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Temenaks in Tenerife (Day 3: Whistling for Cookies; La Gomera)

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Finally, I have found some time to continue telling you the wonderful saga of our adventures in the sunny Canary Islands on Mastication Monologues!  If you haven’t been following my blog, day 1 was non-stop action while day 2 was more laid back.  Today’s post has more of a cultural focus compared to the previous posts, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting.

As mentioned in the day 2 post, day 3 would be the day we would travel across the channel to the west of our hotel to the second smallest island of the Canary Island chain:  La Gomera.  The island’s name origin is unclear, but some believe it comes from the native Guanche word “Ghomara” meaning “boss” or “notable”.  The Romans called the island Junonia, but the first full map of the island appeared in 1372.  Long story short, it still remains a mysterious and ancient island compared to the island of Tenerife where tourism reigns supreme.  We started by meeting up with our tour group via a very busy transfer in a sea of German and Dutch tourists.  Why those particular nationalities?  We learned that Angel Merkel, the Prime Minister of Germany, has chosen the sleepy island as her holiday getaway spot.  Thus, her countrymen and women were naturally to follow and admire the hiking and natural beauty.   When we arrived at the port of Los Cristianos, we boarded the ferry and crossed the crystal blue waters on an hour long journey.  We landed at San Sebastian de la Gomera which is the main port of the island.  Further interesting history to come toward the end of the post.  We started our tour of the island by climbing north into the forested mountains to Los Roques which was a series of ancient volcanic plugs or explosions of cooled magma that are contained within the rock of the Earth’s crust.  There have also been indigenous Guanche sacrificial shrines found on the top of these formations, but further climbing has been prohibited after a German film crew looted the site.  We then moved to Garajonay National Park whose name is derived from the Guanche lovers Gara and Jonay or the indigenous version of Juliet and Romeo, respectively.  However, instead of the Italian version of the Bloods and the Crips, the Guanche version had Mt. Teide erupting as a sign of the gods disapproval, and the forbidden lovers from two different Guanche tribes committing suicide on the top of a mountain on the island.  Talk about drama.

My Gara

Mt. Teide on Tenerife across the bay.

However, their tragic story aside, the national park is home to a subtropical forest that was similar to what existed in Europe before massive human expansion.  The forests have been traced back to at least 9,500 years ago, and their ancient beauty were a sight to behold.  From the moss-covered, gnarled trees to the tiny mountain roads, we were taken aback by Garajonay’s treasures and our bus driver’s ability to somehow allow another bus pass us on a road made for two cars.

How do you get out of this situation?

As we further explored the park, we toured a recreated traditional Canarian village complete with a house and a hut serving one of the iconic Canarian foods: gofio The name comes from the indigenous language of the island of Gran Canaria in the same chain, but on Tenerife it is known as ahoren.  The Berbers of North Africa, who are likely the ancestors of the Guanche people, call it “arkul“.  Whatever you call it, it is a flour made from ground and toasted grains and cereals such as wheat and maize.  It can also be found in Dominican and Puerto Rican cooking.  It can be made into an oatmeal of sorts, candy, or in this case, cookies. I went for a chocolate cookie and a cinnamon cookie.  Janice wasn’t a fan, but I personally liked them.

Chocolate gofio goodness

They were like harder, crumbly sugar cookies minus the overt sweetness which was replaced with a light cocoa flavor or plenty of savory cinnamon notes.  Cookies in tow, we went to a lunch where was nothing of note aside from some typical Canarian food like mojo verde, but we saw a demonstration of the indigenous language of el silbo or “the whistle”.  The native Guanche people likely brought this language based on whistling as a way to communicate up to 4 miles/7 km away between the mountaintops of the islands (for an example, click here).  This language was on the brink of extinction until campaigns saved it, and it is now a mandatory class in schools on the island.  However, Spanish remains the dominant form of communication across the Canary Islands.  In this demonstration, the “speakers” were able to communicate phrases by mimicking the tonal patters of Spanish via whistling, and they were even able to locate hidden items in the room from our fellow diners and return them back to the original owners.  Following lunch, we continued to tour the island and went to an aloe farm in one of the valleys close to San Sebastian which was also next to a banana plantation, two of the Canary Islands’ main products.  We learned from our guide Alex that only true aloe very has yellow flowers growing out of it; aloe vera tends to turn purple when low on water; and it can be harvested via cutting and leaving the leaves to soak overnight.  I also tried unsweetened aloe water straight from the plant, and it tasted strangely musty yet acidic.  It’s not replacing lemonade as a cool Summer drink that’s for certain.

Alex shucking them aloe leaves!

Finally, we traveled back to the port of San Sebastian to see Iglesia de La Asuncion where Columbus prayed in 1492 before reaching the New World in addition to the customs house where Columbus lived during his time on La Gomera and the Torre de la Conde.It was part of the oldest military fort in the Canary Islands having been built in 1450.  Although only one turret is still standing, you could imagine how imposing it would be when fully standing even though it seems it was inhabited by tiny people upon closer inspection.

Perfect sized door for her

We eventually made our way to the port, but we couldn’t help but admire the beautiful black sand beach and local aquatic fauna.  Thusly, we ended day three on la isla magica!

Whatever Floats Your Goat (Duck Duck Goat)

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Ah Tuesday.  The most underwhelming day of the week.  It doesn’t have the anticipation of a Friday or the dread of a Monday or even the satisfaction of getting over the peak of the work week on a Wednesday.  Thankfully, I have a wonderful Mastication Monologues post about a restaurant that will have you wishing for the weekend.

Stephanie Izard is one of the highest profile female restaurateurs who has cultivated an enormous following through her various eateries in the West Loop/slowly gentrifying Fulton Market area of Chicago, including the famed Girl and the Goat which I have also written about.  Now, she has taken her legend to another level by becoming an Iron Chef as well as opening a Chinese inspired restaurant called Duck Duck Goat, a much better alternative to a goose, I think.

Izard just making noodles (PC: WGN)

It is easy to get to by public transportation or with a car, and when we walked in, it was very busy with the lunch crowd.  From the neon lights in the front window to every inch of the interior, Izard has attempted to recreate the kitschy 1950s Chinese restaurants that tried to slap as many random artifacts on the walls and used as many brightly colored wallpapers in each room.  Even though it sounds like a madhouse, it was pleasant on the eye in its tacky glory as we took a seat at the center island bar while we waited for our third diner to join us.  We decided to try some of their mixed drinks since they looked too good to pass up.  I got the Bebop and Woksteady, the bartender appreciated by Ninja Turtle knowledge on that one, and Janice got the Lucky Duck.  I won’t go into every single detail of what went into these elaborate drinks, but I greatly enjoyed my cocktail.  It was a mix of mezcal, pineapple juice, and orange juice with lime salt coating the rim.  If you’ve never had mezcal before, it is an acquired taste.  Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) word “Mexcalli” (Mesh-calee) meaning “over-cooked agave” because it comes from the same agave plant tequila is made from.  However, since it is overcooked, it has a strong smoky flavor which I think gives it a more complex flavor than tequila.  The Aztecs believed the agave plant was holy and contained the nectar of the gods, and the Bebop and Woksteady was just that.  The smokiness of the mezcal was enhanced with the lime salt yet had an understated sweetness that kept it from becoming a poor man’s chelada.  Janice’s Lucky Duck was a rum based drink that tasted like a sweet, bubbly lemonade with a low-key bitter undertone.  Eventually, Janice’s friend Joe arrived, and we were seated at the table.

Looking over the menu, they even extended the same old-school Chinese vibe to the layout and pictures.  Before we got our food, Joe and Janice went on to get the Try Try Again and the Good Health cocktails.  We quickly learned that you couldn’t go wrong with their mixed drinks since everything we had was delicious and dangerous since they tasted like candy.  However, I went off the beaten path to keep it real with the Chinese menu and got an adult bubble tea.  I got the Honey Please which was milk tea infused with honey whiskey.  While I am partial to a great bubble tea, especially of the taro variety, I wasn’t too pleased with Duck Duck Goat’s take on this Taiwanese drink mainly because they went too heavy on the whiskey and light on the tea.  Once we refilled out cups, we got down to business with the foodstuffs.  Overall, the prices were more on the pricier end compared to other dim sum/Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and Chicagoland, but we learned that the price tag was justified.  It was interesting because it wasn’t as full on American Chinese as I anticipated yet it was more like an intermediate selection of more Western friendly Chinese traditional dishes with a classic Izard twist.  Plus, all menu options were on the small to medium end and meant to be shared with your fellow diners.

Chinese food has been around since the 1800s in the United States due to a high influx of Chinese immigrants to the West coast to build the railroads.  Most of the workers came from southern regions of China, especially the town of Taisan (台山市), and brought with them food that had to be either adapted for their American customers or made as close to the real deal for their fellow Chinese immigrants without having all the necessary ingredients.  Traditional Cantonese dishes do have some similarities to the modern day orange chickens and chop suey, but most mainland Chinese view American Chinese food as foreign food that their favorite tv characters eat out of white take-out boxes.  Instead of heavily-sauced meat dishes, we started with char siu bao or pork buns.  We got the baked version (叉燒餐包) which was different from the steamed type often served at many dim sum restaurants in Chinatown.  The dough was amazing.  Soft and topped with green scallions, but the filling was kind of disappointing.  I was expecting the red, sweet minced pork in all previous char siu dishes I’ve tried, but instead it was more like shreddednpork with little seasoning.  I would still recommend trying them for the dough alone.  Next up, the extremely lightly pan-fried jiaozi ( 鍋貼).  The name behind these dumplings come from many sources.  Some believe it comes from the Chinese word for “horn” like on a bull, others the early word for “money”, or possibly the word “jiao’er” meaning “tender ears” because an ancient Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner made them for his patients who had frostbitten ears.  No matter its origin story, it was a wonderful choice.  They were filled with beef short rib and bone marrow whose saltiness was sinfully rich and filling.  I highly recommend these dumplings.  Then came the chiu chow fun gor which were shrimp dumplings that were showered  with modestly sweet peanut-soy sauce and pickled red peppers.  They were also more multi-layered in terms of flavor compared to the char siu bao or the next choice in our feast.  Following these dumplings, we got, surprise surprise, xiao long bao (小籠包) or soup buns.  These unique dumplings were invented in Shanghai but quickly spread throughout China.  The ones served at Duck Duck Goat were served in the southern Chinese style with translucent skin and filled with traditional pork, crab, and broth.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of getting to know these dumplings, do not pop them in your mouth immediately, or you will be scalded with hot soup on your tongue and elsewhere.  They were just as good as the ones I had at Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong!  They were complimented very well with a lip-smacking earthy soy sauce on the side.  Finally, we ended the dumpling part of our dinner with ham sui gok (咸水饺/咸水角) or glutinous rice goat dumplings.  These were new to me, and I typically would avoid rice cake due to my experiences in Korea.  However, the crunchy, fried exterior gave way to a chewy interior that was stuffed with seasoned goat.  I would preferred it if it was served with a hoisin or spicy sauce to make this dish really pop, but Iron Chef Izard knows what’s best.  Transitioning from more tame dumplings, we went full throttle into more traditional Chinese fare that could drive more squeamish diners away:  duck hearts.  I had previously eaten parts of a duck I never thought I would when hosted by my friend David’s family in Taipei (非常谢谢!), but this is another part that I ended up loving.  Izard nailed the dish by roasting them until they had a good char and served them halved on a puddle of mild sesame-horseradish sauce.  Given the heart is pure muscle, it almost tasted like cubes of sirloin with a slight kick from the horseradish.  Hands down my second if not top dish we had at dinner. As if we couldn’t eat any more, Janice recommended that we should try the slap noodles.  The reason why they’re called “slap” is because they are slapped on the kitchen counter to remove any excess flour as they’re stretched to perfection by hand (example here).  I personally wasn’t wowed with these thicker, somewhat crispy noodles that were canoodling with shrimp, goat sausage, bean sprouts, and a strange red vegetable we couldn’t identify.  My theory was that they were cooked tomatoes.  Joe and Janice preferred it more than I did, but I think my preference for thinner or crispier noodles may have clouded my perceptions.  Noodle-wise, I was definitely feeling the chilly chili noodles.  Perhaps I liked it because it was more Korean in nature because it had the spicy ramen-esque noodles, pickled cucumbers, and was cold like naengmyeon.  Surprisingly, we had room for dessert in the form of baonuts (see what they did there?).  These deep-fried bao were similar to the char siu bao earlier in our meal, but these were more like warm doughnuts and filled with rich, dark chocolate frosting.  They were well-executed as a Chinese version of a Western doughnut, but it was nothing super innovative.

Our experience at Duck Duck Goat was definitely memorable.  I would highly recommend a visit if you’re tired of eating the same old Panda Express and want to expand your Chinese food horizons but are not yet ready to go full throttle with some chicken feet or stinky tofu.  Just remember to come hungry and be willing to share your food with others, if possible!


Duck Duck Goat Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Diego (Day 1): I’m Going Back, Back To Cali (Yankee Pier, Lemonade)

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Time is fleeting.  Summer 2016 is flying by in the Chi per usual as kids are going back to school, and parents are happy the little monsters are out of their hair.  The last of the street festivals are attempting to be crammed into the few days of nice weather we have left before winter comes to our metropolis a la Game of Thrones (hopefully sans the army of the dead).  Luckily, I have another wonderful travelogue to bring a bit of sunshine to your day through the magic of our trip this summer to San Diego, California.

Janice had originally informed me of one of her child hood friends, Sabrina, was going to get married about a year ago, and when I finally found out where the wedding was going to be, I couldn’t be more excited.  It turned out it was going to be in San Diego, specifically Coronado Island.  The reason for my excitement was that I hadn’t been back to California in ages, and I was aching for some of that humidity-free fresh air and West coast sunshine, a definite change from this Chicago summer known more for humidity, heat, and destructive lighting storms. 21dbbc4ca53ea93620d40f5ea967b488c7fe99ae6f2b79b50d8f7ca5ab123e9d No wonder we Midwesterners are so tough.  Janice and I had an ungodly early flight, so by the time we reached our layover in San Francisco, another fun place to visit in California, we needed something to eat for breakfast beside the miniscule treats they handed out to placate us in the coach section.  As we strolled to our gate, we found a restaurant that seemed to be quite popular with our fellow travelers:  Yankee Pier.  They are a chain that has a stand alone location and another one in the San Francisco aiport, so they had a menu and service to compliment the need for people on the run.  However, this focus on culinary efficiency didn’t sacrifice the quality of the food.  I got some sort of Mexican omelet that was liberally garnished with cilantro and filled with peppers, chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocado which was a major game changer.IMG_9601  With a couple splashes of Tabasco hot sauce, I turned this fiesta in my mouth from mas o menos to un bombazo!  There was plenty of flavor to savor in this omelet, and I’d recommend it if you like Mexican flavors in general.  It was so good I even caught Janice in the act of sneaking a bite or three from my plate. IMG_9603 Also, I really enjoyed their sourdough toast because it wasn’t very crispy and more on the chewy end.  Sourdough is actually part of San Francisco’s identity since it was brought to the state by French bakers in the 1840s during the famous gold rush, and Yankee Pier’s version of the iconic bread did not disappoint.  Overall, if you’re looking for a delicious meal that is also mindful of your travel time restrictions, I’d highly recommend Yankee Pier.  Once we downed our food, we were on a plane further south to San Diego.

Life is terrible

Life is terrible

Upon landing we were picked up by Janice’s friend Amber and another little companion I was not expecting.  I got in the back seat and was face to face with Ellie the Schnauzer.  She was such a good lil’ poochy, but she was ready to show us around the town with her owner.IMG_9774  Eventually, we found a place to park and walk around.IMG_9623 IMG_9610  Eventually, we had worked up a bit of an appetite, so Amber took us to one of her favorite local eateries:  Lemonade.  Apparently, it has locations all over the Golden State due to its popularity as a purveyor of healthy salads, sandwiches, and (not so healthy) sweets.  Oh yeah, and they do have their own homemade lemonades, of course! (Sorry, Beyonce fans).  IMG_9622 IMG_9621We didn’t know what to get because there was so much to choose from, IMG_9611 IMG_9612 IMG_9613IMG_9614 IMG_9615but we went with two of the cold salads:  the blt panzanella ($2.75) and the edamame salad ($2.50).  It was cafeteria style, so they scooped a generous helping of each on our plate as we slid down the line.  We also wanted to try one of the sandwiches and purchased the tomato and mozzarella ($6.95).   IMG_9616They also have a plethora of sinfully decadent looking desserts, but we did not give into them.  IMG_9617 IMG_9618 It was time to pay for our goods, and we had fun with the employees having samples of their lemonades behind the counter.  It’s not just your mother’s lemon and sugar based summer drink.  We tried the carrot ginger, hibiscus limeade, and blood orange lemonades.  The best part was that you could mix and match as many flavors as your thirsty heart desired at no extra charge.  In the end, we made a mix of the blood orange and the hibiscus tea.  IMG_9619 IMG_9776It resulted in a deep burgundy hued drink with a slightly tangy and almost cherry-esque tinged flavor profile that would cool us off after running around with Ellie the tour guide and Amber. IMG_9777 We took a seat on the patio in the front, and while the ladies were catching up, poochy was enjoying her time on my lap/losing her cool over my drink.

So calm

So calm

Maybe not

Maybe not

Eventually, we got to eating our salad and our freshly made sandwich.  The salads were fresh and light since we didn’t want to fill up before the rehearsal dinner for Sabrina’s wedding.  IMG_9620The edamame salad was seasoned with a vinaigrette and pepped up with pickled radishes, sesame seeds, and carrots.  I particularly enjoyed each firm bean imparting an earthy note to each forkful.  The panzanella was my choice (on the left), and is an antiquated recipe.  This Italian salad has been referenced in literature as early as the 16th century as a “salad of onions served with toast”.  While it has shifted in focus from onions as a base to tomatoes, it doesn’t take anything away from this hearty side dish.  This savory salad consisted of basically a BLT sandwich with arugula vinaigrette soaked pieces of bread, turkey bacon, avocado, and tomatoes.  It’s definitely a salad for those who don’t love traditional salads, i.e. healthy ones.  As for the sandwich, it wasn’t anything of note.  Yes, it was fresh and handmade, but I’ve had a caprese sandwich before. IMG_9781 I’d like to try one of their other more noteworthy creations the next time we’re in town.  Once we downed our amazing meal, we bade Amber and Ellie farewell (but not forever) and made our way to our airBnB.  We donned our finest duds and Uber-ed over to the picturesque Coronado golf club for the bride and groom’s rehearsal dinner. IMG_9782 While we were wasting time before everyone showed up, we played some Pokemon Go, and I got caught in the act. IMG_9783 Eventually, both families and their friends arrived, and we had to stop being antisocial.  It was a great night meeting Janice’s friends from long ago, the bride’s giant family, and eventually bonding with a good number of the younger folks of the wedding party going around catching Pokemon.  Also, the food and drink was phenomenal.  We went to the restaurant that catered the event on our last day, so I’ll save my review for that post.  It was such a great time overall, in fact, we stayed until the staff kicked us out of the clubhouse.  If this first day was any indication of how the rest of our visit in San Diego was going to transpire, I couldn’t wait for the big day tomorrow!  IMG_9784Stay tuned for part 2…

Yankee Pier Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lemonade Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

South Carolina (Day 1): Everyday I’m Husklin

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Finally, done with final exams and my 2nd Bachelor’s Degree!!! The feeling is amazing, and what better way to celebrate than starting the story of our journey to Charleston, South Carolina? Oh yeah, and also asking my wonderful girlfriend to marry me!  So, like any good tale, let’s start at the beginning.

Before we left for Charleston, we had been talking about when we would get married and types of engagement rings Janice wanted.  In fact, she was the occasional Debbie Downer thinking that I might never pop the question.  Little did she know I had already ordered and secretly stashed the ring at home.  *Cue maniacal laughter*  Once we got to the airport, the game was afoot.  Through a series of strategic positioning choices while walking, like holding her left hand in my right hand because the ring was in my left pocket, and taking advantage of classic airport situations, like the madness at the security lines and Janice’s subsequent rage at everyone’s incompetence, I managed to sneak the ring in my backpack.  This is where it would stay until later in our trip.  Keep that in mind, readers.  The flight and nighttime jaunt to our Air BnB was relaxing, and we were ready to explore the city the next day.  We woke up to a slightly cool day that was punctuated with plenty of intermittent rain and wind as we were off to brunch at our first Charleston restaurant.  From the outset, we knew this was going to be an eventful day since we were greeted with biblical floods throughout downtown Charleston.  IMG_9076Not only were we learning the streets, but we were also playing our own version of Oregon Trail in our rental car which also oddly had a dial instead of an actual gear shift.  Definitely was freaking me out.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.

Notice the flood waters right outside our window.


 Fording all of those rivers really whipped up our appetite, and we finally arrived at Hominy Grill (thankfully we didn’t lose any oxen!). IMG_9078IMG_9079 This tastefully and colorfully decorated historical Charleston house was a symbol of the deep roots that run through the east coast port town.  Charleston was one of the richest cities in the original 13 colonies due to cash crops like rice, indigo, and timber that were harvested by the slaves that were subsequently brought over to do all the dirty work.  Although the institution of slavery is based on the concept that one group of people is viewed as being less than human and more like chattel or general investments, the power of good food can still make the oppressed class make their voices heard even when other parts of their culture might be done away with by the ruling class.  In fact, it is often the case around the world that some of the best food comes from the lower classes since they have to make the most of what they could afford.  That would be a common theme throughout our trip as we ate signature Southern American dishes that have African roots but appeased the taste buds of the English colonists.  Hominy grill brought plenty of this blended South Carolinian culture.  We loved the antique interior which also kept the quaint colonial vibe when I noticed they weren’t playing any music in the restaurant. IMG_9094 IMG_8203 I don’t know if it’s a Chicago thing, but we more often than not have music going on in restaurants.  So, it was a welcome change to just hear the sound of families and friends enjoying good food.  The meal began not with a bread basket rather a paper container of boiled peanuts.  IMG_9080While these are now a common Southern snack, they trace their roots back to Africa.  They are commonly sold as a street food in Ghana even to this day, and in the South they can also be called “goober peas” which reminded me of a popular Civil War my mom would randomly sing.  I had actually never had them, so we tucked into them.  It was weird because the normally crunchy shells peeled off like a loose skin, and the peanuts had an almost meaty quality to them.  I can see why they could be a good snack food, but I prefer my honey roasted variety.  I did like that we got more than we bargained for because for some reason it seemed that there were a lot of three and even four nut shells.  IMG_9081We kept the food festival going with two appetizers in the form of fried green tomatoes ($6) and hushpuppies ($5).  IMG_9082I had had hushpuppies before, but never like this.  The first people to have made them were Native Americans in the Southern United States, but they became popular during the Civil War.  Their name supposedly came from the Confederate soldiers using them to make their dogs be quiet or “hush the puppies”.IMG_9083  I can see why because I was making my barking stomach curl up and sleep in a food coma.  IMG_9086I didn’t really get the jalapeno flavor or spice in them as advertised in the menu, but the subtly sweet sorghum butter was a fitting compliment to the crunchy and salty crust.  The real star of the appetizer round was the fried green tomato plate.  IMG_9084It was another Southern fried treat which consisted of unripe tomatoes coated in batter and fried with a side of ranch dressing.  It might have been the Midwesterner in me which embraced the ranch dressing, but the creamy richness was a match made in heaven with the semi-juicy and sour interior and crispy exterior.  As if that wasn’t enough food, we managed to move on to our entrees.  Hominy Grill is a Michelin starred restaurant with not super Michelin prices serving plenty of Southern comforts, and we stayed true to what Hominy Grill is good at.  Janice ended up getting the Shrimp and Grits ($19) which was different than most grits I’ve ever had.  They were more like a very fine risotto compared to the creamier grits that I tried in Georgia or have seen at soul food events.IMG_9089  The shrimp were perfect and the scallions and bacon brought a savory edge to the smooth plate.  Then there was my choice:  the Nasty Biscuit ($10.50). IMG_9087 If there was one plate to sum up Southern cuisine, this tried to roll every element into one meal (minus delicious barbecue).  It was a buttermilk biscuit with a piece of fried chicken in the middle bobbing in a sea of sausage gravy and cheddar cheese.  Straight.  Up.  Nasty. (in a good way, naturally)  There was no easy way to eat this symbol of Southern madness/genius, but it was as heart stoppingly good as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t have to eat for another week with the amount of calories this bomb contained, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants something that’s more southern than Colonel Sanders, the Dukes of Hazard, and Nascar combined.  We also got a side of collard greens since Janice likes them, and we needed to keep the southern food train rolling. IMG_9088 I never really tried them before this moment, but I would liken them to an earthier spinach.  Not something I’d go out of my way to eat, but thank God I got something green to eat in this sea of deep fried goodness.  Somehow, some way we managed to make room for their famous homemade buttermilk pie.  Good lawd, I have never had a pie like this, but it was the lightest pie I’ve ever eaten.  IMG_9091First, it was chilled which made it seemed more lithe than the cumbersome fried food we had before.  Then the filling was like consuming a sweet treat that was like a suave vanilla custard that caressed our overworked palates.  Finally, the crust.  It was minimally intrusive compared to your typical lard based pie crust which made all the difference in this belt buster of a meal.  We came super hungry and left super satisfied. IMG_9093 Can’t praise the Hominy Grill restaurant and staff enough.

Thankfully, we walked like crazy afterward along Charleston’s harbor.  Since the weather was craptacular, we thought we could wait out the rain in the Charleston aquarium, but unfortunately we missed the last tour for the biggest draw:  the sea turtle hospital.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We did come out on top with puns though.

We cut our losses, and got tickets for the next day and instead went to Fort Sumter which just so happened to be next door.  Well, actually it was the national park museum commemorating the flashpoint of the beginning of the Civil War, and it was chock full of historical goodness that we appreciated.IMG_8206  The actual fort consisted of us getting on a ferry boat and going out to an island in the harbor.  IMG_8208It was windy and cold, and I was smart enough to not bring a jacket (or I’m just that tough).  IMG_8220We landed and it was the perfect time to go since the weather scared away the hordes of tourists.  The fort was a mere shadow of its former self, but I could imagine how terrible it must have been for the defenders to be behind its ramparts and being shelled day after day. IMG_8225IMG_8229 IMG_8230 IMG_9156 IMG_9157My favorite part of the visit consisted of the flag lowering ceremony that was similar to how the former Union defenders would do at the end of each day.  It was an extremely windy day, and it was more challenging than you may think.  IMG_8240Think about a fifty foot piece of heavy canvas flying and whipping at you violently, but luckily teamwork saved the day. IMG_9160IMG_9161 IMG_8245Going back on the ferry, thankfully the weather let up to take in the many beautiful views of Charleston skyline and bridge. IMG_8251 IMG_9163I later learned that Janice had thought I was going to propose to her on the ferry which surprised me.  That big event will come later in the story at a more unique location!  Instead, we continued to walk off our heavy lunch along the broad avenues of Charleston’s historical downtown.  I could not get enough of how much history was around every corner.  Surprisingly, we were hungry again, so we had to try a little place called Husk. IMG_8260 It is in a late 19th Century mansion and led by a James Beard award winning chef, so we threw ourselves at the mercy of their menu.  Janice wisely got reservations before we even landed in Charleston, so we checked in just below the steep staircase.  IMG_8270We still had to wait for a table though since the entire establishment was hopping.  Thankfully, they had a smaller guest house next door that was converted into a two tiered bar. IMG_8268 IMG_8267 The drink menu was Charleston through and through with references to parts of the city (the Four Corners of Law) and southern flavors.  We were quickly seated upstairs at one of their rustic wooden tables.  We started off with a Turcotte’s Tipple ($11) and a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch ($9).  IMG_8264Janice’s tipple drink was an homage to the rider of the Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and it was a bourbon based, grapefruit-infused drink that was as fleet footed as its steed namesake.  IMG_8266If you’re looking for a light, understated fruity drink for a hot summer day, this is your best bet.  As for mine, it was taken straight from a 1783 recipe from the archives of the Preservation Society of Charleston.IMG_8265  It was much stronger than Janice’s front porch refreshment due to the rum and the peach brandy, and it combined with black tea and lemon juice to add a spiked sweet/iced tea flavor to the mix.  I’d liken this drink to a British version of a Manhattan.  Even though we were next door, Husk’s staff actually came to get us upstairs in the guest house to lead us to our table in the main house.  Now that’s what I call service!IMG_8302  We were shown upstairs past their homemade pickled vegetables and firewood for the ovens to one of the front dining rooms that had a view of the second floor porch. IMG_8300IMG_8272 Janice also got a Copperhead ($11) which a whiskey with a hint of absinthe that was like a licorice infused Old Fashion. IMG_8276 As for food, we got a complimentary basket of fresh pretzel rolls that were small, warm orbs of heavenly dough with a side of whipped creamy butter.IMG_8274IMG_8277  The culinary dream that happened soon thereafter was the stuff of legend.  First, we got fried chicken skins with kimchi mayo, black garlic mayo, and scallions ($11) and glazed pig ear wraps ($12).  The former was continuing with the southern fried theme from our Hominy Grill lunch.  The people at Husk could sell them at any national chicken chain as a guilty pleasure and make a fortune.  IMG_8278They were just the right amount of crunchy, salty, savory, and spice with the kimchi mayo.  As for the glazed pig ear wraps, they were like a southern version of Korean ssam bap. IMG_8282 The cook had similar strips of pork that were a bit tougher than kalbi, but they did have some pickled cucumbers and red onion to keep in line with this Korean fusion dish.  I would highly recommend both of these appetizers.  We moved on to the entrees where Janice got the heritage pork ($34) and the bacon cornbread ($8) while I got the flat iron steak ($34).  I thought that combining the hottest ingredient/breakfast food since sliced bread with a delicious southern staple would have yielded an unforgettable pairing to our flawless dishes, but alas, we were not impressed since it was actually on the dry and crumbly side. IMG_8285 Thankfully, my flat iron steak was assembled to perfection with medium rare steak, mushrooms, broccoli, and shishito peppers. IMG_8288 The steak were burgundy nuggets of bliss and the vegetables were expertly sauteed.  Kudos to the addition of the shishito peppers that gave the mostly mild ingredients a nearly undetectable hint of sweet spiciness.  I thought Janice’s pork plate was ok, and she didn’t feel it warranted the price tag.IMG_8286  I could see why because the pork, while flavorful, was too much of the same flavors.  There wasn’t that element, like my peppers, that always kept you guessing with every forkful.  Finally, there was the dessert, and what a dessert it was.  It was a caramel bread pudding that consisted of a brown butter crumble and cinnamon ice cream with flower blossoms for decoration. IMG_8289 Now, I’ve had my fair share of bread puddings, some good and others not so good (contrary to popular opinion), and this was hands down the best I’ve ever had.  It wasn’t too hot or too cool.  The crumbles were spiced and just in the perfect ratio to the soaked bread below that was filled with luscious caramel.  The warmth of the skillet made the cinnamon ice cream atop this work of art melt and soak into each spoonful.  I was having my own When Harry Met Sally moment by the time we sadly hit the end of our metal clad sweet secret.IMG_8292IMG_8295IMG_8294  After we paid and did a short nightly jaunt around one of Charleston’s main streets, we made our way home after a successful first day in Charleston.  Stay tuned for the next chapters in our journey and the road to our engagement proposal!IMG_8298

Hominy Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Husk 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

Great Blogs of Fire: Xxxtra Hot Habañero Sauce

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Summer is in full swing as we’re finally in August, and what better to spice up the summer than a fresh hot sauce blog post on Mastication Monologues?  So, today’s entry comes from the Tropical Pepper Company who manufactures their sauces in the wonderful land of Costa Rica.  Although, Costa Rican cuisine isn’t too spicy, the land is ideal for growing the peppers needed to make their signature sauces.  Check out my post here where I reviewed their hazardous ghost pepper sauce.  While the habañero pepper doesn’t come close in spice to the all mighty bhut jolokia, it still does pack a punch like in today’s Xxxtra hot habañero pepper sauce.  First, there is the bottle. IMG_7286 Instead of the toucan being a skeleton like on the ghost pepper sauce, it is much more inviting with some of the peppers you are about to consume in his colorful beak.  Then there is the back of the bottle which is a bit bombastic in hyping up this condiment, but it still ranks as an “ouch” on their heat scale.IMG_7327  Knowing the potency of the first sauce I bought from the Tropical Pepper Company, I preceded with caution when I popped the top to try it out.  What I found was one of the best hot sauces I’ve tried.  The sauce’s color was red with a hint of orange and punctuated with white/yellow pepper seeds floating throughout the mixture.  IMG_7328Plus, it was noticeably thicker than its ghostly predecessor which became apparent when I had to put a bit of elbow grease to get the sauce out of the bottle a la Heinz ketchup.  The ghost pepper salsa, on the other hand, is a super watery, burgundy solution of doom.  I didn’t get the hint of any sort of gastrointestinal foreboding from the habañero sauce.  Luckily, the bark was like the bite:  pleasant.  Mind you, I have higher tolerance for spicier foods, so if you’re not used to eating fiery meals, don’t dive headfirst into this pool party.  However, I found it to be an interesting mix of elements.  From the outset, it had a kick of spice with a vinegar-fueled tang but with super subtle sweet notes that I think might be attributed to the use of pineapples in the recipe.  The spice quickly ebbed to a more understated, slow burn on my tongue as I ate more of it and got used to its smooth flavor.

Final Score

Flavor:  9/10
Spice:  6/10
Overall:  7.5/10       It’s a spicy, but not too spicy sauce compared to the hype job its packaging does for it.  Thankfully, it doesn’t let the                                    spice overwhelm its flavorful self.  Recommend this sauce for wings or perhaps tacos.

Toronto (Day 3): 10,000 Leagues Over the Jenga Sea

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues and part three in my Canadian food adventures.  Day one consisted of a mouthful of Dirty South cookin’ while day two was a yin and yang of cool waters and fiery dinners.  Day three was interesting in its own respect.  We started off the day nice and early at the Ripley’s aquarium which was pretty entertaining with lots of interesting exhibits and marine specimens.  While the Shedd in Chicago has a lot more of the big animals like belugas and dolphins, the Toronto had bested our hometown museum with a larger variety of strange creatures.  For example, the giant sawfish that was chilling on the aqua tube we walked through as tons of other fish, sharks, and even turtles swam around us. Oh, boy, I would not want to see that stuff from my kayak seat.11692502_10105957338687379_774183563389597382_n 11695737_10105957338243269_4334976029450824065_n  The jellyfish exhibit was probably my favorite part since the cool blacklit chambers really made the little guys look like aliens. IMG_7035 Janice, however, was going bananas over the puffer fish and even crawled into the middle that was intended for the children school groups.  I captured her passion with this pretty cool picture.

In heaven

In heaven

Then there were the petting areas where we had some hands-on action with the sea-beasties.  Janice was freaking out with the horseshoe crabs,IMG_7013 and I finally overcame my fear of petting stingrays…by petting one as big as me.

They can smell my fear

They can smell my fear

Unfortunately, none of the small, petable sharks  were feeling calm enough to be friendly with the guests.  Overall, we highly recommend a visit while you’re here, but try to go in the morning since there will be less hordes of shrieking children.  We proceeded to walk to the nearby turntable that turned out to also be the Steamwhistle brewery.IMG_7044  If you’re into beer and/or classic trains, this is your paradise.

Just try not to get run over

Just try not to get run over

We finally got in after a bit of waiting, and they didn’t even have any food for lunch. IMG_7046 IMG_7045 On the plus side, we got to see the inside of the brewery, get some taster beers, 11707573_10105957366192259_8561669485023787245_n 11750695_10105957366152339_6453658988414354508_nand find our next party bike.11223302_10105957366232179_7567314927165861357_n  The brew that we had there tasted like a slightly hoppy IPA that was light and good for a hot day.  So, instead of just sitting there and waiting for the food truck to come in, we moved onto the harborfront since we had a kayak lesson in the afternoon.  After a moderate constitutional, we found ourselves looking out over Lake Ontario, a perfect backdrop for lunch.  We stumbled upon, surprise surprise, another brewery.  This one was called Amsterdam Brewery, and thankfully it wasn’t jazzed up like some sort of cheesy homage to the Dutch capital.  IMG_7059We got a seat on the patio where there was thankfully some shade, IMG_7050 IMG_7049but it seemed like they were training a lot of new staff.  Thankfully, our waitress was very on the ball since we had a deadline to stuff our faces and make it to the lesson on time.  First world problems.  The meal started with da beers.IMG_7048  Even though the flights looked tempting, they had to wait.  Instead, I got their all natural blonde while Janice got their Big Wheel amber ale.  These big glasses quickly came out, and we had different experiences.  IMG_7051My blonde seemed quite bland and slightly sour, but Janice’s Big Wheel was a tasty balance of caramel undertones and a hoppy aftertaste.  Moving on to food, their menu was a standard  bar and grill mix of mostly sandwiches, pizza, and a few slightly ethnic items thrown in there for good measure.  I enjoyed their code for pairing the food with the beer through a letter system next to each food option like C for a crisp beer next to the fish and chips.  We picked a few things to share before going to burn them off on the water.  First, there were the sweet chili rib ends ($11).  IMG_7052IMG_7053These pork chunks were delectable minus the occasional bone chip we had to make sure not to swallow.  Definitely not a plate for the little ones.  However, the flavor was definitely grown and developed through a mix of sweet chili sauce and a braise of lemongrass, lime leaves, and ginger.  It kind of was like an Asian sweet, spicy, yet tangy twist on an American favorite.  I recommend them.  Then we had to get the Canadian classic dish:  poutine ($8).  This melange of gravy, cheese curds, and French fries was born in rural Quebec in the 1950s, but the origin of the name is highly disputed. IMG_7054 Some believe that it is a Frenchified version of the English word “pudding” while others conjecture it comes from the Quebecois French slang for “mess” or “leftovers”.  There are even links back to France with regional dialects boasting cognates like the southern Provencal word, “poutité” or “hodgepodge” in English.  Whatever you want to call it, it is a super rich comfort food that will make you want to check your cholesterol levels when you’re done.  I’m not a huge fan of the soggy fries that soak up a lot of the gravy on the bottom, but the perfect forkful that combines the beefy with the salty fry and tangy cheese is without parallel.  Speaking of the cheese, at Amsterdam they use Thornloe cheese that has been a Canadian institution since 1940.  Plus, it was founded by a guy named Rene Laframboise or Rene The Raspberry.  Now that’s a cheese company I want to patronize!  To balance this heavy plate, we rounded out the main course with some of the hoisin chicken lettuce wraps ($12).  These were the opposite of the poutine:  light, sweet, and fresh.IMG_7055  They were basically like make your own tacos, but instead of tortillas we had super verdant leaves of lettuce.  The chicken and veggies were stir fried in a light teriyaki sauce, and we received the dark hoisin sauce and a pepper seed laden sauce on the side.  All of these plates together were a great value for good food, and we still had a little bit of room to split a dessert.  We got the flourless chocolate torte ($7) which was totally our jam, literally, given that the raspberry coulis (coo-LEE; from the Latin colare “to strain”) was the perfect compliment to the sinfully sweet slice.IMG_7056  An added bonus was the whipped cream, fresh strawberry, and a mysterious gooseberry that made its way onto our plate. IMG_7057 I had never even seen one of these fruits in real life, so I didn’t know what to expect from it.  Our waitress warned us that some diners didn’t care for its “interesting” and super sour taste.  So, I braced myself for the worst when I popped the small, bright yellow berry in my mouth and bit down.  I was greeted with a more neutral, partially earthy flavor washing over my palate.  It barely left an impression on me before it was gone.  Guess the kayak gods were smiling on us as we got the check and were running to the kayak dock.  It was a glorious day for a paddle, and before we knew it, we were in our dual kayak.  Our task of getting to the channel islands was harder than expected since we had to try to not get run over by the numerous boats and water taxis that were creating giant waves as well.  As if that wasn’t enough, there were airplanes zooming overhead because the landing strip was out by the islands.  Definitely got the blood pumping.  Eventually, we got to the islands and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon on the calm waters.  It’s also a great experience if you want some fantastic photo ops for the Toronto skyline like we got. 11540821_10105957366820999_7769503925293810602_n Going back to port was maybe that just much harder given the constant paddling we had done for the previous three hours.  By the time we reached the dock, we were ready for a nap before going out with Aaron and Alyssa.  Once we regroups, we were back at the harborfront with the gang, and funny enough they were going to bring us to Amsterdam Brewhouse!  Instead we wandered about taking in the Friday night surroundings,11745761_10105957366975689_7832020117414013761_n including Janice climbing into this contraption that looked like Dr. Seuss’ pimp-mobile.11694806_10105957367190259_489136461148223093_n  Just par for the course.  Eventually, we decided to go out to a bar or two for food and drinks.  We hit up the Wellington first for food and then the Banknote.  Unfortunately, I don’t have pics for the Wellington, but it had some great nachos.  It’s a cozy bar/restaurant too.  The Banknote, on the other hand, was a great bar for late night shenanigoats.  It was there that I tried another one of the Canadian beers that was also offered at the Amsterdam brewhouse:  the Boneshaker IPA.  Boneshaker TBS Bottle Shot1It was surprisingly palatable given that I’m not the biggest fan of the typically hop-heavy IPA style of beers.  Luckily, my bones weren’t shaking too much given that we played over three hours of Jenga that they have at their main long table.11249766_10105957367329979_2502322992411108169_n 11709773_10105957367389859_5852861961107866960_n  Then again, when you’re having a good time with great company, it’s bound to happen.11695752_10105957367903829_7768437875094248237_n  Talk about a wild Friday and penultimate night in TO!11695777_10105957367604429_5737441334686934831_n
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Toronto (Day 1): Sleepless Nights in Hogtown

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Welcome to another wonderful and interesting edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I’ll be relating the first day of four of our adventure to the Great White North a.k.a. Canada.  There has always been a sort of brotherly love between the two North American nations compared to the more tension filled links with our southern neighbors like Cuba or Mexico.  We Americans see them as hockey nuts that are also extremely polite while they view us as obese, war mongers,ncbn0ni

but national stereotypes aside, we manage to get along just fine.  Case and point:  my friend Aaron and I.  We met each other in South Korea of all places in the same teacher orientation group, and we struck up a friendship through long bus rides and making terrible puns together.

Canada (Aaron), America (Me), and France (Jean) just partying it up in Korea

Canada (Aaron), America (Me), and France (Jean) just partying it up in Korea

After Aaron and his gf, Alyssa, visited Chicago, Janice and I decided to pay them a visit up in Toronto, a place neither of us had visited.

So, our adventure started from Chicago super-early in the morning with driving through a whole lot of nothing until we reached Canada.  Once we crossed the border, we stopped for a sweet piece of Canada in the form of Tim Hortons.  Although there are now branches throughout the Northeastern USA, they haven’t arrived in Chitown.  So, we wanted to see what all the hubbub was about.  it looked like a fancier fast food diner, and I knew that this Canadian institution specialized in having great coffee and doughnuts.  I got a Canadian maple, tres Canadien!, and Janice got the sour cream glazed.  Janice was less than impressed due to the too sugary treat that didn’t match up to a similar, yet less diabetes inducing version in Chicago.  As for mine, I found it to be enjoyable even though I’m not partial to cream filled pastries.  IMG_6878Thankfully there was more fresh, fried dough than cream, and the maple icing was delectable.  Once we finally reached the city and trying not to die with all of the crazy Canuck drivers.  We got to our apartment with a sweet view that would make even Drake jealous, and then proceeded to meet up with Aaron and Alyssa.IMG_6879  We walked all over the town as they showed us the sights that ranged from Korea Town that actually had a lot Aaron and I recognized from our time in the Land of the Morning Calm to the Kensington Market that seemed like a Caribbean island market in the middle of a modern metropolis.

Dude, it's some herbage.

Dude, it’s some herbage.

IMG_6887 After traversing what seemed like half the city, we managed to get our final destination (no, not death like the movies), Insomnia Restaurant & Lounge.  Unfortunately, it was super busy, so we had to wait for a table.  We hit up the bar next door, and I tried a new Canadian beer I never heard of:  Hockley dark. IMG_6897 It was a traditional English ale that was full bodied with a clean, caramel aftertaste that my compatriots likened to a lighter Guinness, or as they say on their website, “a brunette with the body of a blonde”.  We eventually got the call to head on over to Insomnia.IMG_6910  It looked like any other gastropub with the addition of some Christmas lights overhead.  IMG_6909However, our table was quite different mainly due to the super comfortable easy chairs that made the dining experience that much more enjoyable.  The reason why we chose Insomnia over all of the restaurants in Toronto is that they were part of the Summerlicious food festival which was similar to Chicago’s restaurant week that Janice and I greatly took advantage of.  Just like Chicago’s restaurant week, there was a set menu that consisted of a starter, entree, and dessert for $25.  I started the meal with a Maudite Belgian Strong Ale.  IMG_6899If you love lambics or dubbels or Belgian beer in general, I highly recommend this spicy yet fruity brew.  Then looking over the menu, there was a ton of great picks for food which made it all the more difficult to choose just one item.  I, along with everyone else I think, got the pork taco since it was the most interesting appetizer.  It looked super fresh yet simple. IMG_6900 All it consisted of was seasoned, tender, yet slightly spicy pork, pico de gallo, some cabbage, and a creamy, rich avocado spread.  The cilantro sprigs made it all the better since I love the controversial herb.  Then came the entrees.  I was torn between the burger since I had a hankering for one, and the Dirty Dirty South fried chicken and waffles.  However, I wanted something a bit different, so I went for the latter.  Funny enough, Janice, Alyssa, and I all got the chicken while Aaron got the burger.  He was greatly satisfied with the juicy Ontario ground chuck, milk bun, and classic lettuce, onion, pickle combo.  Our chicken and waffles, on the other hand, were a different beast all together.  When it came out, it looked like something inspired from the Spanish Inquisition or Vlad the Impaler. IMG_6901 Our waffles were pre-cut into quarters and alternated with the boneless chicken thigh pieces in a large stack that was held together with a series of wooden skewers.  Atop this unique creation was one of my most disliked foods:  cole slaw.  I love my cabbage products like kimchi or kapusta, but I dislike the cream picnic staple.  I slowly took apart the tower o’ food with the precision of playing the popular game Kerplunk and sliced into my meal.  It was a mouth-watering combo of thick, fluffy waffles and non-greasy but still flavorful pieces of all white meat.  The honey maple butter and maple syrup made this plate the ideal mix of savory and sweet.  I highly recommend this entree.  As if you thought that would have been the end of the meal, there still was dessert! This was the toughest part of the night for me since I have a huge sweet tooth, but since everyone was going for the enticing s’more and creme brulee, I went for the sponge cake.  Long story short, it was all good in the hood aside from a couple bumps in the road.  First, there was my financier sponge cake.  The name of the cake comes from either the traditional rectangular pan that made the cake resembling a bar of gold, or the cake became popular in Paris’ financial district.  IMG_6904It was moist, light, and spongy in texture with a strong almond taste that was enhanced with the Coca Cola foam that was the right kind of funk I like in my meal and a classy caramel drizzle.  The cherry on the side was a nice touch.  Then the burnt marshmallow s’more ice cream was an interesting concoction.  IMG_6905It was composed of the vanilla ice cream on top of a layer of burnt marshmallows that then topped a graham cracker cookie which was drenched with Lindt chocolate sauce.  Diabetes?  I haz it.  Alyssa offered me a bit of hers, but I swear the cookie was made of hardtack since neither I nor Aaron could break it.  Thankfully, Aaron’s was more normal, but it might prove to be too sweet for those of you who enjoy more savory plates.  Finally, there was the creme brulee that Janice wasn’t digging too much, IMG_6906but I found it to be good, not great.  As we sunk further into our chairs, food comas coming over us quickly, we ended the our first night in Toronto there, and it was a sign of greater times to come!  I highly recommend Insomnia to those visiting Toronto if you’re looking for delicious comfort food with a twist.
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Never a Boar in the Kitchen

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What’s up people?  The weather has been relatively all over the place for a Chicago summer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try some new and consistently delicious food.  Enter Andy’s Thai Kitchen that me and my girlfriend hit up for her gusband’s birthday.  I was not really super excited about getting Thai food since it just all seems like the same thing, similar to my thoughts about Vietnamese food, but Andy’s Thai Kitchen managed to change my mind.

Bday selfie!

Bday selfie!

While the weather was quite cold outside, the interior is very warm and welcoming.

When we left it was almost closing time

When we left it was almost closing time

Not only that, but the body heat from the masses of people waiting at the narrow vestibule made the experience seem all the more chaotic.  It could almost be an homage to the organized madness that is synonymous with Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok.  Chef Andy Aroourasameruang brings the unadulterated flavors of his home, Chachoengsao Province, to Chicago in the form of one of the most unique Thai menus I’ve seen in a long while.  IMG_6086I had never been there before, but all of my other diners had visited it before.  So, I let them order most of the food for our meal aside from my entree.  First, we started the meal with the som tum tod  or fried papaya salad ($12). IMG_6087 Unfortunately, this was during Lent, and I had given up all fried foods.  So, based on the reaction of my fellow diners digging into the colorful melange of deep fried papaya sticks, giant pink shrimp, cashews, tomatoes, and green beans, they loved all of it.  It was presented differently than other mango salads I’ve seen in Thai cuisine given that the mango was actually fried and not served in its original form.  I’d recommend it though since I ate the shrimp together with the veggies.  The spicy lime dressing gave it a perfect tangy/fiery zip to keep you coming back for more.  As for the entrees, I went with the ATK signature dish:  wild boar pad ped ($11).  Basically, it was a spicy red coconut curry that had “young pepper” (whatever that is), slow cooked and stir fried boar, and Thai eggplants.  IMG_6088The curry was very rich and flavorful with a potent kick, and there was a ton of tender boar that seemed like slightly gamier beef.  It should have been tougher, but the slow cooking made it fall apart in my mouth.  The Thai eggplants were a new addition to foods I’ve never tried before, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Even though they looked like tiny halves of lime in my curry, they added more of a half-crunchy, half creamy element to the softer parts of my meal.  The only downside was that I think that they could add a wider variety of vegetables to the sauce.  As for Janice, she got the basil crispy pork belly ($10.95) which was another ATK signature dish. IMG_6091 This one wasn’t as elaborate as my curry, but it still brought big flavors that Thai cuisine is known for.  It basically was rice served with a plentiful helping of stir fried pork pieces along with mushrooms, garlic, chili, and basil leaves.  It was good but not great.  The meat was the best part with its crispy outer layer that gave way to multiple alternating layers of fat and juicy pork, but it became somewhat monotonous according to Janice.  Thankfully, the food party didn’t stop there since there was still the matter of dessert.  While most of the options had a distinctly South/Southeast Asian flavor like the fried roti or banana blanket, we had to go with the customer pick, the mango sticky rice ($7).IMG_6093  I was surprised to see what it actually looked like when it came out.  After living in Korea, I was skeptical of desserts boasting, in my eyes, typically savory elements like rice or beans.  However, this dessert might have turned my head a bit with its fresh layer of sliced mangoes and generous helping of coconut milk. IMG_6094 It was like eating a Southeast Asian version of bread pudding with the rice taking the place of the flour based dough.  I highly recommend this sweet treat.

So if you’re looking for a restaurant that offers quality and unique Thai dishes, enjoy a great meal at Andy’s Thai Kitchen!IMG_6098

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La Isla Deliciosa

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Asia is one of the most interesting continents when it comes to cuisine.  You might be asking yourself, “Uh, what’s so special about sushi, korean barbecue, and orange chicken?”  Well, hate to break it to you that there is much more to Asian cuisine than that given the sheer size of the continent and number of different cultures that inhabit its regions spanning from Turkey to Japan.  This geographic spread contributes to the variety found in this corner of the world, but some country’s cuisines are more popular than others in the US.  For example, the food items I previously mentioned are probably the first cuisines that come to peoples’ minds when you say “Asian food”, i.e.  Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food.  Vietnamese and Thai food are more recent entries to the public consciousness due to increased immigration from South/Southeast Asia, and they all have their own special place in the ever expanding American palate.  However, one country that doesn’t get the foodie hype that its other neighbors receive but really should  is Filipino food.  Janice and I got well acquainted with many island delights in Chicago at Lincoln Square’s Isla Pilipina Restaurant.

We’ve walked past this place all the time around dinnertime, and it has been packed without fail.  Naturally, when we went it was no different. IMG_6255 After waiting for a table to open in the funky fresh interior that was bumping an odd mix of rap and oldies out of the overhead speakers, we finally managed to take a seat amidst the madness of the waitstaff toward the back of the restaurant. IMG_6256 Looking over the menu, I could see the influences of a number of cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.  IMG_6258IMG_6257That last one might come as a surprise to some, but Spain unified the roughly 7,000 islands into the country of the Philippines back in the 1600s.  The name of the country even comes from the name of the king of Spain at the time, Felipe (Phillip) II.  During Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish and Filipino cultures intermingled through marriage and food which still can be seen today in the names of the dishes offered at Isla Pilipina like pata, adobo, and guisado.  It’s a byob restaurant as well if you’re interested in knocking a few back with your meal.  We started the meal with a plate of 20 lumpia Shanghai ($5/ $3 for 10).  The name of this dish comes from the Hokkien (Southern Chinese) word lunpia, and they are clearly carry-overs from the mainland.IMG_6261  They’re basically deep fried mini-egg rolls that according to the menu are filled with pork, egg, jicama, green onions, carrots, soy sauce, and love.  I could especially taste the love above all of the other ingredients.  Seriously though, I quickly learned that there’s a reason why they sell them in a plate of 10 or 20 rolls.  The fried dough that envelops all of the fresh and savory meat and veggies is the best part.  These golden brown, crunchy, and flaky nuggets of heaven are paired with a semi-watery sweet and sour sauce that has some chili flakes floating in it to add a little pep to these pipsqueak poppers.  I highly recommend starting off with them and get a 20 roll plate because they go down way too easily especially if you’re sharing with others.  As for our main courses, Janice got the pancit bihon ($8) with a side of the garlic rice ($6) that apparently everyone on Yelp was raving about.  Pancit, like lumpia, comes from the Hokkien language.  It is derived from “pian i sit” which means “convenient food”.    I could see why since it was basically pan fried rice noodles with sauteed chicken and mixed vegetables.  A simple meal to be whipped together at a moment’s notice if necessary.IMG_6263 I helped myself to a couple forkfuls, and personally, I found it to be quite bland.  The ingredients were fresh and all that good stuff, but it didn’t really taste like much.  Even with the addition of lemon juice from the lemon slices that were provided on the side, I couldn’t really get into the pancit since I was more focusing on the citric tang than the actual noodles.  The same could be said about the garlic rice.  I don’t understand why everyone thought it the be all end all of side dishes. IMG_6269 True, nothing smells better than cooked garlic, but it basically was plain Jasmine rice that was superficially pan fried with garlic.  In essence, it was like long grain white rice with some garlic salt on it.  It’s better when combined with other food if anything, but it’s not rave worthy or even worth your time, in my opinion.  My entree, the lechon kawali ($11), was the opposite of these blander dishes.  This deep fried pork belly is a remnant of both Chinese and Spanish cuisine, including the Spanish name, and it was anything but a shrinking violet in this garden of eatin’.  IMG_6267It was a giant piece of pork that spanned my dinner plate, and it was even pre-cut which was piece de resistance!  Each piece of the lechon was a layer cake of different pork elements.  While the upper portions consisted more of the crunchy, salty pork skin and firm white meat, the lower echelons of the belly was where the money was. IMG_6272 I hit the jackpot every time when I reached the thin layer of fat that gave way to the most succulent and flavorful part of the pig.IMG_6274  Mixing these pieces with the garlic rice was a tasty combo, but the Filipino gravy was a bit of a mystery to me.  While part of it tasted like a sweet steak sauce, it had this hint of musty funk that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  It didn’t ruin the meal at all though.  I was definitely more satisfied with my entree than Janice’s.  If you like bacon or any type of pork product, I highly recommend the lechon, and I’ve heard good things about their pata as well.  Even though it was a lot of food for a reasonable amount of money, I still wanted to try one of the most iconic Filipino desserts:  halo halo ($6).  Meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog, not me stuttering the name of a Beyonce song, this classic and wildly popular dessert has become quite famous outside of the Philippines thanks to Filipino migration to the USA to typical hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago.  Even Anthony Bourdain has succumbed to its wildly colorful grasp.  It’s a ridiculous melange of crushed ice, red bean paste, white beans, lychee jelly, coconut shavings, coconut milk, and it was all topped off with a scoop of taro root ice cream, a slice of flan, and a cherry.  Nothing too complicated.IMG_6276 Now, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that my relationship with red bean paste is one of revulsion almost on par with my dislike of pasta, so I naturally approached this dessert with a wariness similar to an unexploded ordinance, just ready to blow up in my mouth even though I’m a veteran of trying the gross red bean paste.  Yet, it also had one of my favorite Asian dessert ingredients as well:  taro.  This purple root vegetable may look like a sweet potato, but it is the bomb (a good one) when it comes to taste.  I normally get it in bubble tea, but the ice cream on top of the halo halo tasted just the same.  I don’t know what they do to this tuber, but it literally tastes like vanilla cookies.  It’s like making potatoes taste like chocolate bars.  Mind.  Blown.  Plus, the addition of the Spanish flan, that was quickly picked up by my girlfriend, was a nice touch.  After picking at the parts I knew I liked, I dove into it spoon first. IMG_6278 Luckily, all of the other sweet elements like the coconut and lychee covered up the red bean flavor, and it was like a super diverse slushy.  I ended up mixing the taro ice cream in with the rest of the ingredients, and it was like a purple vanilla milk shake with ice chunks and the occasional sweet jelly piece.  I would definitely go for another halo-halo, but I couldn’t finish it all because it was pretty big as well for the price.

So if you’re tired of the same old sushi or Korean barbecue and/or want a lot of food for little money, set sail for Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square!
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