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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

Nice to Meat You!

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Zdravo, friends!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t recognize my initial greeting, it was just one way to say “Hello” in Bosnian.  This Balkan nation goes back to time eternal, but after millennia of shifting borders and political alliances have managed to achieve stability and a high standard of life for its citizens.  974e3dc3acc579a582b38880adf839b8The name of Bosnia and Herzegovina is disputed, but many scholars believe that Bosnia is derived from the Bosna river while Herzegovina is a bit more complicated.  A Bosnian nobleman adopted the title Herceg (“duke” in Bosnian) and combined it with the ending “-ovina” meaning “land”.  Once again, a rich guy stamping his name on a piece of land like Pennsylvania and America, for example.  Anyway, moving on from monikers, today’s post involves Kiko’s Meat Market, a homey piece of the Balkan nation located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood which is home to numerous immigrants from the Balkans.

It was a cold night when Janice and I finally made our way into this mysterious restaurant right across the street from one of numerous magic shops that inhabit this part of town for some odd reason.  I didn’t know what to expect from an establishment with the term “meat market” in the title.  IMG_7665IMG_7666Was it going to bring me back to my life as a deli counter worker in the now defunct Chicago-based, all things Slavic emporium Bobak’s Sausage Company, or perhaps something more fitting in the Boystown neighborhood?  It was neither.  There is street and paid parking on the surrounding streets, and the staff were very friendly to us upon entering.  We heard more Bosnian and Serbian conversations than English as we were escorted to our seats which only added to the ambiance of traveling to another corner of the world without even needing a passport.  As for the actual decor, it wasn’t anything over the top or notable.IMG_7664 IMG_7659  It was a basic diner that reminded me of some of the Polish diners that used to be all over on the Southwest side around my grandparents house.  Not only was it a restaurant, but it was connected to a Balkan grocer and deli where you could buy different types of meats and treats from the old country.IMG_7661IMG_7660IMG_7662  Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for some sausage or bakery or waiting for the waitress to come to your table like I did. Before we got a chance to look over the menu, we ordered our drinks.  I got a Jelen beer which is a Serbian pale lager.  The name of the beer in Serbian means “deer” hence the majestic wildlife on the label. IMG_7646 It was nothing of note.  In fact, it reminded me of every beer from Southern Europe, i.e. thin and inoffensive.  Not surprising when these brews come from wine cultures.  On top of the liquid bread, we were provided the old fashioned sliced kind. IMG_7647 It may not look like much, but it was clearly homemade with the warm, pliant middle and just crusty enough edges that were enhanced by the accompanying European butter that was smoother and not as salty as its American counterpart.  These were just warning shots before the bomb that was dropped in the form of the entrees:  the sampler platter (Mješano meso) and the cabbage rolls (sarma).  The cabbage rolls looked similar to the gołąbki my Polish family makes for most, if not all, family get-togethers.  It consisted of a soft and slightly sour exterior of translucent, pea green cabbage that was doused in a beef and tomato sauce.  IMG_7650These little rolls were camping between two mini-mountains of mashed potatoes that were enhanced with a generous dollop of sour cream like fresh powder in the Alps.IMG_7651  We quickly cut into the rolls and were met with a rice and beef blend that was kind of different from the pork, rice, and pea mixture found in my family’s Polish counterpart.  It was everything I love about Eastern European cooking:  warm, comforting, and hearty.  The cool sour cream cut through the bit of grease that accompanied the meat.  The mashed potatoes were anonymous in a plate full of character and bold flavors.  After that first act, it was time to step up to the plate and take on the champ.  The sampler platter was the Andre the Giant of our meal:  just one giant hunk of meat (thankfully, better looking though).

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Actually, to be specific it consisted of a variety of Bosnian meats including chevapi, sausages, chicken, veal kebobs, and veal liver all served within traditional a traditional Balkan pita bread with a side of fries, salad, and ‘kajmak’ cheese.  We asked our waitress if it was going to be enough food before we ordered it, and once it was in front of us, we could see why she laughed at our naivete.  I felt like I was King Arthur putting Excalibur back into its stone home, IMG_7649but instead of having my crown rescinded, we were both blessed with a bountiful meal.  Naturally, the bread was warm and much more substantial than a Greek pita and baked to perfection.  The kajmak cheese was like a Balkan version of brie that went very well on the warm bread.  The chevapi weren’t new to us since we’ve tried other countries’ versions of these miniscule skinless sausages.  They’re essentially char-grilled pieces of beef and pork that just go down way too easy. IMG_7652 The sausages were all made in house, and they seemed to be pork based.  I was more particular to their chicken that absorbed a little bit of each of the other meats’ flavors which isn’t surprising since every meat seems to taste like chicken.  Long story short, if you’re a carnivore, this sampler platter is just for you.  The veal kebobs were very tender, juicy, and bursting with flavor.  We both tried a bit of the veal liver, but we weren’t fans of the unique, grainy texture that accompanies liver.  Then again, we were also saving room for dessert like the smart people we are.  Even though we felt like we were ready to burst, Janice jumped for the tiramisu while I went for the more exotic tufahija.  Tiramisu isn’t Bosnian, rather Italian, and is a more recent invention around the 1960s.  The origin of the name of the dessert is up for debate including the name of a Veneto baker’s apprentice’s maiden name, but a layer cake by any other name would taste as sweet and coffee-tastic.  It was a welcome change from the heavier plates we chowed down on earlier. IMG_7653IMG_7654 From the coffee soaked bottom layer to the heavenly light cream on top, it was a dessert fit for my classy bella donna.  As for my tufahija, it is a relic of centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.  This is clearly evident since the name is derived from the Arabic word “tuffàh” (تفاحة‎) meaning “apple” in English, but the dessert itself originates in Persia.  It consisted of a cold, skinned apple soaked in sugar water and then stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream.  IMG_7655It was so wildly different compared to everything I had that dinner, nay I’ve had in dessertdom, and I loved every minute of it.  The apple was slightly moist and chilled but not soggy somehow.  As I moved my way through the dessert, the core was filled with crunchy, basically raw walnuts that provided a much needed crunch and offset the sweet, but not overly so, apple.IMG_7657  These elements by themselves were wonderful, and the whipped cream was good up to a point.  I think it was a bit excessive with the wavy white sea this dessert was bobbing in.  I would highly recommend this dessert though if you’re looking to break away from traditional end platters to your meal.

We left Kiko’s with very happy and stuffed bellies with another full meal of leftovers in our doggy bag, so you will definitely get your money’s worth at this eatery.  If you’re a carnivore or looking for a new and unique restaurant that also serves one of Chicago’s many Balkan communities, you got to get to Kiko’s Meat Market!
Kiko' s Market & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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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Sarajevo Fo’ Sho’!

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The Balkans have long been a forgotten corner of Europe but one of the most tumultuous and diverse regions of the continent.  A potpourri of Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins all interacting with each other, not always positively, mind you, and exchanging ideas and more importantly, food.  While this geographic region is on the Mediterranean Sea, the food is very different to their western neighbors Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.  While they might focus on the same staples like wine and olives/olive oil, their meals have more of an Eastern European and Middle Eastern vibe due to their location as a crossroads of sorts between East and West.  Instead of having to buy tickets to Europe, Janice and I managed to find a slice of Bosnia quite close to home on Chicago northside at Restaurant Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is the name of the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is an ancient and diverse city that once boasted of being the only European city with a synagogue, Orthodox Catholic, mosque, and Catholic Church in the same neighborhood.  However, much of the city was destroyed by Serbian forces in the siege during the War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s.  Once the guns fell silent, the rebuilding process began, and now it’s back to its former glory.  Due to the aforementioned violence, many Bosnian and Serbian refugees came to Chicago for a better life.  This brings me back to our visit to Restaurant Sarajevo. IMG_6128 It was quite busy around dinner time, but we also just beat the rush by going around 6 pm.IMG_6108  We looked over the menu and decided to try the cold appetizer plate ($10.07) since it contained two of our favorite food groups:  meat and cheese.  While we were waiting, we got a free basket of some delicious, warm, crusty bread.  It came pre-sliced in giant pieces, and the butter that came with it had a thicker consistency that was almost like cream cheese. IMG_6117Turns out it was a Balkan and Central Asian treat known as kaymak.  The word “kaymak” means “melt” in Mongolian which was an apt description since the spread on the warm bread was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Our appetizer came out, and it was a gigantic plate filled with savory delights. IMG_6110 IMG_6109We could see smoked beef, two types of Bosnian sausage, peppers, and Bosnian Travnik feta cheese.  It was a who’s who of European food with the Mediterranean represented in the olives and peppers and feta while the Eastern and Central European elements were present in the sausages and smoked meats.  The smoked beef was not as super smoky as you would think it would be like American barbecue, but it still was very juicy. IMG_6111 While the two meats were very distinct in flavor.  The darker of the pair was more like a salami with a salty aftertasteIMG_6113 while the more reddish sausage I could liken to a spicier Spanish chorizo. IMG_6112 As for the feta cheese, it was a great piece of the crumbly stuff when combined with the olive oil coated peppers or the sausages. IMG_6116 For the main course, we were simply awash with great choices, so we shared two entrees.  First, there was the Bosnian chorba ($4.58).IMG_6114  It was a hearty beef based stew filled with large, succulent chunks of tender veal along with bobbing potato cubes and carrots.  Definitely a great choice for the winter months, and it was a lot of soup for a great price.  Then there was our Bosnian mix plate ($19.23).  It was a family dinner for less than twenty bucks, but you really must like meat if you get this entree.IMG_6119  On one plate we had grilled veal and chicken kebab, beef sausage, cevapcicipljeskavica, mixed vegetables, chicken schnitzel, and our choice of side.  Woof.  It was totally worth it since we brought our appetites to this meal and were ready to destroy what came our way.  First, I have to say that every slice of meat was all killer and no filler, i.e. high quality cuts of meat with little to no excess fat or additives.  We learned that they make their own sausages on-site which probably explained the freshness of the meal.  The grilled veal and chicken kabab were good but nothing beyond some competently made pieces of grilled meat.  As I mentioned before, the beef sausage was filling and super fresh and did have a bit of a snap to the casing that comes with using natural casings.  Then there were the super Bosnian entries to our meal in the form of the cevapcici and the pljeskavica.  The first one, the cevapcici, actual comes from the Persian word for “kebab” and is a type of casing-less sausage.  Although during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it became associated with hadjuks or outlaws as an easy food to make while wandering the countryside. IMG_6122 I had had this mini-sausage dish before at Chicago’s Andersonville fest even though it was at a Croatian food tent and served in a fancier fashion.  It was like a Balkan version of a cocktail weenie but with more delicious, seasoned lamb and char-grilled.  As for the pljeskavica, it’s basically a lamb and beef patty that is stuffed with mozzarella cheese.IMG_6121

Once again, meat and cheese reigned supreme in this Balkan favorite, and it was so bad for you yet surprisingly not super greazy.  It also had a helping of the kaymak cheese on top just for good measure.  The chicken schnitzel was a representative of the Central European element in Bosnian cooking, and I really liked the tangy tartar sauce that combined with the super thin but tasty, golden breaded chicken cutlet.  Surprise, surprise!  We still had more food in the form of the potatoes on the side that were simply sauteed with an olive oil and oregano coating. IMG_6123 Even after all of that we managed to find some room for some decadent dessert.  We got the Bosnian chilled apple rolls ($5.50) that apparently is another Bosnian specialty.  IMG_6124IMG_6126IMG_6127It consists of a mix of chopped walnuts and apple pieces with honey that is enclosed in flaky, buttery filo dough.  Surprisingly, it was served chilled like it said on the menu which is a bit different than similar desserts that are served room temperature or even warm like Greek baklava.

In the end, we were absolutely stuffed with a ton of delicious and hearty food.  If you want a taste of a land that isn’t very well represented in America, run down to Restaurant Sarajevo!
Restaurant Sarajevo on Urbanspoon

Food Convention Post: Taste Talks in Chicago

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In Memoriam:  This post is dedicated to the dear memory of beloved Chicago institution, Hot Doug’s (2001-2014).  May you continue to make unique and memorable sausage creations in food Valhalla.  Check out my visit to the now defunct land of wondrous tube steaks.

Today’s post on Mastication Monologues is a unique one since it is about my first visit to a food festival that focused more on the craft and industry than purely the art of gorging oneself on grilled meats and throwing money away buying tickets for beers with skewed prices.  The festival in question is called Taste Talks, and it took place from October 3rd to October 5th.  With two events in Brooklyn in NYC and Chicago, it originally was the brainchild of the carrot-topped, Croc-rockin’ chef, Mario Batali.  However, you’re probably wondering how a small blogger like me could attend such a festival?  I actually was emailed by Paulina from OpenTable offering me a spot on the guest list.  I’d like to thank her once again for the opportunity along with OpenTable for reaching out to me.  Not only that, but I was able to get a pass for my girlfriend as well since I wanted her to share in the glory that was Taste Talks.IMG_4359IMG_4478

While we couldn’t attend the Friday kick-off event with the oyster and champagne dinner at the Kinmont Restaurant, we had essentially free reign over what we could see on Saturday.  It was a cold and drizzly day, but the first meeting we went to at the elegant Soho house.IMG_4394  While it used to be  a tannery at the turn of the 20th Century, in the 21st it is a chic and hip hotel.  We marveled at the lobby as we quickly moved to the elevators to get to the first food meeting. IMG_4392 Even the elevators were swanky as the walls were upholstered like a fine leather couch.  Thankfully we didn’t fall asleep leaning on the walls and quickly moved to the Free-Styling with Ice Cream Desserts talk.  Our panel consisted of Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Dana Cree (Blackbird), and Jessie Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato).

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

Left to Right (Jessie, Jeni, Dana)

During the talk, they were all quite gracious and humorous when interacting with each other and the audience, but I could tell that they knew their stuff based on the emphasis they placed on making their ice cream and gelato from scratch.  While they said most ice cream places throughout America claim to create their ice cream by hand, in reality they just use a dairy base, throw in some sugar and flavorings, and add some toppings.  What they’re selling us is just an image of it being artisanal.  What these ladies do instead is actually break down the ingredients and balance them just right in order to get the right texture, flavor, and melting point.  The choice to do what these ladies do isn’t the cheap route in comparison to the easy peasy ice cream base method, and in reality, the government is against them.  The FDA is very meticulous when evaluating their franchises, and the big dairies are favored in the ice cream industry since they offer an easy way out for people who want to go the traditional route when making the cold treat.  The speakers even made some revealing statements like it turns out the soft serve cones at McDonalds are actually just cold, whipped, leftover animal fats, and ice cream was originally derived from excess butter at dairies.  Ice cream normally is around 10% fat, but McDonald’s, as always, manages to do it bigger than anyone else.  They also explained the differences between gelato and ice cream:  gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream, it’s smoother than ice cream due to the lack of ice crystals, and gelato is served at a higher temperature than traditional American ice cream.  Once they got tired of just talking, each chef did an ice cream demo.  First, there was Jeni Britton Bauer’s ice cream punch.

I knew we were in for a good time when there were bottles of Hennessy on deck right next to the punch bowls. IMG_4364 However, she started instead by struggling to open a bottle of Prosecco, but she eventually opened two and dumped the bubbly into the bowl. IMG_4475 Jeni followed that up with a cup of the smooth brown cognac.  Then, she proceeded to throw a bunch of scoops of different types of sorbet like lemon, strawberry, and raspberry.IMG_4369  Those neon orbs were bobbing in the brew like an extremely adult version of bobbing for apples as she ladled cup upon cup of the crimson mixture.  Janice and I sampled the beverage, and it was quite refreshing. IMG_4373 It tasted like a bubbly, adult Italian soda with rich pieces of ice cream sliding over our palates every other sip.  Next up was Jessie from Black Dog Gelato.

Jessie operated the only ice cream parlor I knew out of the three, and I have heard a lot of buzz about it.  So, I was curious to see what this wizard of cream and sugar could come up with.  She did not disappoint with her chocolate coated pumpkin ice ream pops.  First, she did a simple popsicle using her pumpkin infused gelato, but then melted chocolate using a hot plate on the side.  The pumpkin pops were lovingly caressed in the sweet elixir and then rubbed with a coating of dried coconut and strudel crumbles. IMG_4469 We could sample smaller versions of the pops, and we definitely took advantage of the offer.IMG_4383 IMG_4466 While the crunchy, milk chocolate interior gave way to a more subtle pumpkin gelato that was creamy and understated, it was quite difficult to eat as the slivers of chocolate were flying everywhere.IMG_4465IMG_4385  They probably thought it was my first time eating a cold treat based on how overjoyed I was.  The final creation came from Dana Cree which was a lemon and elderflower infused frozen yogurt that was based on a recipe that used unsweetened Greek yogurt. IMG_4388 This gave it a real tang when combined with the lemon and fragrant notes from the elderflowers.IMG_4390IMG_4389 Out of the three, my favorite was the chocolate and pumpkin pops, and I later found out how creative Jessie could be when Janice and I visited her Black Dog Gelato.  While we would have loved to talk to them for longer, we had to rush to the Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie.

This lecture took place at Kaiser Tiger at 1415 W. Randolph Street.  IMG_4404IMG_4395It was an eclectic place in terms of decor, but we were there to sample some sausages.  We arrived a bit late and soaked from the drizzle, but it was a very different vibe from the ice cream meeting.  While the ice cream baronesses were approachable and humorous, the speakers were not interested in chewing the fat.  Plus, the people there looked more of the hipster persuasion which gave it an air of pretentiousness that I wasn’t digging.IMG_4403  We just went to town on the sausage sample platter at the back of the room. IMG_4396IMG_4400 It was like a time machine for me for my time living in Barcelona.  Not only did they have the same sliced, orange-red, peppery chorizo I used to make sandwiches with during my siestas, but they also had super fatty pieces of Catalan fuet sausage that contained chewy pieces of meaty flavor.

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

Chorizo on the left and fuet on the right

I used to gnaw on a piece of the super rich sausage while working on my homework since it gave me the energy to keep my focused, and I really liked the texture contrast between the fat granules, the melt-in-your-mouth meat, and semi tough casing.

Memories

Memories

After eating our fill of artery-clogging meat, we decided to peace out early for the biggest fireside chat of fireside chats with Rick Bayless.

We boogied on back to Soho House, and we made sure to get a front row seat to see Rick Bayless who is now one of the biggest and most respected chefs in the culinary world thanks to his contributions to the Mexican food scene (he was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle due to his promotion of Mexican culture and food).  Even with all of his accolades and awards, it was unreal to be so close to someone who seemed so down to earth when talking with the audience.IMG_4406  It’s an effect that happens when you see someone on tv for so long that they take on an almost mythical status, and you expect them to be more imposing in real life like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Instead, you just find out that they are human just like you and me.  During his talk, I found out he had similar life to mine with focusing to study Spanish in college along with linguistics in graduate school.  However, cooking and food proved to be his true passion.  Perhaps I could parlay my love into a new career path like Rick.  He went on to talk about the importance of the connection between culture and food which is what I try to achieve here on Mastication Monologues, so his words really resonated with me.  Rick also highlighted the shifting perception of chefs from blue collar workers to veritable rock stars today, and he has provided culinary students with a tempered vision of the future that to get to the top:  hard work and mastery of the craft is crucial to becoming famous.  There aren’t any chefs who open Michelin 3 star restaurants right out of cooking schools.  After talking a bit about his connection to Mexican history and food with his changing menus at Topolobampo (including his 1491 menu that used no ingredients the Europeans brought over like chicken, beef, pork, cilantro, and limes), I got to ask a question during the Q and A session about the shifting demographics in the USA especially with the Latino population.  I asked if he noticed more Latino diners in his restaurants recently , and he said that he saw a lot of younger Latino diners eating his food on date nights as a way to get a taste of their ancestors and learn more about their culture.  Rick graciously thanked everyone, and I was the first person to just thank him for coming out.  IMG_4456Plus, I plugged my blog a little bit, and he seemed really interested in it.  When I said goodbye, I was still amazed that I was less than five feet away from someone I’ve seen for decades on PBS and gracing the covers of cookbooks everywhere.  Janice and I went out on a high note as we walked away from Taste Talks with a new perspective on the food industry and an excitement for the future of dining.  Also, it was a wonderful way to celebrate five happy months together : )IMG_4453

 

Bittersweet Symphony

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The summer is slowly but surely winding down, Mastication Monologues readers, but that doesn’t mean that the posts are going to be slowing down as well.  While things have been getting a bit tenser on the job front with my federal application, I always manage to forget about my troubles with a good meal like at Paisan’s Pizzeria in Berwyn, IL.

Throughout Mastication Monologues, I’ve tried pizza in various parts of the United States and world, and have weighed in on what my personal preferences are when it comes to the doughy delight.  So, I thought that perhaps Paisan’s could offer yet another dimension on the beloved Italian food.  I mean, the name of the place roughly translates to “friend/brother/sister/partner” in Italian, so already it exuded a welcoming atmosphere before I even set foot in the place.IMG_3799Upon walking into the establishment, my parents and I were awed at the overall size of the interior and design of this modern bar and grill.IMG_3803  It was like Portillo’s minus all of the faux 1920’s Prohibition gangster crap festooning the walls.  Instead, it had more of an industrial garage feel that felt edgy yet safe enough to have family gatherings there (which they do do in the back in their banquet rooms). IMG_3805 As we walked past tables full of happy  customers and gawking at the exposed ductwork, we were seated in a larger, more open dining area that was distinguished by two large aquariums.  There were three fish in one tank, but these puppies could have been mistaken for Leviathans.  The white one, who I dubbed “Moby Dick”, actually let me take his picture.

Thar he blows!

Thar he blows!

After meeting these aquatic locals, I looked over Paisan’s menu.  It was the embodiment of the Italian abbondanza (abundance) food culture where there was something for everyone to eat including appetizers, salads, wraps, barbecue, sandwiches, flatbreads, pasta, and pizza.  My family and I decided to go for the final option since I had a hankering for a good slice.  Paisan’s offers all varieties of pizza including specialty pies, thin crust, extra-thin (read:  New York City pizza), deep dish, stuffed, and Sicilian style which is like pizza made of foccacia.  Since we didn’t want to wait around for the thicker pizzas that take at least an hour to cook, we just ordered a cheese and sausage family size (16″, serves 3-4 people) thin crust pizza ($18).

It took about thirty minutes for the pizza to come out to our table, and I was starving by that time.  It passed the visual inspection with plenty of cheese and sausage covering the crust along with a perfectly bronzed and flour dusted crust.IMG_3810  I could tell this was authentic to Chicago’s pizza culture since it was cut in squares or more commonly known as a “party cut” since it’s easier to grab at a party along with giving more slices to more people.  However, much like the debate over who has the best pizza in Chicago, the polemic rages over which cut is better:  traditional slice or party?  Square or slice, I quickly tore into this beauty.  It was a nearly perfect pizza aside from two features I didn’t care for.  First, the sausage wasn’t seasoned with spices that give the pizza a slight herbal kick with each bite.  I assume that’s why Paisan’s has shakers full of oregano on each table to compensate for the absence of said seasonings.  The only other aspect of this meal I didn’t enjoy was the sauce.  There was a bit too much on it for my liking, and it had a sweet aftertaste that left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  While some enjoy the contrast of sweet in a typically savory dish, I’d get  just a cookie pizza if I wanted some of the sweet stuff on my pie.  These two negatives didn’t put much of a damper on the meal since I really enjoyed the copious amounts of cheese that covered every square inch of the slices, and the crust was crispy and neither burnt nor undercooked.  We polished off the pizza and were satiated.

After leaning back and feeling the food baby growing within me, I was happy but not blown away by the pizza.  It was competently made, but I could go elsewhere and find better in Chicago like at Apart or Home Run Inn.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have any room for their mouth-watering desserts or tempting gelato.  IMG_3809IMG_3808Oh well, until next time, my friend!

 

Paisans Pizzeria and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Teach Me How to Dougie

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Sometimes there are restaurants that achieve legendary status in cities across the world due to the novelty, quality, and/or overall service they provide year after year.  Chicago is definitely one of the most cutting edge cities in the food world due to the high presence of top chefs like Rick Bayless, Homaro Cantu, and Grant Achatz who is best known for Alinea, voted the top restaurant in the world.  However, that doesn’t mean that we also have restaurants that serve simple dishes that reflect the different ethnic neighborhoods throughout Chicago like all different types of Mexican food, Italian beef sandwiches, and Chicago hot dogs.  The last dish has a special place in the heart of many Chicagoans since we have our own unique way of serving it, i.e. NO KETCHUP!!!  Hot Doug’s, on the other hand, takes hot dogs to another universe with funky toppings and a reputation without equal in the city.  It was an adventure from the first minute Janice and I got there.

First, there was my failure with parallel parking.  We arrived there in the morning, and there already was a line that was forming down the block.  I don’t work well with an audience when it comes to pulling off this essential city parking move, and of course, I crashed and burned in front of everyone (Later that day I did it in two moves with no audience).  So, Janice did it for me in order for me to secure a place in the ever-expanding line.  I came out of my car to boos while she emerged from my car to rapturous applause.  We were celebrities!  Thus began our two hour wait…IMG_3417

While waiting in line, I heard people saying they were from all over the USA and even overseas and made it a point to visit Hot Doug’s during their stay in Chicago including a lovely couple in front of us from Seattle.  Perhaps it was the mind-blowing eats or the sad fact that Hot Doug’s is closing on October 3rd.  Either way, all of us were itching to stuff our pie-holes with the legendary tube steaks.  When the doors finally opened, we moved into the shade and were greeted with the aroma of charred meats from within.

I knew I liked this place.

I knew I liked this place.

IMG_3414 IMG_3413  Our mouths were watering as we endured the agonizing wait, but once we set foot inside, it was a colorful monument to all things hot dog.IMG_3453 IMG_3419IMG_3420 Their menu was a veritable who’s who of encased meats ranging from a classic hot dog to spicy andouille to even veggie links.  IMG_3418I didn’t know where to start since I wanted to try every single one, but unfortunately, I didn’t feel like breaking the bank or the integrity of my stomach.IMG_3421  Janice and I finally reached the counter and were greeted by the owner Doug Sohn, a charismatic owner who was also a soccer fan which further made me love the place.

Just gabbin about futbol

Just gabbin about futbol

We were on the same page about everything about the beautiful game and this World Cup, and this agreement extended to our orders.  Janice got the bacon and cheddar smoked elk sausage with smokey bacon sauce and white cheddar cheese curds ($9.00) while I went for the Sonoran Dog ($6.00) and the Foie Gras Dog ($10.00).  Since it was Saturday, we indulged in an order of duck fat fries ($4.00) which are only available on Fridays and Saturdays.  Once finding a seat, we soaked in the atmosphere as we looked at the walls which were festooned with all things sausage including a hilarious, doctored history of the hot dog.IMG_3454 IMG_3423IMG_3424  Surprisingly, our food popped out in no time, and I didn’t know where to begin first.  After a bit of deliberation and slight awe, I decided to go big with eating the foie gras first.  Foie gras has a controversial history given that the preparation involves force feeding geese to the point that their livers are engorged with fat and take on a buttery consistency.  In Chicago, there had been a ban imposed on the serving of foie gras based on its supposed barbaric treatment of the geese, and even the famous Charlie Trotter spoke out against the cruelty involved in the gourmet treat.  However, the ban was eventually lifted in Chicago in 2008.  Controversy aside, I was planning on stuffing myself like a goose on this sumptuous creation.  It’d be inhumane to let it go to waste.IMG_3427First, there were the disks of foie gras that were piled atop the duck sausage that was infused with a sweet French Bordeaux wine.  If that wasn’t enough, said foie gras was sprinkled with grains of fleur de sel or hand harvested sea salt.  The kicker was the black truffle aioli that was slathered from end to end.  Then there was the first bite.  IMG_3455The duck sausage was full of fatty goodness, but the foie gras definitely overshadowed it in a wave of creamy yet mind-numbingly rich flavor that wasn’t as gamey as I was anticipating.  The black truffles had a bit of an aromatic, slightly earthy taste, but I could mostly taste the foie gras which took away from the creation overall.  First world problems.  I know.  Moving on from that heart attack inducing dog, I said “Hola!” to the Sonoran dog.  It was a dish reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s foray into the slighty obscene and subtly sexual world of Colombian foot long hot dogs.  The toppings were extraordinary to say the least.IMG_3430  First, there was the char-grilled, jalapeño Polish sausage covered with an adequate schmeer of jalapeño mayonnaise.  With that foundation, somehow Hot Doug managed to also jam in a couple pieces of jalapeño bacon, pinto beans, tomatoes, and onions.  I’ll start off with what I didn’t like about this choice.  The onions.IMG_3456  I would normally never bad mouth the stinky little guys, but there were way too many pieces of the white, breath-ruining confetti atop my hot dog.  Everytime I took a bite, it was like Times Square on New Years Day.  White confetti was falling all over my hands and table, but I wasn’t Dick Clark and the calendar said otherwise.  Moving beyond the onion barrage, I relished (pun intended) the contrast of flavors and textures.  While the pinto beans were smooth and mild but not extra mushy, the mayo, sausage, and bacon all brought an adequate level of heat that made me plow through the dog with gusto.  The bacon also was crispy to counteract all of the softer aforementioned elements.  I took a bite of Janice’s bacon and cheddar elk sausage hot dog, and I loved it the most.  One thing that really set it apart was the charred flavor along with the natural casing that literally made each bite pop.IMG_3428  Plus, I love my cheese, so the curds were like cherries on a meaty sundae.  I’d definitely recommend this option.  Finally, there were the duck fat fries. IMG_3429 I originally thought they were going to have something drizzled on them like a poutine of sorts, but it was simply a mini-mountain of fried that were prepared in duck fat instead of corn oil.  The change made a world of difference as these fries lived up to the Yelpers’ hype since they had an almost buttery aftertaste that wasn’t impeded by a layer of salt like normal French fries.  This interesting flavor profile allowed them to be enjoyed alone or with a dollop of ketchup.

Long story short, I’d highly recommend visiting this Chicago eatery before it closes its doors in October.  Bring a chair, food, water, and plenty of patience, but the payoff is worth it!

Some very happy eaters

Some very happy eaters

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

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