La Sirena Clandestina, Vai, Vai, Vai

La Sirena Clandestina

Chicago’s West Loop district has proven to be something of a Wonderland. I was already aware of the many restaurants and cafes that dotted the landscape. However, I never ventured into the meat packing district of the West Loop, except for once to meet some friends at a pork-centric restaurant that spiked my blood pressure. And I had forgotten about another high-end restaurant named Moto that I’d gladly go back to if it were not for the fact that the price for the meal would nibble considerably at my play budget. Nevertheless, there are some gems in the area I haven’t visited and one that suited my fancy was La Sirena Clandestina at 954 W. Fulton Market. At the recommendation of a colleague, I got to sample some loving from the kitchen with a heavy Brazilian influence.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

Having arrived early after work, I had a pick of seats near the window. I had to sit where I could take advantage of the late sunset, considering the restaurant looked like it gets rather dark. On entry, the guy who seated me kept asking if we knew each other. This has been an ongoing inquiry for the past few months. And I never manage to run into my doppelganger. After he had detected my accent, he then realized we had never met and he then told me to get a caipirinha for a cocktail, as I would not be sorry. Wow! Wow! Wow! Strong, flavourful, refreshing, and addictive are just a few words that had come to mind after the first few sips. My lookalike had to have been a good friend because he started with an outstanding suggestion.

Empanadas: Ropa Vieja and Squash

Empanadas: Ropa Vieja and Squash

Because I am a lightweight, I had to have something to start balancing out the alcohol in the caipirinha. The server had recommended the empanadas if I were one who enjoyed indulging them. I didn’t think I could go wrong with empanadas, so I ordered two, a ropa vieja — old clothes — and a squash. The Best Actor Award for keeping a straight face and trying not to squeal with food bliss goes to me. The barbecue sauce in the ropa vieja had a faint hint of goat cheese in it, which added an extra flavour that made me love that empanada even more. I have no words to describe how much the squash empanada made me want to smack the table. Those empanadas were nothing short of heaven in baked pastries.

Black Beans and Rice

Black Beans and Rice

As always, my food alarm was ringing and I was buzzing from the caipirinha. So, I ordered a side of black beans and rice to get me worked up to a masterpiece entree item. Accented with pork, but not overloaded with it, this dish reminded me of red beans and rice and how much I loved that dish when I was a kid sitting at my grandmother’s table. I was thankful that, unlike some black beans and rice I’ve had at a restaurant I will not name, the dish was not salty. And then came the moqueca. Different from moqueca that I have had before, it was still good enough for me to have wanted to tip the bowl and slurp afterwards. The stew seemed to lack coconut milk in the base and instead of rice, there were lentils in the dish. The mussels, prawns, and tilapia were fresh and I was happy. I was happier with the second, accompanying caipirinha.

Moqueca

Moqueca

By the time I had finished everything, I should have left well enough alone. I couldn’t. I had to have more. But I had to wait. There was some dessert that needed to be loved and I had to love it unconditionally, which meant without feeling I would be too stuffed to complete a sweet. Thankful that I had my Kindle Fire with me, I read a few chapters of a book and then was ready for action again. I ordered a plate of almond cake with slices of blood orange and some almonds atop a creme anglaise. Looking at the almond cake, I thought it was going to have the consistency of cornbread. It had the texture of a cloud and without being too sweet, it was a rather flavourful cloud. Because the caipirinhas were doing this “Your eyes are getting very, very heavy” thing to me, I needed some coffee to counter my food and drink comatose. When I was done with the cake, I smacked the table.

Almond Cake

Almond Cake

The beauty of La Sirena Clandestina is that while it is small compared to some of the big box restaurants in the West Loop, diners are not rushed. It seems like a rather great place to go for a date — or to meet before a tryst. Okay, so it’s not that kind of place, but there is an atmosphere of ease that makes it a very inviting restaurant. Add to that some delicious food, and you have the makings of a food magnet. I didn’t have the feijoada, which is a traditional Brazilian dish like moqueca, so I can’t say if all of the dishes are variations of what is served in Brazil. What I will say is that La Sirena Clandestina is in my slideshow.

Vai, vai, vai, vai, vai. (What Bossa Nova songs is that from?)

La Sirena Clandestina on Urbanspoon

Loving the Whole Brazilian Food Experience

Brazilian Bowl

When you have lived in Chicago, Illinois, for eighteen years, there are a few things that you do not take for granted. The traffic is not easy on those of us who drive manual shift cars. You really do not need a car living in the city proper. People go on red and stop on green. The temperatures do not warm up until mid to late June, albeit there will be a few days of teasingly warm temperatures between February and May. It’s the latter that makes me hanker for being able to split my time between Chicago during the warmer months and Brazil during the rest of the year. I can dream, though. And I can also go to one of several Brazilian restaurants in the city when I need something to put me in the mind of being in a warmer climate like that of Brazil. And on a certain frosty evening after work, I met up with a friend in Chicago’s Lakeview at Brazilian Bowl at 3204 N. Broadway. Well, since I can’t get to Brazil the way I would like, the alternative is accepting the fact that a bit of Brazil has come to Chicago.

Steak Bowl

Brazilian Bowl is a relatively small cafe that has a few high tables and a lot of character as far as the Lakeview scene goes. I had gone twice in 2012 shortly after the cafe had opened. They were still in the throes of finding their place. Many kinks had to be ironed out and with crowds pouring it, I am sure they were biting down really hard while having to entertain long lines of customers heaving exaggerated sighs. Much has settled since and it was time to return for another sampling of something traditional. For me, I ordered a Brazilian lemonade, a coxinha, and a feijoada. My friend ordered a steak bowl and a flan.

Flan

Japanese do it well. Mongolians do it well. Koreans do it incredibly well. Now, it is apparent that Brazilians do it equally well. The steak bowl is not just some concoction thrown into a bowl as though someone is coming up with their own version of goulash. My friend had commented briefly that it was doing the trick and after seeing that he had polished the whole dish off with very little conversation, I was not going to argue with his assessment. Steak, corn, carrots, mushrooms, cheese, and rice joined forces to do their wicked bidding on his taste buds and he smiled. And I knew there certainly was no denying that the flan he had bought was worthy of the comment, “Oh, wow, ‘this’ is really, really good.” The steak bowl and the flan will be two items that I will have to be certain to add to my list when I return.

CoxinhaAs for me, I had ordered two of the more well-known traditional dishes — coxinha and feijoada. The coxinha was a huge tear drop pastry filled with chicken, corn, and some spices that went over very well. This falls more in line with street food, such that you can walk around with it and eat it from your hands, no utensils required. The feijoada was a bowl of rice, black beans, sausage, ham hocks, and greens mineira style was worthy. After a few scoops of the feijoada, it was quite clear that Brazilian Bowl is the second Brazilian cafe in Chicago to prepare the dish the way that I remember from my trip to Salvador Bahia. There was a lot more authenticity in the flavouring than what I have had in some small Brazilian cafes scattered throughout the United States. The Brazilian lemonade was, hands-down, the real thing. It’s not a failed attempt and fancy packaging. Only at Taste of Brasil have I had it authentically and now Brazilian Bowl matches the wow in the flavour exactly. The balance of tart and sweetness as well as the creamy consistency tell it all.

Feijoada

There are two other Brazilian restaurants in Chicago that I love to frequent — Taste of Brasil and Sabor Express. After the most recent visit to Brazilian Bowl and seeing that they have settled into a fantastic routine, I now can say that there is a third Brazilian cafe that I will frequent. I love the big box eateries like Fogo de Chão, Texas de Brazil, Sal y Carvao, Brazzaz, and the like, but there are times when you want something that puts you in the streets and along the beaches where the flavours reach out to you and tempt you to try what’s being prepared for your culinary delight. Hmm. Maybe sticking it out through the cold temperatures in Chicago isn’t so bad. Yes, I can dream of being in Brazil where it’s warm. Some delicious food from Brazilian Bowl will help me have clearer visions when I do start to dream.

Brazilian Bowl on Urbanspoon

Gino on the Floor

Fogo de Chao

Thanksgiving, 2012, came and went. There was food for all feasts. Cornbread dressing with brown gravy or cranberry sauce. Collard greens. Candied yams. Macaroni and cheese. String bean casserole. Cornish hens because there will be turkey for Christmas. Sweet potato pies. Apple pie. Peach cobbler. Coconut pound cake. Almond scented white cake. There was, of course, a bit of weight gain after so much delighting. But it was not because of Thanksgiving gluttony. No, I had made a pact with my high school sweetheart that for every pound she took off, I would add a pound. Being such a diligent and honest man by holding up my end of the pony, the joints in my legs are now feeling the girth of 211 pounds. As if that was not enough, I returned from enjoying Thanksgiving with family with a calendar appointment for Fogo de Chão. And everyone’s eyes open wide with surprise.

Salad Bar Options

When I started Chicago Alphabet Soup many years ago, Fogo de Chão at 661 North La Salle Street was the second restaurant I went to. That was when I had a cheap point-and-click camera and before I started using my expensive digital camera properly. It was all about the food. Having then returned from São Paulo, Brazil, I wanted to see if the churrascaria in Chicago would make me miss the megalopolis. I remember the temperatures having a bit more bite than I had been accustomed to below the equator. So it was off to the best churrascaria in Chicago for their dandy bonanza of meat, meat, rare meat, medium rare meat, well-done meat, and then some more meat. Fast forward to 2012 and I have jumped willingly into the diet of a pescatarian. Why did I agree to meet up with friends at Fogo de Chão, of all places? Could it be that my high school sweetheart had told me that she had lost a few pounds and I needed to fulfill my end of the pact? Hmm. I will let that be my excuse.

Caipirinha

Much like the temperatures were during the first visit to Fogo de Chão, I wanted something to put me in the mind of being in São Paulo years ago. A glass of ciapirinha certainly would make that happen. Think of a mojito without the mint. I was quite happy, although I was aware of the sweater I had on, which meant I was aware of being in Chicago instead of in Brazil. Being a lightweight, I needed something to keep the alcohol from having me floating about the restaurant in my own little ether world. It was off to the salad bar. Asparagus. Mushrooms. Cheeses. Bread. Olives. Tuna salad. Chicken salad. Salmon. Smiles. You are told to get a small plate of fruit and vegetables, not to fill up on the salad bar because the gauchos will keep your table occupied with various cuts of meats, rolls that melt on your tongue like cotton candy, mashed potatoes, and baked bananas. This could easily become any glutton’s nirvana.

Spiced Beef, Parmesan Crusted Pork

Then it was time to turn over the card for “sem,” yes, yes, Yes!!! The gauchos hovered through room with slabs of meat on skewers, of which you end up in a daze wanting everything that they bring. If I were a devout pescatarian, I would have stayed away. However, I have no willpower. That was rather evident when there was the mouth-watering aroma from lombo, which is parmesan crusted pork. There was also the essence of some beef ancho wafting up my nose. Imagine if you will Oliver saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This wonder meat had me wanting to launch into song, singing, “Food, glorious food, hot mustard and sausage.” Moist. Succulent. Tender. I am sure I could come up with about two dozen more adjectives to describe the flavours, six dozen if I were to describe the taste in several other languages.

Nice to Meat You

The picanha, the best part of the sirloin and flavoured with garlic, was worthy. I could have told the gaucho to leave a quarter of the slab at the table. Then others in the restaurant would have been screaming for my head on skewer, perhaps. This choice meat was just as tender as the previous selection. There appeared to be something of a glaze to it, as there was a slight sweetness to each bite. Imagine that. Other than at Argentinean steak houses, I have never had meat like this in it natural juices without the addition of sugar to the recipes. Fogo de Chão is the first restaurant to have succeeded in making the meat sing. And I have been to all the popular churrascarias in America, Chicago boasting the majority of them.

Meat

By the time a slice of fraldinha had made it to the table, the pescatarian angel and the vegetarian angel that were sitting on my shoulders had smacked their foreheads and declared defeat of saving my belly from the evils of meat. When I was a heavy carnivore, I wanted my meats to be well done. Well, I chose to have a medium well cut of the fraldinha. Needless to say, I enjoyed it. This is more popular in Southern Brazil, and I remember stuffing myself senselessly with some of it after a capoeira ceremony in Bahia. Yes, it was better that I had partaken of this after hand stands, backward flips, cartwheels, and round-houses. I would have split my pants or landed with a thump otherwise. But at Fogo de Chão I simply had to fan myself to stave off the sweat from working so hard on the constant cuts of meat, mashed potatoes, rolls, and baked bananas.

Meat

In keeping with dining on beef primarily, I requested a cut of the alcatra. It was at this point that the previously mentioned angels were sparring behind my back. This is my favourite. I have been to all the other churrascarias in the city — Texas de Brazil, Sal y Carvão, and Brazzaz — and whatever attempts they have made at alcatra seemed to fall into the okay category. There is no want for a cigarette afterwards. There’s no silence, which is an indication that the food is working magic on you. There is no Wow! Much like me wanting the picanha all to myself, the alcatra invokes that same sensation.

Meat

Rounding out my choices of meats was a cut of filet mignon. Growing up, filet mignon was always presented as bacon wrapped around ground beef. Who thought that was a brilliant idea? For my Brazilian dining experience, I opted for a medium rare cut. Now, usually when I have ever asked for any meat to be medium rare, the cow was still protesting. My appetite would have a quick pace running far from the restaurant. At Fogo de Chão the medium well cut of filet mignon was a tender piece of juicy meat that did not squirt or squirm. I worked my knife and fork on it like those actors in commercials who smile for the camera. But more than smiling, I actually ate the meat and I had no remorse, even for my pescatarian sensibilities.

Flan

After about two hours of flipping the coaster back and forth over to alert the gauchos to bring meat and to stop bringing meat, it was time to stop the meat odyssey and polish the palate with some dessert. I have mentioned in past posts that I could put any cornfed Iowa Bart or Indiana Billy Joe Bob to shame at the dinner table and desert number one of three was a case study of that. The flan was creamy like the flans I loved from Santo Domingo. As much as I love flan, my blood pressure cannot say the same. But I am not a “yes” man to constantly working my teeth on the delectable dessert every time the option presents itself. Pause. Okay, it’s most of the time that I concede to my want and gnash away on flan without complaint.

Pastel de Tres Leches

However, I shall not forget about the tres leches cake. Having had a slice of it from a restaurant a few months ago where I swear they poured a whole carton of milk on the cake, turned the carton upside down, and then hit the carton from the bottom to get the last drops out of it, the pastel de tres leches at Fogo de Chão had a texture not of drowned cake. Enjoyed with some cafezinho, coffee, I can say with certainty that everything was okay in the land. To be honest, let me stop pulling your leg and just say that I was drunk from too much eating. Not one for turning into a jester, had I been at home, I would have danced, sang, and put on a performance. Food, glorious food.

Chocolate Molten Cake, Ice Cream

The award for most gluttonous eater of 2012 goes to, none other than, Gino Williams. The chocolate molten cake with a dollop of vanilla ice cream under a drizzle of chocolate was the coup de grace. Here is where we had Gino on the floor. There is a restaurant in downtown Chicago called Grand Lux Cafe that has the best molten chocolate cake in the whole world. The cake at Fogo de Chão runs a very close second. I had been sitting for three hours filling my jaws and the act of standing was not an option. Having to move about was impossible. It was bad enough that I had to force myself to lean over so I could retrieve my wallet to pay the tab. But standing up and realizing that I was bent over like a geriatric was all anyone needed to see to know that I had shed my British polishing for being a thoroughly satisfied food brute.

My running joke is that Fogo de Chão is indeed a lazy buffet, as all you have to do is sit while the gauchos tempt you with all the various choices of meats. There are the side dishes, but the whole churrascaria experience is worth the trip. You may find other churrascarias in the city, but the one that you may find yourself frequenting is Fogo de Chão, hands down. One thing to note is that the price may grow a few grey hairs in your head, in your beard if you’re bald. Go for lunch instead, when the prices are not as cha-ching as the dinner prices. But make sure it is during a half day at work because eating too much will result in a dire need to go to sleep afterwards. Another thing is that it would be a crime to go to the restaurant if you are not one for eating meat. The salad bar panders to the vegetarian and pescatarian palates wonderfully. Still, the constant view of meat would tempt even a staunch vegan. As for me, I think I gained enough weight to keep my word to my high school sweetheart. But that was not enough. She called and told me that she lost a few more pounds. Looks like I will be getting up to 220 pounds by the beginning of the New Year. My resolution will be to stop making pacts, but it won’t be to stop eating like a bottomless culinary fanatic.

Fogo de Chão on Urbanspoon

Sabor Express, Delicia in Chicago

Sabor ExpressWeeks had passed since I had indulged in some Chicago food happiness. I had been preparing for another personal holiday and then I was gone on the actual holiday. So there was a gap in time with me wandering into some eatery, getting my fill of food, and then stumbling into the streets with crossed eyes, a silly smile, and a satisfied appetite. With summer now being here — although the temperatures have indicated otherwise — I wanted to return to my mode of seeking out fantastic ethnic restaurants in Chicago so that I may entice you, my hungry reading audience.

Coxhinas

Coxhinas

Sabor Express at 1230 W. Taylor Street in University Village was my destination for this day. I had walked past the restaurant a few months ago while going to meet some friends at an Italian restaurant some blocks away. This Brazilian restaurant is not of the likes of those meat lovers paradises where Gauchos serve you endlessly more meat than you may have ever had in your entire life. Only one other Brazilian restaurant comes to mind, one that has a feeling that you have entered someone’s home and been made to feel like you truly belong there. Spacious and large like most American fast food outfits, but far from fast food once you start delighting on the food, Sabor Express after only this first time has become what I will consider a regular stopping ground.

Moqueca

Moqueca

I ordered a Coxhina with shrimp for starters. This popular Brazilian snack is made from shredded chicken, spices, and cheese, stuffed in a shell made of wheat and potatoes and then deep-fried. Although I am still on the vegetarian and seafood regimen, I allowed for the chicken. I wanted to see if the tasty teardrop treat was anything reminiscent of the Coxhinas I had during my days in São Paulo. Yes! They were. After finishing the first Coxhina, it occurred to me that there are not enough eateries in Chicago that have street food only. Quite often you want something very quick, something you can walk up to a counter, order, and enjoy while having a casual stroll to your next destination. In the meantime, I will order a batch of street food from places like Sabor Express.

For a main dish, I had one of my favourite Brazilian dishes — moqueca de peixe. This seafood stew made of peppers, white fish, and shrimp has a flavour that puts me in the mind of some Thai dishes that I have had. Had I not changed my diet to vegetarian and seafood, I would have had feijoada — Brazilian red beans and rice with greens — but I knew that I could not go wrong with moqueca. I often think that food establishments that are far removed from the originating countries merely go through the motions of trying to capture and present a bit of home in the cooking. They minimize their spices to accommodate the discriminating — and sometimes limited — American palate. And then there are restaurants that remain true to tradition and it is evident in the food. This was the case with the moqueca. The natives of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Salvador Bahia, Brasilia, Fortaleza, and other locations would be incredibly pleased that they can find a restaurant in Chicago that will make them feel like they have gone around the corner from their homes.

Moqueca

Moqueca

I am sure that there is a larger Brazilian population in Chicago than what I have come across. Taste of Brasil has a restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, that caters to the palate that loves Brazilian food. There is a woman who also opens her home to the public for the flavours of Brazil. I need to find out when she will entertain again. Of course, there are the meat-excessive restaurants like Fogo de Chao, Brazzaz, Sal y Carvao, Texas do Brazil, and Sabor do Brazil where you can become victim of the lazy buffet syndrome thanks to Gauchos bringing you a constant variety of meats on which to feast. But there is Sabor Express for some of the best street food and some outstanding comfort food when you want to sit and have flavours bursting in your cheeks. If you find yourself in Little Italy or in University Village and have a few dollars in your pocketbook or wallet, walk around the 1200 block of Taylor Street and let your appetite pull you into Sabor Express.

25 June 2011

Sabor Express on Urbanspoon

When In

Another fantastic weekend to grace Chicago and I had nothing really spectacular on my schedule, except to enjoy food. I began Friday night meeting with a friend who is about to leave the country on personal holiday. By the time he returns, I will be gone to Qatar and Riyadh on personal holiday — with hopes that the political unrest abroad with the Arab community does not interfere. But while my friend and I had decided to meet up at a small Korean cafe in Chicago’s Hyde Park, it had dawned on me that I had walked out of my condo and left my camera. There are at least five common expletives in the English language and I discovered at least 157 more, plus the ones I know in the other nine languages I speak. To leave home with plans to go to a restaurant and forget the camera — I have four, by the way — is just wrong. What kind of foodie am I? But I was quite okay after stuffing my jaws with bulgolgi, kimchee, chop chae, and jang jugae. I will simply have to return at a later date so that I can blog the Korean restaurant.

Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies

Later on Friday night, I returned home to work some magic of my own. I am a secret chef and baker, if I may be so bold as to say so. With the weather being aggressively bitter, I have found that a great source of heating my kitchen and my great room is by use of the oven. Who would have thought? I have been baking every weekend for the past month and have been very happy with the results. Even my ego will cosign on that assessment. I baked several batches of cookies, some traditional, some experimentally exotic. For the traditional, I baked several batches of butter cookies and several batches of chocolate chip cookies — using bittersweet chocolate chips instead of milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips. Satisfaction! For the exotic, I had gone by Vosges Haut-Chocolate shop and bought a few bars of sweet coconut curry chocolate and chocolate with ancho and chipotle chillies. I must admit that the mention of coconut and curry in chocolate may cause some people to race for the hills and chillies in chocolate may result in some high-end snooty baker bang his or her on the edge of the kitchen counter for not coming up with that idea. I had a chat with my ego and we agreed that it is rather okay to be selfish and keep the exotic chocolate chunk cookies for ourselves. I shall not blow my own horn, although I can play the trumpet, but those exotic cookies could make me millions. Hmm.

Lentil Soup

For Saturday, I had waken early enough to finish baking the remaining batches of cookies and packing several dozen to send to friends and to my brother. After mailing the treats, I had a taste for something to put me in a frame of mind where I am somewhere warmer than Chicago.  Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo. Fortaleza. Salvador Bahia. And what should come to mind but Taste of Brasil in Oak Park. So it was off the subway to board the Blue Line to Oak Park for something with a tropical taste. Complementary lentil soup. So good, so very good. And bobó de camarão. I always say that if I cannot go back to Brazil, then I shall go where I can escape mentally to that land of beauty. The bobó de camarão — shrimp in yuca cream — was just as I remembered from São Paulo. Coconut milk thickened with mashed cassava and loaded with shrimp and boiled cassava, served up with rice, and tastier than ever, I swear I was daydreaming about doing the samba on the beach. Or rather relaxing on the beach after having eaten such a plate of edible bliss.

Bobó de Camarão

Sunday greeted me with rain. Usually I would grumble and growl about rain, but with the recent blizzard leaving the ground covered with snow, slush, and trash, having rain wash it all away so the streets do not look like eyesores was a welcoming weather treat. And what should be on my mind to do after church? Eat. Then again, you already knew that. I went back to Oak Park for some more tropical eats to please the palate. Having gone to Aripo’s Arepa House for comida de Venezuelan during the summer, that was my destination. And I had decided that with this being my third trip to Aripo’s, I was going to try a third dish representative of Venezuela that I have not had before. Cachapas. Venezuelan corn cakes with De Mano cheese between them, primarily found at street vendors in Venezuela, and served up with well-seasoned shredded chicken and sliced red bell peppers, I was in heaven. Where do I begin to describe how satisfying that dish was? Where do I find it in the frozen section of the local market? Where is the off switch on my food alarm so that I can shut it off? Why am I bothering with taking a personal holiday in the Middle East with turmoil bubbling over when I could go to Venezuela instead? You know it is bad when food is so good that you do not want the eating experience to end. Then again, that could be attributed to my food addiction. Thank you, Aripo’s, for a smile-inducing Sunday afternoon lunch.

Cachapas

This was a weekend spent well doing something that I like — baking and eating. I really should be bursting the seams in my pants and popping the buttons on my shirts from all the eating that I do. Thanks again to Ma and Pop Williams for blessing me with a high metabolism, thanks to Nike for thermal gear, and thanks to Adidas for selling tennis with cleats on the bottoms so that I have traction on the ice while running my two to three miles every morning. I cannot — and will not — sacrifice my love of good food which means I shall have to remain active to retain my fashion model physique. Yes, it is incredibly vain of me to want to look like I am still in my twenties when I am old enough to have a child in his or her twenties. So what shall I do for next weekend? When in Chicago, there is an answer to that question. But the short answer is: I shall eat.