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Toronto (Day 3): 10,000 Leagues Over the Jenga Sea

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues and part three in my Canadian food adventures.  Day one consisted of a mouthful of Dirty South cookin’ while day two was a yin and yang of cool waters and fiery dinners.  Day three was interesting in its own respect.  We started off the day nice and early at the Ripley’s aquarium which was pretty entertaining with lots of interesting exhibits and marine specimens.  While the Shedd in Chicago has a lot more of the big animals like belugas and dolphins, the Toronto had bested our hometown museum with a larger variety of strange creatures.  For example, the giant sawfish that was chilling on the aqua tube we walked through as tons of other fish, sharks, and even turtles swam around us. Oh, boy, I would not want to see that stuff from my kayak seat.11692502_10105957338687379_774183563389597382_n 11695737_10105957338243269_4334976029450824065_n  The jellyfish exhibit was probably my favorite part since the cool blacklit chambers really made the little guys look like aliens. IMG_7035 Janice, however, was going bananas over the puffer fish and even crawled into the middle that was intended for the children school groups.  I captured her passion with this pretty cool picture.

In heaven

In heaven

Then there were the petting areas where we had some hands-on action with the sea-beasties.  Janice was freaking out with the horseshoe crabs,IMG_7013 and I finally overcame my fear of petting stingrays…by petting one as big as me.

They can smell my fear

They can smell my fear

Unfortunately, none of the small, petable sharks  were feeling calm enough to be friendly with the guests.  Overall, we highly recommend a visit while you’re here, but try to go in the morning since there will be less hordes of shrieking children.  We proceeded to walk to the nearby turntable that turned out to also be the Steamwhistle brewery.IMG_7044  If you’re into beer and/or classic trains, this is your paradise.

Just try not to get run over

Just try not to get run over

We finally got in after a bit of waiting, and they didn’t even have any food for lunch. IMG_7046 IMG_7045 On the plus side, we got to see the inside of the brewery, get some taster beers, 11707573_10105957366192259_8561669485023787245_n 11750695_10105957366152339_6453658988414354508_nand find our next party bike.11223302_10105957366232179_7567314927165861357_n  The brew that we had there tasted like a slightly hoppy IPA that was light and good for a hot day.  So, instead of just sitting there and waiting for the food truck to come in, we moved onto the harborfront since we had a kayak lesson in the afternoon.  After a moderate constitutional, we found ourselves looking out over Lake Ontario, a perfect backdrop for lunch.  We stumbled upon, surprise surprise, another brewery.  This one was called Amsterdam Brewery, and thankfully it wasn’t jazzed up like some sort of cheesy homage to the Dutch capital.  IMG_7059We got a seat on the patio where there was thankfully some shade, IMG_7050 IMG_7049but it seemed like they were training a lot of new staff.  Thankfully, our waitress was very on the ball since we had a deadline to stuff our faces and make it to the lesson on time.  First world problems.  The meal started with da beers.IMG_7048  Even though the flights looked tempting, they had to wait.  Instead, I got their all natural blonde while Janice got their Big Wheel amber ale.  These big glasses quickly came out, and we had different experiences.  IMG_7051My blonde seemed quite bland and slightly sour, but Janice’s Big Wheel was a tasty balance of caramel undertones and a hoppy aftertaste.  Moving on to food, their menu was a standard  bar and grill mix of mostly sandwiches, pizza, and a few slightly ethnic items thrown in there for good measure.  I enjoyed their code for pairing the food with the beer through a letter system next to each food option like C for a crisp beer next to the fish and chips.  We picked a few things to share before going to burn them off on the water.  First, there were the sweet chili rib ends ($11).  IMG_7052IMG_7053These pork chunks were delectable minus the occasional bone chip we had to make sure not to swallow.  Definitely not a plate for the little ones.  However, the flavor was definitely grown and developed through a mix of sweet chili sauce and a braise of lemongrass, lime leaves, and ginger.  It kind of was like an Asian sweet, spicy, yet tangy twist on an American favorite.  I recommend them.  Then we had to get the Canadian classic dish:  poutine ($8).  This melange of gravy, cheese curds, and French fries was born in rural Quebec in the 1950s, but the origin of the name is highly disputed. IMG_7054 Some believe that it is a Frenchified version of the English word “pudding” while others conjecture it comes from the Quebecois French slang for “mess” or “leftovers”.  There are even links back to France with regional dialects boasting cognates like the southern Provencal word, “poutité” or “hodgepodge” in English.  Whatever you want to call it, it is a super rich comfort food that will make you want to check your cholesterol levels when you’re done.  I’m not a huge fan of the soggy fries that soak up a lot of the gravy on the bottom, but the perfect forkful that combines the beefy with the salty fry and tangy cheese is without parallel.  Speaking of the cheese, at Amsterdam they use Thornloe cheese that has been a Canadian institution since 1940.  Plus, it was founded by a guy named Rene Laframboise or Rene The Raspberry.  Now that’s a cheese company I want to patronize!  To balance this heavy plate, we rounded out the main course with some of the hoisin chicken lettuce wraps ($12).  These were the opposite of the poutine:  light, sweet, and fresh.IMG_7055  They were basically like make your own tacos, but instead of tortillas we had super verdant leaves of lettuce.  The chicken and veggies were stir fried in a light teriyaki sauce, and we received the dark hoisin sauce and a pepper seed laden sauce on the side.  All of these plates together were a great value for good food, and we still had a little bit of room to split a dessert.  We got the flourless chocolate torte ($7) which was totally our jam, literally, given that the raspberry coulis (coo-LEE; from the Latin colare “to strain”) was the perfect compliment to the sinfully sweet slice.IMG_7056  An added bonus was the whipped cream, fresh strawberry, and a mysterious gooseberry that made its way onto our plate. IMG_7057 I had never even seen one of these fruits in real life, so I didn’t know what to expect from it.  Our waitress warned us that some diners didn’t care for its “interesting” and super sour taste.  So, I braced myself for the worst when I popped the small, bright yellow berry in my mouth and bit down.  I was greeted with a more neutral, partially earthy flavor washing over my palate.  It barely left an impression on me before it was gone.  Guess the kayak gods were smiling on us as we got the check and were running to the kayak dock.  It was a glorious day for a paddle, and before we knew it, we were in our dual kayak.  Our task of getting to the channel islands was harder than expected since we had to try to not get run over by the numerous boats and water taxis that were creating giant waves as well.  As if that wasn’t enough, there were airplanes zooming overhead because the landing strip was out by the islands.  Definitely got the blood pumping.  Eventually, we got to the islands and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon on the calm waters.  It’s also a great experience if you want some fantastic photo ops for the Toronto skyline like we got. 11540821_10105957366820999_7769503925293810602_n Going back to port was maybe that just much harder given the constant paddling we had done for the previous three hours.  By the time we reached the dock, we were ready for a nap before going out with Aaron and Alyssa.  Once we regroups, we were back at the harborfront with the gang, and funny enough they were going to bring us to Amsterdam Brewhouse!  Instead we wandered about taking in the Friday night surroundings,11745761_10105957366975689_7832020117414013761_n including Janice climbing into this contraption that looked like Dr. Seuss’ pimp-mobile.11694806_10105957367190259_489136461148223093_n  Just par for the course.  Eventually, we decided to go out to a bar or two for food and drinks.  We hit up the Wellington first for food and then the Banknote.  Unfortunately, I don’t have pics for the Wellington, but it had some great nachos.  It’s a cozy bar/restaurant too.  The Banknote, on the other hand, was a great bar for late night shenanigoats.  It was there that I tried another one of the Canadian beers that was also offered at the Amsterdam brewhouse:  the Boneshaker IPA.  Boneshaker TBS Bottle Shot1It was surprisingly palatable given that I’m not the biggest fan of the typically hop-heavy IPA style of beers.  Luckily, my bones weren’t shaking too much given that we played over three hours of Jenga that they have at their main long table.11249766_10105957367329979_2502322992411108169_n 11709773_10105957367389859_5852861961107866960_n  Then again, when you’re having a good time with great company, it’s bound to happen.11695752_10105957367903829_7768437875094248237_n  Talk about a wild Friday and penultimate night in TO!11695777_10105957367604429_5737441334686934831_n
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Costa Rica (Day 5)- Sloth Sanctuary = BOO-YA, Grandma!

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BARKBARKWOWOFOFUFFUFUFWOOFFBARKBARK!!!!!!!  We awoke in Costa Rica on day five of our vacation to the calming sound of a loudly barking pack of dogs at 5 am.  We had made friends with them the night before when we arrived at Kenaki Lounge, so I would have thought that they would have at least kept the woofing to a minimum before 8 am.

So friendly at night.

So friendly at night.

Instead, we found that the entire pooch army had encamped right outside our door with the big Great Dane literally like a giant rock wedged up against our sliding door.  With a bit of finesse and good humor, we got the big guy out of the way, and he greeted me with a smooch.IMG_5231  The sun hadn’t risen yet, but our lodging was quite luscious in the daytime.  IMG_5232We set out to see the beach that was right across the dirt road in front of our hotel, and after a bit of bushwhacking through some mud and palm trees, we finally managed to reach the Caribbean Sea.IMG_5234  The sunrise was absolutely beautiful; I really couldn’t say that about the beach.  Compared to the clear, sapphire waters on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, the turgid waters were silty and poo colored like the sand on our sandals.  It was more jungle-esque with more bugs too, but both were pretty in their own unique ways.  After walking back, we managed to find a normal path that we could have taken initially instead of jumping over soggy, muddy ditches.  We arrived back at our room to be summoned for a fresh breakfast of fruit and gallo pinto, of course, to be eaten on the deck in the open air.

Our view over breakfast

Our view over breakfast

IMG_5250IMG_5244  The starfruit were my favorite additions to the fruit plate since they were juicy yet sour which provided a nice contrast to the juicy watermelon and sweet pineapple.   On the side, we had a hot cup of tea along with a mix of papaya and orange juice. IMG_5245 Normally, I’m not a huge fan of papaya (the orange slice on the fruit plate) since it doesn’t really taste like much aside from the occasional hint of fecal matter.  I know it sounds odd, but that’s just my impression of it.  By the time we were chowing down on the last delicious remnants of our breakfast, our driver Rigoberto had arrived to whisk us to what we had been waiting for the entire trip:  the sloth sanctuary!!  When we arrived, we could hardly contain our excitement as everything sloth was surrounding us (even the road signs). IMG_5255 Our first close encounter with one of the slow creatures was with Buttercup; the local sloth diva that I ate fruit with before Janice broke down like a fan-girl. IMG_5260 We went on a canoe ride throughout the neighboring lagoon complete with pooping and screaming howler monkeys whose hoots echoed through the thick jungle air.  We then experienced such highlights like meeting baby sloths, feeding two toed sloths, and shaking hands with three toed sloths. IMG_5533 IMG_5298 Some fun facts we learned about the sloths include:  they’re related to armadillos and anteaters; they’re cold blooded mammals; and they can move as fast as an average human jogging if necessary.  Sadly, we eventually had to leave the wonderful paradise, but that meant that Rigoberto was going to bring us to a great Costa Rican restaurant that served food that was grilled right in front of your eyes.  Unfortunately, when we got there, the guy waved us away, but it was a blessing in disguise.  We went across the street to another Costa Rican greasy spoon diner called “Soda El Oasis“. IMG_5308 It looked a world away from the first soda we went to given that everything looked spotless from the walls to the silverware even though it was in the middle of a small town called Pocora. IMG_5307 Looking over the menu, which was just a whiteboard on the wall, I went for an order of carne ahumada (smoked meat), a cheese empanada, and a blackberry milkshake. IMG_5306 Janice got arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), and it was absolutely mind-blowing.  I don’t know if it was the spices, or the way they fried the rice, but it made me wish I got a side order of it.  As for my plate, the meat was off the hook or perhaps the grill with the wood-smoked flavor that thoroughly permeated every juicy bite. IMG_5309  The casado combined with the chayote mixed very well with the pork, and the light, mixed salad on the side countered the heartier half of the plate.  As for the empanada, it was a semi-fail since they gave me a chicken one instead of cheese.IMG_5311  It was good but not great by comparison to the rest of the meal.  Once we finally completed the long trek back to San Jose and bid farewell to good, ol’ Rigoberto, we decided to descend into the madness that was downtown San Jose in the middle of rush hour.  Our cab driver was trying his best to make his way through the chaotic and severely congested streets as hordes of people streamed past our windows and a thick blanket of exhaust wafted through my nostrils.  Eventually, we arrived at the main cathedral in the heart of San Jose.  It was rebuilt after an earthquake according to a security guard who proceeded to give me an entire history of the site after I crossed myself upon leaving.  We also saw the National Theater and the Central Market located on Avenida Central. IMG_5320IMG_5324 It was super busy like everywhere else in the area and was pickpocket central, so be wary with your possessions when walking through the masses.  We hit up a local bakery to get some pastries for next day’s breakfast, and I couldn’t wait to try them.  It made me even hungrier by the time we got back to the condo.  Word on the street was that La Casa de Mi Abuela (My Grandmother’s House in Spanish) was the place to eat at in San Jose, and strangely enough it was run by an expat Canadian.  It was in a strip mall nearby our timeshare that seemed quite abandoned, but the exploration was worth it.IMG_5325  We were the only people in the restaurant, so we got extremely personal service.  IMG_5326Turns out the owner was originally from New Brunswick, but it seems that the pura vida lifestyle called him back.  He was super friendly and polite like all Canadians I’ve met which was one of many pluses for this establishment.IMG_5327IMG_5328  I was quickly acquainted with the only downside of the restaurant:  the bathroom.  It was the dirtiest thing in probably the whole of Costa Rica as the owner winced when I asked him where it was.  He handed me a bottle of hand sanitizer, and bade me the best of luck.  Goody.  I undid the lock on the bathroom door (always promising), walked in, and it looked like I was going to get shanked if I didn’t do my business fast enough.  I hustled, and returned to order my meal.  Out of all of the small places throughout Costa Rica we went to, that bathroom was the dirtiest place we saw, and we went to small truck stop bathrooms in the jungle.  Bathroom antics aside, I got an order of the ribs with a glass of guanabana and blackberry juice.  Janice got the homemade pork sausages with mixed veggies and hand-ground mustard sauce.  While waiting for our meat to be grilled on the griddle out front,IMG_5329IMG_5331 we were treated to some complimentary garlic bread, rice, Nicaraguan red beans, and a homemade spicy sauce.  Everything was delicious, including the beans and rice. IMG_5342 Surprisingly, we weren’t sick of them because they were different than the typical black beans of the casado or kidney beans in gallo pinto, but rather they were bigger and slightly harder.  Plus, the spicy sauce was a slighty sweet and smoky bbq flourish that I was digging.  The garlic bread was sliced into irregular squares, but the owner went hard on the garlic cloves and the butter. I was in heaven.IMG_5332  The party really got started when I asked the owner if he had any guaro or sugar cane liquor, the local alcoholic beverage of choice.  He gave me another sideways look and just matter-of-factly asked, “Why?”.  I responded that I just wanted to try it, so he brought out two shot glasses.  He bade us luck, and I took it down while Janice sipped it. IMG_5335IMG_5341 I would liken it to a slightly sweet, slightly watered down vodka that isn’t as disgusting as Korean soju.  The owner was acting like it was Spirytus, but clearly he wasn’t of a stronger constitution like moi.  Janice also got the same drink as me, so she mixed it in with her juice.  Like vodka, it mixed very well.  Alcohol aside, the guanabana and blackberry juice was the ideal combo of sour and sweet to be paired with our savory plates that were eventually placed in front of us. IMG_5330 My ribs looked delectable, and I could smell the rich pork flavor wafting past my nostrils. IMG_5346 I took a bite, and it made me smile like a three toed sloth.  The food coma that would ensue later would make me move just as fast as they do.  I splashed some of the spicy bbq sauce from the beans and rice on top of the pork ribs, and it really gussied them up to go to the food jamboree in my stomach.  I really appreciated the ribs’ grease level since it was just the right amount that enhanced the flavor, but did not result in my hands looking like I washed my hands with baby oil.  Janice’s pork sausages by themselves were ok.IMG_5343  True, they had a softer casing that didn’t have a signature pop like Chicago hot dogs have, but the handground mustard sauce saved this dish. IMG_5344 It was a combo of Dijon and honey that enriched the pork but didn’t overwhelm my tastebuds.  The sauteed veggies on the side were competently made, but nothing really noteworthy.  By that point, we were thoroughly stuffed.  We paid the bill and made our way home looking at the stars in the darkness while holding hands hoping our trip would never end.

The Sooper Gift of Gab

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Welcome to another mouth-watering slice of Mastication Monologues where the reviews are real, and the food is plentiful!  Today’s post is about Korean cuisine, a corner of the world I am very well acquainted with due to my time living there last year.  While working there as an elementary school EFL teacher, I sampled a wide variety of drinks, snacks, and meats that many Western diners would be repulsed by.  When I came back to America, I still had a hankering now and then for spicy kimchi and other savory bites, so thankfully Korean cuisine in Chicago has expanded beyond Koreatown.  Plus, my girlfriend, who is Korean American, has given me the inside scoop to some of the hidden gems across Chicagoland like San Soo Gab San.IMG_4325

When we got there, I knew it was going to old-school just based on the tiny parking lot that tested my mettle and growling stomach.  Once I squeezed into a tiny spot, I walked into the establishment.  It was very simply furnished and not too busy on a Sunday afternoon.  The silver vents over the grills were all throughout the restaurant, and the brusque Korean waitresses just told us to sit at a table very quickly.  Once taking our seats, they brought out the banchan or little dishes you get for free that come along with your meal.  They can range from the basic kimchi to boiled peanuts to even these clear gel noodles that were absolutely bizarre since they were chewy yet slightly crispy and didn’t have any taste. IMG_4331 It was unlike anything I saw back in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I also have to say that at San Soo Gab San that they gave so many samplers that we could barely see the table top, but the quantity did not take away from the quality.  The amount and variety of banchan was very different from any restaurant I saw in South Korea.  When our waitress finally came over, we got an order of wang kalbi (grilled ribs) ($19.95), heuk gumso tang (goat meat soup) ($9.95), and yuk gae jang (hot and spicy shredded beef soup) ($7.95).

It took a bit of time to come out, but when it did I was afraid of getting a steam burn from the blazing hot soup and ribs.  Eyebrow-scorching heat aside, I couldn’t wait to dig into the meal.IMG_4327  Once it finally subsided a bit, I went to town on the spicy beef soup in front of me.  It was hearty and super scrumptious with plenty of seasoned meat along with clear rice noodles that were extra tender and melt-in-your mouth greens. IMG_4326 As for the spice factor, I’d liken it to maybe a slightly dull jalapeno level of heat.  Nothing like other super-spicy Korean foods I’ve tried before, but it let me know I was still alive.  The more interesting part of the meal was the goat meat soup.  While I had tangled with some goat curry before in London, I wanted to see the Korean take on this atypical meat on American menus.  Janice was telling me about how delicious the soup was, and it really did live up to the hype. IMG_4330 There were a lot more greens in this stew, but the goat meat was lip-smacking good.  It wasn’t quite like beef since it had a slightly gamier taste that could be likened to a less intense lamb.  The best part of the meal was the wang kalbi. IMG_4328 I didn’t really dig the fact that there was way more bone than meat, but the beef that was on the bone was extra succulent.  I especially enjoyed the parts close to the bone that were a bit more difficult to remove, but once stripped from the bone, proved to be like a beefy, cartilaginous chew-toy for this hungry dog.  With a bit of jaw power and gumption, I took it down with gusto.   I highly recommend these ribs.

By the end of my meal, I was full, satisfied, and not bloated even though it looked like the banchan were never touched there were so many little dishes.  So, if you want a no frills Korean barbecue/cuisine experience in the Chicagoland, hit up San Soo Gab San!

San Soo Gab San on Urbanspoon

The Saint Baby Back Rib Day Massacre

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Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.

W. C. Fields
Chicago is truly a world-class city with amazing attractions and a truly intriguing history.  Whether that be the foundation of the city by a black pioneer to the Great Fire to the legacy that is Ditka and Da Bulls/Michael Jordan, but nothing is more iconic than the era of Prohibition.  While New York may have been known as a rough and tumble city up until recently, Chicago has been filled with gangsters, murders, and crooked politicians from day one until now.  They don’t call it Chiraq (Chicago + Iraq) for nothing.Gun-Control-Chicago  While the small gang block squabbles today have been tearing apart communities on the West and South sides, Al Capone infamously instilled a wave of fear throughout the city utilizing mental and physical intimidation.  It speaks volumes about the man’s influence given that there are still tours highlighting his hangouts, Valentine’s Day Massacre site, and his numerous speakeasies.  One such former speakeasy still exists in Chicago in the form of Twin Anchors.  While the actual building dates back from 1881 and the restaurant from 1932, the food and brews served there are timeless.
The facade of the building is extremely inconspicuous, but surprisingly it was the favorite hangout for Frank Sinatra and even was used in the Dark Knight as a scene with Two Face (you can see the same anchors in the windows).

IMG_3514IMG_3515  While Janice and I didn’t expect to see Ol’ Blue Eyes or Harvey Dent meting out his unique form of justice during our visit, the bar was hopping just like during the “dry” era of Prohibition.IMG_3517  There was a twenty minute wait, but suddenly we got a table right at the entrance in the dining room after a two minute wait.IMG_3518 It didn’t look like the interior had changed since the 1940s or 1950s, and it really was a no-nonsense sort of place with their “Positively…no dancing!” sign above the entrance. IMG_3521 The modern touches were mainly all of the signs from modern tv programs that have interacted with this wonderful eatery including the fitting period series Boardwalk Empire.  While I wasn’t sure what to order since I had never been there, and I was feeling the effects of some day drinking, Janice helped me out.  We split a full rack of their famous ribs ($23 or $16.50 for half) and picked our complimentary sides:  onion rings for me and baked beans for Janice.  To drink, I got an Obsidian Stout.  If you’re not into ribs, they do have other forms of meat like steaks, shrimp, chicken or sandwiches or salads if you’re taking it easy on the old cholesterol.  Before the ribs arrived, we got a basket of crackers, small packages of sesame breadsticks, and big slices of black rye bread with butter on the side.  It was like being at one of the South side family restaurants but on the North side.  I half expected a free cup of soup to come along with the meal, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.  The rye bread was great though since it was fresh, hearty, and earthy with plenty of caraway seeds.  My beer came out first, and it wasn’t anything that grabbed my attention.IMG_3523  It was a solid, chocolate and coffee tinged porter that also had a hoppy bite that proved to be the ideal partner for the culinary experience I was about to undergo.

Civilized

Civilized

Eventually the ribs came out, and they didn’t look like anything new or special. IMG_3524 However, Janice informed me that they were slathered in their Prohibition sauce which was to die for.  I asked her if it was because like Prohibition it was spicy and illegal, and my prediction was correct.  Apparently, it is a smoky sauce infused with cracked black pepper, brown sugar, and a hint of the dastardly hot ghost pepper.  I have tangled with the ghost pepper before in a challenge and won, and it didn’t put a damper on this dinner either.  I have to say that these were, sauce-stained hands down, the best ribs I’ve ever eaten.  Not only was there plenty of meat on every rib, but it literally fell off the bone when I gently picked each piece up.  The sauce to meat ratio was ideal since each piece was at least 90 percent coated with a thin layer of the sweet, smoky, and spicy marinade.  I could swim in it though since it was that lip-smacking good.  Lord, there was a minimal amount of fat on these ribs, and my plate looked like the remnants a summer feast at Hannibal Lecter’s house.

Savage

Savage


 IMG_3529My face and hands looked the part by the time I was done as well.  Janice said she never saw someone eat ribs so fast as well.  The onion rings were scrumptious, but I was simply in awe still from the ribs.  I tried some of Janice’s baked beans too which had pieces of shredded pork in it.  IMG_3527It was a great twist on a classic bbq side.  I could only get one forkful in since I was ready to keel over.  To say I was merely satisfied with the meal, would have done the chef a disservice.

Long story short, if you enjoy history, bars with character, and/or food that is out of this world, sail off to Twin Anchors!

Twin Anchors on Urbanspoon

I Like the Cut of Your Rib

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Man, what a summer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better with the weather improving and the World Cup around the corner, I finally made it out to Chicago’s famous Ribfest.  While there is another similar festival out in Naperville, the Chicago one apparently is the best in the entire city for the summer.   That really means something since there are ten billion street fests in Chicago for every type of cuisine, ethnicity, and music genre.  Why so many?  Oh, let’s just say when the winter hits Chicago, you don’t want to be anywhere outside, especially this past winter.

Ribfest is typically a three day event complete with music, games, and oh yeah, the food, including an amateur rib eating contest!  Perhaps this video could give you a good idea of what it’s like to be there minus the crushing claustrophobia Janice and I experienced on the wonderful Sunday afternoon we spent there.  We could see rib vendors from all over the Chicagoland area and the USA.  After dodging millions of the food zombies slowly grazing and ripping apart various foodstuffs while shuffling slowly down Lincoln Ave., we ended up at the Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro tent.  We had to try it since it has now won best ribs at the fest for the fifth year running.  We got a sampler, and it was absolutely finger-lickin’ good.IMG_3359  The whiskey laden sauce coated every inch of these fall-off-the-bone tender ribs.  The sauce was smoky yet quite sweet, but the only downside was that I felt that there could have been more meat on the bones for the price.

She doesn't mind.

She doesn’t mind.

After those tiny but tasty buggers, we moseyed on back to the Texas Thunder BBQ tent because you can’t mess with Texas!IMG_3363  Not only did we splurge for a rib sampler but also a side of the sweet cowboy cornbread.  I was much more satisfied with these bad boys since everything definitely was bigger in Texas.IMG_3362  These Flintstone-sized ribs were more my speed since they had plenty of meat along with a spicier sauce that had hints of cayenne pepper.  Not only that, but the cornbread was the best cornbread I’ve ever had.  Not only was it sweet, but it was moist and spongy which allowed them to soak up some of the bbq sauce to create a spicy and sweet treat.  It was a great day.IMG_3367

Ribbed For My Pleasure

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Burgers, barbecue, and beer.  What more could one ask for for dinner in the summer?  Perhaps a big pool or white sand beach and plenty of sunshine instead of the dreary weather I encountered upon meeting my friends out in Schaumburg at Westwood Tavern and Tap.Front-Doors

As my friend, Erin, who thoughtfully supplied me with an umbrella, and I quickly ran inside from the rain, we were greeted with a spacious and elegantly furnished sports bar.  From the stone finishing on the walls to the towering wall of illuminated liquors behind the bar, it was a welcoming place for sports fans trying to catch the next nail-biting Hawks game or a couple out for their first date.  We were a party of three and were seated in a booth that was a bit too wide for adequate conversation between three people.  So we all had to get a bit more intimate with each other in regard to proximity which might not be as easy with larger groups in the booths.  I started by looking over the drink menu, and it was like a yellow pages for Brewtown, USA.  While I was well acquainted with most of its residents, I noticed a new neighbor on the block.  So, I gave the Black Butte Porter ($5) a warm welcome.IMG_3264  The simple label belied its pleasant, rich, chocolate/coffee flavor contained within an enveloping shade of ebony.  As for the food, I could choose from a variety of items ranging from sushi, flatbreads, salads, signature entrees, and of course, burgers.  I had a hankering for a good burger, and who doesn’t when you’re hungry?  I settled on the Baby Back Burger ($12) along with a complimentary side of fries and smoked jalapeno mayo.  I’m sure you can reason what the “baby back” in my burger derives from.  If not, perhaps this catchy Chili’s jingle can explain it for you.  Before I get to describing my meal, I do have to point out that our waiter screwed up my friends’ orders.  Erin wanted sweet potato fries, but she got normal fries.  Carolyn didn’t even get her sushi either.  I don’t know if the server was having a bad day or if there was a mix up, but he made up for it with a heaping bowl of sweet potato fries and eventually brought Carolyn her sushi. Anyway, it’s true that they put bbq rib pieces on top of my burger along with cheddar cheese, chipotle mayo, and onion strings.IMG_3265IMG_3270  I couldn’t believe it when I was looking at it.  I placed all of it together in one sexy package and proceeded to take a bite.  It was like your typical barbecue, cheddar, bacon burger sans the pork belly, but the barbecue brought a smoky sweetness that jived with the crunchy onion strings.  Even with all of this going on inside the burger, the bun managed to hold together the party on my plate.  As for the fries, they were ok, and the jalapeno mayo could have been a bit more flavorful.IMG_3267  I could see that they were trying to bring a bit of the pepper infusion to an otherwise bland condiment, but it’s back to the drawing board for this one.

Overall, Westwood Tavern has plenty to offer for diverse tastes to a certain extent, but aside from that, it’s just another fancy sports bar and grill.

 

Westwood Tavern & Tap on Urbanspoon

Thinking Outside the Box and Eating Inside One

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Hey, everybody!  Well, it has been another long and arduous week at work, so I was definitely looking forward to my friends’, Lauren and Kevin, birthday party at Charcoalo, a somewhat secret barbecue joint in Apgujeong.  Here is their address:  642-12 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu.  It’s a bit complicated to explain how to get there, so I won’t bore you with the details.  The closest two stations are either Apgujeong or Gangnam-gu Office.  Just let Google Maps lead the way for you.  After navigating our way there, we were greeted with a large, red corrugated metal that almost seemed to glow like some sort of Polaris for barbecue lovers all over Korea.  I knew I came to the right place when I saw the window in the front let you watch the cooks in action while they slapped large slabs of steak and ribs on the sizzling stove tops.  Culinary poetry in motion.IMG_1110

Upon entering the establishment, it was definitely different than what I was expecting when I read that the restaurant was inside an industrial shipping container.  Instead of being greeted by a dank and dark interior where I would have expected to be tortured by members of the Korean mafia, it was a warmly lit dining room with an industrial edge in terms of decor.

Where the magic happens

Where the magic happens

Meropi obviously had a great time

Meropi obviously had a great time

It even had skylights cut in the ceiling which would be a blessing and a curse on a sunny day since I could see the rays of light possibly blinding some unlucky customers.  Giving the menu a once over, I could see that Charcoalo isn’t the cheapest barbecue eatery I’ve been to.  Case and point, a bottle of Cass Korean beer that’s normally 2-3 bucks was 7 bucks.  The menu contained different types of burgers, ribs (44,000 W for a rack), steaks, pizzas, and sides to go along with your main meal.  I went for the bacon cheeseburger set (16,000 W) which meant I got a side of fries and a soda (Coke, Sprite, Diet Coke, or Welch’s Grape).  I picked the last one since I needed something sweet after quite a bitter day with one of my coteachers.  When it came out, I was very excited due to its exquisite appearance and my gnawing hunger pains.IMG_1111

Almost everyone else at my table got double cheeseburgers, but they were kind of crestfallen once they saw the meaty masterpiece towering above my fries.

Sad Heidi is sad

Sad Heidi is sad

First, I’d like to say that this burger wasn’t the easiest thing to eat since you’d have to be a reticulated python to be able to take an adequate bite.

Now that's a burger

Now that’s a burger

It was piled high with a thick beef patty, mayo, ketchup, lettuce, cheese, tomato, semi-crispy bacon, and some additional pickled jalapenos, onions, and roasted garlic cloves that came on the side.  So, I was taking small bites, and each one was a small step towards to the center of this cheeseburger in paradise.  Still, the buns should have been bigger in order to accommodate the plethora of ingredients because there was definite slippage as the mayo caused the patty to sneak out the back of the burger.  Overall, it was a great cheeseburger without any surprises like at Burger Bay, and the french fries were superb.  They were crispy, golden-brown sticks of heaven, but I wish they were a bit bigger to grab with my fingers.  I’m not a big fan of the slightly-enlarged shoestring potato type of French fries.  Maybe these are more common in Korea because Koreans are afraid to eat with their hands.  Who knows?

So if you’re looking for quality barbecue and are willing to spend a little bit more to get it or just want a masterfully crafted burger, check out Charcoalo.

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