Farm to Table, Donkey and Stick

Table, Donkey & Stick

After some time off, I have returned with my usual appetite. With the combination of the day job, personal travels, and getting control of weight gain that has resulted in me having to spend a good bit of money buying clothes that I can fit into now, yes, I had been absent. And when you live in a city like Chicago where you can’t walk too far without facing some inviting restaurant, you cave in a little, or a lot as I had been doing.

Dirty Chi

Dirty Chi

The term “farm to table” has been used for many restaurants that have had debuts on Chicago’s landscape.  Being mostly enticed by cuisines from North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, Asia, South America, and Central America, the farm to table theme seemed more like a phase, like the red velvet cake frenzy and the current doughnut bliss movement. So, while having a casual walk through the eastern end of Logan Square, I passed by Table, Donkey and Stick at 2728 W. Armitage Avenue and decided that it was time to see what made this particular farm to table restaurant so appealing.

Arriving a little after 6:00 PM, I figured there would be the after-work crowd in the main dining area, so I opted to sit out front to enjoy the nice weather and to take advantage of the last remaining natural light of the sunset for photos. With menu in one hand, a Dirty Chi cocktail in the other hand, I found a few items that piqued my appetite and sat back in anticipation for an enjoyable evening.

Gorgonzola Dolce, Candied Walnuts, Jam, and Baguette

Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts, Honey, Baguette and Butter

Starting with a cheese platter was a fantastic option. As a huge lover of creamy cheese, I was pleased with creamy gorgonzola dolce, honey, candied walnuts, butter, and a baguette. Put a footnote here. I hate nuts. Hate them. Absolutely, totally, completely hate them. And then I had a bit of the candied walnuts. Oh how I have been missing out. I love candied walnuts, or at least the ones at Table, Donkey and Stick. But spreading a bit of the cheese on the homemade baguette and dabbing it with the raw honey really made this small platter a winner.

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

The second small plate I ordered was one of potato latkes with garlic aioli. These latkes were not of the large variety that one finds at Polish, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European restaurants. Noting the legend next to the menu item, this dish is vegetarian and free of gluten. Given dietary restrictions and discipline, those who are vegetarian will love the kick in this small plate and those who are sensitive to gluten or who simply want to remove gluten from their diets will also enjoy each bite without worry, except that you may not feel you have had enough when you find yourself contemplating the last piece. And the house cultured butter made each bite that more tasty.

Runner Up

Runner Up

Because I have been a bit restrictive with my diet while trying to get my waist size down to at least a size 34 — you  never notice weight gain by looking at yourself daily, only that you can’t fit pants from the back of your closet with a size 30 waist, period — I have not partaken of my usual dosage of refreshing cocktails. And the Runner Up at Table, Donkey and Stick almost made me yell, “Compliments to the bartender,” from my outdoor seat. I saw that it had mezcal in it and that was all I needed to know that I would love it, but all the other ingredients in it made me all the more happier.

Sticking with small plates, I had new smashed potatoes with farm beans and snails in a pesto. Wow! Wow! Wow! This should be the signature dish, and I’m saying that having been to the restaurant only once. No competing flavors on the palate, no complex flavors overpowering any of the ingredients in the recipe, no rubbery or mushy snails, and not a single crumb or smear of gravy left in the bowl after I had gone over every inch of it with the last bit of baguette. If you go for a proper sit-down, order the “signature dish” and let the server figure out what it is. This dish should never be removed from the menu.

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

The finale was a case study in sweet and savory and how a check can present both in a dish that works well together. There was a scoop of blood orange sorbet that was my intended “light item” after having eaten so much food prior to dessert. And there were fried chicharronés. Often when restaurants try to marry sweet and savory, they do so in a single item that becomes a bit too busy on the palate. The beauty of the sorbet and chicharronés here is that you could enjoy them solo or together without disappointment. Like all of the prior small courses, this one ended on a good note.

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Since I moved to Logan Square in 2007, it has become a landing spot for some of the most popular and most recommended restaurants in Chicago. For a neighborhood that had been plagued with a bad reputation, the presence of restaurants that receive high recommendations and notoriety is something that residents of Logan Square can brag about. Table, Donkey and Stick is a very unassuming restaurant from the street, no flash, no flare, no “look at me,” but when you do notice it and put your feet under one of the tables for enjoyment, you really do come to realize that restaurants with no fancy airs are the best. Three things I discovered: I can indulge farm to table, I love candied walnuts, and Logan Square does indeed have the best unpretentious restaurants in the city.

Table, Donkey And Stick Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chocolate, Ukrainian Style at Shokolad

During early summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to go in for the taping of an episode of Check, Please! Based out of Chicago, the show features three guests who visit three restaurants anonymously and then have a round table review of the restaurants. One of the restaurants we reviewed was Osteria Langhe, which quickly became my favourite Italian restaurant in Chicago when I visited for blogging about it in 2014. The other restaurant was a Pan-Asian restaurant named New Star in Elmwood Park. The third restaurant was Shokolad in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village at 2524 W. Chicago Avenue.

Ricotta Bread

Ricotta Bread

Having passed by Shokolad countless times, my mind turned on phonetics and I automatically thought chocolate and, thus, chocolate as a confection. So, I kept passing by it and never stopped long enough to take a brief peak inside. Thanks to it being one of the restaurants to review for the episode on Check, Please!, I was quite satisfied to enter a cafe filled with a range of friends and families, many speaking the language from the Ukraine, others simply showing appreciation for the food.

Borscht

Borscht

With complimentary ricotta bread and butter accented with garlic, I indulged a bowl of borscht. This soup was the first indication that there would be authenticity in the remainder of the meal. The beets had a garden fresh taste, not the doctored up fruity sweetness from canned or jarred beets. And since the borscht had not been overloaded with croutons, there was only the pure flavouring of the soup to enjoy.

Pierogies: Cheese and Potatoes

Pierogies: Cheese and Potatoes

Because Eastern European countries are good at providing food that is rather hearty, there were two varenikis that I sampled. One was a plate of cheese and potatoes pierogies. The other was a plate of mushroom and tarragon pierogies. One may say that once you’ve had the regular cheese and potatoes pierogies, you’ve had them all. When you come to Shokolad, you soon find out that the bar in delectable flavour has been raised extremely high. You’re not feasting on a frozen variety, be it from the market or prepared days in advance and kept in the freezer for warming. The mushroom and tarragon pierogies are simply heaven, the best pierogies I’ve had since I’ve been exposed to Eastern European cuisine. Again, fresh ingredients, preparations to order, and a delight on the palate.

Ukrainian Style Fried Chicken Over Noodles

Ukrainian Style Fried Chicken Over Noodles

For my first main dish, I had Ukrainian style fried chicken over noodles. Considering many say Ukrainian food “sticks to your belly,” the fried chicken was like moist chicken fried in a cloud. The batter seemed to be egg-based, which made the coating light. But the seasoning had some herbs in it that made each bite outstanding. With the noodles being buttery and far from bland, the chicken still was the star in the dish and all of it was satisfying. There was a side of slaw served and not being a fan of anyone’s slaw, I was surprised that I had finished the side order of it to completion. The slaw isn’t creamy and actually doesn’t have a noticeable mayonnaise base, which is probably why it was more like a nice salad instead.

Hutsulske Pechenya

Hutsulske Pechenya

I waited awhile until my restaurant advisor, who was in the area, arrived. After she had ordered a few dishes, I sampled hutsulske pechenya that came with two ricotta rolls. If I were to make a recommendation as to what dish to indulge during Chicago winters, I would suggest the hutsulske pechenya. Order it for a proper sit-down and order some for take-away. This pot of stew with seasoned beef and plump mushrooms left me wondering if the reason my Ukrainian friends never mentioned this dish is because they know I will beg in an irritating fashion for them to bring some for me.

Check, Please!

Check, Please! Review of Shokolad, New Star, and Osteria Langhe

With so much change in Ukrainian Village over the past few years, it is nice to see that a restaurant like Shokolad has retained authenticity such that they did not compromise the recipes. From great service to reasonable prices to food that begs you to return, it’s understandable how we who reviewed the restaurant came to the agreement that it is indeed a restaurant to add to your list.

Shokolad Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cha, Cha, Cha, Chiya Chai

Chiya ChaiFor years I have wanted an Indian, Pakistani, or Nepalese restaurant to open in Logan Square, if not close by. And by happenstance, I walk past Chiya Chai at 2770 N. Milwaukee Avenue. I had no idea the section of Milwaukee Avenue close to Diversey Avenue was going through such a revitalization, quite rapidly as of late, seeing so many new establishments on the landscape.

Upon entry, you are inside a spacious cafe with lots of natural light, high ceilings, and plenty of seating. The cafe is fast casual, so you order at the counter and then take a seat. For starters, the service is great. The restaurant is relatively new, so I hope the service continues to be good. The beauty of the cafe having an open plan is it removes the feeling of being closed in. But it is the food that is the winner.

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Masala Chicken, Chai

I’ve had the balti pie, creamy masala chicken, masala fries, regular chai, and coconut chai. There is often a hint of food not being particularly fresh when the restaurant has a fast casual component. That’s not the case at Chiya Chai. The biggest indicator was the flakiness to the balti pie, as was the same I noticed in the masala chicken pie I ordered a few days later. And to make it even better, the food is spicy. Spicy Indian, Pakistani, or Nepalese food is the best to me.

Chiya Chai has an outstanding selection of chai. For those who may want to wean themselves from coffee, you can’t go wrong with chai. Selections ranging from regular, to spicy, to coconut, to a variety of other flavours will be certain to return. I know I’m glad I don’t have to trek back to Devon Street in Rogers Park for Indian, Pakistani, or Nepalese food anymore.

Chiya Chai Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cafe Orchid, All Things Turkish

Cafe Orchid

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines are quite common in Chicago. You can easily find a restaurant that has hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouli, and kebab on the menu. However, it is rare that anyone can name a specific country associated with the restaurant. There is then this Pan-Mediterranean or Pan-Middle Eastern dynamic that makes the restaurant or cafe catch-all. And then there are restaurants like Cafe Orchid at 1746 W. Addison Street in the west end of Lakeview. This restaurant clearly indicates that they serve Turkish dishes and given the authenticity and worthy flavours, they have boasting rights.

Patican Salata

Patican Salada

I decided on a 5-course degustation for lunch. First, to quench my thirst, I had a glass of iced Turkish tea that I took without any sweeteners. The first course was patican salada, which was eggplant with red peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. There was a basket of Turkish bread that accompanied the dish. I used the bread as a utensil to devour the eggplant salad and then finished the dish by going around the plate sopping up the remaining gravy.

Cig Borek

Cig Borek

The second course was cig borek. This was a traditional meat pie that had been prepared with ground lamb and spices.  Unlike cig borek that I have had at other Turkish restaurants, the lamb had been patted together such that it had the consistency of a sausage. This meant the meat was not falling out of the pastry and that was good because I got to enjoy all of the meat pie. The accompanying yogurt was good for dipping, but I used it over the lettuce and tomato instead, thus having meat pie and salad.

Icli Kofte

Icli Kofte

The third dish, icli kofte, were bulgur koftah tear drops stuffed with minced ground beef and onions. Although this is not considered snack food, I would enjoy these delectable items from a cardboard container without complaint while strolling down the avenue. The recipe resulted in a savoury filling that made them all addictive. And like cig borek, they were served atop a salad with yogurt.

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

The fourth dish was a plate of chicken shish kebab with rice and salad. The chicken was tender and juicy without being greasy. Flavoured well, the seasoning had permeated the meat down to the hole where the skewer had been removed. Instead of a dry salad like at many Mediterranean restaurants, there was a light vinaigrette on garden fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Rather than just plain rice, there were chickpeas added that surprisingly added some umph. Of all the Turkish shish kebab plates I’ve had, this was a model of “doing it correct.”

Kazindibi

Kazandibi

For the fifth course, I finished with a kazandibi and hot Turkish tea. Aside from the dollops of whipped cream with the dessert, there was nothing fanciful about the presentation. It was the homemade flavour from actual burned milk pudding and the topping of crushed nuts that resulted in something looking bland tasting instead like a dessert handed down from heaven.

Tea

Turkish Tea, Iced

Hot Turkish Tea

Turkish Tea, Hot

The location where Cafe Orchid sits makes it almost nondescript. It is juxtaposed between a physical therapy building and residence. One would notice it more while walking. While the inside is cozy, there is plenty outdoor seating and highly recommended during warmed months. The service falls in the category of great. Ordering linearly was a plus, as it allowed for a sampling of several dishes without having dishes overlap during the meal. And no one can argue about how genuinely Turkish all the dishes are. Cafe Orchid makes the third Turkish restaurant I’ve gone to in Chicago that remains true to the aromas, flavours, and traditions of Turkey.

Cafe Orchid Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Cubanito, For the Love of the “Sammich”

El Cubanito

Logan Square had a small walk-up on the far west end of the neighbourhood for years. El Cubanito at 2555 N. Pulaski Road was a favourite that served Cuban sandwiches and was a magnet for locals as well as those from other neighbourhoods. And as many times as I had walked by it, I never got in any of the long lines to try out their sandwiches. And then there was a change to the walk-up. It closed and expanded into a nice sized restaurant. I then made it a point to go for a visit.

Cafe con Leche

Cafe con Leche

I had gone several months ago and had a ropa vieja since I wanted something fast. I was completely blown away with how much I loved the way they piled the sandwich with shredded beef in a rather savoury tomato-based gravy. Added to that the plantains on the sandwich and I understood the long lines when the restaurant was a walk-up. Recently, I returned and had a steak sandwich. Chopped steak, swiss cheese, lettuce, shoestring potatoes, and house sauce fell from between the bread. There was nothing neat about the sandwich and that was fine, especially once each bite captivates you. Besides, you get a fork so that you can finish anything that falls back into the carton that the sandwich comes in. And the cafe con leche I ordered resulted in me returning a day later for another one. Like other Cuban restaurants I’ve gone to, the cafe con leche is addictive.

Cubano Steak

Cubano Steak

There are a few other sandwiches on the menu, a house soup, arroz con leche, flan, and beverages ranging from coffee to sodas. There isn’t an extensive menu and this may serve El Cubanito well because they’re excelling in a few sandwiches rather than being all over the place with a booklet of items to prepare. If there is one thing I have learned about these small cafes and walk-ups is that the lines are not long because those places are novelties. The lines are long because the food makes you forget whatever promises you’ve made to someone else and show up so that you can get fed.

El Cubanito Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Make it Spicy, Spicier, 527 Cafe

527 CafeLong trips away are fantastic. The return is a bit much to bear, though, especially if it means you come home to an empty refrigerator. As a bachelor with a constant appetite that keeps me at some restaurant, I should know better. But it’s still good to know that in a city of options, I won’t suffer jet lag on an empty stomach.

Green Tea

Green Tea

While having a moment to relax and catch up on a few email notes, since I don’t read email or texts while I’m gone on personal holiday, I saw one note from a friend who had asked me about any Taiwanese restaurants in the metropolitan area. A quick Google search turned up one for 527 Cafe at 527 Davis Street in Evanston, Illinois. I yawned, stretched, grabbed my camera, and dashed to the bus stop.

I arrived to the sound of laughter, forks clinking on plates, spoons scraping bowls, and slurping. And if the vibrant colours didn’t wake me up, the smells coming from the kitchen did. At the counter, I asked for recommendations for a few Taiwanese dishes. Not necessarily looking to stuff myself to capacity, since trans Atlantic flights feed you well, I took recommendations for a snack item and one that would not have my stomach growling during my intended 12-hour slumber.

Popcorn Chicken

Popcorn Shrimp

For a starter, I had popcorn chicken. My initial thought was that I would get a plate of chicken tenders cut into smaller pieces. What I got was what I imagine to be some rather addictive street food. Not only were the bite size chicken tender and juicy, but the batter was rather spicy. I can’t emphasize  how much I love spicy food. I quickly flagged this as a favourite and any time I am in Evanston in the future, this will be my go-to item while having a quick stroll through downtown Evanston to and from whatever destination I have there.

Spicy Fish Stir Fry

Spicy Fish Stir Fry

When I was ordering, the woman at the cash register had asked what kind of meat I liked. Being a lover of seafood, she offered the recommendation of spicy fish. This came as a stir fry with onions and bell peppers. It was spicier than I had expected and I thanked the cashier because clearly she recognized that I would be fine devouring dishes with a kick to them.

Many Asian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area have a tendency to entertain a fusion component in their menus. While there are indeed some authentic Taiwanese dishes on their menus, I think there are also some Korean items available. The cashier was outstanding with giving recommendations and even when I had told her about my friend who asked about any Taiwanese restaurants, more specifically any that sell “lunch boxes,” she told me to have my friend come for a visit. I shall, and I will accommodate her on what shall be a return visit for me.

527 Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Le Bouchon, French Recommended by an Italian

Pain et Vin Rouge

Pain et Vin Rouge

During a recent visit to my favourite, local Italian restaurant in Logan Square, the owner recommended a French restaurant in the vicinity. He was already aware that I love European style restaurants and cafes — small, quaint, boutiques where there is always good food, great conversation, and no such thing as a rush. And per the owner’s recommendation, I made a calendar entry to go to Le Bouchon at 1958 N. Damen Avenue in Bucktown.

I arrived early enough to be difficult with my ordering. Having only a glance at the menu, I decided that I would not make the selections for what I wanted to eat, but I would instead let my server surprise me. There was my usual spiel that I primarily enjoy seafood and vegetarian options, and while I have no food allergies, I hate nuts; just bring something to the table and pair it with wine. While enjoying some homemade French bread, I waited.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup

First to the table was French onion soup and a Pinot Noir. Now, given all of the French restaurants I have gone to, I never had a taste for French onion soup. This was my first. I have no benchmark for a good French onion soup, so what I had at Le Bouchon is what I will use to set my initial bar. Flavourful broth without being overpowered by onions, topped with a large croton, and then topped with a gooey layer of baked cheese, I have a nod of satisfaction to a very appetizing start.

Rushing Waters Trout

Rushing Waters Trout

The server thought I would enjoy the rushing waters trout. He was spot on. This was paired with a Chardonnay. The trout was de-boned and then reassembled. This came with pine nuts, which I have an allowance for, caper brown butter, mushrooms, and concord grapes. The beauty of the trout was not only in the bloom in the taste from the recipe, but also from the fact that the fish was so meaty. Those who may expect something creamy and rich may be surprised to find that the dish is rich without any cream.

The finale was something different. I had beignets stuffed with apple slices, served with svelte ice cream, granola crumble, raisins, and a cider reduction. Straying away from having cake or a heavier, richer dessert was a finer option since the starter and entrée were both filling. Having not inquired of the coffee, I think it was from some local, independent coffeehouse. There was no burnt or bitter taste and the only sweetener required was the cream that accompanied it.

Apple Beignets with Coffee and Cream

Apple Beignets with Coffee and Cream

Le Bouchon is indeed a restaurant with a lot of French flare. It is small and quaint with tables close to each other. One thing I will say is that the service is outstanding. As often as I “challenge” my servers with something to satisfy my palate, there are those like the one I had at Le Bouchon who exceed my expectations. It also helps that the food is capital, evident from the constant flow of dining patrons. When I return to my favourite Italian restaurant, I will have to thank the owner for his recommendation. I wonder if I should thank him in Italian, as always do, or if I should rattle off in French, “J’aimerai te remercier.”

Le Bouchon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Señor Pan Cafe, Cuban Food Bliss

Señor Pan Cafe

The thing about engaging strangers in conversation and they finding out that you are more of a fan of seeking restaurants that deviate from group think, they offer suggestions that put you in the path of authenticity. While recently switching between English and Spanish with a friend talking about wanting to find a restaurant in Chicago’s Humbolt Park area, some Cubans who overheard the conversation quickly recommended Señor Pan Cafe at 2615 W. North Avenue. This was not the first time I had received a recommendation for this cafe from Puerto Ricans or Mexicans, so hearing it from Cubans meant it moved to first place in my “Must Go” list. And upon entering and hearing the rapid fire Spanish at most of the tables spoken by Cubans, I’d hit oro (gold).

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche

The temperatures in Chicago had been doing the warm temperature, chilly temperature waffling and today was a day where it was mild in the sun and chilly in the shade. On the way to Señor Pan Cafe, much of my walking was in the shade, as were the bus stops. By the time I arrived, I needed a little something to defrost. Cafe con leche was my beverage of choice and a very good one. I should have known when I told the server that was what I wanted and the response I got was a smile and, “Muy bueno.”

For a starter, I ordered plantanos fritos y frijoles negros. The thinly sliced, fried plantains looked a tad bit too perfect. The texture and flavour spoke to just how perfect they were. Crispy such that they didn’t get soggy, I used them to dip the black beans that had enough seasoning without crossing the line into ridiculous. I could have had this appetizer in an entrée size.

Plantanos Fritos y Frijoles Negros

Plantanos Fritos y Frijoles Negros

I had already settled on ordering a sandwich. Many of the sandwiches on the menu were pork-centric. The one sandwich that I knew I could fall back on was the ropa vieja, since it had a recipe of shredded beef in a tasty tomato sauce. Dios mios. At most Cuban restaurants where I have gone, the ropa vieja sandwich had plantains in the recipe. That was not the case at Señor Pan Cafe. That was not a problem either, as the sandwich was substantial, and I had ordered the small version of the sandwich. I had finished all of it and all of the plantanos fritos y frijoles negros. There was no room for dessert.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja

Señor Pan Cafe is small, so consider going with a small party if you’re interested. With me being conversational in Spanish, I had a little more conversation with the server and a few others in the restaurant than I probably would have if I had not switched into Spanish. For example, although I did not order a dessert, when I had inquired about a certain dessert on the menu, everyone behind the counter was telling me to get the flan instead when I returned. They also told me to come for breakfast, which goes well beyond, “Thanks for coming and we hope to see you again soon.” I was one satisfied customer. And since I did exchange email addresses with the Cubans who recommended it, I sent them a note to thank them. The quick response I received: When are you going again?

Senor Pan Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lavash Mediterranean Grill — Delicious, Luscious, Lavish

Lavash Mediterranean Grill

When the temperatures in Chicago start to warm up and stay warm consistently, restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating open their patios and put tables outside for patrons. With the temperatures starting to fluctuate between the 70’s and the 80’s, Chicago is now in the throes of outside seating season — and allergies. Wanting to try something different and not of the medium to large restaurant variety, I looked for something more hole-in-the-wall. Lavash Mediterranean Grill at 651 W. Washington Blvd in West Loop was what I ended up sampling.

Beef Doner

Beef Doner

Having endured my morning CrossFit workout, I had an appetite slightly more intense than usual. (Okay, that was a lie, being that I eat constantly.) For muscle mass, the recommendation is that you increase protein intake. So, I ordered a beef doner, that came with rice and salad. This was the first time I had a Turkish dish with the meat prepared from a rotisserie. I can say without pause that halal beef, seasoned well, and not of the beef jerky texture is addictive. Well, Lavash Mediterranean Grill certainly prepares it divinely.

Chicken Doner

Chicken Doner

With a bit of room left, I ordered another dish, this time with chicken. The chicken doner was succulent. Thin slices of chicken had been sliced from the rotisserie and seasoned well. Served with rice and a salad, I was surprised that I completed the whole platter given the beef doner, which was not a small plate. For a dish that looked dry, the strips of chicken were juicy.

Rice Pudding

Rice Pudding

There were a few items on the dessert menu that I contemplated. There was baklava that I took a pass on since I am not a fan of nuts. There was also kazandibi, a traditional Turkish pudding that has the consistency of a creamy flan. And there was rice pudding, which I had never had of the Turkish variety. I was well past pleased to have opted for the rice pudding. As a finale, I had a glass of loose leaf tea that had been brewed perfectly enough to take without sugar.

Tea

Tea

For those who rank interior design and ambiance in restaurants with higher significance, there is absolutely nothing to that aspect of the cafe that you will find appealing. The cafe is mostly a walk-up with counter seating, a few tables, and one table outside. It is the food that you will be focused on more. Note that there will be a constant flow of Turkish customers coming in and out. That is perhaps the one indication that everything served from the kitchen behind the cash register is authentic. It was definitely lavish on the tongue.

Lavash Mediterranean Grill on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bella, Latin American Addiction

Cafe Bella

Recently, I decided to donate my car to charity. Now I use public transportation to navigate the city and I also do a lot of walking. Well, after quite a bit of walking through my neighbourhood, I have stumbled upon a few small restaurants that I have since added to my list of eateries to sample for Chicago Alphabet Soup. One of those restaurants became a go-to spot for a Sunday afternoon rather than waiting outside some brunch spot to get inside for the usual chicken and waffles, shrimp and cheese grits, and mimosa. Okay, so that may not be the main items on brunch menus, but Cafe Bella at 3311 W. Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square promised to have something more inviting. They fulfilled that promised.

Cafe Azteca

Cafe Azteca

With the weather being frosty outside, I wanted something to warm me up. Seeing the usual listing of coffees, what stood out most was the cafe Azteca. Had there not been others sitting near me, I would have slurped it. Many restaurants serve up Nestle’s Quik or Hershey’s cocoa in warm milk — or water — mildly highlighted with cayenne pepper. There was no grit from any cocoa powder not having been mixed thoroughly. The marriage of espresso and cocoa was smooth, slightly peppered, and topped with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, cinnamon, and whipped cream. Let’s just say that one mug was not enough.

Pesto Shrimp

Pesto Shrimp

For a starter, I was in a mood for seafood. I ordered pesto shrimp. This came as a dish of five plump, grilled shrimp, well-seasoned and accented with a homemade pesto sauce over a fresh salad. If you go to Cafe Bella and plan to have a good bit to eat, add the pesto shrimp to your list. It’s light in terms of portions, but it is loaded with flavour. There was not one disappointing bite, except for the last one because I did not want it to end.

Quesadillas Pollo

Quesadillas Pollo

Next for sampling were chicken quesadillas served with homemade guacamole. The quesadillas had a twist to them. First, the tortillas were prepared with a tomato base. Quesadillas are customarily made with plain flour tortillas, but I must admit that the tomato base was a nice addition. Second, the chef had run low on chihuahua cheese, so there was an improvisation of adding Swiss cheese. I noticed that there wasn’t the faint taste of chihuahua cheese only and the server had kindly explained that the extra kick in the flavour was from the inclusion of Swiss cheese in the recipe. Surprisingly, it was not a bad modification and with the homemade guacamole dip on the side, there were no complaints from me.

Tour de Bella

Tour de Bella

Realizing that I had room for perhaps an entrée, there was one that I figured would be a good option for trying steak, chicken, and shrimp all in one dish. The Tour de Bella was it — strips of chicken breast, succulent shrimp, and steak served with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. I had looked at some of the photos of the dish online before going to Cafe Bella and thought it looked rather appetizing. When it arrived at the table, it looked too picturesque to devour. If I were indecisive, I would have just stared at it. But I went to work on the dish to completion. The shrimp was fresh. The chicken was juicy. The steak was tender. I was one satisfied customer. And I ordered that second cafe Azteca for my wrap-up.

The menu at Cafe Bella seems to cover Latin American cuisine without being specific to any country. If you have had any Latin American dishes, they are certainly not exactly the same, but they are outstanding with chicken, shrimp, steak, and other meat dishes that have enough flavour verve to keep you returning for more. Cafe Bella has a quaint atmosphere, which is good for solo dining or meeting with a few friends. It is not a big box restaurant and although there is a mild coffeehouse feel to the place, the food is definitely a guarantee for making you become a regular customer. And because there is an open kitchen theme to the restaurant, seeing your food cooked in your presence screams, “Welcome to my home.” I’ll be back for a longer stay next time. I bet you will, too.

Cafe Bella on Urbanspoon