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The Hub of All the Hubbub

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Another meal, another post.  What that means for you, the reader, is another great dining experience on Mastication Monologues.  What makes it so great?  Well, in Chicago there’s a little thing called Restaurant Week.  While Chicago is filled with oodles of restaurant that could make any week a restaurant week, but what makes Restaurant Week so special is that there are tons of great deals in restaurants you might have never known existed.  The cuisines range from some delicious, downhome cookin’ diners to Michelin starred establishments and even Alinea, three time winner of Elite Travel’s award as the best restaurant in the world.  While we don’t have reservations at such a prestigious eatery, today I bring you Hub 51, a gastropub/lounge/dance club with a classy atmosphere and super diverse menu.

Hub 51 is located in the upscale River North area of Chicago that is, go figure, just north of the Chicago river.  The sleek exterior exuded an air of subtle confidence, and upon entering the place I could see why.l  It was ultra modern in design from the bar to the dark wood chairs, and eventually we were seated in a leather bound booth that was very comfortable and spacious.IMG_5763IMG_5764  Looking over the menu, they had quite the eclectic menu including American, Mexican, and even Japanese food. However, we were all about trying the Restaurant Week menu where we got three courses for only $33!

Course one consisted of two dishes that were as far apart culinary-wise as apples and oranges.  First, we have exhibit A:  the spinach and artichoke dip.IMG_5772  While I recently wrote about another type of spinach artichoke dip, this was another animal.  Instead of being served with bread, it was paired with super light yet slightly too salty tortilla chips.  Thankfully the dip was a mix of gooey cheese and plenty of spinach that keep the saltiness to a minimum. IMG_5774 However, I didn’t feel like they had as many artichoke pieces as I’ve had in other similar appetizers.  Where as the artichoke dip was more on the fattening side, the Brussels sprouts salad was very refreshing and healthy.  The Brussels sprouts were fresh and crunchy which were also complimented with a few almonds sprinkled in amongst the greens.  IMG_5775I really enjoyed the Manchego cheese chunks that were dispersed as well throughout the greens, and I found the buttery Spanish cheese to pair well with the salty almonds.  The Medjool dates were a worthy sweet element in this appetizer and were countered with the slightly sour mustard vinaigrette.  All of it taken together, the Brussels sprouts appetizer was an option that both danced across the palate with a crunchy and sweet panache but lingered with the aftertaste of the vinaigrette.  I think round one went to team salad but just barely.  In addition to these Restaurant Week choices, Kaitlin and Dan got an order of the homemade hummus (($8.95) and an ahi tuna poke ($14.95).  Both were equally amazing in their own ways.  I love hummus in any form, so I was intrigued by the dukkah spices element of the dish.  While I recognized the typical, fresh cucumber and carrot spears, pita bread, and hummus with virgin olive oil in the middle, but then there was a dried powder on the side of the plate closest to me.  IMG_5768After some research, it turns out that dukkah or duqqa is an Egyptian condiment that consists of dried nuts, herbs, and spices that are then crushed to near powder like consistency.  The name “dukkah” is only fitting given that it comes from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”.  Luckily, it didn’t really pound out any of the other flavors on the plate but rather supported the zingy hummus with a crunchier texture that went well on either the vegetables or bread.  As for the ahi tuna poke (pronounced “poh-kay”), I was less enthused to try it since I’m not a huge fish fan.  On the other hand, I had tried one before and enjoyed it. IMG_5767 This Hawaiian dish is named after the Hawaiian verb meaning “to section or cut” which made sense since there was plenty of cubed, ruby red tuna chunks.  Along with that, there were two large rice crackers, plenty of avocado, and all of it was stewing in a soy based, wasabi-infused sauce.  Although the tuna was raw, it was not fishy by any stretch of the imagination since it was combined with the creamy avocado, super-flavorful sauce, and slightly chewy yet crunchy rice cracker. IMG_5771 The poke disappeared faster than a pack of Pokemon cards circa 1998.

Pre-feeding frenzy

Pre-feeding frenzy

Round two kicked off with the main entrees.  While Janice and I got the braised beef short ribs, Kaitlin got the pulled pork tacos ($16.95), and Dan got the knife and fork open faced BLT sandwich ($10.95).  While I didn’t eat a lot of the tacos, I managed to try one of the Niman Ranch braised pork shoulder filled tortillas, but I wasn’t terribly wowed with the naturally raised pork. IMG_5778 It was slightly spicy but not terribly flavorful compared to other tacos I’ve tried in my life.  As for the BLT, it looked like it was just a mini-mountain of toppings, but the bread was keeping a low profile under a pile of lettuce.  IMG_5779The best part of that plate was the bacon (when isn’t it?) because it wasn’t too crispy with just the right amount of fat and salt combined with a glaze that almost gave it a honey-like quality.  The downfall of the dish was the blue cheese and vinaigrette laced bread. It was way too bold and left an overwhelming residual flavor on my palate after trying a few samples of Dan’s entree.  Finally, I got around to my braised short ribs.  It was served with red potatoes, glazed carrots, and a small tub of horseradish cream. IMG_5782 While it looked delicious, my experience was quite the opposite.  I found it to be too salty and filled with fat deposits.  It left me feeling bloated and greasy, and the horseradish sauce didn’t even salvage this plate.  The glazed carrots and potatoes were tasty, but I was really disappointed with the supposed star of my dining experience.  Thankfully, dessert stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.  First, there was Martha’s special occasion carrot cake.  It had three orange layers of light, fluffy cake that focused more on the spice element of carrot cake instead of the vegetable. IMG_5785 I would say that it had definite elements of nutmeg and ginger.  Between each layer of mouth-watering cake, there was a thick helping of cream cheese that was decadence incarnate, but it was not so sweet that it felt like I was going to develop diabetes.  The whipped cream on the side with a light powdering of cinnamon cemented this plate as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Then there was Grandma Bea’s chocolate pudding pie.  I don’t know Grandma Bea, but I wish she would invite me over for dinner and dessert more often after tasting this selection.  It was a different beast than the carrot cake but equally scrumptious. IMG_5783I personally preferred the graham cracker crust that not only had some granulated sugar mixed into it along with a hint of cinnamon in each forkful.  As for the filling, it was fluffy and rich with plenty of dark chocolate flavor.  Kaitlin made it a s’more for a dollar more, and it was quite interesting. IMG_5786 It looked like a series of white fish scales on top of a carp, but thankfully there was nothing fishy about it.  They went over the top of the marshmallows to brown them like at a campfire, and then taken all together it really did taste like a s’more minus the smoky flavor imparted by a bonfire.  The only downside to the marshmallow layer was that they were all stuck together, so sometimes someone would almost take all of the marshmallows with them when they just wanted one with a bite of the pie.  If I had to pick one, I’d choose the carrot cake because its cream cheese frosting was unbelievably addicting.

So with restaurant number one down for Restaurant Week in Chicago, I would recommend Hub 51 to anyone looking for an entertaining night out in a hip atmosphere with slightly more expensive fare than in other parts of the city.
Hub 51 on Urbanspoon

The Cellar: It’s Goin’ Down!

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Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues.  Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.

IMG_4175It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer.  IMG_4178Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds).  I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. IMG_4164 It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer.  It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night:  the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). IMG_4167 If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel.  This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter:  Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt.  The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so.  It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta.  With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market.   I still would recommend this appetizer though.  Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50).  The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. IMG_4166 The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika.  It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread.  IMG_4168This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards.  Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. IMG_4169 It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese.  It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere.  Our main dishes finally came.  I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50).  The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side.IMG_4170  The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn.  Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. IMG_4174 As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. IMG_4172 IMG_4171Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end.  IMG_4173The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok.  However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor.  Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75).  IMG_4176It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions.  The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper.  I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second.  The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.  It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.

So if you are in the Evanston area and looking for a fusion restaurant that I could liken to a more affordable Girl and the Goat, check out The Cellar!
The Cellar Beer and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Absolute Cero

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

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

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

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

Duck confit taco and tamale

Duck confit taco and tamale

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

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

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

All Hail Cesar!

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

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

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

Cesar's on Urbanspoon

Sea It to Believe It

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What’s up, foodie adventures!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I know it has been too long between posts, and I really do apologize.  However, summertime in Chicago can make a man very busy, busy but very hungry.  Naturally, my stomach loves to roam from country to country, but somehow it always manages to roll south of the border to get that sweet sweet Mexican food.  Luckily the Chicagoland area has plenty to offer in terms of Latino cuisine, and Casa Margarita in La Grange is a competent, but not extraordinary, representative of tex-mex cooking.

I’ve had my fair share of Mexican food whether that be in the form of enchiladas or tacos at better restaurants, but Casa Margarita is a middle of the road establishment overall when it comes to la comida mexicana.IMG_3316  It has both indoor and outdoor seating which served us perfectly on the beautiful evening we visited Casa Margarita.IMG_3314IMG_3315  While it allowed us to people watch and make friends with plenty of meandering poochies, that was also the downside since they crowded too many tables on the sidewalk.  Plus, their round tables didn’t allow for my mom, dad, and I to sit comfortably.  It would be a better experience if they utilized square tables.  While sitting down at the table, we also noticed that it was taking quite awhile to bus off our table.  My mom noted the “Help wanted” sign in the window, so that explained everything.  Luckily our waitress was a superwoman who seemed to be doing ten different things at once while still being quite cheerful.  Perhaps it was the delirium of running all over the place though.  Either way, she made up for the shorthanded staff by hustling and starting us with the typical complimentary basket of tortilla chips.IMG_3317  They thankfully weren’t super salty, and the salsa was more of a smoky, peppery salsa that was a welcome change from the typically bland, tomato salsas provided with the Latino version of the bread basket.IMG_3318  They had a full drink menu including wines, beers, non-alcoholic beverages, and surprise surprise, margaritas!  I started with a Pacifico beer ($5) since I was in the mood for a lighter beer.  This Mazatalan brew was a clear but uninspired lager that was jazzed up with a spritz of lime juice.IMG_3320  The Mexicans aren’t exactly known for their beer culture beyond the uber-popular (personally, I think gross) Coronas, and the Pacifico was a pedestrian compliment to my main platter.IMG_3323  Their menu is extensive complete with appetizers, soups, seafood, chicken dishes, beef platters, fajitas, and tacos to name a few sections.  I went with the fish tacos ($8.50).  Why fish tacos?  Well, I’ve heard many good things about them, and I’m all about trying new foods.  I’m not the biggest seafood guy, but I decided to make the plunge.  Before I began my deep-sea culinary adventure, our waitress came out with mini-bowls of chicken soup.IMG_3324  Overall, I was more of a fan of the broth than the ingredients since the “chicken” seemed like an odd intermediary between tuna and chicken. IMG_3326 I know the former is known as the latter of the sea, but I’d prefer my meat to taste like what its advertised as.  When they came out, the tacos looked quite delicious, and this book’s cover adequately represented what was under the surface.IMG_3327IMG_3328  While the tortillas weren’t as corn-laden as I expected, they were light and strong enough to keep in all of the delicious flavors.  The plentiful pieces of grilled Tilapia were buried underneath a refreshing, tangy pico de gallo and a drizzling of a slightly spicy guacamole sauce.  Taken all together, the fish gave the taco plenty of body with a clean flavor that was further embellished by the aforementioned latin elements.  I requested some hot sauce to jazz up the tacos and satisfy my need to feel a kick in the old tastebuds.  They indulged me with two of my favorite hot sauces. IMG_3336 The red Tapatio (Spanish for someone from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco in Mexico) sauce is moderately spicy with a slightly more sour flavor compared to the fiery Yucateco sauce.IMG_3334  This verdant sauce from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico ratchets up the Scoville units with that hellish heat synonymous with habanero peppers. IMG_3333 While they’re not like the ulcer-inducing fritters I tried at Salvador Molly’s, it will drop a lighter on your tongue and walk away while putting on its sunglasses and listening to your tastebuds exploding in a ball of flame.  These two condiments took this plate to another level.  I also used them to enhance the dry Mexican rice on the side and the dreary refried beans.  I also tried a bit of my mom’s shredded beef enchiladas.  IMG_3330While I’m more of a fan of cheese enchiladas, these juicy beef strings were quite succulent.IMG_3335  By the end, I was stuffed and satisfied with my mouth-watering tacos and topped off the night with a visit to my friend in the neighborhood, Truffles the bear at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.IMG_3341

As I said at the beginning of the post, there are plenty of better Mexican restaurants in the Chicagoland area, but if you’re in the La Grange area, you might as well try Casa Margarita’s fish tacos.

Casa Margarita 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

Don’t Pupu(sa) Taco Real

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150 posts.  3 years.  Quite the milestone for Mastication Monologues.  It seems like yesterday I was just back from New York City, and finally decided to follow my parents’ advice to chronicle my food adventures for all the world to see.  Since then, I’ve been to a lot more new places and dined with some familiar and some novel faces.   I’m always up for trying new things, so I ended up going to Taco Real.  It’s located in Villa Park, IL in a very nondescript strip mall.  However, the extraordinary food I had inside belied its modest exterior.IMG_2527

Upon walking in, it was very similar to any typical small taqueria in the Chicagoland area with brightly colored walls and a couple flags representing the different cuisines served.  In this case, Mexico and El Salvador.  A majority of the menu was in Spanish which I coped with quite easily as they had many standards like tacos, burritos, and tostadas, and they also had a good portion of El Salvadorian options.  I decided to go with the signature pupusas.   You could pick your flavor which included, but were written all in Spanish on the menu, pork (puerco/chicharron), cheese (queso), grated peppers (rajas), or loroco which is a vine with edible flowers that grows in Central America.  While I was mulling over my options, I saw a plate of them going past us.  They looked like very thick, grilled corn cakes at about 4-5 inches at the widest.

Naked pupusas

Naked pupusas

They reminded me of arepas which are similar flour flatbreads that are stuffed with ingredients like the pupusas but are native to Venezuela and Colombia.  Eventually, I knew what I was going to get and went up to the counter.  I went ahead and just followed suit like the people in front of me and ordered in Spanish one arepa with cheese and pork ($2.09) and another one with the loroco ($2.09).  They also had free tortilla chips with green salsa, red salsa, pickled jalapeno peppers, and a mixed pickled vegetable salad.  They came out soon after, and I was pretty excited to try these new little pancakes.  They recommended I put some of the mixed pickled vegetable salad on top of the pupusas to eat, so I naturally obliged.IMG_2526  I wasn’t sure which was which, and I struck loroco on my first bite of playing Salvadorian roulette.  Inside the pupusa, there was plenty of rich white cheese and light green pieces of loroco.  However, I didn’t really taste much of the flowers, but the grilled and fried dough was crispy and not greasy at all.  The pickled salad also really jazzed up the pupusa with a slightly tangy hit to each bocado (bite).  The next one, pork and cheese, was a lot more flavorful since the pork was slightly seasoned which blended well with the smooth flavor of the cheese.  After finishing both of them, I was full but not stuffed like the pequeno flatbreads.

Even though I never tried the Mexican options, I would highly recommend Taco Real as a wonderful  and simple place to try Salvadorian cuisine.

Taco Real on Urbanspoon

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