints that use the same old ingredients in the same old bar and grill environment, bear crawl on over to Kuma’s Corner and party on!

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon

Solid Like a Rock

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What says summer more than a barbecue?  Burgers, beers, and brats abound as Americans across the country congregate in their backyards around a sizzling grill as our ancestors have done since the beginning of time.  While we’ve gone beyond grunting at each other and digging into fresh hunks of mastodon, the love for grilled meats is still going on strong as I found out at Rocks in Lincoln Park.IMG_3503

The previous night we had spent a good time enjoying some bodacious burgers and brews at George Street Pub, so we ended up at Rock’s since they had some delicious brunch options.  It didn’t strike me as anything novel in terms of decor or concept upon walking into the establishment though.  A high end pub with wood and stone accents that focuses on beer and whiskey…yawn.IMG_3495 Since it was already noon, I was in the mood for something a bit more on the lunch end of things.  They had a fair bit of appetizers, sweet plates, sandwiches, and burgers (including a four pound burger challenge).  Plus, they had a litany of beers along with plenty of whiskeys; hence the name, Rocks, as in the ice cubes.  Continuing in the trend of the weekend, I looked over the burgers and tried to find something new and interesting.  Enter El Gordo or “The Fat” ($10).  I could then choose a side from a mini list of intriguing options, but I went with the Greek fries.

When the burger came out, I was taken aback with how it was presented with all of its toppings bared to the world like a sorority girl at Mardi Gras.IMG_3499  I could see the half pound beef patty topped with pepper jack, cheddar, and provolone, three strips of bacon, pieces of onion rings, deep fried pickles, and a coating of spicy 1,000 island dressing.  I was having the meat sweats just looking at this mountain of a meal, but I put the pretzel top bun on and got ready to rock.IMG_3501  The first bite was quite intense as I cut through the gooey layer of cheese, juicy meat, crispy bacon, and sour layers of fried vegetables.  I personally thought they were gilding the rose though with this burger. IMG_3502 While I’d recommend it to anyone, it seemed like a bit too much was going on in regard to the flavor profile.  The pickles overwhelmed a lot of the flavors including the supposedly spicy 1000 island sauce.  Thankfully, the pretzel bun managed to keep all of the contents between my fingers, and I’ve found the pretzel bun to be the sturdiest variety of bread utilized in burger construction.  Good old fashioned German food engineering at work. What I was more entertained with were the Greek fries.IMG_3498  While they were similar to some taters I’ve tasted in Oregon, they were a Hellenic treat complete with actual chunks of seasoned Feta cheese.  I’m loco about my queso, and these fries fit the bill.  The creamy and crumbly pieces of goat cheese were pungent and transported the oregano coated potatoes to a cut above the rest.

So if you’re looking for another bar that serves ridiculous burgers alongside brunch items with a touch of class, roll on over to Rocks!

fRocks Lincoln Park on Urbanspoon

Something Old, Something New, Something Fried, Something Brewed

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Ah what a summer this is turning out to be.  The weather is warming up, and the festival season is in full swing.  Not only that, but the World Cup has lit up Chicago like I’ve never seen before as futbol fever is sweeping over the city.  I’ve got a fever myself for not only the beautiful game but wonderful food.  Sorry, no cowbell here.  Today’s post on Mastication Monologues takes us to George Street Pub in Lakeview.

The exterior of the bar was quite average looking as it blended into the genteel surroundings common to the northside.  Upon stepping into the establishment, it was designed like any other sports bar sans memorabilia on the wall:  exposed brick, plenty of tvs showing World Cup matches and baseball games, leather booths, and dark wood furniture.  There is indoor and outdoor seating, and we opted for the latter option.  That proved to be our downfall as the temperature dropped it like it was hot as a chilly wind descended upon us on the exposed patio.  They had a few heat lamps but way too few to warm up such a large space.  Unless, it’s perfect weather out there, I’d recommend sitting inside.  Upon sitting down, we ordered some drinks, and I picked a Midas Touch Golden Elixir beer ($6).IMG_3484  I picked it since it was described as “spiced” on the menu which naturally piqued my interest as it was nestled among the porters, IPAs, and lagers.  After doing a bit of research, this “beer” is somewhat between wine and mead as it is derived from residue  found in clay vessels from 8th Century B.C. in the tomb of the legendary King Midas.  At the time I didn’t know this, but now I know that I sampled the beer of the king who turned everything he touched into gold made me feel like I was getting a bargain.  Once it came out, I was greatly intrigued to see what I actually looked like, and it was imbued with a rich, golden hue.

A drink fit for a king

A drink fit for a king

It wasn’t carbonated, and the taste was unlike anything I’ve ever had.  It had a sweet aroma due to the honey and a slightly herbal scent compliments of the extravagant saffron.  The beer was light and clean with dulcet tones of the muscat grapes that were tempered with the spices.  I’d highly recommend it, and the bartender there said it was his favorite beer out of the hundreds on the beer menu.  I now know why the Midas Touch was a hidden gem.  Since Janice and I were a pair of Hungry Hungry Hippos, we decided to get some of the chicken wings ($7) while waiting for her friends to finally arrive.  Diners have the option of mild, medium, or hot wings along with ranch and blue cheese for dipping.  We got mild ones with extra hot sauce and blue cheese on the side.  The different levels of spice depends only on how much of the sauce they put on the chicken pieces.  They came out, and they looked a bit underwhelming. IMG_3487 While we got plenty for the price, they were on the smaller end with semi-adequate amounts of meat on the bone.  I really liked the buffalo-style sauce on the skin that had a real hot punch that jived with the reinvented blue cheese sauce that had oregano and garlic in it.  Eventually, her friends arrived, and they picked the pesto bruschetta ($6.95).  When it came out, it would have made nonna say “Mama mia!”.  It was a much more simplified yet modified version on this Italian antipasto.  While the crispy bread was surprisingly warm and semi-soft, it was rubbed with a little bit of garlic and pesto.IMG_3489  The toppings were a departure from the typical minced tomato and basil mix, and instead it was like a caprese salad fusion complete with a slice of buffalo mozzarella and tomato.  It was a refreshing remix covered with a hefty helping of creamy and rich pesto.  I’d recommend this appetizer over the chicken wings.  When it came time to order, I got the George Street Pub burger ($10) along with a Smuttynose Robust Porter.  They both came out at the same time, and both complimented each other perfectly.  The Smuttynose doesn’t get it’s name from that creepy guy snooping around the dirty magazine section in the supermarket but rather the name of an island off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. IMG_3490 It was a smooth pour and taste with hints of chocolate and coffee that brought big flavors to match the gargantuan burger in front of me.

Excalibur got a new home

Excalibur got a new home

The George Street Pub burger was a half pound patty sandwiched between two pretzel bun halves and topped with a thick slab of smoked cheddar.IMG_3492IMG_3493  When I bit into the sandwich of kings, I was greeted with a patty bursting with flavor and bacon bits, caramelized onion, and chorizo within the bulging beef cocoon. IMG_3494 It was a ton of meat spiced up with the mish-mash of chorizo and the pungent onions.  By the time I finished the burger, I thought I wouldn’t be able to pass one waffle fry past my lips, but I was wrong.  These bad boys were delicious, but unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy all of them due to my struggling stomach.

Overall, George Street Pub is like many gastropubs that can be found around the Chicagoland area, but I’d recommend it if you’re just looking for a relaxed place to catch a game or stuff yourself silly with good food and great beers.

George Street Pub on Urbanspoon

Baby Got Burger

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Chicago is a tapestry of many different people from various walks of life and nationalities.  However, this doesn’t mean that everyone lives in perfect harmony.  The city is broken down into small neighborhoods that could be defined through race and/or socio-economic class.  All of this manifests itself in the form of being the most racially segregated city in the USA.  Thus, if someone tells you if they’re from one of the “sides” of the city, you can almost always determine what race and/or tax bracket they fall into.  Disclaimer:  the following are stereotypes associated with residents of different parts of the city, but some aspects are rooted in truth.  Northside residents are normally more educated, affluent, and white (of Central or Northern European descent).  Westsiders and Southsiders are a bit more variable in their education and economic class, but one can find more black, Latino, Southern and Eastern European enclaves in these parts of the city.  Along with that, there is a certain feel that the Southside is more blue collar and Ditka-obsessed in comparison to the genteel and hipster Northside.  It’s especially evident in the crosstown baseball rivalry with the Northside Cubs and Southside White Sox.  Therefore, I’d like to bring a bit of my old neighborhood on the Southside that is an institution.  I’m talking about Nicky’s Hot Dogs in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood located at 6142 S Archer AveChicago IL 60638.

Ever since I could remember, my family and I would visit this family-run hot dog stand to get a ton of delicious food for reasonable great prices.  I was recently in the ‘hood and decided to pay the old boy a visit.IMG_3383  I got there around lunchtime, and as I expected, the minuscule parking lot was packed to the hilt.  I parked on the adjacent block since I was getting my food to go.  As soon as I stepped in, the place hadn’t changed in ages. IMG_3384 They still have the same swivel seats along the lunch counter and plastic signs for menus.  Nicky’s is a symbol of the no-frills, hardworking, homely spirit of the Southside in both decor and menu.  It ranges from burgers to Polish sausages to hot dogs as you can see in the following picture.  IMG_3386I wanted to get two of the best items on the menu:  the Big Baby double cheeseburger ($2.90) and a hot dog ($2.25 with free fries).  However, I’d definitely recommend their gyros as well.  The cashier joked about Brazil winning the opening game of the World Cup against Croatia (he was Croatian) and possible riots after a Brazil loss.  I assured him they didn’t have to worry; people were rioting before the first ball was kicked.  After placing my order and waiting with a diverse clientele of Polish and Mexican construction workers, bankers, and families, my food finally came out.  It was encased in a simple brown paper bag, and I could already see the grease stains coming through from the mountain of fries they give you.IMG_3387  If you are worried about portion sizes, put them to the side when hitting up this Chicago eatery.  Their fries are a bit on the salty side, but that doesn’t take away from their overall quality.IMG_3389  Then there is the Big Baby.IMG_3391  It’s a double cheeseburger that grabs you at the first bite with it’s grilled, juicy patties, melted slices of American cheese, pickles, ketchup, and caramelized onions. IMG_3392IMG_3393 While it wouldn’t be considered “big” according to ‘Murikan standards where a big burger could feed a family of three for four days, it’s a titan in terms of flavor.  As for the hot dog, they are of a boiled variety and then topped with almost all of the standard Chicago toppings:  onions, mustard, relish, and pickled sport peppers. IMG_3395 No ketchup here, and you will be chewed out (pun intended) if you ask for it.  While it lacks the tomato slices I enjoy, I love the beef mixing with the sweet relish, tart mustard, and pungent diced white onion atop the bun like confetti.  By the end of the meal, I finished strutting down memory lane with a full stomach and a “see you soon” in my mind.

So if you want to venture beyond the cutting-edge eateries and more expensive restaurants on the Northside and want to sample a tried and true establishment that serves basic yet delicious and cost-effective food options, come on down to Nicky’s Hot Dogs.

Nicky's Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

That’s a Wrap!

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Although today’s post is about a very unique yet not very unique food, it’s going to be on the shorter end since it’s just about one food item, not an entire restaurant review like you’re used to on Mastication Monologues.

While I’ve tried my fair share of different types of Mediterranean cuisine, I encountered a new and strange entry to my encyclopedic knowledge of all things consumable.  Janice and I were at Midsommar Fest in the Swedish Andersonville neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.  While I was expecting plenty of classic Swedish foods such as meatballs, lutefisk, and ammonia chloride treated licorice, I instead was greeted with corn dogs, tacos, and gyros…kind of a negative effect of increased globalization, I think.  However, one tent at the entrance made me come back after stuffing myself silly with free bags of sour gummi worms at the button booth.  Their poster of a long word filled with lots of accent marks along with a pronunciation guide that included a famous Communist guerrilla fighter only drew me in further. IMG_3351 Upon first examining the cooks’ setup, I could smell the smoke coming off the grill on the side that quickly enveloped us with a heady mix of general grilled meats and charred wood. I could somewhat see what the guys in front of me got.  It was some sort of flatbread in tin foil where they put this mysterious red sauce on top.  So, I got to the front of the line, and ordered one ćevapčići or “little kebab”.  I asked the cook if this meal was Romanian based on the formation of the word, and he said it was Croatian.  However, the Romanians do have their own version of it called mici which is why there was a tub of mustard there next to the red tub of mystery condiment.  Apparently the Romanians like the meat without pita but with mustard and beer.   The word “ćevapčići ” in Croatian breaks down into “ćevap or “kebab” originally from Persian and the Croatian diminutive suffix ” čići” which combines with the previous element to say “little kebabs”.  So I bought one sandwich which translated into a two of these compact beef, pork, and lamb nuggets nestled into a grilled pita with the option of chopped onions put on by the cook. IMG_3353 Obviously I said yes, and then I asked them what the sauce was?  It was a red pepper and eggplant sauce called ajvar which was brought in from Serbian cooking. IMG_3352 I gave my pita a good couple squirts from the pump, and I proceeded to down the kebab.IMG_3354  It was unlike any other Mediterranean meat I’ve tried in a pita.  They were slightly charred on the outside yet had a semi spicy seasoned crumbly interior.  I think the chef got a little buck wild with the onion pieces, but I enjoyed the pepper sauce that was subtly sweet that complimented the dry meat.  All of this was wrapped up in an extremely fresh and soft yet substantial pita.  Thankfully I didn’t spill any of the red pepper sauce on me, but Janice was the unfortunate victim of a pepper attack.  For once it wasn’t me!  Poor girl though…

Anyway, long story short.  If you ever have the chance to try a ćevapčići, I highly recommend it even if you won’t know how to pronounce it.  I personally would still pick a gyro over it, but the pepper sauce brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the table that this xeno loves.

Ribbed For My Pleasure

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Burgers, barbecue, and beer.  What more could one ask for for dinner in the summer?  Perhaps a big pool or white sand beach and plenty of sunshine instead of the dreary weather I encountered upon meeting my friends out in Schaumburg at Westwood Tavern and Tap.Front-Doors

As my friend, Erin, who thoughtfully supplied me with an umbrella, and I quickly ran inside from the rain, we were greeted with a spacious and elegantly furnished sports bar.  From the stone finishing on the walls to the towering wall of illuminated liquors behind the bar, it was a welcoming place for sports fans trying to catch the next nail-biting Hawks game or a couple out for their first date.  We were a party of three and were seated in a booth that was a bit too wide for adequate conversation between three people.  So we all had to get a bit more intimate with each other in regard to proximity which might not be as easy with larger groups in the booths.  I started by looking over the drink menu, and it was like a yellow pages for Brewtown, USA.  While I was well acquainted with most of its residents, I noticed a new neighbor on the block.  So, I gave the Black Butte Porter ($5) a warm welcome.IMG_3264  The simple label belied its pleasant, rich, chocolate/coffee flavor contained within an enveloping shade of ebony.  As for the food, I could choose from a variety of items ranging from sushi, flatbreads, salads, signature entrees, and of course, burgers.  I had a hankering for a good burger, and who doesn’t when you’re hungry?  I settled on the Baby Back Burger ($12) along with a complimentary side of fries and smoked jalapeno mayo.  I’m sure you can reason what the “baby back” in my burger derives from.  If not, perhaps this catchy Chili’s jingle can explain it for you.  Before I get to describing my meal, I do have to point out that our waiter screwed up my friends’ orders.  Erin wanted sweet potato fries, but she got normal fries.  Carolyn didn’t even get her sushi either.  I don’t know if the server was having a bad day or if there was a mix up, but he made up for it with a heaping bowl of sweet potato fries and eventually brought Carolyn her sushi. Anyway, it’s true that they put bbq rib pieces on top of my burger along with cheddar cheese, chipotle mayo, and onion strings.IMG_3265IMG_3270  I couldn’t believe it when I was looking at it.  I placed all of it together in one sexy package and proceeded to take a bite.  It was like your typical barbecue, cheddar, bacon burger sans the pork belly, but the barbecue brought a smoky sweetness that jived with the crunchy onion strings.  Even with all of this going on inside the burger, the bun managed to hold together the party on my plate.  As for the fries, they were ok, and the jalapeno mayo could have been a bit more flavorful.IMG_3267  I could see that they were trying to bring a bit of the pepper infusion to an otherwise bland condiment, but it’s back to the drawing board for this one.

Overall, Westwood Tavern has plenty to offer for diverse tastes to a certain extent, but aside from that, it’s just another fancy sports bar and grill.

 

Westwood Tavern & Tap on Urbanspoon

All About My Cheddar

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Top o’ the morning to ye and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post involves an Irish pub with plenty of class and delicious food.  I’m talking about Lady Gregory’s located on the north side of Chicago.  The name references a female Victorian Irish playwright who penned “Playboy of the Western World”, a play made infamous due to its scandalous reference to underpants.  Ohhhhh my! She faced plenty of resistance and even death threats from audiences until Teddy Roosevelt saw the play and praised it.  Looks like the king of “Bully!” stopped the bullies, and Lady Gregory’s menu contains the same sassyness the original Lady Gregory possessed.  It ranges from flatbreads, salads, soups, burgers, and big plates.  Plus, they have plenty of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to wet your whistle.IMG_3254

As for the layout of the restaurant, it has both indoor and outdoor seating.  Janice and I chose to sit inside, so we were ushered past the impressive wrap-around bar to the area known as “the library”.IMG_3253  Why?  Simple.  It’s an actual library that has walls stocked with reading material to go along with your eats and a few board games as well if you’re not entertained with simple conversation.IMG_3252  After looking over the menu, I went for the ultimate grilled cheese ($10) and a side of champ ($3.50).  My meal eventually came out, and it looked great.  When they say the grilled cheese is “ultimate”, they mean that every element of the sandwich is coated, stuffed, and/or infused with cheese.  *Cue Homer moment*.  It was unlike any other grilled cheese moment I’ve had in other parts of Chicago or in my life.  First, the bread was a Parmesan encrusted sourdough that had plenty of crunch, cheesy flavor, and consistency to support the flavor bomb that was ticking between the slices. IMG_3247 When I bit through the beautiful bread, I was greeted by an avalanche of lava hot cheeses:  Gruyere, Irish white cheddar, mozzarella, and brie to be exact.  While these smooth and flavorful cheeses were cascading down my palate, I also managed to catch some of the mashed tomatoes in the waves of dairy along with some delightfully smoky yet sweet, candied bacon pieces. IMG_3251  I’d highly recommend this delightfully rich in flavor but not in price plate.  The free pickle on the side only “sweetened” the deal with its sour, dill crunch.  As for the champ, it’s an Irish take on mashed potatoes.  Called brúitín in Gaelic or “poundies”, this side takes basic mashed potatoes and combines them with butter, green onions, and milk.IMG_3250  A simple food that packs plenty of complex sensations into a humble bowl.  While the potatoes were extremely creamy, the rich butter contrasted with the semi-strong green onions that introduced a bit of attitude like a champion side dish should have.

So if you want to have some great versions of simple meals that won’t cost you a pot o’ gold, check out Lady Gregory’s!

Lady Gregory's on Urbanspoon

Nuevo Sabor That’s No Chore

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Well, here we go again.  Another weekend, another round of posts.  Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues comes off another long week and weekend of work mixed with plenty of play.  While I have been around the block when it comes to Mexican eateries, I haven’t managed to adequately compile all of them on my food blog.  However, this past weekend provided me with a perfect opportunity to make up for lost time.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a Chicago comida mexicana institution that resides in the once Bohemian, now Latino (predominantly Mexican), and perhaps in the future solely hipster neighborhood of Pilsen.  I’m talking about Nuevo Leon located at 1515 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608.341699_iPad-Large_20120905111026.jpg.resize.768x432

After our trip to a fantastic punch class at Punch House, we were absolutely starving, and what better way to celebrate making our potent libation than enjoying some hearty Mexican cuisine?  While I had been to Nuevo Leon before and knew of its delectable selection of Mexican platters, Josah and Janice were unaware of the treasures within.  They were soon put wise.  Even at 5 pm on a Saturday, there was a line streaming out the door that we had to wait in.  Our wait was only made more interesting as I was carrying our large glass container of punch which led the diners to think that I was carrying around a special bowl of motor oil or perhaps the liquefied remains of  a deceased relative.10313748_10101613763422131_1817890989632858173_n  Either way, it was a good conversation piece.  Also while waiting, I saw the signs that alerted customers to their CASH ONLY policy.  If you’re plum out of moolah, they have an ATM inside the establishment.  I also noticed that our punch would be put to good use due to Nuevo Leon’s BYOB policy.  The only restrictions they have is that patrons cannot bring in coolers, and each patron can only drink the equivalent of three beers.  Eventually we reached the front of the line and were ushered to a table in the back.  Every seat in the house was packed as we dodged servers buzzing about like bees in a constantly humming hive.  Upon sitting down, we were supplied with a basket of tortilla chips, two types of tomato based salsa, and a bowl of pickled carrot and jalapeno pepper pieces.  While the condiments were fresh and filled with plenty of south-of-the-border flavor, the chips had a slightly funky fishy flavor which I think was due to the type of oil they used in the deep fryer.  They didn’t bother me too much, but I still don’t believe the Mexican equivalent of the bread basket should taste like the catch of the day.

Our waitress greeted us, and I took over from there when it came to communicating with her.  It didn’t seem like her English was the best when she tried to speak with Josah, so this might be frustrating for patrons who might not be able to speak Spanish.  I started by asking for a carafe of ice, glasses, and straws to imbibe our punch with our entrees.  Then I put in my order for the especial cazuela ($10.50) or literally “special cooking pot” in English.  There was a funny cultural exchange as well while ordering.  Josah asked for a chimichanga, and the waitress seemed quite confused.  I then proceeded to ask in Spanish, “Se preparan chimichangas aqui?” (Do they make chimichangas here?).  The waitress then said, “Que es una chimichanga?” (What is a chimichanga?) I described it to her as “un burrito frito” (a fried burrito), but she just shrugged and said there are only burritos.    Clearly you are not going to find certain super-Amurikanized plates you have come to love at your local Chili’s or Chipotle.  However, she was quite curious about our punch we made, so I offered her a glass.  Eventually, our meals came out, and I was a bit taken aback by the humble appearance of my dish. IMG_3078 A cazuela is a stew-like meal that in this case consisted of grilled pieces of ribeye steak, onions, poblano peppers, and panela cheese.  I was anticipating more steak and vegetables, but I quickly found out that the majority of the goodness was lurking under the peppery red broth.  When combined in a tortilla with the creamy refried beans and fluffy rice on the side, it was fantastic.  The ribeye was high quality with no fat to be seen, and the vegetables were soft but not mushy.  The cheese was an interesting addition as well since it provided a slightly salty element to a mainly savory dish.  All of these elements’ flavors really popped due to the jalapeno level spice of the aforementioned broth.  I was one stuffed and satisfied diner by the end of the meal.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that is one of the most popular representatives of Mexican cuisine in Chicago without the frills of Frontera Grill or the prices of Topolobampo, then check out Nuevo Leon!

Nuevo Leon on Urbanspoon

Tokyo (Day 1)- The Money Shot

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Well, back to Korea again after another wonderful adventure overseas.  This time it was to the Land of the Rising Sun a.k.a. Japan.  Now, I know Japan has left quite a Godzilla-sized cultural imprint on the world with technology, car manufacturing, and maddeningly-cute cartoons like Hello Kitty and Pokemon.  In these posts, like all the others, I will be showing you a gastronomical glimpse of the land that has brought sushi, tempura, and sake to a wider audience.  Naturally, there is much more to Japanese cuisine than just these three components, and I hope to demonstrate this through my Tokyo food series.

Day 1

After touching down in Narita, I was bracing myself for the train system which is the most complicated metro system I’ve encountered on my travels not due to its size but rather due to the number of private train companies that operate different lines which in turn affect fares, travel times, and how one manages to get from point A to point B based on which line and exit they take.  After a long time with the train info lady and making the sojourn to my hostel, I explored the neighborhood a little bit before heading back to my hostel to get some dinner ideas.  I talked to Hiromi at the front desk while showing her my handy-dandy personal guide I normally write up before I go places.  Thank you, Wikitravel!  I asked her about one restaurant, Torafugu Tei, and she immediately lit up with excitement.  It was probably because fugu is a Japanese deliciacy which involves making sushi out of an extremely poisonous blowfish.  Chefs have to have a special license in order to even serve the fish on the premises.   Roughly five people a year still die from this goofy-looking fish whose vital organs are deadlier than cyanide, and it’s the subject of one of my favorite Simpsons episodes where Homer thinks he’s going to die from ingesting improperly prepared fugu.  So I liked those odds for my first dinner in Tokyo.  Hiromi also recommended the sperm sacks which apparently were a winter specialty and her favorite part of the fugu since they tasted like cheese.  Turns out there are multiple locations in Tokyo, and I went to the one closest to my hostel located at 2-14-15 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo.  Mind you, they’re only open from 5 p.m. onwards. IMG_3305 I got a picture of the floating pufferfish, mouths still agape, while thinking this might be my last meal. IMG_3306 I’ve had it before during my trip to Busan in South Korea in soup form and survived, but this was raw fugu in the heartland of Japan.

Eventually I came in the restaurant behind some old Japanese businessmen, and the waitress thought I was with them for some bizarre reason.  She told me to take off my shoes, but as soon as the leader of the old men gave me the ‘What you doin’, gaijin?’ look, I was out of that room.  No one spoke English there, so it was just a humorous episode of confusion.  I was seated in a cosy wooden room, and I went for the fugu sashimi, the sperm sacks, and Hoshuku sake from the Nara prefecture served warm.  They brought out the sake first in a petite flask with an even tiner cup.  It was smaller than the cups I used to drink with my Kindergarteners.  However, it was a smooth, warm elixer with a bit of an acidic, alcohol-tinged bite to the end of each sip.  Eventually, my sashimi came out complete with a sumptuous presentation of each translucent slice arranged around sliced fugu skin, wasabi, green onions,  and a perrilla leaf. IMG_1767IMG_1768 The waitress motioned for me to squeeze the lime to coat all of the fugu pieces which I subsequently did.  She then imitated making mini fugu tacos and dipping them in the soy sauce on the side.  I summoned all of my chopstick skills which was a bit hard since the pieces were sticking to the plate and were extremely delicate.IMG_1769  Eventually I got the wee concoction into my mouth, and it was glorious.  The lime with the subtle richness of the fugu went well with the bolder wasabi and onions.  After eating most of the dish, I noticed my lips were slightly tingling which made me brace myself to hit the floor while being asphixiated, compliments of the poison, but it never happened.  The sake was also a nice palate cleanser to segue into the plat du jour:  the fugu sperm sacks.  IMG_1770They were served in a small porcelain bowl which I uncovered to find four golf ball-sized orbs that seem to have been roasted based on the char marks.IMG_1771  I decided to just take a bite out of one of them, and I was greeted with a piping hot stream of fugu semen.  Even though I was semi-injured due to my tongue being burned and quasi-violated based on what I was eating, I soldiered on after letting the sacks cool off.  I used the spoon that was provided to actually taste the semen, and strangely enough, like Hiromi told me before, it tasted like cheese.  I’d liken it to a cheddar flavor.  When the last drop of sake left the cup and my bowl was empty, I didn’t feel like I was full, but the meal amazingly kept me satiated for the rest of the night.  I guess the danger factor fed my adventurous soul along with my adventurous stomach.  I’d recommend it for anyone in Tokyo looking for a twist on your typical sushi experience.

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