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Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 4)- Gettin’ Our Kicks with Nana (Nana’s Seafood, Kickin’ Chicken)

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Finally, I have arrived at the terminus of our South Carolina adventure and not a moment too soon (six months later).  Welcome back to Mastication Monologues where I spread the word of both good food and great times!  This post is the final installment in one of my travel series, and this one was not lacking in terms of major events.  From eating at one of the finest restaurants in the Southern United States to finally asking the love of my life to be with me forever and ever, it was an exhilarating journey from beginning to end.

So, we began our final day in the Holy City with a walking tour around Charleston’s downtown area.  We bided our time looking around the gift shop which boasted plenty of Charleston’s signature golden rice and colonial porcelain, but eventually we found our tour guide, Michael Trouche.  He was in charge of Charleston Footprints Touring Company, and we would highly recommend them if you’re looking for a very informative and affordable tour of the town from a Charlestonian whose family has been there since its founding.  We learned many interesting tidbits about the houses we otherwise would have walked past none the wiser.

Oldest house in Charleston

Oldest house in Charleston from the 1600s

He took us from the waterfront, IMG_8446to the intimate streets where scenes from Porgy and Bess took their inspirations, IMG_8447IMG_8442IMG_8448to even his family’s home that was huge yet still had that antiquated Southern charm.IMG_8445  He even showed us the house where Francis Marion, the real life planter and politician who Mel Gibson portrayed in the movie the Patriot, jumped from a third story balcony to the street below because he was embarrassed that he couldn’t toast to beginning a rebellion against their British overlords.  Why?  Because Marion was a teetotaler.  Even though he didn’t drink, he still managed to have fun by some how escaping the party with a broken leg on a horse and then waging a successful guerrilla war against the Crown’s troops during the war.  The most eye catching of the waterfront properties was Rainbow Row (not Road, Mario Kart fans).  IMG_8450These Georgian style buildings were originally bustling warehouses and storefronts, but they fell into disrepute once the Charleston economy was devastated by the Civil War.  However, in the 1920s they were redone with Caribbean flair in the form of their present day colorful facades.  Not only do they look pretty, but they keep the buildings cool in the sweltering summers thanks to their chromatic appearances.  We also got a taste of local business as we stopped into a local antique store that had everything from paintings to moonshine and of course Janice made friends with the resident poochy!

Just a little excited

Just a little excited

As our tour came to an end, we had worked up a mighty hunger, and I insisted that we should try Nana’s Seafood and Soul Takeout.  I read that it had some of the best and most affordable seafood in the Lowcountry, and it lived up to the hype and then some.  It’s actually such a small place we drove past it at first and had to back it up to make sure it was the right storefront.  IMG_8459When we walked in, it was a much different crowd than we encountered in most of the other restaurants in Charleston. IMG_8462 IMG_8461First, it was simply decorated, and it could only seat maybe 10-12 people, 20 if you really wanted to sit cheek to jowl with your fellow diners.  Second, it was exclusively African American in terms of patrons and staff aside from us, but us integrating the place didn’t stop us from having a wonderful time there.  They have mainly seafood options along with some classic chicken wings and sides for rock bottom prices and generous portions.  IMG_8460Need I say more?  Janice also asked if they had their famous garlic blue crabs ($18)  that they only serve when they receive them which isn’t very frequently.  As for me, I purchased their shrimp and oysters ($12).  We also talked with the owner who took our order which was a nice touch not found in many other restaurants in the US. Once we put in our orders, we took a seat at one of the small formica topped tables right next to a group of alumni from historically black fraternities and sororities and soaked in the atmosphere.  Our meals came out in carry out styrofoam containers even though we were dining in which already was a signal to me that we were in for a treat.  Janice opened hers first, and was greeted with a mountain of blue crabs which would be at least double in any other more touristy restaurant in downtown Charleston.IMG_9118  My shrimp and oyster lunch had a bit more variety with my crustaceans and bivalves being of the fried variety.  All of which didn’t surprise me since we were in the Dirty South, but the real rarity that came with this kind of food was the surprisingly green and fresh salad that accompanied my seafood. IMG_9119 Plus, I would have expected maybe some dirty rice or a helping of collard greens, but that Nana always keeps you guessing!  While we got down to business with our food, it was only the beginning of the Trump train where he was quoting the Bible and acting like a Christian who loves all people.  Funny enough, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day when we visited, and it was funny to see that everyone in that establishment, regardless of color, knew that Trump was talking nonsense.  Hopefully that spirit carries into November this year.  Politics aside, the food was mouthwateringly good and aesthetically pleasing.  The breading on my shrimp was very light and not greasy at all, but I don’t think the oysters went too well with the fried batter since they were runnier and didn’t lend themself to being fried to perfection.  I think crab or maybe the scallops would have been a better choice.  The fries I forgot to mention kept the “heart healthy” meal keep on going, and I tried to insert some green salad between each fried mouthful.  I think my heart was still beating by the end compliments of the lettuce and cucumbers.  Let me say that don’t think I was going to get too healthy on this trip because we shared a cup of potato salad ($2).IMG_9120  It was perfectly made with diced potatoes, plenty of mayo, and just a right amount of paprika on top. Then there was Janice’s meal.  Talk about having to work for your supper.  I never had fresh crab out of the shell before this visit, so Janice was the Master Yoda to my Luke.

Skilled she is

Skilled she is

Once I got the hang of it, I found the savory and garlickly meat to be worth the work. IMG_9122 If they have these armor plated morsels available, I’d highly recommend them.  Unfortunately, with pride comes one downfall as Janice was having trouble with a particular leg section.  So I thought I could break the shell with my fingers, which I did, but much to my chagrin the crab also sliced my thumb open.  So, I went into the bathroom in the back of the restaurant which was the definition of bare bones, but there was at least soap and water to wash the wound off.  However, we didn’t have a bandaid, so the owner ran out to her car and got me one. IMG_9126 Now that’s some Southern hospitality!  We actually managed to polish off our meals, and we were off to see some last highlights of Charleston.

Pretty she is

Pretty she is

Like a boss!

Like a boss!

We left Nana’s with great memories, full stomachs, and a “See y’all later!”.  We moved beyond the city to the Sullivan Island beach which was covered with plenty of dead starfish for some reason. IMG_9129 Even though it was an all you can eat bonanza for the seagulls, it didn’t ruin the pristene beach on our perfect vacation as a newly engaged couple.IMG_9133  We also went to Fort Moultrie which was originally made of palmetto palm trees during the American Revolution.  Thanks to the supple nature of these native trees, the British naval cannonballs literally bounced off the walls of the rebel-defended fort.  Hence, today we have the nickname of South Carolina, “The Palmetto State”.  It was not the wooden version I was expecting, rather how the fort looked circa World War II when our servicemen had to watch out for those pesky U-boats.  IMG_8464It was an ok experience looking out over the water and walking through the creepy underground bunkers, IMG_8465but its not something to go out of your way for unless you’re really into history like yours truly.  Our final bite to eat was at a local chain nearby our Air BnB called the Kickin’ Chicken. IMG_9135IMG_8472

Somebody's excited!

Somebody’s excited!

It’s like your typical laid back sit down restaurant with a focus on all things poultry with a Southern twist.  IMG_8471We went quite early for dinner, so the place wasn’t too kickin’.  The menu had a mix of bar food and Southern American classics like chicken and waffles.  We were more interested in their signature Kickin’ sandwiches.  Janice got the namesake sandwich ($9), and I got the Santa Fe Wrap ($9).  Clearly, the prices weren’t anything ridiculous, but we also weren’t going to go overboard since we were still stuffed from Nana’s before.  When our plates came out, we weren’t that impressed. IMG_9136 Janice’s was kind of bland with average bacon, a moderate amount of provolone cheese, and not the best chicken we had during the trip.  My Santa Fe wrap was a bit of a let down too.IMG_8469  It did bring the flavors of the Southwest alive with the inclusion of Tex Mex ingredients like peppers, salsa, onions, cheese, and the jalapeno cheddar wrap, but just barely above flat line.  Perhaps we would have been better off ordering the more bar food-esque options because these sandwiches left us wanting.  Once again it proved that small, family owned businesses are typically provide better quality and priced food and drinks.  Although it was the last impression we had of Charleston, it did not leave a sour taste in our mouth because it was drowned out with the great memories we made together on the road to many more in the future.IMG_9134

Nana's Seafood & Soul Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Kickin' Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

At the Market With My Dawgs

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Winter has finally hit Chitown harder than a raging Ditka and has been making life miserable for most aside from snow plow drivers and snowblower vendors.  However, if you’re looking for a warm and inviting restaurant in Chicago that serves up Mexican food with a twist, check out Mercadito Counter.

Now, this post is super late since I went back in the late summer/fall, but I hope that not much has changed in this funky fresh eatery.  From the instant you walk in under the papel picado, you’re transported to a modern taqueria whose menu boasts everything from tacos to Mexican hot dogs (more to follow).IMG_4519IMG_4521  Speaking of the former Mexican staple, Mercadito Counter boasts a taco eating challenge where a diner has to eat 35 tacos in an hour.  If you gobble all of them up, you get free tacos for life but only on Tuesdays.  Naturally, there’s a catch!  After agonizing over the menu for a good ten minutes, I decided to get a steak taco, a pork taco, and The Mexican hot dog, and a Nutty Mexican milkshake.  Janice got an order of onion rings, a fundido hot dog, and a lobster dog.  While waiting for our grub to arrive, we got some of the locally made salsas that were in squeeze bottles behind where we ordered our food. IMG_4518 Eventually, it all came out and looked fantastic.  I started with my tacos.  While they were immaculately presented, their size left much to be desired based on their price (roughly 3 bucks a taco).  Ay Chihuahua! IMG_4522 Surprisingly, the steak taco was a lot more flavorful than the pork taco even though the latter had roasted pineapple chunks as a sweet caress to the ancho and guajillo slathered spicy pork.  I think I enjoyed it more because the meat itself wasn’t drowned out with lots of strong flavors, and the key lime marinade was a stroke of genius.  As for my Mexican hot dog, it was my best friend.IMG_4523  It consisted of a grilled, bacon-wrapped dog covered with pico de gallo, mayo, jalapeño relish, mustard, and ketchup.  It was an excellent example of literal Mexican American cooking where the zesty pico de gallo and jalapeño relish provided a Latino slant to the more classic flavors, and the bacon strip gave the char dog a satisfying, porky crunch with each bite.  Between bites of my food, I sampled Janice’s onion rings which were delicious since they were crunchy, large, and didn’t succumb to severe onion loss that I hate when eating the greasy bar food staples.IMG_4525  What is severe onion loss?  It’s the annoying phenomenon when biting into an onion ring only to have the entire veggie slip out leaving you behind with a crunchy shell.  First world problems, I know.  I did enjoy the chipotle dip that came on the side that gave this appetizer the south-of-the-border kick it needed.   We also used the homemade salsas on the complimentary tortilla chips that came with our hot dogs. IMG_4528 There were three different types:  the chipotle tomatillo, the habanero, and the arriera.  The chipotle tomatillo was more like a common green salsa that could be found in most Mexican restaurants where there was a lot of tomato flavor with sparks of garlic and cilantro.IMG_4527  My favorite was the arriera since it was surprisingly spicier than the habanero salsa.

Habanero salsa

Habanero salsa

 

Arriera salsa

Arriera salsa

Plus, it had epazote or wormseed in it which is a herb that can poisonous in large quantities, but in small portions it alleviates gas and discomfort during digestion.  So it was a win-win especially since we were eating Mexican food.  I also took a bite of Janice’s fundido dawg that was good but not great. IMG_4526 It was basically a Mexican twist on a chili dog with chorizo instead of ground beef on top.  I didn’t take a taste of her lobster dog, but she said it was delicious and decadence embodied. IMG_4533 Speaking of super scrumptious items on the menu, the Nutty Mexican milkshake I had was mind-blowing.IMG_4531  From the powdered cocoa powder on top along with a mix of nutmeg and cinnamon blended throughout the milk chocolate ice cream.  All of which left me filled up but not ready to explode like una bomba.IMG_4532

So if you want to check out Mercadito Counter, I’d recommend a visit, but I would get the hot dogs over the tacos since they aren’t as big of a rip off in terms of the price vs. size ratio.  Inflated prices aside, the fresh ingredients, service, and flavors made this taqueria tops for the area!

Mercadito Counter on Urbanspoon

OpenTable: A Land of Delicious Opportunities

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Chicago. The Windy City. The City of Broad Shoulders. Whatever you’d like to call it, I just call it home. It is a city known for its skyline, architecture, and especially the food. The dining culture in Chicago is unique due to a variety of factors, but I plan on highlighting the cultural diversity that contributes greatly to the food scene throughout our great metropolis. Although there are numerous communities scattered throughout Chicago, I only have room for five ethnic groups, so get ready for some great Italian, Polish, Chinese, German, and Mexican dishes.  You can find most of them online on OpenTable’s Chicago restaurants  page where you can then make reservations to enjoy all the great meals they have to offer.

1.  Al’s Beef

IMG 3211 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelWhen most people think of Italian food, they think of pasta or pizza, but how about beef? Italian beef is a Chicago invention that originated in the Little Italy neighborhood on the Near West Side on Taylor Street. Like many great dishes, it was born out of necessity in hard times. During the Great Depression, Italian families had to make the most out of the cheap cuts of beef they were able to afford. Therefore, they first soaked it in spiced broth to soften up the tough pieces of meat, and then they cut it into razor thin pieces to be eaten on a roll. Thus the Italian beef sandwich was born.

Today, there are many Italian beef sandwiches throughout Chicago and the Chicagoland area, but Al’s Beef on Taylor Street is the original sandwich stand starting all the way back in 1938. It has been featured on the Today show, Man Vs. Food, the History Channel, and even Good Morning America as one of the best sandwiches and restaurants in America. Al’s Beef may have a big reputation, but it is an extremely simple establishment. It’s a modestly sized building with a small parking lot alongside it. Upon walking in, you’ll be greeted with a simple menu that includes not only Italian beef sandwiches but also other Chicago specialties like Chicago Polish sausage, Chicago style hot dogs, and Italian sausage. I always go for the Italian beef sandwich since that is Al’s specialty, and it’s prepared the same way they did back in 1938.

You can order it depending on what kind of toppings you like: plain, sweet (grilled mild green peppers), hot (giardiniera or pickled vegetables), or cheese for an extra charge. Once you’ve picked your topping, then you have the option of how much of the seasoned beef broth you’d like on your sandwich. It ranges from dry (obviously with none) to wet (a little bit on top of the sandwich) to dipped (the authentic Chicago experience with the whole sandwich dipped in the broth). Once you have your sandwich, you can either order a soda or water to drink. Not much selection here, folks.

When it comes to actually consuming the meal, Al’s Beef is interesting in the sense that there are no traditional tables to sit at. Instead, there are only chest high counters that go around the inside of the establishment. Therefore, you must master the Italian stance. What this consists of is putting your forearms on the edge of the counter and moving your feet back about two feet. This provides stability and avoids getting any of the sandwich on your clothes. If you have room, I’d recommend walking across Taylor Street to Mario’s Italian Lemonade for dessert to taste another relic of Italian American pride in Chicago. So, if you want a one of a kind piece of Chicago Italian culture for a great price, check out Al’s Beef.

 1079 W Taylor St, Chicago, Illinois
(312)226-4017
http://www.alsbeef.com/ 
 
2. Podhalanka

IMG 3789 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelI stumbled upon an intriguing infographic that showed the top language, excluding English and Spanish, in all 50 states in the United States. Illinois’ third biggest language and ethnic group is people of Polish descent. At one time, there were more Polish people in Chicago than the Polish capital of Warsaw. While this is no longer true, Polish cuisine and culture is extremely strong throughout the city. I am one of the millions of people of Polish descent in Chicago, so I only felt it necessary to highlight a restaurant representing this community.

While there are tons of Polish restaurants I’ve tried around my grandparents’ neighborhood surrounding Midway Airport, I’d like to tell you more about a hidden gem on the North Side called Podhalanka. It is located in the Polonia Triangle, considered the oldest and most prominent of Chicago’s Polish enclaves. Therefore, Podhalanka is the real deal when it comes to no-frills Polish food for a great price. If you’ve never tried Polish food, this would be the most authentic you could get without hopping on a plane and landing in Krakow. This restaurant may have never been on the Food Channel or on Good Morning America, and frankly, Podhalanka doesn’t really care. They just care about providing scrumptious food with plenty of love to their customers.

While the inside and outside of the restaurant might lack of cutting edge design, it more than makes up for it through the food that is spectacular and the overall atmosphere. Podhalanka is filled with plenty of local flavor as the walls are festooned with various artifacts of Polish culture, and the bar is often occupied by old timers taking down some soup with a beer. The wait staff is also colorful as they are gruffer than your average American waiter, but they aren’t mean spirited.

Looking over the menu, they have a variety of soups, salads, and meat dishes. The wait staff might also just tell you what to get if you’re overwhelmed with the selection of foreign dishes. I’d highly recommend the Kotlet Schabowy which is a breaded pork cutlet that is huge and has a perfect, golden-brown bread crumb crust around a tender piece of pork.

Another great dish would be the żurek or sour rye soup. It’s not as gross as it sounds. Rather it’s more like a creamy soup filled with large chunks of hearty Polish kielbasa and a slightly sour aftertaste to offer a little zing with every spoonful. I had for my entree the Sztuka Miesa W Sosie Chrzanowym or boiled beef with horseradish sauce when I visited Podhalanka, and if you like cleaning out your sinuses while chowing down on a stick-to-your-ribs type of meal, I’d highly recommend it. So if you’re looking for a great Polish diner with giant plates for tiny prices, checkout Podhalanka.

 1549 W Division St, Chicago, Illinois
(773)486-6655
http://chicago.menupages.com/restaurants/podhalanka/menu

3. Cemitas Puebla

IMG 3559 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelThe Mexican community in Chicago has steadily been growing in the past couple of decades, and now one can find tacos, burritos, and quesadillas in restaurantes throughout the ciudad (city, for those of you who don’t habla espanol). However, there is one Mexican restaurant in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, Humboldt Park, that really took me by surprise. I’m talking about Cemitas Puebla.

I originally saw it on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and I vowed that I had to visit it after seeing these mouthwatering sandwiches being made. They’ve also been featured on the local ABC News Chicago branch’s “Hungry Hound” segment and PBS.

So why choose Cemita Puebla over all the other Mexican taquerias in Chicago? Because they offer a unique dish from Puebla, Mexico that I have not seen anywhere else in the country. There is only street parking for this establishment, so make sure to get there before the lunch crowd rushes in. The outside of the restaurant is simple and advertises their appearance on the Food Network, and the inside operates on a typical line up and “Can I take your order?” system. The clientele are mostly families and locals from nearby businesses.

Their menu has a range of different cemitas along with other Mexican staples like tacos, burritos, and chalupas. However, I went for the signature cemita atomica or “atomic cemita” along with a cup of agua de jamaica or “hibiscus water”, a popular drink throughout Latin America that is kind of like sweet, red Kool-aid. The cemita I ordered consisted of a grilled, sesame topped bun piled high with breaded pork, roasted pork, and plain ham along with queso fresco, fresh avocado, and two complimentary bottles of mild and spicy tomatillo sauce on the side. I was living in hog heaven south of the border with this pig-tacular sandwich. It is a great place for lunch or dinner that is a bit out of the way, but it is a piece of Mexico that isn’t often represented in the Chicago culinary landscape.

 
3619 W. North Avenue, Chicago, Illinois
http://www.cemitaspuebla.com/
 
4. The Berghoff

berg 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelI chose the Berghoff since it is a pillar of Chicago’s ethnic and culinary background. Germans have resided in Chicago since the 1800s. Although their presence isn’t as large as it once was, the German community’s identity still remains strong especially during Oktoberfest when everyone is a little German to celebrate the harvest and that delicious beer that Deutchland makes.

What makes the Berghoff so unique is that it is a purely Chicago institution that opened in 1898 as a men’s only saloon that served free corned beef with the purchase of a stein of beer. Their beer sales were severely affected during the era of Prohibition, but when the ban was repealed in 1933, the City of Chicago issued the Berghoff liquor license number 1.

This tradition continues even today along with still being run by the Berhoff family in the form of the great-granddaughter of the Berghoff’s founder, Herman Berghoff. While they maintain many of their traditions, the menu has expanded to feature more contemporary favorites, including gluten-free dishes, which are side by side with typical German meals.

The interior is amazing with the rich, dark wood carvings and stained glass windows. It is a slightly more formal place, so I’d recommend not walking in with torn jeans or tank tops. They also do group events in their cafe and even cater for parties if you want to host a large party.

When I was there, I got and highly recommend the seasonal ox joint with pumpkin gnocchi. It was large, hearty, and had fall-off the bone meat. I haven’t tried their other plates, but if you’re a beer lover, they have a wide range of lagers, pilsners, and seasonals to quench your thirst. I’d also suggest visiting this German restaurant for their Oktoberfest celebration that is one of the best in Chicago. For the kids, The Berghoff makes their own root beer which became popular at The Berghoff during Prohibition, and there are other non-alcoholic drinks for those who would rather not imbibe while dining. So if you’re looking to raise a stein of beer with a friend or go out with a special someone while sampling some Old World fare, I’d highly recommend The Berghoff.

 
17 West Adams, Chicago, Illinois
(312)427-3170
http://www.theberghoff.com
 
5. Three Happiness

img 0800 150x150: Top Five Ethnic Eats in Chicago   Food and TravelChinese food is a cuisine of fusion and variety due the presence of numerous ethnic groups within the country along with traders from other lands over centuries bringing their own ingredients from their homelands to the Middle Kingdom. In the United States, we are used to the American Chinese classics like orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, and various fried rices. These dishes have their roots in Cantonese cuisine since most of the Chinese immigrants who emigrated to the USA during 1800s came from this southern region of China. However, there is much more to Chinese food than just fried meats covered in sweet sauce and cookies containing often cryptic fortunes.

I’d like to talk more about the Chinese tradition of dim sum which can be found throughout Chicago’s Chinatown. Although it is not as big as San Francisco’s Chinatown, Chicago’s Chinatown is the second oldest in America after Chinese laborers fled violent clashes with white settlers on the West Coast. It has plenty of great sights to enjoy like the Chinatown mural, the square, and the Chinese New Year celebrations. However, I’d like to highlight Three Happiness as a great restaurant for both traditional American Chinese fare and delicious dim sum.

There are two Three Happineses: the original next to the Chinatown gate or the new one next to the Chicago fire department. I’ll be talking about the new Three Happiness. I’ve been going there since I was little, and they have plenty of space for big parties or just a table for two. It gets pretty loud inside during peak hours, so it wouldn’t be the best spot for a romantic, candlelit dinner.

When it comes to the typical American Chinese dishes, I’d recommend their shrimp fried rice since it isn’t very greasy and the shrimp are plentiful and large. Their sweet and sour pork is great too because of the slightly spicy kick to the thick sauce that coats every piece.

I also would suggest trying dim sum which is like Chinese tapas where you have to order a few small dishes and then share them with everyone. How it works is that you’re given a list with pictures of the small plates, and you check off what you want. The server then takes it, and your plates come out to you in waves. Out of all the dim sum plates I’ve tried I’d recommend the sesame buns which are small pieces of fried, rice dough coated in sesame seeds. Inside there is a slight dab of red bean paste that isn’t overwhelming like how other places do these sesame balls. I’d also get the pork bao which are fluffy, white buns that are steamed and filled with barbecue pork. Watch out for these because they are addictive!

The last dim sum plate I’d recommend are the chicken feet just because they are not for the faint of heart and quite unique. While there isn’t a lot of meat on these poultry tootsies, it is entertaining to eat them while trying to strip the meat off the cartilage while savoring the sweet, orange marinade. Brush up on those chopstick skills! (seriously though, they have forks). So, if you want to taste a bit of authentic Chinese culture and take a walk on the wild side beyond Panda Express, check out Three Happiness and Chicago’s Chinatown.

 
2130 S. Wentworth Ave, Chicago, Illinois
(312)791-1228
http://chicago.menupages.com/restaurants/new-three-happiness/

Absolute Cero

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Hola a todos and welcome to Mastication Monologues!  This really has been a post that has been long in the making, but it is not short on quality by any means.  Today’s restaurant in question is De Cero on the Near West side of Chicago.  It is a modern version of a taqueria or taco shop for y’all who don’t habla espanol.  It takes the ingredients from the Pilsen and Little Village Mexican strongholds and presents it in a more Rick Bayless upper echelon Latin cuisine fashion.

Sharing the block with other famous dining establishments like Le Chevre and Girl and the Goat (post coming soon), De Cero is a simple restaurant with open patio dining and indoor dining.  It’s simply furnished with wooden chairs and a soft lit interior.IMG_3961 IMG_3959 IMG_3960 When I went with my girlfriend and her party posse, we hung out on the bumpin patio that was occasionally ruined by spontaneous drizzle storms.  Being the Midwesterners that we are, we just sat through it and enjoyed the wonderful food and drinks.IMG_3947

First, there were the libations.  They have non-alcoholic selections like the classic Jarritos that can be found in every corner store stocked with Latin goods, but we came for the more adult beverages.  I started by wetting my whistle with a mango con chile margarita ($9.75).  Not only did it come with chile, but our waitress indulged my thirst for spicy food by letting me know I can put habanero chili powder on the edge.  When it came out, it checked all the boxes for me for a bebida perfecta (perfect drink). IMG_3948 IMG_3950 It was the perfect blend of the natural sweetness of the sunny yellow mango with the occasional hint of tequila and a bold punch of smoldering chile with each sip.  Later on in the night, I tried the jicama margarita, but it was the blander of the two options. IMG_3958 IMG_3957

As for appetizers, we got the chips and salsa entrada ($6.75) where we chose the pico de gallo, red picante, and tomatillo lime verde salsas.  A side of guacamole was thrown in there for good measure.  IMG_3953Out of the trio of super salsas, my favorite was the pico de gallo.  All of the different elements like the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and tangy lime juice were in perfect harmony which I couldn’t say the same for its compadres.  The red picante was pedestrian but a bit heavy on the smoky chile element, and the key lime green tomatillo salsa was more sour than savory which didn’t really catch my fancy.  However, the guacamole made me think “Holy moly” with each ravenous bite of the tortilla chips. IMG_3954 Even though it was the same color as toothpaste, it tread the line between chunky and smooth excellently and the cilantro pepped up this potentially bland side.  IMG_3956My girlfriend also tried the spicy goat cheese tamale ($3.75).  IMG_3969

Duck confit taco and tamale

Duck confit taco and tamale

It was nothing special.  The mild masa of the tamale drowned out the flamboyantly tasty goat cheese which left me muy triste.IMG_3971  After munching on these appetizers, the main course came out.

I got four different tacos:  spicy applewood chorizo, rajas, al pastor, and chicken mole ($3.75 each).IMG_3963  Surprisingly, I thought the best one of the four was the rajas. IMG_3967 This doesn’t mean that the other ones were huge let downs, but I felt that I tried better versions in cheaper restaurants.  Especially with the al pastor that had plenty of spiced pork shoulder but not enough pineapple.  IMG_3966The chorizo was not as spicy as I was anticipating which left me crestfallen since I’m used to Mexican sausage bringing the heat.IMG_3965  The chicken mole was more of an experiment for me since I’ve never really been a big fan of mole.  IMG_3964Even though I love chocolate, this cocoa infused sauce never really jived with my palate.  At De Cero, it was no different, but I’m sure many other people love it. The black beans that came with the tacos, however, were a nice change of pace compared to the typical brown refried bean goo they serve at every tex-mex eatery. IMG_3968 They were served whole, simmered in a pork based broth with a chunk of pork thrown in for good measure.  It was food for the soul.

By the end of the meal, I felt like a stuffed gordita, but the overall quality of the ingredients in the tacos and the zesty margaritas made De Cero a taqueria experience without equal, especially with lovely company.IMG_3973
De Cero on Urbanspoon

All Hail Cesar!

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Que tal, amigos?  If you couldn’t get enough of my food adventures on Mastication Monologues, today I’m bringing you a review of a Mexican restaurant that is well known for their murderous margaritas:  Cesar’s Killer Margaritas.  I’ve passed by it many times while gallivanting about Chicago on the Northside, but I’ve never set foot in the establishment.  Thankfully, I got an opportunity to visit for dinner recently, and it was quite an enjoyable experience.IMG_3744

When Janice and I walked in the door, there were a bunch of people waiting for a table sitting along the wall, and that immediately elicited my response of, “Great…a wait”. IMG_3747 I’ve worked as a host at a restaurant, and I know that giving an estimated table time is a very loose interpretation of how long it’s actually going to be since there are so many variables to take into account.  The hostess quoted us at 10 to 15 for a free table which is the fallback answer since it doesn’t give the customer unreasonable expectations yet doesn’t seem like an insurmountable wait.  Surprisingly, the wait was shorter than estimated, so we were hustled up and down two staircases to get to our table.  Once seated, we immediately looked over the signature margarita menu since we wanted to see if they could live up to the hype.  While they had the usual flavors like raspberry and strawberry, they had nods to Latin flavors with tamarindo and guava.  I got a frozen guava margarita ($11) while Janice got the chilled raspberry margarita ($11).  While waiting, I was systematically destroying the chips in front of me along with the watery but cilantro filled salsa roja that come complimentary with the meal.  Eventually, they were brought out to us, and they looked like any other margaritas.  However, it was a pleasant surprise that they were not too syrupy, and we could taste the liquor as well which let us know we were getting our money’s worth.IMG_3749  I found Janice’s margarita to be more interesting than mine because it contained something I’ve never seen in a margarita:  fresh fruit. IMG_3751 I don’t know if they do this with all of their flavors, but her raspberry margarita literally had whole raspberries floating amongst the ice floes of the red sea of tequila.  It was a masterstroke of tex-mex bartending.  While we were enjoying our frozen beverages, we looked over the dinner menu.  They had plenty of entrees, lighter options, appetizers, starters, and soups.  While they didn’t stray much from the tried and true tex-mex favorites, I decided to go for the steak mini burritos ($10) while Janice got the vegetarian fajitas with steak ($14).  While waiting for our plates to come out, I thought back to another Mexican dinner that I had in London which resulted in me carrying a pair of twin food babies around for the majority of the night.  Thankfully, these burritos wouldn’t destroy me like that chimichanga in Old Blighty.  Before our entrees arrived, we were hooked up with a free cup of what seemed to be tomato soup with noodles. IMG_3753 It was flavorful but nothing noteworthy since we could only taste tomatoes.    When they came out, I immediately pounced on them since these plump little buggers looked quite scrumptious under their cheese and salsa verde blanket.  IMG_3755I sliced into them, and the juicy pieces of steak, beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes came tumbling out.  I poured the sour cream all over them while spackling guacamole on each forkful.  Madre de dios, estos burritos fueron de la puta madre! (“These burritos were the bees knees!” in so many words).  The tortillas were flavorful and bursting with gooey cheese and fresh vegetables.  I think the combo of the cool sour cream and the cilantro filled guacamole gave the savory steak a herbal tinge that made my tastebuds scream “Más  Más Más!”.  The Mexican rice was average, but I didn’t even touch the beans.  As for Janice’s vegetable fajitas, they were served piping hot at our table and contained plenty of veggies one typically doesn’t find in Mexican cuisine like cauliflower, broccoli, and mushrooms. IMG_3756 She offered to make me a taco out of the ingredients in her fajita, so I got a mouthful of peppers and onions along with the same succulent steak in my mini burritos.IMG_3757  I would have helped her more with the monstrously-sized meal, but I would have needed a second stomach.  I was feeling full by that point in the meal but not to the point of sickness.  It wasn’t the most mind blowing meal in the world since Chicagoland has a ton of great Mexican eateries, but I was a happy customer with the service and food.

So if you’re looking for a fun establishment with well made dishes and unique margaritas, check out Cesar’s!

Cesar's on Urbanspoon

How I Learned to Stop Wondering and Love the Bomb

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Ah the sandwich.  One of the most simple yet fluid concepts in food.  Food has long been enveloped or contained in some sort of bread in various cultures across the world, but the actual word can be traced to 18th century England.  Edward Gibbons states that John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, would ask for his meat to be between slices of bread, so he could eat with his hands while playing cards and not get the cards dirty.  Eventually, people began to ask for their meals, “The same as Sandwich”, and a new word entered the English language.  Today, there are a million ways to put one together that range from the classic peanut butter and jelly to the straight up bizarre.  Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues features a Mexican twist on the food staple in the form of Cemitas Puebla in Chicago.

This eatery in Humboldt Park has received its fair share of publicity after appearing on the Food Network, PBS’s Check Please, and the Hungry Hound a.k.a. Steve Dolinsky from ABC 7 news.  Surprisingly, given that this establishment is located in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, it is purely Mexican, specifically from the state of Puebla.  The exterior blends into the neighborhood, and the interior is just as simple.IMG_3557  I went there around lunch, and it was hopping.  The line was moderately long, but the cooks knew how to hustle.  Looking over the menu, the cemitas were dominant, but there were other dishes like tacos, enchiladas, chalupas, and quesadillas to name a few.  I was determined to see what made these south-of-the-border super sandwiches were made of.  I decided to speak in Spanish with the lady at the cash register to maybe get a bit of extra info that the gringos wouldn’t get.  I was torn between the pata (cow foot) or the atomica (atomic) cemita, but the lady recommended the atomica because the cow foot wasn’t very popular and lower quality.  Taking her word for it, I put down $9 for the atomica cemita and a small agua de jamaica to drink ($1.25).

While waiting for my meal, the cashier got my drink from the back freezer along with a couple of squeeze bottles.  She set them down, and I asked about the different salsas in the bottles.  While the two clear ones were filled with some sort of red and green sauces, the woman pointed out the bright yellow bottle of sauce would go the best with the cemita.  I thanked her for the info started sipping on my drink.  Agua de jamaica (literally:  water of hibiscus) is a tea that can be served either hot or cold, the latter in this case, and is an infusion of hibiscus flowers and a bit of sugar.IMG_3564  It’s a great drink for a hot day with a hint of sweetness in each sip, and it has anti-oxidant properties that can lessen the effects of hypertension.  Finally, the star of the show emerged from the grill, and was brought to my table with minimal fanfare.  I was taken aback by how large the sandwich was for the price I paid and then pondered how to tackle this monstrosity?IMG_3559 The atomica consisted of breaded pieces of milanesa (breaded pork), carne enchilada (chili seasoned meat), and jamon (ham).  This meat parade was further accented with adobo chipotle peppers, Oaxacan cheese, and fresh papalo or a green herb used for seasoning. IMG_3560 I took my first bite that consisted me of unhinging my jaws like a reticulated python around a baby hippo, and it truly was a weapon of mass deliciousness. The bun was moderately toasted with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds on top, and it was strong enough throughout the meal to keep these ingredients in check and not on my pants.  Each layer of meat moved from strength to strength as the jamon was salty to compliment the milanesa breading while the breading provided a crunchy contrast to the soft carne enchilada.  I loved the stretchy Oaxacan cheese that was plentiful along with the chunks of creamy avocado.  The papalo was there, but I personally didn’t think it brought much to the table flavor and texture-wise.  Once I was acquainted with my new sandwich friend, I decided to try some of the sauces on the table.  I began with the recommended cemita sauce, and it was a peppery adobo that had a robust, peppery bite to add a savory dimension to the sandwich.IMG_3563  I moved on to the green sauce that had an uncanny resemblance to boogers, but it thankfully didn’t taste the same. IMG_3567 I’d liken it to a flavorful tomatillo salsa with hints of cilantro.  As for the red sauce in the other clear bottle, it was nothing noteworthy.  ‘Twas just another run of the mill tomato based salsa.  Much to my dismay, I wasn’t overly stuffed even though the sandwich probably had over 3,000 calories and could choke a horse.  It was a simple yet thoroughly satisfying lunch.

So if you want to try a unique piece of Mexico beyond tacos and tamales for a reasonable price, check out Cemitas Puebla.

Cemitas Puebla on Urbanspoon

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