When In

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

Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies

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

Lentil Soup

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

Bobó de Camarão

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

Cachapas

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

Filling in Gaps

Camarones al Ajo

I looked at my calendar this morning and saw that January 2011 is practically history. And I sighed. I looked at my cough syrup bottle and recognized that I basically had that for a diet while combatting a severe sore throat, two days worth of sinus pressure that made light blinding, and a realization that with another month or two of cold weather to endure, I may find myself indulging yet another bottle of Robitussen. I sighed again. And then I put on a pair of jeans and had to accept the fact that I did not need a belt to keep them up. I inhaled. They did not shrink; I expanded. But on the eighth day God created appetite and Gino ran away with it immediately afterwards. Well, ain’t I a stinka?

Having been out of commission from dealing with the common cold — Why is there no permanent cure for it? — I awakened from my medicated stupor with my usual appetite. This time it was a little more than I could handle since the previous two days had felt like I had a torch blazing in my throat. No more earache. No more sore throat. No more chronic cough. The appetite was insatiable. I had to obey the monster.

Ever so appreciative of living in Chicago, I consulted Google for something different, something I had not done yet, something that would appease my growling belly. I had found a Dominican restaurant a few weeks past, but wanted something to start filling in some of the alphabets that I could with ease. The letter G looked a little lonely with just Greek, so I started trying to guess what ethnicity or country I could conjure up immediately that would do the trick. And it jumped out at me: Guatemalan. So, it was off to one of the trendy neighbourhoods to sample yet another Latin dish. Thank you, Google.

It really takes having time zoom by on you and being out of commission to come to terms with how important it is to take full advantage of life. I know there will be moments when I will not be able to get up and go due to some roadblock, but the prize for me at the end of it all is, hopefully, a plate of some tasty morsels to make my wait worth it. If you are catching the winter blues — to those of you above that bloody imaginary line that gets blasted with snow and frigid temperatures — keep positive thoughts and know that there is some restaurant that awaits you and your appetite.

Cough. Cough.

No, please not again. I just got over that damn, dreaded cough.

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.

Solicitations, Recommendations, Suggestions, Food

This evening I was posed with two possible after-5 options:

A. Go out drinking with friends at a bar nearby work or
B. Meet up with some old classmates for a show at the cinema

I chose option C — go by a restaurant and have a sandwich. It can never be said that my priorities are misplaced. But I can always say that my lover tastes great. Wait! Let me put that in context. I love to eat, but you know that already.

My intention was to go home early so that I could go to bed early. But on a Friday night, Gino. Are you mad? Are you bumbling? The sky is falling for you to be inside on a Friday night in the great city of Chicago. Well, I want to force myself to wake up early to go to a certain Italian café for breakfast. This particular eater supposedly has an outstanding menu and the food is good, all day long, all the time. I cannot come up with any reason why I should not partake of any of the loving from the kitchen so that I may be able to say myself that the chef deserves a gold star. But I have to get up out of the bed so that I may get to the café before the whole of Logan Square, Bucktown, and Wicker Park pile in to get their fill of the Italian eats.

And on the subject of eating and my constant expansion of restaurant outings in the city, I am soliciting some recommendations for good restaurants in the greater Chicago area. Searching for restaurants via Google — shameless plug for my preferred search engine — is great. But there is something a little more personal, a little more authentic, asking for suggestions from real people. There is no stock answer of, “The food tastes okay at restaurant X.” Plus, there are warnings given for restaurants to avoid, much like a certain restaurant that left me howling, cursing, and swearing in the middle of the night. No, there will be no write-up of that scafezza — Italian for disaster — showing up on the Chicago Alphabet Soup journal.

Oh, wait. That sounds like my buzzer. Yes, it is my delivery. Panang with tofu. Green curry with shrimp. Red curry with vegetables. And me exhibiting my stupid smile before getting my lips, chin, and cheeks smeared with curry gravy. Send in those recommendations to eamadowms@yahoo.com and if I happen to be at an eatery in your part of town, perhaps we should meet up.

Mock Food Critic

Spicing it up a Bit

I am a huge fan of diversity, especially when it comes to all the good things that I can sink my teeth into without complaint. And while I am on my hunt for the Holy Grail of Chicago’s finest eateries, I am starting to indulge my strict vegetarian palate in the process. Chicago is bursting with restaurants that cater to those who are health conscious, me being one of those who fall into that category. Hmmm. I should perhaps put that into context. I tend to eat more than normal and that is not health conscious in the least. But it is satisfying.

Over time I will add more pure vegetarian restaurants to Chicago Alphabet Soup. These eateries may not be ethnic, as in non-American, as plenty will be contemporary — contemporary meaning they may fall into any vegetarian or vegan slot. Oh, I am staying away from trying to paint a pretty picture of me exerting myself on rabbit food.

And during it all, I have to figure out a way to get into the kitchen at some of these restaurants. Photographing and videotaping the food is one thing. I need to get some interviews or cooking action so that you, the reading audience, will get to see the face or faces behind the dishes that I have been mesmerizing you with. As you probably can tell, I am enjoying this way too much. Hahahaha.

When In Chicago

When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. But I am in Chicago. And this city is chock full of options. Today I decided to deviate slightly from the original plan of journaling ethnic restaurants only. I opted to write about a cert breakfast spot in the city. Yes, I opted to scribe a nice missive about the most important meal of the day without any ethnic flair. Someone is shaking his or her head and asking the question, “Why?”

I shall maintain the original charter of Chicago Alphabet Soup. However, my food alarm goes off constantly, which means I may wonder into any one of the countless eateries, delis, restaurants, or storefront boutiques for some get-down on some savoury food. Today was just the beginning and one that was well worth it.

So be on the lookout for some annotations and some embedded videos of me having my say, my fill, and my moments of bliss getting crumbs in my beard, gravy on my chin, and a constant, stupid smile on my face.

Ugh, my food alarm is ringing again!

Poached Egg and Ricotta over Foccaccia

Action Man Ready for Cafe Culture

Enjoying Turkish Coffee

It is that time again that I make the announcement that I am about to put things into high gear with the restaurant excursions. Having returned from an extended personal holiday — kicking and screaming — there are a few techniques that I picked up unconsciously while being abroad in Australia. It was nothing to find myself in a cafe or restaurant pulling out the high-end camera and snapping away. I may also add that I got bold enough to go into the kitchen — after requesting permissions, of course — and photographing the chefs and cooks in action. As it seemed the native Australians were quite enamoured — and some possibly ill or shocked damn near to death — with an exotic such as myself using expensive equipment, I am going to apply a bit of that boldness here in Chicago where being an exotic is not a shocking or unpleasant revelation. The point-and-click digital camera is rather inconspicuous, but pulling out the big guns with the Canon and Nikon that have serious lenses will get me a kitchen table seat and a chance to sample some items not on the menu.

Having mentioned that I was abroad in Australia, I must admit that I envy the cafe culture in Melbourne, specifically. Business people conduct meetings in cafes. Friends and family congregate in the cafes. The good thing is that, unlike in America, you are not rushed out or given pointed glances to make you uncomfortable to the point where you flee. Then again, there are miles and miles and miles and more miles of cafes and eateries in Melbourne. And they are constantly filled. Still on the topic, snapping photos of the cups of cappuccino, lattes, savouries, and desserts, my photography adventures got me extras, phone numbers, email addresses, and propositions. Since my dad promised me that he would buy me a bicycle, I avoided propositions, so I had to forego the invitations to indulge naughtiness. But in keeping with my Australian experience, I will start to seek small, quaint restaurants — exclusively — that have “close to” a cafe feel to them.

Outdoor Cafe Enjoyment

Well, my body clock is finally on Central Standard Time, my appetite is still in working order, and the Midwest Food Mecca known as Chicago awaits. With camera in hand and growling belly shouting out directions, the continued enjoyment of Chicago’s ethnic restaurants is on my calendar. Beware of man with appetite.