Riques Cocina Mexicana

Riques Cocina Mexicana

While passing through Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood, there was a moment of wanting some Vietnamese food from one of the many restaurants along the Argyle-Broadway stretch. With it being hot and humid outside, I decided against a pho and knowing how much I love spicy food, I opted against any peppery dishes. During my indecision, I had wandered over towards Sheridan Road and walked up on a Mexican restaurant named Riques Cocina Mexicana at 5004 N. Sheridan Road. I settled on returning to the area for Vietnamese food another day. For this day, Mexican would suffice.

Horchata

Horchata

To somewhat take the edge off of the balmy feeling from outside, I had a horchata. It was clear from the first sip that this was not horchata from a bottle. I kid you not when I say that I could have ordered a jug of it for taking home.

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

To keep from stuffing myself, I passed on ordering an appetizer and ordered a main dish of chiliquiles rojo con pollo instead. Shredded chicken, scrambled eggs, and toasted frijoles in a red sauce topped with queso fresco were all I needed to satisfy my craving. Having had chiliquiles at numerous Mexican restaurants in Chicago since I moved to the city in 1995, I can honestly say that this was the best that I have had. And the side of frijoles and sweet plantanos made for an excellent lunch option.

Plantanos y Frijoles

Plantanos y Frijoles

As filling as the chiliquiles were, the dish was not so heavy that I did not have any room for a postre. I ordered a “la dona” noir, which was hot chocolate, cacao barry, and espresso. Just to be different, I asked for it to be prepared spicy with ancho and chipotle chilis. Needless to say, I got something spicy when that was what I was initially trying to avoid doing. The drink was outstanding. But what made me dance in my seat was the flan de elote. I am now addicted to flan with corn in it. The texture is not smooth the way regular flan is and it is not as sweet either, but it is still a fiesta on the tongue.

"La Dona" Noir

“La Dona” Noir

Flan de Elote

Flan de Elote

Riques Cocina Mexicana is a cozy restaurant with plenty of seating. Having gone during the middle of the day, there were several parties of individuals. With food and service being as great as what I experienced, I am sure there is a crowd during the evening seating. Although the plating looks more appealing than what you get at traditional Mexican restaurants, the flavour is absolutely true to Mexican cooking. When I eat enough to the point of stumbling out the door like a drunkard and needing to have a nap, it is definitely good. Believe me when I say that I stumbled to the el station, dozed on the el, napped on the bus, and slept well when I arrived home. I had an uninterrupted dream about Riques Cocina Mexicana.

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Gino and the Chocolate Factory, Katherine Anne Confections

Katherine Anne's ConfectionsWhen I moved to Chicago, Logan Square was not viewed as a favourable neighbourhood. With Wicker Park and Bucktown to the southeast becoming congested, Logan Square became the next sought after neighbourhood in Chicago’s Near Northwest area. Restaurants, boutiques, cafes, coffeehouses, and lounges are filling in the landscape. During my six years of living in Logan Square, it is undergoing a slow and seemingly well-planned renaissance. There are plenty options to partake of for those who have made Logan Square their home. Not far from my favourite Italian restaurant is an option that I have enjoyed by the name of Katherine Anne Confections at 2745 W. Armitage Avenue.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Turkey Bleu

For my first sit-down visit, I wanted to try something from the sandwich menu so that I had more than just the hot chocolate I had planned to order. Now, I am not a fan of sandwiches at coffee shops and sandwiches on the menu at chocolate shops are unheard of. The turkey bleu at Katherine Anne Confections changed my mind — at least for this shop. The bread was fresh and the ingredients were not simply heaped on. I was won over. And I was completely wowed with the Mexican hot chocolate. This was not Nestlé’s and by the nth sip, it was clear that it wasn’t Hershey’s either. There was not even a hint of a milk chocolate taste and the spice added to it made it evident that they must use dark chocolate instead.

Hazelnut Hot Chocolate with Chocolate Truffles Flight of Chocolate Truffles

My second visit was more in passing. I’d had a heavy lunch but wanted a little something extra before going home. So, I stopped in for a cup of hot chocolate and relaxation. Because the Mexican hot chocolate was a winner, I chose a cup of hazelnut chocolate with vanilla pepper marshmallows. Accented with chopped hazelnuts, having this option on the menu can result in long lines hanging outside of the shop during the chilly months. It is hard for me to say whether I loved the Mexican hot chocolate or the hazelnut hot chocolate more. And then there were four truffles for take-away. I told the cashier to pick four. I know one was hazelnut, one was raspberry, and one was a fire chocolate. As to the fourth, it was divine, if I can call that a flavour.

Those who work at Katherine Ann Confections are not only charming, but they are also outstanding with their delivery of service. If you are indecisive, they never rush you. If you appear to want recommendations, they offer them without being pushy. I have had coffee for take-away and each cup has been great. The sit-down experiences have been fantastic. For a neighbourhood haunt, this is a splendid chocolatier and you may feel like Charlie at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory once you sink your teeth into some of the delectable chocolate truffles or get a chocolate from any of the swell cups of hot chocolate. Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.

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Cafe Bella, Latin American Addiction

Cafe Bella

Recently, I decided to donate my car to charity. Now I use public transportation to navigate the city and I also do a lot of walking. Well, after quite a bit of walking through my neighbourhood, I have stumbled upon a few small restaurants that I have since added to my list of eateries to sample for Chicago Alphabet Soup. One of those restaurants became a go-to spot for a Sunday afternoon rather than waiting outside some brunch spot to get inside for the usual chicken and waffles, shrimp and cheese grits, and mimosa. Okay, so that may not be the main items on brunch menus, but Cafe Bella at 3311 W. Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square promised to have something more inviting. They fulfilled that promised.

Cafe Azteca

Cafe Azteca

With the weather being frosty outside, I wanted something to warm me up. Seeing the usual listing of coffees, what stood out most was the cafe Azteca. Had there not been others sitting near me, I would have slurped it. Many restaurants serve up Nestle’s Quik or Hershey’s cocoa in warm milk — or water — mildly highlighted with cayenne pepper. There was no grit from any cocoa powder not having been mixed thoroughly. The marriage of espresso and cocoa was smooth, slightly peppered, and topped with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, cinnamon, and whipped cream. Let’s just say that one mug was not enough.

Pesto Shrimp

Pesto Shrimp

For a starter, I was in a mood for seafood. I ordered pesto shrimp. This came as a dish of five plump, grilled shrimp, well-seasoned and accented with a homemade pesto sauce over a fresh salad. If you go to Cafe Bella and plan to have a good bit to eat, add the pesto shrimp to your list. It’s light in terms of portions, but it is loaded with flavour. There was not one disappointing bite, except for the last one because I did not want it to end.

Quesadillas Pollo

Quesadillas Pollo

Next for sampling were chicken quesadillas served with homemade guacamole. The quesadillas had a twist to them. First, the tortillas were prepared with a tomato base. Quesadillas are customarily made with plain flour tortillas, but I must admit that the tomato base was a nice addition. Second, the chef had run low on chihuahua cheese, so there was an improvisation of adding Swiss cheese. I noticed that there wasn’t the faint taste of chihuahua cheese only and the server had kindly explained that the extra kick in the flavour was from the inclusion of Swiss cheese in the recipe. Surprisingly, it was not a bad modification and with the homemade guacamole dip on the side, there were no complaints from me.

Tour de Bella

Tour de Bella

Realizing that I had room for perhaps an entrée, there was one that I figured would be a good option for trying steak, chicken, and shrimp all in one dish. The Tour de Bella was it — strips of chicken breast, succulent shrimp, and steak served with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. I had looked at some of the photos of the dish online before going to Cafe Bella and thought it looked rather appetizing. When it arrived at the table, it looked too picturesque to devour. If I were indecisive, I would have just stared at it. But I went to work on the dish to completion. The shrimp was fresh. The chicken was juicy. The steak was tender. I was one satisfied customer. And I ordered that second cafe Azteca for my wrap-up.

The menu at Cafe Bella seems to cover Latin American cuisine without being specific to any country. If you have had any Latin American dishes, they are certainly not exactly the same, but they are outstanding with chicken, shrimp, steak, and other meat dishes that have enough flavour verve to keep you returning for more. Cafe Bella has a quaint atmosphere, which is good for solo dining or meeting with a few friends. It is not a big box restaurant and although there is a mild coffeehouse feel to the place, the food is definitely a guarantee for making you become a regular customer. And because there is an open kitchen theme to the restaurant, seeing your food cooked in your presence screams, “Welcome to my home.” I’ll be back for a longer stay next time. I bet you will, too.

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Waffling About Waffles Cafe

Waffles CafeSeveral times I have mentioned my love for breakfast, which may be at any time of the day. The thing is in Chicago most breakfast spots pack out within the first fifteen minutes of the doors opening for business. This past weekend I decided to get out of bed early enough to try a restaurant that was supposedly known for wonuts — waffles prepared like doughnuts. Well, after a bit of waffling around, I figured I would add my experience to Chicago Alphabet Soup.

Waffles Cafe in Chicago’s Lakeview neighbourhood at 3611 N. Broadway was my destination for sampling a variety of different waffles. It is neither a big box nor is it a hole in the wall. Small in size, but still comfy, it’s a sweet spot for some breakfast bliss. Upon entry, the host was a bit of a space cadet. That all changed when the camera came out of the bag. My server was outstanding and recognized that I was ready to release the Kraken — that being my appetite. Actually, I think she heard my stomach growling, as did the two at the table next to me who started snickering.

Waffles Cafe, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

I had checked out the menu online on the bus ride to the restaurant, so I had an idea of what I wanted. However, there were so many options. So I decided to do a flight — a flight of hot chocolate and a flight of waffles. The hot chocolate came in dainty little cups. There were caramel, Mexican hot chocolate, and toasted marshmallow. Now that I have a lumberjack beard, complete with wild moustache, each sip left whipped cream across my upper lip making my moustache match the white in my beard at the chin. Each flavour had won me over to the point where I wanted another flight. I had to wait on that to see if my belly would be okay with another flight, considering I had ordered a flight of waffles.

Now, I have had a flight of pancakes at Orange in Roscoe Village and thought those were cute. What I got at Waffles Cafe was more than I had expected. There were four waffles — green tea, Mexican chocolate, red velvet topped with strawberries, and liege with apple compote. One thing I must say is that the waffles had a hint of the flavouring. All while I worked my knife and fork on the breakfast beauties, I wondered if the taste had been a little more prominent if I would have liked the waffles more than I did. Given I didn’t use any syrup, the accompanying dollops of flavoured whipped cream were perfect as highlights. My favourite was the Mexican chocolate, and I swear that was a hint of Kahlua in the recipe. The green tea waffle was my second favourite, followed by the red velvet waffle, and finally by the liege waffle.

There were several customers who had come in to get to buy wonuts for take-away. The wonuts looked inviting, all of a variety of offerings — chocolate covered, cinnamon coated, drizzled, Oreo crusted, blueberry, and other options. I had bought some doughnuts from Somethin’ Sweet in the Cragin neighbourhood, so I did “window shopping” only just to see what wonuts were available in case I should return to Waffles Cafe. Overall, I enjoyed the breakfast and will go back soon, considering I did not have to stand outside waiting for a seat the way you have to at most breakfast shops on the North Side. Many may not be a fan of the waffles not being packed with sugar. If you’re adding syrup, a waffle upping your glucose level may not be a wise delicacy to indulge. But to each his or her own. And to me, I have just made a calendar notice for a return visit in the upcoming weekends.

No more waffling. Release the Kraken!

Waffles 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