Antique Taco, New Style Tacos

Antique Taco

Wondering what to have for lunch, I was in Wicker Park on the hunt for a Pakistani restaurant that turned out not to be open for business yet. During the middle of the afternoon, restaurants in Wicker Park have lines out the door. My appetite does not play nicely when it comes to waiting. It is almost like a little brat, constantly making my stomach growl, which makes me grumpy. Well, across the street at 1360 N. Milwaukee Avenue was Antique Taco and it looked like there was plenty of seating. Not that any seat had my name on it, there was some food that needed to be shown that I loved it.

Strawberry Ginger Margarita

Strawberry Ginger Margarita

Guacamole and Chips

Guacamole and Chips

Strawberry ginger margaritas. Guacamole and chips. Garlic shrimp tacos. Keema empanada. Let me first say that the price for the entire meal came out higher than I expected. I should have paid more attention to the prices while I was being excessively hungry. But that was not a problem. When I look back on the experience, the delectable component of the food justified the cost.

Garlic Shrimp

Garlic Shrimp

I had recently been spoiled by having some awesome chunky guacamole at a Mexican restaurant, so the creamy guacamole at Antique Taco was good only to me in comparison. The shrimp tacos were worth writing home about, and ordering again during future visits. When I say that the addition of cauliflower elote and the creamy avocado basil salsa worked divinely in the recipe, I’m actually shouting it. What would have otherwise been two bland tacos were food fantastic. The keema empanada reminded me of keema samosas that you get at Indian restaurants. The meat was in a sauce rather than simply flavoured. Beware that these are not small, cute empanadas, but rather small one-course meals. And the strawberry ginger margaritas were perfect for washing everything down. Not heavy on the alcohol, I didn’t realize how much was in it until I got home and felt a need for a nap.

Keema Empanada

Keema Empanada

Antique Taco seems to be a hot spot, much like most restaurants in Wicker Park. Although I arrived shortly after the doors opened for business, about 30 minutes into my dining experience, the restaurant filled to capacity and there was a long line at the door. I get the allure. If you want to enjoy your meal inside, I suggest and highly recommend that you arrive at the opening of business. Now, one thing to note is that Antique Taco may be couched in Mexican cuisine. However, they add a twist to the menu items that make you want to try something new every time I go there. I have no idea where the name for the restaurant came from. What I will say is I love the “new” take on a Mexican staple.

Antique Taco on Urbanspoon

That Little Mexican Cafe, a Bryn Mawr Favourite

The Little Mexican Cafe

For my birthday weekend, I took a few days off following the weekend to have some proper time for myself. That meant staying up late, sleeping later in the morning, and eating, the latter being a given. I had been going to the Bryn Mawr corridor for quite a bit of dining options. I had gone to Little India Restaurant on Friday and to Little Vietnam Restaurant on Saturday. Isn’t it cute how the restaurants have “Little” in the names? Well, only a block away from both is a restaurant named That Little Mexican Cafe at 1055 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue. Having acknowledged that I have become a fan of the other two “Little” restaurants, I had to see if That Little Mexican Cafe would become a big part of my life.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

This is not a hole-in-the-wall. I guess it falls more in line with being a medium-sized restaurant with hole-in-the-wall authenticity. The atmosphere detracts from it falling into the big box category. You do feel like you have gone to a friend’s home, mostly from the setting, and that is a very good thing if you rank customer service over ambience. There were complimentary chips and salsa that I later raved about to friends endlessly later in the afternoon.

Guacamole

Guacamole

With me doing something like an extended birthday celebration from the weekend, I still had a Frankenstein monster appetite. Considering this was a new restaurant to me and my intentions were to try something I haven’t had from any other Mexican restaurants, I was still curious as to the guacamole. I’ve had so much guacamole that I should be tired of it. But the tableside guacamole that I got at That Little Mexican Restaurant is the BEST that I have had outside of Distrito Federal. This was chunky guacamole, not puréed. They recognized that avocado already has a creamy texture, and chose not to mess that up by turning it into a coarse pudding.

Taquitos Pollos

Taquitos Pollos

The next menu items I wanted to try were taquitos pollos. Imagine small corn tortilla chicken tacos fried to a perfect crisp. Served over a bed of lettuce, tomato, and crumbled cheese, these are fantastic snacks. I was expecting only a few, no more than four. There were eight. And by the time I finished gnashing away on those little treats, there were only a few shreds of lettuce on the plate. I have had taquitos at several Mexican corner stores that were tops and some from a few Americanized restaurants that failed. The taquitos at That Little Mexican Cafe rank up there with “worthy of ordering.”

Cazuela Camarones

Cazuela Camarones

Not wanting to order a chicken or beef dish that would have left me stuffed, I ordered a cazuela camarones. Plump shrimp in a spicy red sauce served over Spanish rice never tasted better. The sauce had a smoky flavour that made the dish reminiscent of a barbecue.  I was not expecting such a pop to the dish and it may have been because I had been so accustomed to ordering tacos, enchiladas, tostados, carne asada, and Tex-Mex that I missed trying other fare like the seafood dish that I was completely enthralled with. For full disclosure, I ordered some more for take-away, along with another side of rice and the delicious black beans.

Arroz con Frijoles

Arroz con Frijoles

 

By the time I did my slow walk out of That Little Mexican Cafe, there were two main things that stuck with me. They do the best guacamole in Chicago. I will go even say that it is better than any guacamole I have had in America, so far. Second is that menu items outside of the usual Mexican fare are outstanding, really, really, very outstanding. Another thing I noticed is that the flavours are not watered down. My server did warn me that the cazuela camarones was spicy and I was very happy that the order went through accommodating my request for the dish to be spicy the way it is served in homes in Mexico. With reasonable prices for the meal, especially given how much I had eaten and ordered for take-away, there is nothing little about That Little Mexican Cafe.

That Little Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon

Top 10 Jaunts for 2014

December has arrived and yet again I have the feeling that there is something that I did not do during the months of January to November. I did satisfy my resolutions for the year — getting my master bathroom remodelled, bringing my blood sugar level down, and engaging in regular exercise to shrink the tire that was around my waistline. What I did not miss throughout the year were delectable meals. And that brings me to my Top 10 Jaunts for 2014. Although I included some American restaurants in my write-ups this year, the following restaurants area reflective of the theme that I created for Chicago Alphabet Soup. So, here are my favourite ethnic jaunts for the year.

10. Turquoise Cafe
Roscoe Village is a nice spot for checking out some swanky boutiques, small cafes, and fine dining without “fine dining costs.” After a stroll down the avenue, stop in for some Turkish offerings. Spacious on the inside for several patrons and growling bellies, outdoor seating during the spring and summer, Turquoise Cafe is one of a few Turkish restaurants in Chicago. It is “the best” in Chicago, though.

Turquoise Cafe, Collage

Turquoise Cafe, 2147 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago, IL 60618

 


9. Rio’s D’Sudamerica
Bucktown is one of Chicago’s premier neighbourhoods. Homeownership, boutiques, and restaurants make up a landscape that result in a constant flow of pedestrians. When a lot of those patrons develop appetites, they find seats at Rio’s D’Sudamerica for Peruvian food packed full of wow. Rio’s D’Sudamerica is large on the inside, but unlike most big box restaurants, the food is consistently blooming with Peruvian flavour. A clear indication is the constant influx of Peruvians who frequent the restaurant. And with service that does not rush you, trust me when I say that you will be stuffed when you are done.

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Rio’s D’Sudamerica, 2010 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


8. A10
Chicago’s Hyde Park has experienced a renaissance. With that came the addition of an Italian restaurant that deviated from the expected dishes consisting of red sauces and meatballs. There is a coastal influence to the menu, which means a splendid selection of seafood. The wait staff is engaging, the bar service is phenomenal, and the food is so awesome that you may find yourself making a reservation for a return at least once a month. The menu changes each season, so this is even more of a good reason to make A10 Hyde Park a constant entry on your calendar.

A10 Hyde Park, Collage

A10, 1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL 60615

 


7. Little Bucharest
There doesn’t appear to be a long list of Romanian restaurants in Chicago. Little Bucharest in Irving Park makes up for that. More like a banquet hall, which allows diners to sit comfortably, this bistro does not shy away from authenticity in the Romanian recipes. Expect some hearty dishes, as in plentiful in quantity. There are no boiled potatoes and bland meat dishes. Everything has a wow factor. And before you leave, you may get a special christening of an alcoholic spirit.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Little Bucharest Bistro, 3661 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618

 


6. taKO’s KOreanos
Many restaurants will try to introduce fusion in their cuisine. Some fail. And then there are those like taKO’s KOreanos in Andersonville that get it correct. Who would have thought that Mexican and Korean would make for such a fantastic cultural cuisine marriage? Tacos, enchiladas, and burritos are prepared with Korean accents to the fillings. Having been opened since April with no kinks in the service or output from the kitchen, one would only have to notice the steady stream of customers coming and going to recognize that the fusion dishes are constant draws to those who love a mix of Mexico and Korea.

taKO's KOreanos, Collage

taKO’s KOreanos, 1706 W. Foster Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640

 


5. Altiro
The drive out to Geneva, IL, may be far. I recommend taking the Metra train so that you can go to sleep afterwards. Tacos, tacos, and more tacos, but nothing of the Taco Bell ilk and nothing of the Mexican taqueria brand either. Altiro has cornered the market on creating a variety of tacos that would otherwise be noteworthy entrées without the flour tortillas. Expect to find a bit of Central America and South America in the recipes. I have always thought that French, Italian, and Asian restaurants have the best bar service. Add Altiro to the list. For those who are indecisive, simply tell the server to surprise you and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Altiro, Collage

Altiro, 308 Anderson Boulevard, Geneva, IL 60134

 


4. LaNotte Cafe & Bar
The father-son team at LaNotte Caffe & Bar should be taken on the road. Well, their comedy acts should. The food, however, should remain in Berwyn where it is close enough for those in the metropolitan area to get to easily. One may argue that there is a such thing as too many Italian restaurants in the Chicago area. What they can’t say is that they know where the very best Italian restaurants are. LaNotte Cafe & Bar falls into the category of “must visit.” Food is prepared to order and to specification per the customer. The seafood dishes are my favourite and if you order the sea bass that the father de-bones tableside, then you too will understand why that dish is at the top of my list.

La Notte Cafe & Bar, Collage

La Notte Cafe & Bar, 6822 Windsor Avenue, Berwyn, IL 60402

 


3. Himshikar Restaurant
One may be able to find Indian, Pakistani, and combination Indo-Pak restaurants throughout Chicago. However, for the absolute best Nepali restaurant in Chicago, Himshikar Restaurant in the Sauganash neighbourhood is highly recommended for frequent visits. The food is slow cooked, so it does not come to the table immediately. But never mind that. You can relax or even engage the owners in conversation while the kitchen staff prepares your dishes. Himshikar Restaurant is not a large restaurant, so it makes it easy to engage the staff while trying not to shoot to the moon from such incredibly flavourful Nepali food. And once the food arrives, be ready for culinary excitement.

Himshikar Restaurant, Collage

Himshikar Restaurant, 6031 N. Cicero Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646

 


2. Oceanique
Anyone who has had authentic French food will tell you that not everything is drowned in rich cream. There is also provincial French food, which is very indulgent. Oceanique captures the best of both flavours of France. Moderate in size, this restaurant forgoes the big box effect for authenticity in the dining experience. Coupled with superb bar service and A-list table service, each meal is guaranteed to make you forget that you don’t have to fly all the way to France to have some of the best French food on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Oceanique, Collage

Oceanique, 505 Main Street, Evanston, IL 60202

 


1. Osteria Langhe
Don’t expect pasta and pizza. Osteria Langhe serves Italian food that has a bit of a French influence to it. The risotto is the absolute best and the seafood dishes are unparallelled. And if you are so inclined to want pasta, the plin is the best in Chicago. Although the food at Osteria Langhe keeps one returning for more, the atmosphere, splendid bar service, and table service create a feel of going to someone’s home rather than going to an establishment. There is truly an “old country” Italian feel in the middle of cultural hub Logan Square. Chances are by your third visit, you will be on first name basis with the staff.

Osteria Langhe, Collage

Osteria Langhe, 2824 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


Well, it is at this time that I want to take time to wish a Happy Holidays to all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup via the blog, on Facebook, and through my Instagram posts. May the New Year bring you peace, joy, and happiness. And may some server at a restaurant bring you a dish that keeps you returning for more. Until 2015, good eating!

taKO’s KOreanos, Mexican and Korean Food Marriage

taKO's KOreanos

While passing through Chicago’s Andersonville neighbourhood heading to the Argyle area for a sampling of some Vietnamese pho, I noticed a restaurant in my peripheral vision. It was “mex-asian” that caught my attention. Chicago has quite a few very good fusion restaurants. My favourite fusion restaurant is Crepe Town, where they marry French crepes with Thai cuisine and they do it very well. Keeping that in mind, I was curious as to how Mexican and Asian would play well together on the palate. Let’s just say that it is a food marriage made in heaven. So, I reversed my course and found a seat at taKO’s KOreanos at 1706 W. Foster Avenue.

Beef Barba "Korea" Fries

Beef Barba “Korea” Fries

Coming in from a bit of nip in the air, I requested some green tea. Instead of a cup of hot water with a tea bag floating delicately in it, I got a pot of green tea that had toasted rice. Per that alone, I was a fan. With the menu not being extensive, I spotted an appetizer and an entrée that I thought would sate my afternoon craving. Having made some slight modifications to my diet, I ordered beef barba Korea fries. If I were one who had a kiddie palate for the love of chili cheese fries, I would denounce that hankering and indulge beef barba Korea fries daily and without complaint. Pulled beef, seasoned well and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chives, sat atop fries that were neither greasy nor doused with salt. I gobbled the appetizer like a man who had been deprived of a rather fantastic culinary delight.

Tacos: Spicy Chicken and Honey Chili Shrimp; Kimchi Rice; Potato Salad

Tacos: Spicy Chicken and Honey Chili Shrimp; Kimchi Rice; Potato Salad

Where I figured I would see the Mexican-Asian fusion would be with the tacos. What I got was Mexican-Korean and food harmony in my tummy. The spicy Korean chicken taco started out as my favourite taco of all times. Topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the server didn’t have to ask if I thought that taco was inviting to the palate. Where I was left in awe was with the honey chili shrimp taco. This taco had butterflied panko shrimp, not popcorn shrimp. Also topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the honey chili sauce had me claiming the honey chili shrimp taco was my “now” favourite of all times. The tacos came with a potato salad that was clearly not of the fast food preparation and not of the “refrigerator section” variety either. And the kimchi fried rice, that reminded me of spicy bibimbap rice, rounded out an ideal lunch selection.

Green Tea

Green Tea

taKO’s KOreanos ranks up there in the “Absolute Best” category with service. Although I was too stuffed to entertain the Mexican-Korean fusion burritos or any other menu items, what I had was enough to convince me that anything coming from the kitchen will be appreciated fully by anyone who enjoys food without requiring the dishes to be of a purist recipe. One thing to note is that taKO’s KOreanos has a cash-only policy. Never fear, as the prices are reasonable. As to the fusion, there are not many restaurants that know how to balance or “influence” dishes when mixing recipes from different cultures. But when they get it correct the way that taKO’s KOreanos get it, you understand why most of the customers who come in seem so familiar to the restaurant staff. Like me, they love cultural harmony, even more in their food.

Takos Koreanos on Urbanspoon

Mio Tio Julio

One thing I have noticed as a food journalist is that everyone has a recommendation for you. Quite often, their suggestions fall flat. And many times they hit the mark. I have never been one for following the crowd, as I feel weird and a bit too much like I am a part of group think. Loss of individuality frightens the hell out of me. That also carries over into how I approach my dining experiences. Going to certain eateries because everyone else has been there brings to mind my parents asking me the question, “If your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to jump, also?” Where recommendations come through that make the visit worthy, I accept the fact that everything is okay in the land with the hint. Such was the case when going to Uncle Julio’s at 855 W. North Avenue in Chicago’s Old Towne. Big box. Packed with hungry faces. Full of action. Mexican flavours all in the air. Ready for action.

Chips y Salsa

The friend who suggested the restaurant and I got a table and ordered drinks, she ordering a strawberry daiquiri, and me ordering a margarita on the rocks. If I have not said it enough, Latin American bartenders do not hold back when making drinks. The first sip popped and I swooned. Since I was not one of those kids who was glad to get out of his parents’ home so that he could start drinking and, thus, got a big kick out of liquid satisfaction during my college days, I am a bit of a lightweight. Had I been one of those overzealous alcoholics in training, I would have turned up the margarita like I was downing a glass of lemonade. Instead, there was a basket of warm, crunchy chips and home-made salsa at the fingertips. Crunch, crunch, chomp, chomp, chomp, sigh. Warm chips mean they were not from the chips aisle at the local grocery. Well, that was good. And the salsa was not from a jar. If I had not sworn off partaking of salsa from a jar, I did after indulging the chips and salsa at Uncle Julio’s. After that, I could resume drinking my margarita without feeling as though I was floating a foot above the floor.

Guacamole

We had guacamole. Well, it would be a crime to go to any restaurant and not have guacamole. It would be like going to an Argentinean steak house and not having any meat. It’s just wrong. With more warm, crunchy chips, the guacamole was delectable. My friend likes it mild, so there was a bit of the kick missing that I love most about guacamole. Then again, mild food leaves me slightly unsatisfied — a detriment of having grown up in a home with parents who had no fear of spices and growing up going to ethnic restaurants where spices were the main ingredients in recipes. Fresh and home-made, indeed, we polished off the guacamole and noticed another version on the menu. We ordered it, too.

Guacamole con Maize

Version two of the guacamole at Uncle Julio’s is prepared with corn and topped with crab meat. Two things worked well with the guacamole. One, adding corn mixed it up a bit, rounding out the guacamole not only with a different texture but also with a hint of another flavour — that being corn. Two, the “real” crab meat was an added touch, as guacamole is always vegetarian style wherever you get it. Because this version of the guacamole came with Habanero peppers, we requested to have the peppers on the side. They are not like jalapeno peppers that you can eat solo. Habanero peppers are dangerous little goodies and I am baffled when I see YouTube videos of village idiots eating them and then being surprised at what happens thereafter. In moderation and certainly with the guacamole con maiz y crab, the mild burn of a few Habanero peppers was tolerable and a bit flavourful as a complete package. Yes, I drank a lot of water to put out the fire.

Sopa Tortilla

My friend ordered a chicken tortilla soup. It was not bad, albeit more lukewarm than I would have wanted it. It also came to the table a bit faster than I would have wanted my soup to arrive. Quick arrival of cooked dishes to the table makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. As I intimated, the soup was quite tasty. I have had vegetarian style tortilla soup at a restaurant in Chicago named ¡Que Rico! and can’t say enough about how much I loved it. That bowl of love has since become my benchmark for damn good tortilla soup and the cup of it at Uncle Julio’s was a hint that there is still some more work to be done. And part of the work may be to exclude the crumbled feta cheese. You find that there is a bit of a Mexican and Greek competition in the cup.

Enchiladas, Arroz, EnsaladaFor an entrée, I had enchiladas pollo verdes con arroz y ensalada. Now, that was done to satisfaction, almost to the point of rivaling any of the small taquerias dotted throughout the Mexican neighbourhoods. The green salsa had a spicy bite to it that I was glad to have working in my jaws. While I have had some rushed Mexican platters, the rice is one menu item that has not been messed over and the same was applicable with the rice I had with my entrée. I could have eaten it as a complete meal. Now, usually there would be a side of frijoles. Not the case here and I made a mental note that this is a point that taquerias always get correct. You would not expect to have a staple missing like that, but each restaurant has its own feel. The entrée was completed with only the remnants of gravy smearing left on the plate. And I also washed it down with a strong mojito.

Uncle Julio’s is a chain with locations in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida. The Chicago location certainly embraces Mexican authenticity in the ingredients and preparation. No doubt the kitchen staff comprises Mexicans only anyway. Be forewarned that you will enter a crowded restaurant that is practically bursting at the seams. There are two rooms — the main dining area and the seat-yourself bar area. Having opted to sit in the open bar area, I can only speak to how much high energy there was in that section. As to the main dining area, the queue looked long and an extended wait coupled with a growling belly may not be an appealing thought. For all that came to the table, the price tab was far less than I had anticipated. Once you have been to Uncle Julio’s, it is easy to understand how it is a favourite to many dining patrons. If ever I am in the Old Towne area and have a hankering for something with a Mexican flair, and I am not famished to the point of chewing on curtains, a dash to Uncle Julio’s will do just the trick.

Uncle Julio's Hacienda on Urbanspoon

¡Que Rico! ¡Que Bueno!

Que Rico

Chips and Salsa

What do you do on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the sky is blue, the few clouds that are fluttering about are wispy feathers that look dreamy, and the leaves on the trees remind you of pumpkin pie and crayons the colours of red, yellow, brown, and orange? You rake leaves? You jump in the leaves? You walk hand-in-hand with your lover down the lane? You sit about and be thankful that the temperatures are still in the mid 60′s? Well, if you are me, you are probably out and about hunting for some food. I had made a bet with my international traveling wife during our last international jaunt. I had agreed that for every pound she takes off, I will add a pound. Last report, she had taken off a few pounds, which meant that my current bout of weight gain that has me struggling to get into some of my pants needs to step up. So, when I found myself in front of a certain Mexican restaurant that had the earth tones of the autumn colours, imagine my surprise when I had found an option for adding a pound or two for this particular day.

On the corner of Oakley and Roscoe at 2301 West Roscoe Street is ¡Que Rico! Talk about getting the whole decor of a Mexican establishment right. And with Halloween approaching, there was the whole setup of ghosts, ghouls, witches, skeletons, and pumpkins placed strategically throughout the restaurant. Upon entry, and it was during the middle of the afternoon, I was rather shocked to see that the place was empty. Many restaurants seem to open at 4:00 or 5:00 PM on Saturdays, so I had initially thought they were airing out the place in preparation for the evening seating. But, no, there just were no patrons yet and perhaps most were on the east end of the Roscoe Avenue stretch that attracts a lot of pedestrian traffic. The server had stated that they were indeed open for business and gave me my pick of tables. I chose a window seat.

Sopa de Tortillas

To the table came chips and salsa. The chips were not the neat, flat tortilla corn chips that you get in Frito Lay’s bags. Many were folded, some had been contorted, and all of them were warm. You can’t pour a bag of chips into a bowl, warm them up, and not expect some weird texture after they start cooling off. The chips remained crispy from the time they reached the table until I had finished all but crumbs. The salsa had raised some suspicion at first. I was thinking salsa from the jar and then the peppers slowly started creeping about on my tongue. I have had the “spicy” brand of salsa from the jar and it was still mild, so the complimentary salsa I had this day was either doctored or homemade. I would like to think the latter was the case because there was the authentic flavour that I could taste, much like the homemade salsa I have had at several of my friends’ homes.

I started with a sopa de tortilla. I have never ordered sopa de tortilla — tortilla soup — before and was pleasantly surprised that chicken broth with a tomato base, caramelized onions, chihuahua cheese, peppers, and corn tortillas could be so blooming delicious. We’re talking a fiesta. By the time I had gotten down to the last few slurps, I had dubbed the soup as my autumn Latin soup. It could be the colours of autumn that gave me the hint. Then again, it could have been the mildly spicy flavours that would be perfect for preventing a cold or keeping the body heated during the chillier times of fall and winter that will keep me hankering for cups and bowls of this delight.

Camarones al Ajo

One Latin American dish that has never failed is camarones al ajo. This plate of plump shrimp in a tomato-based sauce over melted cheese with Spanish rice, refried beans, and salad left me smiling and bumbling. The one time I probably could have gotten away babbling twaddle in English and I was instead giving commentary rather fluently in Spanish. Oh how the waiter got a laugh out of that before he was a bit inquisitive as to how my Spanish had such polish. It’s like those people who had surgeries and then awakened with accents so very different from what they had before going under anesthesia. While I am moderately conversational with Spanish, I apparently had not only correctness with words but also an accent. Food is not supposed to do that to me. I am finding it increasingly hard to fight, though.

Now, only an hour had passed and I was a bit full from having engaged the soup and the entrée with a pause of fifteen minutes after each. It was time for a postre. No flan para mi. Favor, no churros. Instead, I had pastel de piña. To have ordered that without first thinking about how I would say pineapple cake in Spanish first was an indication of how fast I tend to switch into languages. The pastel de piña came with a light caramel sauce, baked pineapples, and a fist size scoop of vanilla ice cream over a slice of yellow cake. Along with the cake, I had a cup of Colombian coffee. Gracias, Juan Valdez. It probably would have been nice to have had some Mexican hot chocolate to stay with the whole Mexican theme. Sigh. Sometimes there are modifications made and the ideal gets smashed. And if the food is really great at the restaurant, you eat enough that you are smashed also, such was the case with me.

Pastel del Piña

For a restaurant that has all the trimming of ambience, great service, and pretty good food, it is very bizarre to note how empty the place is. It very well may be the timing of day, as big box restaurants have a tendency to fill up later in the afternoon and early evening hours. It may also be that most of the restaurants that cater to pedestrian movement are a few blocks east of where ¡Que Rico! is. Several reviews I have read hint at the price being more than what is expected for the output and having a disposable income puts me at a disadvantage for moaning about cost. ¡Que Rico! is neither a corner taqueria nor is it Charlie Trotter’s. You have to experience the restaurant for what it is worth. I walked, or rather waddled, away a stuffed man and still had enough cash to get cheese on my Burger King whopper afterwards. Wait! I don’t each burgers. Scratch that last thought.

Que rico. Que bueno. ¡Bomba!

Precious Memories

Pico de Gallo

Are there times when your mind wanders back to something that brought a smile to your face and you wish that you could return to that time and live through that smile-inducing experience again? Are there moments when you recall a certain dish that was so good you found yourself thinking that it would never be as good as the first time? Are there times when you pass by places and find yourself captivated by something you saw in the window briefly? I have those deja vu episodes all the time. Mostly my precious memories involve food. And, yes, I smile. This was the case recently when I was in Oak Park going to a certain wine shop to buy a bottle or two of wines. On my way, I took the scenic route and to my wandering eyes should I espy a Mexican cafe. Nothing spectacular, rather small in size, I recalled my days of living in Chicago’s Rogers Park where I had my pick of Mexican holes in the wall that served food so delicious that it had dawned on me several months after constant visits that my Spanish had improved.

Quesadillas Con Arroz, Frijoles y EnsaladaFresh Mex Cafe at 1110 Westgate Street is immediately off of Marion Street, a thoroughfare where you can find a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and specialty boutiques. With only a few chairs for seating and rather cramped, it was also a bit reminiscent of some small shanties where I had been warned not to go in Mexico City when I was there years ago with work. American accent intact, I ordered quesadillas con arroz, frijoles, and salad. And there was no way that I was going to have anything to drink other than a pineapple Jarito. For all you lovers of high fructose corn syrup in your beverages, get your fingers around a Jarito that gets its sweetening from cane sugar. You will thank me.

Truly Fresh Mex Cafe is about authenticity. I started with chips and salsa. The chips were not unflavoured Dorito’s — absolutely not. These were fresh and a bit warm, which was all the indication that I needed to realize that they were made in-house. The pico de gallo, although looking rather pedestrian, had a kick to it that made me want to dance the mariachi music playing in the background. Chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers were all that I needed to have me no longer wanting any kind of salsa from a jar. Then the quesadilla with all the trimmings came. Chihuahua cheese between corn tortillas and cooked on a griddle were served up with Spanish rice that was neither al dente nor mushy. And let me not forget about the frijoles with extra crunch tortillas and the salad that came with a dollop of sour cream and a grande scoop of guacamole. Mind you, the guacamole was just avocado and tomatoes, no extra additives, but the taste was perhaps ten notches past divine. No mentira. With pineapple jarito in hand, my lunch was complete. I had not just entered a restaurant, but I had gone into some Mexican’s kitchen and had a taste of home.

Flan

There were only two dessert options on the menu. One was a flan. The other was tres leches cake. The main plate was so filling that I opted for the flan. Accented with a thin caramel glaze and topped with a cherry, this flan was so creamy that you would have thought that it was custard. There was a texture akin to the lemon in the lemon meringue pies that I bake. Only in Mexico where no one spoke any English — or tried — have I had flan that heavenly. It may sound cliché, but I didn’t know what to do with myself, everything was so remarkable on my tongue. I think I discovered some secrets, whatever they may be.

Fresh Mex Cafe is indeed a hidden gem. On a side street that enters into a stretch for a parking lot, you could pass by it and think that it was one of the few businesses that have closed. There are no fancy signs, flash, fanfare, or indicators to grab the attention. Much like me on the day that I went, you have to casually stroll through the area and take in the scenery slowly, not in a rush. And once you go inside, be prepared to be served some outstanding comida de concina por Mexicanos quienes saben comadia buena.

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

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