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!

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Gambling, No Win

The month of April has been a wonderful month for me. Having had a birthday on the fifth of April, I began a great deal of celebration. With many other friends having birthdays this month, that means I have been in feasting mode since the month began. Food. Desserts. Drinks. Reminiscing. All the good things. There has not been one day or evening that I have not been pleased from some type of food satisfaction. Even the night prior to me penning this journal entry I was at an Indian restaurant with a great friend having a fabulous time on some choley batura and four incredibly large shrimp. And to think that I woke with hunger again, ready for action, hankering to quiet the monster that growled endlessly. Being the puppet that I am, I figured that I would venture to the South Side down to Hyde Park to work my appetite on something at one of the many restaurants there. Through congestion and gauntlets of crazy drivers, I cursed and projected foul language the entire drive from my condo to Hyde Park. Shinju Sushi I arrived in Hyde Park and decided that I would start at 53rd Street and find something along that stretch. Thai. Italian. Barbecue. Japanese. Coffee. The selection was vast, but my hunger wanted me to be quick. So, I settled for Japanese at Shinju Sushi, located at 1535 E. 53rd Street. Upon entry, I had a bit of the welcoming feeling you receive when you go to saucy fast food joints but with a hostess who takes you to your seat. A rather cold welcome, a quick escort to my seat, and that was it. Not much of a problem, but while reviewing the short list of sushi options, one server came by and yanked the main menu. This was a red flag. Needless to say, I did not have a chance to see what was on that menu, just in case I may have had an interest ordering something from that bill of fare. Miso Soup Miso soup was one item I was going to order, but a server had brought out a bowl that I took for being complimentary. Enough to warm me up on the inside, considering it was brisk outside, I devoured the bowl of miso soup with a smile. By then, I had finished my order. I had a taste for gyosa, unagi maki, and shrimp tempura maki. No sooner had I handed the selection to the waitress than she returned with the gyosa. It was as though there was some telepathy involved. The chef knew that I wanted gyosa. Served with the accompanying sauce, this fried potsticker appetizer was tasty the way I have had other gyosa — albeit at room temperature. Gyosa After having the second of the five gyosas, the sushi came to the table. Again, the chef must have had some kind of telepathy because sushi does not come quickly unless it has been prepared in advance. And at the risk of sounding like a sushi snob, there was a hint of pre-packaging that I gathered based on the first bite. If you have bought any pre-made sushi or if you have ever had sushi or a maki and saved some for later, there is a certain texture that the sushi takes on. While not stale, each bite presents the feel of chewing gum that has been gnawed for half of an hour. This was the case with the unagi maki. In addition to the noticeable texture, the eel sauce on the maki was rather sweet. An indication of my gums experiencing a slight throb was hint enough that the unagi sauce on the maki was more saccharine than necessary. Little kids who thrive on sugary treats to perk their already-boosted energy would love the unagi maki. Unagi When it was time to consider having my way with the shrimp tempura, I had opted to leave a few pieces of the unagi maki alone. Yet again, there was the texture of pre-made sushi and at room temperature. Add to that the sugary sauce that had been used to douse the shrimp tempura maki. Oh were my teeth sensitive. Having a low sugar diet, and primarily avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup and excessive quantities of sugar, my palate goes into overdrive, my gums come to life, and my teeth tingle like I have drowned them in ice water. I could only stomach a few pieces of the shrimp tempura maki. Honestly, the whole process was a case study in me forcing myself to eat and that is problematic considering I have an outrageous appetite that requires little coaxing for stuffing my jaws.Tempura Shrimp Shinju Sushi is one of those restaurants that I would have plugged shamelessly during my college days. The cheap prices — a buffet of $14.99 — and just the mention of sushi would have been enough for me to have stamped myself as sushi omnipotent, as though I had lived my whole life in Japanese going to the best sushi bars ever, and been a walking advertisement. After watching sushi chefs work their magic on fresh ingredients, it is easy to become a purist. Then you have sushi with questionable texture and excessively sweet taste. Well, you win some. And then you return to sushi bars where you have walked away teetering from having eaten so much fresh and tasty sushi and maki. Yes, you win some.

Shinju Sushi on Urbanspoon