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

Brasil Legal Cafe, Pronounced “Lay-GOW”

Brasil Legal Cafe

While getting off the subway near my home after work a few days ago, I noticed yet a few more restaurants that had opened for business in the short stretch of Milwaukee Avenue between the roundabout and Diversey Avenue. Sure, that means Logan Square is steadily undergoing more revitalization. However, this also made me wonder what eateries I may have missed in the neighbouring Bucktown. The intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, Damen Avenue, and North Avenue is already a Wonderland of boutiques, cafes, coffee shops, and magnets for hipsters. Still, there could be some enticing spots that are overlooked because the Magic Intersection is “the” draw for the Wicker Park and Bucktown crowd. Well, while trying to find some place off the regular path, I happened by Brasil Legal  Cafe at 2161 N. Western Avenue. Much like my neighborhood, Logan Square, Bucktown has its surprises. And I love surprises.

Guarana Antarctica

Guarana Antarctica

Coxhina e Risole Camarao

Coxhina e Risole Camarao

Because I had arrived early, the main dish that I wanted had not been prepared. I had to wait for the feijoada. That alone told me that I was going to the feijoada cooked to order. So, I decided to have a coxhina and a risole camarão while I waited. When I was in São Paulo and in Recife, I basically went overboard stuffing myself with this very same street food and Brasil Legal Cafe did not disappoint. With a Guarana Antarctica soda within reach, this was a fantastic start to my lunch. And when the time arrived that the feijoada was done cooking, I had a plate of the beans and rice, greens, and farofa. Now, although I’m pescatarian and have been bending rather liberally in my diet as of late, I was aware that the beans had ham hock and sausage in them. But I was okay with that, evident of absolutely nothing on the plate except for gravy when I was done devouring everything.

Feijoada

Feijoada

For those of you who may want to delve into some Brazilian cooking in your kitchen, Brasil Legal Cafe has a small selection of grocery items. As small as the cafe and grocery store is, I spent majority of my time looking at the food that I was scooping up to my mouth and occasionally watching some soccer team giving the Brazilian team a run for their money. What I will say is that as minimal as the menu is, the offerings are still worth a visit. I have had feijoada at a few Brazilian restaurants in and around Chicago. Brasil Legal Cafe definitely dishes up authenticity, very much like Taste of Brasil in Oak Park. Give it a try. After you have your first bite of some of the appetizers or a forkful of one of the entrees, I bet you will find yourself shouting, Lay-GOW, and then giving a thumbs-up. Mark my words. And now if some Brazilians would surprise me even more by opening a cafe in Logan Square.


Brasil Legal Cafe on Urbanspoon

Annual Narcissism Celebration

Iguana CafeSeveral years ago, I did something that a lot of people who have limited success in relationships refuse to do. I backed off and spent time getting to know and love myself rather than seeking someone to do that for me. Well, those several years were actually fifteen years ago. What was supposed to be a brief self-assessment turned into a case of me practising narcissism. And truth be told, since then I have not gone to bed with grief, tears on my pillow, sleepless nights, or a diminished sense of self because I was abiding by an emotionally damaging mantra of “I am nothing without a woman.” This had marked my fifteenth year celebration. Not being one for shopping and I am going abroad mid September through mid October, I made an appointment with my ego to go to some restaurants and feast in celebration of having discovered that the world will not come to a screeching halt because I am single.

Belgian WaffleMy first stop was Iguana Cafe in the River North section of Chicago at 517 N. Halsted Street. It is one of those boutique restaurants that has a coffee-house feel to it and fills up with those who have an urban chic appeal to themselves. That may be very much due to the ambience that the cafe exudes. Two very close friends had given rave reviews about Iguana Cafe, almost bordering on fanatical. So I had to see what the appeal was. On entry, one thing I found a bit disconcerting was whether to seat myself or wait. Not as though the cafe was bursting with patrons, the staff seemed rather scrambled. But I waited for a few minutes before being acknowledged and taken to a seat — where I waited for a noticeable amount of time before my order was taken.

Iced ChaiWith it being morning, I scanned the extensive menu for something along the lines of breakfast fare. Usually breakfast menus leave me with a gasp, for there is so much that leaps from the pages along the lines of appetizing dishes. At Iguana Cafe, the bill of fare was somewhat pedestrian although exhaustive. Noting that, I ordered a Belgian waffle because I was confident that the kitchen staff would not botch that. I also ordered Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas and an iced chai to wash it all down. The Belgian waffle certainly was not a defrosted breakfast delight, as it was still crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside after I had snapped about 75 shots of it from various angles. Filling the whole plate, the taste finally made things feel okay, because the initial impression of the cafe was — shall we say — a bit run of the mill. As an individual who is not a fan of yogurt from the dairy section at the local grocer, the Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas really etched itself in my mind as a highlight. Greek yogurt alone is a bit of an acquired taste because it is not loaded with sugar, saccharine, Splenda, Equal, or high fructose corn syrup the way you find yogurt in the supermarket. The natural sweetness of the fruit was all that was needed. And the chai, although it may have been the quick mix in the pourable carton, was still good enough on ice to wet the throat. So, I get to say that the dining experience at Iguana Cafe was worthy.

Greek YogurtAfter an enjoyable breakfast, I felt as though I was at a Jamaican cafe when it came time for paying the tab. In Jamaica, you practically beg for the tab and have to push your way to the counter to pay the bill. I waited for the tab to be brought to the table — and I waited, and waited, and waited. By the third time having to request the check, I walked to the till to pay the tab. Crime. Treason. Horror. Murder. The stares I received from the staff, as if though I was supposed to sit and wait for fifteen more minutes while the time on the parking metre ran out. This is not written as a deterrent, but while the food left me with a smile, the whole customer service thing was missing from the equation. To quote the youth of the present urban setting, “It is what it is.” And as I walked out the door with a filled stomach, I checked Iguana Cafe off my list of restaurants to sample.

The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi BarBy lunch, my belly was growling. I had been pondering whether I wanted to go to a restaurant on the North Side but remembered a certain cafe from my days of living in Hyde Park. The first experience was so pleasing that I wanted to return for another episode at the outdoor seating area. So it was off to The Sit Down Cafe at 1312 E. 53rd Street. The weather was perfect: no hot and humid temperatures, blue skies, and a mild breeze. Reaching the restaurant and finding that there were plenty of outdoor seats because everyone was inside — or elsewhere — I requested a table that was in a shaded part of the front patio and had pulled out my camera to start my calibration for my photography. And wouldn’t you know that out of all of the outdoor seating, these two loud-mouth women sat immediately next to me and grimaced at me clicking away with my camera in advance of receiving my food. Apparently none of the other seats were good enough. To borrow an observation from my brother, “We have been cursed such that we have a tendency to attract foolishness.” He actually used another word rather than “foolishness.”

Pineapple, Orange, and Pomegranate JuiceFor a refreshing beverage, I had a pinorgranate juice. This was a blend of pineapple juice, orange juice, and pomegranate juice. Oh was it tasty. I have had pineapple and orange juice but the addition of the pomegranate juice added a hint of tartness that did some tricks on the tongue when matched with the sweetness of the other juices. Americanized Asian dishes have a love of adding sweet and sour meat-of-your-choice to their menus. The sweet and tart marriage in the glass of pinorgranate juice had given me an idea of some juicing to try at home. Not to stuff myself relentlessly, I opted for a maki roll because the rolls I had during my first visit were so outstanding that I do not think I gave the write-up justice when I did my first journal entry for The Sit Down Cafe. On this visit, I ordered a dragon roll. Tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber, tobiko, and barbecued eel. What more could you ask for in food satisfaction? Of course I could rattle off several more choices, but the dragon roll never fails and I found a bit of a perverse satisfaction watching the two mouths frown and scoff at my photography enjoyment and subsequent exaggerated sighs of bliss. I bet they won’t sit immediately next to someone else in an otherwise empty restaurant or patio again. I don’t remember having the dragon roll when I had gone the first time, so the light feast this time was virginal at The Sit Down Cafe. Although the cafe has some other fare on their menu like a few Italian dishes, they are absolute top in terms of their sushi.

Dragon RollThe waitress who had taken my order remembered me from a year ago during my first visit. Since patrons usually snap photos with their cell phones and point-and-click phones, seeing someone photograph their food from multiple angles and with up to well over 300 clicks of the camera, I guess it would be hard to forget someone who is not only passionate about their photography but who also cleans his plate. Again the loud mouths sized me up because to hear the waitress engage me in long conversation about what I do for a living if photography is not it, what I had been doing since the first visit, some of my favourite cities for specific cuisines, and some  recommended restaurants in the city was not something she did with the other dining patrons. The complete converse of Iguana Cafe, I left The Sit Down Cafe feeling as though I had left a friend’s house. And as the waitress had said, I have a feeling that you’ll be back more now that you’re in Chicago more, I will indeed return for more juice and sushi on a regular basis.

Brownie SundaeTowards the latter part of the day, and after having snacked on something throughout the remainder of the afternoon, I decided that I would treat myself to some ice cream. I had gone to one of my favourite neighbouring suburbs to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the picture show. A little extra time on my hand I walked over to the Oberweis Ice Creamery at 124 N Oak Park Avenue and had a brownie sundae with a large scoop of chocolate ice cream, a scoop of cookies and cream, whipped cream and topped with a cherry. It was a perfect ending to an A+ day. After a full day of having my cell phone off so that I would have no disruption to my annual narcissism celebration, I returned home to voice mails from friends about broken hearts, divorce, and emotional torture. For some twisted reason, I smiled to myself because if I were to introduce them to the joys of narcissism, they would learn to love themselves and know the next time when someone is trying to bring trash into their homes to mess up the merry work. People take trash out for a reason. For me, if I’m not busy staring at myself in a mirror, I’m staring at my reflection in an empty plate. And I smile.

Iguana Cafe on Urbanspoon
The Sit Down Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

There are a few things that I have come to recognize:

  • Chicago temperatures waffle in extremes — blusteringly cold or blisteringly hot.
  • Men serve women food in large portions.
  • Women serve men food in large portions.
  • Never stand in line behind a group of women who are ordering ice cream.
  • My appetite is out of control — rhetorical.

I had ventured out several weeks ago when the temperatures were not so blooming tropical, and I entertained what I termed Snacking on Saturday. The temperatures were a bit murderous today with the mercury rising into the 90’s and the humidity coating the city like a blanket. There was no need to stay in the condo and brood over the heat — we have had a whole month of uncomfortable temperatures — so I dressed lightly and decided to be about business of finding some food satisfaction.

I met with a friend early in the morning for breakfast at an Austrian cafe — Julius Meinl — that is east of where I live. The decision was an impromptu one so I had rushed out of the condo and left my camera. This marks the second time I have done something foolish like that when I know I will end up chastising myself. I had a great time slicing through crispy waffles and forking up tasty scrambled eggs. My lips curled up. My eyelids grew heavy — and it was 9:30 AM when we were busy indulging ourselves in breakfast.

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

A little later in the morning I wanted something else yet light. By now, I had one of my many cameras. And in my neighbourhood is La Boulangerie at 2569 North Milwaukee Avenue. What a lovely little French bakery this is and satisfying as well, if I may add. The selection is rather small and I was quite okay with that after I had bitten into my croissant. It was apparent the thing had been baked early in the morning. Given it was not hot, as if right from the oven, it was so soft and airy on the inside, flaky and smile-inducing on the outside. I had also ordered a small rum and vanilla bundt cake. Oh happy day! La Boulangerie does not sell coffee, so I had gone next door to New Wave Cafe where all of the local and imported hippies congregate to discuss things that matter to them — and no one else can understand. The cappuccino there really had an effect on me that left me with a lasting impression that will, of course, mean I will return for cappuccino from there several more times.

After relaxing at home for a few hours, I had begun to get cabin fever. It was time to seek something else into which to sink my teeth. I remembered a certain Middle Eastern eatery I had stumbled upon in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood. I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue was it. For me, it was a reality, as I headed for the subway and went into downtown to put my feet under a table at the cafe. And here is where I came to the realization that women give men way more food than men give each other. I had a hankering from some sweet potato falafel and perhaps something else on the menu. I ordered a chicken schwerma — so not vegetarian of me — with peppers, lettuce, onions, and tahini sauce. The thing was so tasty that I was sprung like you will not believe. And because the sweet potato falafels are prepared on-demand, I had to wait. For my wait, the cashier — a very appealing young woman — gave me extra. Recognizing that this has been commonplace, in the future I shall let others go ahead of me whenever men are taking orders.

Chicken Schwerma

Roaming around downtown for a few hours, the humidity had begun to wear me down to almost spiritual defeat. I could have had soda, which would be full of aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, so I took a pass on that. Water would have worked, but I wanted flavour. Aha! I headed for the subway and went out to Oak Park to Taste of Brasil, my favourite Brazilian cafe, for some lemonade. But, Gino, to go all the way to Oak Park for some lemonade is ridiculous. You have to have some of it to understand. Absolutely refreshing and prepared with real lemons — none of that artificial mess laced with aspartame or high fructose corn syrup — and condensed milk. The lemonade was enough to make the heat unnoticeable. Well, not quite, but good enough to cool me off a little.

Towards the end of the day, I figured that I would wrap up my snacking expedition by having a small dinner, something akin to snack food. I was in Oak Park anyway, so I went to the downtown mall area to the best Venezuelan cafe outside of Venezuela and met up with some friends. Aripo’s Arepa House at 118 N. Marion Street was my destination. I ordered what is called a domino — an empanada stuffed with black beans and shredded white cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce that makes all of your worries disappear. It had never dawned on me to inquire what a domino really was. However, I was glad that I took a chance on the order because I will make a few more trips back just to buy some of those tasty wonder treats for snack food at home.

After joshing around with my friends for a while, we retired to a French pastry shop across the street from Apripo’s. Sugar Fixe at 119 N. Marion Street captures the essence of coffee and dessert as the French does. There were two desserts that stood out most: a chocolate mousse and a mango mousse with pineapple and coconut. I had recently baked a devil food cake with a Mexican hot chocolate ganache for the icing, so I opted for the citrus mousse. Satisfaction in a thousand languages or in the stupid smile that I usually wear after eating too much food is all that I say to describe the mousse. The cappuccino I had tasted like the cappuccino I have had abroad, all prepared with meticulous care. Again, Sugar Fixe is one of those pastry shops that prepares its desserts in small batches so that they do not get old or simply become display items because no one wants anything that has been sitting out for days and weeks on end.

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

I did not make the promise to myself that I would not overeat. When it comes to food, the promise of behaving when it comes to the quantity that I indulge is not mandatory. I simply comply with my want. One thing I must say is that I will be glad when the temperatures return to a point where walking one to two blocks do not result in feeling like you have stood under a waterfall. There are some other locations in the city that I shall journal and I will simply have to be ready with camera in hand and appetite on hand.

From Down Under, A Review

Egg Breakfast in Deep Pot

This review has been long overdue. Granted I created Chicago Alphabet Soup for review of restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area, I am a bit of an international-phile. Chicago is tops in the restaurant area, and certainly when it comes to a variety of ethnic eateries. But with travel, I often get a chance to sample bites while visiting other parts of the world. Towards the latter part of 2010, I had mentioned that I had taken a personal holiday abroad in Australia. During my brief stint Down Under, I promised a friend that I would journal at least one restaurant I had found fascinating enough to blog.

Poached Egg and Ricotta over Focaccia

I spent a little over a week in Melbourne sampling more than my fair share of cafes, restaurants, diners, and outdoor shops. As fascinated as I am with the multitude of options that Chicago offers, Melbourne is a Wonderland of delights for the palate. Restaurants seemingly go on for miles in any direction. But one restaurant that stood out was a particular rustic Italian cafe in Brunswick, which is the neighbouring suburb just north of Melbourne. So very reminiscent of the Wicker Park section of Chicago and highly recommended by my friends, I got to see an Italian chef works his magic Australian style.

Scrambled Eggs Over Focaccia

The two friends I visited in Melbourne had mentioned that they have a Sunday ritual. For breakfast, they frequent a restaurant called Piazza 51, which is located at 51 Sydney Road in Brunswick. Being that I am a regular at a certain eclectic organic breakfast spot in Chicago, I understood. My friends would then go about their day, enjoying the sites and sounds of Melbourne and the countryside, and then they would return home to freshen up before going back to Piazza 51 for dinner. Hmm. That is what I call dedication more than a ritual. And for the Sunday that I was in the city visiting, the last thing I was going to do was complain about food, my lover, my constant comfort, my reason for fighting with widening in the middle.

Potato and Onion Pizza

Piazza 51 employs use of a wood burning oven and with the kitchen being right there with you, practically, you get to see the chef in action. Very nice, I thought, since you get to see real ingredients go into your food. For breakfast, my friends and I feasted ourselves on focaccia under scrambled eggs, focaccia with poached eggs and tomato and ricotta cheese, and a baked egg with sausage and vegetables in a clay pot. Here is where I would usually insert a smart remark like “oink,” but a bit of my British leaning was intact, so there was plenty of pomp about my feast and appreciation — in my mind I was having a moment, to put it mildly. But not to see such a pleasure on plates and not capture the moment, I snapped a few pictures while at my seat and also in the kitchen. Not only did the breakfast look like a presentation, but you could smell the goodness. That was probably because of fresh ingredients being used. Mainly it was because of my blooming appetite. This was filling enough that my stomach did not grumble for several hours. It was then that I understood why my friends were not so anxious to start gobbling something at any eatery immediately afterwards.

Bruschetta on Focaccia

Ricardo at Work

After a day of touring the wine country, sampling wine, and making purchases, we returned back to Melbourne in time to get ready for dinner. Food, glorious food. My friends had commented that it was better to arrive at Piazza 51 early because the cafe tends to pack out early. I had figured that if the dinner was as good as the breakfast was, then it was understandable that the place would be filled to capacity for the dinner set. For dinner, hell yes, it was worthy of the return trip. We started with a bruschetta on focaccia. Again, fresh ingredients and focaccia baked to perfection in the wood burning oven. One of my friends ordered a vegetarian flatbread pizza with chillies on it. She is a danger girl. The other friend ordered a pizza full of vegetables and sausages. His eyes were dreamy after he had downed a fourth of the pizza. I ordered a flatbread pizza with thin potatoes and onion, and I have no earthly idea how I managed to get the whole thing down my cake hole. The pizzas all came on tremendous sized plates and still hung over the sides. On top of that, I had a sambuca that would do just great for a common cold. And in the spirit of gluttony, I had a molten chocolate cake with another shot of sambuca. Nice.

Vegetarian Pizza
It was quite refreshing being able to engage the chef and the other wait staff in conversation. That was, of course, one of the benefits of going with my friends who are regulars at Piazza 51. Not that they should consider opening a spot in Chicago, which would not be a bad idea, but the wood oven concept being used to retain a bit of the old country style of cooking is a selling point that makes Piazza 51 tops, much like the authentic Italian restaurants in Chicago proper. It is a welcoming experience to walk into an establishment and for the merchant and customer to have a first-name basis relationship. I now see why my friends wanted me to get the Piazza 51 treatment before dashing back to my very own world here on the the other side of the Date Line.

Dinner is Ready

While I must admit that Australia is a hot bed of scenic views, confusing dispositions, people who make no eye contact — unless staring at you sideways, and weird airs until your foreign accent is heard, I never went without an appetizing meal. That is a plus. If I were to do something like a restaurant show, I honestly believe that I could spend a whole season roaming through eateries in Melbourne and still have enough coverage of other restaurants in the city to fill up a few more seasons. Piazza 51 certainly got flagged as a restaurant I would include on the tour list. If you should find yourself making the rounds across the continents and Melbourne is on your itinerary, make your way on up to Brunswick and see how rustic Italian dining is done to satisfaction. Pip, pip.

African-Caribbean, Italian, German

Piazza 51 on Urbanspoon

Todo es bien en la tierra

Sancocho de Gallina
Hello, fellow food enthusiasts and reading audience. It appears that the year 2011 is starting off with a bang. I am finding more restaurants, as if that is a hard thing to do in Chicago. My push for migrating into being more serious about photojournalism through food and restaurant critiques is burning brighter within me. I am on the move. Considering the chilly weather we have been having in Chicago, I must admit that I am surprised at how I get out in the cold temperatures and manage to find myself in some restaurant getting satisfaction on a plate and in some cup. Part of it is I get to take advantage of free heat at these eateries instead of running the heat non-stop in my own condo. Yes, that is very self-serving of me.

Nevertheless, I have found a restaurant representative of an ethnicity starting with the elusive letter D. Dominican. I remember there being one restaurant in the city that had a Dominican flair to it, but I never wandered into that part of Chicago much. But I did today and oh was I glad that I did. I have a restaurant on Chicago Alphabet Soup for the letter D: Tropical Taste. According to the web, there are several Dominican restaurants in the city. However, after reading some of the information on the restaurants, they are actually Puerto Rican. That is just fine because I do not have a Puerto Rican restaurant on the blog. That can be addressed with no problem.

Now if only there was at least one restaurant in the city for those with a taste of food from Qatar, I would really have met a challenge. Then again, I am going to Doha, Qatar, in March, so I will simply have to settle for getting some food from there until a Qatari restaurant opens in Chicago. In the meantime, I will be on the hunt for another restaurant to sample.

Happy New Year, 2011

Rustic Dining
The hours are winding down with year 2010 in preparation for a New Year coming. This is supposed to be the time when I fall into a deep sleep and have a visit from three ghosts — Ghost of New Years Past, Ghost of New Years Present, and Ghost of New Years Future. The unfortunate thing is that I have an appetite that I plan to satisfy before going to a New Year’s Eve gathering. I have no time for any ghosts, let alone them taking me through the motions of past, present, and future. But before I stuff my jaws, I shall reflect.

Past

I reflect on having started Chicago Alphabet Soup in 2006. There were my constant food companion and me going to all the various ethnic eateries in Chicago every even week of the month. It was great. It was fantastic. The experiences always left us dragging out of restaurants from having gotten way more fill than we expected. And I had found then that the whole process of seeking ethnic restaurants was rather fun and was even more of a learning experience from a cultural standpoint. I learned that Chicago is a city of many cultures, beliefs, and traditions, and one way of delving into those aspects — surprisingly — is through food. However, as the years passed our number grew from two to double digits. There were scheduling conflicts, geographical gripes, dietary constraints, and a host of other antics that caused the restaurant outings to lose steam. Then I faded out of the scene all together.

If things fall apart, Gino, are you willing to pick up the pieces and continue?

So, in summer of 2009 I stepped aside long enough to get clarity on Chicago Alphabet Soup and its shelf life.

Present

Come with me to summer of 2010. While it may be past tense as of reading this note, it signifies where my present state of mind was that resulted in me blowing life back into Chicago Alphabet Soup. A whole year has passed since I had gone to any ethic restaurants to journal. Having taken some photography classes and learning how to better use my digital cameras — three of them I have — I wanted to start whetting my palate with some restaurant delights and capturing the victims — I mean food — with a serious photographer’s eye. However, I chose to go solo instead of entertaining the crowd factor. Plus, I wanted to break out of my shy shell and get away from feeling like I required someone to accompany me to restaurants. I found myself filling my camera bag with my camera, flashes, and tripod, and then off to some spot for food bliss. I found more restaurants and tried dishes I never would have imagined trying. I included American in a few journal entries, something I had said I would never do on the blog. I captured great shots of the food I ate, chatted with chefs and owners — something I never would have done before — and grew once again to enjoy the original charter of Chicago Alphabet Soup.

If things fall apart, Gino, are you willing to pick up the pieces and continue?

Yes, I will answer the call to continue Chicago Alphabet Soup so that you, the reading audience, will know of all the good things tasty in Chicago.

Future

For year 2011, I will take Chicago Alphabet Soup up a notch. Without compromising the flavour of the blog, I will start to add a more personal, real touch to the posts by getting close to the staff to show the restaurants in action. Although I have joked about wanting to get into the kitchen or to do real interviews of the chefs or cooks, I will actually work towards that end in the New Year, even if it means engaging the owners in conversation briefly to find out what made them open the restaurants. It is not just the food that makes the restaurant but it is the staff that prepares the food. They are an intricate part of the equation that makes any diner, café, or restaurant what it is. And I will add that aspect of my excursion slowly to my journal entries.

If things fall apart, Gino, are you willing to pick up the pieces and continue?

I am the thread that holds together the fabric of Chicago Alphabet Soup. I will not let things fall apart.

Cappuccino
It as it this point that I would awake with an understanding of my purpose and shout words of good cheer to those outside my window. Instead I will sign off, microwave a dish of tilapia and couscous, and stuff my jaws with it along with a salad garnished with apricots. My New Year Resolution is not to cut back on my eating, apparent in my want for getting fed before going to a New Year’s Eve party to eat even more. There are great things to come on the blog. Stay tuned. In the meantime, as we say in Twi during the Near Year, Afehyia Pa. Happy New Year.

Bienvenida a Logan Square

Satisfaction, Rapture, Delight When I first had decided to purchase a condominium in Chicago’s Logan Square, several friends moaned and hissed at my decision. They warned me that I would be shot while putting the key in the front door to enter the building. They foretold omens of me running from bullets and violent gang blowouts. There would be pandemonium, angry little kids putting sailors to shame, cats and dogs smoking hash in pet harmony, and politicians telling the truth. Well, the chaos is in full bloom in the neighbourhood where I fled, but the rest is still wishful thinking. It has been three joyous years of living in Logan Square.

Having recently gone to one of the restaurants for breakfast that is walking distance from where I live, I wanted to go back for dinner so that I could see if the dinner menu was as fantastic as the breakfast menu was. It was. Cafe Con Leche had already proven time and time again that it was a top Cuban restaurant in all of Chicago. And then it expanded to bring life to its partnering restaurant, Cafe De Noche.

Tacos de Camarones I had considered writing up Cafe De Noche in the like manner that I have done for the other ethnic restaurants. And then I decided that I wanted to give it front page coverage, so to speak. Because friends and others had viewed my move to Logan Square as though I was going to Dante’s 25th ring of hell — that being the ring not mentioned in Inferno — I wanted to showcase my community upfront.

Sharing the same space with Cafe Con Leche at 2714 N. Milwaukee Ave., Cafe De Noche is a perfect addition and a welcomed one to Logan Square. The space has a lounge feel to it. During the summer, the front doors may be opened so that a nice breeze may blow through the place. The service is absolutely top and the food is deliciously splendid. Well, splendid may be a bit too stiff. The food is damn good.

Dining Space

Chocolate Bread Pudding

I went to the restaurant and took a seat at the bar. It seemed that many hipsters had absolutely no qualms about pulling a bar stool up to the counter and placing their orders. And while I am not a hipster, I clowned with the ones sitting next to me while I ordered shrimp tacos and a margarita. The first margarita came — notice I say first margarita — while I waited for my food and I pulled out the camera. Thou shalt not be a foodie who journals his or her food bliss and not capture the moment with a camera. Now, whenever bars announce that their drinks are half priced or something to the effect of not being full price, the drinks taste like a little bit of water has been added. Not at Cafe De Noche. And I did not even go for some flavoured margarita like a strawberry, apple, chocolate, orange dream sickle, Rachel — okay, so I made up that flavour — or raspberry margarita. The plain one was so damn good.

Then the shrimp tacos came. What a masterpiece I had sitting before me, causing me to drool, causing me to smile, inviting me to gobble them. And I complied before I clicked a few shots to memorialize the feast in advance of devouring it. The shrimp were plump and tasty in a rich tomato sauce on flour tortillas. And I heaved a heavy sigh of exaggerated satisfaction with each bite. The rice was somewhat like New Orleans style dirty rice but without the ground beef. It was so good that it was wrong of me to make such faces of food ecstasy. Add to the dish me having another margarita and the mood was just right.

Cappuccino

While polishing off the meal there were several Spanish-speaking customers who came in and sat at the bar: a Puerto Rican, a Venezuelan, and a Cuban. And there was discussion about the influx of all things good in Logan Square, recommendations for other restaurants in the city, and a hope that the Bears would go to the Super Bowl. There was a moment of silence on that last point. I, of course, had another margarita done right and thankful that I had a good amount of food in the belly to soak up the alcohol.

Martini

But there apparently was not enough food to my pleasure, for I ordered a dessert, a chocolate bread pudding drizzled with a homemade burnt sugar glaze and a fist of vanilla ice cream on top. Click, click, click of the camera to freeze the scene. Now queue scene with me having utter enjoyment in slow motion. You can see activity and people talking the background, but the scene is silent while I smile with each bite of the bread pudding and scoop of the ice cream. I am also having a moment with a rather large cup of cappuccino and thinking about what my circumstance would have been if I had stayed on Chicago’s South Side where there were weekend shootings across the street from my apartment instead of having moved to Logan Square. I am also thinking of a number: 36, the size of my waistline from eating way too much rich food. And then the Venezuelan disrupts it all by nudging me and reminding me that I am humming “So Amazing” by Luther Vandross a bit loudly. I am now too full to be embarrassed because the bread pudding is for two people to share and I have eaten it all, every last bit of it except for the garnish.

Red Wine

I reflect on my life and while there are some decisions that I have beaten myself up over in the past, my move to Logan Square has turned out to be one that has not resulted in any disappointment. Community. Peace of mind. Restaurants in walking distance, which is most import to a food addict like myself. And Cafe De Noche. For a community that was viewed through such a dark filter, it is the third most heavily populated area in Chicago with outstanding restaurants. Everyday I repeat my mantra: There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. And if you find yourself in Logan Square, welcome.

Call to Action, Send-off

Happy Belated Thanksgiving. Hopefully everyone had a fun holiday and ate their fair share of goodness served to them. I know I had a ridiculously filling holiday feast, this year done up with African and Caribbean flare with my friends. While others had turkey, cornbread dressing, creamed sweet potatoes, potato salad, and stringbean casserole, my friends and I had rice and peas, curried chicken, jerk fish, bammy, peanut soup, and enough other dishes to feed a village. Nothing beats feasting with friends and family during the holidays.

Angin Mamiri, Outside

But as my weekend continued, I resumed my usual restaurant jaunts. And today I went to an Indonesian restaurant — the only one in Chicago — called Angin Mamiri and had a wonderful dining experience. Outstanding food and fantastic customer service made it an experience worthy of the trip in the cold weather that were are having here in Chicago. But I discovered during conversation with the waiter that they will be closing their doors in Spring of 2011 for a few months and then moving shop to Evanston. The current location, albeit heavy with vehicular traffic, does not have a lot of pedestrian traffic. Downtown Evanston will serve as a more inviting location thanks to the influx of cultural diversity from Northwestern University.

Udang Balada

If you are in Chicago and you want to sample some authentic delight from an Indonesian kitchen, make the trip up to Angin Mamiri at 2739 W. Touhy Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park. It was worth the trip to me in chilly temperatures. There is a guarantee that you will find the same palate satisfaction that I found. Wish them well in their new location and be sure to get the new address. The location may be different, but the food will be just as delicious.