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My Neighbor Tokoro

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

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

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

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

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

To Live and Pie in Wicker Park

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

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

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 1: Take a bite

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 2: Enlightenment

Step 3: Devour

Step 3: Devour

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

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

Great Blogs of Fire: Xxxtra Hot Habañero Sauce

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Summer is in full swing as we’re finally in August, and what better to spice up the summer than a fresh hot sauce blog post on Mastication Monologues?  So, today’s entry comes from the Tropical Pepper Company who manufactures their sauces in the wonderful land of Costa Rica.  Although, Costa Rican cuisine isn’t too spicy, the land is ideal for growing the peppers needed to make their signature sauces.  Check out my post here where I reviewed their hazardous ghost pepper sauce.  While the habañero pepper doesn’t come close in spice to the all mighty bhut jolokia, it still does pack a punch like in today’s Xxxtra hot habañero pepper sauce.  First, there is the bottle. IMG_7286 Instead of the toucan being a skeleton like on the ghost pepper sauce, it is much more inviting with some of the peppers you are about to consume in his colorful beak.  Then there is the back of the bottle which is a bit bombastic in hyping up this condiment, but it still ranks as an “ouch” on their heat scale.IMG_7327  Knowing the potency of the first sauce I bought from the Tropical Pepper Company, I preceded with caution when I popped the top to try it out.  What I found was one of the best hot sauces I’ve tried.  The sauce’s color was red with a hint of orange and punctuated with white/yellow pepper seeds floating throughout the mixture.  IMG_7328Plus, it was noticeably thicker than its ghostly predecessor which became apparent when I had to put a bit of elbow grease to get the sauce out of the bottle a la Heinz ketchup.  The ghost pepper salsa, on the other hand, is a super watery, burgundy solution of doom.  I didn’t get the hint of any sort of gastrointestinal foreboding from the habañero sauce.  Luckily, the bark was like the bite:  pleasant.  Mind you, I have higher tolerance for spicier foods, so if you’re not used to eating fiery meals, don’t dive headfirst into this pool party.  However, I found it to be an interesting mix of elements.  From the outset, it had a kick of spice with a vinegar-fueled tang but with super subtle sweet notes that I think might be attributed to the use of pineapples in the recipe.  The spice quickly ebbed to a more understated, slow burn on my tongue as I ate more of it and got used to its smooth flavor.

Final Score

Flavor:  9/10
Spice:  6/10
Overall:  7.5/10       It’s a spicy, but not too spicy sauce compared to the hype job its packaging does for it.  Thankfully, it doesn’t let the                                    spice overwhelm its flavorful self.  Recommend this sauce for wings or perhaps tacos.

Great Blogs of Fire!: Tropical Pepper Company Ghost Pepper Sauce

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues post!  Before I begin, I’d like to recommend a food website that I have been a part of since the outset of my blog, but it has changed in many ways.  While there are lots of websites for restaurant recommendations like Yelp or Trip Advisor, I’d like to make a case for Zomato.  It is similar to the aforementioned websites, but it also integrates other apps like Google Maps and Uber if you need a ride to your restaurant.  I’m currently the number 8th ranked foodie in Chicago and my blog is number two on their list out of hundreds as noted on the side of my blog, so I highly recommend it for new and seasoned bloggers as well if you’re looking for a platform to launch your brand like I did years ago with Urbanspoon.  Anyway, foodie promotion over.  Let’s get back to the food!

Today’s post is another ode to one of the greatest culinary inventions in human history:  hot sauce.  While there are millions of different blends of peppers and ingredients that range from the sweet to savory to Manhattan Project levels of spice, I cannot get enough of these condiments.  I only recently decided to showcase my love for burning my tastebuds with reviews of my latest hot sauce adventures (See post #1 here).  So, I would like to let you know about a great discovery I made this past week:  Tropical Pepper Company’s ghost pepper sauce.  I picked it up from the local grocery store’s hot sauce wall that I’m slowly but surely working my way through, but I’m sure you could find it in any grocery store that has a substantial Latin American section.  I also chose this sauce at the recommendation of a fellow chili head who works at the store who highlighted the sauce’s ability to scorch your mouth with both heat and flavor.  Naturally, it piqued my interest.  Looking over the bottle, there were plenty of warning signs of the potency of the sauce.  IMG_6349From the skeletal remains of the toucan to the “More than one drop is suicide” warning on the upper label, it all made me all the warier based on previous history with this creation of the devil in the USA and overseas.  Oh yeah, and this quaint description on the back. IMG_6572 The Naga/Bhut/Bih Jolokia pepper originates from the far eastern regions of India and also Bangladesh.  It was once considered the hottest pepper in the world at 800,000 to 1,000,000 Scoville units of spiciness which made me skeptical of the number given on the back of the bottle as only 500,000 Scoville units.  To give you an idea of spice, a typical jalapeno pepper is around 10,000 Scoville units.  My following experience could only be summed up by Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, “Too hot!  Hot damn!”.  The name either comes from the fierce Naga warriors of Nagaland or Bih comes from Assamese for “poison” since its so hot.  As for the origin of the more popular “ghost” name,  athe home of the Bhut Jolokia website provides this explanation, “The word Bhut, given from the Bhutias people, means “ghost” and was probably given the name because of the way the heat sneaks up on the one who eats it”.  This was surprisingly accurate when I finally sampled the sauce.   When I opened the bottle to drizzle on some tacos, I sniffed it first to get a snoot full of slightly vinegary hints of fire.  When I poured the candy apple red sauce on the tacos, it was more watery than I was expecting.  Upon my first bite, I found it to compliment the taco contents with an initial subtle spice that almost had a jerk seasoning slant to it with a modicum of sweetness.  However, as time went on, my appetite lit the fuse on this powderkeg of sauce.  The heat kept on building and building to leave me with a constant layer of sweat on my brow and a noticeably higher level of salivation from the sheer heat in my mouth.  Janice even told me that my lips and surrounding area was extremely red after enjoying this sauce, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I know it might seem weird, but I find pleasure in the afterburn in my mouth after eating a spicy sauce.

So here’s my general review of  Tropical Pepper Company’s ghost pepper sauce:

Flavor:  8/10  Full of semi-sweet fruity and slightly smoky notes that are surprisingly for such a spicy sauce
Spice:  8/10    While the label is slightly misleading in terms of underestimating the heat, it has a good level of spice that sneaks up on                              you, but is manageable if you’re experienced with this type of firepower (pun intended)
Overall:  8/10   This is one of the best ghost pepper sauces I’ve ever tried, comparable to Jake Melnick’s XXX wings sauce, where there                              is a nice balance of both spice and flavor instead of just tongue melting heat.

Costa Rica (Day 4)- Willy Wonka In the Jungle and Dining In a Drug Port

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It is almost the new year, and that means that I got to squeeze in these last few Costa Rica posts before starting anew in 2015 (fingers crossed).  What does the future hold for Mastication Monologues?  The sky is the limit I think if I keep up the great material, and all you readers out there keep on enjoying my posts.  Plus, I just got picked up to write for Localeur, named by Forbes as one of the top travel apps of 2015, so things are already turning up Milhouse.  More to come on that.  Anyway, today’s entry is going to be quite the sweet treat that began over breakfast back in San Jose.  If you want to read from the beginning of our vacation, click here.

Day 4 in Costa Rica started with a fresh breakfast of delicious mangos that were served up in an exquisite manner by Janice. IMG_5202 We had bought them a day earlier at a roadside fruit stand that went beyond apples and oranges.  After taking a bite, I became ravenous and destroyed the rest of the super sweet and satisfying pulp.  Having all of this fresh fruit around was yet another reason we came to love Costa Rica.  We met up with our group and proceeded northeast from San Jose toward Braulio Carillo National Park.  Before we got there, we had a rest stop at a roadside restaurant and gas station.  We were still hungry after our mango breakfast, so Janice and I got empanadas to go.  It was the perfect mini meal.  They were fried and greasy which I loved, and they were stuffed with a ton of ingredients. IMG_5206 Janice’s had a lot of smooth but not very bold cheese, but mine was a whole lot better.  IMG_5208It was filled with gallo pinto which we first had on day two before our Pacific cruise and chicharrones or fried pork skins. IMG_5209 It was best breakfast for on-the-go Ticos (“Costa Ricans” in the local dialect) which combined semi-savory rice, hearty beans, and crunchy yet chewy pieces of pork.  When we finally arrived at the national park, we started on the trail toward the chocolate presentation the forest rangers had prepared for us.  At one point in time, we passed over a huge river while being hooted at by a family of howler monkeys.  The jungle was getting more and more humid as the drizzle came down around us like a wet blanket. We eventually reached the theobroma, the variety of chocolate grown there (“food of the gods” in Greek), trail that led to the presentation pavilion.IMG_4072IMG_4080  Being a chocolate lover, I was greatly intrigued being in the heartland of where one of my favorite types of candy originated.  We started with an introduction to the cacao pods that grow in the jungle, and the white seeds that can be found in the fruits. IMG_4125IMG_4081 Our guide gave out free seed samples to eat, and the key was to suck on them until the white pulp melted away.IMG_4083IMG_4085  It tasted like lychees actually, but then the seeds were needed for the next step in the chocolate making process.  IMG_4086We learned that the early Mesoamericans ate and spit out these seeds throughout Latin America while migrating since it gave them energy for the long hikes.  These migrations combined with seed spitting led to the spread of cacao plants both north and south of Costa Rica.  After handing our slobber-coated seeds back to our guide, he showed us the second step in chocolate production:  fermentation.IMG_4088  These seeds are placed in a large box with micro-organisms that eventually results in a completely pure bean consisting of cacao solids and cocoa butter. IMG_4090 We could taste the beans, and it could be likened to a 80% cacao dark chocolate bar.IMG_4097IMG_4098IMG_4094  The next step in the process took a turn for the historical.  The presenters took out a large volcanic stone basin known as a metate and a super hot stone called a metlapil, both Nahuatl words for the Mayan tools used in chocolate grinding.  As one of the guides got down to business, he offered us the chance to try our hands at making coarse cocoa powder.  I went first, and I couldn’t believe how stoic the guide was when he was using the metlapil.  I could only hold it for two seconds at a time tops it was so hot.  Janice tried it too, but she was smart and used her long sleeps as oven mitts. IMG_4101IMG_4102 After a couple more minutes of playing Mayan hot potato, a semi-fine cocoa powder resided in the metate.  However, our main guide informed us that when Spanish nuns arrived after the Conquistadores, they realized they could make this bitter Mayan treat a lot more palatable for Spanish tastes by adding sugar and cinnamon to the mix.  IMG_4105We also got a chance to try a European grinder that was a lot more labor intensive, but you weren’t burning your fingerprints off in the process.IMG_4107IMG_4109  Once finished, we took the very fine powder and mixed it with hot water to make one of the most sacred drinks of the Maya. IMG_4113 It was only served to the upper classes, priests, and kings.  The Mayan chocolate drink was then made to be frothy by pouring it back and forth between cups to get the ideal espuma or foam on top.  You can see a Mayan illustration of the process behind our guide in the picture below.  IMG_4116 However, the Spaniards disliked this drink, known in Nahuatl as cacagua, because it was bitter and literally means “poo water” in Spanish (caca + agua), and probably tasted like it to them before the addition of sugar and cinnamon.  We also saw how the Spaniards made the drink frothy by using what looked like a 16th Century egg beater. IMG_4117 Then, in true Maya fashion, we were allowed to put in some classic additives the chocolate producers would introduce to their varieties to make them more popular.  In this instance we had corn starch, ground pepper, chile, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Right to left:  corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Right to left: corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Too bad they didn’t allow us to mix in some tobacco and smoke it as the Maya once did.  Instead of scorching my lungs, I went for a literal hot chocolate with a lot of chile, some ground pepper, a dash of vanilla extract, and some corn starch to thicken the drink.  It was plenty spicy, but I didn’t note any thickening of the watery mixture. IMG_4123 The chocolate was sublime as we sipped to the sound of the gently falling rain and the rustling of agoutis in the underbrush and calls of exotic birds in the distance.  After that, we heard that the chocolate powder to make chocolate bars is first pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cacao solids.  This is where our guide dropped a huge bomb on us:  white chocolate is not chocolate!!  What it actually is is a bar of cocoa butter, sugar, and condensed milk.  Basically it’s eating a bar of fat with no chocolate involved.  After pressing, the cacao solids are then melted in a kiln and the result is liquid deliciousness.IMG_4124  We got to eat spoonfuls of the milk chocolate goop along with two fresh chocolate shapes. IMG_4126IMG_4129 IMG_4130 To end the demonstration, we got a bag of cocoa beans that we could cook at home or exchange for post cards.  IMG_4131Like Gollum, I kept my precious to eat at home.  On our walk back through the forest we saw real cocoa pods on the trees that were infected with a fungus that shut down the chocolate plantation that used to be in that very same jungle.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

This fungus devastated the chocolate industry in Costa Rica, and that’s why the biggest chocolate producers are in West Africa now.  We went back to the entrance for lunch which was another buffet with rice and beans, but there were also three new items on the menu:  heart of palm, fried yuca, and chayote. IMG_4135 The heart of palm is a vegetable that literally comes from within certain palm trees, and I could liken it to a non-offensive artichoke.  The fried yuca literally tasted like deep fried potato slices, and the chayote tasted like squash.

Heart of palm and chayote

Heart of palm and chayote

For dessert, there was flan that was not too runny that I really enjoyed especially with the drizzle of super sweet caramel on top.IMG_4139  Once we finished our tour in the national park, our bus driver took us back to the roadside restaurant and gas station where we got our empanadas in the morning.  Janice and I broke off from the group with our new driver, Rigoberto, to go to the Caribbean coast since we were going to see the Sloth Sanctuary the next day.  After a long drive and night had fallen, our cordial driver stopped in the port city of Limón.  Our condo owner, Mark, warned us of drug trafficking and violence in the town, and it fit the bill.  Large groups of shady guys hanging out on street corners.  Prostitutes chilling outside truck depots.  Kids lighting off firecrackers in huge groups of people that could have been mistaken for gunshots.  Rigoberto, a native Costa Rican, looked super wary as we parked the car outside a typical Costa Rican greasy spoon diner or a “soda” in Costa Rican Spanish called Happy Landing.  He made sure we left nothing in the car, and looking at our surroundings I could see why when he said many people don’t like to come to this area.  We walked in, and the place could have used new lights and a new coat of paint.  IMG_5221 IMG_5220We looked at the menu, and it was all Chinese food!  Classic Costa Rican cuisine haha.  I decided to get the chow mein, and Janice just got fried chicken.  While we were waiting, Rigoberto got randomly pulled into a convo with a guy who had at least ten empty beer bottles in front of him on the table (see pic above; drunky is in plaid).  Eventually, my food came out, and it was the most ridiculous Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten some interesting things in China. IMG_5223 IMG_5224 They fried the noodles, and put them on the side like a bread basket or something like that.  The ingredients were all mushed together and not very flavorful.  Janice’s fried chicken came out way later than my plate or Rigoberto’s for some reason, but this diner was not worth stopping for.  We safely made our way out of the drug port and deeper into the dark jungle to find our hotel.  Rigoberto hadn’t been to the coast since 1986, so he was as lost as we were.  Google Maps to the rescue!  We eventually had to traverse a dirt and gravel path in the jungle to get to our destination, Kenaki Lodge, that was across from the beach.  The gates opened, and we were greeted by a French woman and her poochy parade.IMG_5228  We quickly became friends with them, including my best bud the Great Dane. IMG_5227 It was a long day of adventures and food sampling that left us looking forward to the day to come as we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach.

Smoking the Competition

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Howdy, partners!  I’d like to welcome y’all to Mastication Monologues where you’ll read some of the most unique and creative restaurant reviews in the world.  I’ve been around the world and eaten many interesting meals, but I have to say that American barbecue is one of the most comforting foods I’ve tried and enjoyed.  The word “barbecue” originates from the Taino Indian word “barabicu” that was adopted by the Spanish as “barbacoa” and eventually made it to English as the form we have now.  As for the origin of the cooking method, it was a Colombian exchange moment to thank for it.  First, the Spanish introduced the pig, the staple of American barbecue, to the Americas, and the Native Americans showed European settlers how to smoke the meat and slow roast it over different types of wood to get different flavors.  All of this slowly evolved as the barbecue we know today. However, if you go to different parts of the United States and ask for barbecue, you will encounter regional specialties that highlight the resources local cooks can utilize.  For example, Hawaiian barbecue does have pork, but it is served in a luau style with a full pig roast and tropical fruit based sauces.  While Midwestern sauces are tomato based and much sweeter than the spicier sauces from Texas.  The list goes on and on, but today’s restaurant, Green Street Smoked Meats, falls into the Texas category of barbecue.

We ended up at Green Street in the middle of the day of all days for a foodie:  Taste Talks.  While we were still reeling from meeting the famous and friendly Rick Bayless, we really were fading from hunger after talking about so much delicious food.  So we decided to go to Green Street Smoked Meats.  It was set back in a charming alley that would be hopping during the summer but not during our drizzly gray afternoon. IMG_4429IMG_4428 Upon walking in, we were greeted with the jazzy baseline of Jerry Lee Lewis and sawdust on the floor.IMG_4410  It was set up like a quirky Texas bbq roadhouse like you might find in the Lone Star state.  There were beers in old sinks filled with ice you could pick up before wandering up to the food board that was hanging in front of the all wood smoker.IMG_4414  We perused the menu as the chefs were expertly slicing ribs, pork belly, and this sweet sweet brisket.

A thing of beauty

A brisket beauty

IMG_4412 IMG_4413 IMG_4408  Eventually we decided on getting a half pound of pork belly ($12.50), a Frito pie ($6), spicy pickles ($4.95), and potato salad ($4.95).  Once they served it all to us on a tray, cafeteria style, we got a seat at one of the communal bench seats in the main dining area.  We also needed something to drink, so I bellied up to the bar to get Janice a beer she noticed at the bar due to its, shall we say, “distinctive” draft handle.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

IMG_4409 IMG_4425I later found out that this beer was called a Morning Wood that was brewed in Chicago and was a lip-smacking, mildly malty red ale ($9). IMG_4422 As for me, I got a cheaper Lone Star beer ($4) which dates all the way back to 1884. IMG_4421 The price justified the flavor.  It was your typical American lager with roots in German pilsner traditions, i.e. light on taste and body.  However, it was clean and refreshing while sampling all of our food. IMG_4451 First, all of it was the perfect amount of food for the two of us.IMG_4452  Second, the pork belly was a meaty masterpiece.  IMG_4418Not only was it sliced to an ideal thickness to let it melt on your tongue, but the peppercorn crust combined with the smoke gave it a real bold flavor with a spicy afterbite that kicked its spurs into your palate.  The Frito pie has made many appearances on King of the Hill, including an episode where a Bostonian client’s wife was taken aback by this spicy Southern treat.  I think the best way to describe this unique Texan side would be corn chip nachos.IMG_4417  It was served up in the Frito bag, and the chips were covered with cheese, ground beef, beans, and jalapenos.  Unfortunately, taste-wise it wasn’t as big as the state it hails from.  The Fritos were too soggy due to the massive amount of toppings, so it just tasted more like a chili with a couple jalapenos on top with the occasional crunch.  The spicy pickles were not as disappointing but not spectacular. IMG_4419 True, they were sour and provided a fresh alternative to the heavier meat dishes, but I didn’t really understand where the “spicy” element was.  I just tasted a lot of vinegar and pickling brine coursing over the onions and pickles.  Finally, there was the potato salad that was actually the better of the two veggie sides.IMG_4420  It utilized small red potato segments coated in a semi-thick slathering of cumin-infused mayo that gave the tubers a funky zest with each forkful.

Overall, our trip to Green Street Smoked Meats was an enjoyable visit during a day all about food.  While I’m sure it doesn’t truly recreate the true Texas flavor like the home of the Cowboys and the Bush family, I’d recommend it as a fun and finger-licking good time and one of the best barbecue joints in Chicago.  Just remember to bring your wallet, buckaroo!
Green St Smoked Meats on Urbanspoon

Pane and Pleasure

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There’s nothing I love more than a perfectly made sandwich.  From the crunchy bread to the random assortment of ingredients that reside between the foundation layers, it is a meal that can be customized for anyone from any walk of life.  Ergo, there are a plethora of different sandwich shops throughout the Chicagoland area, and I’d like to tell you today about Panes Bread Cafe.IMG_3895

I had never heard of this establishment prior to a random visit there with my girlfriend.  I didn’t really know what to expect from a place called a “bread cafe”.  I’m sure there would be coffee involved, but then what?  Random slices of bread to go with your espresso?  Anyway, we walked in and were greeted by a brightly painted interior decorated with an eclectic mix of Latin American artifacts, Italian movie posters, and colorful murals.   IMG_3894We walked up to the order counter and looked over the menu. IMG_3890 Panes offers everything from soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas, but I was eventually swayed to the bread side as I looked over the sandwiches.  While they had more tame options like a ham and cheese or a B.L.T., I went for the devilish pollo diablo ($5.95).  My girlfriend got the pompazo sandwich ($5.95).

They both came out about 10 minutes later as they constructed and pressed each fresh panini sandwich to perfection.  They both looked great with the golden potato chips on the side. IMG_3891 I wouldn’t consider my sandwich anything that would render Satan a hot mess due to the spicyness, but it had a slight kick due to the spicy mayo and peppery spice rub on the juicy, all white chicken breast. IMG_3892IMG_3893 I personally thought that the bread really brought the sandwich to the next level.  The pompazo was ok, but I felt that the rich and verdant pesto overshadowed the chicken, tomatoes, and cheese.  Pesto-avalanche aside, I was impressed by their fresh ingredients on perfect bread that was hefty enough to deal with me tearing through it like Pac Man in the labyrinth of white dots.  As for the potato chips, I really liked them because they were crisp but not too salty.

I highly recommend Panes Bread Cafe if you’re looking for a cozy cafe that offers plenty of fresh sandwiches that won’t cost you that much bread.

Panes Bread Cafe on Urbanspoon

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