Pecking Order, Filipino Goodness

Pecking Order

One of my biggest peeves about Chicago is the cellular phone reception that I receive — or rather not receive. Add to that the whole clown fiasco involving battery life on cell phones these days. A friend was trying to reach me several weeks to ago to let me know that he and another former co-worker were meeting at a Filipino restaurant to grin over a few plates of food. Thanks to a cell phone from a wireless provider whose coverage in Chicago is worse than what I have ever had in rural Mississippi, the calls to me kept dropping. By the time we resorted to texting, the battery had died a quick death shortly thereafter. When I got home, charged the battery fully, and saw that some photos had come through of some appetizing food, I was ready to call AT&t and give a customer service representative my permission to end my relationship with them.

But that was okay. I made sure to keep my cell phone on a charger constantly because missing out on food is a bit of a problem that I refuse to entertain on an ongoing basis. The next time my friends were planning to go to the Filipino restaurant, I was going to be ready for action along with them. Pecking Order at 4416 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood was the spot my friends had been taunting me about. I had been searching for some Filipino restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area, only to find one or two, and was pleasantly surprised to note that Pecking Order is not far from home. So, having arrived — after creeping in rush hour traffic — we sat, scanned the menus, and my friends commenced to order since they were already regulars there.

Corn

Corn

Sweet Plantains with Jackfruit Chutney

Sweet Plantains with Jackfruit Chutney

There was special corn, not literally, though. This was sweet corn from the cob that had been accented with spicy mayonnaise and cheese. For some bizarre reason, mayonnaise seems to be popping up a lot in menu items I have been ordering. Not that it’s a bad thing, but mayonnaise is slowly working itself off of my Top 3 things I fear — small planes and small boats occupying the top two positions.

Being of West Indian stock, I am never one to turn down a plate of plantains. And if they are as deliciously prepared as the ones at Pecking Order are, then you will understand me without incident. They weren’t dry. They weren’t fried to a horrible crisp. They burst with each bite and the jackfruit chutney that came with them were a beautiful accompaniment. I am going out on a limb with this observation, but no one can deny that these plantains are the best that you will find in Chicago — no one.

Then came the potatoes and Lola’s Gravy with cheese. Whoever Lola is, someone needs to do an excerpt on her and really advertise her loving from the kitchen. One may think that it was just a bowl of potatoes. No, it was a bowl of potatoes that popped with flavour. Thankful that the cheese was not Velveeta lava, but rather shredded cheese, you indeed get to taste the ingredients rather than simply acknowledging that you had some potatoes that looked doctored up.

Potatoes & Lola's Gravy with Cheese

Potatoes & Lola’s Gravy with Cheese

Greens in Coconut Milk

Greens in Coconut Milk

If you have friends like some of mine, then you often hear them making statements like, “No one prepares greens like I do.” Right, and the greatest riddle of all times is the one about the twelve rabbits and the cheesecake. My friend who had organized the evening excursion to Pecking Order had kept talking about the greens.  Oh how he wore it out.  And after the first forkfuls of the greens, I understood fully why he raved about them. Apologies to those of staunch religious leanings, but when Jesus Christ returns, it will be for the greens at Pecking Order, not to save souls. We’re talking collard greens and mustard greens cooked in coconut milk with ginger, apple wood smoked bacon, and accented with crispy onions. I smile just thinking about them.

Whenever you think of fried rice, it is usually of the Chinese variety — shrimp fried rice, chicken fried rice, vegetable fried rice and beef fried rice. Thanks to sauces and ingredients, the dish comes out brown. Well, skip Chinese fried rice from now on and go get yourself some Filipino garlic fried rice. Oh what a beautiful day.  Still fluffy, but riding the event horizon to sticky rice, this dish is a must for anyone who has an appreciation for rice with their meals. I swear I could have garlic fried rice as a side to every meal and never tire of it. And if you have to ask, yes, it was just that good.

Garlic Fried Rice

Garlic Fried Rice

Chicken Wings

Chicken Wings

The chicken comes prepared three different ways: grilled, fried, or roasted. Because we opted for wings, the fried method was what we had. Now, I had heard that Filipino chicken is delicately fried such that the crust is very crispy. I was thinking it would be like Moroccan chicken. Much to my surprise, it was like Southern fried chicken without having been fried in an egg batter. That was fine. Although I devoured the pound of wings without complaint, there was a hint of some herbs and spices that I could not place. They worked well, but I could not pick up on the kick that danced about on my palate.

Pecking Order may present the look of a small cafe when looking at it from the outside. Once you get inside, it comes off like entering Dr. Who’s tardis. It is large and extends quite a bit. The service is outstanding and helpful. No way for anyone to go there and find fault in their lively dispositions and fantastic assistance. When it comes to price, be prepared to be floored. For all of the food that we had ordered, it was super being able to drop cash on the table and not worry about whether the wallets were empty after paying. Great service, outstanding food, and reasonable prices: the makings of a necessary calendar reminder to return in the near future to try a few more things from the menu.
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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.

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Sunset in Negril, I’m in Chicago

De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine

When I turned 40, some friends had taken me to an Afghani restaurant for my birthday dinner. I had been to the Afghani restaurant — Kabul House — for the very first blog post to Chicago Alphabet Soup and I was a few notches past anxious for returning. The food was something delicious and with it having been the first time ever indulging any Afghani cuisine, it was tastefully exotic. Having the dinner celebration at the restaurant and loving the dining experience as much as I did the first visit, I had made plans to return for a few future excursions. Much to my disappointment, the restaurant had closed its doors. While Chicago and the neighbouring suburbs may have Afghani communities, there were no other dining establishments to showcase their food talents. Recently I discovered that the restaurant had a new location in the small downtown section of Skokie, Illinois. And just a block away was another gem that I never would have thought would dot the landscape of Skokie — De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine at 4901 Oakton Street. Skokie is not known for having a Caribbean community, so I was fascinated to find something reflective of my culture.

Jamaican Beef Pattie

Jamaican Beef Pattie

The inside of De-Jred is spacious, with plenty of tables and booths. Upon entering, find a seat and prepare yourself for some authentic food from the island of Jamaica. I arrived just as the doors had opened, so I had my pick of seats. Knowing that I was going to capture impressions of what I was going to eat, I sat near the window for natural light to my photographs. The server approached with menu, a hearty welcome, and I had a few minutes to see what was on the bill of fare. It took very little time, as I saw something I was accustomed to eating as a kid. After placing my order and briefly talking with the owner/manager/cook about Jamaica, Toronto, and where there is a concentration of other Jamaicans in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, it was time to feed the monster.

Kola Champagne

Kola Champagne

Rice and Peas

Rice and Peas

One should never go to a Jamaican restaurant and leave without ordering a beef pattie. Actually, it is mandatory that you order a beef pattie unless you are a vegetarian. Talk about true Jamaican representation. I have had Jamaican beef patties at countless Jamaican restaurants and walk-up counters, most of which had a hint of beef filling and a lot of air between the crusts. At De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine, the patties are stuffed with beef filling and spicy the way I like them. They were so much like what I remember from Jamaica proper and the cast of Jamaican restaurants in Toronto to the point that I ordered some for take-away.

Callaloo

Callaloo

Being that I was in the mood for something reminiscent of my younger days, I had saltfish and ackee. Although you can eat it at any time of the day, it was a breakfast staple that made pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, and that other Stepford fare distasteful. There were even a few bones in the saltfish. With the saltfish and ackee, there were plantains and some steamed cabbage with carrots. I was a rather happy man after the first scoop of everything. And when I got a scoop of the rice and peas, I had mentally gone to Sheffield, Jamaica, and was sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table handling business and washing it all down with some june plum juice. Well, I didn’t have any june plum juice. I had Kola Champagne instead, and that still was a big hit. Also, with the saltfish and ackee dish I had callaloo. In American-speak, think greens. Accented with stewed tomatoes and seasoned just right, I made them vanish, the food magician that I am. What would have really shot me to the moon would have been if I had some fried bammy with the meal. I would have stepped outside, counted from ten to one, and skyrocketed straight out into space.

Saltfish and Ackee, Cabbage and Carrots

Saltfish and Ackee, Cabbage and Carrots

Had I not been in a reflective mood about my fortieth birthday, I never would have searched to see if Kabul House had a resurgence. It was fortunate that I was thinking of the Afghani restaurant because having discovered its new location, I also found out that there was a Jamaican restaurant within walking distance of it. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine may be one of those spots that you pass without noticing it. But if you are in the area and your nose detects the smell of something from that beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, open the doors to some of the best Jamaican food in the Chicago area. Be prepared for a dish or two of all the good things.

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Cumin to a Neighbourhood Near You

Cumin

Chutneys

Chutneys

It was Friday mid afternoon and we were allowed to leave work early. It was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend and many companies downtown were rather anxious to start the weekend. Everyone wanted to leave work in a rush to avoid being stuck in traffic or crammed on public transportation en route to home — or wherever they were going. As for me, I opted for a casual subway ride from downtown to Wicker Park with intentions of going to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant. It was late enough that the lunch crowd would have thinned and the after-five crowd would have considered an early dinner an affront to their evening drinking agenda. I arrived at the door and saw that it was dark. Ras! The hours off business are 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM and 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, Wicker Park is only the neighbourhood south of Logan Square, where I live. So I went home and dropped off my attaché case, sat for a spell, and then headed back out for the 5:00 PM opening.

Aaluko Achar

Aaluko Achar

Found on the stretch of hip Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park at 1414 N. Milwaukee Avenue is Cumin, one of Chicago’s few Nepalese restaurants that is not tucked in between a host of Indian restaurants on Devon Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Restaurant atmosphere with a lounge kind of feel to it, I arrived at the restaurant while there were only two tables of diners. I had my pick of seats. Having received a recommendation from a colleague about how outstanding the food was at Cumin, I had slightly high hopes, but I moderated them just a bit. I have found that Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese restaurants that are not on Devon Avenue tend to appease the American palate more — that is, the food is rather absent of spices, especially the spices that burn the tongue.

Aalu Tikka

Aalu Tikka

During review of the menu, I noticed that the Nepalese bill of fare was considerably smaller than the Indian menu. The vegetarian options were also limited, surprisingly. Indian restaurants are quite dominant in the city, so I decided that I would focus on the Nepalese menu, specifically, perhaps with one exception. I saw a few vegetarian items on the menu. However, I deferred to the waitress for recommendations. I told her that I was primarily vegetarian and wanted something that was authentically Nepalese. Staying away from the usual menu items like samosas, pakoras, and curries, I simply handed the menu to her and told her that I wanted two appetizers and two entrées. With the vegetarian fare being lighter, I entertained one Nepalese appetizer and one Indian vegetarian appetizer. The entrées were Nepalese proper. Seeing that I was pulling my cameras from my bag, the waitress asked me if I wanted my food all at once or if I wanted it linearly so that I could photograph each dish without having the shuffle plates around on the table. I agreed to have each plate come individually.

Basmati Rice

Basmati Rice

The Nepalese appetizer to come to the table was the aaluka achar. Visually, this is every food photographers’ dream, stunning in presentation and well placed for your viewing pleasure. Taste-wise, these baby potatoes and cucumbers, diced and picked with sesame-lemon paste, tempered with fenugreek seed, red chillies, and tumeric powder were heaven served with the restaurant’s signature crispy flattened rice. This dish was so fantastic to the palate that I just knew the rest of the food I had ordered was going to be highly disappointing. And then the Indian appetizer of aalo tikki chaat came to the table. Not only was this appealing to the visual senses, but my taste buds had a party with every bite. This was a mashed potato cake under a cornucopia of boiled chickpeas, chopped onions, yogurt, chaat masala, and tamarind-mint chutney. My mouth went Wow with each taste and understandably so. What made this appetizer even more delectable was the fact that the tartness of the yogurt was balanced out nicely by the sweetness of the tamarind-mint chutney. The aaluka achar and aalo tikka chaat were so expressive in my mouth that I was then certain the appetizers were the best on the menu and the entrees were going to be the complete antithesis.

Palungoko Saag

Palungoko Saag

And when the first entrée came to the table, it was quite evident that I am neither a gambling man nor one who operates on first impressions setting the expectations bar. The baalungoku saag that I had is a traditional Nepalese dish that I can understand why it is favoured so well. In the bowl were fresh spinach leaves sautéed in cumin seed, mustard seed, fenugreek seed, dry red chillies, and fresh garlic cloves. Pa-pow-pow went the insides of my cheeks with each forkful that I placed on my tongue. The spinach had been cooked such that it was not bitter and spiced just right with the red chillies that there was a kick without a need for several swallows of water thereafter. The second entrée was parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Yet again, this was an amazing dish of potatoes, bamboo shoots, and black eyed peas cooked in delectable Nepalese spices. Recommended per the waitress as a traditional vegetarian dish in Nepal, I can say with brutal honesty that I do not want black eyed peas in another fashion than as a dish of parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Not to omit any items, but the basmati rice and roti that came with the entrées rounded out my meal very nicely. The nods of appreciation, the smiles of rapture, and the silence of my growling belly were all evidence that Cumin had done a fantastic job.

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

I knew that I would be able to finish the appetizers without incident. As to the entrées, I ate enough so that I could engage the waitress about the dishes, their preparations, and their cultural significances in Nepal. While getting the remaining entrées prepared for take-away, I had a chai. Naturally sweet and certainly not prepared like that sugary madness you get at Starbucks and other coffee houses, this chai reminded me of that which I partook of in Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay, just not as peppery. I was quite satisfied and was thrown for a bit of a quandary when I saw the bill. I was quite certain that the waitress had left something off — something that happens often at restaurants where I go. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the appetizers, entrées, and chai that I had ordered were present and accounted for. It was just that the prices were not so above the clouds that the cash register sounded off in stereo with “cha-ching” when the waitress cashed me out.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

For a first visit, I found Cumin to be a restaurant that I would recommend highly. From the inviting welcome, to the delicious factor of the food, to the price, Cumin is a package that is hard to shirk. As mentioned earlier, the Nepalese menu is small in comparison the Indian menu, and I will have to return in the future to sample what the Indian portion has to offer. With Cumin also being a few stops away from where I live or a bus ride away, I will not have to venture north of where I live to Devon Avenue for some Nepalese food fascination. In the meantime, I will polish off the remaining baalungoku saag and parvate aalu tama ra bodi while reminiscing of how great my experience was on this particular early Friday evening.

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