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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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I Believe I Can Fry

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Hey, everybody!  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues which is my early Christmas present to the world.  Today I’ll be talking about a restaurant that Santa himself would love to dine at in place of downing his traditional fare of milk and cookies.  The place in question is called Gongdeok Town (공덕전타운) which is located at Gongdeok station going straight out exit 5.IMG_1426  Walk for about 8-9 minutes, and you’ll see it on your left amongst many narrow and claustrophobic alleyways including one that specializes in jokbal or pigs’ feet.  What should you be looking for?  Fried food as far as the eye can see.  You can smell it coming from a mile away that’s how intense this dining experience is.  So let’s begin at the start of the adventure.

First off, I would have never found this place had it not been for the luck of my friend, Steph, who found this fried food heaven on the internet.  Naturally, she shares my same sense of culinary curiosity, so we made plans to go there after a very long work week.  After going out exit five and going left, we were quite lost.  I looked to my right in the distance, and I could see an alley that seemed to be more bustling than the others, and we were greeted by incredulous looks by the restaurant owners at the fact that two waygookins (foreigners) were in this labyrinth of produce and meat.  After walking past a few eateries, I could see plates piled high with pork knuckle and no fried food.  They sent us further down the main road, and we finally saw the promised land.  They had a mind-boggling variety of tasty morsels to try that ranged in price from 500-5,000 W per piece.  IMG_1409IMG_1412

Mmm shrimp

Mmm shrimp

Lots of fried sweet potatoes, kimbap, and vegetables (left to right)

Lots of fried sweet potatoes, kimbap, and vegetables (left to right)

Some of the pajeon or Korean pancakes of egg or kimchi

Some of the pajeon or Korean pancakes of egg or kimchi

How it works is they hand you a wicker basket along with a set of tongs, and you just work your way down like a Supermarket Sweep of sorts.  Some of the labels were a bit hard to follow due to the imperfect translations and others were just very vague.

Skinflints for only 500W?  What a deal!

Skinflints for only 500W? What a deal!

Something looks a little fishy...

Something looks a little fishy…

 Nevertheless, we soldiered ahead and took a little bit everything.  Once we had our baskets filled to the brim, we brought them to the end of the line where a lady weighed our food and gave us a number.  We were then ushered inside where we found out that the smoking section is downstairs and the upper level is non-smoking and much larger and warmer. IMG_1421 Eventually they brought us our plate of food along with the bill.  For this mountain of food, it was 8,000 W between the two of us.IMG_1416 IMG_1417 Within our fried cornucopia that lied on our table just beckoning us with its golden-hued breading, we had more conventional foods like gooey Western style cheese sticks and crunchy chicken tenders that came with a complimentary drizzling of honey mustard.  Then there were pieces that were more Korean like the squid tentacles, kimchi pajeon, and various forms of sweet potato which I was semi-averse to since I prefer regular potatoes.  It still was a nice contrast to the savory, semi-greasy breading.  An interesting selection in the mix was the fried beef liver.  Texture-wise, it was quite firm, and it had a rich beefy flavor with plenty of body.  I greatly enjoyed the fried cucumbers, chilies, and pork stuffed perilla leaves as well.  Plus, they had plenty of different forms of taro root like the purple sesame seed coated balls you see on the first plate.  So for all you vegans out there, there is plenty of selection for you too aside from that last one.  There was also a mystery nugget that I chose because it looked like it had a strip of bacon in it, and I loves me some bacon.

My mystery nugget and I.

My mystery nugget and I.

 When I finally tried it, it was quite bizarre since it didn’t taste bacon or anything else for that matter.IMG_1420  It had a generic flavor of meatvegetablesbreading?? that left me generally confused along with the imposter  “bacon” strip that just tasted like burned matter.  It was quite the letdown.   Once we finished our first plate, I had to go back for a second helping since I still was hungry.

Round 2 (starting lower left corner and going clockwise):  scallop, taro ball, cheese sticks, potato bread, chilies, millet cakes.

Round 2 (starting lower left corner and going clockwise): scallop, oyster, taro ball, cheese sticks, potato bread, chilies, millet cakes.

 The scallop was quite delectable as it was rich and buttery like breading that enveloped it, and the oyster was quite good aside from a rubbery texture that might put off some diners.  The potato bread was a bit of a mystery to me at first since I was anticipating it to be stuffed most likely with pork, but it just ended up being a ball of fried dough.  Last and definitely the least favorite of all the food I tried there were the millet cakes.  They looked almost like mini-red velvet cakes minus the cream cheese frosting, but they were the opposite of the tantalizing dessert.  Not only did it taste quite musty, but it was filled with red bean paste!  Arrghhh, my Korean culinary arch-nemesis.  Foiled once again from having a completely fantastic dinner.  That minor bump aside, we ended up eating a ton of food for about 12,000 W each which is a bargain any way you slice it.

So if you’re looking for a warmer way to eat street food in the winter or perhaps need to layer up on some blubber for winter hibernation, go to Gongdeok town for some greasy good times.

Hong Kong (Part 3)- A Lil’ Dim Sum-Sumthin’

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What is happening, everybody?  Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you didn’t read my last post, I finally made it to the century mark in terms of blogging, i.e. 100 posts.  So this a small step towards the next 100 posts.  Today continues in the same vein of the last couple of posts where I talk about my food adventures during my Korean Thanksgiving vacation in Hong Kong (Post 1, Post 2), Macau, and Taiwan.  Today I wanted to bring you the food that I enjoyed during my last full day/night in Hong Kong.  We begin with my journey to the quaint fishing village of Tai-O on Lantau Island.

I originally went to Lantau to see the big Buddha statue that I saw on posters and on friends’ Facebooks, but while doing my research, I found out that a lesser known attraction is Tai-O fishing village.  Naturally, I always prefer checking out lesser known spots that aren’t crawling with tourists like a honey-smeared popsicle chillin’ (see what I did there) on top of an anthill.  When we arrived, I saw on my map that the little blurb said that the village was once known as the Venice of Hong Kong due to its location in relation to the sea, and all of the houses are on stilts which creates mini-canals for their boats.  Plus, they have wild pink dolphins.  That’s right.  Flipper and friends got a new paint job courtesy of excess blood vessels under their skin.  If you go to Lantau, skip the Buddha and go on the dolphin tour.  Nothing like whipping around on a tiny fishing boat and seeing these unbelievably beautiful animals in the wild.  Food-wise, obviously it’s a fishing village, so they’re known for their dried fish filets and shrimp paste.

Mmm, dried fish

Mmm, dried fish

However, I’m not the biggest seafood fan, but I do have a sweet tooth.  So, I found another Tai-O specialty:  nougat.  I got a variety pack for 20 HKD that contained black sesame, plain, and green tea chunks, and I did not regret it at all. IMG_0819 It made a great snack while hiking up to see the Buddha and also look out at the pristine forests of the island.  My personal favorite was the black sesame because it tasted like a mix of vanilla, sesame seeds with a slightly earthy aftertaste, and lightly salted almonds.

Some black sesame nougat

Some black sesame nougat

The mix of sticky and crunchy really hit the spot.  After a long day of walking and sightseeing on Lantau Island, I had dinner.

I ended up going to one of the most popular dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong with a Michelin star:  Din Tai Fung located at 20 Canton Rd in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Let me warn you that the wait might be long if you don’t get reservations or are picky about seating.  Thankfully, I timed it perfectly. It was very busy, but I liked the surroundings in the shopping mall and my friend I made at the entrance.

Look at that punam.

Look at that punam.

Main dining room

Main dining room

I started the meal off with some xiaolongbao (小籠包) that had soup on the inside.

Secret soup attack dumplings

Secret soup attack dumplings

You had to be very careful not to bite into them too quickly or else your mouth would be treated to a piping hot broth bath.  So I saw the proper way to eat them was to nibble a hole in the top to let it cool and put some of the soy sauce marinade on the inside.  Then you could pop the little tasty pockets in your mouth once they cooled down.  Before I could even finish my second dumpling, they were bringing out the second and third plates.  One was a mini-bowl of longer dumplings filled with  shrimp and pork, and the other plate had orange spicy chicken. IMG_0828 The longer dumplings were extremely slippery and hard to grab with my chopsticks, but the struggle was worth it.  The skin was tough enough to hold the contents back from erupting all over the bowl, yet tender enough to give way with the slightest grazing of my teeth.  As for the filling, the shrimp and pork was simply decadent with a whole surf and turf meal condensed into one bowl of dumplings.  As for the orange spice chicken, I liked it because it was all white meat coated in a sweet orange sauce that had a gentle spice level, and the dried seaweed garnish was a good addition because it complimented the wet, sweet meat with some dry, crunchy vegetables.  Just when I thought this parade of great food would stop, they bestowed upon us a dumpling the side of probably a newborn baby’s head.

Big old softy

Big old softy

It was more bread than meat, and the bread was sticky yet soft as a cumulus cloud.  Inside I encountered a large, seasoned pork meatball that was similar in taste to the soup dumplings’ interiors.

Big dumpling fall hard

Big dumpling fall hard

I also ordered a bowl of beef noodle soup which is a Taiwanese specialty which made sense I had it there because Din Tai Fung is originally from Taiwan.  I can see why Taiwanese people always crave this national dish.

Elite beef to eat

Elite beef to eat

From the strong and salty beef broth to the tender pieces of beef, it was a solid dish that I’d ask for on any cold day in winter.  Oh yeah, and the noodles were not too bad either.  Finally, I had “dessert” in the form of taro dumplings.

Taro dumplings

Taro dumplings

It was a nice change of pace from all of the aforementioned meat laden dishes, and it was a refreshing way to cleanse the palate of the strong flavors with the slightly sweet purple paste that I always love in my boba tea. IMG_0833 It was a great end to my night, so if you’re looking for great dim sum, check out Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong, but be prepared to wait since the quality and price always ensure that there is a horde of hungry people waiting their turn to try the greatness that awaits them inside.

Next installment, I go to Taiwan and eat out of a toilet.  Need I say more?

Drop It Like It’s Hot Pot! Part 2

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Hello again to part two of my journey through a hot pot dinner.  Last post, I spoke about my very brief initiation to the hot pot experience with some fish roe and homemade soy milk, but it was merely a prelude to the symphony of flavors that I hope to fully convey through this amazing new post.

Behold the bounty

Behold the bounty

Before I even sat down at the table, I was advised to change out of my fancy new years eve clothes since hot pot could be messy.  I didn’t think that I would have to dress down in order to eat a simple meal.  When I sat down around the table, first I had to choose between a mild pot and a spicy pot which were on opposite ends of the table.

The more pleasant looking mild pot

The more pleasant looking mild pot

If you don’t know me/haven’t read my previous posts like with the XXX spicy wing challenge, I will have you know that I am quite the chili head.  When most people expect me to not be able to eat their spicy ethnic foods, I just smile and go about my business sampling their cuisine.  This has led to me making plenty of friends down the road during my dining experiences.  Therefore, I took my seat at the spicy end of the table where I quickly saw people throwing in strips of red marbled beef, healthy pink pork, large grey and pink shrimp, and striped bass into the ludicrously red broth.  Later, they added watercress, taro root, and mushrooms since they apparently soak up the spice like a sponge with water.  I found out that David’s family had brought back a packet of chili pepper native to the Szechuan region which is notorious for blazing hot dishes.  While these meats were bubbling in the pot, we passed around small cups of cilantro,  green onions, sesame oil, and soy sauce to put in our bowls.  However, David informed me that it is tradition in Taiwanese hot pot to use a dipping sauce made of raw egg, green onions, and prawn paste.  I wanted to do the real deal, so he made me my own bowl of dipping sauce for my first round of hot pot.  It also helped cool down the smoldering hot meats and vegetables.

Raw egg sauce that would make Rocky proud

Raw egg sauce that would make Rocky proud

In order to get the contents of the pot into your bowl, you are supplied with mini metal wire scoops that look like small butterfly nets.  Thankfully everyone was really helpful with supplying me with my food while I was attempting to get a hang of my chopsticks.  Since I’m moving to Korea soon, I made it my mission to eat the entire meal with chopsticks, and I finally managed to do it!  My first bowl consisted of fish balls, beef, green onions, cilantro, and prawn paste.  The fish balls were made with a semi-firm dough which was dotted with peas and encapsulated the savory fish inside.  The raw egg sauce provided a nice onion/soy flavor to the strong fish flavor.  The beef piece was tiny but succulent, and the prawn paste gave the bowl a nice surf and turf vibe.

Bowl 1

Bowl 1

The second helping I ate contained some striped bass, beef, pork, fish roll, watercress, and mushrooms.  The bass was stewed quite quickly, but it literally melted in my mouth like some sort of heavenly piece of fish butter.  As for the beef and pork, I was a bit flummoxed as to what to do with these large pieces of meat that were cooling off in my raw egg sauce since we didn’t have forks or knives.  Thankfully my friend David said it was cool for me to just go at it, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed each juicy and spicy slice.  The more elongated fish roll was not as satisfying as the ball dumplings, but it seemed to be stuffed with a stronger tasting type of fish.  Plus, I had thought that the mushrooms were initially noodles since they were so long and thin, but in reality they were winter mushrooms.  The cabbage was also delicious.  Even though it was put in last, it contained so much chili flavor that it was like a warm, non-fermented version of the popular Korean dish kimchee.

Bowl 2

Bowl 2

My third bowl (in hot pot, you eat a lot slower and savor the smaller portions) consisted of prawns, mushrooms, watercress, taro root, and pickled radishes.  The prawns were still in their shells and with legs, but I took a mighty bite into their pink bodies to be welcomed by a explosion of flavor.   The mushrooms were a non-factor, but the watercress and the pickled radishes had a similar chili infusion like the cabbage.  This bowl was a bit trickier because the radishes were quite slippery after swimming around in the hot pot, and the taro root kept on disintegrating when I would grab at it with my chopsticks.  I finally managed to get both into my mouth, and the taro was more interesting because texture-wise it was like a semi-mashed potato but possessed a more earthy flavor.  Once I finished that bowl, I was faced with something that reminded me of a type of pizza they serve at Sbarros.

Bowl 3

Bowl 3

It was basically green onions baked inside bread that was coated in sesame seeds and had a crust.  Perhaps this is what Marco Polo brought back to Italy from China.  Pizza origin theories aside, this was probably my favorite part of hot pot.  The bread was golden brown and crisp on the outside while soft and pliable on the inside.  I’m a huge onion and sesame seed fan, so I was in heaven biting into the verdant interior of this onion bread and experiencing the mellow sesame seeds combining with the strong green onion flavor.  It also went really well with the raw egg sauce as a sort of replacement for garlic butter or marinara sauce.

The original pizza?

The original pizza?

After eating a couple of slices, I limped to my fourth and final bowl which had some of the aforementioned ingredients along with a pink fish dumpling.  It was like the other fish dumplings but had a slightly sweeter, more tuna-esque taste.

Bowl 4

Bowl 4

However, the fourth bowl was unlike the others because I had asked David why we had spoons on the table.  He then proceeded to ladle in the devilishly red pepper broth  from our spicy hot pot into my bowl .  This lava in my bowl was pretty spicy but tolerable for me.  Once I finished eating this molten ambrosia, my mouth felt kind of funny, but it turns out that the Szechuan pepper causes slight numbness along with burning in the mouth.

The chili flavor is as big as the pot on the package

The chili flavor is as big as the pot on the package

Even though I couldn’t feel my mouth, it was a sign that I had just experienced an authentic piece of Chinese culture, and I am thankful that David and his family welcomed me into their home to take part in this very entertaining tradition.  Hope you and everyone else has a happy and healthy new year!

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