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Tag Archives: Tex-Mex

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

One Tasty Mofo

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Hello to everyone out there on the interwebz and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Since I’m finally recovering from the crazy Super Bowl weekend, this will be a relatively short post.  Actually, it revolves around a restaurant/bar that I tried in downtown Chicago that apparently is one, or perhaps the, sports bar to watch Chicago sports or any event for that matter.  I’m talking about Mother Hubbards located at 5 W Hubbard St  Chicago, IL 60654.

I had actually never been to this place until someone suggested that we should check it out for Superbowl Sunday.  Naturally, I am always down for a new adventure, so we made our way over to the establishment.  As soon as we walked in, I could see what all of the hullabaloo was about.  The walls were figuratively made of televisions, but it was definitely a good sign that I was not going to have to jerk my head about like a goon to catch a good view of the epic match-up between the Ravens and 49ers.  Since I didn’t feel too hungry, I decided to go with something on the lighter side of the menu.  I saw that they have the typical bar food like ribs, burgers, and Chicago hotdogs, but the “make your own grilled cheese” option seemed to be more fitting for my appetite at the time.  There were so many options that I felt almost like a manically giggling Xzibit on Pimp My Sandwich, but I repressed my foodie urges to not scare our waitress.

"Yo dawg, I heard you like grilled cheez sandwiches, so we put grilled cheez sandwiches in your grilled cheez!"

“Yo dawg, I heard you like grilled cheez sandwiches, so we put grilled cheez sandwiches in your grilled cheez!”

I ended up choosing Chihuahua and Pepper Jack topped with Guacamole and fresh jalapenos on grilled rye bread.  Plus, it came with a side of fries and a cup of homemade chicken vegetable soup.IMG_1100

When it finally came out, I was a bit underwhelmed by how small it seemed to be.  It didn’t really seem to have the bombastic presentation of a previous grilled cheese restaurant we visited (See The Big Cheese).  However, I was not planning on judging a sandwich by its crust.  In reality, I found the sandwich to be a great fusion of Latino flavors with an American comfort food staple.  Starting with the bread, it was pan-grilled to golden perfection, and the fleeting caresses of the caraway seeds provided an extra je ne sais quoi.  The cheeses were plentiful but didn’t have very strong flavors.  I know that the two aforementioned types of cheese aren’t blues by any means, but I would have appreciated a little more pop from the Pepper Jack.  As for the guacamole, I’m not sure what separated it from the avocado option on the option, but it just seemed like they mashed up an avocado for my sandwich.  There weren’t any discernible onions, tomatoes, and/or lime flavors that I am accustomed to tasting in any standard guacamole.  It wasn’t a terrible spread but merely average.  The jalapenos, on the other hand, were very fresh rings of seed packed flavor discs.  They were crunchy and  nipping my taste buds like a herd of feral Chihuahuas.  Plus, I found that even though there was a generous helping of the guacamole on top of the jalapenos, not once did I fear for the safety of my sandwich.  Normally these types of sandwiches with slippery spreads fall apart very quickly when you’re on a feeding frenzy, but Mother Hubbards makes a tasty and well-constructed bite to eat.  As for the fries and soup, the fries were pretty tasty since they were golden and crispy and barely greasy.  The soup was naturally the perfect side for the sandwich, and the hearty chunks of chicken and fresh carrots and onions fortified me against the bone-chilling Chicago winter gusts I encountered after the game.  The entire dining experience was enjoyable, and the wait staff was very attentive throughout the game.  Even though my team didn’t win, I felt I scored a mini-victory in choosing a tasty menu option.

So if you’re looking for a solid sports bar to watch your favorite team or a place to hold a boisterous get together with equally loud flavors, then come on down to Mother Hubbards!

Mother Hubbard's Sports Pub on Urbanspoon

Mother Hubbard's on Foodio54

Grilled Cheese That’s Sure to Please

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Hello everyone, and welcome to another addition to Mastication Monologues!  The time has been flying by as of late which I blame on the advancement of Christmas advertisements and the Daylight Savings Time.  However, last night I managed to slow down and enjoy a great meal at a new establishment that serves a childhood favorite with a twist.  I am talking about The Big Cheese which is located at 4229 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618.

I had actually saw in the Redeye (a local free newspaper in Chicago) that a new restaurant that specialized in grilled cheese sandwiches had opened up.  The Redeye’s restaurant reviewer had mostly good things to say about it aside from one of his/her sandwiches not being completely melted.  The same was said about the lack of melted cheese on Yelp. Nevertheless, I had to go and see what all of the fuss was about since it combines two of my favorite food groups, bread and cheese.  When my friend and I got there around 6:50 p.m., the interior was dark and the staff was just sitting there.  It turns out that their hours of operation on the internet and their sign were incorrect.  They had just closed.  However, they still let us in even though we felt bad for imposing.  To make up for our troubles, the very hospitable owner, Mike, hooked us up with a free plate of fried pickles.  They were pretty good for a little something to nibble on before the main event.  The actual breading was a bit flaky, but its buttery taste complimented the sour crunch of the pickle quite nicely.  Plus, it was served with a small cup of Ranch dressing to provide a cool tang for the palate.

Don’t judge a pickle by its breading

For my actual sandwich, I chose the Diablo Rojo (Red Devil for those who don’t habla espanol).  This was a muy picante twist on the grilled cheese.  The actual sandwich contained Toluca style chorizo, grilled jalapenos, and Chihuahua cheese, and it was all served on a Ciabatta bun.  When I bit into it, it was like a fiesta in my mouth y toda la familia was invited.  The chorizo was plentiful and was bursting with cumin and chili notes which provided an exquisite compliment to the smoky jalapeno flavor.  Unfortunately, the cheese was overshadowed by the two aforementioned elements, but it provided a glue to hold all of the contents together within the sandwich.  As for the Ciabatta roll, that was an improvisation by the cooks since they were out of regular bread, but I would recommend that they serve it on this type of bun.  It was fresh and crusty but sturdy enough to handle all of those contents without crumbling under the pressure.  With every sandwich, you can also order either soup or fries.  I ordered the fries, but they also gave me a bowl of their tomato basil soup.

A sandwich sandwiched between two killer sides

The fries were golden straws of deliciousness that were lightly powdered with Parmesan cheese, a welcomed variation that really popped with cheesy goodness when eaten with ketchup.  As for the soup, I’m not a huge crouton fan, but the actual soup was delectable.  It was a creamy sunset orange that tasted like a rich marinara sauce which also doubly served as a dipping sauce for my sandwich (a move I highly recommend).

Overall, the ambiance of the place was quite laid back, and the service provided by the server, staff, and owner was very warm like one of their signature creations.  So head on out to the Big Cheese for a little slice of paradise!

The Big Cheese On Lincoln on Urbanspoon

There’s Nopal Like Home

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Good day or night depending on where you are in the world!  Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga where I managed to visit a very small but good Mexican restaurant.  Luckily I was invited to my friend Roberta’s bday party (muito obrigado!) to try the food at Los Nopales located at 4544 North Western Avenue  Chicago, IL 60625.  It is a bit of a ways away from La Villita or Pilsen, but I still recommend that you make the drive up.

First, I found out that it is a BYOB restaurant which is very nice since they’re not like other restaurants trying to push their kiddie-pool sized margarita specials onto your table with all of their marketing might.  However, there is a 3 dollar corkage fee for wine bottles and six packs and four dollars for margarita bottles, just fyi.  When I finally arrived after Google Maps gave me wrong directions, I walked in and noticed how small the establishment really is.  It is on the cramped side at times if really crowded, but the food/ambiance/staff more than make up for it.  The tortilla chips on the table were on the thinner side and perfectly fried without leaving that nasty, greazy residue that some Mexican restaurant chips leave on your fingers.  These munchies were accompanied by two different types of salsas:  one tomatillo blend which was a bit spicier than the tomato based mild salsa.  My fellow party-goers had also already ordered the chicken taquitos which were drizzled with sour cream and placed around a molehill of guacamole.  The sour cream did not do much to enhance the taste of the taquitos which were muy deliciosos.  The chicken was all white meat, and its flauta blanket was crispy and golden brown.  This appetizer was amped up by the guacamole which was really zesty with hints of lime and a nice consistency that wasn’t like caulk but not too soupy.

As for the main course, I ended up indulging in some chorizo tostadas.  The plate that came to me was an interesting land of contrasts.  A majority of the area was covered with two well-portioned tostadas topped with minced chorizo, diced tomatoes, crisp lettuce, and sour cream.  The meat was crumbly but highly seasoned with cumin and spices that really made each crispy tortilla mouthful pop.  That was another part of the tostada that really grabbed me was the fact that these tostadas were very sturdy and did not break when I was holding and eating them.  Then came a swath of yellow Mexican rice that was surprisingly different from the run of the mill orange Mexican rice that often contains peas, corn, and carrots.  Nevertheless, it was very delicious and was had a very slight buttery taste.  The only downside (although I’m negatively biased towards refried beans) was the large pool of what was supposed to be refried beans.  Whereas I have had some legitimately good frijoles, these were just sub par as the individual beans were destroyed into a muddled brown blob.  It definitely received the bronze olympic medal on this all around eating event.  At the end of the meal, we got some fried ice cream, but I only had one spoonful.  I know I can’t formulate an accurate judgement based off of this one spoonful, but the batter was pedestrian and was overshadowed by the ice cream.

Ain’t she a beaut?

So if you’re looking for that south of the border taste without having to book a flight to Oaxaca, head up north to Los Nopales in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Los Nopales on Urbanspoon

Los Nopales Mexican Restaurant on Foodio54

Looks Like Hell Can Freeze Over…Sort Of

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Hello all.  Welcome to another installation to Mastication Monologues.  I was looking over my blog as of late, and I was seriously slacking the past couple of months in terms of keeping up with my culinary adventures around the world.  Therefore, I am backtracking a bit, so bear with me.  Today I would like to tell you about an interesting restaurant called Chino Latino located at 2916 Hennepin Avenue South  Minneapolis, MN 55408.  It is located in a very nice part of the city, and there is ample street parking.

The fancy exterior of the restaurant

My girlfriend told me about this place awhile ago, so when I came up to visit we went there for dinner.  The decor is eclectic with different types of Latino and Asian artwork covering the walls of the entrance, i.e. papel picado from Dia de los Muertos and Thai shadow puppets .  Some of the pictures were borderline creepy, but I was here for the food, so I was ready to get down to business.  The interior of the actual dining room is two levels, but I did not care for the lighting.  It was too dark which made reading the menu a bit of a chore.  There’s a difference between mood lighting and trying to save on the electric bill.  Either that or I’m getting too old as I approach my quarter-life crisis.  Yet I digress once more, back to the food.

The interior of the restaurant

Even before I saw the menu, I knew that I was in for a treat as I saw that they had my favorite hot sauce on the table:  Yucateco Habanero salsa verde (Warning:  this sauce doesn’t mess around with people who think Pepper Jack cheese is spicy).  Our waitress was very helpful in explaining to me some of the different menu items, and the overall concept of their establishment which aims to deliver street food from countries which the Equator runs through.  As I looked over the different entrees, I was torn in many different directions by the different curries, satays, tacos, and noodles.  However, I was won over by a seemingly simple, borderline appetizer, dinner:  Habanero Hell Poppers.

One of the reasons why I chose this option from all of the others was the fact that there were three mini sticks of dynamite on the menu around the poppers.  Now, normally I take these “heat measurements” with a grain of salt and a good-natured chuckle since they are geared towards people who are not used to eating really spicy food.  However, since we were in an Equatorial restaurant I knew they’d be bringing the heat like their geographical location namesake, and I have a bit of a daredevil streak in me when it comes to food.  So when I ordered them, the waitress looked at me like I was a madman.  Always a good sign that you’re ordering a meal with some real cojones.  They came out on a medium-sized platter with four large poppers, a slice of lime, and a strange cup filled with an orange substance.  Upon closer inspection, there was a paper that came along with the food that in so many words states that if you complain about how spicy the poppers are, you’re going to be made fun of by the staff at Chino Latino and your friends.  Challenge accepted!

Great Balls of Fire!

I tucked into the poppers with gusto, and I finally found a spicy meal that lived up to all of the fanfare.  First off, it was hot temperature-wise.  The breading was light and airy and not greasy.  The Habanero peppers on the inside were fresh, and the Habanero infused cream cheese was hotter than napalm.  So, I would definitely let them cool off before you start wolfing them down.  The first one really started with a bang of spice along with a slightly acrid taste that comes along naturally with the skin of the Habanero.  By the time I finished the fourth and final popper, I definitely had the spicy food sweats; they’re not as scary as meat sweats but are definitely more painful.  However, I then tried the orange substance in the small ceramic cup, and it turned out to be blood orange sorbet.  It was like a plane dropping water on a moderate forest fire.  The embers were still smoldering, but the blaze was extinguished.  The actual sorbet was delicious with a light, even texture and a rich blood orange flavor.

So if you’re a fan of various types of Latino, Southeast, or Caribbean foods, check out Chino Latino in Minneapolis.  However, if you’re looking for a memorable dinner, try the Habanero Hell Poppers because as Kurt Cobain said, “It’s better to burn out than fade away”.

Chino Latino on Urbanspoon

Chino Latino on Foodio54

Livin’ La Vida Salsa

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Once again in my quest for exotic and authentic cuisine from all around the world, I arrived at Taco Grill which is located at 111 West Ogden Avenue, Westmont, IL.  I’ve been going there for years now, and it truly is one of the hidden gems of the Western suburbs for authentic Mexican food and beverages.  At first sight, it may seem to just be a Latino version of a greasy spoon diner:

Ground Zero for Comida Buena (Good Food)

However, when you get inside it is quaintly decorated with Mexican pottery on the walls and various painting from Mexican artists.  It has the warmth of a family owned restaurant and not the cold, plastic feeling that you just walked into a corporate  Mc-taco chain restaurant.  The staff is always cheerful and willing to explain anything on the menu if the description doesn’t do the dish justice.  There is plenty of variety in terms of selection such as:  tacos, tortas, huaraches, enchiladas, and tamales.  All of these dishes can also be made vegetarian for anyone who has specific dietary restrictions.  I normally order either the enchiladas verdes with cheese or the tacos al pastor (tacos with a type of pork roasted on a spit with pineapple mixed into the meaty melange).  However, one day was certainly different in terms of the taco filling I chose.

My inner culinary daredevil was scanning the menu when I saw that they had tacos de lengua (roughly $7 for three)…or for those who don’t habla the espanol, lengua=beef tongue.  I was pretty nervous when ordering the tongue tacos because I was wondering whether or not they would chop up the tongue to make it a bit more palatable or would I end up having to French kiss my taco in order to eat it?  During the waiting time, I paid a visit to the most comprehensive salsa bar I have ever seen in a Mexican restaurant.  There are over 20 different types of toppings ranging from the mildest pico de gallo to some sauces/relishes that would call for a colostomy bag for those uninitiated to spicy foods.  Personally, I always go for the XXX.5 or the XXXX (the spiciest) salsas, a salsa verde (green sauce) and queso fundido (melted cheese), respectively.

Upon sitting down at my table, like clockwork, the staff brought the complementary, bottomless tortilla chips that are warm from the oven and are a great bargain/compliment to the freshly made salsas.  I must emphasize that the amount of food that you get at this establishment is definitely inversely proportional to the price as I soon found out when I was face to face with my tacos de lengua.

Who knew tongue tacos would be finger licking good?

Thankfully they diced up the beef tongue into small cubes, but at the same time it was quite a shock to still see the taste buds on the individual pieces of meat (quite a surreal experience).  As shown in the picture, the tacos also had chopped onions and a good amount of cilantro with a slice of lime to provide a nice zesty aftertaste.  The actual flavor of the tongue was quite savory which I would liken to a rich hamburger, but I think eating such a meal is more of a test of mind over matter due to the texture of the meat.  I have found that many American consumers are turned off by the mere texture of a dish, i.e. the chewiness of the tongue in this case, which may not be the same problem in other cultures.  It was aptly summed up by Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain, “If the typical American eater has to chew the food more than three times, then it will be labeled as being gross”.  To compliment the tacos, I got a jarritos tamarindo (tamarind is a common flavoring in Latin America which I can only liken to a variant of iced tea flavor) which is soft drink commonly found  in Mexico.  By the time I finished, I was stuffed, satisfied, and thinking about my next adventure as a gourmand.

So many flavors…so little time

So if you’re tired of getting the typical bland burrito bowls from Chipotle or the guilty pleasures from Taco Bell’s late-night drive through (though you can never go wrong with the cinnamon twists), hurry on over to Taco Grill in Westmont for simple, authentic, but delicious food at pedestrian prices.  This establishment truly is a testament that you should not judge a restaurant solely on its paint job.

In Mexico we have a word for sushi:  bait.”  ~José Simons

Taco Grill & Salsa Bar on Urbanspoon

Taco Grill & Salsa Bar on Foodio54

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