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My Neighbor Tokoro

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

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

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

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

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

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Woochon Clan Ain’t Nothing to Mess With

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Fire.  It can both cleanse or soil, sustain or end life, or perfectly cook or singe delicious, mouth watering meat.  Chicago has always been known for their meat products.  At one point, we were known as the “Hog-butcher to the world” compliments of one Carl Sandburg due to the presence of the now defunct Union Stockyards that were an engine of industry and the employer of the immigrant masses that called Chicago their new home.  Although these legions of cattle and pigs no longer stream into the city by the millions, the ethnic communities have remained a very integral part of Chicago.  They are constantly in flux depending on the decade and world politics.  On the northside of Chicago, there has long been a large and tightly knit Korean community.  Going down Lawrence Avenue, you can still see some of the remnants of the once thriving Koreatown that my girlfriend tells me about when she was younger.  Thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965, it allowed these Korean immigrants to finally come in families and establish business that brought the pleasures of the home country to the US of A.  However, due to changing demographics and the rise of the Latino population in America, Koreatown now has more of a Latin American and Middle Eastern flavor due to the original Korean families moving to surrounding northern suburbs.  However, that doesn’t mean that the food has gone anywhere!  Even though I have lived in South Korea and have eaten my fair share of different Korean foods, I’m always down for a quick pop over to a new restaurant that my girlfriend swears by.  She hasn’t steered me wrong yet!  In this case, we went to Woo Chon Korean BBQ .

It is a very tiny restaurant that is wedged between a Korean store that is both grocer and video store next door that has all of your K-drama needs.  However, if you want to get some of the best barbecue in the city, this is your place.  IMG_6023The waitstaff is also probably some of the nicest you can find in a Korean restaurant since they aren’t known for having the same rules as found in American restaurants.  They might be a bit gruffer or forward compared to your typical server in a T.G.I.Fridays, but they know how to make some delicious food.  We were quickly seated at one of their simple tables which are a bit cramped if you are six feet or taller like yours truly.  We decided to start with kimchi pajeon or a type of savory Korean pancake.  It is derived from a Chinese green onion pancake (cōngyóubǐng) yet different because it is made from an egg based mix.  The name “pajeon” literally means “green onion (pa) + pancake (jeon)”.  While the ingredients seem quite obvious, there are many varieties of jeon that can be filled with different meats, seafood, or in this case, the signature fermented Korean lifeforce known as kimchi. IMG_6013 Typically, Janice’s family gets the haemul jeong or fish, shellfish, and octopus pancake, but I can’t get enough of kimchi in any form.  It was a ton of food to start off the meal for a reasonable price. IMG_6014 It is kind of bready yet filled with crunchy green onions and spicy, crisp pieces of hot and spicy fermented cabbage. IMG_6015 As we moved our way through this perfect pancake,  they quickly began putting out the banchan or little plates of random Korean snacks like pickled cucumbers, cellophane noodles, pickled radish, and even the mysterious acorn jelly that looks like cut up, corrugated pieces of rubber.  It’s not at terrible as it sounds but not my cup of tea.  As well as bringing out the small plates, the server also provided us with a blazing hot bowl of coals for cooking our orders of kalbi or beef short ribs.IMG_6016  Korean bbq has been a bit of a recent phenomenon in American cuisine, but it is a form of dining as old as time.  In Korea, eating beef was a great privilege since the cattle were beasts of burden, and the Koryo Buddhist dynasty of rulers forbade the consumption of meat.  However, in the 13th Century, those crazy Mongols invaded and removed the ban.  They were pragmatic nomads, but they knew good food too.  However, beef didn’t become prevalent on Korean tables until the latter half of the 20th Century as South Korea quickly became the advanced nation we now know.  History lesson over, we threw the raw pieces of meat on the grill with a satisfying sizzle and pop. IMG_6019 Once Janice grilled them to perfection, we mixed them with rice, doenjang (soybean paste), and banchan in leaves of lettuce to create ssam bap or what could be described as lettuce wraps with plenty of savory flavors to enjoy.  IMG_6021We also got a side of pre-prepared dwegi bulgogi or sliced pork loin that is sauteed in a soy based sauce infused with ginger, gochujang (chili sauce), garlic, sugar, and rice wine.  IMG_6018It wasn’t on the menu but highly recommend this Korean classic.  It also has a bit of a spicy kick to it if you’re not feeling the more mild grilled meats.  I loved mixing the pork’s zing with the green onions that came with the kalbi. IMG_6017 It provided a definite earthiness that mellowed out the grease of the meat. We also got an order of moo guk or literally “radish soup”.  IMG_6022If there’s one thing Korean soups and stews are known for, or at least what I’ve noticed, is being absolutely as hot as the surface of the sun, temperature-wise.  While it takes a bit of time to cool off, the taste alone is worth it.  Plus, if you’re looking for a bowl of comfort food during these cold Chicago months, step aside mac ‘n’ cheese, get a warm and filling bowl of soup.   By the end of the meal, we were stuffed to the gills with great food, and we were ready to take on the cold climes outside.

So if you’re looking for a more low-key Korean bbq place that isn’t packed with everyone who wants to experience the novelty of grilling meat at their table, I’d recommend Woo Chon Korean BBQ.  Oh yeah, and the food is mouth-watering to say the least and easy on the old wallet.
Woo Chon Korean BBQ 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?
Click to add a blog post for Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen on Zomato

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

Loco For The Yoko

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

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

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

The bowl...

The bowl…

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

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

Yokohama Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Sooper Gift of Gab

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

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

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

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

San Soo Gab San on Urbanspoon

Pole Position

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I just keep on chugging along on here churning out one great review after another.  In fact, I just recently passed my 200th post on my blog, so if this is your first time coming to my page, check it out here.  It showcases the variety of cultures and native dishes I’ve sampled throughout the years and my travels.  I hope you enjoy it.  Today’s post hits a little closer to home culturally since I’m going to be talking about Polish food.

Chicago occupies a special place in Polish history given that it has long been a hub for Polish immigrants coming to America due to the need for cheap labor in the Union Stockyards starting in the latter half of the 19th Century.  So many immigrants ended up coming to my hometown that it now has more people of Polish descent than the Polish capital of Warsaw.

The Pope approves this message

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I am one of those people of Polish descent, and my family enjoys many aspects of the culture from the music to the food.  I’ve been trying to learn more Polish, but I have a long way to go to master the extremely difficult language that seems to be an alphabet soup with special vowels and an avalanche of consonants rammed together. 350px-PolishDumskis However, it doesn’t take much to love the cuisine.  I can only describe it as a mix between German and Russian food with some Polish ingenuity and heartiness to endure very hard times.  Typically, my family and I enjoy classic Polish dishes like pierogis, kielbasa, kapusta, and kolaczki at family celebrations, and I’ve visited some great Polish restaurants in my grandparents’ neighborhood by Midway Airport.  However, they seemingly can never make (insert food here) as well as babcia (grandmother), but I recently visited a Polish restaurant that made it feel like you’re sitting in your babcia’s  kitchen.  The place in question is called Podhalanka located in the Polish Triangle area on Division.

The outside looks more like a place you’d come to get keys made than a restaurant.  IMG_3793My girlfriend had never been to a Polish restaurant, so I was honored to bring her somewhere to get a taste of my culture.  We walked through the door to find a spartan interior that had a bar and plenty of long tables covered in plastic, Kmart tablecloths. IMG_3788 In typical Polish fashion, there was no inanely grinning hostess at the front to greet us.  Instead, there was a gruff looking woman in an apron who mumbled something when we walked in.  We then scanned each other to see if she spoke English and I Polish.  I just said “Table for two”, and we had our pick of seats.  She gave us menus slower than other customers for some reason.  Looking over the selection, I could tell that this stuff was no-frills and just like what I saw in the motherland when I visited Krakow.  While I wanted to go for my comfort zone with a dish like gołąbki (literally:  pidgeons, really stuffed pork cabbage rolls) or kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet), I knew I had to get the zurek (white borscht) ($3.80) and sztuka miesa w sosie chrzanowym (boiled beef with horseradish sauce) ($10.50).  The curmudgeon of a woman who greeted us at the door, who I assumed was the owner, took our orders quite quickly.  Janice ordered her food, the pieczen wieprzowa (roast pork) ($10.50), but then the old woman was suddenly aglow when I properly pronounced each of the choices for my order.  Looks like I still got skillz.  The old woman said ok, and I thanked her in Polish which she appreciated.  While we were waiting, I looked at all of the random Polish souvenirs and cultural artifacts referencing various parts of Polish culture like the newly sanctified Karol Wotyla a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, the Polish white eagle, and the black Madonna or Our Lady of Czestochowa.  My zurek came out first, and I was pumped.  It was a translucent broth punctuated with small bits of dill floating on the surface and large chunks of sausage bobbing in the tasty sea.IMG_3789  From the first to the last gulp, I loved this piping hot bowl of goodness.  IMG_3794The broth itself was sour and meaty yet tinged with a dill bite I really enjoyed. IMG_3797 As for the disks of kielbasa, they were substantial, flavorful, and plentiful throughout the bowl.  While I was enjoying this super soup, we also got a basket filled with slices of white rye bread.  It was a slice (pun intended) of the restaurants in my grandparents’ neighborhood complete with the little packages of butter.  The bread crusts were especially helpful when used to mop up some of the soup.  While I was midway through my soup, she brought out a salad complete with the basic vegetables used in 90 percent of Polish recipes bar cabbage and potatoes. IMG_3790 It wasn’t anything spectacular with the cucumbers and tomatoes slathered in a semi-sweet dressing and a purple pile of pickled beets on the side, but all of the ingredients were really fresh.  My personal favorite were the pickled beets since they were super tangy.  Right as we finished the salad, our main entrees finally emerged.  Both of our dishes looked similar in the fact that they were large pieces of meat slathered in a gravy or sauce with a side of mashed potatoes.  After that, the commonalities ended.  Janice’s roast pork didn’t taste like much, but my boiled beef had a life of its own.IMG_3791  The beef was extremely tender and thankfully enhanced with the feisty horseradish sauce with a slight sinus-clearing kick in each forkful.IMG_3792  Said sauce extended to the mashed potatoes, and I use the term “mashed” in the loosest sense.  It was more like semi-clumped potatoes, but like the beef, there were no seasonings to be had here aside from the horseradish sauce.  Either way, it was a hearty meal that made me think of home.  I’d like to go back there to try some of the pierogi or perhaps some potato pancakes.

I paid the bill, and I saw that I got charged for the soup and salad, but Janice did not for her salad.  Perhaps the old lady was kind hearted after all and made my visit complete.  So, if you’re on the northside and want to try some great, down-home Polish cooking at reasonable prices, check out Podhalanka.  The service might be a bit brusque, but you’ll just have to trust babcia on this one.

Podhalanka on Urbanspoon

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