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

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

The Reinvention Episode

Kabul House

For my 40th birthday, my friends at the time had made reservations for a return visit to Kabul House, which was in the Eastern part of Skokie at the time.  Kabul House was the first restaurant that I had blogged when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup. After going down the list of alphabets, I had never returned to the top of the alphabet for a visit back to Kabul House or to any other Afghani restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. I had gone to an Italian restaurant and the web owner sent a beautiful response to my blog write-up of the restaurant and followed up with a recommendation for going to Kabul House. My response was that I had gone to Kabul House, only to discover that the original location I gone to had closed. I was rather disappointed because there were no other Afghani restaurants in the city and the experience was incredible the two times that I had gone. There was a bittersweet moment while having to update Chicago Alphabet Soup accordingly. Fast forward to  2013 and I finally made it a point to go to the new location.

Cardamom Tea

Cardamom Tea

Aush-Rishta

Aush-Rishta

At 4949 Oakton Street in Skokie, Illinois, is the new location for Kabul House. The section of town where it resides has a bit of a residential feel to it with a small booming business location.  Only a few weeks ago I was in the area at a neighbouring Jamaican restaurant. But I had to revisit the place where it all began, albeit at a new locale, so that I could update Chicago Alphabet Soup with current foodtography. Spacious and light on the inside, I sat near a window so that I could have natural light for my compositions. These shots had to be special, although no more special than any other photos I have taken of food. Once the server came to table and warned me that there were some items not available because a private party the night before had wiped them out of some staple dishes that they serve, I relied on recommendations for what I should order. Knowing I was going to capture the impressions of the dishes, I wanted everything linearly so not all dishes came at once and the order was placed accordingly.

Mantoo

Mantoo

I started with an aush-rishta. This soup consisted of chickpeas, lentil, red kidney beans, and noodles with fenugreek, parsley, cilantro, and garlic. Immediately after the first slurp, I was reminded of harrira that I have had at Algerian cafes and at some other North African restaurants.  There was absolutely nothing disappointing about the soup. And with the soft, homemade bread that came complimentary, I had no shame at all when I took pieces of the bread and sopped of the last of the gravy that was left when I had finished handling the soup. Instead of ordering a cold drink, I had cardamom tea that was bottomless. Being a tea snob, and by that I mean someone who drinks tea that is brewed from loose leaves as opposed to from tea bags, I can vouch that this tea is not from tea bags. You could taste the cardamom, not just a hint of it. And it went very, very well with  the soup.

Boranee Baunjan

Boranee Baunjan

Where things kicked up a notch, not as though the soup had gotten me off to a bad start, I had mantoo. There are actually two versions of the mantoo — appetizer and entrée. I settled for the appetizer size. My diet is still that of a pescatarian primarily, but I did recall the dish the first time I had gone to Kabul House, which was before I had modified my diet. The mantoo was a plate of steamed dumplings that were filled with spiced ground beef, shredded carrots, and onions then topped with a tomato meat sauce and yogurt mint sauce. These were four dumplings that painted my face with a permanent smile. For my second appetizer, I had boranee baunjan, which was baby eggplant baked with fresh tomatoes and garlic and then topped with a yogurt-mint sauce. I kept thinking of the Indian dish baigan bharta, but the boranee baunjan has so much more bloom to the taste. Where most restaurants would be a bit heavy on salt, this was not the case with Kabul House. Now, one thing to note is that the two appetizers seemed to be a bit oily, not greasy, though. Although I have a high degree of food snobbery, I have no chef talents to be able to see if the oil was indeed grease. It was light, almost like olive oil. But some people run rampant in frenzies whenever their dishes seem to “run.” I got no indigestion, so I am going to say that the appetizers were heavy with olive oil. Then again, the hot tea works wonders with digestion.

Complimentary Sauce

Complimentary Sauce

Murgh Chalau

Murgh Chalau

There was one entrée that I wanted to attempt, given the soup and two filling appetizers that I had already tackled. I had a murgh chalau that came with complimentary rice, a spicy lentil sauce, and more bread. Again, there was what appeared to be a slight heavy hand with olive oil as part of the base, but not to point of making the dish unappetizing. Of all chicken dishes I love, Indian murgh makhani is my favourite. Well, it was my favourite until I had a murgh chalau at Kabul House. Sautéed chicken cooked with garlic and onions in a tomato base left me decisive about how much it is now my all-time favourite chicken dish. And American diners who think that Indian restaurants should have fried chicken tenders on their menu are saying that  they know the best fried chicken shacks and barbecue chicken shanties that would make me change my mind — or make me become a staunch vegan. Nevertheless, I ate as much of the murgh chalau as I could and requested a to-go box because although I did not want the moment to end, I wanted to relish the flavours of the dish later. Getting the remainder of it for take-away meant I got to enjoy a mocha chocolate flourless cake. Sure there was baklava on the dessert menu. There was even honey cake, but my gums would still be throbbing from the sweetness. So I accepted the recommendation for the flourless cake and gobbled it up with the appreciation of a rabid prude. I can’t tell you how much I love chocolate and the mocha chocolate flourless cake will be one secret I keep from my high school sweetheart so that she does not use it against me.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Kabul House retained the authenticity in its food. Having recently gone to an Indian restaurant that had morphed into what looks like a Miami lounge and seemingly tempered its food for the American palates that frequent the area where the restaurant resides, I found a great deal of happiness in the spices, bursts of flavours, and genuine kick to the food at Kabul House. The location may have changed, but thank God the food did not. When I had mentioned that I had a few visits to the first location, the server seemed glad to know that Kabul House remained on my list of favourites such that I came back. He was outstanding with his recommendations and that was one of the things I remembered fondly at the old location. The prices are splendid even for a budget conscious person and unlike the ubiquitous bill of fare consisting of humus, couscous, and other Middle Eastern fare, there is the influence of flavours coming in from Pakistan, Turkey, and quite possibly from India that will have me rushing up to Skokie now and then for some of the best Afghani cuisine outside of the country. I shall be satisfied. You will too when you get your feet under a table at Kabul House.

Kabul House on Urbanspoon Kabul House on Foodio54