Bandera, Southwest in the Midwest

One of the things about being a food blogger is that the food blogging community doesn’t appear to be as competitive as entertainment figures. Maybe it has something to do with not being paid a ridiculous salary well into the 7-figure range for the write-ups on restaurants. Perhaps it has a lot to do with genuine interests in what like-minded individuals love to eat and another little thing called information sharing. Such was the case with a blogger I started following mutually out of New York City. I had received an email note recently inquiring about good restaurants in Chicago and whether I was interested in getting together for some good food and some knowledge swapping. Food was involved, and I could leave it at that. After finding out what the blogger had a taste for, as well as what he was tired of eating, I suggested that we meet at Bandera at 535 N. Michigan Avenue in the Magnificent Mile.

Skillet Cornbread

Skillet Cornbread

Having been to Bandera for lunch several times, I was aware that the restaurant fills up quickly. The food is the draw and Bandera is NOT a tourist trap like Cheesecake Factory and Grand Lux Cafe, both which are in the Magnificent Mile. I had never been for dinner, so the three-piece jazz band playing was an added bonus. My fellow blogger and I started with a skillet of cornbread and a plate of focaccia with black olives. The cornbread at Bandera is an absolute must for every visit, unless you cannot stomach bread. We’re not talking perfect little muffins. No, we’re talking a small skillet full of love with a crunchy top that will make you love it more than cupcakes. For a lighter carb on the palate, the focaccia is simply a beauty in flavour.

Focaccia

Focaccia

The blogger had gone to a restaurant or two earlier in the day, which meant that he had been sampling from some menus already. I had captured some impressions for breakfast and a few for lunch at two restaurants, which meant that I was not going to attempt to overdo it at dinner. So, we both ordered entrées rather than starting with appetizers. The blogger ordered the ahi tuna with a salad in a vinaigrette. I had this particular dish during previous visits and loved it. Seeing that the blogger didn’t wince, grimace, or leave any left on his plate, I took that as a sign off his approval of my recommendation.

Ahi Tuna and Salad

Ahi Tuna and Salad

For me, I ordered the pecan crusted trout with potatoes. After the server had walked away from the table, I then had the thought flash that there were pecans in the recipe. I bit down hard and decided that I would enjoy the dish although I hate nuts. Well, it must all be in the preparation because the pecan crust on the trout was a dream. I would like to think that the delectable taste of the gravy contributed to highlight of the trout, but it was only a very good guest star. The pecans had been cooked, baked, prepared such that they weren’t crunchy and being in the gravy, I didn’t get the tree bark aftertaste that I get from pecans. I didn’t want to awake from this dream.

Pecan Crusted Trout with Potatoes

Pecan Crusted Trout with Potatoes

Always great service and awesome food, Bandera is one my top go-to restaurants for American fare. There is no menu with pages of options to leave you with your eyes crossed. One page, great selections, and what you get from the kitchen exceeds what you see on your final tab. Lunch is a perfect time to go for an introduction. If you want to enjoy some outstanding jazz music while delighting yourself with a beverage and entrée, I suggest making a reservation for a Saturday evening and arrive around 6:00 PM. You can thank me later.

For disclosure, the blogger who had come to Chicago blogs at Lord of the Forks. His trip to Chicago was not just to sample a few restaurant, but to meet with several Chicago-based foodists and to get more samplings of restaurants worthy to showcase on Tabelog. The one city in North America that has a tremendous representation of “old country” authenticity in its restaurants’ food is Toronto, much because Toronto is a metropolis of immigrants. Little do many know or even acknowledge is that Chicago — for all of its flaws and national gaffes — is a true sister city to Toronto. So, you find a plethora of cultural culinary havens. And what my newfound friend found in Chicago were not celebrity chef hangout spots, pretty-people-only lounges, big box eateries with bigger price tags on food, flash, and flare. He discovered the States’ proper melting pot. Raise the bandera to signal the people to come.

Bandera on Urbanspoon

When You Wish Upon a Star

Wishbone RestaurantMakes no difference where you are. Hmm. I think it all depends on where you are.

When I was in undergraduate, a bored applied mathematics major who picked up a second major in computer science — and was even more deadpan with nothing to do but sit through tiresome study sessions and ace every test — I often extended a few weekends with trips to the Big Easy. New Orleans with all of its grit, grime, establishments that stayed open and indulged those of us who were eighteen years old or older, and two or more weird characters stumbling through some door and falling flat on their faces in front of you, it was a nice escape from calculus equations and programming code. Then I graduated and moved to Berkeley for graduate school where hugging trees, being awakened at night by tremors, and eating brownies with special ingredients mixed in ruled.

Mojito MojoLong gone are my days of being so footloose and fancy free. I have a job that pays me enough to keep Uncle Sam smiling, a mortgage that beats letting an apartment, property taxes that make me bark like a dog, an appetite that has me struggling with the zipper in my pants, and a love of photography that keeps me in some place clicking away with any one of my cameras. I lost count after the fourth digital camera. On the photography front, I am taking another photography class: this one in photojournalism. Granted the extortion I used to do years ago would have looked great on some walls instead of in specially packaged envelopes — the statutes of limitation have long passed, it was that long — it is not a bad idea for me to polish my skill.

Cornbread and Roll

But I digress. During my most recent photography class, we all got to go to Wishbone at 3300 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview to photograph a jazz band. What a nice way to hone some photography talents by capturing some freeze frames of a band sending notes into the air while dining patrons work their teeth on some Cajun style loving from the oven. This was a brilliant idea. Going anywhere that serves delicious food is a magnet that draws me near. It begs me, taunts me, and tell me that I am a the most important person in the world. Addictions are something else, I must say, and with it being food I have no problem submitting to the flavours. Even this cup of Ethiopian coffee I am drinking while composing this journal entry is telling me to stop being so modest with my cupfuls.

Hopping Jack

Spacious, nice, and dim on the inside of Wishbone, I secured a seat at the bar while the band was playing something true to traditional jazz — and I do not mean the sexy saxophone kind of jazz that you hear on soap operas just as the pretty-pretty walks from the powder room wearing her frilly baby doll nighty. The bass guitarist played his chords on the upright bass. The pianist tickled the ebony and ivory. And the rat-a-tat-tat-pscheeee of the drums and symbol made the visit worthwhile. Now, one could complain that they were not playing any zydeco, but New Orleans is probably the most jazz-authentic city I have been to the America. You want to ease into good food, not get up and dance to some zydeco — unless it is just that good. And the band played on.

Base Guitarist at WishboneI started with a mojito. A hurricane would have been more fitting, but I did have to go back to class after we finished photographing the band. Lip-smacking good, but a wee bit heavy on the alcohol, this Cuban highball went down smoothly after the first two sips and with the complementary mini cornbread muffins and roll. The server joked that she spiked the mojito, of which I pretended to be an unknowing victim. But it was sweet torture, nevertheless. With Wishbone serving Cajun food, I ordered Hopping Jack. Black beans prepared like red beans and served over rice, garnished with tomatoes, chives, and cheese, it was rather good. Far be it for me to switch into purist mode and compare it to the Hopping Jack that I have had in New Orleans, loaded with Andouille sausage and who knows what else, and well before my jump into vegetarianism, but I am going to say that I was very satisfied and a tad bit slow towards the end. One could blame the alcohol in the mojito but, no, I have a tendency to get a drunken sensation when I eat way too much food. That may explain why I do not drive. Imagine being the poster child for Do no eat to excess and drive.

While getting natural on the Hopping Jack and chasing it with the mojito, the manager stood and chatted with me for a few minutes. I had inquired about the band playing, recalling that there were no bands that entertained the guests in the past. This has become quite a phenomenon in many independent coffee houses, restaurants, and Potbelly sandwich shops, the latter mostly accommodating any disheveled hipster with an acoustic guitar. The manager explained about how there is usually a dedicated band that plays every Wednesday night for a whole month, a band rotating each month. What a novel idea, a brilliant way for local talent to get noticed, and as for jazz bands, a better selection of music to listen to rather than bubblegum music from the satellite radio. The manager and I also talked about ethnic cuisine in Chicago proper, recommended locations for some eateries, and travels domestic and abroad. We also noted how restaurants with close proximity to Chicago’s Loop and downtown tourist haunts tend to pander to the milder palate while those farther away add complete authenticity, that being spices, to the recipes. Regardless, if the jazz bands that they have come to play are as good as the trio that played this night, I shall have to make a few more trips to Wishbone on Wednesday nights before class.

Percussionist at Wishbone

Having gone to Wishbone for brunch primarily, going for dinner was a welcomed change. I will admit that I am still partial towards the breakfast and brunches that they serve. Love the price. Love the food. Could not have asked for better service. Add to all that a talented jazz trio that did not disappoint, this was a moment well spent. Ah, and I shall not forget to add that I ordered a slice of keylime pie, but for take-away. I give in to being a puppet of gluttony enough. I went back to my photography class with a tune in my head, food in my belly, drink putting me in a calm mood, and a note to myself to make a reservation to go to New Orleans soon. That is one city where I am sure to get some photojournalism done before, during, and after I get fed.

Wishbone on Urbanspoon