Mango Pickle, Edgewater Indian

Mango Pickle

With ongoing growth in Chicago, neighbourhoods like Edgewater are becoming hubs for a lot of cultural cuisine. There is influence from the Vietnamese community just to the South in Uptown. There are several authentic Thai restaurants, Ethiopian restaurants, a nearby Nigerian restaurant, sushi bars, American cafes, and a dusting of Indian restaurants. Mango Pickle at 5842 N. Broadway Street was my latest jaunt for a sampling of something representative from afar.

Smoky Negroni

Smoky Negroni

Touted as a cafe, Mango Pickle is a spacious restaurant that serves Sunday brunch and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays. For my first visit, I went for Sunday brunch. I started with a Smoky Negroni since you can never go wrong with a negroni. The bartender mixed a great brunch cocktail that was neither heavy-handed with the alcohol nor too light that it was watery. To get a good sampling of offerings, I started with chicken soup, which came in a deep plate with tender chicken and root vegetables over a curry gravy. Although I was expecting the landing to arrive in a cup or a bowl, it was still a flavourful dish that I would have again.

Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup

The second brunch landing was a plate of carrot halwa with French toast. Topped with pecans and drizzled with a light syrup, this was a rather light offering considering the toast had the consistency of fluffy, scrambled eggs, rather than grilled bread. The carrot halwa was the item in the dish that stood out as representative of something in Indian dining. With the natural sweetness of the halwa, it was a nice accompaniment to the toast.

Carrot Halwa and French Toast

Carrot Halwa and French Toast

For the third brunch landing, I had bun maska with homemade jam and accompanied it with a cup of masala chai. This was the first time I had ever eaten this Maharashtrian favourite. Dusted with powdered sugar, the bun maska was warm, right from the oven, buttered, and outstanding with the jams. As to the masala chai, Mango Pickle needs a walk-up window where one can order the chai for take-away.

Bun Maska & Chai

Bun Maska & Chai

Recognizing that the brunch seemingly had an Indian influence to American breakfast, I returned a few days later for a tasting of the dinner offerings. Very much like during Sunday brunch, the restaurant was crowded and full of energy. I was full of anticipation.

Chai with Bourbon and Somrus

Chai with Bourbon and Somrus

I started with a cup of masala chai that came with a small vial of bourbon and another small vial of Somrus Indian liqueur. Being a fan of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon, there were no complaints while enjoying the bourbon in part with the chai. Where I was completely won over was with the Somrus Indian liqueur. Having gotten a taste of the liqueur at a media event in December 2016, I was quick to make a reminder to myself to seek out a bottle of it for enjoyment at home.

As usual, I opted for a few landings so I could have a good idea of what Mango Pickle had for the dinner crowd. I started with a lamb slider that came open-faced atop naan and accented with a drizzle of kasundi mustard. Not a large appetizer, but certainly one that will awake the taste buds, I recommend this as a starter.

Lamb Slider

Lamb Slider

The second landing was baigan bharta, a traditional creamed eggplant dish in Indian cuisine. Spicy the way I had requested it, this was a very satisfying vegetarian option. This dish came with root vegetables and was topped with papadum. One thing I noticed with the inclusion of root vegetables (i.e., beets and sweet potatoes) is a hint of Eastern European flare sneaking into certain dishes. It works well here, for sure.

Baigan Bharta

Baigan Bharta

The final landing was still in keeping with vegetarian options. It was chana masala. This dish had a heavier ginger base than I have had before at any Indian restaurants domestically or abroad. I ordered basmati rice with the chana masala that had herbs and two small dollops of ghee added. Fantastic. Looking back, I think naan would have tempered the ginger a bit, but the ginger was actually good for digestion given how much I had ordered.

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

Since I often spend a lot of time in Edgewater visiting with friends, I never paid much attention to Mango Pickle on the landscape. So, I can’t say that it is a new addition to Edgewater. It is, however, a welcomed one, I’m sure. The service during Sunday brunch was superb. And during my return for dinner, the server recognized me as “the photographer who sat at the high-top.” That alone was enough to prove consistency in the service. And for the food, I’m won over completely. Even with the faint hint of Eastern European showing up in the ingredients, the restaurant serves some delicious Indian cuisine still. You should add Mango Pickle to your “Must Go Here” list.

Mango Pickle Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Macku Sushi, More, More, More

Macku Sushi

A year ago, almost to the date, I went to a Thai restaurant in Edgewater for their one-year anniversary. With Chicago and the surrounding neighbourhoods being saturated with Thai restaurants, it was nice finding one that retained authenticity while also applying some jazzy techniques to the recipes. While at the anniversary gathering, one individual recommended several restaurants that she felt would suit my taste and would be a fit for the blog. Macku Sushi at 2239 N. Clybourn Avenue was one of the recommendations. So, one year later, almost to the date, I followed through on the suggestion.

There is the usual minimalist decor and non-cluttered seating that one finds in Japanese restaurants that focus primarily on food. With me having sat by the window, I got a good view into the preparation and cooking station, which was all I needed to know that I was about to get satisfaction with a variety of flavour. Now, having gone to countless Japanese restaurants, I was not interested in yet another bento box, teriyaki platter, or litany of maki rolls. Instead, I handed the menu back to my server and told him that I wanted an omakase and sake pairing. And then the fun began.

Click photos to open in Flickr album
Eighth Course
Second Course Fourth Course
Seventh Course

For those who have indulged one or more omakases, there is the awareness that each dish is the chef’s whim. Some items are on menu, some aren’t. I opted for a bit of experimentation. Over the course of the dining experience, I had ten landings. There were tuna, salmon, pumpkin soup, Japanese snails as a take on escargot, oysters, uni, whitefish, tuna tacos, and a selection of nigiri. In true outstanding dining spirit, each landing was progressively better than the previous landing, and the very first course was already a winner. It was nice having an explanation of each dish, and even a bit of history to some, rather than having plates delivered in obligatory fashion. That added touch shows that the servers are knowledgeable of what’s served, not just gophers running dishes to tables. As to the sake pairings, not being a sake expert, I was extremely happy that each pairing complemented the dishes.

Macku Sushi deviates from the usual maki roll and sushi fare that comprise a mainstay in Japanese dining. The plates are not substantial in size, so there really isn’t the potential for stuffing yourself. And while Macku Sushi is not high-end dining, the prices associated with the sizes of many of the dishes may be high-end for those who expect buffet offerings. The high points are the quality and freshness in the ingredients and the service. One would have to be offended for no other reason than being offended is an option to find anything wrong with Macku Sushi. Authenticity in the kitchen output, top service, and they haven’t fallen into the Pan-Asian trap, I pass along the recommendation that I received a year ago. GO!!!

Macku Sushi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Buona Terra, Buona Cibo

Buona Terra

Recently I have been told that I have shown a bit of favouritism towards a certain Piemontese osteria. The individual observed that I perhaps didn’t appreciate “authentic” Italian food. While having a bit of a walkabout through another section of Logan Square, where I didn’t think there was much foot traffic, I passed by what looked like a rustic Italian restaurant. Well, what do you know? Now was as good a time as ever to possibly “broaden my Italian palate,” as I had been told.

Italian Bread

Homemade Italian Bread

Buona Terra Ristorante at 2535 N. California Avenue is a quaint little spot, walking distance from Logan Boulevard. The interior seems quite homey and welcoming. With the weather being nice outside, I opted to have a seat in the front patio at one of the many tables.

Since I had been snacking for most of the day on my walkabout, I was not famished. However, there was enough room to fancy a few dishes. So, after placing my order, I enjoyed a basket of Italian bread with a garlic paste spread. The bread was fresh, just as I love it. The garlic paste was powerful enough to murder a vampire within a 6-foot range. I was heavy-handed with spreading it on the bread, too.

The first menu item I had was a carpaccio. This came as thinly sliced beef, topped with Parmesan and mushrooms. There was a hint of olive oil that actually brought out more flavour than the dish would have had on its on. This was a light dish, a perfect start. It was after a few bites rather addictive. Thankful that I had not finished the basket of bread, I applied a bit of the carpaccio to a few slices of bread and had a satisfactory go of it.

Carpaccio

Carpaccio

The main dish was a plate of penne all’ arrabbiata. Remembering how I had been told that I perhaps had not had a good plate of pasta and didn’t know any better, penne all’ arrabbiata is my go-to litmus test. Nevermind me having been a fashion model who spent days on end in Milan and a person who simply enjoys vacationing in Florence, Naples, Catanzaro, and San Marino, what do I really know about pasta? But I digress. The penne all’ arrabbiata was indeed fantastic. There was a good kick in the spices and the dish was an explosion on the palate. It was angry. I’d eat it again and again.

Penne all' Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Since I had been rather experimental as a secret dessert baker at home, and oh how I’ve gone off the rails with baking cakes, cookies, pies, and freezing a variety of homemade ice creams, I was kind to myself and finished with an espresso. Served with an almond biscotti, I took it slowly until the baby at the table behind me started bawling as if trying to get the attention of people from a quarter-mile away.

Buona Terra Ristorante is fantastic. Seeing that there was a constant crowd of patrons coming in for dinner, the few dishes I had were the additional indication of how appreciative one with a refined palate enjoys the output from the kitchen. In the vein of fabulous restaurants to grace the Logan Square landscape, I must admit that it is an option I recommend. I shall certainly recommend it to the individual who thought I was a snob for saying I prefer Italian food other lasagna, ravioli, pizza, and spaghetti. And I’ll even make the recommendation in Italian. I wonder what the reply will be.

Espresso

Espresso

Buona Terra Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Momotaro, West Loop Japanese Style

MomotaroWith warmer temperatures in Chicago, dining invitations are coming in steadily. In a single day, I had an invitation to lunch for a sampling of Mediterranean food and an invitation to a dining event involving several Italian eateries later in the afternoon. To add to my plate, my restaurant advisor had booked me for dinner at Momotaro in Chicago’s West Loop at 820 W. Lake Street. Arriving for early dinner on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant generated a feeling of Friday after work. The dining area was filled and the energy was high. With the understanding that Momotaro prepares dishes for those who like small plates, we agreed to order several items that were good enough for getting a range of tastes.

One item we started with that we had not indulged at any Japanese restaurants was ikejime. Think of an orange gazpacho served with harami sashimi that comes atop ice. You put the sashami in the gazpacho and then enjoy. The pro was the dish was so blooming good. The con was the dish was so blooming good that we wanted it in a larger portion.

Ikejime

Ikejime

The unagi don was a highlight. This came in a small bowl as a mix of barbecued eel with shiitake and kanpyo mixed in rice. The unagi don was rather reminiscent of bibimbap prepared tableside at Korean restaurants. A plus to this menu item was that there was a liberal amount of barbecued eel for the feast.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

Next for our palates was kani jomaki. This was a maki roll filled with cucumbers, crab, eel, and tomago. After a brief dip in the accompanying soy sauce, the rest was devoured without use of the sauce. If you order this dish, do not use soy sauce. This maki roll should be enjoyed without any palate disruptions from extra sauces.

Kani Jomaki

Kani Jomaki

Sticking with eel as a main ingredient, we had una kyu. Again, this was a maki roll that did not require soy sauce for dipping. Since there were some flavourful dabs on the plate, we used those instead. Outstanding and nothing but fresh taste of eel, this roll was more fantastic than most specialty rolls. Simple is often better, as was the case here.

Una Kyu

Una Kyu

Now that our rockets had been primed, the kani miso was the final countdown to liftoff and we were well on our way to the stars. I love seafood. However, my restaurant advisor feens for crab and the kani miso was a crab lover’s vice. There was creamy crab miso inside of a crab. Served with sourdough, there was no conversation while devouring this dish. There were the occasional acknowledgements of “This is delicious,” “Wow,” and “I don’t want this to end,” though.

Kani Miso

Kani Miso

And as all good things must come to an end, we had an ebi sashimi as a l’amuse between dinner and dessert. Rather than the ebi being served inside of a shell, butterflied, or simply outside of the shell, the chef had prepared the shrimp to a tartar texture.  This was a new way of having shrimp and one that satisfied the palate.

Ebi Sashimi

Ebi Sashimi

One dessert consisted of green peaches with a meringue crumble and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. This was another surprise, as one always think of peaches that bakers put into peach pies and peach cobblers. Green peaches are different, with the same burst in flavour, and rather sweet. For anyone saying, I will not eat green peaches, Sam I Am, you will after you have them at Momotaro.

Green Peaches and Cream

Green Peaches and Cream

The final dish was a citrus angel food cake with fruit and ice cream. If one could describe a flavour, think of a dreamsicle. The combination of orange from the cake and vanilla from the ice cream took me back to my youth of having a go of those frozen treats no sooner than my parents brought them into the house. After so much food, this dessert, as was the plate of peaches and cream, was light.

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Momotaro always makes the list of top sushi restaurants to sample from in the city. The menu isn’t extensive, so the potential for being overwhelmed with too many options is small. I highly recommend getting a taste of as many small plates as possible and indulging the hot plate items. Yes, you can have sushi, nigiri, and sashimi from any Japanese restaurant. Momotaro seems to do an outstanding job letting diners enjoy a different variety of other Japanese delicacies while maintaining authenticity in the output. West Loop cheated with drawing a crowd with wide palates with the opening of Momotaro.

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

AraOn — Asia Takes Over France in Chicago

With Chicago’s ongoing renaissance, The Loop is filling in more with restaurants that remain open past happy hour. I was surprised to find AraOn in a rather inconspicuous location at 160 W. Adams Street tucked between W Hotel and US Bank. Noting the moniker of Asian French Cuisine, I figured it would behoove me to see what the menu had that would make me okay with delaying going home for the evening.

Ara On

There is a big box feel to AraOn and I expected that given it’s location downtown. Some people are rather Better Homes & Gardens with their thoughts about restaurants, so they will love the decor. I like the fact that seats are not on top of each other which means you don’t have to compete with your neighbours to be heard during conversation with members of your own party. What matters to me most is if the main thing I’m paying for was worth it: food and/or drink.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

I am leery of fusion, especially when it comes to certain Asian cuisines blending with European or South American flavours where there was no influence per Asian migration. I must admit that AraOn gets it right. For my first course, I started with a miso soup. This was the traditional preparation and there was nothing amiss with it. The second course consisted of duck dumplings that came with braised mustard greens, shrimp, and maitake mushrooms in a consomme of seafood-duck broth. This was the one dish that I noticed had a blend of Asian preparation with the dumplings blended with French preparation of the consomme.

Duck Dumplings

Duck Dumplings

There was a brief l’amuse of sashimi salmon with roe atop a savoury gravy that I had not expected. Immediately after the first bite, I acknowledged that I could have indulged the dish as a regular course. The salmon was meaty without being oily and the “clean” flavour was an indication of having some of what was no doubt fresh catch seafood.

L'amuse

L’amuse

The third course was a clay bowl of sesame crusted salmon with bibimbap. Not only was the salmon bursting with flavour, but it was incredibly flaky while being succulent. I can’t state any French influence in this dish, but the bibimbap is my favourite Korean dish. Kimchee, bean sprouts, pickled shiitake mushroom, spinach, and braised beef short rib nicely sectioned off that I mixed with rice and a spicy pepper sauce made for a hearty dish that again reminded me of why bibimbap is indeed a favourite.

Salmon with Bibimbap

Salmon with Bibimbap

I saved room for a fourth course of dessert. That came as matcha ice cream atop lemon custard with meringue crisps — so reminiscent of lemon meringue pie — and matcha macarons. The matcha was prevalent in the dessert, but not overpowering, which gave me an hint that loose leaf tea was used in the preparation. Small indicators like this wink at an appreciation for culinary arts because a quick dessert would have lacked in flavour sorely.

Matcha Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream

The service at AraOn is winning. The food is also worthy of repeat visits. And for what tastes like fine dining, the prices are reasonable. I have to remember to switch into my British and Caribbean modes so that there is a stagger of 5-10 minutes between courses. There were overlaps during the courses. Add to that I paired wine with the dishes, there was a bit of a rush that resulted in me being sated too fast and buzzed. Understanding that it is not possible for restaurants in and around downtown to know when individuals prefer to dine with ease or with haste, I shall adjust my ordering technique accordingly in the future. I’ll order a course, hold the menu, finish dish, order next dish, and repeat for remaining courses. I shall return, so I’ll apply my method and again enjoy all the good things on the AraOn menu.

Ara On Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Via Lima, Straight to My Belly

Via Lima

Since I have started taking blogging a little more serious, I got an Instagram account a little over a year ago and devoted all of my photos to food rather than stream of consciousness shots. In doing that, I have been following several restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. One that resulted in an addiction from simply looking at the photos was Via Lima in North Centre at 4024 N. Lincoln Avenue. The photos were of Peruvian food, but fancy. Well, it was necessary to feed the addiction.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving in the early evening after work, I had a pick of seats without feeling crowded. Via Lima is a spacious restaurant, but after you start indulging the food, ambiance will be the absolute last thing on your mind. No extensive menu, I saw quite a bit that I wanted. Instead, I opted for a variety of appetizers, saving the entrées for a return visit. My server offered recommendations and I enjoyed complimentary plantain chips with amarillo sauce while I waited.

Tequeño Pollo y Mariscos

Tequeño Pollo y Mariscos

Pisco Sour Habanero

Pisco Sour Habanero

The first appetizer was a plate of tequeños. Two of the fried wontons were stuffed with chicken and seasonal vegetables. The other two were stuffed with seafood and seasonal vegetables. Served with amarillo sauce and a creamy guacamole, I could have had several orders of these tasties without complaint. These appetizers hint at the Chinese influence in Peruvian cuisine and I admit that it works extremely well in the recipe. With a cocktail of pisco sour habanero, all was quite okay in the land. For those who try this cocktail, it is worthy, but remember that the habanero is not to be taken like it’s candy.

Causitas

Causitas

The second appetizer was a plate of causitas, which were potato cakes doctored with your choice of meat. One I had with chicken, avocado, tomatoes, black olive, and boiled egg. The other was with shrimp and the toppings. The spicy sauces that came with the appetizer, one amarillo and a rocoto sauce, were perfect accompaniments. Per the preparation and presentation of causitas, one will see French influence. I think this was one of the fancy photos I saw on Instagram. It could have come to the table looking a complete mess and the flavour still would have been a winner.

Pisco Sour

Pisco Sour

Ceviches Trio

Ceviches Trio

The third appetizer was a trio of ceviche. Thinking that I had already eaten the best appetizer on the menu, I was totally confused as to which appetizer I enjoyed the most when the ceviche came. More confusing was trying to decide which ceviche in the trio I liked the most. There were a classic ceviche, one with ají amarillo, and one with rocoto — mild to spicy. One thing that I really liked about the ceviche was that they used choclo in the recipe. Anyone who has had this Peruvian corn will attest to authenticity of the dish. Also, one thing to note is the Japanese influence in this dish. And with this appetizer, I had a regular pisco sour. It was as refreshing as the one I had with the habanero.

Lucuma Mousse

Lucuma Mousse

Per my server’s recommendation, I had a lucuma mousse. I have had lucuma ice cream at another restaurant in Chicago and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Having it in a mousse was a highlight. Not only was the dessert light, given all the food and drink I had prior to indulging it, but the natural sweetness of it was all that was needed. Accented with a bit of chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream and a butterscotch cookie, the only thing I needed was a cup of coffee. I’m weaning myself from coffee, so the dulce of lucuma mousse was perfect.

I cannot speak to how service is when the restaurant is filled almost to capacity. What I can say is that I had a server who did a superb job of offering recommendations that hit the spot. When you open a menu and see so many offerings such that you’re indecisive, a server who can nail some menu items that leave you wanting to return in the very near future is a plus. As to the food, if Instagram ever adds a scratch-and-sniff feature, Via Lima will break Instagram with people scratching and sniffing their photos. Via Lima, straight to your belly.

Via Lima Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bismillah, Let Him Go

Bismillah

Every time I go back to London, I return to America with my pores exhaling curry, cumin, and other spices found in Indian food. London has a large Indian population and with that comes the best Indian food outside of India. Chicago doesn’t fall too far behind in having a plethora of restaurants representative of the flavours of India. I exude curry since I am constantly in any one of the Indian cafes on Devon Street. If you are a diligent foodist like me, you will manage to discover some fooderies that are not on any main stretch or within sniffing distance. For example, with traffic being incredibly congested in a section of the North Side — in Edgewater to be exact — I had to snake my way down a side street to avoid sitting still. And what to my surprise should I spy at 6301 N. Ridge Avenue but a hole-in-the-wall by the name of Bismillah. It had to have been serendipity because I was listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen at the very same time I spotted the restaurant. Imagine that.

Vegetable Samosas

Vegetable Samosas

In true hole-in-the-wall fashion, Bismillah will not win any awards for interior decoration. And if you go to the restaurant for aesthetics, you may be too caught up in cosmetics to enjoy the good food that Bismillah serves. While at the counter, I scanned the one menu that was available and placed my order. I was not going to waste my time playing like a curious eater while fighting the temptation to jump behind the counter and start attacking the tasty food that I could see being cooked in the open kitchen. I ordered two vegetable samosas and chicken boti. The two fist-size samosas came with a mint sauce. I mashed up the samosa, poured a nice amount of the mint sauce on them, and handled my business. I smiled. When the skewered, boneless pieces of chicken that looked and tasted like tandoori chicken arrived at the table with basmati rice and a small salad, I was then ready for devouring my main dish. The chicken popped with each bite, an explosion of flavour, a revelation of having something several notches past delectable. It was so good that I exclaimed, “In the name of God,” or bismillah for those in the know. If I continue to eat at all these ethnic eateries, I will become fluent in more than the short list of languages that I speak. When I was done, I had a chai in the traditional manner of an after-supper drink.

Chicken Boti

Chicken Boti

Bismillah is a cash-only restaurant. Yes, many restaurants accept MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express. The prices are incredibly reasonable for the quality and the quantity that you receive. I should warn you that the portions are substantial. And if you are accustomed to going to restaurants that deliver your order in the speed that you get your food when you go to fast food restaurants, every order is prepared on-demand. Nothing is sitting in pots and pans or under heat lamps, so you get everything fresh. Devon Street where? This off-the-path find was worthy of the discovery. There is something to be said for traffic congestion in Chicago and things that you stumble upon when you are trying to circumvent sitting behind the wheel without moving. Bismillah is one of those discoveries that pleases the appetite. And in “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Queen asks the question, “Bismillah, will you let him go,” picture me smashing the record and declaring, “Bismillah, never let me go! Bring me some more chai.”

Bismillah Restaurant on Urbanspoon Bismillah Restaurant on Foodio54

Tomato, Tomahto, Ethiopian, Eritrean

Den Den Restaurant

When I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area in late 1995, my first stop was Northbook. I like to think that I fit into that area well, me being a high-end professional with an income that allowed me to live in a huge, empty apartment without the need of a flatmate. I was as cultured and snobbish then as the locals. I had given up my complete snooty New York City ways and become a laid back Midwest chap. A year into being a bit too relaxed, it was imperative that I moved closer to Chicago proper. The crickets during the summer were driving me cuckoo batty. So, my landing spot became Chicago’s North Side in the hip neighbourhood of Rogers Park. It felt a little like Berkeley, California, with a lot of Mexican influence. Bim, bom, bim.

The neighbourhood was chock full of taquerias and Mexican holes-in-the-wall. Trust me when I say that for the three years of me living in Rogers Park, I never tired of Mexican authenticity to my food. And after I had gotten accustomed to what turns of phrases could get me into trouble because Spanish spoken in the Caribbean has a lot more “colour” to phrases than what you get in Mexican Spanish, I was getting extra goodies in my take-out bags. Extras in the bags were always a good thing, unless you were a prude, a Dudley Do-Right, a total spazz. Well, fast forward to 2013 and I find that some other ethnic representation has dotted the Rogers Park landscape. They now have Iraqi, Iranian, and Eritrean restaurants a few blocks away from where I used to live.

You waited until I moved to do this, Rogers Park. How could you?

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

I met with a fellow colleague for dinner, after having been to Rogers Park to sample some Iranian food the previous week. We saw an Eritrean restaurant named Den Den Restaurant at 6635 N. Clark Street while on the way to the Iraqi restaurant and both yanked out our smartphones simultaneously to block a date for a visit. In the Edgewater neighbourhood, there are several Ethiopian restaurants, but Eritrean was new to me and definitely something I felt was worthy for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Friday came around. We both had left work at a reasonable time. And the plan for some love on a platter was on the agenda.

Because the weather was not all that good, with constant, sudden downpours, we chose not to imbibe any of the honey mead. Trying to drive in Chicago is already a frustrating task. Driving with slightly impaired reflexes from having drunk a graft of tej was not an option for us. Instead, we had traditional spiced tea — accented nicely with cinnamon and cloves. Mmmm. Not trying to see if we could fill our bellies endlessly, we went for entrée options rather than starting with appetizers and later regretting not having left enough room for finishing everything in front of us. Because I didn’t get a take-away menu or lift one of the menus we ordered from, I am relaying everything from memory.

The meal was primarily vegetarian. There were chopped greens that had a hint of garlic and ginger to them. Happiness. The cabbage with carrots and the melange of potatoes, string beans, and rutabaga didn’t last very long atop the ingera. Bliss. The creamed lentils and the flour chickpeas were so blooming delicious that they were so wrong at the same time. Rapture. And the chicken mixed with red peppers, onions, and jalapeño had us humming — when we weren’t silent. Petite mort. Being addicted to tomatoes, I won’t even get into how I attacked the complimentary salad. With fingers only and ingera, we reached, grabbed, and stuffed into our mouths so much flavour and bloom with assembly line precision. The fact that there were intermittent intervals of silence and humming was all the indication anyone needed to know that Den Den was several notches past outstanding.

Platter of Love

Platter of Love

Many people think of Ethiopian and Eritrean as the same. However, Eritrea is a country in Northeast Africa completely separate from Ethiopia. There are similarities in the people and in the cuisine. One may even find the beliefs and customs to be similar, considering they share a common border and there is a strong possibility for some cross-pollination to occur. What I had found certainly common among Den Den Restaurant and Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago like Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Diamond, Ras Dashen, and Demera is definitely authenticity, a huge presence of those from the country dining in the establishments, and a welcoming spirit that is standard throughout the whole of Africa.

The setting in Den Den Restaurant is very warm and ambient at night. For most who are not fans of ethnic dining, the service may seem a bit slow. That’s not the case. There is simply an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of flavours from the native land should never be rushed. For those who must have silverware, the traditional way of eating Eritrean food is with your fingers. The best experiences in Ethiopian and Eritrean dining are in a communal setting with friends. Talk about a great way for community gatherings. And when you receive the tab, be forewarned that your eyes will widen with disbelief as you note how reasonable the prices are. Some say tomato. Some say tomahto. Some think Ethiopian. Try Den Den Restaurant and let’s talk Eritrean a little more.

DenDen Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Bang the Gong

Hot Woks, Cool Sushi

ChopsticksYears ago, a great friend and I used to frequent a restaurant in downtown Chicago named My Thai. It was a fantastic escape after work on Fridays for some of the best curry dishes that you could find in the city. And if curry was not something we were hankering for, then there were other dishes like pad thai, bamee noodles, basil chicken, or ginger tofu. We never wanted for anything that was not served up lovingly from their kitchen. Then after a length of time not going, we happened to go to the restaurant one day after work and discovered a surprise — it was no longer there, but replaced with another Pan-Asian restaurant. How could this be? Who had allowed this to happen? Why were we not consulted for our permission? And the other My Thai chains were not in walking distance such that our growling bellies would entertain any more time seeking good Thai cuisine in the immediate area. So, we took a chance and had some food so yummy that it left us quivering. Bang the gong!

Fast forward to a few days ago, and I found myself at one of the chains for this new restaurant. Located at 2032 W. Roscoe Village is one of the sister restaurants for Hot Woks Cool Sushi. The first chain branch where my friend and I had gone still retained the minimalist feel that the prior My Thai restaurant had. Another branch that is two blocks from where I work in downtown Chicago has chic-chic ambience. The location in Roscoe Village brings the same air to it. Minimalist and airy, I had a window seat off to the side of the sushi chef stand. As I perused the lunch menu, I remembered saying that I would not blog chain or franchise restaurants. Well, when it is good, there is no denying that a write-up is necessary. As for Hot Woks Cool Sushi, I had to ask myself why it had taken so long to pen how worthy the whole dining experience there is.

GyosaHot Woks Cool Sushi has Japanese and Thai cuisines on the menu with a hint of Chinese added for a little more fusion appeal. I opted for the Japanese selection. As usual, I had to start with an appetizer, entertain an entrée, and work my way up to dessert. Starting out, I had gyoza. In many Asian dining, you will hear the term pot stickers. Yep, these are the same, and served with a soy sauce they are incredibly heavenly on the palate. These were a little more crispy on the outside than usual and that actually worked in their favour as they absorbed more of the sauce. And I tended to all five pieces until there was only the shredded carrots left that I also gobbled with a smirk plastered across my face.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpWith it being lunch time and me having missed breakfast, I did not hold back on ordering two maki rolls. I had a ravenous appetite — albeit no more mad than usual. There are two types of maki rolls that I love, hands down. There was unagi maki and a spicy shrimp maki. Once I got over the notion that eel was not a snake, as opposed to seafood, I could enjoy eel rolled up in some rice and served sushi style. Hence, the unagi roll being one that I ordered without hesitation. I am not one to speak to which part of the week seafood is freshest in restaurants, but the eel was absolutely tasty without any “old” or muddy accents in the flavour. I was quite happy working my chopsticks on the maki pieces and plopping them in my mouth. There were smiles, although I was not on Fantasy Island, but I was quite appreciative of the wonders of what sat before me. And when I had begun to attend to the spicy shrimp, I was devoutly in love. Having been to the East Coast and returned with a bit of sinus congestion, the kick in the spicy shrimp maki opened my nasal passages nicely. And ever so the danger boy that I am, I dipped the pieces in the soy sauce that I had primed with a few small dollops of wasabi. Happiness. Bliss. Rapture. Glee. Elation. Pick a word, any word to describe how satisfied I was and submit it to Webster’s with a photo of my smiling face for inclusion in the dictionary. Then again, only my expression could describe the satisfaction I derived from fresh ingredients wrapped in rice, stacked neatly on a plate for my temptation, and the flavour that dance about between my cheeks.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpAs if that was not enough, I simply could not leave without having dessert. No sticky rice with mango. No sticky rice, period. No Thai custard. Sure, those were on the menu, but I had to have mochi balls. I was all about them bringing me mango and green tea mochi balls. As I sat at my window seat having my way with the cold dessert, I pondered the marvel of cloud formations flying above in the sky. As you may have noticed, I have a tendency to pontificate about meaningless things when I am indulging culinary delights. I wondered where do these Asian restaurants find these ice cream balls. One friend said that I can find them at Trader Joe’s. Believe me when I say that I will go to all of the Trader Joe’s in the metropolitan Chicago area in search of these delights — until I go back to Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Mochi Balls

Now, at most sushi restaurants that dole out the same quality as Hot Woks Cool Sushi, you can expect to pay the price handsomely. I cannot say whether it is for ambience or for name at many Japanese establishments, but at Hot Woks Cool Sushi you pay an inviting tab for atmosphere, top service, and a quality dining experience. I may have had my purist thoughts about chain restaurants when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup, but it takes certain establishments to wreck that meme and have me rumpled at the table, all but drooling while trying to figure out when next I can get my feet under the table again at — shall we say — Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Bang the gong!

Hot Woks Cool Sushi on Urbanspoon

On the Sunny Side

Salsa

The older I get, the more I take advantage of things without seeking permission and without hesitation. A great friend has recently taken on the same disposition and so she and I catch up every Friday after work to wash away the weeks’ ills with laughter while enjoying food and drink. Who needs to sit around pondering what the Joneses are doing when they can find satisfaction with their feet under a table — be it at a restaurant, cafe, picnic table, or under their own kitchen tables — when life does not pause the Joneses to wait for anyone to catch up? Lucky for me, I have the Williams blood in me and the Joneses spend a great deal of time gasping from trying to match my pace.

Tomatilla

Since my friend and I had been meeting in Oak Park every Friday to frequent any one of our many favourite haunts, this was going to be a finale, as I am no longer going to work in the West Suburbs. I will work in downtown Chicago and with me living just on the outskirts of downtown, public transportation, packed subways, standing-room-only buses, and congestion will become my comfort again. So, my friend and I met at Maya del Sol, located at 144 S. Oak Park Avenue. I had passed by the restaurant over the course of a year or so, but never felt compelled to see what was on their bill of fare. There were always limos and high-end cars pulling up with thin Hollywood tanned blond Barbie dolls and Miami oompa-loompa orange Ken action figures springing about stiffly before vanishing into a cacophony of pretty-pretty faces. Considering my friend and I are both so sexy that it hurts, there was nothing holding us back from going in and adding Maya del Sol to our list of fooderies — that’s my first new word for the year.

Our fantastic waitress told us that Maya del Sol has a policy of refunding anything that customers do not like. Hmm. That is the last thing an establishment should mention considering the world is full of people who are unscrupulous and may feel bold enough to order in abundance and then complain about everything ordered just to squeeze out a free meal. But with homemade tortillo, tomatilla salsa, and traditional salsa in front of us inducing smiles on our faces, we let that bit of information given to us go in one ear and out the other. Granted chips and salsa come standard in Latin American eateries, there is something awesome about warm, crunchy tortillas that do not taste as though they were poured from a Frito-Lays bag and served with a jar of Hunt’s picante sauce. Believe me when I say that the tortillas and salsas were worthy.

Mojito

My friend had a glass of red wine. It is clear that she and I have like tastes in red wines — full body, spicy, with a smoky hint. The wine had come per recommendation from the waitress and immediately upped her tip value; this being true and we had not ordered appetizers yet. I had a mojito and I will simply say that Latin American bartenders have the market in preparing mojitos correctly. There are some mojito snobs leaping about in disdain at my observation, I am sure, but there is something fantastic to be said about a mojito that does not have the whole mint bush in the drink and the alcohol is not loaded enough to make a wino scream, Damn! Give me life or give me a bitching mojito. Hmm. Actually, I think I will take both.

Traditional Cerviche

Where things really got pleasing was with the flight of cerviches. Let me give a disclaimer now. I have not been a fan of cerviche until I had tried it at a local Cuban restaurant in my neighbourhood. Those Cubans blew my mind pa-pow-pow style and so when I go to Latin American restaurants and I see cervice on the menu, my addiction kicks in and I want to see if the eatery will satisfy my palate like or better than the Cuban cafe. Maya del Sol provides a flight of three cerviches so that you can get a feel or rather a taste for which one makes you sweat the most. Now, let me clarify that the cerviches are not spicy enough to make you sweat but the flavours pop in a manner that will leave you with a randy twitch. There goes my addiction again.

Salmon Cerviche

The first cerviche was the traditional version. !Dios mios! Fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and spiced with chilli peppers never tasted so good. Who would have thought that raw fish not prepared as sushi would be so tasty? Additional seasoning of onion, salt, cilantro, and pepper made it that much better. Thinking about the second cerviche — salmon cerviche — has me flustered. Fresh salmon, and I do not mean fishy in taste at all, sat atop avocado that had been prepared in the manner of guacamole, but not quite guacamole. In addition to the tortillas we had complementary with the salsas, we also had some flour tortillas that we used to scoop the cerviches. I made a mental note to never sit at a window seat again. Then again, I realized I would forget all about my window seat presentations as soon as I walk through the door of the next restaurant I plan to sample.

Shrimp Cerviche

Where things left my friend and me rumpled and out of sort was when we began working on the shrimp cerviche. Fat, plump shrimp bursting with vibrant flavour — as if you can describe flavour in terms of vibrancy — the only thing I could describe as being more beautiful or closer to heaven was watching the sun set from Signal Hill in Cape Town, South Africa. And here is where the cerviche snobs leap about in disdain of my statements of appreciation — and I imagine them landing between the sharp teeth of giant Venus fly traps. I have said as of late that cilantro goes great with everything. Well, not everything, but you get the gist. Add avocado to the list. Chunks of avocado sat perched on the wow shrimp that had been accented with cilantro. Heaven and my friend and me smacking the table.

Carne Asada

Although Maya del Sol fills up fast after work hours on Fridays, there was no rush. So, my friend and I watched the Hollywood and Miami types saunter about and strike poses before we summoned our waitress and ordered entrées. Keep in mind what I have written about the complementary chips and salsas, the drinks, and the flight of cerviches. I simply cannot do any justice to the carne asada. I tried to figure out what I would say about the plump tomatoes, my greatest rapture, my passion, my weakness. No, I do not mean just any tomatoes snatched from the shelf at the local market and doused with Lawry’s seasoning. Maya del Sol added love to those tomatoes and did not discriminate on the zucchini either. But it was the steak where the clouds scattered and the last beam of sunlight shined on the plate. It is shameful to admit that I cannot state approximately how many times my friend and I uttered, My God, while handling that steak. Talk about a restaurant getting “well done” correct: no burnt edges, no tree bark texturing, no hockey puck hardness, and no need for steak sauce. Just succulence sat on the plate before we delved in and showed the fashion model types how to appreciate good food without being embarrassing about it.

Shrimp, Vegetables, Rice

The reaction to the second entrée was no better. Shrimp with carrots, squash, and white rice. Not one bland bite did we have. Maya del Sol apparently gets only the best shrimp from market because again there were fleshy but not fishy shrimp that exploded when our teeth sank through them. As to the rice and vegetables, if you want to get your picky child into enjoying his or vegetables, I highly recommend exposing that obstinate child to a plate of shrimp with vegetables at Maya del Sol. Once more, there were chants of “My God!” and long stretches of silence. Amor en el plato. Love on a plate is all that I can say to describe the dish without making a mockery of the perfection the chef had sent to our table from the kitchen.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

By now we were pretty much done with any heavy dishes. We showed our appreciation by polishing off everything on the plates and I do mean everything except for lingering smears of gravy and gypsy rice kernels. No rush, no problem, as we sat for few minutes and then agreed that there was no way we were going to leave without experiencing something from the dessert menu. However, going overboard was not an option. So, we ordered Mexican hot chocolate. Pa-pow-pow! The Mexican hot chocolate was not necessarily spicy and that was fine. There were cloves, cinnamon, and a hint of allspice in it to give a bit of a kick but not enough to leave us with our eyes crossed. From the first intake of the aroma of the hot chocolate to the last sip, the entire moment was magical. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there was a sentiment of having bragging rights because I know I have accepted suggestions from some friends for where to go get Mexican hot chocolate only to receive a small cup of Hershey’s powder in hot water with an ancho chilli added for effect. I am wondering when the pox I wished on their homes will kick in. As if what we had already was not good enough, the chocolate tart with creme fraiche, strawberries, and mint was a perfect ending. Clearly the chocolate was not Jell-O. Sorry, Bill Cosby, I cannot give you props. The strawberries, although not served as a bushel of strawberries, were still bursting. My friend and I cut the mint leaf and indulged ourselves to a beautiful finish. Thinking about it all has me flustered all over again. I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but food as my lover is the greatest love ever.

Chocolate Tart

So, now that I will work from downtown, my friend and I will have to seek out other adventurous locales for our commiserating moments on Fridays after work. Maya del Sol was worthy of our first trip there and will be worthy of our many returns. It may have been that we took blind leaps of faith in the recommendations our waitress gave to us. It may have been that the food was simply outstanding on its on. What I will say is that you pay for what you get and I am not talking about emptying your savings account. Maya del Sol is loud, so be prepared to speak with upped volume to your friends, imaginary friends, or blow-up dolls. While I joke about the stiff Hollywood and Miami types, these are more genuine and fun to talk to than the candy stripers and saucy old men who frequent the Viagra Triangle immediately north of downtown. But, hell, who needs to people-watch when you can leave with a satisfying finish from comida buena?

Maya Del Sol on Urbanspoon