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Simply Bowled Over (Brazilian Bowl, Chicago)

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Bemvindo to another chapter in the epic food-filled saga that is Mastication Monologues!  Things have been a bit more laid back as of late as I enjoy the wondrous time in school known as Spring Break where the pressures of the typical quarter fall away.  Thankfully, with this free time I’m able to commit myself to at least writing more than usual, and you all get to read about a new cuisine you might have never have tried before.  Talk about a win-win!  Not only that, but this is officially my 300th post!  It has been a long time coming, but let’s get down to the food.  Today’s featured restaurant is Brazilian Bowl located on 3204 North Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657, but there is another location on Lawrence Avenue in the Little Korea neighborhood further north in Chicago.

I’ve always been a fan of trying different types of food from throughout Latin America, but typically Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban food take center stage in Latin American cuisine.  Boiling down this giant geographical area to three countries is doing the rest of the nations’ cuisines a major disservice.  Brazil, on the other hand, occupies a unique position in both the continent and the food world.  Not only is it the largest country in South America, but it is predominantly Portuguese-speaking while swimming in a sea of Spanish speakers.  The size of the country has also led to an interesting blend of cultures.  Brazil’s Amazonian region is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world that is inhabited with Amerindian tribes who have lived in the sadly shrinking rainforest for over 12,000 years now.  Add into that mix, Brazil imported 40% of all African slaves to the Americas as well as being home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. This intermingling of cultures led to Brazil having a diverse food scene as well.  Thankfully, Brazilian Bowl manages to go beyond the southern regional specialty of churrascaria or grilled meats made famous through chains like Fogo de Chao.

There’s not just meat in Brazilian food.

My friend Drew brought me out to try this local eatery since he had been going on and on about how good their food was.  It was a small establishment in the form of a cafeteria-style eatery where we ordered at the counter and had them bring our meals over to our table.  Looking over the menu, they had a variety of dishes including hotdogs, hamburgers, salads, empanadas, traditional Brazilian plates, fresh fruit juices, and of course, make your own bowls.  I looked beyond anything else and went with Drew’s recommendation:  feijoada ($10.95).  I had tried an Indian fusion version of the Brazilian national dish before during Chicago’s Restaurant Week, but I never was face to face with this mythical creature.  While we were waiting for our food to come out, I also managed to see that they were selling a variety of Brazilian snacks and ingredients in the front like a mini mini-mart.  I didn’t indulge, but a package of bread crumbs reminded me to also request an order of the pão de queijo (5 for $4.50; 2 minimum or 10 maximum per order).  Eventually, the staff brought us our food, and it was a mountain of food for the price.  Feijoada (derived from the Portuguese word for “bean”) takes many forms depending on the region of Brazil it comes from, but Brazilian Bowl focuses on the Rio de Janeiro version which includes four different types of meat (blood sausage, pork, beef, and ribs), black beans, collard greens, pico de gallo, farofa, and a bed of rice which serves as the foundation for the hearty meal.  While many conjecture that the stew comes from the era of when African slaves would make the most of the pork scraps they would get on the plantations in addition to African ingredients like collard greens and farofa or cassava flour, others say that the dish arose from Brazil’s black bean boom.  Both upper and lower sections of Brazilian society enjoyed the beans, but the elites preferred to eat the black beans with a stew of meat and vegetables, a carryover tradition from Northern Portugal.  Whatever the origin, this was a meal that was both hearty and overflowing with flavor.  The meats were plentiful and tender with an emphasis on the smoky blood sausage and blended perfectly with the black beans.  The pico de gallo was fresh and slightly tangy due to some lime juice they mixed in.  The collard greens were sauteed and brought even more color and some crunch to an otherwise mostly chewy bowl of ingredients.  When mixed together, the entire melange was like the sambadrome during Carnival in my mouth.

Dramatic recreation of our meal’s flavors (photo credit: AP)

The only downside was the farofa which basically blended into the background, so I’m not sure why it was included.  It was just what I needed to warm-up on a cold Chicago night.  Our meal didn’t end there though.  The pão de queijo or Brazilian cheese bread was the perfect side.  This bread originated in the slave communities of northeastern Brazil in the 17th Century.  Originally, slaves would make a bread out of cassava roots with no cheese, but as the mining communities grew in wealth over time, the slaves were able to make the bread with cheese inside as well as with imported wheat that normally wouldn’t stand up to the intense heat of the region.  The little lumps of bread were piping hot with Parmesan crusts on the outside and even more on the inside.  The interesting part of the interior was that the cheese was thick and taffy-like instead of being more rubbery or stretchy like melted mozzarella.  Definitely worth a try if you’re not looking for extremely exotic cuisine.  Finally, we reached dessert.  I tried an order of brigadeiros ($1 per piece) and a slice of bolo prestigio ($4 per slice).  The brigadeiros has an uncertain past, but they are balls of sticky, sweet condensed milk and chocolate.  If you have a sweet tooth and/or are a chocoholic without any loose fillings, these are for you.  As for the bolo prestigio, it was very similar to the brigadeiros in regard to the chocolate and same sprinkles on the outside.  However, the condensed milk was combined with coconut milk to create a choco-coco masterpiece.  Plus, the cashier gave me basically half the cake when I ordered in Portuguese.  I don’t know if it made any difference, but overall Brazilian Bowl does not skimp on portion sizes.  Drew and I only had a few bites of the rich cake before we drew our dining experience to an end.

Brazilian Bowl was a great recommendation on behalf of my friend, Drew, and I highly recommend everyone try this simple but culturally and culinarily enriching establishment.  Bom apetite!
Brazilian Bowl Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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South Carolina (Day 2): Hoppin’ John and a Carolina Fried Chicken Ring

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Welcome back to Mastication Monologues, and if you haven’t been back here lately, I am currently recounting the tale of when Janice and I went to Charleston, South Carolina.  Here’s the first installment for your reading pleasure.  The second day is also full of history, good eats, and one of the greatest moments of my life:  proposing to Janice.  So, buckle up because you’re about to read one of the greatest love stories since Jon Snow and Ygritte minus the whole being shot through with a bunch of arrows and tragic death part.

After that first day of gallivanting about the Chuck, as the locals call Charleston, we decided to get out of the hubbub of the city and visit the Middleton Plantation.  However, before we even left the house, I realized that this was the day I would propose to Janice.  I was planning on doing it at the Angel Oak tree after visiting the Middleton Plantation, but now I needed to figure out how to carry the ring.  I could have worn my coat, but it was a warm day outside.  Luckily, before we left Chicago, I had stowed a piece of gauze in one of my jean pockets.  So, when Janice was showering, I went to my backpack where the ring was hidden in my backpack back at the security line in Chicago.  I took out the box, which was too big for my jean pockets, and removed the beautiful ring.  I wrapped it in the gauze, removed some business cards from an interior pocket in my wallet, and placed the ring in that very same pocket.  Mission partially complete.  I played it cool when Janice asked if I was ready to go,ee6cff1497840b03205d99e31d1c1cf3 and we made our way to the Middleton Plantation.

At the current moment in America, race relations are continuing to grow tenser as the country becomes more diverse, and the race interactions established at the outset of our country through slavery and immigration can be seen today at this opulent 7,000 acre estate.  We decided to do the entire tour package, with included a house tour and carriage ride, but we had free time before we got to meet the horsies.  So, we decided to stroll about the grounds and marvel at the natural wonders that were planted and landscaped to perfection.  Some of the highlights were seeing the oak trees that dotted the walkways that ranged anywhere from 200 to 900 years old. IMG_8307 IMG_8308 IMG_8310 IMG_8311 IMG_8312 Mind you, the plantation was first established in 1730, and it actually is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States.  Eventually, it was time to hitch a ride with a born and bred Charlestonian and two old ladies, horses that is.  Janice could hardly contain her excitement as they clip clopped their way to the pickup point and into Janice’s heart.

Cue emotional music

Cue emotional music

IMG_8314

We climbed aboard the old carriage and took off as our driver explained the history of the plantation to us.  IMG_9177The Middleton plantation was not mainly a working plantation but rather a country estate.  That is not to say that there weren’t slaves who worked there, but they were either employed as house servants, lumberjacks to harvest the timber, rice planters in the large rice paddies off the Ashley River, or grow and collect indigo to a lesser extent.IMG_9169  This was not your stereotypical cotton plantation.  The real money was in the signature gold grain Carolina rice which was well suited for the humid Carolina weather and the planters’ profit margins.  We went about the ground looking at the farm house complete with one of the male horses who wanted to bust out of his pen and the famous layabout known as Rocky the guinea hog. IMG_8315 There was also one of the former slave houses next to the animal pens.  We learned that the slave quarters were raised off the ground because it was a way to offer a bit of cool air in an otherwise brutal environment.IMG_9233  By the time we reached the end of our journey, the horses were ready to get some hay and a nap, but we still managed to get some pics with these local celebrities.

Bffls!

Bffls!

All of that excitement going 2 miles per hour with a slight breeze in our hair worked up our appetites, so Janice and I decided to try the plantation restaurant which was housed in a former guest house.  IMG_8323We were led to the main dining room that was overlooking the lily pond. IMG_8322 We looked over the menu which was filled with plenty of Low Country classics. We quickly made our choices since we had to finish our meal before our house tour.  Janice got an order of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and cornbread, and I got the pecan smoked pork shoulder with Carolina gold mustard sauce.  Before they brought out our food, they also asked if we wanted sweet tea, regular tea, or water.  Naturally, I went for the sweet tea, and Janice got the unsweetened tea.  I was so happy with my sweet tea for one main reason:  it was actually sweet.  McDonalds back home always would promote their sweet tea during the summertime, and I love my sweet iced tea.  When I got it, it tasted like plain black tea poured over some ice.  Naturally, I had to go to the South where they know how to make it correctly.  Then the food came out, and we had to hold ourselves back from going full Cookie Monster on these enticing plates.  My pecan smoked pork shoulder took me to hog heaven. IMG_8320 It was melt-in-your mouth tender, and the smoky flavor mixed perfectly with the slightly sweet mustard sauce.   The creamed green beans were good but not great.  However, I enjoyed the Hoppin’ John on the side.  This southern staple has been around as long as African slaves have been in the USA, and the name is thought to have come from the possible corruption of the Haitian creole for pigeon peas or “pois pigeons” ([pwa pi jahns]).  It was a scaled back version of the richer version that southerners serve on new year’s day with green elements like kale or peppers to symbolize luck and money.  The rice was perfectly cooked with a bit of salt and pepper with plenty of black beans, and I would highly recommend mixing it with the pork.  Janice was equally satisfied with her fried chicken. IMG_8321 The breading was light and gave way to the juicy all white meat chicken below the surface.  I was more of a fan the plantation cornbread since it didn’t skimp on the butter and sugar compared to the more crumbly and savory cornbread at Husk.  While I am averse to eating any type of pasta (yes, I’m a monster), Janice gave the macaroni and cheese two thumbs up.  The collard greens were ok, but not as satisfying as the ones at Hominy Grill.  By the time we were finished, we had to get up and get moving because it was almost time to start our house tour.  Janice was going to pay the bill, but she couldn’t find her credit card.  I paid the bill instead, and we assumed it must have been left in the car.  As we walked past the house for the house tour to see one of the oldest trees on the estate, we heard someone call out, “Excuse me!”.  We turned around to see two older women walking toward us, and they asked Janice if her name was “Janice Kim”.  She replied in the affirmative, and it turned out that two different people had found her drivers license and her credit card in two different areas and turned both in to the visitors’ center.  This was a prime example of Southern hospitality and manners.  We decided to pick the cards up when we would leave, so we went to snap some pictures with the 900 year old oak tree, the same river where they blew up the British ships in the movie the Patriot, and the burned down houses.IMG_9181 IMG_9183IMG_8324IMG_9173  After successfully being insignificant next to this natural giant, we went to our house tour.  It was originally built in 1755, but is only one of the original three houses left standing.  The main house and the north flanker house were burned down by Union troops during the Civil War.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any pictures, but we were up to our necks in historical facts including the lodging being home to Henry Middleton’s son, Arthur, who signed the Declaration of Independence.  We highly recommend checking out the rich mahogany interiors if you love architecture, history, shiny things, and/or how high class society lived.  By the time we emerged from that time capsule, we had to make a decision about what we wanted to see before they closed up the Angel Oak park.  We decided to pick up the all important credit card and drivers license and check out the gift shops.  Janice was on the hunt for souvenirs while I was secretly having time anxiety and subsequent sweats. Visit http://kratomcrazy.com for help on how to fight anxiety in a natural way. She would ask me for opinions on magnets and rice while I was starting to run in place (in my head).  Janice eventually picked up my vibe, and we got to the car quickly.  We had to make the ride from northern Charleston down to John’s Island quick because we had about a hour before the park closed.  Thankfully, we made it with enough time, and on the way, Janice was seriously doubting whether or not I was ever going to propose to her.  She wasn’t joking, and neither was I.  Perfect timing to put a ring on it.  I realized I had to get the rock out of the interior pocket of my wallet, and I managed to do so as Janice rushed toward the tree with her selfie stick.IMG_9186  The Angel Oak is estimated to be over 1500 years old and what a more romantic place to pop the question?  It is one of the biggest and most sprawling trees I’ve ever seen.  We took some pictures on one side of the tree, and I was analyzing the best place to do the deed. IMG_9187 Cue the palm sweat and shifty eyes.  Janice was none the wiser as we walked under the massive branches.IMG_9188  We moved to the back side of the tree, and there wasn’t anybody around.  This was it.  My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest as I fumbled for the ring in the gauze and placed it in my hand.  She turned around and everything I had planned to say went out the window.  I said that it was a fitting place since she was my angel.  I could see she was shaking her head due to the high levels of cheesiness in the atmosphere, but then she knew something was afoot when I dropped to my knee.  I choked out my request to spend the rest of my life with her, and her response was like something out of Shakespeare:  *cue crying, some laughing* “I’m holding my selfie-stick”.  Just like in the movies!  I was still waiting on my knee with the ring in my hand as she was more worried about her contraption.  Eventually she took the ring and put it on her finger while still profusely crying with me on bended knee.  Janice finally said “yes” through the tears, and I could get out of the power lunge of the century.  It felt like we were floating on air beneath this relic of antiquity, and we even had an audience eventually who clapped for us. IMG_9191 Once we finally got a picture in front of the tree with her new ring, we proceeded to let the world know of our engagement.IMG_8337  We were then at a loss at what to do next, so I suggested that we could go for a romantic stroll along the river walk in downtown Charleston.  It was the perfect setting as new fiance and fiancee as we watched the sunset, poochies running in the park, and the Citadel cadets getting some fresh air.IMG_8333IMG_8431 All of the aforementioned events had made us quite hungry, so luckily I managed to find a romantic restaurant to celebrate known as High Cotton.

High Cotton oozed class.  IMG_8345It seemed like we stepped into a time machine to an old mansion complete with an antique bar, dark wood accents, and tropical ceiling fans.IMG_9099 IMG_9098 IMG_9097  It is a moderately dressy place, so don’t expect to fit in with your tank tops and jorts.  We were seated at a table in the main dining room, and our waiter informed us of Charleston’s restaurant week which meant there was a special menu where we were able to choose an appetizer, entree, and dessert for the low low price of $40.  Overall though, High Cotton is a restaurant that focuses on local ingredients and classic Low Country recipes.  We also told him of our very recent engagement, so he treated us to a pair of complimentary champagne flutes.  For our appetizer round, I got the fried green tomatoes napoleon which were the bread to a pimento cheese sandwich and surrounded by pickled shrimp. IMG_8340 I found it to be satisfying and surprisingly light even though it was deep fried, and the pimento cheese was like a thick, spicy cheddar with the consistency of peanut butter.  The shrimp were also pleasing even though they were pickled.  Janice’s blue crab soup was ok. IMG_9100 It was savory with a hint of sweetness that came along with the blue crab.  We moved on to our entrees with gusto.  My 8 oz. beef tenderloin with Bearnaise sauce, horseradish mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts were fit for a king.  IMG_8341Everything was phenomenal.  The mashed potatoes were creamy with just the right amount of sinus-clearing horseradish.  The Brussels sprouts were roasted and slightly burnt and crunchy but not terribly charred.  As for the meat and sauce, it was grilled to optimum juiciness which wasn’t overshadowed by the rich Bearnaise sauce.  Can’t say enough good things about this dish.  Janice’s shellfish and ravioli had a lot of fresh seafood from the nearby harbor including clams, shrimp, and crab along with peas and ravioli in a Parmesan sauce.  IMG_9101I didn’t try the ravioli, but the clams were extraordinarily good.  Our waiter said that the clams in the Low Country are actually better than oysters, but they don’t get the hype they deserve because they aren’t as sexy as their supposed aphrodisiac cousins.  Couldn’t agree more with him.  Janice thought the plate overall was ok though.  Thankfully, dessert didn’t disappoint.  I ordered the chocolate bread pudding complete with candied pecans, bourbon caramel, and vanilla ice cream.  Need I say more? IMG_8342 It was slightly warm which melted the ice cream which went along with the smoky caramel and crunchy pecans.  It infused the semi-sweet, spongy dough of the bread pudding with a heavenly taste.  Janice went with one of her favorite desserts:  the vanilla bean creme brulee with a Carolina twist with tea infused citrus segments. IMG_9102 The burnt sugar on top was a golden brown with a luscious and moderately rich cream below.   By the time we reached the final spoonful, we were not only in love with each other but with High Cotton’s fare, atmosphere, and service.  We made our way out and enjoyed a bit of the jazz quartet in the bar that was not performing when we first walked in.  However, it was a classy end to a day filled with viewing history past, making history of our own, and plans for the future.  If you’ve successfully made it to the end of this post, congrats and there are plenty more adventures to come!

Middleton Place Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
High Cotton Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

Picking Up and Eating the Tab(erna)

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

The real O.G.s

The real O.G.s

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

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

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

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

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A View to a Grill

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Welcome one and all to another great post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s post focuses on cuisine that might not get the spotlight like other, more mainstream types of food like Chinese food or Mexican food, but that doesn’t mean that it is of lesser quality.  In this case, I’m talking about Syrian cuisine.  It is part of the Levant on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, its food shares roots with neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and even as far as Iraq.  Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has colored everyone’s thoughts about this country, but I would like to show you that there is more to Syria than the seemingly eternal struggle between Assad and the plethora of Islamic militias that shift alliances as much as the Syrian desert sands.  I had my first taste of Syrian food at Pita Pita Mediterranean (formerly Pita Pit).

The restaurant itself doesn’t look like much. IMG_5658 It’s just another storefront in another stripmall in the northern Chicago suburbs, but the food inside is like the lamp in the Disney movie Aladdin:  relatively unknown to the world unless you help Jafar with both halves of the golden scarab.  Actually, it’s not as dramatic as that given that a quick Google Maps could sort you out in a snap, but there definitely is treasure to be found when looking over their menu.  I saw typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare like kebab, hummus, and Jerusalem salad, but then there were other choices I’ve never heard of.  Naturally, I gravitated toward these options.  I started off with sampling their babha ghanouj ($3 small/$5 large) and the muthawama ($3 small/$5 large).

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Baba (left) and muthawama (right)

Babha ghanouj (بابا غنوج) literally means “pampered papa” in reference to most likely the head of a harem, and these flavors were definitely made for royalty.  It consists of grilled and pureed eggplant that is then mixed with sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic, and yogurt.  It was also topped with a dollop of olive oil for good measure.  I found this cold spread to be both savory yet slightly tart that went very well with the light pita triangles that came with the dip.  I was more partial to the muthawama.  It was very similar to the babha ghanouj in terms of ingredients aside from replacing the eggplant with potatoes.  I think this switch made the white condiment feel more like sour cream and taste like a garlic aioli which goes great on any type of carb, be it pita or French fry.  As for my main dish, I passed over the tried and true favorites in my mind and took a dive into the great unknown with the mnazeleh ($10).  When it came out, I didn’t know what to think.  IMG_5655It wasn’t as sexy as the spreads I had before, but it looked more like an over spiced pile of onions and tomatoes.  The colors weren’t as bright either.  However, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover.  It came with a more vibrant, complimentary side of rice that was moist and lightly seasoned that I subsequently folded into the main meal.  IMG_5654What I ended up experiencing was one of the best Middle Eastern dishes I’ve eaten.  The eggplant base that upheld the tomato, onion, and beef hodgepodge was super tender to the point of disintegrating faster than Subway’s ties with Jared and was infused with the beefy goodness residing above.  The addition of the rice gave it a lot more body, and I would suggest changing the recipe to include the rice.  I recommend this plate if you’re looking for something uniquely Syrian and full of flavor.  By the end of my meal, I thought I couldn’t fit anymore, but I had to try their baklava ($2.80).  This dessert’s history is as multilayered as its filo dough.  Different countries throughout the eastern Mediterranean claim it as their own invention, but there is no definitive answer for a dessert that is as old as time.  Some scholars believe it comes from the Mongols since it might derive from the root “bayla-” meaning “to pile up”, but the “-va” ending suggests a Persian origin.  The oldest recipe, dating back to the second century B.C., of anything resembling this sweet treat is the Roman placenta cake.  You might be thinking, “Ugh!  They made cake out of placenta?!!!  Vomitrocious!”  Au contraire, mon frere.  The word “placenta” derives from the Greek word “plakous” which related to layered breads and was then transferred into Latin as “placenta” as a word meaning “cake”.  However, the Roman version had cheese, honey, and bay leaves between each layer or “tracta” instead of the nuts we use now.  The modern version of baklava is thought to have derived from Istanbul during the reign of the Ottomans where the sultan would present his elite guard, the Janissaries, with trays of baklava on the 15th day of Ramadan in a procession complete with pomp and circumstance.  At Pita Pita Grill, I was neither a Christian mercenary nor served with any great ceremony.

Cue drooling...now!

Cue drooling…now!

The baklava was dripping with honey with every forkful, but I think it was a bit too thick for its own good.  It had plenty of chopped nuts throughout the flaky dough layers, but it made it extremely frustrating to cut with a fork.  I’d prefer if it was served in smaller, easier to eat squares.  I did get a ton of baklava for the price though, and I recommend it to anyone.  Just be prepared to use some elbow grease to keep it on the plate.

So, if you’re looking for a “diamond in the rough” restaurant that is no frills in terms of presentation, go to Pita Pita Grill and discover a whole new world of delicious, Syrian food!

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Do the Deaux

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Bonjour, y’all!  Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is extra dirty and deep fried since I’m going to be talking about some of the most Southern cuisine there is in the United States:  Cajun cuisine.  Most people think of Mardi Gras or Hurricane Katrina when they hear anything to do with the state of Louisana, but the reality is that it is also home to one of the most unique cultures in our great nation.  The Cajun people are descendants of the Acadian (French colonists) settlers in Canada who were deported by the British in the mid-1700s en masse to the then unknown lands to the south including the original 13 colonies, i.e. America in utero.  If these French colonists weren’t imprisoned, killed, or passed away from diseases before or after the expulsion, they found themselves migrating to new and foreign places like the territory of Louisiana.  At that time, it was considered part of the Kingdom of Spain, and the Acadian refugees were welcomed by the Spanish government due to the French and Spanish governmental and Catholic links.  This new rapport led to the Acadians becoming the largest ethnic group in Louisiana, and their name slowly evolved from “Acadian” to “Cadien” to eventually “Cajun”.  With a new name for their culture, their Cajun French (however strange sounding it may be at times) and food became two pillars of local pride for these new settlers and still are going strong today.

Modern day Acadians

Modern day Acadians

Acadian food had to adapt to the new environments they found themselves in since it was a lot hotter than old frosty Canada, and the local flora and fauna were extremely different, especially in the bayou regions.  Therefore, they adapted their tastes to create dishes that emphasize the use of pork and shrimp for proteins, flavorful spices, and the “holy trinity” of green peppers, onions, and celery.  However, with the rise of New Orleans as the biggest and most important city of Louisiana also came the rise of creole cuisine.  While some may use them interchangeably, creole cuisine is more varied in ingredients and reflect the more cosmopolitan nature of the city versus the more rustic Cajun fare.  For example, a key difference is that creole cuisine uses tomatoes while Cajun dishes do not.  With the rise of celebrity chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse in the latter half of the 20th Century,

The man. The myth. The legend.

The man. The myth. The legend.

there came a regeneration of Cajun and creole cuisine that was spicier and adapted for modern tastes as the food spread out across the USA.  Enter Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.

I had never been to this local restaurant, but one of my good friends worked there and said I should try the food.  I’m not a huge seafood fan (I’m more of a land animal lover), but Janice and I ended up going here on a double date since my friend David picked it.  The restaurant itself is like a typical seafood restaurant with a large, wraparound bar to greet you in case you wanted to eat some fish or drink like one.  We were more in the mood for a bite to eat, so we met up with David and Vivian who were waiting for us.  Looking over the menu, I could see that they definitely were trying to stay true to the Cajun and creole cuisine staples along with including more general American surf and turf options.  Price-wise, it’s not the cheapest eatery in town but reasonable for a seafood restaurant like in the $20-30 range for an entree.  We decided to focus more on the Big Easy specialties starting with our appetizers.  We got the shrimp and crawfish fondue and the crispy fried alligator. IMG_5648  The fondue was definitely worth it since it was warm, gooey, and filled with plenty of shrimp and crawfish chunks.  IMG_5651The crawfish/crayfish/crawdad/ecrevisse in Cajun French wasn’t really noticeable in this dish given that they often have a slightly muddy flavor given they live and eat whatever they can find in the muck at the bottom of streams.  Hence why some call them “mudbugs”.  The garlic bread isn’t very Cajun, but it mixes well with the creamy melted cheese.  What more could you ask for in an appetizer?  Oh wait, fried goodness!  That’s the last box that the alligator checked off.  Since the Acadians settled in the swampy bayous of Louisiana, obviously they needed to find protein sources.  Therefore, it only seemed natural they would try and find a way to eat the large and plentiful alligators prowling the waters.  At Pappadeaux it wasn’t like they were plucking them out of the water right outside the door, but they do promise the highest quality of alligator meat on their website.  It was served to us on a platter with a side of fried potato sticks and dipping sauce.  I would liken it to a plate of popcorn chicken with a dirty South twist.  The meat wasn’t exactly like chicken, but it did have a similar density and similar, but not identical, flavor.  The breading had a subtle, spicy hint to it with notes of paprika, and the dipping sauce had a thousand island/special sauce vibe going on.  Once we took down those tasty treats, I ordered my shrimp étouffée.  Before it came out, I got a complimentary cup of their gumbo.  This dish’s name originates from either the West African word for okra “ki ngombo” or the Native American Choctaw word for sassafras leaves “kombo“.  The reason why the name is linked to these plants is because this state dish of Louisiana is classified as African, Native American, or French depending on the thickening ingredient.  The first two were already defined with okra and sassafrass while French creole cooks used flour and fat to thicken their gumbos.  This was a lip-smacking good taster of Louisiana.IMG_5649  From the spicy andouille sausage to the rich brown base, chopped veggies, and shrimp,IMG_5650this small bowl could do no wrong.  I couldn’t wait for my étouffée to arrive.  Étouffée comes from the French verb “étoufféer” meaning “to smother” or “to suffocate”, and I could see that most of the ingredients in this creole dish were covered in the brown roux sauce. IMG_5652 Mixing the rice together with the rest of the dish made it resemble the fusion feijoada I had at Vermilion during Restaurant Week.  It showed the mixing of different cultures like with the use of rice from Spanish and African dishes, the local shrimp from the Cajun country, and the French sauce and spices.  It wasn’t a spicy entree, contrary to popular believe about creole and Cajun cooking, and it was the perfect dish for a cold night like when we visited Pappadeaux.  I really enjoyed the amount and quality of shrimp in this dish since they weren’t too chewy or undercooked.  Plus, the rice gave the étouffée the body to be filling but not too much so.  I always love meals that involve mixing meat and rice together, so it was a match made in Cajun heaven for me.  My fellow diners also seemed pretty pleased with their choices.

So if you don’t have enough money to take a trip down to NOLA, get yourself on down to Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen!  Seaing is believe, hear?
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We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

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

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

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

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

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

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