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A Sumptuous RePass

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Welcome one and all to another very interesting and hearty food post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s subject actually involves a type of cuisine that is as old as time and comes from an incredibly well traveled part of the world, the Khyber Pass.  While this landmark might not evoke a reaction from most readers, it is actually one of the crucial geographic features to the shifting sands and roaming armies of global empires.  It is a key link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been transversed by every conqueror from Alexander the Great, Darius I of Persia (Father of the big bad Xerxes from the movie 300), Ghengis Khan, British colonial forces, and even to the modern day with the murky conflict with the Taliban and NATO forces.  Not only was the Khyber Pass a route for war since time immemorial, but it also was a giant outpost during the heyday of the Silk Road.  With all of these populations moving to and fro in the region, naturally they were going to leave an impression on the local cuisine.  I mean, they were peddling seasonings to Europeans that we take for granted nowadays for imparting all of our food and drinks with immense amounts of flavor like black pepper, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, ginger,  and even nutmeg to name a few.  Basic white girls in Fall wouldn’t even be a trending meme in American culture if it wasn’t for the Khyber Pass!  A giant historical stretch, I know, but a definite reality we have to deal with.cowwl  Thankfully, when Janice and I visited the Oak Park location of the Khyber Pass restaurant chain, there wasn’t any pumpkin but plenty of spice on the menu.

It was a cold and frozen drizzle kind of a day, so what better way to cut through the terrible weather than some soul-warming Indian food? IMG_5972 We walked in around the lunch hour after finding some parking in the back, and it was not terribly packed.  It was very welcoming with its warm colors and interesting decorations. IMG_5967

This takes all spice to another level

This takes all spice to another level

IMG_5969

Tea, anyone?

Tea, anyone?

We were quickly seated, and we noticed that they had a lunch buffet special for $15.  Based on my experience with previous buffets, I didn’t have any qualms, so we informed the waiter we were interested in getting our money’s worth since we were starving.  According to Khyber Pass’ website, they champion the cuisine of the Pathan people or more commonly known as the Pashtun in their language, Pashto.  Their homeland spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some famous Pashtun that you might of heard of include Harmid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and Malala Yousafzai, the famous young lady who stood up to the Taliban for women’s rights.  Clearly, it is a region that is not the easiest to live in, so their cuisine is similar to Indian food in terms of utilizing simple ingredients in a variety of ways with plenty of spice and flavor in every bite.  This was epitomized looking over the assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes along with a healthy array of curries, salads, soups, sides, and entrees.  We decided to try their half of a tandoori chicken ($12.95 or $16.95 for a whole) along with a side of naan bread to accompany our foray into the buffet.  Before we received all of our food, I got a Maharaja Premium Beer to slake my thirst, and that’s all about it did. IMG_5960 This brew from Mumbai was nothing of great note.IMG_5959  It was a thin, slightly fruity pilsner that had a very faint, bitter aftertaste.  I wouldn’t go back for another one.  However, the tandoori chicken and naan looked great.  Tandoori chicken originally was popular in the northern region of India and Pakistan called the Punjab due to the cultural practice of every home having a charcoal fired oven called a tandoor.  Just like in India, Khyber Pass roasted their chicken in a traditional tandoor after it had been marinated in yogurt, Kashmiri chilies, and turmeric. IMG_5964 However, this chicken isn’t super spicy if you don’t have a tongue of steel.  It is instead savory with swirls of flavor that are both umami yet earthy.  The naan bread we had it with also has an interesting history.  It seems like your typical, slightly leavened, flatbread that has been around since the beginning of time and the word originates from the Iranian word “n’n” which is a general word for “food” or “bread”.  However, this particular type of bread only became popular beyond the Indian subcontinent and surrounding cultures when the Roma people, more commonly known as “gypsies”, brought it during their exodus across the Central Asian steppe all the way to Europe.  Side note:  Based on genetic blood studies done in Roma communities and studying the Romani language, all signs point to an origin in India, not Romania, Ireland, or even Egypt which is where their modern nickname came from.  The Greek’s believed they came from Egypt, so they called the Roma Αἰγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi) or “those from Egypt” which then eventually made its way to the Middle English “gypcian“.  Whatever they call themselves, I can’t get enough of their bread.  IMG_5962It has more body and texture contrasts than a pita but still has its strength when dealing with soupy curries.  Khyber Pass’ naan had both a lightly buttered, crunch exterior that gave way to a moderately chewy center that sopped up all of the delicious chicken juices and the plates we got from the buffet.IMG_5966  My first plate was a mix of different items from their regular menu including:  vegetable pakora ($5.50), green salad ($5.95), chicken curry ($11.95), bhuna gosht (lamb in a light spicy sauce), bengan bhurtha (stewed eggplant; $10.95).

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

The pakora were little, deep fried vegetable fritters that were rich with flavor but not super greasy.  Plus, the smooth breading was very different than typically Western fried foods that is flakier.  Surprisingly, their green salad lived up to its name, even more impressive that it was part of their buffet, since it was bursting with fresh, verdant veggies that I topped off with the slightly tangy raita yogurt sauce.  The chicken curry was competently made but nothing to rave about.  I felt that the food overall wasn’t super spicy, so I asked them to bring some sort of hot sauce.  They brought me a Sriracha knock-off, but I told them that I wanted what they, i.e. the South Asian staff, ate.  Next thing I know, I was greeted with a cook inspired hot sauce that looked nuclear from the bright orange yellow that was emanating from the bowl.

This just looks angry.

This just looks angry.

I put it on my chicken, and it was amazing.  It was a coconut based sauce that up on the vindaloo level of spice that let me know that I, a real chilihead, was actually eating something spicy.  They were shaking their heads when I wasn’t dying from heat stroke, and that added to the long list of people from spicy food cultures being flabbergasted at my spice tolerance.  Yet, I think that it offers a more authentic experience that isn’t watered down for the locals.  Tongue searing spice aside,   I was definitely into the bhuna gosht or stewed lamb.  It added the gamey dimension that comes with lamb and fused it with a cumin and curry sauce that took it to another level of flavor awareness.  It was the clear standout on my plate and paired perfectly with a hefty piece of naan for some finger food that was finger licking good.  The bengan bhurtha was a close runner up in terms of flavor.  It consisted of minced eggplant roasted directly over a fire that then was stewed with cilantro, chilis, and onions.  The smoky flavor from the grill was unlike any other eggplant I had ever tasted, and it was melt in your mouth tender.  My second plate wasn’t as over the top as the first with dal mukhni ($10.95) and stewed vegetables as the only new entries.

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

The dal mukhni was supposed to be a four lentil stew, but it seemed quite heavy on the chickpeas.  I wasn’t impressed by it or the dal mukhni and should have gotten more of the meat dishes and bengan bhurtha.  Unfortunately, by the end of the second plate, we were stuffed and had no more room for dessert sady.  However, Khyber Pass left us with full bellies and wallets before going out into the cold.

So if you find yourself downtown or in Oak Park and are looking for an establishment with typical Indian food prices that aren’t the cheapest in the world but with plenty of authentic and unique dishes, I suggest swiping right instead of left on Khyber Pass!
Khyber Pass Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sarajevo Fo’ Sho’!

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The Balkans have long been a forgotten corner of Europe but one of the most tumultuous and diverse regions of the continent.  A potpourri of Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Montenegrins all interacting with each other, not always positively, mind you, and exchanging ideas and more importantly, food.  While this geographic region is on the Mediterranean Sea, the food is very different to their western neighbors Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.  While they might focus on the same staples like wine and olives/olive oil, their meals have more of an Eastern European and Middle Eastern vibe due to their location as a crossroads of sorts between East and West.  Instead of having to buy tickets to Europe, Janice and I managed to find a slice of Bosnia quite close to home on Chicago northside at Restaurant Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is the name of the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is an ancient and diverse city that once boasted of being the only European city with a synagogue, Orthodox Catholic, mosque, and Catholic Church in the same neighborhood.  However, much of the city was destroyed by Serbian forces in the siege during the War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s.  Once the guns fell silent, the rebuilding process began, and now it’s back to its former glory.  Due to the aforementioned violence, many Bosnian and Serbian refugees came to Chicago for a better life.  This brings me back to our visit to Restaurant Sarajevo. IMG_6128 It was quite busy around dinner time, but we also just beat the rush by going around 6 pm.IMG_6108  We looked over the menu and decided to try the cold appetizer plate ($10.07) since it contained two of our favorite food groups:  meat and cheese.  While we were waiting, we got a free basket of some delicious, warm, crusty bread.  It came pre-sliced in giant pieces, and the butter that came with it had a thicker consistency that was almost like cream cheese. IMG_6117Turns out it was a Balkan and Central Asian treat known as kaymak.  The word “kaymak” means “melt” in Mongolian which was an apt description since the spread on the warm bread was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Our appetizer came out, and it was a gigantic plate filled with savory delights. IMG_6110 IMG_6109We could see smoked beef, two types of Bosnian sausage, peppers, and Bosnian Travnik feta cheese.  It was a who’s who of European food with the Mediterranean represented in the olives and peppers and feta while the Eastern and Central European elements were present in the sausages and smoked meats.  The smoked beef was not as super smoky as you would think it would be like American barbecue, but it still was very juicy. IMG_6111 While the two meats were very distinct in flavor.  The darker of the pair was more like a salami with a salty aftertasteIMG_6113 while the more reddish sausage I could liken to a spicier Spanish chorizo. IMG_6112 As for the feta cheese, it was a great piece of the crumbly stuff when combined with the olive oil coated peppers or the sausages. IMG_6116 For the main course, we were simply awash with great choices, so we shared two entrees.  First, there was the Bosnian chorba ($4.58).IMG_6114  It was a hearty beef based stew filled with large, succulent chunks of tender veal along with bobbing potato cubes and carrots.  Definitely a great choice for the winter months, and it was a lot of soup for a great price.  Then there was our Bosnian mix plate ($19.23).  It was a family dinner for less than twenty bucks, but you really must like meat if you get this entree.IMG_6119  On one plate we had grilled veal and chicken kebab, beef sausage, cevapcicipljeskavica, mixed vegetables, chicken schnitzel, and our choice of side.  Woof.  It was totally worth it since we brought our appetites to this meal and were ready to destroy what came our way.  First, I have to say that every slice of meat was all killer and no filler, i.e. high quality cuts of meat with little to no excess fat or additives.  We learned that they make their own sausages on-site which probably explained the freshness of the meal.  The grilled veal and chicken kabab were good but nothing beyond some competently made pieces of grilled meat.  As I mentioned before, the beef sausage was filling and super fresh and did have a bit of a snap to the casing that comes with using natural casings.  Then there were the super Bosnian entries to our meal in the form of the cevapcici and the pljeskavica.  The first one, the cevapcici, actual comes from the Persian word for “kebab” and is a type of casing-less sausage.  Although during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it became associated with hadjuks or outlaws as an easy food to make while wandering the countryside. IMG_6122 I had had this mini-sausage dish before at Chicago’s Andersonville fest even though it was at a Croatian food tent and served in a fancier fashion.  It was like a Balkan version of a cocktail weenie but with more delicious, seasoned lamb and char-grilled.  As for the pljeskavica, it’s basically a lamb and beef patty that is stuffed with mozzarella cheese.IMG_6121

Once again, meat and cheese reigned supreme in this Balkan favorite, and it was so bad for you yet surprisingly not super greazy.  It also had a helping of the kaymak cheese on top just for good measure.  The chicken schnitzel was a representative of the Central European element in Bosnian cooking, and I really liked the tangy tartar sauce that combined with the super thin but tasty, golden breaded chicken cutlet.  Surprise, surprise!  We still had more food in the form of the potatoes on the side that were simply sauteed with an olive oil and oregano coating. IMG_6123 Even after all of that we managed to find some room for some decadent dessert.  We got the Bosnian chilled apple rolls ($5.50) that apparently is another Bosnian specialty.  IMG_6124IMG_6126IMG_6127It consists of a mix of chopped walnuts and apple pieces with honey that is enclosed in flaky, buttery filo dough.  Surprisingly, it was served chilled like it said on the menu which is a bit different than similar desserts that are served room temperature or even warm like Greek baklava.

In the end, we were absolutely stuffed with a ton of delicious and hearty food.  If you want a taste of a land that isn’t very well represented in America, run down to Restaurant Sarajevo!
Restaurant Sarajevo on Urbanspoon

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

Number One Sun, Wah You So Good?

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In the beginning, there was meat.  Meat, meet fire.  Fire + meat = a dawn of a new culinary era.  Fast forward from the caveman days to today, and this elemental fixture of meat roasting over a fire drives our entire food industry.  It has been elaborated upon by different cultures and chefs to the delight of generations of eaters around the world.  Today’s entry focuses on a restaurant whose entire existence revolves around not only the glorification of roasted meat but the ceremony of serving said meat.  If you’ve new to Hong Kong style barbecue, then I highly recommend visiting Sun Wah BBQ located in the Little Vietnam/Edgewater neighborhood on the North side of Chicago.

While there are plenty of top quality Vietnamese restaurants surrounding Sun Wah, this is the number one place to go for Hong Kong barbecue in the area. IMG_4700 I haven’t tried any places similar to Sun Wah in Chinatown, but I’m sure they’re out there.  However, I have tried actual Hong Kong barbecue while in Hong Kong along with some other more serpentine delights.  While Sun Wah doesn’t get as crazy as they do back in the homeland, they do offer plenty of quality plates to choose from.  Their crown jewel is their Peking duck service where you can get a full meal for $40.  Note:  Remember to call ahead to order it when making a reservation since they can run out of ducks!  After I tried Peking duck in its home city, Beijing, I can say that Sun Wah’s quality is the same as in China with a couple small differences that I’ll address later.  Now, I’ve been throwing around the word “barbecue” left and right in this article, but let’s not get American and Hong Kong barbecue conflated.  While American barbecue focuses on using savory/spicy sauces and different types of wood to smoke the meat, HK barbecue utilizes sweet and aromatic glazes to be rubbed on the meat before being placed on a fork and roasted over a fire.  Any way you slice it, I love them both!  Anyway, back to the meal.  Janice, I, and her whole family went there for her mom’s birthday.  It was very large and busy inside, and we could inspect the hanging ducks in the front window while we waited for our table to be ready. IMG_4681 IMG_4682 Once seated, we went ahead and ordered some starters like pan fried soft shell crab, butterfly shrimp, and stir fried Shanghai bok choi.  While I’m not a huge seafood fan, I enjoyed the soft shell crab. IMG_4684 It was crunchy yet soft on the inside, and the breading was light and buttery.  Just goes to show that deep-frying things improves food every time.  The butterfly shrimp were really decadent yet so so good.  IMG_4685Not only were they fried but wrapped with bacon.  *Cue the heavens opening*.  As for the bok choi, it was good but not great. IMG_4686 True, it wasn’t fried, but you can only do so much with greens.  Eventually, the pièce de résistance came out:  the Peking duck. IMG_4690 The preparation hasn’t changed much since 500 A.D., but as the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  With this meal, I wouldn’t change a thing.  First, they wheeled the roast duck to the side of our table to slice it in front of our eyes.IMG_4691  This was very different from my experience in Beijing.  Instead of being in a deserted open air courtyard in a small hutong, it was brightly lit and surrounded by friendly faces.  The duck in Beijing had the neck and head still attached while the Sun Wah duck had it chopped it off before it even came to our table.  Another key difference was the serving style.  While in Beijing, they brought each plate out with each component of the duck:  skin (the most coveted part of the meal) first, then a bit of meat, and then a connected meat and skin combo with a bisected roasted duck head that I ate.  At Sun Wah, time is money, so they just heaped it all on one plate even with drumsticks. IMG_4694 They then gave us warm and squishy bread buns, julienned carrots and onions, hoisin sauce, and fried rice on the side. IMG_4693 Beijing differed in the fact that they didn’t have carrots, but instead had onions, cucumber, and a thick sweet bean/hoisin sauce.  Also, instead of sliced buns, the Beijing Peking duck was eaten with steamed pancakes that were like rice tortillas.  Plus, they also gave me horseradish and sugar on the side that they didn’t at Sun Wah.  Even though Sun Wah was slightly different, it didn’t mean that it was inferior in any aspect.  When all of the aforementioned ingredients were combined in one of the fresh and fluffy buns, it was amazing!IMG_4698  From the crunchy sweet skin to the tender duck and fresh vegetables jazzed up with the sweet soy notes, it was a parade of flavors and textures that resulted in culinary perfection.  Finally, they took the remaining bones and residual meat into the back to make a thin but rich duck broth filled with crunchy winter melon.IMG_4695IMG_4696  It was a warming end to a sumptuous dinner, and a wonderful way to celebrate with Janice’s family.  Plus, for a dinner for five, it was less than 100 bucks!  Not a bad bill for the duck (pun totally intended).

So if you want to get some of the best Peking duck in Chicago or perhaps the country, visit Sun Wah BBQ!

Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Smoking the Competition

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Howdy, partners!  I’d like to welcome y’all to Mastication Monologues where you’ll read some of the most unique and creative restaurant reviews in the world.  I’ve been around the world and eaten many interesting meals, but I have to say that American barbecue is one of the most comforting foods I’ve tried and enjoyed.  The word “barbecue” originates from the Taino Indian word “barabicu” that was adopted by the Spanish as “barbacoa” and eventually made it to English as the form we have now.  As for the origin of the cooking method, it was a Colombian exchange moment to thank for it.  First, the Spanish introduced the pig, the staple of American barbecue, to the Americas, and the Native Americans showed European settlers how to smoke the meat and slow roast it over different types of wood to get different flavors.  All of this slowly evolved as the barbecue we know today. However, if you go to different parts of the United States and ask for barbecue, you will encounter regional specialties that highlight the resources local cooks can utilize.  For example, Hawaiian barbecue does have pork, but it is served in a luau style with a full pig roast and tropical fruit based sauces.  While Midwestern sauces are tomato based and much sweeter than the spicier sauces from Texas.  The list goes on and on, but today’s restaurant, Green Street Smoked Meats, falls into the Texas category of barbecue.

We ended up at Green Street in the middle of the day of all days for a foodie:  Taste Talks.  While we were still reeling from meeting the famous and friendly Rick Bayless, we really were fading from hunger after talking about so much delicious food.  So we decided to go to Green Street Smoked Meats.  It was set back in a charming alley that would be hopping during the summer but not during our drizzly gray afternoon. IMG_4429IMG_4428 Upon walking in, we were greeted with the jazzy baseline of Jerry Lee Lewis and sawdust on the floor.IMG_4410  It was set up like a quirky Texas bbq roadhouse like you might find in the Lone Star state.  There were beers in old sinks filled with ice you could pick up before wandering up to the food board that was hanging in front of the all wood smoker.IMG_4414  We perused the menu as the chefs were expertly slicing ribs, pork belly, and this sweet sweet brisket.

A thing of beauty

A brisket beauty

IMG_4412 IMG_4413 IMG_4408  Eventually we decided on getting a half pound of pork belly ($12.50), a Frito pie ($6), spicy pickles ($4.95), and potato salad ($4.95).  Once they served it all to us on a tray, cafeteria style, we got a seat at one of the communal bench seats in the main dining area.  We also needed something to drink, so I bellied up to the bar to get Janice a beer she noticed at the bar due to its, shall we say, “distinctive” draft handle.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

IMG_4409 IMG_4425I later found out that this beer was called a Morning Wood that was brewed in Chicago and was a lip-smacking, mildly malty red ale ($9). IMG_4422 As for me, I got a cheaper Lone Star beer ($4) which dates all the way back to 1884. IMG_4421 The price justified the flavor.  It was your typical American lager with roots in German pilsner traditions, i.e. light on taste and body.  However, it was clean and refreshing while sampling all of our food. IMG_4451 First, all of it was the perfect amount of food for the two of us.IMG_4452  Second, the pork belly was a meaty masterpiece.  IMG_4418Not only was it sliced to an ideal thickness to let it melt on your tongue, but the peppercorn crust combined with the smoke gave it a real bold flavor with a spicy afterbite that kicked its spurs into your palate.  The Frito pie has made many appearances on King of the Hill, including an episode where a Bostonian client’s wife was taken aback by this spicy Southern treat.  I think the best way to describe this unique Texan side would be corn chip nachos.IMG_4417  It was served up in the Frito bag, and the chips were covered with cheese, ground beef, beans, and jalapenos.  Unfortunately, taste-wise it wasn’t as big as the state it hails from.  The Fritos were too soggy due to the massive amount of toppings, so it just tasted more like a chili with a couple jalapenos on top with the occasional crunch.  The spicy pickles were not as disappointing but not spectacular. IMG_4419 True, they were sour and provided a fresh alternative to the heavier meat dishes, but I didn’t really understand where the “spicy” element was.  I just tasted a lot of vinegar and pickling brine coursing over the onions and pickles.  Finally, there was the potato salad that was actually the better of the two veggie sides.IMG_4420  It utilized small red potato segments coated in a semi-thick slathering of cumin-infused mayo that gave the tubers a funky zest with each forkful.

Overall, our trip to Green Street Smoked Meats was an enjoyable visit during a day all about food.  While I’m sure it doesn’t truly recreate the true Texas flavor like the home of the Cowboys and the Bush family, I’d recommend it as a fun and finger-licking good time and one of the best barbecue joints in Chicago.  Just remember to bring your wallet, buckaroo!
Green St Smoked Meats on Urbanspoon

The Heart and Seoul of Chicago

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안녕하세요! or Hello! to everyone out there on the interwebz!  Welcome to another wonderful edition of Mastication Monologues where I bring you the best, most delicious, and/or intriguing eats I find as I walk down this path called life.  Today’s edition relates to the greeting in the funny looking writing at the beginning of the post.  If you’re not familiar with Asian scripts, I wrote in the Korean writing system known as Hangul.  It’s a relatively new writing system compared to the Roman alphabet or Arabic, but it is ingenious in its design compliments of King Sejong who invented said alphabet back in 1443.  Each symbol relates to how the different components of the human mouth are positioned to make each sound.  If I had to choose a sound to accurately describe how I felt after eating at Korean fusion BBQ joint Del Seoul in Chicago, I’d probably say ㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁ(mmmmmmmmm).  

I met up with my friend, Heidi, yesterday since we recently came back from a year in Korea together.  While we were both happy to be back in the good old USA, it felt only fitting that we caught up on things over the food that we tried throughout our adventures in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I was a bit surprised to find it in the neighborhood by DePaul and not in Koreatown, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying my dining experience from beginning to end.IMG_3090  Upon walking in, I was surprised to find the place was kind of like a Far East Asian Chipotle where you have to order your food and then sit down at a table with a number.IMG_3097  Looking over the menu, I could see that it wasn’t quite the Korean cornucopia I was expecting.  While they did have some classics I’ve enjoyed like 비빔밥 (bibimbap; mixed vegetables and rice bowl), 김치볶음밥 (kimchibokkeumbap; fried rice with kimchi), and the ubiquitous 김치 (kimchi; pickled cabbage), they were missing other common dishes like 떡볶이 (tteokbokki; rice cakes in spicy sauce) and 잡채 (chapchae; translucent fried noodles).  Instead, they were replaced with Korean fusion treats like tacos, banh mi, and kimchi poutine.  I wanted to try a bit of everything, so I got the following:  a 갈비 (galbi; bbq beef ribs) taco ($2.95), a spicy bbq pork banh mi ($6.25), and a small cup of kimchi ($1.50) since I love my pickled vegetables.  

As we sat down, I had trouble finding an open table since the place was hopping with patrons greedily devouring their dishes.  The owners also provide complimentary soy sauce and spicy Sriracha sauce to jazz up your selections which wouldn’t normally happen in Korea.  Our tacos came out first, and they were a lot smaller than I was anticipating. IMG_3092I would liken it to the side of a large English muffin, but what it lacked in size it made up with bold flavors.  Not only was the beef expertly grilled and seasoned, but the cilantro-onion relish combined with the secret slaw brought in a slightly herbal yet semi-spicy punch to this south of the DMZ border fusion dish.  I would definitely recommend getting the tacos.  Next came the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with Korean ingredients. IMG_3095 I loved the jalapeno pepper slices and the juicy pork pieces that were simmered in a Korean gochujang (hot pepper sauce) marinade.  What I didn’t love were the pickled daikon radish strands and the extremely fresh bread used to bring all of the great ingredients together.  The radish took a lot away from the other elements with its overpowering pickled flavor which I didn’t appreciate.  As for the bread, you might think I’m crazy for ragging on the crunchy yet chewy loaves used to make scrumptious banh mi, but in this case, I felt it was too much bread for too little ingredients.IMG_3096  While I do love carbo loading when I’m not going to run a marathon, I felt this was a case of going buck wild with the baguette to the loss of the other ingredients.  I tried a bit of Heidi’s 불고기 (bulgogi; bbq beef) sandwich, and it was the same deal.  Too much dough stopping the other ingredients’ flow.  These sandwiches weren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination and a better value for the price compared to the tacos, but the tacos were more finger-licking good.  Then there was the kimchi.  Kimchi flows through the blood of every Korean, and it is the be all end all of foods for them…and me and my friend, Meropi.  There is even a special time of the year where Koreans gather as a family to prepare the kimchi for fermentation for the winter.  That’s how highly Korean regard this fiber-tastic but not vegetarian friendly delicacy.  While there are many different types of kimchi, the most popular is the spicy kimchi that consists of pickled cabbage and chili sauce.  I shocked my Korean coteachers every lunchtime with how much of the fermented vegetables I’d pile on my food tray, but it made up for a lot of the other options that had tentacles sticking out of it.  After so many days of eating the cabbage, I really came to love it, so I wanted to see if Del Seoul’s could match up to the motherland’s special blend of spices.  From the first delicious chopstickful, I was taken back to the land where I was complimented on my chopstick skills and scolded for mixing other foodstuffs with my bland white rice.

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

  Long story short, it was the real deal, and I’m sure that I will always remember my adventures in the East when I savor this much maligned food in the West.

Overall, I’d recommend Del Seoul to anyone who’s a little wary of jumping tastebuds-first into Korean cuisine or those who want to experience certain Korean classics reinvented through fusion food.  The prices aren’t overwhelming, and the environment is simple and welcoming.

Del Seoul on Urbanspoon

 

No Sticky Wickets

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Hello everyone to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be doing a brief review of a restaurant where I tried something that I didn’t really expect to find on their menu.  The restaurant in question is Wickets Bar and Grill located at 601 N Martingale Rd (at Woodfield Rd)  Schaumburg, IL 60173.

I was meeting some college friends there just to catch up on things, and I didn’t know really what to expect from this establishment.  Based off the name, I would have thought that we were going to be eating in an imitation English gastropub of some sort due to the cricket reference in the title.  Instead, I walked into a very sleek sports bar that did not have a single Guinness poster anywhere or a cricket bat on the wall.  The menu did have the usual litany of bar food items like nachos and burgers, but I began to see a pattern emerging that was downright confusing.  Wickets offers different types of samosas for appetizers, a chicken tikka sandwich, and tandoori chicken skewers.  Why was Indian  food on a sports bar menu?  My friend and I hypothesized that there was one Indian master chef who was called upon to make these delicious treats from his homeland.  Either that or it was a nod to the popularity of cricket in South Asia and other British colonies.  Menu construction theories aside, I decided to go for the two skewer platter and a Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale to drink.IMG_1080

I had already had this particular brew from Lagunitas before, but I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with this choice.  If you haven’t had it before, it is an amber-colored beer with a clear hoppy taste that covers your palate initially, but at the end it gives you a little smooth sum sumpin’ at the end that makes you always come back for more.  If you enjoy IPAs, I would recommend this beer to you.

Stomach don't fail me now!

Stomach don’t fail me now!

As for my entrée, I went with one skewer of beef with vegetables and the other with chicken tikka tandoori with vegetables.  They were both served on a bed of basmati rice infused with herbs which was surrounded by golden flatbread triangles.  Plus, I decided to get the cucumber chive yogurt sauce that was served on the side.  Taken all together, these skewers were on point in terms of quantity and quality.  If you are not really hungry, then you will take some of this home with you.  The basmati rice with herbs was cooked to perfection, and the herbs provided the starch with whispers of rosemary and parsley.   I used the flatbread wedges as pseudo-pizza slices to put the yogurt sauce on like sauce and then piled on the meat and rice which gave the meal an Indian vibe since I was eating with my hands which I always enjoy.  The Tandoori chicken was actually quite tasty since it tasted exactly like the same dish I tried in some of the Indian restaurants I visited in London.  If you never had Tandoori chicken, it is a type of specially cooked chicken coated with the right blend of cumin, turmeric, chili, and a slightly charred aftertaste.  The beef was equally delectable since it was grilled completely through but still quite succulent.  As for the veggies, it was a mix of mushrooms, green and yellow zucchini, bell peppers, and onions.  All were adequately grilled, but they still maintained their original integrity which I enjoyed since sometimes over-grilling can lead to crumbling in  vegetables with higher water content.  Finally, the yogurt sauce was like mix between tzatziki and the Indian raita; the neutral yogurt element provided a cooling element to the slightly spicy tandoori chicken  and the cucumbers and chives provided a texture change that interacted nicely with the semi-crispy flatbread.

Overall, I was stuffed and a satisfied customer.  So if you’re looking for some delicious Indian influenced food in a very non-Indian environment, come on down to Wickets Bar and Grill!

Wickets Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Wickets Bar and Grill on Foodio54

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