Chef Sara’s Café, Pre-Pandemic Flavor Euphoria

Given the flow of people who came through after which there were greetings by first name, it became evident that Chef Sara’s Café has a steady stream of regular customers. Once you get to enjoy anything from the menu, engage everyone in conversation, or find yourself dancing to the music played in the background, you will no doubt find yourself being a regular patron. It is rare in today’s environment that you can go into any establishment as a stranger and leave as a part of the family. Chef Sara’s Café will be the first café or restaurant I go to for a proper sit-down after the pandemic eases. I always enjoy going back home. Continue reading

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Pandemic Foodtography

I am coming up on the end of the ninth week of being in shelter. Lucky for me, my day job in IT affords me the option of working from home. Actually, I don’t have a choice. And because Chicago is rather rigorous with adhering to the pandemic alert, barring knuckleheads that have been having parties with participation volume that no doubt makes there pre-pandemic parties look like failed attempts, I have cooked at home mostly, only ordering takeaway on a few occasions.

Normally, I would have photos that I had captured at some restaurant. However, below is a slideshow of the captures from my own kitchen. I must keep my photography fu current for when I do get back out to various eateries for blogging.

White Chocolate Macadamia Nuts Cookies
Pandemic Cooking and Baking

The running joke I have with friends and family is that I will have Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous sessions on the same night. My three meals a day are now six with intermittent snacks in between. When people were in a frenzy for toilet paper, I stocked up on wine. Granted I don’t drink wine daily, but I have several glasses on the weekends. It also doesn’t help that my neighbor one floor below me is a sommelier who always has some wine to spare.

It is my hopes that everyone is safe. I know many are anxious to return to work. All of us are ready to return to a life of normalcy. It will be quite some time before we get to a level of true comfort, though, but all in good time. In the meantime, be safe and eat well.

Latinicity, a Taste of Latin America

One thing I like about Latinicity is the variety, albeit found in only a few vendors. I must admit that I thought there were more restaurants before. Of course, that was over five years ago. I recall there being restaurants to the right of the entrance as well as the current restaurants to the left of the entrance. Nevertheless, next time I am downtown, I will make plans to stop I again to try some other offerings. Continue reading

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Bettie Lou’s Restaurant, Soul Food Heaven

Happy New Year. Starting 2020 off with realistic resolutions, a new list of international cuisines and restaurants to try, and another list of American restaurants that have a focus on healthy recipes. Now that I am in my 50’s, I have to be mindful of everything since my metabolism doesn’t burn off fat the way that it did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.

A friend had told me about a post on her high school class page on Facebook. There was mention of a restaurant named Bettie Lou’s Restaurant at 5633 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. After a brief review of the menu online, I agreed to meet my friend there so that we could try some of the dishes.

Bang the gavel. Sold!

We started with salmon croquettes, scrambled eggs, and brown rice. Those who are from Down South can speak to having a breakfast consisting of salmon croquettes, rice, and biscuits. You don’t get a Northern brunch. Bettie Lou’s brought a bit of the South to the North Side of Chicago, for sure. The croquettes were not a failed attempt but meaty salmon lightly encrusted with a light batter and fried with onions and bell peppers. The brown rice was the surprise. It occurred to us after we had finished that there was no gravy on the rice. The addition of butter and seasoning actually made me view brown rice in a favorable light.

For a second landing we had turkey chops with cabbage and cheese grits. The turkey chops had been lightly breaded and fried to look like pork chops. It was all turkey and with a well seasoned gravy, it was better than any pork chops I have had. The cabbage reminded me of the same that I have had at countless Jamaican restaurants in Jamaica and off the island. As to the cheese grits, they were a perfect compliment to the course with a proper amount of cheese and creamy consistency.

The third course was of perch served with collard greens and candied yams. The perch was not some thawed fish purchased from the frozen section. We were thankful that it was not encased in a quarter inch of crust. There was a flour batter, which made it very light. As to the greens, this was the first that I have had cooked in a vegan manner that had flavor. Whatever chopped weeds I have had at other vegetarian and vegan restaurants don’t compare to the collard greens at Bettie Lou’s. The yams were not sugary and were just the right balance to the greens. Add to the delight of this landing, the johnny cake that came with the greens made it all feel like New Orleans in Chicago.

My friend had ordered some peach cobbler for takeaway. Before we left, we had a spoonful for a sample. Had it not been for discipline, we would have finished it at the restaurant. The only thing missing was a scoop of ice cream. Once word gets out about how tasty the peach cobbler is, it will be the one thing that will have Bettie Lou’s Restaurant making the news.

For all of the food that we ate, we were sated but not to the point of misery or comatose. That speaks to the ingredients not being so heavy as to leave diners feeling like they’ve eaten past a proper dining threshold. Having gone during the middle of the day on a Saturday, we got the chance to engage the owner in conversation, which made it feel like we had gone to a friend’s or a family member’s house. One thing to note is that dishes are prepared to order. It will take time for food to arrive at the table because nothing is warmed up or microwaved. Although Chicago boasts a long list of soul food, soul food vegetarian, and soul food vegan restaurants, Bettie Lou’s Restaurant has made a flavorful impression on me such that it is now my go-to soul food haunt.

Salmon Croquettes, Brown Rice, Scrambled Eggs
Bettie Lou’s Restaurant (Slideshow)

Cellar Door Provisions for True, Good Eating

Let me start by saying that I had no idea this cafe existed. I had passed by it countless times and nothing screamed “Open for Business.” A colleague told me about it and we agreed to meet for a Sunday breakfast. This was during the summer. It has become a regular Sunday spot ever since.

First, the homemade bread wins. During the first visit, the cauliflower and broccoli salad in a creamy dressing was addictive. And the pork belly with peppers and cherry tomatoes were worthy of repeat orders. From what I can tell, there is a bit of a farm to table aspect that makes everythig on the menu fresh.

For Logan Square to be a hipster landscape, those working at Cellar Door Provisions don’t have the detached attitude. They’re engaging and attentive without hovering. The cafe is not large and there is a constant ebb and tide of patrons. As I mentioned, I have returned with my colleague quite often since the first visit. I hope that this will be one restaurant that will not succumb to the curse of “closing restaurants” that plagued Chicago in 2019.

Because I had several visits since the first one, there are several compositions that I have captured since. Rather than doing a very long write-up, below is a link to the Flickr page where I posted the photos to ignite your appetite. If you are in or near the Chicago Logan Square area, Cellar Door Provisions is one to add to your list of restaurant spots.

Pasta
Cellar Door Provisions

Marisol at Museum of Contemporary Art

Chicago boasts a number of outstanding museums where one may go for education, enlightenment, and entertainment. One of the many museums in the city is the Museum of Contemporary Art at 205 E. Pearson Street where you can see a collection of paintings, sculptures, and visual art. After a recent visit to MCA, I was pleasantly surprised to find Marisol on the lower level. I sat at the bar and started with a Manhattan that was smooth.

Manhattan
Sidney J

For my first landing, the plate of sweet red shrimp and chopped walnuts was outstanding. As a starter, it was good enough for whetting the palate but not heavy to the point of not leaving room for completing additional dishes. There was a slight kick to the dish, which made the shrimp pop with flavor, but the pepper was not an overpowering ingredient.

Sweet Red Shrimp

The second landing of risotto verde was a dish that I would recommend highly if ever it is still on the menu. The risotto had been prepared in a pesto and served with broccoli in it. Those who are vegetarian and those who lean towards veganism would certainly love this dish.

Risotto Verde

I finished with a selection of cheeses, graham crackers, apple slices, and honey. There was no way to go wrong with a gorgonzola, a sharp cheddar, and a mild gouda. Having this with a Sidney J cocktail — of which I can’t recall the spirits used in it — this was a better option for a finale than a sweet.

Cheese Board
Cheese Board

I have a feeling the menu changes seasonally. That’s not a bad thing, as you never have the same thing throughout the year to boredom. This restaurant is a winner. 

Marisol at the MCA Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Powerhouse Restaurant

While dealing with a hankering for something from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and culturally familiar to my palate, I did my usual Google search for some West African restaurants. What should display as a result was The Powerhouse Restaurant at 2113 S. State Street in the Near South Side. I saw a few items on the online menu that were reminiscent of Nigerian dishes that I’ve had, so it was off to the South Side for a taste of Africa.

I started with a ground beef pie and with a fish pie. Served with a spicy tomato sauce, these pies were quite tasty. There was less meat in both than I have had in the ones I devoured shamelessly in Lagos and at several Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side. Still, I must admit that a lot of flavor was packed into the pastries.

Meat and Fish Pies

The dish that wowed me during my first visit was egusi. This traditional soup which is made with dried ground melon seeds, bitterleaf, pumpkin leaf, and spinach is my favorite Nigerian dish and The Powerhouse Restaurant did not disappoint. I had the egusi with fish. One note to myself is that West African dishes are prepared culturally, which meant that I had to de-bone the fish and be careful of any fine bones that I did not get while doing the de-boning process. The fragrant rice that came with it made the pop in flavor that more pronounced. With a mild amount of heat in the dish, it was heaven.

Egusi

For the second visit, I returned with some friends. Having talked up The Powerhouse Restaurant, they were intrigued and later happy to have taken me up on the return visit. We started with a round pamplemouse that made us think of summer as opposed to the chilly temperatures Chicago is experiencing. Think lemon and lime with a soda, but more natural than soda pop. Citrusy and refreshing was this beverage. We also had a round of acho soup, one cooked with salmon, the other cooked with chicken. The soup had been prepared with a dried plantain, seasoned well, and served in a bowl that had been prepped with yam pounded until it had the consistency of mashed potatoes. It was so good that I was all done before I realized I had not taken any compositions.

Pamplemouse

For our first landing, we had salmon and skirt steak with ndole. Very much like egusi, ndole employs bitterleaf in the recipe but there is a peanut butter base that provides enough of a balance to balance out the bitterness. The skirt steak was extremely tender and the salmon was rather flaky.

Ndole with Skirt Steak and Salmon

The second landing also came with ndole, but served with shrimp and lamb chops. Again, here was a dish with full flavor and meat that had been prepared such that it was neither borderline rare nor dried out from too much heat. It made each bite succulent.

Ndole with Shrimp and Lamb Chops

The third landing was smoked fish and shrimp served with jollof rice. Aromatic with smoke, the fish was fleshy while the skin had been seared enough to retain a lot of the flavor. The shrimp, like the shrimp that came with the lamb chops, was fat and bursting with each bite. The star in the show was the jollof rice. Being partial to Ghanaian jollof rice, the aromatic spices in this Cameroonian rice really made it quickly become a favorite.

Smoked Fish with Shrimp and Jollof Rice

The Powerhouse Restaurant has mastery in two things that I love most about restaurants: outstanding food and grade-A service. During my first visit, I had a brief chat with the owner who was making the rounds through the restaurant, asking the diners how their experiences were. On the second visit, my friends and I arrived early enough to have the restaurant to ourselves and the owner gave us an explanation of the ingredients used in the recipes and the cultural influences. It felt like going home. And one thing I can say about going home is that there is always a welcoming atmosphere and some of the best food to be had.

The Powerhouse Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Krazy Hog Barbecue

Krazy Hog Barbecue

A few days ago, a good friend posted photos of rather appetizing barbecue dishes on her Facebook page. Come to find out that it was at a restaurant that her cousin owns. I was excited until I saw that it was in the far South Suburbs. That meant driving through downtown Chicago’s mixing bowl, which is a test of your patience and the soundproofing in your car to mute the screaming. But the food looked so good. So, I dashed through the mixing bowl and way off the map to get some sauce on my fingers.

Chicken Tips with Heat Barbecue Sauce

Chicken Tips with Heat Barbecue Sauce

Located at 100 Nugent Street in Glenwood, Illinois, is a quaint barbecue restaurant that has spacious seating and a full bar. Having gone through a revamp, the restaurant was still having a soft open. That meant being able to enjoy much of the menu without a crowd. And once they get word of how tasty the barbecue is, there will be a crowd indeed.
Smoked Chicken Wings

Smoked Chicken Wings

I ordered chicken tips with heat barbecue sauce. These came with fries that they drizzled with more of the barbecue sauce. From the first bite, it became apparent that the chicken could have been enjoyed without the sauce. There was a jerk flavor to them that my Jamaican half loved. However, the heat barbecue sauce was out of this world. There was not a taste as if it had come from a bottle and the heat was enough to have a bite without taking over. I was won over.
Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese

Because I had an intense hunger, I also ordered smoked chicken wings with macaroni and cheese and baked beans. Also served with fries, the wings and the fries were drizzled with more heat barbecue sauce. The wings didn’t just have a hint of smoky flavor to them. They had been smoked proper and it was evident in each bite. The beauty of it was that the smoke played extremely well with the barbecue sauce. Adding to that the macaroni and cheese was of the variety that you get Down South with bubbly cheese on top and the baked beans had to have been prepared from scratch, not from a can.
Baked Beans

Baked Beans

I have had my share of barbecue throughout Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina. I have also had the attempts at several restaurants dotted throughout other states. One thing I must say about Krazy Hog Barbecue is they are true to the craft. Add to that outstanding service and they’re sure to be a favorite. When the grand opening happens and the lines start to get longer, there will be countless individuals attesting to having had the best barbecue in Metro Chicago. I say this as a sane and rational man. I’m not krazy.

Krazy Hog Bbq Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monnie Burke’s for the Pilsen

Monnie Burke's

For my last review, it was of a restaurant where two friends and I met to celebrate a very late birthday and my early birthday. Since then, I had become very serious about losing belly fat. Let me just say that it is possible, but you have to be dedicated to the point of addiction. I have been cooking at home more and spending a lot of time in the gym, so my outings to different restaurants came to a stop. However, I made time to meet my two friends for one of their birthdays. Birthdays seem to be the reason for the occasional dining excursion. We met at Monnie Burke’s in Pilsen at 1163 W. 18th Street.

Old Fashioned
Old Fashioned
Oscar Valentin
Oscar Valentin

Along with our first round of cocktails, and I must commend the bartender for mixing some great drinks without being heavy handed or dabbling in Shirley Temple world, we started with a soft pretzel that was served with a smoked gouda and black truffle fondue. I recommend this highly for a starter. While the gouda does not have an expected smoky flavor, the fondue works well with the lightly salted pretzel. I think the black truffle addition helps to bring out more on the palate.

Soft Pretzel with Smoked Gouda and Black Truffle Fondue
Soft Pretzel with Smoked Gouda and Black Truffle Fondue

Our first small course was the egg yolk pappardelle. This was angry, or arrabbiata as Italians would say. The ground scallops in the dish were outstanding and I have been looking up recipes that call for ground scallops because I need more. There was enough bite in the dish to pick up the spiciness, yet not enough to that we required sips of water after each swallow. This dish was a nod to Italy.

Egg Yolk Pappardelle
Egg Yolk Pappardelle

One supper vegetable that has become more popular than red velvet cupcakes of several years ago are Brussels sprouts. Accented with a white anchovy vinaigrette, Calabrian chili peppers, pine nuts, and parmesan, I can almost guarantee you that you’re obstinate child who hates vegetables would love this dish. It was nice that the additions to the Brussels sprouts did not overtake the flavor of the actual vegetables. This is a nice wink to the toe of Italy, to Calabria.

Crispy Brussels Sprouts
Crispy Brussels Sprouts

Another super vegetable is cauliflower. Here it is fire roasted with urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, olives, almonds, and sheep’s milk cheese. With the use of the urfa biber peppers, medjool dates, and olives, there was an injection of Turkey and Morocco into the dish. Goes to show you that you can have ingredients from different yet close regions play very well in recipes and it made the cauliflower stand out as opposed to being reminiscent of milder broccoli.

Roasted Cauliflower
Roasted Cauliflower

Those who are fans of seafood would appreciate the Spanish octopus. Prepared such that you could cut through the tentacles with a butter knife and tender enough that there was no rubbery texture. Coming with shishito peppers, papas bravas, and a black garlic mole, there was very little left on the plate. This dish gets the Clean Plate Society Award.

Spanish Octopus
Spanish Octopus

Having taken red meat out of my diet mostly, I broke my discipline for the sake of trying the cheeseburger. Not just a cheeseburger, as listed on the menu, but rather a double cheeseburger, this was worth every bite. This burger is topped with American cheddar, grilled red onions, and served with garlic fries and lemon aioli. As I was never a fan of having my burgers anything close to rare, it was nice that it arrived at the table a slight notch less than well cooked, juicy as juicy can be, and I never had to state how I wanted the burger cooked. This is the mark of a cook who knows his or her trade well.

Double Cheeseburger
Double Cheeseburger

For dessert, we had a brownie that was baked by the devil, topped with a fist size scoop of ice vanilla bean ice cream, and drizzled with a warm chocolate sauce. The caramel popcorn addition was a unique garnish. It did not take away from the brownie ala mode, though. Those who love moist — spelled “moyse” — brownies will have a problem staying on the wagon after having a taste of this dessert. It is extremely rich, so I would recommend sharing it with your dinner guest or guests.

Brownie Ala Mode with Caramel Popcorn
Brownie Ala Mode with Caramel Popcorn

Monnie Burke’s is clearly a winner when it comes to service and good food. Given the amount of food that we ordered, everything was a hit, not one disappointing moment to be had. With summer now giving us days that we can enjoy in al fresco mode, the patio at Monnie Burke’s fills out quickly. The inside was empty, but that was understandable with everyone wanting outside seating without fear of a torrential downpour or extreme humidity. It’s not of the staple variety that has graced Pilsen’s landscape for decades. However, it is a welcomed addition.


Monnie Burke's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dos Urban Cantina, Mixing It Up Mexican

After months of putting off getting together with two great friends because of schedule conflicts, frigid temperatures, and all sorts of other hurdles we were clearing, we finally set a date. This was a celebratory dinner. It was a late birthday dinner for my former flatmate, a celebration for our mutual friend who accepted a position at a new company, and an early birthday dinner for me. What better way for a gathering than to try something new, Dos Urban Cantina at 2829 W. Armitage Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

Chips and Dips

We arrived early enough to partake of happy hour. That meant a sampling of several small dishes, for sure. It also meant discounted cocktails. So there were libations for toasting and mellowing before. And first to the table were chips and dips. The guacamole was creamy and spicy thanks to the addition of some peppers. The roasted tomato salsa was another spicy delight. The pumpkin seed hummus was a nice change from traditional chickpea hummus.

Chicken Wings

The chipotle glazed chicken wings coated with sesame seeds were very reminiscent of Korean barbecue wings. These also had a kick to them and it was nice that the glaze was neither cloying nor overpowering. This was the appetizer that we wanted to order for a second round.

Tamal Tots

The tamal tots were a surprise. Who would have every thought to fry tamales up like tatertots? Served with a mild habanero crema, these were way better than expected. The combination of tamale flavor and crunch certainly move these up as a recommended appetizer.

Enchiladas

Another winner from the appetizer section was the plate of enchiladas. These were small, fried, stuffed with a tasty cheese, and topped with a queso fresco. Compared to the other appetizers that had a bit of pepper to kick in on the back, this was mild.

Ceviche

I can now say that some of the best ceviche that I have had outside of Mexico, Central, and South America was at Dos Urban Cantina. I love spicy food and anything with heat is a winner. The ceviche was packed with lots of flavor, but the addition of a few red peppers took it up several notches. It countered the tartness of the lemon juice without a need for salt. To sum it up in one word: outstanding.

Seared Scallops

Moving into big plates, the seared scallops we devoured the seared scallops in silence. Served with shrimp toast ahogada, pickled spring onion, and turnip, we swiped through the gravy and finished this dish with a few random sighs and nods. When the server said that this was one of her favorite dishes, we understood why.

Short Ribs with Pinto Beans

A bit heartier was the plate of short ribs with pinto beans. This came with a side of flour tortillas that we stuffed the tender short ribs, beans, radish, and charred lettuce in. After a while of total satisfaction, we used the tortillas to sop the remaining gravy. Yes, by now, we felt quite at home.

Octopus Fried Rice

The addiction course was the octopus fried rice. This was what dreams are made of. The accent of garlic thankfully did not ruin the recipe, but rather hinted at its addition. Unlike octopus or squid at some restaurants, it was so tender that slicing through it with a dull eating utensil was possible without effort.

Because we had overindulged, we settled on one dessert: chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. Okay, that would be two desserts. The cake had the texture and the trace of Betty Crocker in it, quite possibly made moister with sour cream. Texture was a giveaway. Nevertheless, it was a nice wrap-up to an extremely satisfying dinner.

Generally, you get really good Mexican food at taquerias. When restaurants take on a mainstream look and feel, the cuisine seems to pale. At Dos Urban Cantina, while there is a bit of mixing it up in the recipes, the spirit of Mexican food still shines. It’s an action-packed restaurant. After you feast on several menu items, it become apparent why. This is another restaurant I should not have taken so long to visit.

dos Urban Cantina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato