Top 10 Jaunts for 2014

December has arrived and yet again I have the feeling that there is something that I did not do during the months of January to November. I did satisfy my resolutions for the year — getting my master bathroom remodelled, bringing my blood sugar level down, and engaging in regular exercise to shrink the tire that was around my waistline. What I did not miss throughout the year were delectable meals. And that brings me to my Top 10 Jaunts for 2014. Although I included some American restaurants in my write-ups this year, the following restaurants area reflective of the theme that I created for Chicago Alphabet Soup. So, here are my favourite ethnic jaunts for the year.

10. Turquoise Cafe
Roscoe Village is a nice spot for checking out some swanky boutiques, small cafes, and fine dining without “fine dining costs.” After a stroll down the avenue, stop in for some Turkish offerings. Spacious on the inside for several patrons and growling bellies, outdoor seating during the spring and summer, Turquoise Cafe is one of a few Turkish restaurants in Chicago. It is “the best” in Chicago, though.

Turquoise Cafe, Collage

Turquoise Cafe, 2147 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago, IL 60618

 


9. Rio’s D’Sudamerica
Bucktown is one of Chicago’s premier neighbourhoods. Homeownership, boutiques, and restaurants make up a landscape that result in a constant flow of pedestrians. When a lot of those patrons develop appetites, they find seats at Rio’s D’Sudamerica for Peruvian food packed full of wow. Rio’s D’Sudamerica is large on the inside, but unlike most big box restaurants, the food is consistently blooming with Peruvian flavour. A clear indication is the constant ebb of Peruvians who frequent the restaurant. And with service that does not rush you, trust me when I say that you will be stuffed when you are done.

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Rio’s D’Sudamerica, 2010 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


8. A10
Chicago’s Hyde Park has experienced a renaissance. With that came the addition of an Italian restaurant that deviated from the expected dishes consisting of red sauces and meatballs. There is a coastal influence to the menu, which means a splendid selection of seafood. The wait staff is engaging, the bar service is phenomenal, and the food is so awesome that you may find yourself making a reservation for a return at least once a month. The menu changes each season, so this is even more of a good reason to make A10 Hyde Park a constant entry on your calendar.

A10 Hyde Park, Collage

A10, 1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL 60615

 


7. Little Bucharest
There doesn’t appear to be a long list of Romanian restaurants in Chicago. Little Bucharest in Irving Park makes up for that. More like a banquet hall, which allows diners to sit comfortably, this bistro does not shy away from authenticity in the Romanian recipes. Expect some hearty dishes, as in plentiful in quantity. There are no boiled potatoes and bland meat dishes. Everything has a wow factor. And before you leave, you may get a special christening of an alcoholic spirit.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Little Bucharest Bistro, 3661 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618

 


6. taKO’s KOreanos
Many restaurants will try to introduce fusion in their cuisine. Some fail. And then there are those like taKO’s KOreanos in Andersonville that get it correct. Who would have thought that Mexican and Korean would make for such a fantastic cultural cuisine marriage? Tacos, enchiladas, and burritos are prepared with Korean accents to the fillings. Having been opened since April with no kinks in the service or output from the kitchen, one would only have to notice the steady stream of customers coming and going to recognize that the fusion dishes are constant draws to those who love a mix of Mexico and Korea.

taKO's KOreanos, Collage

taKO’s KOreanos, 1706 W. Foster Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640

 


5. Altiro
The drive out to Geneva, IL, may be far. I recommend taking the Metra train so that you can go to sleep afterwards. Tacos, tacos, and more tacos, but nothing of the Taco Bell ilk and nothing of the Mexican taqueria brand either. Altiro has cornered the market on creating a variety of tacos that would otherwise be noteworthy entrées without the flour tortillas. Expect to find a bit of Central America and South America in the recipes. I have always thought that French, Italian, and Asian restaurants have the best bar service. Add Altiro to the list. For those who are indecisive, simply tell the server to surprise you and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Altiro, Collage

Altiro, 308 Anderson Boulevard, Geneva, IL 60134

 


4. LaNotte Cafe & Bar
The father-son team at LaNotte Caffe & Bar should be taken on the road. Well, their comedy acts should. The food, however, should remain in Berwyn where it is close enough for those in the metropolitan area to get to easily. One may argue that there is a such thing as too many Italian restaurants in the Chicago area. What they can’t say is that they know where the very best Italian restaurants are. LaNotte Cafe & Bar falls into the category of “must visit.” Food is prepared to order and to specification per the customer. The seafood dishes are my favourite and if you order the sea bass that the father de-bones tableside, then you too will understand why that dish is at the top of my list.

La Notte Cafe & Bar, Collage

La Notte Cafe & Bar, 6822 Windsor Avenue, Berwyn, IL 60402

 


3. Himshikar Restaurant
One may be able to find Indian, Pakistani, and combination Indo-Pak restaurants throughout Chicago. However, for the absolute best Nepali restaurant in Chicago, Himshikar Restaurant in the Sauganash neighbourhood is highly recommended for frequent visits. The food is slow cooked, so it does not come to the table immediately. But never mind that. You can relax or even engage the owners in conversation while the kitchen staff prepares your dishes. Himshikar Restaurant is not a large restaurant, so it makes it easy to engage the staff while trying not to shoot to the moon from such incredibly flavourful Nepali food. And once the food arrives, be ready for culinary excitement.

Himshikar Restaurant, Collage

Himshikar Restaurant, 6031 N. Cicero Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646

 


2. Oceanique
Anyone who has had authentic French food will tell you that not everything is drowned in rich cream. There is also provincial French food, which is very indulgent. Oceanique captures the best of both flavours of France. Moderate in size, this restaurant forgoes the big box effect for authenticity in the dining experience. Coupled with superb bar service and A-list table service, each meal is guaranteed to make you forget that you don’t have to fly all the way to France to have some of the best French food on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Oceanique, Collage

Oceanique, 505 Main Street, Evanston, IL 60202

 


1. Osteria Langhe
Don’t expect pasta and pizza. Osteria Langhe serves Italian food that has a bit of a French influence to it. The risotto is the absolute best and the seafood dishes are unparallelled. And if you are so inclined to want pasta, the plin is the best in Chicago. Although the food at Osteria Langhe keeps one returning for more, the atmosphere, splendid bar service, and table service create a feel of going to someone’s home rather than going to an establishment. There is truly an “old country” Italian feel in the middle of cultural hub Logan Square. Chances are by your third visit, you will be on first name basis with the staff.

Osteria Langhe, Collage

Osteria Langhe, 2824 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


Well, it is at this time that I want to take time to wish a Happy Holidays to all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup via the blog, on Facebook, and through my Instagram posts. May the New Year bring you peace, joy, and happiness. And may some server at a restaurant bring you a dish that keeps you returning for more. Until 2015, good eating!

taKO’s KOreanos, Mexican and Korean Food Marriage

taKO's KOreanos

While passing through Chicago’s Andersonville neighbourhood heading to the Argyle area for a sampling of some Vietnamese pho, I noticed a restaurant in my peripheral vision. It was “mex-asian” that caught my attention. Chicago has quite a few very good fusion restaurants. My favourite fusion restaurant is Crepe Town, where they marry French crepes with Thai cuisine and they do it very well. Keeping that in mind, I was curious as to how Mexican and Asian would play well together on the palate. Let’s just say that it is a food marriage made in heaven. So, I reversed my course and found a seat at taKO’s KOreanos at 1706 W. Foster Avenue.

Beef Barba "Korea" Fries

Beef Barba “Korea” Fries

Coming in from a bit of nip in the air, I requested some green tea. Instead of a cup of hot water with a tea bag floating delicately in it, I got a pot of green tea that had toasted rice. Per that alone, I was a fan. With the menu not being extensive, I spotted an appetizer and an entrée that I thought would sate my afternoon craving. Having made some slight modifications to my diet, I ordered beef barba Korea fries. If I were one who had a kiddie palate for the love of chili cheese fries, I would denounce that hankering and indulge beef barba Korea fries daily and without complaint. Pulled beef, seasoned well and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chives, sat atop fries that were neither greasy nor doused with salt. I gobbled the appetizer like a man who had been deprived of a rather fantastic culinary delight.

Tacos: Spicy Chicken and Honey Chili Shrimp; Kimchi Rice; Potato Salad

Tacos: Spicy Chicken and Honey Chili Shrimp; Kimchi Rice; Potato Salad

Where I figured I would see the Mexican-Asian fusion would be with the tacos. What I got was Mexican-Korean and food harmony in my tummy. The spicy Korean chicken taco started out as my favourite taco of all times. Topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the server didn’t have to ask if I thought that taco was inviting to the palate. Where I was left in awe was with the honey chili shrimp taco. This taco had butterflied panko shrimp, not popcorn shrimp. Also topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the honey chili sauce had me claiming the honey chili shrimp taco was my “now” favourite of all times. The tacos came with a potato salad that was clearly not of the fast food preparation and not of the “refrigerator section” variety either. And the kimchi fried rice, that reminded me of spicy bibimbap rice, rounded out an ideal lunch selection.

Green Tea

Green Tea

taKO’s KOreanos ranks up there in the “Absolute Best” category with service. Although I was too stuffed to entertain the Mexican-Korean fusion burritos or any other menu items, what I had was enough to convince me that anything coming from the kitchen will be appreciated fully by anyone who enjoys food without requiring the dishes to be of a purist recipe. One thing to note is that taKO’s KOreanos has a cash-only policy. Never fear, as the prices are reasonable. As to the fusion, there are not many restaurants that know how to balance or “influence” dishes when mixing recipes from different cultures. But when they get it correct the way that taKO’s KOreanos get it, you understand why most of the customers who come in seem so familiar to the restaurant staff. Like me, they love cultural harmony, even more in their food.

Takos Koreanos on Urbanspoon

Ben’s Noodles and Rice, And I Don’t Mean Uncle Ben’s

Ben's Noodles & Rice

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

December has arrived. As much as December is a festive month, it is also the time that I spend wondering what happened to the other eleven months in the year. In addition to that, there are several holiday parties that I have attended so far, each where I nursed one to two glasses of a nice scotch while I watched others relive their college days of drinking and not being aware that someone had a cellphone out recording their antics. But this December has been one where I have spent a lot of time in front of the mirror looking at my flat tummy thanks to a few months of CrossFit. (Insert bear growl.)

After a Saturday morning of doing some “dreamed up” CrossFit exercises, I had an appetite unlike I have had since I started CrossFit training in September. I finished off some pancake mix that a friend had given me along with a plate of eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cilantro. I washed it all down with three glasses of protein shakes and my belly was still growling. There was waffling between going for Indian food or Italian for lunch. I settled on Indian as opposed to Italian and while on my way to my favourite Indian cafe, I walked by a Thai restaurant that looked to have a cozy cafe feel to it. Well, having never been there, I stopped in. Ben’s Noodles and Rice at 1139 W. Bryn Mawn Avenue was my destination.

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

I was not in a mood for pondering what I wanted. Truth be told, I glanced at the menu for some appetizer that I hadn’t had before. The basil rolls with spicy plum sauce caught my eye. It was meant to be because the fine, ground beef wrapped in basil leaves, wrapped more in finger-length pastries, and then deep-fried was a highlight.  A bigger highlight was the Thai iced tea, which wasn’t merely red tea with milk in it. This tea had a smoky flavour to it that heightened my addiction for the beverage. It may not be to the liking of everyone’s palate, but I was satisfied with its balance to the basil rolls.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

The temperatures in Chicago had been quite nippy, and being only a few blocks from the lake doesn’t make matters better, I wanted something spicy. I ordered tom yum goong and requested it to be Thai spicy. Warning: If you are not accustomed to eating spicy food, do not order your dishes Thai spicy. Instead, order them mild. I loved the peppery bite in each sip and final slurp of the tom yum goong. Plump shrimp, fresh mushrooms, cilantro, chives, and flavourful broth made for a perfect recipe in a bowl to make the wintry chill not so bad.

Panang Curry Chicken

Panang Curry Chicken

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

To thoroughly sate my appetite, I ordered panang curry chicken. It has been rather hard for me to deviate from Thai curries, being a culinary zombie for any curries. The panang curry was of a thin consistency, but packed with green peas, bell peppers, chicken, and a wow factor. Having had green curry, red curry, yellow curry, panang, and mussaman at countless Thai restaurants, I highly recommend to anyone that they opt for curries when they order. Definitely order the panang curry at Ben’s Noodles & Rice. And for my finale, I had the fried banana and a cup of green tea. Bananas dipped in coconut milk, deep-fried, and dusted with confectioners sugar are the best. They’re golden. They’re delicious. They make me smile. They are the best, indeed.

Ben’s Noodles & Rice is definitely one to go to for an authentic Thai dining experience. There was a constant flow of individuals coming in to enjoy a meal at the restaurant and a steady stream of customers coming in to order something for to-go. Noticing a lot of customers and the restaurant staff greeting each other by name and very familiarly, it was evident that Ben’s Noodles & Rice is common grounds for those who appreciate not only the outstanding food, but the top service. When I think back on the possibility of me having had Indian or Italian food for lunch this particular day, I am glad that I settled on Thai. Yes, I will be one of those customers who return to Ben’s Noodles & Rice so often that they will probably make recommendations for me in advance of me reaching for a menu.

Ben's Noodles and Rice on Urbanspoon

Norman’s Bistro — N’awlins with Samba

Norman's Bistro

When I moved from Hyde Park to Logan Square, my trips to the South Side diminished. There are so many restaurants, cafes, and boutiques in Logan Square and surrounding neighbourhoods such that there is no need to venture too far away to find anything. One thing I must admit that the South Side has are restaurants that have a southern influence. Wondering where I could find one such restaurant, Google popped up a restaurant named Norman’s Bistro, at 1001 E. 43rd Street.

Norman’s Bistro serves New Orleans cuisine with a Brazilian influence to it. Having lived in Central Mississippi and visited New Orleans quite often, I was already sold on the N’awlins aspect of the food. I was rather intrigued about the Brazilian influence, wondering if it I would detect any of the recipes that I recalled from my days in São Paulo. I imagined that the New Orleans flavouring would stand out more, not a case of trying to have a 50-50 fusion to the recipes.

Norman's Bistro, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

There were complimentary yeast rolls. No sooner had I touched the first roll than I realized they were homemade. The texture was not anything like I have had from bakeries or grocery stores, but what I have had consistently from ovens in friends’ and family’s homes. I started with a garden salad with a raspberry vinaigrette. Nothing spectacular, but the salad was fresh, not the bowl of wilted vegetables that I often get at restaurants. For a starter, there was a cup of seafood chili. You can have your chili with chicken, beef, or pork. Although not as spicy as I prefer, the seafood chili quickly became my favourite.

One dish I was curious about was the gumbo. It was a melange of corn, chicken, shrimp, and lobster in a delectable red roux. Served in a large bowl with a scoop of rice, I was either “that” hungry or incredibly bottomless because there was no way I should have completed that whole bowl. Again, not spicy in a peppery sense but packed with a bloom in flavour, I didn’t bother trying to compare the gumbo to the gumbo that I devoured in New Orleans. The gumbo at Norman’s Bistro holds its own. And the mini cornbread muffins that came with it were a big hit. Actually, they were so blooming good that I felt that the two I had were not enough. I saved up enough of one of them so that I could sop up the rest of the gravy from the gumbo.

By the time I had finished the seafood chili and the gumbo, I had to let some time pass before indulging a dessert. And for a sweet, I had a slice of salted caramel cake. I can’t say whether the cake was baked in-house, or not, but I will admit that it was worth it. It reminded me of the dobo torte that I have had at an Austrian restaurant in Chicago called Julius Meinl. There were layers of cake, salted caramel, and vanilla cream. Given the layering wasn’t “mass-produced perfect,” it was clear that even if it was baked at a bakery, it was one of a kind and delicious to boot.

Norman’s Bistro is one restaurant that I consider to be a surprise find. Many restaurants in the Bronzeville neighbourhood are closer to Martin Luther King Drive and S. Cottage Grove Avenue. There are a few other nice sit-down restaurants scattered throughout Bronzeville, but the far east end of 43rd Street had been void of much activity for a long time. Norman’s Bistro has a spacious interior for dining and another room in the restaurant that I imagine doubles as a spillover room for crowded evenings, as well as a party room. Service is laid back and if you eat as much as I did, the last thing you want is a server hovering over you. I can’t say when next I will be visiting New Orleans, but I will be going back to Norman’s Bistro within the next few weeks.

Norman's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Nigerian Pop-up Dinner, Tunde Wey Style

During this past summer, I got turned on to the concept of pop-up art galleries while at one of the many street festivals that Chicago hosts. Empty stores that had not been repurposed for the Logan Square revitalization effort had been used as temporary showcase areas for artists in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was a rather nice way for local artists to get some initial exposure without having to pay heavy costs to a gallery for display of their works. Shortly after the pop-up art galleries at the festival, I started seeing references to pop-up retail shops. And recently, I got an invitation to a pop-up Nigerian dinner. Not one to turn down Nigerian food, I accepted the invitation without pause.

Isi Ewu Pepper Soup with Goat
Egusi Frejon

Tunde Wey, a restaurateur from Detroit, MI, was in Chicago visiting with some friends who had graciously hosted the Chicago leg of a tour that he was doing across several cities. His tour route also consisted of New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Those who attended any of the dinner gatherings were in for some damn good Nigerian food that they would otherwise have to go to Nigerian to indulge or find some Nigerians in America who would be open to preparing some authentic dishes.

The motley crew in Chicago was treated to isi ewu, pepper soup with goat, egusi, and frejon with plantains. The isi ewu was spiced goat’s head. Those who love spicy food would enjoy this without a second thought. The pepper soup with goat in it was a grand hit. Eyes were watering. Beads of sweat were on foreheads. Everyone was going back to the pot for seconds and thirds. And had I not been so into my fourth bowl, I would have gotten back to the pot in time to get a proper photo. Another favourite was egusi, a dish prepared with ground melon seeds, spinach, and crawfish. A dish that I did not photograph because, again, I was caught up in the rapture of the whole dining scene, was jollof rice. This rice pilaf is common to the West African palate and unlike British chef Jamie Oliver — you must watch the embedded YouTube video to get the joke — this jollof rice would make any West African in the diaspora homesick. With a finale of frejon, this dish of mashed black beans and fried plantains would actually make anyone hanker for Africa.

The next day after the dinner, I looked up pop-up dinners and discovered that I am rather late finding out about them. The Moroccan dinner I had attended about a year ago felt more like a showcase of the chef’s cooking talents among friends he knew, so pop-up never crossed my mind. But this concept is more popular in Chicago than I thought. Honestly, I think that it is a fantastic way for the chef to get exposure to the diners. The experience engaging people while cooking removes the “oh, they’re strangers” atmosphere and creates friendships that otherwise would never come to fruition. Tunde Wey certainly made the dining aspect of the night one worth bottling. And his interpersonal touch also left us with our bellies hurting from so much laughter. For one night, a group of total strangers had humour, some Nigerian food from “home,” and some “real” jollof rice.

Jamie Oliver, what in Dante’s Inferno were you thinking?

Buzzing About Wicker Park, Bee & Tea

Bee & Tea

When Chicago has beautiful autumn days, the city comes alive in a Wonderland fashion. There is enough nip in the air that only a light jacket is required. The skies are usually the most vibrant blue, thanks to no humidity or clouds. The leaves on the trees look aflame against the backdrop of the sun. The streets are filled with people taking it all in because usually in about a week or so, the temperatures drop, the skies become a constant grey, and it rains enough to give Seattle competition for wet forecasts. As for me, I no doubt take advantage of the outdoors for going to any number of restaurants for food happiness. Then again, I do that all year long.

Bobo Tea: Jasmine Tea with Pineapples

Bobo Tea: Jasmine Tea with Pineapples

I received an email note with a recommendation for a shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park that sells bobo tea and bao sandwiches. Although the leg work I get during my CrossFit training leaves me with stiff legs and a want for soaking endlessly in a tub filled with Epsom salts, I can bend my legs long enough to put them under a table at some restaurant or cafe. So, I noted the recommendation and went to Bee & Tea at 1843 W. North Avenue. Located on a busy stretch of North Avenue, just off the North-Milwaukee-Damen intersection, Bee & Tea is a nice sized restaurant with enough seating for those who wish to dine in. I was thinking that Bee & Tea would be something like Wow Bao, but with specialty teas on the menus. After first glance at the menu, I was surprised pleasantly.

Having gobbled a large breakfast after my morning workout session, I had enough room for a light to moderate sized breakfast. I ordered a jasmine bobo tea with pineapple. There were other flavours that I could have chosen, but I swear the jasmine bobo tea with pineapple had an extra ingredient that fueled my thirst. With no sugar added because I wanted only the natural flavouring of the jasmine tea, milk, and pineapple, this was the most refreshing beverage I have had in a long time.

Chinese Bao with Indian Butter Chicken and Edamame Soup

Chinese Bao with Indian Butter Chicken and Edamame Soup

For lunch, I ordered a cup of edamame soup and a bao sandwich stuffed with Indian butter chicken. Three words to describe those two items: completely blown away. The edamame soup was creamed edamame with corn and peppers. I recalled having edamame soup at a Japanese restaurant that had a wow factor to it. The edamame soup at Bee & Tea went up a few notches with an addictive factor. The bao with butter chicken was a new experience. Baos are usually served as stuffed steamed buns. However, the bao at Bee & Tea is sliced open with the consistency of a bao, but served half open faced like Venezuelan arepa sandwiches. But it was the Pan-Asian blend of the Chinese bao and the Indian butter chicken that left me walking out of the restaurant declaring this my favourite sandwich ever.

Bee & Tea is relatively new on the Wicker Park landscape. What I think will shine the most are the teas. Those who like natural flavouring to their drinks without additives and extra sugar will become a fan of the bobo teas and their smoothies. The baos will be a sure winner and seeing that they also have rice bowls, mixed greens, and quinoa bowls, Bee & Tea serves healthy options that many in Chicago will love. If you find yourself buzzing about near any of their locations, it is worth quenching your thirst with one of their teas or smoothies and indulging any of their food items.

For a selection of locations, click link to Bee & Tea’s main website to see if one is near you — Bee & Tea locations.

Bee & Tea on Urbanspoon

Cafe Versailles, Feeling Rather French

Cafe Versailles

One of my favourite restaurants in Chicago — Zebda — is owned and operated by some Algerians. Located in the Irving Park neighbourhood just off one of the many bizarre three-way intersections on the North Side, the restaurant teems with Algerians and North Africans. There is a constant feeling of being in someone’s home and the food is definitely a draw that keeps me returning. What I have also noticed in that Pulaski-Montrose-Elston area are several other cafes and restaurants that are owned and operated by Algerians. One of those cafes is Cafe Versailles at 4102 N. Pulaski Road, which is a few blocks south of the Pulaski-Montrose-Elston triangle.

Cafe Latte

Cafe Latte

While passing by it on my way from the Far North Side, I decided to stop in for a quick sampling. I had already had a nice lunch and only wanted a finale. I figured that a cup of coffee would suffice and with Cafe Versailles being a French cafe, I was certain that there would be crepes on the menu. Upon entering and a brief scan of the menu, there was serendipity. There were crepes for the craving. For a sit-down, I had a cup of cafe latte and a crepe filled with apples and drizzled with caramel. Noting the Bristot brand of coffee, it became evident why the flavour of my cafe latte was so robust and still required no sweetener. The apples were fresh, sliced, and not drowning in a sugary glaze, unlike what you get at many creperies that fill their dessert crepes with apples. The natural sweetness of the apples and the light drizzle of caramel did the trick.

Apple Caramel Crepe

Apple Caramel Crepe

Cafe Versailles has an atmosphere akin to what coffeehouses were before they were taken over by students and single mothers with children who would rather be at home playing rather than watching their mothers engaging girlfriend banter. Everyone is relaxed and the owners tend to be rather conversational. And nothing screams “truly authentic” like being able to watch the owners make the crepes within eyeshot. With the closing of Icosium Kafe, that did a fantastic job preparing savoury and sweet crepes, it is nice to find one that is closer to home for me. The menu has a nice selection of crepes that I think I shall sample over time, as well as salads and sandwiches made to order. A flight to Paris takes seven hours. A trip to Cafe Versailles takes probably fifteen minutes, at most. Guess which location I will visit this week.

Afghan Kabob, Culinary Addiction

While getting a better feel for my neighbourhood in Chicago — Logan Square — and surrounding neighbourhoods, I passed by an Afghani restaurant that isn’t far from my favourite Algerian restaurant and a seafood market that I frequent. I had become a fan of Afghani food years ago when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup and was surprised that out of all the Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, there weren’t more Afghani restaurants. Well, it appears that I had not been looking hard enough. After finding Afghan Kabob at 4040 W. Montrose Street, I shall have to embark on a quest to find some sister restaurants.

Afghan Kabob

Spacious and bright on the inside, Afghan Kabob is not big on interior pizzazz. Since my appetite takes precedence over all else, flavour is what I expect once I take a seat. And flavour is exactly what I got. I had used Kabul House, the first Afghani restaurant I had gone to, as my benchmark and was prepared to be let down. The biggest letdown was having eaten too much and wanting more with no more room for additional indulgence.

Chicken Vegetable Soup

Chicken Vegetable Soup

For starting, there was a complimentary bowl of chicken vegetable soup. Let’s be clear that this was neither Campbell’s nor Progresso soup. Some may argue the observation, but when the tongue doesn’t feel weighted with salt, you know you are having something that took time to prepare in the restaurant’s kitchen, not in a colossal industrial vat.  The soup is not overburdened with chicken, so the broth and the vegetables stand out more.

Appetizer Sampler

Appetizer Sampler

Wanting to try several small dishes, I opted for a round of four appetizers. There were butternut squash, boranee baunjan, vegetarian mantoo, and beef mantoo, all served over lettuce and topped with yogurt. I forced myself to spend the rest of the day alone so that I would not drive my friends crazy talking about how delicious the butternut squash was. That and the wow factor in the bloom of flavour from the eggplant in the boranee baunjan were so addictive that I could have eaten those two only.

Although the beef mantoo was lighter than expected, those dumplings were a big hit and the vegetarian mantoo was a bigger hit. Add to that the homemade Afghan bread that came with the platter, there was very little washing required of the plate after I went all around the plate with the bread. I wondered why it took me so long to find my way to Afghan Kabob.

Chicken Korma Chalaw

Chicken Korma Chalaw

In a few of my recent posts, I mentioned that I have been doing CrossFit training so that I can add a few pounds. Yes, I know that some people are focused primarily on losing weight while I am going in the opposite direction. But my bulking up requires me to have a little more protein intake in my diet. So, I have started having more allowances for chicken. Being a lover of spicy food, I ordered chicken korma chalaw with rice. The spicy tomato-based gravy with succulent cubes of chicken and rice was absolutely divine to the taste buds. Middle Eastern food may pack a flavourful punch, but it is rarely spicy, so the fact that the chicken korma chalaw came spicy without killing the senses in my tongue made the dish a fantastic lunch option.

Those in the metropolitan Chicago area will find that the triangle section of Elston Avenue, Montrose Street, and Pulaski Avenue houses a mixture of North Africa and the Middle East. It could feel like being abroad. The beauty of that cultural diversity is that the food in the restaurants and small cafes retain its authenticity. The restaurants I have gone to in that area of Irving Park have been most addictive not only from a culinary aspect but also from an inviting standpoint. Any restaurant that welcomes you without pretense and leaves you wanting to return for more of its kitchen delights deserves repeat visits. I shall see you again, Afghan Kabob.

Afghan Kabob on Urbanspoon

The Winchester — House, Hotel, or Restaurant

The Winchester

As of late, things have been quite scrambling. What is one to do when you’re dealing with work, CrossFit training, trying to squeeze in a few television shows, and catching up on reading? I can’t speak for most, but I get an appetite, after which I experience that sleepy feeling when I’m done gnashing away on too much food. Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to not skip out on breakfast or brunch. For my latest morning hankering, I ventured to the Ukrainian Village to The Winchester at 1001 N. Winchester Avenue.

Orange Juice

Orange Juice

Mimosa

Mimosa

What looks like a giant beige block is a rather nice contemporary restaurant in one of Chicago’s hip neighbourhoods. Upon entering the spacious area, there is the hipster contingent and a mix of hipster parents. Still, there isn’t the distant demeanor that tends to be prevalent at hipster spots where the service is outstanding if you fit the hipster mold. Actually, the staff at The Winchester is quite engaging, which is a nice change from feeling as if you’re an inconvenience.

Waffle of the Day

Waffle of the Day

I started with fresh squeezed orange juice to whet the palate while scanning the menu. It was brunch, so I figured I would have my “when in Rome” moment and partake of an alcoholic beverage — a mimosa. Yep, champagne and orange juice in the morning is not a bad option, especially when you couple it with waffles topped with toasted rice, apples, and a dollop of whipped cream. Given the waffle was not saccharine, the natural sugar from the chopped apples provided enough sweetness such that no syrup was required.

As if the large plate of waffles was not enough, I ordered a plate of fried black rice with Thai green curry and topped with a fried egg. The football player sized guy sitting next to me looked at me with what I could only describe as mild shock. I know I am not quite the size of a linebacker, but CrossFit really keeps my hunger on full tilt. It became clear to him and his two fashion model girlfriends that I was not playing around. This is not fried rice you will find at a Thai restaurant, but it is definitely fried rice that Thai restaurants may want to add to their menus.

Fried Black Rice

Fried Black Rice

Although not on a main road, The Winchester is not far off from West Division Street or West Chicago Avenue. Those who rank restaurants according to ambiance will love the well-lit interior as well as the spaciousness. The diners who entered received a lot of attention from the wait staff, which is a plus. Where The Winchester shines is with the food. I can say with certainty that the breakfast offerings are top. One of these evenings I shall have to return to sample something from their dinner menu. Based on brunch, The Winchester draws a crowd. I can only imagine how the restaurant packs out after 5:00 PM. There may be popular variations of Winchester, but The Winchester in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village is the one that I have fallen in culinary love with.

The Winchester on Urbanspoon

Ulterior Motives at Altiro

Altiro Latin Fusion Restaurant

A year ago while on my way home from having sated myself senselessly, I received a text message from a great friend with an accompanying photo. Not that I was in any position to eat anything, I did marvel at the appetizing items he had sent in the text message — and in the subsequent text messages. Several months later he sent another text message with more photos and a recommendation that I should venture out to the West Suburbs to sample the small dishes at the restaurant that he was advertising with relish. Fast forward a year and I decided to take his advice finally. It was off to Altiro Latin Fusion Restaurant at 308 Anderson Boulevard in Geneva, Illinois.

Al Trio

Al Trio

Pineapple Margarita

Pineapple Margarita

Al Elotito

Al Elotito

Because the restaurant had a swell variety of dishes to try, my great friend thought that it would be better to sample different menu items to get a range of flavours. In keeping with Latin flare in food, we had the al trio. This was a flight of guacamole with homemade chips. There were pomegranate, apple, and traditional. Although I have had some “experimental” guacamole during my comings and goings, Altiro did not disappoint with their variations. And living in Chicago proper where there is a large concentration of Mexicans, I have had more elotes than I can recount. Those who love the street vendor corn on the cob will become addicted to the al elotito. This plate of roasted corn, prepared with garlic aioli, serrano pepper, epazote, onions, and cojita cheese, could easily become a wanted dish at every meal. Having the al trio and al elotito with a pineapple margarita that had been mixed with a homemade chipotle pineapple ice cube and chili powder on the rim was a beautiful start.

Al Vegetal

Al Vegetal

Al Camaronchizo

Al Camaronchizo

Al Fundido

Al Fundido

Having devoured the appetizers, it was time to begin sampling variety. Starting with the al vegetal, I was completely wowed with how the recipe yielded something flavourful like a succulent steak. The roasted portabello mushroom, avocado, piña, bell peppers, red onions, and chipotle reduction, served with a chipotle and an avocado reduction, was a tasteful deviation from the norm of chicken, steak, pork, and beef tacos.  The al camaronchizo was one of those tacos that one could fall in love with and forget that there are other kinds of tacos that you can enjoy. I have limited pork intake in my diet, but the chorizo with basque shrimp, avocado slaw, and chipotle aioli was something I forgave quickly.

After a necessary moment to pause before attacking another set of tacos, there was the al fundido, a taco lovers plate of sautéed shrimp, Chihuahua cheese, red onions, and cilantro-lime oil. I had completely forgotten about fast food tacos and I had also completely discounted any of the Mexican holes in the wall in Chicago proper that prepare and sell authentic tacos. For a finale of tacos, we ordered al gallina of grilled chicken, with enchilado sauce, grilled piña, cilantro, and red onions. By this fourth dish of tacos, I noticed that there was distinction among all of the dishes. Per my great friend’s commentary, there is consistency in the flavouring. There certainly was consistency in the quality.

Ala Gallina

Ala Gallina

We gave ourselves a bit more time to let our bellies settle before indulging a postre. I was riding the commuter train back into downtown Chicago and wanted to stay awake, so we opted for something light. Without looking at the menu, I rattled off to the server to surprise us. He obliged. There was a dessert platter that looked like sushi. What we received were four key lime cylinders, topped with strawberry quarters, and indeed looking like something from a sushi bar menu. Ever so grateful that the dessert was light, we consumed it slowly, because it would have been a crime to have left any. And to cancel out my desire to stay alert on the commute back into downtown, I had a guava margarita. I have no willpower.

Postre

Postre

Guava Margarita

Guava Margarita

Altiro Latin Fusion is truly off the beaten path. When people go to Geneva, there are two main strips that everyone crowds. However, Altiro is down a side road on a residential street. Clearly the only way one would discover the restaurant is by getting lost or by inquiring of someone who has gone to Altiro where the exact location is. Because I have had taco overload since moving to Chicago in 1994, I have not been excessively quick to go to any Mexican restaurants or fast food restaurants that serve Mexican fare. Sure, Altiro serves Latin fare, but they add enough pizzazz to their items that after the first bite of food from any other Latin restaurant, you may want to throw your plate against the wall. Well, it may be better to simply request the check and make the trek out to Geneva instead. Altiro Latin Fusion will be there. You should be there, too.

Altiro Latin Fushion on Urbanspoon