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Nuevo Sabor That’s No Chore

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

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

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

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

Nuevo Leon on Urbanspoon

Punch House: A Real Knockout

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At the punch-bowl’s brink,
Let the thirsty think,
What they say in Japan:
First the man takes a drink,
Then the drink takes a drink,
Then the drink takes the man!
– Edward Rowland Sill 
Truer words were never spoken by Mr. Sill, a mostly forgotten American poet, especially in regard to today’s post on Mastication Monologues where I entered the exciting world of punch making.
My friend Janice had mentioned that she had extra tickets to a punch making class at an establishment called “Punch House“, so I agreed to partake in this mysterious endeavor.  I didn’t really know much about it aside from it being located in the vibrant center of Mexican culture in Chicago, a.k.a. Pilsen.  However, I was shocked to find that it was located in Thalia Hall, a concert hall from 1890 that was modeled after Prague’s opera house.Exterior-1024x682  It is a relic of the original Czech inhabitants of Pilsen who eventually left once Latino immigrants began to enter the neighborhood.  Thalia Hall’s doors were closed in 1960, but in 2013, the hall has been reopened to the public as a music and dining venue.  Upon walking into Dusek’s, the restaurant on the first floor bearing the last name of Thalia Hall’s founder, we checked in and were quickly hustled downstairs to Punch House.  From Dusek’s to Punch House, I was taken aback with how elegantly it was decorated like a retro lounge that gave off a vibe of yesteryear with a touch of class.IMG_3069  We were greeted by the hosts and found an open booth complete with all of the tools we needed to make Dusek Punch, the house’s signature drink. IMG_3068 The class started with a brief history of punch and punch making.  Fun fact:  the word “punch” is actually a loan word from Hindi.  The drink and word came to England from India in the early 1600s due to early colonial trading routes.  “Punch” in Hindi means “five” which is a reference to the original five punch ingredients (tea/water, spices, alcohol, sugar, and lemon) or the balance of the following five elements of flavor.IMG_3071  It became a favorite drink for English traders and sailors as a refreshing alcoholic beverage that almost always contained rum but enough water to keep them semi-hydrated.  Ok, enough with the history lesson, let’s get down to the punch making.  First, we had to peel the lemons in order to make oleo-saccharum or literally “oily sugar” in Latin.  It would provide the citrus zest for our punch later.  Once the ladies peeled the lemons (I was deemed a threat to myself due to my spastic lemon peeling), we then poured some sugar on the peels to introduce the sweet element to our work in progress.  Soon thereafter, I was in charge of muddling the ingredients until the peels began to excrete their natural oils. IMG_3072 While I was going to town doing the ground and pound to the bowl’s contents, the waitress came over and patronizingly/humorously showed me proper muddling technique.  It became a reoccurring punch line (pun intended) throughout the class much to the amusement of my female companions.  However, it was my time to shine when I had to juice the lemons for the sour portion of the punch.  I should have had my jersey retired with how much juice I got out of the fruit since I even got a couple nods and “good jobs” from the staff when they walked by our table. 10260012_10101616963868411_1608183499052232420_n In the middle of my award-winning performance, they allowed us to order other pre-made punches or beverages to sample.  I originally went with a milk punch recipe from 1711, but since they didn’t have any made, I settled for the Philidelphia Fish House Punch ($8) which was originally invented in 1732.  Needless to say, for a 282 year old recipe, it tasted barely over 100 years old it was so refreshing.IMG_3075  It consisted of Gosling’s black seal rum, Landy cognac, Mathilde Peche liquor, lemon, and angostura bitters.  I could liken it to a sweet, peach-infused Hawaiian Punch that had a moderate kick to let you know you were drinking alcohol but didn’t rip your face off.  Eventually, it came time to combine all of the flavors in the large bowl since the oleo-saccharum was ready.  We started with pouring in a hot cup of water and followed it up with the lemon juice and dark ale. IMG_3076IMG_3073 Finally, we had to add the Templeton Rye whiskey.  Josah was flipping out about since it’s from her motherland, Iowa, and it’s also special since the recipe was born out of the crooked times of American prohibition.Rye  Nothing better than enjoying a spirit with a colorful past.  Now, we could have simply slopped it into the bowl like regular squares, but they taught us how to do the fancy “tornado pour”.  I got to do the honors because I was the only one with hands big enough to grip the bottom of the bottle.  Check me out putting the finishing touches on the punch with the tornado pour here.  After we let it sit for a bit, the staff strained it all into a large glass container, but it proved to be a bit too difficult for Joe the waiter since a quarter of it went on our table.10313748_10101613763422131_1817890989632858173_n  So, they made it up to us by hooking us up with their secret tequila infused punch and experimental pop-top bottle for punch on- the-go.  Believe me, it definitely made up for it as the tequila punch made this tequila hater into a fan.
Overall, we left very satisfied with our experience, and it was a fun and informative activity for those of you looking for something different to do in Chicago.  Not only can you enjoy a piece of Chicago history in the form of Thalia Hall, but you can learn a new skill while making new memories with friends.  I highly recommend Punch House’s punch making classes.

Dusek's on Urbanspoon

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