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

And Now for Our Regularly Scheduled Program

To the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy”

Eat, they told me
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
There’s so much food to eat
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I made an ugly face
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I had a foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Baked Goat Cheese and Tomatoes with Toast

When my flight from Washington, DC, landed in Chicago, I was not a good ten paces in the terminal before I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. If I had my way to describe things, I would say that God shows favour in Chicago because after several months in Washington, DC, the last people to turn their backs on that city are those who choose to live there. It is very humbling having someone scoff at your career in data management and statistics — that being a politician or a lawyer is viewed as worthy of sitting to the left of God, I guess. And of all things to lack, the food was so excessively bland that I wanted to bark. But the one guarantee that I knew with certainty was that I was returning to Chicago, to a world of culture and a variety of damn good food.

Shrimp Chipotle Fettuccini

I spent Saturday unpacking, washing, and packing again because I will be going away for the Christmas holiday. Happiness! On top of those personal chores, I was running all over the city test driving Volkswagen Jetta cars. Merry Christmas to me. By the end of the day and into the night, I was too tired to contemplate cooking and I did not want the smell of take-away in my new car. So I slept that night with a huge smile on my face and an agenda for the next day.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

It was off to Hyde Park in Chicago to a familiar restaurant of days past — Medici on 57th Street. Again, I say that I do believe God shows favour in Chicago. With good parking Karma, I found myself going into Medici and greeted with the most pleasant smile before taken to a seat where I could begin to overcompensate for the last few months in Washington, DC. Because the restaurants in Chicago have some allowance for a tweak to a menu item, I handed the menu back to the waitress and told her to surprise me. Out came a cup of baked goat cheese with chunky tomatoes and pesto, served with toast. Let me just say that you have not had a dip worthy of delighting yourself over until you have had the baked goat cheese at Medici on 57th. The waitress had said that it was her favourite and I played like it was marginally okay all while I did everything except run my finger around the inside of the bowl and lick it. Then came the shrimp chipotle fettuccine and broccoli. I have had fettuccine with shrimp, but spicing it up with chipotle added a twist that I had found surprisingly outstanding. The broccoli was crunchy, but not raw because it must have been steamed. It burst with flavour. And the shrimp were plentiful, considering they were large and plump.

Apple Pie ala Mode

The shrimp chipotle fettuccine was incredibly filling. But the waitress had said to me that I should have a dessert. So, I had the entrée boxed up so that I could take care of business with some dessert. She recommended the apple pie, which came with large slices of apple and caramel. This apple pie had a shortbread crust. Imagine that. Now imagine having that lovely bowl of bliss with vanilla ice cream. My eyes rolled about in my head and I stifled the moans and groans that would have escaped my lips had I been at my home eating the dessert. To wrap up the whole experience, I had Mexican hot chocolate. We are not talking about melted chocolate in hot water with cinnamon sprinkled on top. No, this was a cup of scalded milk and chocolate with cinnamon do correctly. I finally moaned, much to the laughter of those around me.

I will admit that family in DC did take me to some restaurants that were worthy of writing home about. Then again, those restaurants were in Maryland and in Virginia. It may be because of gentrification that Washington, DC, falls short of cultural diversity and that kind of absence hampers cultural norms like food selection. Chicago celebrates cultural diversity and even the gentrification that is filling in the Windy City still does not have enough influence to have the food pander to a single palate. If you are eating Stepford cuisine in Chicago, chances are it is because you are snacking on a frozen dinner.

I’m going to burn in hell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I ate too much to tell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I need elastic pants
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Another foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Medici on 57th

Medici on 57th on Urbanspoon

There’s No Place Like Home

It is the middle of November and my body is having a bit of a shock from lack of ethnic food. Screaming! The coup de grace came last night when I went to dinner with some friends who swore to the four corners of the earth that I would love the restaurant where they were taking me. Off to Virginia I went to some down-homey American restaurant with meat, meat, grease, and more meat on the menu. Not wanting to come across as a prude, which I should have, I partook of a few items on the menu. Being a vegetarian who will eat fish and will not cringe at the presence of chicken, the pickings were slim for my palate — the ubiquitous salad bar screamed rabbit food and I simply am not a purist vegan in that vein. Fried this. Fried that. Beef. Pork. Ribs. Gravy with globs of grease in it. And in the middle of the night, my matchbox corporate apartment room spun like a roulette wheel. I am still draining myself of the ginger tea I had to prepare and drink non-stop to cease my stomach from bubbling. The room was still spinning by mid afternoon and when I last looked in the mirror, I do believe the green tinge to my skin has diminished some. However, the thought of what I ate last night makes my eyes cross still.

Panang Curry Chicken
Healthy Breakfast

While I give big ups to Washington, DC, for being a bastion of job opportunities, museums, people who talk about themselves — ad nauseum — and lots of tourist sites, there are those very important things that make a city most appealing to me — culture and food. Washington, DC, is very homogeneous. Many thanks to Ma and Pop Williams for not breeding a Stepford child. Being a product of the global community, I have more interest in being in settings that promote individuality. When it comes to food, the saying, “Variety is the spice of life,” comes to mind. Searching for small-owned, minority-owned, or independently-owned ethnic eateries is a bit of a scavenger hunt. Surprisingly so, because Washington, DC, being the capital of America, should boast the top ethnic restaurants in the whole of North America. Big box, upscale fast food, hotel restaurants, and chain restaurants dominate the culinary landscape. Even some of the coffee houses are like Target stores converted into lounges with dim lighting. There is no lack of quantity, for sure. But there is an absence of community that I have become accustomed to in Chicago, unless you go with a group of friends. After last night’s adventure, I think being set on fire would be more pleasurable than returning to any establishment that falls into one or more of the aforementioned categories.

Blackened Catfish, Collard Greens, Dirty Rice
Oxtails, Fish, Rice, Plantains

I have one co-worker who is a vegetarian. She recently gave me a list of the greatest vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants in the city. Yes!!! A contact on my Flickr page saw some of my photos I had taken at a few of the small, ethnic restaurants where I have gone and he offered a few suggestions that have made there way to the top of my list. Yes!!! With the city being relatively small and quick to walk within a reasonable number of miles, having Google Maps on my cell phone has led me to some Thai, Ghanaian, French, and German eateries. I found the stretch of independent restaurants in Adams Morgan that reminded me of the long stretch of Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Lakeview. I wandered upon U Street, so reminiscent of Wicker Park up through Logan Square. There is Foggy Bottom that reminds me of Hyde Park. There are some chi-chi restaurants akin to those found in Streeterville and Gold Coast. But the insides of my jaws have popped with flavour only a few times and I have done my share of eating since I have been in DC.

Peacock Cake with Apples
Butternut Squash Soup

The top restaurants and cafes where I have gone since being in Washington, DC, are as follows — with links to those having websites:

Panang Curry Chicken
Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant, Collard Greens

Okay, so the restaurant scene is not all that bad. But a food hound such as myself knows how to scout out the good eats wherever they may be found and spin straw into gold, even if it is not like stepping outside my condominium to a bevy of ethnic wonders in my Logan Square community. Having had some rather nice weather for this autumn, I have been able to get out of the apartment on the weekends and see where the culinary talent is hiding. There are pockets and one thing I have discovered is that it is imperative to get to these little gems as soon as the doors open because others like me appreciate finer things — like authenticity in their ethnic food and flavour. Between now and the time I return north to Chicago and all of its excitement, I will definitely sample the recommendations from my co-worker and Flickr friend. Know this to be true.

Frofrot, Togbei
Seafood Crepes

My time is nearing, for I shall return to Chicago where I shall indulge myself to excess on what my body has been craving since I left for DC. I already have my calendar set for the Cuban cafe, Thai restaurant, Japanese sushi bar, Brazilian restaurant, and Trinidad hole in the wall where all I have to do is walk in and greetings ring about on first name familiarity. Then I will be off to home to celebrate the end of the year with family. If you could see the smile that I have on my face, knowing that Ma Williams will have the house smelling of inviting aromas and me a few days later across the bed, on the floor, and up against the wall trying to get into a pair of jeans that will have somehow shrank between the time I will have gotten to her house and me stuffing myself to completion.

Spiced Potatoes and Omelette  Provençal
Salmon and Portabello Mushroom Sandwich and Salad

Off to the kitchen for some more ginger tea: slumber insurance. I do believe that I will be fine enough in the morning to get up and prepare some breakfast — scrambled eggs with cream cheese in it, avocado with lime, and blueberry waffles. Of course, I will get to pour some syrup that cost me damn near $7.00 from Whole Foods on the waffles.

Ending Song to Carol Burnette Show

It was a Friday night. I am soon to depart Chicago for Washington, DC, where for the next three months I will be on weekend scavenger hunts for restaurants to rival those in Chicago. I must say that Chicago has made it impossible for any other city in the world to best it in the cuisine department — that is unless you go to Melbourne, Australia, where you are guaranteed to shout from the rafters that you have been to food Mecca. But some critics with mild palates have stamped San Francisco as the top food haven in America. Far be it from me to debate someone who has never exhausted himself or herself to great satisfaction at a dining establishment in Second City.

Bruschetta

Red, Red, Wine

My circle of friends had a proper send-off for me. We met at Tasting Room at 1415 W. Randolph Street in Chicago’s Near West Loop. Right at the edge of one of Chicago’s premier locations that houses swanky boutiques, fantastic restaurants, coffee houses, fancy shops, and a demographic consisting of artists, bankers, lawyers, engineers, and the like, Tasting Room was a most inviting choice. There are two floors that you may choose for meeting to sip an aperitif or two and sample tasty delights. The bottom floor has a full bar and a generous seating area of tables and lounge chairs. Sweet. And there is the second floor that has a wide-open loft feel with plenty more tables and lounge seating. Windows, tall and wide, face downtown and you see the splendour of the skyscrapers with lights painting the windows while you enjoy company. This is exactly what happened for my friends and me this particular Friday evening.

I have lost track of the number of times I have been to Tasting Room, spanning as far back as 2009. The quality of the food has always been a magnet that draws me back. The knowledge of the wait staff, and I do believe the server we had this time is a sommelier, exceeds that of what you will find at most casual dining establishments. Tasting Room is not for the frugal, but at the same time, it is not one to cause fear of going broke. With such splendid service and great space, it is an excellent location for a gathering of small friends or a send-off with a large party. And because you are certain to find at least one bottle of wine worthy of taking home, may I recommend the adjoining wine shop? Yes, I may.

Vino Rojo

We all ordered flights of wine, the names relating to the Rat Pack that was so famous during the 1980’s. The white wines were attributed to the female cast of the Rat Pack: Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, and others. The red wines had names linked to Judd Nelson, John Cusack, Michael Anthony Hall, Emilio Estevez, and other male characters of the bunch. It was a rather touching theme, one that made me aware of how old I am because I remember all of those Rat Pack movies — “Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Better Off Dead,” and several other worthy movies from that group that makes me wince when I see picture shows by the present ilk of silver screen Thespians. The table before us held flatbread pizzas — one with ricotta cheese and spinach, another with olives and pine nuts, and a margherita pizza topped with fresh tomatoes. We grinned as we delighted ourselves on Bruschetta with sweet, dried cranberries. A crab cake sandwich with spicy, authentic onion rings appeared from the kitchen and were dealt a swift end. And the piave cheese fondue that was ideal for the small group was well-received, as was evident from the fact that we had all but wiped the fondue bowl to completion. White bread, rye bread, potatoes, apples, and chicken swirled around in piave cheese and then popped into our mouths without hesitation. We all smiled.

Delicious

When the night ended, I remembered the start of the lyrics to the song that Carol Burnette used to sing at the end of her variety show: It’s so nice we had this time together. The thing that left me with a smile is that I also remembered that the show came on again the next week. The laughter, commiseration, and fellowship that I have with my circle will resume when I return. But now that I have been so informed of how warm winters are in Washington, DC, I may want to work out some arrangement where I spend the summer in Chicago and winters in DC. I can suffer through not going to a Chicago restaurant for a few months. Well, I can try to convince myself of that. I guess.

Tasting Room at Randolph Wine Cellars on Urbanspoon

Authenticity

Earlier this week I went to one of the Cuban restaurants where I had gone in January — Cafecito. This time a colleague who had recommended the restaurant accompanied me on my visit. Upon entry, the owner greeted me by name and I greeted him by name. We chatted at length and when I introduced my colleague, he asked if she was the one who had told me about the restaurant. He had read the journal entry I had written about my experience at Cafecito and his recollection of the statement I had given about my colleague recommending the place was very telling. His brand of authenticity will be missed greatly.

Who Knows?

Throughout the week, I finally experienced the bittersweet moment that I knew would come eventually, with me soon to depart Chicago. I got a chance to meet with a few past co-workers, great friends, family, a past supervisor, and several others who have become significant parts of my circle. They jokingly rubbed in the fact that my constant appetite will keep me in some eatery in DC stuffing my jaws and that I will perhaps gain weight. They gave me names of cafés, restaurants, and holes in the wall that will certainly please the palate. A few paid for my Chicago Symphony Orchestra tickets and one volunteered to take my Chicago Lyric Opera subscription. And they all blocked my time for the remainder of my stay so that we could fellowship. Their brand of authenticity will be missed greatly.

Chop Chae

On Friday night, I returned to a certain Korean barbecue restaurant in Chicago’s North Side named San Soo Gab San. Teeming with people, this house of all good eats was perfect for escaping wet, dreary weather. Rainy on the outside, warm and toasty on the inside, one of my great friends and I had decided to meet to get our fill of countless little bowls of edibles, and entrée of a savoury noodle dish, and meat on a hibachi. With cameras in hand and a camcorder, too, this time, I was ready. And my great friend was equally as ready as he brought his fantastic camera to capture the impressions left on the table for us to address and the final snapshots of how aggressive we were with the treats set before us.

Kimchee

For anyone who has gone to any Korean barbecue restaurant, you are well aware that nothing comes to the table ala American fare. Little bowls of this, that, and the other are stacked on the table in whatever spot available. When you think that there is no more room because an entrée has arrived at the table and plates of raw meat so that you can grill yourself have been brought, the servers figure out how to move things around to make more room for additional small bowls. Aye, aye, aye! Kimchee, potato salad, potatoes, lettuce, spiced pickles, bean sprouts, spiced tofu, water vegetables, peanut sauce, and things that you simply eat so that you can make space are there for the sampling. Although I am primarily vegetarian, albeit not one leading a crusade against eating meat, I had some chop chae. This plate of happiness — clear noodles, chopped beef, onions, and scallions — went down the gullet with no complaint and no wicked side effects. Well, that is unless you count being sleepy afterwards a side effect. There was bulgolgi, which is well-seasoned beef, shredded nicely, and doctored with a splendid amount of spices that went on the grill and cooked to bliss. Same was the case with the lip-smacking chicken. Gobbled up with all of the small side dishes, my great friend and I did one of the most awful things afterwards: we went and had gelato at Paciugo in Lakeview. I am not talking about a manageable scoop of one flavour either. No, there were four scoops stuffed into our individual cups and tended to with utmost diligence. Oh the shame of it all.

Saturday I spent a moment downtown taking in some architectural photography. Most of it was inside because the wind that whipped back and forth from Lake Michigan was a bit more nippy than I had anticipated. I visited the Chicago Cultural Centre and kicked my self, literally, for having not gone before now. The architecture, the attention to detail, the glass dome, the Tiffany dome, and the moment of relaxation that gave such ideal escape were exactly what I needed. After a few hours had passed, my belly started growling. Haha. Another great friend from Phuket, Thailand, met me downtown at a Thai restaurant after my photography session. Having gone to the restaurant, My Thai, it was great being able to see the manager and constant wait staff one last time. Where it became a quiet moment was when it dawned on my Thai friend and me is that we both are leaving Chicago, he to return to Thailand, me to go to DC. He was one of the first people I had met when I moved to Chicago seventeen years ago, an authentic friend who taught me how to speak in Thai in exchange for me giving him enough in French. Saying lacone, which means good-bye, sounded so final and it left me quiet for far longer than I could manage.

Chicken, Onions, Rice Noodles

This weekend ended with me catching up with the aforementioned colleague — who really is more like family — who had suggested the Cuban restaurant to me. We met at Eggsperience, one of the American breakfast, brunch, and lunch restaurants in Chicago’s River North. We had fluffy pancakes, crisp waffles, scrambled eggs with cream cheese, freshly squeezed orange juice, a banana smoothie, and plenty of laughter. A quick walk over to Intelligencia, we watched the barrister prepare our coffee through some brewing process that looked more like a science experiment than mere percolating-and-pour. We took in a free concert at Chicago Cultural Centre, given by Chicago Chamber Orchestra. And a brilliant finish to the day was dinner at Tamarind, which is a Pan-Asian restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop, where we had chicken masala, spicy salmon maki, and another maki that was incredibly catchy to the eye and filling to the tummy. Of all days, I left home sans my camera. The food was journal-worthy.

The upcoming week will come and go in the twinkling of a moment. As I look back over the restaurants that I have visited over the past several years, I am amazed truly at how many I have covered. I never had any intention of putting a restaurant on the blog site that had food unsatisfactory to my palate or service that was not pleasing to my sensibilities. To date, there was not one that failed. There were the magnetism of flavours, outstanding service, and authenticity — there is that word again — that kept me returning. I cannot bottle my moments and place them on a shelf, but I still have records of my adventures. My dining experiences and my relationships have been constants that have kept me smiling. As I go into this final week, I will savour the precious memories and a little thing that the world could use more of: authenticity. Until the last supper…

Pan-Asian Sampling Delight

Simply Thalia

When weekends arrive in Chicago, I tend to smile a little wider. I can sleep later in the mornings. I get a reprieve from hand-holding fellow colleagues at work. And I can eat until my heart is content, my belly is filled, and I can take a nap without anyone running into my space and disrupting it. Saturday morning arrives, it is sunny outside, I am on my way to some eatery, and then there is this thing called cloud coverage — always followed by cloud bursts of torrential downpours — that messes up the merry work for any outdoor activity. This has been a weekend phenomenon almost wears me down to spiritual defeat. But my appetite remains in tact, though.

After work a few days ago, I went by a Pan-Asian eatery that is in the concourse between the Red Line at Lake Street and the Blue Line at Washington Street. In the lower level of the new mall at 108 N. State Street is Simply Thalia, which is simply an Asian cafe of all good things. When I had gone the other day, my appetite was way off the scale because I had recently increased my workout routine and I had a hankering that was driving me sideways the wall. Having gone to the restaurant several months past and had a panang dish, I was not necessarily thrilled with the diligence done to their Thai curry dishes — more watery than hearty — but I was hungry and there are other items on their bill of fare. Today I wanted to try a different approach and I had decided that I would keep with my Snacking on Saturday [convenient] tradition. I was only going to have appetizers and, by George, I was going to like it. That was me psyching myself up for the edibles.

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

There was very little convincing that I had to do. Focusing on the appetizers, which were priced very low, I eyed three items that I wanted to delight myself with. I started with Saigon shrimp rolls. Who would have thought that rice paper rolled with shrimp, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and mint could be so blooming satisfying? The Vietnamese apparently figured it out and the shrimp rolls that I feasted myself on with the complementary dipping sauce, consisting of a plum sauce and a hint of teriyaki sauce, really made an impression on me. This was the first time I have had Saigon shrimp rolls and loved them. My hat goes off the chef, cook, or frozen food merchant who dealt me this treat.

The next appetizer I had was Burmese samosa. Flaky to perfection and stuffed with sweet curried potatoes and spiced chicken, my mouth burst with flavours of Burma. One ethnicity lacking in the Chicago multi-cultural restaurant spectrum is Burmese. Albeit a small items on the larger menu, I was reminded of the fine eating experiences in many Burmese restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, and in Washington, DC. Served with a sweet mustard accented with a hint of cilantro, I know now that it is time for me to visit old friends in Toronto and in DC — to catch up with my friends, of course — for some loving from the kitchen courtesy some Burmese.

Burmese Samosas

Burmese Samosas

The final appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Malaysian home-made naan served up with curry chicken dipping sauce was an absolute taste of heaven. It is quite evident that Simply Thalia does not concoct thick curry gravies, a case with the thin base for the curry chicken sauce. However, this curry was only thin, not watery, and it worked very well with the roti. I could eat the Malaysian roti canai everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Hmm. Wait. I have a threshold and everyday would be too much; I would not want to risk tiring myself of such a dish full of love. But I found the roti alone to be a welcome to the palate and the curry sauce made it that more appetizing.

I cannot place Simply Thalia in any one ethnic bucket as there are many Asian cultures represented in the food — Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian just to name a few. What I will add is that for there to be a plethora of Asian cultures present in the food at any one restaurant, there is a splendid job done keeping each ethnic dish specific to the culture which it represents, rather than introducing fusion and competing flavours.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

For the three appetizers and some organic tea, the tab for my moment of food bliss was under $20. Small and rather close, Simply Thalia has a feel of a lounge — minus super tan blond Rachels in high heels and mini skirts and Oompa Loompa orange Barts in clothes way too tight. Granted servers do not perform acrobats to please your sensibilities, I was appreciative of the fact that when I had said I wanted each appetizer one at a time and spaced out between delivery, the individual who took my order honoured my request. So my three factors that keep me returning were there: great service, low price, and outstanding food. What am I going to do when I increase my workout routine again? That was a rhetorical question.

Also, Simply Thalia has a parent restaurant named Thalia Spice, which is at 833 W. Chicago Avenue. I am almost certain that the food is worthy of a visit. And even if you still want a sample of their tasty menu items, you can order online from your desktop or from your smart phone. I think I am outside of the delivery area, but I will go and have a seat at one of the tables and see what delight I can derive from some Pan-Asian sampling.

Simply Thalia on Urbanspoon

Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

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

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

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

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

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

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

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

Chicken Schwerma

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

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

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

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

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

Acknowledging My Threshold

I Dream of Falafel

This past Saturday I ate to the point where it was 2:30 in the morning before I could lie down with any kind of comfort. I have come to the realization that American dining indulges gluttony and quick eating which is great for getting customers in and out of restaurants fast, but you will pay a price for rapid gorging. I had stuffed myself with a heavy breakfast and then went overboard with dinner. Now, I must say that I had no regrets while go over my limit — the regrets came afterwards.

Today I had no room for filling my belly until almost towards the end of the day. I had been doing some architectural photography and scouting for some areas to do more photography for my portfolio when there was a moment of realization that I had perhaps a little room for something solid — having had my fill of water to keep myself replenished during my walking. But what should catch my eye while in West Loop but I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue. Not specific to any exact country — esoteric to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean — I figured I would see what was on the bill of fare and get something for a snack instead of anything to add to my feeling the previous night. Much like any fast food restaurant, I Dream of Falafel is a bright restaurant to add to the long list of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean eateries that are starting to dominate Chicago cuisine.

Sweet Potato Falafel with Tahini Sauce

I ordered sweet potato falafel with tahini sauce to stay in line with my want for snacks. What a fantastic choice. The four yummy treats were filling, as it were since bread will fill you up, and Utopian. I have yet to have falafel prepared to a point of being utterly discouraging to the palate, but these sweet potato falafel were crunchy on the outside without being hard and they were moist — the letter “t” is silent here — on the inside. Since I was going to do a bit more photography before the end of the day, I had some lemonade. What a combination. What a slice of heaven. And the price for it all? Under $5.00. Yes, four sweet potato falafel with tahini sauce and bottomless lemonade came to a price that will draw me back again and again. What a life.

If you work in the West Loop, live in the West Loop, or hang out in the West Loop, then add 555 W. Monroe Avenue to your global positioning system. Or add I Dream of Falafel and let the Molly give you the directions to get there. It is that good and I have not yet sampled any of the other menu items. Rest assure that I will over time, but I am actually daydreaming of falafel as I am typing this journal entry. It is a good thing that with me acknowledging my threshold I am only thinking of the snacks, not acting on my want for some more of them.

I Dream of Falafel on Urbanspoon