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Good But Not Gr8

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Welcome to Mastication Monologues!  If this is your first time here, prepare to be amazed with some of the most unique and delicious food adventures you’ve ever seen.  If you’re coming back, then thank you so much for your support and your views.  Remember to always tell your friends about my reviews as well.  So, today’s post deals with a cuisine that I never really dabbled seriously in until recently:  Vietnamese food.  For a majority of my life, I ate mostly Chinese or Japanese food, but then I started dating my lovely gf Janice who just so happened to live next to Little Vietnam in Chicago.  Therefore, the amount of Vietnamese restaurants I have tried now have increased greatly, and Pho 888 is one of them.

If you walk down Argyle street, you’ll be beckoned by every storefront since there is a plethora of Vietnamese eateries and Chinese bakeries like the iconic Tank Noodle shop or Bale Sandwiches, but I wanted to try Pho 888 since I had heard good things about it.  Plus, it didn’t seem as Hollywood as the more popular eateries.IMG_6026 Janice, Michael, and I hit this place up back in December a.k.a. life in the Ice Age.  So, they both wanted to get the quintessential Vietnamese dish, pho, but I was in the mood for something different.  Inside, the place was super simply furnished with plenty of chili sauces and seasonings on the table.  It’s literally a dining room and a kitchen.IMG_4917 The menu was huge like any good Asian restaurant, and the prices were pretty cheap (range of 4-12 bucks per item). IMG_4916 After a bit of deliberation, we made our choices and waited for the food to come out.  The first dish we sampled were the gỏi cuốn or “salad rolls” in English.  They consisted of bún (vermicelli noodles), cooked shrimp, herbs, greens, and it was all wrapped up in bánh tráng (rice paper). IMG_4918 These rolls were served at room temperature and were a refreshing alternative to fried spring rolls that sometimes can be too greasy.  The tương xào (hoisin sauce) that was served on the side had peanut pieces in it, but all of it put together was delectable.  The sticky rice paper was strong enough to hold all of the ingredients within its insanely thin cocoon.  Everything from the shrimp to the fresh cilantro and lemongrass made this dish really pop, and dipping the rolls in the sweet hoisin sauce blended well with the herbal notes from the vegetables.  As for the vermicelli, it provided a much needed body to the rolls and a solid foundation for the house party that was happening in my mouth.  The other appetizer we got, the fried shrimp balls, were quite the opposite experience. IMG_4920 While they looked scrumptious on the outside with their golden brown exteriors with an accompaniment of greens, pickled radish, and some sweet and sour dipping sauce on the side, what we found inside was horrifyingly gross.  IMG_4922I don’t know what was inside them, but it was like eating pre-chewed eggs mixed with seafood with the consistency of cream cheese.  I’ll just leave you with that image.   On the plus side, my main course came out soon thereafter I tasted one of these horrid appetizers.  I got the chả tôm (shrimp cake) and pork combo that was paired with more noodles, greens, pickled radish and carrot salad, fresh cucumbers, rice paper, and a bowl of warm water to make my own gỏi cuốn.  IMG_4923I tried a bit of the shrimp cake, but I really didn’t like it.  It was more fishy tasting than the fresh shrimp from the salad rolls we ate earlier in the meal, and it just seemed oddly artificial with its orange, spongy, Nerf-like interior yet wrinkled, glistening exterior.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

 

That cake ain't right

That cake ain’t right

So, I focused more on eating the seasoned pork that was stir fried in a chili sauce that had plenty of personality to make up for the awkward shrimp cakes on my plate.  So, I set to making my first Vietnamese spring roll.  First, I had to take one of the rice paper disks and submerge it in the warm water.IMG_4924  Once wet, I placed it on my plate, and I placed my ingredients in the middle of the nearly invisible Vietnamese version of a tortilla.IMG_4927  Then came the tricky part.  Rolling this rice paper up into a presentable roll was way more difficult than making a taco since the edges of the rice paper were incredibly sticky which meant that if you didn’t position your toppings right while rolling, then you risked a lopsided roll that will explode all over your hands/clothes when you bite into it.  After some trial and error, I finally got the hang of it, and it was an interactive meal that I really enjoyed.  As for Michael’s and Janice’s pho, I found it to be just below Tank Noodle’s version since it seemed to be a bit more on the salty side, but it still was delicious and kept us warm against the frigid conditions outside.

So if you’re looking for a real authentic Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago that may not be the best but does have simple and fresh food for reasonable prices, check out Pho 888.
Pho 888 on Urbanspoon

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Woosah at Yeowoosai

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Fried chicken.  Is there any other food that is more quintessentially ‘Murikan?  Actually, I’ll have to stop you right there.  Fried chicken actually has its roots in Scotland where they coated their chicken and made it so much tastier than the boiled and baked versions of the poultry dish down south in England.  They carry on the tradition even today of consuming everything fried including Mars bars and cookies.  There is also evidence that West African cuisine utilized fried chicken for ceremonial meals.  Ergo, when both European immigrants from Scotland and African slaves arrived in the American South, the culinary traditions of both groups became woven into the fabric of the multi-colored patchwork that is our country’s food history.  However, what many people wouldn’t associate with fried chicken is Korea.  In fact, during my time in the Land of the Morning Calm, I sampled some of their fried delights that were an extra-greazy reminder of home in an otherwise kimchi-laden environment.  However, Yeowoosai in Chicago’s Koreatown manages to combine both American and Korean cuisine with a sports bar atmosphere that conveniently has a noraebang (or karaoke) attached.

It’s located in a small strip mall, but little did I know that my tastebuds and my world were about to be rocked into submission.IMG_4333  It was quite empty when we went, but I’m sure it gets quite bumping on the weekend.  IMG_4334We didn’t look at the menu since Janice ordered for me since she gets the same thing every time she goes there:  the 닭디겜 (daktigem or popcorn chicken).  We also got  김치볶음밥 (kimchi bokkeumbap or kimchi fried rice).  However, they do offer plenty of Korean classics like 비빔밥 (bibimbap or a rice bowl with meat and veggies), 김치찌개 (kimchi jjigae or kimchi soup), and  갈비 and 불고기 (galbi or grilled ribs and bulgogi or marinated beef).  The entire time we were waiting, Janice was building up this food, but I didn’t believe how good it really was going to be.  It’s not like I haven’t seen popcorn chicken or fried rice before.  How severely mistaken I was.  First the popcorn chicken came out.  It was literally the size of a wash basin and my potential food baby was lying in it.  It was served with a side of “yellow sauce” and a pickled jalapeno and radish mix.  IMG_4339This was hands-down the best popcorn chicken I’ve ever tried in my life.  From the smooth, buttery, yet light breading to the juicy all white meat nuggets that were quickly filling my stomach, I couldn’t get enough.  Then when I dipped them into the yellow sauce which I figured must be some type of mayonnaise and horseradish concoction with a hint of pepper, a dash of crack, and a soupçon of meth mixed in (seriously though, no drugs were involved in the making of this delicious meal), it finally happened.  I was and still am addicted to Yeowoosai’s popcorn chicken and yellow sauce complete with meat sweats and shakes.  As for the jalapeno and radish salad, I thought it was a refreshing, cool, tangy, and slightly spicy way to cleanse your palate between mouthfuls of chicken.  Then there was the kimchi fried rice.  We just got the original with Spam and eggs.  Why put Spam in a meal when you have a choice not to?  Why not use beef, chicken, or pork?  Well, Spam in Korean cuisine is actually a carry over from the Korean War period where food was scarce, but the American military ate Spam.  So, that’s what the local populace scavenged from the GI army bases to make meals.  While South Korea has made great advances since then, Spam still is seen as a luxury gift.  This often bewilders Americans and other Westerners when Korean shoppers are clamoring to buy Spam giftsets for loved ones at Christmas and Chuseok or Thanksgiving Day.   The American armed forces has also made Spam popular in other places like the Philippines and Hawaii.  Hooray for spreading terrible quasi-meat around the world!  Anyway, the fried rice.  IMG_4340Once again, portion-wise it was gigantic like the popcorn chicken and for a great price.  It was also a quality choice.IMG_4341  Compared to the kimchi fried rice back in the Motherland, it was even better.  It was rich, spicy, but not too spicy.  The pieces of kimchi thrown in provided a texture contrast that popped up now and then between spoonfuls.  I was having multiple moments of being overwhelmed by the large amount of mind-blowingly amazing food in front of me, but eventually my wild ride came to an end as I threw in the towel..er napkin and woosahed .

Long story short, go to Yeowoosai if you want to try a Korean sports bar with plenty of dishes your average ajumma (Korean old woman) would recognize.  Plus, these huge and reasonably priced portions of food will leave both your wallet and stomach stuffed.  Not a bad deal at all.

Yeowoosai on Urbanspoon
 

Heavenly Wings

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Hello and welcome to another wonderful edition of Mastication Monologues!  After a very long weekend of wild adventures with Janice, I bring you another series of food reviews in Chicago.  Today’s post involves Crisp, a Korean fried chicken establishment that made me think of my time in the Land of the Morning Calm.

While Janice and I were trying to figure out where to grab lunch, we settled on Crisp since her friend gave it rave reviews.  I met him once, and he seemed like a trustworthy guy aside from his crazy moves he was busting out on the dance floor.  I heard that it was Korean fried chicken, and I realized that this was the second time I’d be getting fried chicken with Janice (the first was a sweet memory)  I crossed my fingers that it would be just as scrumptious.  My hopes were completely fulfilled and then some. IMG_3235 Upon walking in, we had to shimmy our way past the overflowing tables and dining counters that were filled to the gills just to put in our order.IMG_3227  While looking at the menu, I could see some of the Korean influences like the focus on fried chicken, bibimbap (or the more Americanized moniker “Buddha bowls”), and different types of kimchi or pickled vegetables.  However, they also have burritos, sandwiches, and sides.  Now, you might be wondering, ‘Fried chicken is pure Amurika.  What makes Korean fried chicken different from the Dirty South classic?’  Well, the contrast lies in the sauce they slather on the crunchy chicken pieces.  They have four different flavors you can slap on bone in/bone out wings and whole/half chickens.  I always love my chicken wings, so I went with the ten wing option.  The cashier chuckled, gave me a look, and asked me if it was my first time there.  I replied in the affirmative, and he said that I wouldn’t be able to finish ten wings since they’re huge.  So, I took his word for it and dropped down to five wings ($8.95), three Seoul Sassy sauce and two Crisp BBQ sauce.  I naturally had to try their kimchi, so I didn’t get the typical cabbage but rather the 총각 (chonggak, literally “bachelor” since it was considered a kimchi so simple even single men could make for themselves) radish kimchi ($3.95).  While waiting I saw a lot of different Korean drinks like Milkis stacked up above the bibimbap display or the Bacchus-D energy drink box on our table. IMG_3225 It’s a popular on-the-go beverage for the 빨리 빨리 (bbali bbali; fast fast) Korean lifestyle, and it tastes like drinking liquid Sweet Tarts.IMG_3229  They called my name, and I snapped out of my memories to pick up my grub.  I’m so glad the cashier was honest with me about the size of the wings because these were gargantuan compared to their Buffalo Wild Wing or Hooter counterparts.IMG_3231  I think Janice put it best that they chopped them off pterodactyls.  If that’s what they did, the prices certainly didn’t reflect the costly nature of the undertaking.

Slightly intimidated

Slightly intimidated

 It was a lot of food for a reasonable price.  I started with the Seoul Sassy sauce, and it definitely lived up to its name.  It was a sophisticated blend of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and a bit of molasses for a flavor profile that left my mouth watering.  The chicken itself was great with plenty of white meat, and the skin was incredible.  It wasn’t greasy or soggy and was a perfect representative of the restaurant’s name.  As for the Crisp BBQ sauce, it reflected a meeting of East and West with the smokiness of a North Carolina pig roast, and the spice of Korean gochujang that let you know you were consuming something spicy but not in a mouth-numbing manner.  I couldn’t pick between the two sauces, but there was a game-changer that was on every table:  Allison’s atomic sauce.  Like the A-bomb, it blew me away. IMG_3233 It was a mild, chipotle ranch/mayo mixture that had a cooling effect on the wings yet provided a very subtle peppery zing with each bite.IMG_3234  By my third wing, I was slathering this weapon of mass consumption over every square inch of my chicken.  After finishing my five wings, I had two of Janice’s and still could have eaten more.  Alas, I just focused on my kimchi.IMG_3232  It was cubed and soaking in chili water, and it was just as good as back in Korea.  The radish cubes were crispy, slightly sour, and spicy.  I couldn’t even finish the tub because it was so much for so little money.  By the end, I was ready to literally roll out of there a happy diner.

So if you want to try a Korean twist on an American classic with American sized portions and reasonable prices, check out Crisp in Chicago.  빨리 빨리!!

Crisp on Urbanspoon

A Dirty South (Korean) Classic

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Hello to everyone out there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today’s review partially comes from curiosity but also from an urge to get out of my apartment and check out what is actually in the building I live in.  I’m kind of cooped up right now due to a foot injury from soccer, but here’s to hoping it heals fast!  Anyway, everyday I walk into my building and see a chicken and beer restaurant right across from my elevators.  Not only is this combo a great Ludacris album, but these restaurants are all over Incheon and South Korea metropolis’ in general.  However, one of the key elements of this restaurant in terms of decor is the fact that they use the Hooters owl logo but have changed the name to Boors.  Nevertheless, I hobbled downstairs to see whether this place could measure up to the classic Southern staple I know and love back home.boor

The actual restaurant wasn’t too big, but the guy running it was quite friendly.  He didn’t really speak much English, but I was able to tell him that I wanted four pieces.  He fried them up in front of me which was a nice change from the mass-produced fried chicken that is sitting under heat lamps all day.  Eventually I got my four piece box and a mystery item in a pojang pongtu (to-go bag) for the low low price of 5000 won or roughly 4 bucks.

It says, "Health food" on the box.  Good one

It says, “Health food” on the box. Good one

When I opened up the box, I was greeted with two breasts and two wings.  Plus, I found he put a small packet that I didn’t initally see him put in the bag.  When I opened it up, it was salt…as if fried chicken wasn’t more unhealthy for you, they want to just amp up the possibility of you getting atherosclerosis.  Oh Korea.  Health concerns aside, I tucked into the first piece, and I was pleasantly surprised at the breading and quality of the chicken.  There was a certain lightness and absence of grease in the skin that made it taste different from KFC or Popeyes.  The chicken was all white meat, but  like most things in Korea, not hulking in size in comparison to food portions in the USA.  The wings were a bit of a let down since they were mostly bones and cartilage, but then again, when aren’t they a letdown unless they’re the real Hooters wings?  I even added a little gochujang (red pepper sauce) I had in my fridge, and it provided a nice, semi-bbq flavor to the crispy fried skin.  Once I finished the chicken, I opened the mystery container which looked like it contained some sort of white, translucent cubes.

Some pickled veggies with your deep fried meat?

Some pickled veggies with your deep fried meat?

Upon closer inspection, I thought they were rice cakes, but they were floating in a thin, clear liquid which is odd for rice cakes.  Once I ate a cube, I realized it was some sort of pickled radish that had a slightly sour aftertaste and a semi-crunchy texture.  It was an interesting compliment to fried chicken.  Perhaps they think people who eat this food need to get some sort of vegetable into their diets even if they are pickled.

Overall, I would recommend Boors to anyone in Korea who’s craving a little deep-fried, American goodness if you’re getting tired of tonkatsu (even though that’s impossible).  It makes up for the lack of scantily clad waitresses with quality service and a delicious recipe for fried chicken.

Get Your Roll On

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Hello to everyone out there in cyberspace.  Still on the other side of the world and slowly but surely making my way through Korean cuisine.  Today I finally tried the Korean version of sushi but without fish:  Kimbap.IMG_1148

Originally, I thought that Japanese had the whole “stuff rice and a whole bunch of other ingredients into seaweed” market cornered, but as always, the Koreans manage to provide their own twist on a Chinese or Japanese staple food.  We had just received our rolls of kimbap right after our physical for immigration, so it might have been the hunger talking, but I greatly enjoyed these delightful little rolls.  The rice was sticky, and the seaweed wasn’t too tough.  On the inside, there was a bit of radish, cucumbers, spinach, and some sort of ham (possibly Spam), but they all combined to form a burst of savory flavor.  Surprisingly the meat didn’t overpower the vegetables, but in Korea, everything is seasoned or prepared to bring out the maximum amount of flavor.  So overall, it was a good experience, and it is a good preview to my more adventurous culinary outings during my time here like eating live octopus and dog soup (yeah, they serve both of those things here).  Stay tuned!

Drop It Like It’s Hot Pot! Part 1

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Hello everyone out there and happy new year!  Today’s post I will be doing something that is a bit different from the typical Mastication Monologues that you all know and love.  Instead of reviewing a restaurant, I will be talking about a certain type of cuisine that I have never had before but have always wanted to try:  hot pot.

Now I do love my Panda Express and other types of insanely Americanized Asian food including the ubiquitous fortune cookie and orange chicken, but I always have found authentic Chinese cuisine to be quite interesting in terms of how many different types of ingredients are used and variations there are on dishes depending on which city you are in.  Hot pot is no different.  To ring in 2013 right, my friend David invited me over to his family’s hot pot dinner, so I naturally was honored to be brought along for this culinary adventure.

My gracious hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Wu, and I

My gracious hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Wu, and I

I had already some basic background knowledge about this type of meal going into it, but I quickly found out that hot pot is much more complicated and nuanced than just sticking random vegetables and strips of meat into a boiling pot of water.  Before we even sat down, I was immediately faced with my first new snack of the evening, congealed roe with slices of daikon radish.  I’ve had daikon radish before from sushi platters, but I have never consumed fish eggs in any form.  Upon first glance, I was surprised that the roe looked like small woodchips instead of the more recognizable orange or black caviar pearls.  I ended up eating the roe on the radish like a slice of cheese on a Ritz cracker, and it was an interesting blend of textures and flavors.  Biting through the fish roe felt almost like eating a piece of hard cheese that had elements of beef jerky and smoked fish coursing throughout its semi-smooth interior, and the daikon left a light and crisp impression on my palate.  I helped myself to a couple more servings of this fish dish, but I was quickly whisked away to try a new drink.

The radish is part ninja blending into the top part of the plate

The radish is part ninja blending into the top part of the plate

Even though I had a Blue Moon in my hand, my friend David asked me if I’d like to try a homemade version of soy milk.  Naturally, I said, “Bring it on!”  He led me over to the kitchen where he poured out some pastel green liquid in a cup for me.  I had initially spied these containers of green goop thinking that it was going to be some sort of sauce for meat, but boy was I wrong.  So I took a sip of the soy milk, and it was quite thin in consistency with a mostly neutral taste and slightly grassy undertones.

Soy milk on the right, prawn paste on the right

Soy milk on the left, prawn paste on the right

However, David kicked it up a notch Ming Tsai style by adding some honey to this Chinese drink, and it made it taste sort of like milk with sugar in it.  Plus, the highly viscous honey added a bit more body to the beverage which made it more filling and complimented the spicy three-ring circus that was to come when we finally sat down for the actual hot pot where I managed to finally use chopsticks for an entire meal, eat Chinese pizza, and cheers to the new year…but you’ll have to wait for the next post to hear about the second part of this delectable dinner!

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