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Picking Up and Eating the Tab(erna)

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Hola a todos y bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  If you couldn’t tell, the flavor of today’s post is Spanish, and what a wonderful flavor that is.  Spain is known for many things:  sun, bullfights, and flamenco to name a few, but few may truly appreciate what a giant Spain is in the culinary world.  It seems like only recently that tapas have become truly popular in the United States, and we are feeling the full force of molecular gastronomy, a technique of manipulating the molecular composition of food and drink in order to render them in a different form, that was pioneered in Europe, first in France and then in Spain.  Two names of chefs/magicians that immediately spring to mind in regard to this food movement are Ferran Adrià, head of the famous but now defunct El Bulli, and José Andrés, restauranteur and one of Anthony Bourdain’s besties.

The real O.G.s

The real O.G.s

However, these giants of the food world would contend that what they do isn’t molecular gastronomy.  Tomato/tomahto.  These advanced ideas have made their way even to Chicago as found at Grant Achatz’s Alinea, widely considered the best restaurant in the world, or at the wildly innovative Moto which was owned by the late kitchen mad scientist, Homaro Cantu.  However, I’m not here to talk about molecular gastronomy but rather tapas.  I’ve had my fair share of tapas after living in Spain, and this has served as the measuring stick for all other taperías outside of the peninsula.  I’ve had some charming tapateos and others not so much, but I found La Taberna Tapas to be a perfect place to get some delicious finger food in the Chi.

Janice and I went here back in the winter wonderland half of this year to meet two of her friends from out of town, and it was a the perfect venue to do so.  The parking on the street is plentiful even though you have to pay for it.IMG_5682  The interior was dark but welcoming, and the live music started soon after we sat down.  IMG_5699 IMG_5698 IMG_5696Thankfully even though it was flamenco dancing and guitar, it wasn’t overwhelming like other restaurants that I’ve been to with live music acts.  IMG_5695I get that you’re enthusiastic about your craft, but there’s a fine line between passion and being obnoxious.  Tread lightly when I’m eating, brah.  Before I get to the foodstuffs, let me have a moment for the beers I tried.  Both of them came from the super verdant and Celtic influenced northwestern corner of Spain known as Galicia, and the Hijos de Rivera brewery that has been making these beers will be celebrating its 110 year anniversary.  Perhaps their longevity could be down to them keeping the operations 100 percent Spanish and keeping it in the family.  Who knows?  I have to say though that when living in Spain, I wasn’t too impressed overall with Spanish beers, but the Estrella Galicia ($5) IMG_5692had a lot more taste than the more grating on the palate Estrella Damm from Cataluña.  This brew from Hijos de Rivera was a slightly bitter lager that went down smooth and heightened the bold flavors of the tapas that were to make their appearance soon.  The Estrella Galicia wasn’t an upper echelon type of libation, but it’s just something refreshing to sip on.  The 1906 Reserva Especial ($5) from the gallego brewery was better since it poured with a good amount of head and had more notes of caramel and grass throughout each sip. IMG_5685 It was another solid, if not spectacular, Galician beer.  Anyway, now onto the good stuff:  the tapas!

First, we had the pinacho de pollo that consisted of grilled chicken breast, sauteed bell peppers and onions, and garnished with a basil aioli and pistashio pesto.  IMG_5683I would recommend this segundo plato since it is a bit more filling than the dainty plates that we followed this one up with.  Not only is it satisfying, but the ingredients are superb.  The succulent, pure white chicken was further amped up by the basil aioli and pesto.  These elements combined with the veggies made for a complete dish that also was quite easy on the eyes.  The torre de berenjena y tomate ($7) or tower of eggplant and tomato kind of fell flat in my mind and mouth.  IMG_5684It didn’t seem that spectacular with some mushy slices of eggplant in a pool of bland tomato sauce.  I’d skip this tapa unless you’re vegetarian.  Another tomato based tapa that I always enjoy, and it was no different here, was the queso de cabra ($7) or goat cheese.  IMG_5691It consists of is a chunk of goat cheese that is baked in a tomato basil sauce topped with truffle oil with a side of tomato and garlic rubbed pieces of toasted bread.  What more could you ask for?  Well, for one thing, I would suggest that they make it more even ratio of cheese to tomato sauce since I felt like we got cheated out of the earthy cheese that goes so perfectly with the seasoned and warm tomato sauce on the crusty bread.  On the plus side, we followed it up with two of my favorite tapas:  patatas bravas ($7) and dátiles con tocino ($7).  With the former, it is hands down my favorite tapa.  It’s nothing fancy since it just consists of cubed and fried potatoes and a paprika infused aioli.  So easy, yet never reproduced Stateside surprisingly.  This version of my favorite tapa was almost like what I inhaled back in Barcelona yet not.IMG_5686  The white sauce was more on the mild side, and the potatoes were also covered in a chunkier tomato sauce bordering on an Italian marinara.  As for the dátiles con tocino, they were the same like I´ve had before yet different.  IMG_5688These sweet and gooey chunks of heaven were put to bed with a crunchy snuggie of bacon, but I think the sweet sherry reduction was a bit too much a case of gilding the lily.  We weren´t only sampling creatures of the land but also the sea.  The script flipped when they brought out our pulpo a la plancha or grilled octopus ($9).IMG_5690  This was another salute to Galicia which is known for quality grilled octopus seasoned with paprika.  I didn’t taste much of the almond pesto, but the squirt of lemon over it with the herb coated potatoes made it a good mix of surf and tuber turf.  The final two tapas we had wouldn’t really be considered true tapas.  The pincho punta de res ($7) is a supposed to be an homage to Basque culinary traditions where the word actually comes from the Spanish “pinchar” meaning “to pierce”.  If you go to the Basque Country in northern Spain, you will notice that all of their “tapas” are actually pierced with toothpicks and not just served in a dish.  Therefore, I don’t understand how these pinchos are Moorish as indicated on La Taberna’s menu.  IMG_5693Origin’s aside, I thought these skewers were more like taking a page from the Brazilian steakhouse than a tapería, but this didn’t take away from the high quality of the peppered steak that was paired with a generous helping of tenderly caramelized onions and a cup of sinus clearing horseradish sauce.  Surprisingly, we still had a bit of room left at the end of the meal for another classic Spanish dish in the form of paella con pollo y conejo or paella with chicken and rabbit ($12).  The word “paella” comes from the Latin “patella” or Old French “paelle“, both of which mean “pan”.  The origin of the dish is a bit shrouded in mystery, but the most likely origin is from Valencia on the east coast of Spain during the reign of the Moors (8th Century-15th Century A.D.).  The Valencian people managed to use the old Roman irrigation systems to grow more rice which was brought to the peninsula by the Islamic rulers.  They then took the rice, local seafood, and cooked them together in a pan.  The popularity of the dish soon grew in the following centuries to other parts of Spain like Madrid where they added other types of meat, like the variety we ate at La Taberna, and eventually became world renowned.  I visited Valencia during my residence in Spain, and I got a tin of paella from the mercado central, and it was a jump up from La Taberna’s version.  La Taberna’s paella was good but not the best ever.  IMG_5694It was well made with plenty of peppers, peas, onions, and even a Latin American twist with chile de árbol that gave the meal a smoky undertone.  The smoke enhanced the chicken and rabbit, but these meat elements didn´t shine as much as the cooked veggies, in my opinion.  I´d still recommend this paella though if you´ve never had it before and want one of Spain´s signature meals.

So in closing, if you want to have a taste of Spain´s delights for a date night or just a fun night out of culture and culinary adventures, get down to La Taberna Tapas for a tapateo you won´t forget!

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We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

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Wepa!! That was my reaction when I visited my first Puerto Rican restaurant.  If you don’t know what that means, “wepa” is a common exclamation in the Puerto Rican community to signify happiness or a way to encourage someone.

Basically "Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream 'wepa'"

Basically “Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream ‘wepa'”

I didn’t need any encouraging when I walked through the doors of hidden Chicago gem, Cafe Central.

I’ve had my fair share of comida latina that has ranged from Colombian to Cuban, but I had never tried the food from what many consider the United States’ 51st state.  If you’re unaware of this connection, let me drop a bit of historical knowledge.  Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe who called it Borikén which eventually was transformed into Borinquen in Spanish when Colombus and later Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish run cities.  With the Europeans came the colonization of the island and importation of slaves from Africa.  This system continued up until the late 1890s until the USA beat Spain in the Spanish American War which led to the USA claiming Puerto Rico as a United States territory which has continued to today.IMG_6706  What that means is that all Puerto Ricans from the island are US citizens, but it has also resulted in increased Puerto Rican migration to urban centers on the US mainland like Chicago and NYC, especially.  In Chicago, the hub of all things boricua (Puerto Rican in modern Spanish) is typically Humboldt Park minus the current trend of the usual gentrification. larger However, this symbol of Chicago Puerto Rican roots is still going strong in the West Town neighborhood just west of Humboldt Park.  It was established back in 1952 a bit further south but relocated to its present location in the mid-1960s.  It still exists today as a representative of Puerto Rican culture in diner form.  The exterior doesn’t look like much, and the interior is just as simple but comfortable.IMG_6720IMG_6719  We beat the lunch crowd around 11:30, and the meal started with some fresh bread that seemed to be of the French variety with a magical sauce on the side.  Although Janice and I thought that this verdant food of the gods tasted like the Argentinian steakhouse staple chimichurri sauce, we were misteaken (pun intended!).IMG_6703  Instead, it was Puerto Rican sofrito, a mixture of recao (cilantro), sweet garlic, olive oil, and mild peppers.  It was an oily, herbal, yet garlicky and chunky spread that was wonderful with the fresh bread.  I washed it down with a cool Malta India which is a carbonated barley, hops, and water drink which is like a non-alcoholic beer combined with a root beer with a Caribbean twist.  IMG_6701It has a very distinctive taste, but I would recommend this unique Puerto Rican beverage.  It was similar to its Cuban counterpart I tried when down in Florida.  Then we started the meal for realz.  We looked over the menu, and I could see all of what makes Puerto Ricans I’ve met so proud of their culinary culture.  Pork, rice, and beans are the name of the game for the most part, but there are also sandwiches and caldos or soups to sample.  We started off with the ground pork empanada and two plates of mofongo ($3.60 each).  Empanadas are like your typical stuffed savory pastry, but the ones at Cafe Central are sin igual. IMG_6707 They have less thick pastry dough compared to other varieties I’ve tried and more like thin, crispy dough that was all killer and no filler when it came to the amount of seasoned meat you got.  IMG_6708Then there was mofongo.  I had only heard about it from my dad quoting Sandford and Son or from Puerto Ricans I’ve worked with in the past, but I can see why they loved it so much.  It is a symbol of the African influence on Puerto Rican cuisine as it comes from the West African staple fufu which is a mash of starchy vegetables.  In this case, its a ball of mashed plantains stuffed with pieces of chicarrón or garlic pork rinds. IMG_6709 It’s basically a ball of mashed sweet yet savory starch where we’d occasionally stumble upon a chewy yet crunchy nugget of glory. IMG_6711 Highly recommend this piece of the island.  IMG_6710It’ll feel like you ate a mini-cannonball though, so save room!  As if that wasn’t enough, we then had our main entrees.  Janice ended up getting the house specialty which is off the menu:  el lechón or roast pork ($10).  I can see why they keep it off the menu because they’d be serving nothing but this gigantic plate of soul warming food. IMG_6712 First, the strands of Monte Puerco were super tender and melted in your mouth but also had a hint of a salt and pepper rub to make it just that much more flavorful. IMG_6713 Not bad for an homage to the national dish of the island.  On the side, it was a Puertorriqueño parade on the plate with el arróz con gandules y habichuelas or rice with peas and beans.  Naturally, there were some tiny pork chunks in the rice which pepped up the rice a bit, but the rice itself was super rich with flavor. IMG_6714 The beans were also different than the refried beans in Mexican cuisine, and I liked them a lot better because they were stewed in a pork stock and were light.  As for me, I got the roast pork jibarito ($7.95).  This super Puerto Rican sandwich, meaning “little yokel” in Spanish, was actually introduced to Chicago straight from the Caribbean back in 1996 at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park.  I’ve always wanted to try this Puerto Rican iconic meal because it combines my love for quirky food and sandwiches.  Think of your typical bread based sandwich, but then take out the slices and replace them with flattened and fried plantains.  IMG_6715Then insert lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, American cheese (Thanks, Tio Sam), and your choice of meat.  I did like the locals and got, you guessed it, the roast pork.  When in San Juan! (or is it Chicago?)IMG_6716 It looked great, but I didn’t know where to start out of fear of this seemingly delicate work of street art would disappear in my clumsy grasp.  It was actually quite the opposite.  The fried plantains were surprisingly sturdy under pressure from one hungry hungry hippo, i.e. me, and the flavor was out of control.  Basically, take the lechón and combine it with the sweetness of the mofongo and the savory elements of the mayo and cooked onions. IMG_6718 Plus, the texture transitions from the crunch of the plantain to the soft pork, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomatoes blew my mind since they were in quintessential harmony.  If there’s one plate I’d recommend, it would be this.  Even over the lechón I just promoted.  By the end, we were in peak food coma mode.  If only we could then retreat to a cabana in Limón to nap the rest of the day away.  Unfortunately, our food adventure ended there, but we were extremely satisfied.

I can’t emphasize the greatness that is Cafe Central.  It’s a lot of delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food served in huge portions for a reasonable price.  What more could you ask for in a restaurant?  Absolutamente nada.  Buen provecho!
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Getting My Goat On

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Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga!  Today’s restaurant review takes us to one of the newer but highly regarded eateries in Chicago in the West Loop:  Girl and the Goat.  I had heard so many great things about famed chef, Stephanie Izard.  According to the website, “Izard is name of goat in the Pyrenees”; hence the name of the restaurant.  Looking beyond their rustic take on English on their website, their food was king or perhaps queen of the mountain.IMG_4035

The interior was bumping when I went there around dinnertime for a double date.IMG_4030  Servers were buzzing by as we checked in for our reservation.  There was a bit of a wait, so we grabbed drinks and took in the entire experience.  From the sleekly designed interior to the open cook line, it was like poetry in motion everywhere I looked.  IMG_4037IMG_4036IMG_4034It only whetted my appetite even more for the upcoming meal.  Eventually we were seated and the madness began.  With a tumbler of whiskey in hand, we looked over the menu to see some common items like olives or steak tartare, but then there were crazy things like duck tongues or pig face. IMG_4039 Mind you, the menu is on a rotating basis, so you might be privy to some dishes I never saw on the menu.  We went crazy ordering once our server came over however.  The journey began with a sun-dried tomato bread boule that came with a side of vinegar seasoned corn relish and savory butter with a garlic infusion. IMG_4042 This typical carb starter got us off on the right foot as it was warm, oh-so-soft, and bursting with the taste of fresh tomatoes.IMG_4044  Then for actual dishes, the Girl and the Goat focus on more tapas-esque presentation and portion sizes which means that each selection is meant to be shared amongst all the people at the table.  Ergo, we ordered things that everyone wanted to try.  First, seafood.  We got the raw kusshi oysters with muscatel mignonette and tarrgon along with the wood fired blue point oysters with horseradish, bacon, and preserved lemon.

Kusshi oysters

Kusshi oysters

This was a historical foodie moment for me since it was the first time trying oysters.  While I heard from some people that they tasted like snot going down, I found them to slide right down without any sort of trepidation from my palate.  They didn’t need to be chewed or anything, so I don’t know what those other diners’ problems were.  I personally preferred the wood fired oysters because they were slightly warm along with a nice sinus-tickling horseradish kick.

Woodpoint fired oysters

Woodpoint fired oysters

While we were partying under the sea with the super shellfish, the steak tartare wraps came out.  If you just saw “steak” and “wrap”, the “tartare” part means that the meat was raw inside.IMG_4047  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe to eat.  In fact, these nibbles were quite light at delicious.  The lettuce leaves were super fresh, and the pieces of red meat were accompanied by some tempura flakes and another corn relish that provided a texture contrast to the tender steak and crunchy tempura batter. IMG_4048 Along with this hands-on dish, we got an order of squash blossom rangoon with wasabi garlic chive yogurt and sliced almonds ($13). IMG_4049IMG_4050 I think these fried gourds were a bit over the top with their cheesy interiors.  IMG_4051It seemed to simply be a high-falutin version of common jalapeno poppers, and they were quite primitive in comparison to the other dishes we tried before.  The duck tongues ($16) that came next were anything but ordinary. IMG_4052 While everyone at the table was disgusted yet slightly curious when I ordered this dish, I was curious to see if it was going to be different from my experiences with duck tongues in Taiwan and China.  Lo and behold, it was since they were neither simply cooked nor still sticking in a duck’s head.  Instead, they were fried and arranged into a mini-mountain over a tuna and black bean poke that was negligible, but the spicy piri-piri bird’s eye pepper (similar to the one at Nando’s in the UK) from Mozambique really kicked these tongues up a notch in terms of flavor.  Plus, my formerly squeamish dining companions found them to be quite pleasant since they melted in your mouth and didn’t feel like you were making out with Donald Duck.  After that bizarre treat, we came back to reality with an order of ham frites ($7) with sides of smoked tomato aioli (literally: “garlic oil” in Catalan) and cheddar beer sauce.  IMG_4053These smoky, savory taters were finger licking good especially with the cheddar beer sauce and powdered ham that took these common bar items to a new level of haute cuisine.  If this redesigned ‘Murikan favorite got my palate amped up, the spring onion potstickers ($15) were a Far East fusion creation to cool it down.  IMG_4054It was served at room temperature, and the fried dough was extra delicate.IMG_4058  Along with that, the dandelion greens and sunflower seeds created many earthy tones as I took down each one.  All of these were leading up to the piece de resistance, the crisped braised pork shank ($25). IMG_4057 Not only was this thing monstrous, but it also came with sides I would have never expected:  Indian naan bread, buttermilk dressing, peach kimchi, and a pepper sauce.  I almost felt like young King Arthur with the sword in the stone, and I took my Excalibur with great aplomb. IMG_4063 The meat fell off the bone, and it was mind-blowingly succulent.  Each strand combined with the golden crispy skin to create a legendary dish that I will never forget.  The naan was fresh, but I didn’t think it really fit in with the other ingredients.  The kimchi peaches somewhat made sense since it was a sour/sweet element to cut through the savory and slightly greasy meat.  The pepper sauce was good but not great.

It gone!

It gone!

As if you thought this was the end to the food madness, the pork belly and scallops came out.  I tried a minuscule portion of the pork belly, and it would have been great if my stomach wasn’t stretched to bursting.IMG_4066  Perhaps for next time.  The lobster was quite sweet while the crab seemed to be a better compliment to the lean pork.  As for the scallops, I can’t really comment on them because I was absolutely stuffed, but their presentation was pleasing to the eye.  Plus, the scallops were quite hefty for the price.IMG_4068

So in closing, if you want to try one of Chicago’s most highly vaunted restaurant, bring your piggy bank and then some because it isn’t cheap.  However, it is high quality food with moderately large portions compared to other similarly prestigious eateries.   Ergo, you should get down to Girl and the Goat ASAP.

Girl & the Goat on UrbanspoonIz

London (Days 4 and 5)- When the Disco Hits Your Eye Like a Steak and Kidney Pie

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As if day three in London couldn’t get any wilder, day four was extra crazy as my friends and I went off to have dinner at an Italian eatery called Bunga Bunga.  It’s located in the Battersea area of London which is just south of the Thames nearby the posh Chelsea neighborhood.  It was a dining experience unlike any other I’ve had in my life, so I hope this installation of Mastication Monologues can adequately describe the madness that is Bunga Bunga.  I’ll also cover my pre-match meal before seeing Tottenham Hotspur play in north London later on in this post.

So, Bunga Bunga.  If you aren’t up on your geo-political happenings or history in general, politicians are known as getting things done, both good and bad.  In Italy, there is a man named Silvio Berlusconi (former prime minister of Italy) who is one part politician, one part business tycoon, and one part Lothario.  That last part is where the restaurant gets its name from because “Bunga Bunga” is a joke that became synonymous with sex parties he threw for his friends and cronies complete with hookers, drugs, and bribes to keep everything hush hush…until recently when all of these allegations came to the surface.

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

With all of this info in the back of my head, I was wondering what sort of mischief Bunga Bunga had in store for its diners.  As soon as we walked in, I didn’t see any saucy vixens, but there was plenty of Italian kitsch adorning every square inch of the walls.IMG_2277  We knew it was a unique place when the servers would randomly break into a choreographed dance routine accompanied by pumping Italo-techo music in the middle of the restaurant (much to their annoyance).  I kind of felt bad for them since the novelty of it wore off after the first time.  Anyway, we started our meal off with three fancy mixed drinks (12 pounds each) that ended up being fantastic and hilarious since they sported names of famous Italians. IMG_2280 I got the  BungaBunga which was served in the head of a winking Berlusconi.  It consisted of gin, Martini Fierro, peppercorns, and grapefruit juice.  It was light and spicy with a bitter aftertaste, kind of like Berlusconi’s eventual fall from grace.  My friend Ravi got the SuperMario Monti (the prime minister of Italy post-Berlusconi) which was basically gin combined with muddled cucumbers which was cleaner and more refreshing than my cocktail.

My failed attempt at winking.

My failed attempt at winking.

As for my friend Bob, he’s a big footy fan, so he went for the Chellsi Balotelli (maverick soccer player who now plays for AC Milan) that had rhubarb vodka, rhubarb puree, cranberry juice, lime juice, and bitters all of which made a sour and strong drink.  Fitting for a man more known for his off the field antics and sulky personality.IMG_2283  For appetizers, we then got a side of cheesy garlic pizzicato (5.95 L) and cheese and spinach bruschetta (6 L).  The former was ok since it was starch combined with cheese, but I wouldn’t get it again since it was a bit too oily for my liking.IMG_2284  As for the latter, I liked the addition of spinach to modify the traditional bruschetta recipe, but once again it was extremely oily that kind of put a damper on the meal.IMG_2282  For the main course, we ordered three different pizzas (range: 9-13 pounds each).  I got the Ruby Loves (11 L); Bob ordered Chef Share-issimo’s Favorito (13 L); and Ravi’s a vegetarian, so he got The Naughty Napolitano (10 L) that had gorgonzola and pears on top.  Bob’s and my pizza were brought out on a long board like some sort of meaty centerpiece for a Roman feast.IMG_2285  My choice consisted  of N’duja soft sausage, salami, and cherry tomatoes.  It was tasty with the savory and salty meats but greasy once again (notice a trend?).  As for Bob’s side that contained rosemary seasoned lamb and chili, I liked it better because the lamb was expertly roasted and proved to be a lighter, less greasy topping compared to the pork products on my side.

So.much.grease.

So.much.grease.

I needed something to cut through the Mediterranean Sea of grease in my mouth, so I got their specialty, Ferrero Rocher gelato, for dessert. IMG_2287 It did the trick as my palate was coated in a molto delicioso wave of semi-dark chocolate ecstasy with interspersed crunchy Ferrero Rocher candy pieces.

Free wine and ice cream.  Winning!

Free wine and ice cream. Veni,vidi, vici!

As the night went on, the place filled up with plenty of party goers as the stage was filled with a variety of performers like a cabaret singer, a magician, and karaoke singers.

Abra-ca-blabra.  Make with the magic.

Abra-ca-blabra. Make with the magic.

NOTE:  If you want to go to the discoteca upstairs, make reservations for that in addition to your table.  We made that mistake and were confined just to the first floor.  Either way, it was a fun time aside from a brief upset stomach compliments of the greasy food.  I recommend Bunga Bunga to anyone if you’re looking for a crazy dining experience, but I don’t think I would make it one of my regular haunts.

Bunga Bunga on Urbanspoon

The following day was a bit rough given that we left Bunga Bunga, got crazy in the Clapham neighborhood, and didn’t make it home until 3 am.  Thankfully, it was laid back as Bob and I just spent most of it watching football or soccer in Amurikan.  Before watching the League Cup, Bob and I got lunch at a cafe nearby White Hart Lane.  While I was contemplating doing the English breakfast that had everything I loved like hash browns and bacon, I decided to go more for a footy classic with a steak and kidney pie with tea on the side.IMG_2300  I was disappointed with the pie and tea.  The crust was ok, and the insides were coated with a peppery white sauce.  However, they were missing a key ingredient:  brown gravy drizzled over the top, and the tea looked anemic.  As for the pea mash and chips on the side, they were passable.  Those were enhanced with the addition of this mysterious “brown sauce” that was in a squeeze bottle on the table that I could only liken to a sweet gravy with a hint of sour aftertaste and a lighter ketchup consistency.  This meal was as exciting at the Spurs vs. Cardiff match we saw, but maybe it just required a change of venue.  The only highlight was seeing Adam Richman of Man vs. Food fame on the field!  At least my last days in London would prove to be much more exciting.

London (Day 1 and 2)- Just a Couple Randos at Nando’s

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Well, it seems that my adventures in Asia have come to a close (for now), and I’m back in the USA writing about them from the comfort of my parents’ kitchen.  On the way back from the Far East, I stopped over in London to visit a few friends, so naturally I had to chronicle my culinary conquests as I made my way through the same streets of Jack the Ripper and Tiny Tempah.

The first day was relatively laid back in terms of food experimentation as I made my way to my friend Ravi’s flat in the notoriously rough but currently trendy East End of London around Bow Road.  This area was also known for its Cockney subculture and signature accent which has been made famous in popular culture through plays like Pygmalion, or through the award winning actor, Michael Caine.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s traditional pickled whelks and jellied eels were a bit hard to find, so I instead tried some of Ravi’s home cooking which was wonderful.  He made me a vegetarian shepherd’s pie that seemed to consist of tomato sauce, lentils, beans, carrots, peppers, potatoes, and cheese on top.  It was filling, spicy, and savory which made my taste buds happy since I normally don’t go for vegetarian fare.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

However, the funnier part of the meal was the drink I had.  When I first arrived at his apartment, he asked me if I wanted something to drink like water, tea, or squash…squash?  I assumed he meant that he would take out some butternut squash and turn them into juice, so I opted for water.  Dinnertime rolled around, and he offered me this mystery squash to drink again.  So, I decided to give it a go.  He proceeded to bring out what looked like a big bottle of fruit juice.  He then poured a small amount into my glass and filled the rest up with water.  It tasted just like it advertised as a soft blend of strawberry and kiwi.  Turns out the actual squash is just a fruit concentrate with no gourds involved.  Hooray for regional dialects!  Then for dessert, I had another cultural clash as Ravi’s roommate, Jaime, offered me a Milky Way bar.  I love Milky Way bars in the US, so I gratefully accepted it.

Same, same, but different.

Same, same, but different.

After I bit into it, I was a bit taken aback by the contents since it lacked the caramel present in American Milky Way bars.  Instead, it was like a 3 Musketeers bar since there was only chewy nougat enveloped in chocolate.  Either way, it was a fitting end to a delicious meal.

The following day, I was out and about seeing the sights London had to offer.  For lunch, I did stop at Pizza Express, one of London’s most ubiquitous restaurant chains serving pizza and other Italian dishes, I didn’t feel like it really warranted an in-depth review.  Instead, I’ll bring you an even better chain that was introduced to me back in 2006 compliments of my friend Rav.  We were talking about fried chicken in America, and he told me of this place called “Nando’s” in London which he described as, “KFC but they don’t ba’a (batter in East London-ese) it” and had “peri-peri sauce”.  Given these random descriptions and my friend’s clear passion for this mysterious eatery, I vowed one day to try it.  Fast forward to 2008, and I finally made my pilgrimage with my friends to Nando’s.nandos-clink-street-london  Needless to say, I could see why Rav was bonkers about it as Nando’s serves roasted Portuguese/Mozambican chicken.  You have the option of choosing a quarter chicken,  half chicken, or wings with optional sides.  They also have salads, burgers, pittas, and wraps.  On this occasion I went for the half chicken, a side of chips (fries for Amurika), and some macho peas.  Once I ordered my food, I went to the sauce bar which has bottles that range from a pleasant lemon and herb to a mouth-scorching extra-spicy in an ominous black bottle.   The “peri-peri” Rav mentioned back in our college days means “bird’s eye pepper”, and there is a whole lot of it in said extra-spicy sauce.

No fowl play here.  Just good food.

No fowl play here. Just good food.

As for the actual food, the chicken is excellently prepared with plenty of semi-spicy marinade coating the juicy and pure white meat that just barely clings to the bone.  The macho peas were an interesting choice since they were peas seasoned with parsley, mint, and chili which unfortunately tasted like I was consuming minty peas sans chili.  While I like both elements separately, I think they should tinker with the ratio of spices to make this pedestrian side something special.  I’m more partial to their garlic bread side that not only is very garlicky but crunchy and pliable at the same time.  Their chips are good but nothing that will knock your socks off.  Come for the chicken and stay for the sauce, that’s what I’d recommend.  We ended our night with a couple of pints at the Horniman Pub on the Thames River as we watched Tottenham Hotspur cruise to victory, and I went to bed a very satisfied Yank.

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