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My Neighbor Tokoro

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

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

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

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

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

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Good But Not Gr8

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

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

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

 

That cake ain't right

That cake ain’t right

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

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

Loco For The Yoko

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Ah sushi.  Just one facet of Japanese cuisine that has taken the world by storm.  Most people think of this food as being super Japanese and simply means “raw fish”.  On the contrary, sushi was originally invented in Southeast Asia, and sushi actually refers to the vinegar laden rice that upholds the meal.  It wasn’t until the early 1800s in Japan when the sushi and sashimi (raw fish slices) were combined as we consume it now.  It was referred to as Edo (Tokyo’s old name) style sushi.  While most people focus on the quality of the fish, in reality the sushi rice is considered of greater importance to the overall dining experience.  In Japan, a sushi chef can’t begin to serve fish until he has mastered the art of preparing the perfect batch of sushi rice.  If you want a great movie to see the training and art of sushi at its finest and most old-school, check out Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  While I’ve experienced sushi in Tokyo, I managed to find a little slice of the homeland just around the corner from my house in Westmont, IL in the form of Yokohama Japanese Restaurant.

Now it may not be in the most glamorous place in the world: in a small strip mall next to train tracks and a water silo, but as I’ve learned throughout my travels around the world, never judge a restaurant by its appearance (however hidden, strange, or non-descript it might be).  IMG_4858When we walked through the door, we were actually the only people in the restaurant, and the stoic sushi chef who was meticulously scrubbing down his workstation greeted us with a konichiwa! IMG_4872 We were quickly seated and had our menus placed in front of us.  IMG_4859Looking over the menu, they had a plethora of sushi options that ranged from individual pieces (~$1.50~4 per piece) to combination platters of sushi and sashimi (~$20-25).  We naturally started with drinks, and I wasn’t sure what to get until I saw something called Ramune under the sodas.  So when it came to my table, Janice knew what it was, but I was greatly confused looking at this uniquely shaped bottle.  IMG_4862Our waitress popped the top of the bottle with something that looked like a metal rod, and suddenly a glass marble of sorts dropped into the middle of the neck yet somehow didn’t fall to the bottom. IMG_4865 It turns out that this bottle was introduced to Japan by a Scottish chemist who was selling lemonade soda which was subsequently promoted by local papers as a preventative for cholera.  When I tried to drink it, it was really hard to imbibe the lemon-lime soda I could liken to a more subtle Sprite in nature.  I had to somehow use my tongue to push it up while allowing enough space for the soda to flow.  I eventually was like a sugar crazed rabbit flicking my tongue on the end of one of those water bottles that attach on the side with the metal spigot.  Long story short, Janice finally figured out that the strangely notched neck had a resting place for the marble which didn’t help since I already had finished 3/4ths of the bottle.  The thirst was real.

Regardless of my sufferings in the name of quenching my thirst, we ordered our food.  Janice got a mix of spicy hotate (scallop) rolls, California kani (crab) rolls, and a tamago sushi roll.  As for me, I was quite hungry, so I got a katsudon.  We waited quite awhile for our food which was kind of surprising given that we were the only people in there, but it was a sign that they were making everything fresh and taking care to make each piece perfectly.  Before we got our main course, we received complimentary bowls of miso soup and a kind of noodle salad.  IMG_4863I love miso soup in any form because it was warming our souls on that frigid night along with the wonderful earthy, savory umami flavor that Japanese cooking is notorious for.  IMG_4864The noodle salad was ok, and the white dressing that it was drowning in tasted kind of like ranch but not as tangy.  Eventually, our food came out, and the care the staff took in preparing the meal showed through in every piece of sushi. IMG_4869 The spicy scallop rolls weren’t terribly spicy, but the seaweed wrapping mixed with the slightly salty scallops to perfection. IMG_4871 I was more of a fan of the California rolls since they had a mix of smooth avocado, sweet crab meat, and crunchy cucumbers. IMG_4870 The tobiko fish eggs on the outside were the icing on the cake or the crown on these king crab rolls since they added a salty contrast to the vinegar soaked sushi rice.  As for the tamago, it was a part egg and part rice sushi roll was a bit too bland for me, but it’s wildly popular in Japan and elsewhere in the Far East.  So much so that even famous Korean rapper G-Dragon perhaps unknowingly sported a dodgy hairdo paying tribute to the eggy treat.rambut-g-dragon-sushi  Then there was my katsudon.  The word katsudon is a portmanteau of the Japanese words tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and donburi (rice bowl dish).

The bowl...

The bowl…

Surprise surprise, that’s exactly what my meal was:IMG_4868  a moderately sized bowl packed with rice on the bottom and then topped with a melange of egg, fried noodles, and fried pork cutlet pieces.  I couldn’t go wrong with all of that protein and carbs, and I really didn’t.  The pork was plentiful and lightly fried with a crumb-laden crust.  Mixing the pieces with the rice and noodles proved to be quite the hearty meal that filled me up but did not leave me bloated, uncomfortable with a greasy taste in my mouth, and with a bad case of the meat sweats.

By the end of the meal, we were greatly satisfied with our meal, and the price we paid wasn’t bad at all compared to more glamous/popular sushi joints.  So, if you want to get quality sushi at reasonable prices with friendly service, check out Yokohama Japanese Restaurant in Westmont! Sayonara!

Yokohama Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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