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South Carolina (Day 1): Everyday I’m Husklin

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Finally, done with final exams and my 2nd Bachelor’s Degree!!! The feeling is amazing, and what better way to celebrate than starting the story of our journey to Charleston, South Carolina? Oh yeah, and also asking my wonderful girlfriend to marry me!  So, like any good tale, let’s start at the beginning.

Before we left for Charleston, we had been talking about when we would get married and types of engagement rings Janice wanted.  In fact, she was the occasional Debbie Downer thinking that I might never pop the question.  Little did she know I had already ordered and secretly stashed the ring at home.  *Cue maniacal laughter*  Once we got to the airport, the game was afoot.  Through a series of strategic positioning choices while walking, like holding her left hand in my right hand because the ring was in my left pocket, and taking advantage of classic airport situations, like the madness at the security lines and Janice’s subsequent rage at everyone’s incompetence, I managed to sneak the ring in my backpack.  This is where it would stay until later in our trip.  Keep that in mind, readers.  The flight and nighttime jaunt to our Air BnB was relaxing, and we were ready to explore the city the next day.  We woke up to a slightly cool day that was punctuated with plenty of intermittent rain and wind as we were off to brunch at our first Charleston restaurant.  From the outset, we knew this was going to be an eventful day since we were greeted with biblical floods throughout downtown Charleston.  IMG_9076Not only were we learning the streets, but we were also playing our own version of Oregon Trail in our rental car which also oddly had a dial instead of an actual gear shift.  Definitely was freaking me out.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.


 Fording all of those rivers really whipped up our appetite, and we finally arrived at Hominy Grill (thankfully we didn’t lose any oxen!). IMG_9078IMG_9079 This tastefully and colorfully decorated historical Charleston house was a symbol of the deep roots that run through the east coast port town.  Charleston was one of the richest cities in the original 13 colonies due to cash crops like rice, indigo, and timber that were harvested by the slaves that were subsequently brought over to do all the dirty work.  Although the institution of slavery is based on the concept that one group of people is viewed as being less than human and more like chattel or general investments, the power of good food can still make the oppressed class make their voices heard even when other parts of their culture might be done away with by the ruling class.  In fact, it is often the case around the world that some of the best food comes from the lower classes since they have to make the most of what they could afford.  That would be a common theme throughout our trip as we ate signature Southern American dishes that have African roots but appeased the taste buds of the English colonists.  Hominy grill brought plenty of this blended South Carolinian culture.  We loved the antique interior which also kept the quaint colonial vibe when I noticed they weren’t playing any music in the restaurant. IMG_9094 IMG_8203 I don’t know if it’s a Chicago thing, but we more often than not have music going on in restaurants.  So, it was a welcome change to just hear the sound of families and friends enjoying good food.  The meal began not with a bread basket rather a paper container of boiled peanuts.  IMG_9080While these are now a common Southern snack, they trace their roots back to Africa.  They are commonly sold as a street food in Ghana even to this day, and in the South they can also be called “goober peas” which reminded me of a popular Civil War my mom would randomly sing.  I had actually never had them, so we tucked into them.  It was weird because the normally crunchy shells peeled off like a loose skin, and the peanuts had an almost meaty quality to them.  I can see why they could be a good snack food, but I prefer my honey roasted variety.  I did like that we got more than we bargained for because for some reason it seemed that there were a lot of three and even four nut shells.  IMG_9081We kept the food festival going with two appetizers in the form of fried green tomatoes ($6) and hushpuppies ($5).  IMG_9082I had had hushpuppies before, but never like this.  The first people to have made them were Native Americans in the Southern United States, but they became popular during the Civil War.  Their name supposedly came from the Confederate soldiers using them to make their dogs be quiet or “hush the puppies”.IMG_9083  I can see why because I was making my barking stomach curl up and sleep in a food coma.  IMG_9086I didn’t really get the jalapeno flavor or spice in them as advertised in the menu, but the subtly sweet sorghum butter was a fitting compliment to the crunchy and salty crust.  The real star of the appetizer round was the fried green tomato plate.  IMG_9084It was another Southern fried treat which consisted of unripe tomatoes coated in batter and fried with a side of ranch dressing.  It might have been the Midwesterner in me which embraced the ranch dressing, but the creamy richness was a match made in heaven with the semi-juicy and sour interior and crispy exterior.  As if that wasn’t enough food, we managed to move on to our entrees.  Hominy Grill is a Michelin starred restaurant with not super Michelin prices serving plenty of Southern comforts, and we stayed true to what Hominy Grill is good at.  Janice ended up getting the Shrimp and Grits ($19) which was different than most grits I’ve ever had.  They were more like a very fine risotto compared to the creamier grits that I tried in Georgia or have seen at soul food events.IMG_9089  The shrimp were perfect and the scallions and bacon brought a savory edge to the smooth plate.  Then there was my choice:  the Nasty Biscuit ($10.50). IMG_9087 If there was one plate to sum up Southern cuisine, this tried to roll every element into one meal (minus delicious barbecue).  It was a buttermilk biscuit with a piece of fried chicken in the middle bobbing in a sea of sausage gravy and cheddar cheese.  Straight.  Up.  Nasty. (in a good way, naturally)  There was no easy way to eat this symbol of Southern madness/genius, but it was as heart stoppingly good as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t have to eat for another week with the amount of calories this bomb contained, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants something that’s more southern than Colonel Sanders, the Dukes of Hazard, and Nascar combined.  We also got a side of collard greens since Janice likes them, and we needed to keep the southern food train rolling. IMG_9088 I never really tried them before this moment, but I would liken them to an earthier spinach.  Not something I’d go out of my way to eat, but thank God I got something green to eat in this sea of deep fried goodness.  Somehow, some way we managed to make room for their famous homemade buttermilk pie.  Good lawd, I have never had a pie like this, but it was the lightest pie I’ve ever eaten.  IMG_9091First, it was chilled which made it seemed more lithe than the cumbersome fried food we had before.  Then the filling was like consuming a sweet treat that was like a suave vanilla custard that caressed our overworked palates.  Finally, the crust.  It was minimally intrusive compared to your typical lard based pie crust which made all the difference in this belt buster of a meal.  We came super hungry and left super satisfied. IMG_9093 Can’t praise the Hominy Grill restaurant and staff enough.

Thankfully, we walked like crazy afterward along Charleston’s harbor.  Since the weather was craptacular, we thought we could wait out the rain in the Charleston aquarium, but unfortunately we missed the last tour for the biggest draw:  the sea turtle hospital.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We cut our losses, and got tickets for the next day and instead went to Fort Sumter which just so happened to be next door.  Well, actually it was the national park museum commemorating the flashpoint of the beginning of the Civil War, and it was chock full of historical goodness that we appreciated.IMG_8206  The actual fort consisted of us getting on a ferry boat and going out to an island in the harbor.  IMG_8208It was windy and cold, and I was smart enough to not bring a jacket (or I’m just that tough).  IMG_8220We landed and it was the perfect time to go since the weather scared away the hordes of tourists.  The fort was a mere shadow of its former self, but I could imagine how terrible it must have been for the defenders to be behind its ramparts and being shelled day after day. IMG_8225IMG_8229 IMG_8230 IMG_9156 IMG_9157My favorite part of the visit consisted of the flag lowering ceremony that was similar to how the former Union defenders would do at the end of each day.  It was an extremely windy day, and it was more challenging than you may think.  IMG_8240Think about a fifty foot piece of heavy canvas flying and whipping at you violently, but luckily teamwork saved the day. IMG_9160IMG_9161 IMG_8245Going back on the ferry, thankfully the weather let up to take in the many beautiful views of Charleston skyline and bridge. IMG_8251 IMG_9163I later learned that Janice had thought I was going to propose to her on the ferry which surprised me.  That big event will come later in the story at a more unique location!  Instead, we continued to walk off our heavy lunch along the broad avenues of Charleston’s historical downtown.  I could not get enough of how much history was around every corner.  Surprisingly, we were hungry again, so we had to try a little place called Husk. IMG_8260 It is in a late 19th Century mansion and led by a James Beard award winning chef, so we threw ourselves at the mercy of their menu.  Janice wisely got reservations before we even landed in Charleston, so we checked in just below the steep staircase.  IMG_8270We still had to wait for a table though since the entire establishment was hopping.  Thankfully, they had a smaller guest house next door that was converted into a two tiered bar. IMG_8268 IMG_8267 The drink menu was Charleston through and through with references to parts of the city (the Four Corners of Law) and southern flavors.  We were quickly seated upstairs at one of their rustic wooden tables.  We started off with a Turcotte’s Tipple ($11) and a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch ($9).  IMG_8264Janice’s tipple drink was an homage to the rider of the Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and it was a bourbon based, grapefruit-infused drink that was as fleet footed as its steed namesake.  IMG_8266If you’re looking for a light, understated fruity drink for a hot summer day, this is your best bet.  As for mine, it was taken straight from a 1783 recipe from the archives of the Preservation Society of Charleston.IMG_8265  It was much stronger than Janice’s front porch refreshment due to the rum and the peach brandy, and it combined with black tea and lemon juice to add a spiked sweet/iced tea flavor to the mix.  I’d liken this drink to a British version of a Manhattan.  Even though we were next door, Husk’s staff actually came to get us upstairs in the guest house to lead us to our table in the main house.  Now that’s what I call service!IMG_8302  We were shown upstairs past their homemade pickled vegetables and firewood for the ovens to one of the front dining rooms that had a view of the second floor porch. IMG_8300IMG_8272 Janice also got a Copperhead ($11) which a whiskey with a hint of absinthe that was like a licorice infused Old Fashion. IMG_8276 As for food, we got a complimentary basket of fresh pretzel rolls that were small, warm orbs of heavenly dough with a side of whipped creamy butter.IMG_8274IMG_8277  The culinary dream that happened soon thereafter was the stuff of legend.  First, we got fried chicken skins with kimchi mayo, black garlic mayo, and scallions ($11) and glazed pig ear wraps ($12).  The former was continuing with the southern fried theme from our Hominy Grill lunch.  The people at Husk could sell them at any national chicken chain as a guilty pleasure and make a fortune.  IMG_8278They were just the right amount of crunchy, salty, savory, and spice with the kimchi mayo.  As for the glazed pig ear wraps, they were like a southern version of Korean ssam bap. IMG_8282 The cook had similar strips of pork that were a bit tougher than kalbi, but they did have some pickled cucumbers and red onion to keep in line with this Korean fusion dish.  I would highly recommend both of these appetizers.  We moved on to the entrees where Janice got the heritage pork ($34) and the bacon cornbread ($8) while I got the flat iron steak ($34).  I thought that combining the hottest ingredient/breakfast food since sliced bread with a delicious southern staple would have yielded an unforgettable pairing to our flawless dishes, but alas, we were not impressed since it was actually on the dry and crumbly side. IMG_8285 Thankfully, my flat iron steak was assembled to perfection with medium rare steak, mushrooms, broccoli, and shishito peppers. IMG_8288 The steak were burgundy nuggets of bliss and the vegetables were expertly sauteed.  Kudos to the addition of the shishito peppers that gave the mostly mild ingredients a nearly undetectable hint of sweet spiciness.  I thought Janice’s pork plate was ok, and she didn’t feel it warranted the price tag.IMG_8286  I could see why because the pork, while flavorful, was too much of the same flavors.  There wasn’t that element, like my peppers, that always kept you guessing with every forkful.  Finally, there was the dessert, and what a dessert it was.  It was a caramel bread pudding that consisted of a brown butter crumble and cinnamon ice cream with flower blossoms for decoration. IMG_8289 Now, I’ve had my fair share of bread puddings, some good and others not so good (contrary to popular opinion), and this was hands down the best I’ve ever had.  It wasn’t too hot or too cool.  The crumbles were spiced and just in the perfect ratio to the soaked bread below that was filled with luscious caramel.  The warmth of the skillet made the cinnamon ice cream atop this work of art melt and soak into each spoonful.  I was having my own When Harry Met Sally moment by the time we sadly hit the end of our metal clad sweet secret.IMG_8292IMG_8295IMG_8294  After we paid and did a short nightly jaunt around one of Charleston’s main streets, we made our way home after a successful first day in Charleston.  Stay tuned for the next chapters in our journey and the road to our engagement proposal!IMG_8298

Hominy Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Husk Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

MSG’s Alright With Me

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Hey everybody, and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Many great events have been happening as of late including my blog now being featured on the acclaimed food blogging website TheBesty.  You can find the article here, and they will be featuring some of my restaurants in a few upcoming YouTube videos.  So stay tuned!  Self promotion aside, today I’d like to tell you all about Oriental Taste, a simple but yummy eatery located at 106 63rd St, Willowbrook, IL 60527  that has quickly become my family’s go-to Chinese restaurant when we crave some Asian cuisine.

While this place may not be as famous as some of the other Chinese establishments I’ve visited both in the States and abroad in China and Taiwan, it still manages to do serve some quality Cantonese-inspired American Chinese food at a great price.  It’s quite simply furnished both inside and outside,ls but this is a case of not judging a book by its cover as their menu will both intrigue and excite you.ls (1)  They have everything from classic egg rolls and potstickers to many different varieties of fried rice and noodles dishes.  If you’re feeling adventurous, they also have Cantonese specialties that are closer to some of the dishes I saw while vacationing in Hong Kong.  In all the years my family has been going there, it seems like we’re always the only non-Asian people who actually sit down in the restaurant to eat, but overall, it seems their carry-out business is the real money maker.  We’ve never tried their carry-out services, so I can’t offer my own opinion on the overall efficiency of this part of the business.  Anyway, for this dinner, I decided to get a plate of bbq pork chow mein, and my mom ordered the ever-popular kung pao chicken.  After a good while of looking at the various duck carcasses and pieces of meat in the display case next to the register, our entrees came out with a side of white rice and a full pot of tea.  I focused mainly on my wonderfully arranged plate that was overflowing with noodles. IMG_2752 I took three forkfuls of the noodle nest along with the morsels nestled in its golden tangles.  Each mouthful was a who’s who of textures and flavors as the noodles were prepared in the crispy, Hong Kong style, and the barbecued pork strips were succulent but not greasy, thankfully.  I’m also partial to bean sprouts, so this dish was perfect for me.  These translucent, crispy tubes were paired perfectly with the crunchy green onions that popped up every so often to pep up the meal.  IMG_2753The kung pao chicken was quite scrumptious as the juicy pieces of chicken were pure white meat, and the soy based sauce covering every inch of the plate provided a spicy zing to each mouthful.  I liked the peanuts that were added to supply a crunchtacular counterpoint to the chewier chicken and firm onion and pepper elements of the meal.

So if you’re looking for quality American Chinese fare without the bells and whistles of other chains or upscale restaurants, check out Oriental Taste in Willowbrook, IL.  It’s a hidden gem that won’t be under wraps for long.

 
Oriental Taste on Urbanspoon

Achin’ For Some Bacon On A Lazy Sundae

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Hello everyone to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  In this installment, I am not going to review a restaurant (tear tear), but I am actually going to talk about a couple interesting little snacks/meals I’ve had over the past couple weeks in Korea.  First, there are the school lunches.

Where to begin with the school lunches?  From what I’ve heard from my orientation cohort, I think I got off pretty easy in terms of the variety and quality of food my school serves.  My favorite days are either tonkatsu or “breaded pork cutlet” day or curry day.  However, then there are days like when they serve a variety of cold seafood omelets where they try and see how many different types of mystery meat and tentacles they can fit in one pan.  Frankly, I’ve tried them all, and I’m not a huge fan.  One day, I even saw something that looked a bit familiar to me.  There was a pan filled with small, purple-ish/crimson colored disks.  Naturally, I scooped up a ladleful and put it in one of my tray compartments.

The sundae's in the upper right hand compartment

The sundae’s in the upper right hand compartment

I chopsticked one into my mouth, and I realized that it was 순대 or Sundae.  However, instead of a rich mix of vanilla, butterfat, and chocolate syrup, I was greeted with a semi-coppery flavor of blood sausage.  If odd textures disgust you, stay away from this sausage’s rubbery skin.  It was somewhat similar to the Polish kiszka, but the Korean blood sausage had noodles on the inside of it which kind of put me off of enjoying it more.  A more positive experience during school lunch was when they were serving stir fried baby squids.  Now, I’m not the biggest seafood fan in the world, but I’ve found after living in Korea that they make some mean squid dishes.  This meal was no different.

I love it when you can look your food in the eye

I love it when you can look your food in the eye

The baby squids were stir fried in a sweet, orange based glaze and were accompanied by dried squid jerky on the side.  I personally preferred the stir fried squids because the sauce really made the savory essence of the seafood pop, and the squid jerky wasn’t as good as the barbecue squid jerky they served on a separate occasion.  It was very dry and tough which made for an unpleasant eating experience.  Moving on from the more intense elements of my culinary journeys through Korea, lets talk about some junk food.

First, there was the discovery of bacon chips.  Yes, bacon lovers in Korea rejoice.

You can never have enough bacon

You can never have enough bacon

There are chips that are literally shaped and flavored like bacon.  I originally found them at a rest stop on my way to go paragliding, and I definitely made the right choice.  The texture could be likened to a veggie chip, and it was strangely colored like a semi-raw piece of bacon.  As for the taste, it actually tasted like eggs’ natural companion.  Not the most natural thing in the world, but I’m glad I tried it.  Moving from the good straight to the ugly, there is the Chicago Style pizza from Emart.  For those not living in Korea, Emart is basically a giant department store that sells everything you could ever need.  So some friends and I split the cost for a couple pizzas including one that was supposedly a “Chicago Deep Dish” style pizza.

Blasphemy incarnate

Blasphemy incarnate

When we opened up the box, it wasn’t the same as the genuine article back home aside from the crust.  That was the least of our problems.  The taste was terrible.  Do not buy this pizza from Emart.  Just get the regular 11,000 Won pizzas.  They are a much better deal.  Anyway, the taste to put it simply was everything that is wrong about Korean pizza.  First, I’m pretty sure they didn’t use real cheese since it tasted like we were eating sticks of non-salted butter.  On top of that, we were greeted with a lovely flavor wave of very sweet Korean pizza sauce.  I’m not sure if the pepperoni was real, but it was the only redeeming feature. In short, it was the perfect storm for a terrible pizza recipe.  Putting this unpleasantness behind us, lets talk about some sweet things.

I have spoken about my love for my Kindergarten classes before, but I might also be swayed by the fact that I get free food from the teachers every time I teach.  One of the best days was on Childrens’ Day because I got something that didn’t think existed:  Korean bakery.  Up to this point, I had been inundated with so many different types of tteok or “rice cake” that it would make your head spin, but today was a special day with special food.  On my tiny plate, they served me 소보로 빵 or Soboro Bbang which I could only describe as a type of peanut infused streusel bread.IMG_0091  The bread itself was light and airy which was complimented by the generous, peanut butter crumble topping.  It was like a messier and sweeter version of a peanut butter sandwich.  Not something I was really complaining about when I was siting at a table that was lower than my knees.  In more recent news, today I received another sweet treat from one of my coteachers that inspired me to write this post.  I don’t know what they’re called in Korean, but I’m going to call it a Yuja cookie.

Tasty tart

Tasty tart

Yuja is the Korean name for citron which is a fruit that is similar to a lemon.  I first tried the fruit in a traditional Korean drink, 유자차 or yujacha, and I was instantly hooked on  its sour and semi-bitter bite.  With the cookie, the bitterness of the jellied citron pieces was toned down to a certain extent, but it still blended perfectly with the buttery crust that was not too crumbly.  It was a pleasant surprise to start the week off right.  So that’s about it for now, but keep watching for my next post that will most likely be about the best fish and chips shop in Seoul.

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