TBK Grill, Skokie Mexican

TBK Grill

Rarely do I ever pass through Skokie, Illinois. A few weeks ago, I was in the vicinity returning to a Jamaican restaurant that I love. On the way, I passed by a Mexican restaurant that, from the outside, looked like it was something akin to a Chipotle. I figured I would try it out anyway. Much to my surprise, it only had the look and feel of a run of the mill fast food restaurant. The flavors are what made it stand out as a restaurant I would frequent.

Chips and Guacamole

TBK Grill at 7565 Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, is a spot to check out for authentic Mexican food. With booths and tables spaced out nicely, it doesn’t suffer from congestion. The service was fantastic, and I concede that part of that may be because I switched into speaking Spanish. The grill is behind the cashier, so you get to see your food being prepared.

My appetite was ravenous, which is nothing new. I ordered three plates that I considered to be manageable in one seating. The first was chips with guacamole. The guacamole was chunky, exactly the way I like it. I didn’t think to ask if it was possible to get it spicy and with a little bit more cilantro in. It didn’t matter after I realized that the notion of getting it with a kick and more cilantro came after I had gotten down to the bottom of the cup.

The second plate that I ordered was of quesadillas with chicken, served with a small side of guacamole and sour cream. The guacamole was good enough as an accompaniment, but the quesadillas were flavorful enough without anything else for dipping or dousing. It has been over fifteen years since I had quesadillas that I found to be addictive without any extra sides or condiments. It helped that the chicken was succulent and seasoned well.

Quesadilla con Pollo

Quesadilla con Pollo

The taco platter was my final dish. Instead of ordering the tacos with lettuce and tomato like at Americanized taco restaurants, I opted for traditional preparation with cilantro and onions. These tacos reminded me of the ones that my Mexican neighbor prepares, which are the best that I have had ever. The yellow rice was neither sticky nor overcooked, and the refried beans were also tasty. Given all of the food that I had, I still finished every bit of it, something I never would have completed had there not been authenticity in the recipe.

Tacos Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles

Tacos Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles

TBK Grill is in a triangle between the tri-section of Howard Street, Lincoln Avenue, and Skokie Blvd. Depending on traffic and the direction from which you’re coming, it could be a task getting into the parking lot. However, once you are there, you’re guaranteed to find satisfaction on the menu. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a hole in the wall, but the food from the kitchen will put you in mind of small Mexican walk-ups. The best.

Taco Burrito King Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

That Little Mexican Cafe, a Bryn Mawr Favourite

The Little Mexican Cafe

For my birthday weekend, I took a few days off following the weekend to have some proper time for myself. That meant staying up late, sleeping later in the morning, and eating, the latter being a given. I had been going to the Bryn Mawr corridor for quite a bit of dining options. I had gone to Little India Restaurant on Friday and to Little Vietnam Restaurant on Saturday. Isn’t it cute how the restaurants have “Little” in the names? Well, only a block away from both is a restaurant named That Little Mexican Cafe at 1055 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue. Having acknowledged that I have become a fan of the other two “Little” restaurants, I had to see if That Little Mexican Cafe would become a big part of my life.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

This is not a hole-in-the-wall. I guess it falls more in line with being a medium-sized restaurant with hole-in-the-wall authenticity. The atmosphere detracts from it falling into the big box category. You do feel like you have gone to a friend’s home, mostly from the setting, and that is a very good thing if you rank customer service over ambience. There were complimentary chips and salsa that I later raved about to friends endlessly later in the afternoon.

Guacamole

Guacamole

With me doing something like an extended birthday celebration from the weekend, I still had a Frankenstein monster appetite. Considering this was a new restaurant to me and my intentions were to try something I haven’t had from any other Mexican restaurants, I was still curious as to the guacamole. I’ve had so much guacamole that I should be tired of it. But the tableside guacamole that I got at That Little Mexican Restaurant is the BEST that I have had outside of Distrito Federal. This was chunky guacamole, not puréed. They recognized that avocado already has a creamy texture, and chose not to mess that up by turning it into a coarse pudding.

Taquitos Pollos

Taquitos Pollos

The next menu items I wanted to try were taquitos pollos. Imagine small corn tortilla chicken tacos fried to a perfect crisp. Served over a bed of lettuce, tomato, and crumbled cheese, these are fantastic snacks. I was expecting only a few, no more than four. There were eight. And by the time I finished gnashing away on those little treats, there were only a few shreds of lettuce on the plate. I have had taquitos at several Mexican corner stores that were tops and some from a few Americanized restaurants that failed. The taquitos at That Little Mexican Cafe rank up there with “worthy of ordering.”

Cazuela Camarones

Cazuela Camarones

Not wanting to order a chicken or beef dish that would have left me stuffed, I ordered a cazuela camarones. Plump shrimp in a spicy red sauce served over Spanish rice never tasted better. The sauce had a smoky flavour that made the dish reminiscent of a barbecue.  I was not expecting such a pop to the dish and it may have been because I had been so accustomed to ordering tacos, enchiladas, tostados, carne asada, and Tex-Mex that I missed trying other fare like the seafood dish that I was completely enthralled with. For full disclosure, I ordered some more for take-away, along with another side of rice and the delicious black beans.

Arroz con Frijoles

Arroz con Frijoles

 

By the time I did my slow walk out of That Little Mexican Cafe, there were two main things that stuck with me. They do the best guacamole in Chicago. I will go even say that it is better than any guacamole I have had in America, so far. Second is that menu items outside of the usual Mexican fare are outstanding, really, really, very outstanding. Another thing I noticed is that the flavours are not watered down. My server did warn me that the cazuela camarones was spicy and I was very happy that the order went through accommodating my request for the dish to be spicy the way it is served in homes in Mexico. With reasonable prices for the meal, especially given how much I had eaten and ordered for take-away, there is nothing little about That Little Mexican Cafe.

That Little Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon

Self-Assessment, Thai Style

Silom 12

At various times I take self-assessments that give me clarity and reality checks to keep my head out of the clouds. I have accepted the fact that I live in a trendy section of Chicago that is becoming more hip by the minute. I also accept the fact that I will not have a six-pack abdomen ever again – unless I do something drastic like resort to liposuction. At the risk of making a sexist statement, it is actually okay to be physically attracted to someone before dating them rather than trying ridiculously hard to convince yourself that you really want to wake up next to someone who makes your withdraw. And I acknowledge fully that Chicago is North America’s answer to outstanding food. Meanwhile, someone is saying, “No, New York City is” – where appetizers at brand name restaurants start at around $45.

Seafood Sauce and Chips

Seafood Sauce and Chips

With my condominium in the midst of going through some renovation, things are a bit all over the place. Bad enough I am all sixes and nines because of having things scattered, that does not interfere with my constant appetite. Rather than fidgeting around in the kitchen trying to concoct something to gobble before going to a Fourth of July barbecue to look at people devour chicken and ribs drowned in sauce, I figured I would get something righteous – and healthy, per my self-affirmation. Remembering a certain Thai restaurant that I have ordered take-away from several time, I left my condo in its disarray and zoomed to Silom 12 at 1846 N. Milwaukee Avenue.

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

The weather had been waffling between fair skies and overcast with a suspect look for a sudden downpour. So, instead of sitting outside and chancing having my food get doused by rainfall, I sat inside by a ceiling-to-floor window that opened up to the outside. It was the middle of the day and everyone was probably going towards the lake to watch fireworks – if there were any to be on display once the sun set. I had placed my order, got my camera ready, heaved a slight sigh, and three women came in and chose to sit next to me. Of all the spots in the empty restaurant, they sat next to me and gossiped loudly. I think I have been cursed.

Tuna Tataki

Tuna Tataki

I started with ginger tea to get my stomach ready for all the tasty food I was going to indulge. Let me just say that this ginger tea was not from a tea bag. There were crispy rice chips and a seafood sauce that had a faint hint of barbecue to it. How about that for the Fourth of July. This was a unique complimentary serving, light, yet blooming with flavour. My first hearty dish was an appetizer of tuna tataki. This was a very appetizing plate of seared tuna that was sesame-crusted with crispy egg noodles in a spicy Thai style seafood reduction. Served over julienne cucumber that came out of a garden, completely untouched by pesticides and “make it grow faster” enhancers, those three pretty-pretties had to watch my facial expressions of appreciation. I have had tuna tataki at several Japanese robata grills, but now I can say absolutely that Silom 12 has a version on its menu that is serious taste-worthy competition.

Larb Tod

Larb Tod

My next dish was larb tod. This was a plate of fried, ground chicken in rice powder and fresh herbs served with lemon over a bed of lettuce and red onions. I have a friend whose aunt had sent him hot curry from Thailand a few years ago and he prepared some larb for me that was immediately addictive. I was expecting the same from Silom 12, and it may have been the absence of the curry that detracted from what I was expecting. It was good, but I was thinking the first bite would have left me with a facial expression of wow. Nevertheless, my appetite refused to allow me complaining time, so the larb tod disappeared after I had worked my chopsticks on the dish for several minutes. And then came the dish that I was really at Silom 12 to have anyway – panang gari goong. That had been my dish of choice every time I called for delivery or take-away. The panang curry was sweet and spicy the way I requested, without leaving me with the feeling that my hair was on fire, though. Filled with red and green peppers, green beans, and plump shrimp, I was okay knowing that I could sit through any barbecue and watch people smear barbecue sauce across their lips, chins, cheeks, and every across their receding hair lines.

Panang Gari Goong

Panang Gari Goong

I washed the remaining lunch down with the ginger tea from the first cup and was then ready for a wrap-up of dessert. Per my server’s suggestion, there was banana wonton for my delight. Ripe bananas, accented with cinnamon and sugar, and fried inside of a wonton to a crisp went over so very well. There were slices of bananas on the side and a fantastic scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and lime sauce. Now, I could have had Thai custard, sticky rice and mango, and perhaps some other Thai favourite. But the banana wonton was ideal for my ridiculous craving. Truth be told, I was in a complete meditative state after I had finished the dessert and downed the last cup of ginger tea. Everything was quite okay in my world.

Banana Wonton

Banana Wonton

It is a good thing that I had ordered from Silom 12 several times before my in-house visit. It is a must that I dine at the restaurant before I feature it on Chicago Alphabet Soup, so this trip was necessary. The price is comparable to what you find at all Thai restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. The service was several notches past outstanding. And if you like the lounge scene – i.e., seating, interior design, and ambient music – Silom 12 is the place for you. When all was said and done, I left with another self-assessment.

I will be going back.

Silom 12 on Urbanspoon

¡Que Rico! ¡Que Bueno!

Que Rico

Chips and Salsa

What do you do on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the sky is blue, the few clouds that are fluttering about are wispy feathers that look dreamy, and the leaves on the trees remind you of pumpkin pie and crayons the colours of red, yellow, brown, and orange? You rake leaves? You jump in the leaves? You walk hand-in-hand with your lover down the lane? You sit about and be thankful that the temperatures are still in the mid 60′s? Well, if you are me, you are probably out and about hunting for some food. I had made a bet with my international traveling wife during our last international jaunt. I had agreed that for every pound she takes off, I will add a pound. Last report, she had taken off a few pounds, which meant that my current bout of weight gain that has me struggling to get into some of my pants needs to step up. So, when I found myself in front of a certain Mexican restaurant that had the earth tones of the autumn colours, imagine my surprise when I had found an option for adding a pound or two for this particular day.

On the corner of Oakley and Roscoe at 2301 West Roscoe Street is ¡Que Rico! Talk about getting the whole decor of a Mexican establishment right. And with Halloween approaching, there was the whole setup of ghosts, ghouls, witches, skeletons, and pumpkins placed strategically throughout the restaurant. Upon entry, and it was during the middle of the afternoon, I was rather shocked to see that the place was empty. Many restaurants seem to open at 4:00 or 5:00 PM on Saturdays, so I had initially thought they were airing out the place in preparation for the evening seating. But, no, there just were no patrons yet and perhaps most were on the east end of the Roscoe Avenue stretch that attracts a lot of pedestrian traffic. The server had stated that they were indeed open for business and gave me my pick of tables. I chose a window seat.

Sopa de Tortillas

To the table came chips and salsa. The chips were not the neat, flat tortilla corn chips that you get in Frito Lay’s bags. Many were folded, some had been contorted, and all of them were warm. You can’t pour a bag of chips into a bowl, warm them up, and not expect some weird texture after they start cooling off. The chips remained crispy from the time they reached the table until I had finished all but crumbs. The salsa had raised some suspicion at first. I was thinking salsa from the jar and then the peppers slowly started creeping about on my tongue. I have had the “spicy” brand of salsa from the jar and it was still mild, so the complimentary salsa I had this day was either doctored or homemade. I would like to think the latter was the case because there was the authentic flavour that I could taste, much like the homemade salsa I have had at several of my friends’ homes.

I started with a sopa de tortilla. I have never ordered sopa de tortilla — tortilla soup — before and was pleasantly surprised that chicken broth with a tomato base, caramelized onions, chihuahua cheese, peppers, and corn tortillas could be so blooming delicious. We’re talking a fiesta. By the time I had gotten down to the last few slurps, I had dubbed the soup as my autumn Latin soup. It could be the colours of autumn that gave me the hint. Then again, it could have been the mildly spicy flavours that would be perfect for preventing a cold or keeping the body heated during the chillier times of fall and winter that will keep me hankering for cups and bowls of this delight.

Camarones al Ajo

One Latin American dish that has never failed is camarones al ajo. This plate of plump shrimp in a tomato-based sauce over melted cheese with Spanish rice, refried beans, and salad left me smiling and bumbling. The one time I probably could have gotten away babbling twaddle in English and I was instead giving commentary rather fluently in Spanish. Oh how the waiter got a laugh out of that before he was a bit inquisitive as to how my Spanish had such polish. It’s like those people who had surgeries and then awakened with accents so very different from what they had before going under anesthesia. While I am moderately conversational with Spanish, I apparently had not only correctness with words but also an accent. Food is not supposed to do that to me. I am finding it increasingly hard to fight, though.

Now, only an hour had passed and I was a bit full from having engaged the soup and the entrée with a pause of fifteen minutes after each. It was time for a postre. No flan para mi. Favor, no churros. Instead, I had pastel de piña. To have ordered that without first thinking about how I would say pineapple cake in Spanish first was an indication of how fast I tend to switch into languages. The pastel de piña came with a light caramel sauce, baked pineapples, and a fist size scoop of vanilla ice cream over a slice of yellow cake. Along with the cake, I had a cup of Colombian coffee. Gracias, Juan Valdez. It probably would have been nice to have had some Mexican hot chocolate to stay with the whole Mexican theme. Sigh. Sometimes there are modifications made and the ideal gets smashed. And if the food is really great at the restaurant, you eat enough that you are smashed also, such was the case with me.

Pastel del Piña

For a restaurant that has all the trimming of ambience, great service, and pretty good food, it is very bizarre to note how empty the place is. It very well may be the timing of day, as big box restaurants have a tendency to fill up later in the afternoon and early evening hours. It may also be that most of the restaurants that cater to pedestrian movement are a few blocks east of where ¡Que Rico! is. Several reviews I have read hint at the price being more than what is expected for the output and having a disposable income puts me at a disadvantage for moaning about cost. ¡Que Rico! is neither a corner taqueria nor is it Charlie Trotter’s. You have to experience the restaurant for what it is worth. I walked, or rather waddled, away a stuffed man and still had enough cash to get cheese on my Burger King whopper afterwards. Wait! I don’t each burgers. Scratch that last thought.

Que rico. Que bueno. ¡Bomba!

Precious Memories

Pico de Gallo

Are there times when your mind wanders back to something that brought a smile to your face and you wish that you could return to that time and live through that smile-inducing experience again? Are there moments when you recall a certain dish that was so good you found yourself thinking that it would never be as good as the first time? Are there times when you pass by places and find yourself captivated by something you saw in the window briefly? I have those deja vu episodes all the time. Mostly my precious memories involve food. And, yes, I smile. This was the case recently when I was in Oak Park going to a certain wine shop to buy a bottle or two of wines. On my way, I took the scenic route and to my wandering eyes should I espy a Mexican cafe. Nothing spectacular, rather small in size, I recalled my days of living in Chicago’s Rogers Park where I had my pick of Mexican holes in the wall that served food so delicious that it had dawned on me several months after constant visits that my Spanish had improved.

Quesadillas Con Arroz, Frijoles y EnsaladaFresh Mex Cafe at 1110 Westgate Street is immediately off of Marion Street, a thoroughfare where you can find a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and specialty boutiques. With only a few chairs for seating and rather cramped, it was also a bit reminiscent of some small shanties where I had been warned not to go in Mexico City when I was there years ago with work. American accent intact, I ordered quesadillas con arroz, frijoles, and salad. And there was no way that I was going to have anything to drink other than a pineapple Jarito. For all you lovers of high fructose corn syrup in your beverages, get your fingers around a Jarito that gets its sweetening from cane sugar. You will thank me.

Truly Fresh Mex Cafe is about authenticity. I started with chips and salsa. The chips were not unflavoured Dorito’s — absolutely not. These were fresh and a bit warm, which was all the indication that I needed to realize that they were made in-house. The pico de gallo, although looking rather pedestrian, had a kick to it that made me want to dance the mariachi music playing in the background. Chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers were all that I needed to have me no longer wanting any kind of salsa from a jar. Then the quesadilla with all the trimmings came. Chihuahua cheese between corn tortillas and cooked on a griddle were served up with Spanish rice that was neither al dente nor mushy. And let me not forget about the frijoles with extra crunch tortillas and the salad that came with a dollop of sour cream and a grande scoop of guacamole. Mind you, the guacamole was just avocado and tomatoes, no extra additives, but the taste was perhaps ten notches past divine. No mentira. With pineapple jarito in hand, my lunch was complete. I had not just entered a restaurant, but I had gone into some Mexican’s kitchen and had a taste of home.

Flan

There were only two dessert options on the menu. One was a flan. The other was tres leches cake. The main plate was so filling that I opted for the flan. Accented with a thin caramel glaze and topped with a cherry, this flan was so creamy that you would have thought that it was custard. There was a texture akin to the lemon in the lemon meringue pies that I bake. Only in Mexico where no one spoke any English — or tried — have I had flan that heavenly. It may sound cliché, but I didn’t know what to do with myself, everything was so remarkable on my tongue. I think I discovered some secrets, whatever they may be.

Fresh Mex Cafe is indeed a hidden gem. On a side street that enters into a stretch for a parking lot, you could pass by it and think that it was one of the few businesses that have closed. There are no fancy signs, flash, fanfare, or indicators to grab the attention. Much like me on the day that I went, you have to casually stroll through the area and take in the scenery slowly, not in a rush. And once you go inside, be prepared to be served some outstanding comida de concina por Mexicanos quienes saben comadia buena.

The Warmth of Guatemala — El Tinajon

El Tinajon

Another grey day in Chicago and I spent most of it inside watching the telly. Thank you, winter. A week had passed since I had gone out and put my feet under some table at one of many eateries in the city. Part of it was having to deal with a bloody cold. Nothing like having your lights and heat go out because someone hit a patch of black ice, smacked into a pole, and took out part of the electrical grid. A frosty apartment is a sure way of catching a cold and, in my case, a bad one. Having a little recovery, my appetite returned and I was a bit tired of cabin fever. So I said to myself, let the hunt for something to fill the belly begin.

Chips y Salsa

Chips y Salsa

After looking through the list of entries for the alphabet soup, I figured that I would fill in a few ethnic restaurant entries that did not have a lot of alphabetic representation. The letter G was the first to blink on my radar. Because I could count on Chicago to have at least one letter, I consulted my magic ball — Google, to be honest — and saw a Guatemalan restaurant in one of the neighbourhoods not far from me. The weather outside had warmed up just a bit. I must admit that 35 degrees is fantastic compared to the temperatures bordering on zero degrees that we had been having. I layered up enough to stay warm, grabbed my camera, camera bag, and Kindle for reading, and I was off to have comida de Guatemala.

Pache de Papas

Pache de Papas

El Tinajon at 2054 W. Roscoe Street became my destination. Located on the most active street in Roscoe Village is a gem that you could miss amid all the swanky boutiques and art chic-chic restaurants. Festive in colour and warm in spirit, it is a cute spot for a quick meal. From outside, everyone looked like they were having their fair share of communal fulfilment. When I entered, there was suddenly silence. Only when I said, solo yo, did conversation resume almost with a sigh in the air. Once everyone began talking again, I understood the exaggerated pause — everyone in the seating area spoke Spanish only. Well, that is common in Latin restaurants, but I do not look the part of someone who could be Latin, let alone speak Spanish. I sat by the window so that I could get a good number of photographs with natural light.

Camarones al Ajo

Camarones al Ajo

First to the table was a complementary basket of chips and salsa. The chips were nice and crunchy. The salsa was a bit thin yet flavourful. Not that I am a fan of all of my salsa being chunky, watery salsa tends to soften crunchy chips faster than expected. The server approached to take my order and I made my request in Spanish only. For an appetizer, I ordered plache de papas. This was a tamale with potatoes and vegetables. Apparently, you can also get plache de papas with meat — chicken or shredded beef. I opted for the vegetarian option and was glad that I did because this appetizer was delicious. My entrée was camarones al ajo. These shrimp were cut so that they were spread out like butterflies and it was quite clear to see that El Tinajon does not use the small nibble-size shrimp for this entrée. The things were plump and large. The shrimp was in a garlic sauce so reminiscent of scampi, albeit not excessive on the garlic. The rice with corn and peas in it had the texture of Asian sticky rice. This was not a bad thing, but rice prepared in most Latin dishes is fluffy. Needless to say, I ate it to completion. I washed it all down with a glass of tamarind juice. For those of you who have never had a tamarind or the juice, it could be a bit of an acquired taste. It is hard to describe the flavour, but there is a slight fermented kick that you get from some of it. I completed the dining experience with a flan. Decorated so perfectly, it was clear that it had been yanked from the refrigerator, dolled with a caramel top, garnished with strawberry and chocolate glaze, and topped with a cherry. It was a bit cold to the bite still. When you have had smooth and even creamy flan, you almost find yourself wearing the tattoo of flan snob somewhere visible. If I should ever return, I may try a warm dessert.

Flan

Flan

 

El Tinajon was a nice escape for the afternoon out of the apartment. There is a bit of charm to the place. The prices are incredibly reasonable. With the restaurant being on a street that has a tremendous amount of American pedestrian foot traffic, the food may pander to the American taste mostly. The discriminating palate knows. If you want something quick and still have enough dollars to fluff your wallet and a fair amount of change to jingle in your pocket thereafter, give El Tinajon a try. Chicago boasts a good number of Guatemalan restaurants, but El Tinajon is the only one that is not a fusion with some other Latin cuisine.

And now for me to think of what ethnicity to seek next.

El Tinajon on Urbanspoon