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A Capital Idea!

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Welcome one and all to part deux of Restaurant Week on Mastication Monologues!  If you’re not sure what Restaurant Week is in Chicago, then I highly recommend reading my first post at Hub 51.  Today’s post is somewhat in the similar but even classier vein of high end dining for low low prices.  While I’m all about trying new and exotic foods, my meal at Capital Grille in Chicago was classic steakhouse dining at its finest.  While it’s not one of the old stalwarts of steak in the home of the dearly departed Union stockyards, I really enjoyed my experience at this establishment.

While walking to Capital Grille, I saw that they had valet parking which is a great deal in a part of down that isn’t known for cheap/free parking.  The outside was just a hint of the regal interior inside that had all the pomp of a classic steakhouse down to the dark wood bar and portraits of random white guys sporting some facial hair that would make any modern day hipster proud. IMG_5810IMG_5834IMG_5833 IMG_5832 Capital Grille even has personal wine kiosks for clients who are willing to pony up the cash for their pinot noir, but the coolest thing I thought was that they even had a cabinet for wine for what seemed to be for anyone who is or has served in the armed forces. IMG_5835 I was quickly led to the table for our guys night out that quickly became a double date plus two dudes.  Still, it was a good time had for all as we kicked off the dinner with some drinks.  I got a glass of the Jameson 12 year Reserve.IMG_5815  This drink was smoother than James Bond and Ron Burgundy in a velvet room.  It was the perfect compliment to the free bread basket that was filled to the brim with crisp flatbreads, warm slices of black rye bread, and rock hard rolls (not a fan, personally). IMG_5813 So, since it was Restaurant Week, I went with the accompanying $33 menu which was a bargain for a three course meal.  For my first course, I went with the wedge with blue cheese and applewood smoked bacon.  Initially, I had to ask the waitress what a “wedge” was since I was curious what this wedge consisted of, and she sarcastically answered that it was a type of salad.  When it came out, it all made sense.  Looking at it, it seemed like the laziest salad ever created. IMG_5817 It literally was a quarter of a head of lettuce with dressing and bacon pieces adorning it and sliced tomatoes placed at the foot of this odd looking dish.  So, I proceeded to sliced the lettuce piece to bite-sized pieces along with mixing it up with the extremely decadent ranch, blue cheese chunks, and bacon.  It was the Paula Dean of salads given how fattening it was yet oh so tasty with the tangy dressing mixing with the salty bacon and pungent blue cheese.  It was only a prelude to the epic entree that came out soon thereafter in the form of the 14 oz. bone-in, dry aged sirloin steak along with a side of mashed potatoes and french beans with heirloom tomatoes. IMG_5824 Funnily enough, the girls at the table got the smaller, 8 oz. filet mignon, but that didn’t take away from its quality. IMG_5823 When I dug into the sirloin, it was heaven in meat form.  I got it medium rare which meant that it still was a bit bloody but well done enough to keep in all of the juicy flavors. IMG_5825 It was superbly succulent, and a generously sized piece of steak for the price.  The sides were equally exquisite.  The mashed potatoes were creamy and buttery, and the beans were neither too firm nor too soft.IMG_5822  Then there were the desserts…lord, the desserts.  First, I got the flourless chocolate espresso cake.IMG_5830  It was like a slice of fudge that wasn’t as sugary and not as crumb based as a typical slice of cake.  This texture combined with the intense dark chocolate flavor with coffee hints in each forkful made it hard to beat, and the raspberry sauce was the icing on a cake without equal.  My other dining companions tried the creme brulee which looked lip-smacking good, but sadly I didn’t get to try it. IMG_5831 However, based on their gleaming white bowls at the end of the dessert course, I could only assume they liked it!

So if you want to try a slice of Chicago’s steak culture in the heart of the city, check out Capital Grille.
The Capital Grille on Urbanspoon

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Costa Rica (Day 6/Final)- Chasing Waterfalls

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Well, it has finally come to this.  The end of our Costa Rican adventure.  It was a wonderful time, and in this post I plan on covering the final two days of our Central American trek.

Our penultimate day kicked off with another super delicious, home-made breakfast that consisted of a quarter of a watermelon, bakery from the night before, and some interesting fruit juice.IMG_5572  First, there was the juice.  When walking through the supermarket the night before, I found this juice of the cas fruit.  Before running into it, the first thing I would have thought of when I heard the word “cas” would be of a terrible Korean beer, but this discovery was worlds apart.IMG_5351  Turns out the cas fruit is a variety of guava grown in Costa Rica, and the juice was a bit more sour than sweet.  It had elements of pear, apple, lime, and orange to be a refreshing glass of juice.  Then there were the pastries. *Cue drooling*.  First, there was my dulce de leche roll that basically was a cinnamon roll with the frosting replaced with that sweet sweet caramel.IMG_5353  It was soft, filled with cinnamon, and super decadent. IMG_5355 My only regret was not microwaving it when I had the chance to get that “fresh-out-of-the-oven” taste and feel. IMG_5356IMG_5359 IMG_5357Janice’s choice, the pupusa de queso, was a surprisingly delicious breakfast addition.  IMG_5352What kind of threw me for a loop was that the Costa Ricans called this a pupusa when I was more acquainted with a more savory and tortilla based variety from El Salvador. IMG_5354 Plus, it was stuffed with a savory cheese that wouldn’t have worked too well without the sugary crust that spanned from stern to bow.IMG_5358  It was a great contrast that left me pleasantly satiated by the end of our breakfast.  These treats were a prelude to our trip to the Poas Volcano.  It was an extremely clear day which was great for us since we were able to see the entire volcano crater complete with the aromatic smell of sulphur dioxide in the air.  How romantic! IMG_4232 After sauntering back down the side of the smouldering mountain, we loaded into the mini-bus to go to the waterfall garden.  However, before we arrived there, we stopped at a roadside store that specialized in strawberries.  In Costa Rica, the land of abundant wildlife and produce, what is grown is dependent on the altitude and climate.  So, in addition to those two factors, the volcanic soil proved to be the ideal environment for growing the sweet fruits. IMG_5379 I tried some from Janice’s purchase and other fellow passengers’ cups, but they didn’t taste any different than the ones from back home.  We arrived at the La Paz animal sanctuary and waterfall garden which was a menagerie of some truly unique flora and fauna specimens like parrots that could sound like crying babies and treasure beetles that looked like they were dipped in precious metals.  Before going to see the waterfalls, we got free samples of a coconut pudding similar to one Janice bought when we were in Sarchi along with a cube of very bland cheese. IMG_4331 The coolest part of the waterfall garden was the magia blanca (“white magic” in Spanish) cataract whose name derives from the optical illusion achieved by staring at the middle of the falls for roughly 20 seconds. IMG_5443 Then, we moved our eyes to the right to see the cliff moving upward against the water.  After we finished with this adventure through the mountains, we went for lunch at another strawberry market and restaurant.  The steak was good but nothing noteworthy.  Janice’s beef stew was a lot tastier since each piece was melting in my mouth. IMG_5457IMG_5460 The strawberry smoothie was a lot better than their intact brethren since it was sweeter due to probable added sugar.IMG_4344  We peaced out of there to get to San Jose, and at night our entire tour group met up for one last meal together.  Our guide, Christian, swore by this place, La Cascada Steakhouse, as one of the best eateries in San Jose.IMG_5478  Fitting that it was also named after a waterfall in Spanish.  It looked moderately more fancy compared to the soda diners we hit up in days past. IMG_5464 IMG_5463 I started the night off with a Pilsen beer that was to a T exactly what the name suggested:  a disappointing pilsner style brew.  IMG_5461On the table, there was a bread and tortilla basket complimented with three different sauces along with butter.  I was a personal fan of the spicy ketchup mix combined with the garlic-laden Chimichurri sauce.IMG_5465  I ordered the Cascada house special, and Janice got the Tierra y Mar (“Surf and turf” basically in Spanish).  While waiting for our food, I decided to get a pic of the grill when one of the servers initiated a conversation with me in Spanish.  I explained to him that I wrote a food blog, so he gave me the lowdown about the grill.  Apparently what sets this steakhouse apart from others was that the grill was that it was coal fueled as opposed to the wood or gas varieties.IMG_5467  This showed in the food when our meals came out.  My steak was expertly grilled and super juicy with a smoky flavor. IMG_5471 Janice’s shrimp and steak combined were super decadent while the side of potato, black beans, and fried plantains were ok. IMG_5473 Surprisingly, we had room for dessert.  I got the apple pie a la mode, and the Tico take on this slice of ‘Murika was pretty damn tasty, especially the carmelized sugar goblet holding the delicious vanilla ice cream.IMG_5474  I loved Janice’s coconut flan that was more bread pudding-esque than the jigglier versions I’ve tried before.IMG_5475  One of our fellow travelers ordered the tres leches (“three milks” in Spanish) cake that was rich yet simple with a creamy topping and vanilla undertones. IMG_5476 It was a bittersweet sign that our time together was coming to a close.

Some of the people in our group.

Some of the people in our group.

The final full day consisted of our ziplining adventure throughout the San Lorenzo canopy which was absolutely exhilarating and ended our trip on literally a high note. IMG_5542 Before becoming airborn, we had some deliciously sweet vanilla pudding puffs for breakfast from the same bakery in downtown San Jose where we got the dulce de leche roll.IMG_5482IMG_5483  After flying through the jungle and over mountains at speeds reaching 50-60 mph (96.5 kph), that worked our appetites up.  So, we hit up the sangria bar at the Best Western down the street.  We kept it simple with a margarita pizza which I guess translates to a regular cheese pizza in Costa Rica.  My dark Bavaria beer was like any of the other beers I had in Costa Rica:  disappointing with minimal taste.IMG_5490IMG_5491  So much for having a full bodied beer on vacation.   The chocolate mousse dessert was a tantalizing dessert that went well with our sweet sangria to top off the night and our journey.IMG_5493IMG_5494

It was hard to say goodbye to the friends that we made along the way, and the wonderful country we explored for that week.  However, reality set in as we passed the marimba players at the airport playing the Chicken Dance, and we walked up to security to return home to freezing Chicago.  It was a perfect vacation, and we stayed classy all the way to the end.   We wouldn’t have done it any other way.IMG_5507

Costa Rica (Day 3)- Fruits of Our Travels

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you haven’t been following my blog, you are in the middle of my Costa Rican travel series where I recount all of the wild and woolly adventures I find myself in throughout the country (Day 1 and Day 2).  Day 3, today’s post, takes me to a land of oxcarts, hidden volcanos, and hot springs.  Let’s start at the beginning.

The morning started off with a snag as we were locked in our condo complex that was preventing us from getting breakfast before meeting up with our group.  Thankfully, my Spanish came in handy, and we were at Denny’s before you could say “Buenos dias!”.  There really wasn’t anything of note at the American diner aside from the delicious pancakes.  The real highlights came later in the day as we first traveled in the morning to Sarchi which is famous in Costa Rica for their handmade ox carts.  They were a lot more popular and common before the advent of automobiles in the countryside, but now they are mostly used for decorative purposes or collecting.  Before we went to the workshop, our group stopped at a local bakery in the town square that was opposite the largest ox cart in the world!IMG_5147IMG_5152  Before seeing this behemoth, we perused all the different types of breads and pastries that were on sale. IMG_5153 It seemed like they had a lot of different types of bread puddings with different flavors ranging from coconut (Janice’s choice) to pineapple.  I, on the other hand, got a creme pastry that looked somewhat like a brazo de gitano (literally “gypsy’s arm”) dessert from Spain.IMG_5145  It had everything I wanted for breakfast:  soft pastry dough and plenty of sweet and light whipped filling. IMG_5146 The only downside was the excessive dusting of powdered sugar on the outside that was delicious initially but in the end left me looking like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. IMG_5599I saved it for later though since it was quite a good amount of sugar in a short period of time.  We had a tour of the Taller Eloy de Sarchi, and some of the artwork was simply spectacular.  The colors were so bright and vibrant it looked like the animals were going to jump out at us.  IMG_5165Thankfully, it was just some fancy artwork, and we moved on toward our next destination in the form of the Arenal Volcano.  Once more, we had another roadside stop for food along the way.  This was one of many reasons why I loved our travel group!  This time, it was at a local fruit stand that had some recognizable produce like pumpkins, plantains, and pineapples, but then there were more exotic samples of Costa Rica’s countryside such as purple sweet potatoes and yuca.

Left to right:  pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

Left to right: pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

IMG_5174For example, a smaller cart of these odd red fruits that were a bit before the larger fruit shop we were occupying caught Janice’s eye.  She said that they looked like the combination of an apple and a pear.  One of the women in our group bought them, and lo and behold Janice was right.  Our guide informed us that they are known as Malaysian apples.  While their exterior appearance was bold and intriguing, their taste was the polar opposite.IMG_5178  It tasted like a super bland pear that could only be “enhanced” with the salt in a small accompanying bag the fruit hawker supplied our fellow traveler. IMG_5177 Another interesting entry was the green oranges that were in the same bin as yellow fruits that were completely beyond anything I’ve ever seen. IMG_5175 I bought one of the fruits that was slightly smaller than a baseball, and I found out I had to crack it open in order to eat it.IMG_5176  The exterior was the only normal thing about it.  Opening it was an adventure as I cracked through the thin yellow exterior and was quickly fingering through a white, dry, spongy material.IMG_5179  After moving beyond that, I was greeted with a grey, slimy seed pouch that was held in place with small white tendrils.  I learned that the proper way to eat this fruit called a granadilla (“small pomegranate” in Spanish) was to slurp up the black seeds along with the amniotic sack that was holding them.IMG_5181  The craziest thing were the edible and very crunch seeds.IMG_5184  It was overall a good purchase because it was actually quite delicious beyond its bizarre appearance that I could liken to a sweet orange with a tangy lime zing aftertaste.  We also bought some mangos for breakfast later on.  Our visit to the Arenal Volcano was a bust because it was completely obscured by fog and drizzle, but lunch was wonderful.  It was at a very unique restaurant called Restaurante Tobogán or “Slide Restaurant” in Spanish. IMG_5190 Why would it have such a random name?  Well, because this establishment literally had a giant water slide coming out of the top of it which led to a pool on the side that I’m sure would have been bumping if the weather was more agreeable.IMG_5191  I got the steak fajitas which once again were a lot different from the Mexican variety since there were no sizzling tabletop grills or tortillas to be seen.  The same juicy pieces of grilled steak and onions were there, but they were accompanied with a Costa Rican classic known as casado or “married/married man”. IMG_5187 It consisted of white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and a mixed salad.  The name is said to either have originated from customers asking to be served as married men and have the same food in the restaurant as they would at home, or a more plausible explanation would be that the beans and rice are forever linked in gastronomic matrimony.  It was during this meal I was also introduced to salsa Lizano which I could liken to a sweet Worcestershire sauce with a hint of spice.IMG_5186  It went great with the fajitas and beans and rice offering a salty/spicy contrast.  I also enjoyed a cool, refreshing glass of guanábana or sour sop juice.  I had tried it previously in south London in a Jamaican restaurant, and I loved it since it seemed like a sweet limeade of sorts.  However, the Costa Rican variety wasn’t as sweet and a lot frothier.  After the meal, we went to Baldi hot springs which was extremely relaxing along with us being able to fly down some water slides since we weren’t able to go down the one earlier in the day. IMG_5198 We had dinner at Baldi’s buffet, and most of it I had already tried aside from the Costa Rican version of tamales.  They were very similar to the Mexican version with the cornmeal base encasing seasoned chicken and pork, but the main difference was that they were wrapped in banana leaves and boiled instead of being baked in corn husks.  It was a calming end to a hurried day as we bonded with our fellow travelers over dinner and subsequently rode our food comas all the way back to San Jose for our next adventure.

 

Top of the Tabla

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Bienvenidos a Mastication Monologues!  The weather has been absolutely perfect as of late here in Chicago, but I feel like the chill of the Fall will be here sooner rather than later.  With it, comes a longing for hearty food and more robust drinks  in terms of spices and general ingredients.  Ergo, I’d like to put forth a new restaurant review of Las Tablas, a Colombian steakhouse that gives you gargantuan portions of delicious food for reasonable prices to fortify you for Chicago’s terrible winter.  IMG_4076

We went to this eatery earlier in the summer for one of Janice’s friends birthdays, so they were easily able to accommodate our enormous party.  The interior of the establishment was simple and some of the most eye-catching decorations were pictures on the wall of different people who seemed to have a bit of a weight problem.  These rotund subjects were signature pieces of “the most Colombian of Colombian artists”, Fernando Botero.  His unique take on artwork has created quite a following throughout the world, and it was an authentic piece of the homeland as we sat down and perused the menu.  We started with drinks.  While Las Tablas is BYOB, you can also order drinks off their menu.  We split a pitcher of sangria since it was a fun summer drink for the extremely humid night. IMG_4081 It wasn’t anything special though.  The wine was semi-acidic and didn’t really possess any of bold sweetness that comes from the sugar and fruit floating in the blood-red elixir.  The food, however, didn’t let us down.  They have plenty of authentic Colombian appetizers and entrees to choose from.  Even though its a steakhouse, vegetarians never fear!  They do have veggie friendly options for you.  For example, the aborrajado ($6) I got was vegetarian but not vegan friendly.  According to the menu, the aborrajado is a specialty from the coastal region of Colombia that consisted of a sweet plantain filled with guava jelly and topped with melted cheese. IMG_4084 While that seemed like an odd mix of ingredients, it actually jived pretty well.  Apparently, the banana was supposed to be fully fried according to Wikipedia, but my plate was semi-fried and was gooier if anything.  If you get this appetizer, let it cool off for a long time.  Although it smells like a freshly baked apple and banana pie, you will get a blazing mouthful of napalm.  Not a good look when out with friends for a fun time speaking from experience.  When I finally let it cool down enough, I found it to be a unique but tasty dish.  If you have a sweet tooth and a love for chewy, salty cheese then this is the ideal appetizer for you.  The guava and banana were a dynamic duo that teamed up with the cooked cheese on top for a sweet and salty treat.  I was semi-full after it, but I still had to choose an entree.  After looking over the numerous meat options, I got the bandeja paisa (literally:  “country tray”) ($21).  My girlfriend got a combinacion ($21) with a plantain, skirt steak, yuca, potato, and baby calamari.

When both of the plates came out, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach.  My girlfriend’s plate was especially eye catching with the slightly char-grilled baby octopodes (or octopi if you’re all about mixing Greek and Roman pluralizations).IMG_4085  Some of them were quite chilling to look at on other peoples’ plates where they had faces similar to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Creepy cephalopods aside, they were quite delicious with a nice firm texture and a great charred aftertaste mixed in with the semi-buttery flesh.  As for my plate, where to begin? IMG_4087 First, there was the rib-eye steak.  Lord, was it perfect.  Juicy, tender, and bursting with rich, meaty flavor.  The other meat element, the fried pork belly, looked very similar to another type of bacon I tried that also tricked me in Hungary.  It was a lot harder to eat than the steak because of the tough pork skin it was attached to, but that didn’t stop me from getting my hands dirty and perhaps scaring some of my fellow diners in the process. IMG_4117 You don’t mess with a man and his bacon.  It was worth the greasy face and fingers with each nugget oozing salty and porktastic notes that were probably as addictive as Pablo Escobar’s finest wares.  The beans were ok, but they were enhanced when I mixed them in with the freshly sliced avocados, white rice (that was on the dry side), and the fried egg atop the mini rice mound.  The arepa on the side was also quite tasty since it was filled with more of the cheese that was melted on top of the aborrajado from earlier in the meal.  It was like a South American version of a Mexican quesadilla, and I’ve tangled with the Salvadorian version of an arepa on an earlier food adventure.  There was no way I was going to finish all of this food, so I threw in the towel by the time I finished all the meat, arepa, and avocados.  I couldn’t stuff myself any more with rice and beans.  In the haze of my food coma, I knew I experienced something special that night from a place I had never been to before but hope to experience one day.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

Me riding home from the restaurant.

So if you want a taste of Colombia without having to hop on a plane, check out Las Tablas for some of the best steaks this side of the equator!

Las Tablas on Urbanspoon

Nacho Average Restaurant

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Hoo doggy!  It’s heating up in Chicagoland right at the end of summer, and today’s Mastication Monologues post is a real firecracker.  If you’re looking for a fun new bar that has a giant photobooth to document a crazy night or a beer pong table to relive old glory days in college, then check out D.S. Tequila Company!

It is a restaurant that has plenty of attitude in terms of its decor and events that are held every weekend that range from trivia to bingo.  The inside is quite modern in design with mostly metal, exposed brick, and dark wood accents.  However, my favorite part of the restaurant is the patio.  1bec1e9e3d9e3d7cfe86cc15ce343653.640x427Both times I’ve been there, it was nice weather, so it was packed with partiers and diners.  In this post, I’ll just be talking about my second time there when I went with my girlfriend for lunch.  She had been raving about their nachos there, so I couldn’t say no to a Tex-Mex and personal favorite.  We sat on the patio on the oddly humid/on and off drizzing day around noon.  Due to the precipitation, we got to see their retractable roof on the patio in action, so no worries if it’s raining.  You can still get your groove on outside.  This lunch experience  was the complete opposite of the first time I went there on a rowdy Saturday night.  There were patrons calmly talking over their meals, and we proceeded to do follow suit when the menus were placed in front of us.  We started with ordering drinks.  D.S. Tequila lives up to its name with their own homemade brew ranging from blanco to anejo which you can purchase in the restaurant if you are completamente loco for the Mexican mezcals.  I ended up getting one of their frozen mug drinks ($8 for a glass/$32 a pitcher): the black and green.  It was an intriguing drink since it came out in a large beer mug, but it looked like a root beer slushy. IMG_3879 Turns out that the darker liquid was the Negra Modelo Mexican beer, and the slush was D.S. Tequila’s original margarita.  It was like an inversion of a margarita I had at Gusto Taco in Seoul.  However, I think I preferred this inverted beergarita since the full bodied lager enveloped the sugary slush, but the citrus zest made each sip really pop.  While imbibing this innovative icy beverage, Janice ordered the regular sized Texas Trash Nachos ($9.89).  I was confused why she thought that this would suffice for someone like me with a giant appetite.  I was looking at the other options on the menu like their tacos, burgers, salads, or soups, but she assured me that this would demolish even the biggest of stomachs.  She was totally right.  The nacho equivalent of Mount Doom was placed in front of us with an ominous, heavy clunk on the tabletop.IMG_3881 I didn’t know where to start.

Guess which one of us is intimidated?

Guess which one of us is intimidated?

Dive headfirst into the ingredient-rich top layer or play it safe with the unadorned chips around the borders of the plate?  I took the bull by the horns, and rode that toro through chunks of succulent steak, chunky guacamole, cool sour cream, two layers of cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and acidic pico de gallo.   Needless to say, that they all came together in one of the best nacho platters I’ve had.  The only problem, as with most nacho platters, is the refried beans foundation that often times results in soggy chips towards the end of the meal.  That would be my only complaint with the dish, but at that point, I didn’t really care because I was really hungry.  We ended up finished the entire thing, and it was a great bargain for less than five bucks a person.  I’m scared to think how big the “family size” nachos would be.

Overall, I’d recommend D.S. Tequila for a great patio experience or just a rocking good time on a weekend.  Their drinks are strong, and their portions are huge.  What more could you ask for?

D.S. Tequila Company on Urbanspoon

Huge Flavors Under the Big Top

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Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues.  Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.

While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself.  They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?).  The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”.  This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures.  However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA.  So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience.  While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes.IMG_3130  From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday.IMG_3131  However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents. IMG_3132

Main dining room

Main dining room

I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself.  While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant.  The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30.  Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink.  Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. IMG_3138 While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need.  A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. IMG_3137 What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. IMG_3153 It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.

Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers.  First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). IMG_3142 Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation.  The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch.IMG_3147  Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans.  The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking.IMG_3160  As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture.IMG_3159  All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice.  It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit.IMG_3158  After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). IMG_3145 Both were wonderful.  The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy.  Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12).  IMG_3140This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture.  The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast.IMG_3141 I’d highly recommend this appetizer.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. IMG_3144 I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special.  While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo.IMG_3161  The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish.  After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25).IMG_3162  They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side.  After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). IMG_3163 The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”.  Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie.IMG_3164  I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor.  All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake.  If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again.  The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant.IMG_3166  Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers.  Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.

The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). IMG_3172 It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella.  Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat.  I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). IMG_3174 While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate.  Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried.  Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26).IMG_3182  There was a lot happening on one plate.  While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros.   While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak.  I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me.  Finally, there was the dessert.

While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu:  carmelized sweet plantains ($7).IMG_3171  Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity.  I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them.IMG_3168  I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment.  From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.

In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food.  If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!

Carnivale on Urbanspoon

Nuevo Sabor That’s No Chore

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Well, here we go again.  Another weekend, another round of posts.  Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues comes off another long week and weekend of work mixed with plenty of play.  While I have been around the block when it comes to Mexican eateries, I haven’t managed to adequately compile all of them on my food blog.  However, this past weekend provided me with a perfect opportunity to make up for lost time.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a Chicago comida mexicana institution that resides in the once Bohemian, now Latino (predominantly Mexican), and perhaps in the future solely hipster neighborhood of Pilsen.  I’m talking about Nuevo Leon located at 1515 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608.341699_iPad-Large_20120905111026.jpg.resize.768x432

After our trip to a fantastic punch class at Punch House, we were absolutely starving, and what better way to celebrate making our potent libation than enjoying some hearty Mexican cuisine?  While I had been to Nuevo Leon before and knew of its delectable selection of Mexican platters, Josah and Janice were unaware of the treasures within.  They were soon put wise.  Even at 5 pm on a Saturday, there was a line streaming out the door that we had to wait in.  Our wait was only made more interesting as I was carrying our large glass container of punch which led the diners to think that I was carrying around a special bowl of motor oil or perhaps the liquefied remains of  a deceased relative.10313748_10101613763422131_1817890989632858173_n  Either way, it was a good conversation piece.  Also while waiting, I saw the signs that alerted customers to their CASH ONLY policy.  If you’re plum out of moolah, they have an ATM inside the establishment.  I also noticed that our punch would be put to good use due to Nuevo Leon’s BYOB policy.  The only restrictions they have is that patrons cannot bring in coolers, and each patron can only drink the equivalent of three beers.  Eventually we reached the front of the line and were ushered to a table in the back.  Every seat in the house was packed as we dodged servers buzzing about like bees in a constantly humming hive.  Upon sitting down, we were supplied with a basket of tortilla chips, two types of tomato based salsa, and a bowl of pickled carrot and jalapeno pepper pieces.  While the condiments were fresh and filled with plenty of south-of-the-border flavor, the chips had a slightly funky fishy flavor which I think was due to the type of oil they used in the deep fryer.  They didn’t bother me too much, but I still don’t believe the Mexican equivalent of the bread basket should taste like the catch of the day.

Our waitress greeted us, and I took over from there when it came to communicating with her.  It didn’t seem like her English was the best when she tried to speak with Josah, so this might be frustrating for patrons who might not be able to speak Spanish.  I started by asking for a carafe of ice, glasses, and straws to imbibe our punch with our entrees.  Then I put in my order for the especial cazuela ($10.50) or literally “special cooking pot” in English.  There was a funny cultural exchange as well while ordering.  Josah asked for a chimichanga, and the waitress seemed quite confused.  I then proceeded to ask in Spanish, “Se preparan chimichangas aqui?” (Do they make chimichangas here?).  The waitress then said, “Que es una chimichanga?” (What is a chimichanga?) I described it to her as “un burrito frito” (a fried burrito), but she just shrugged and said there are only burritos.    Clearly you are not going to find certain super-Amurikanized plates you have come to love at your local Chili’s or Chipotle.  However, she was quite curious about our punch we made, so I offered her a glass.  Eventually, our meals came out, and I was a bit taken aback by the humble appearance of my dish. IMG_3078 A cazuela is a stew-like meal that in this case consisted of grilled pieces of ribeye steak, onions, poblano peppers, and panela cheese.  I was anticipating more steak and vegetables, but I quickly found out that the majority of the goodness was lurking under the peppery red broth.  When combined in a tortilla with the creamy refried beans and fluffy rice on the side, it was fantastic.  The ribeye was high quality with no fat to be seen, and the vegetables were soft but not mushy.  The cheese was an interesting addition as well since it provided a slightly salty element to a mainly savory dish.  All of these elements’ flavors really popped due to the jalapeno level spice of the aforementioned broth.  I was one stuffed and satisfied diner by the end of the meal.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that is one of the most popular representatives of Mexican cuisine in Chicago without the frills of Frontera Grill or the prices of Topolobampo, then check out Nuevo Leon!

Nuevo Leon on Urbanspoon

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