La Sirena Clandestina, Vai, Vai, Vai

La Sirena Clandestina

Chicago’s West Loop district has proven to be something of a Wonderland. I was already aware of the many restaurants and cafes that dotted the landscape. However, I never ventured into the meat packing district of the West Loop, except for once to meet some friends at a pork-centric restaurant that spiked my blood pressure. And I had forgotten about another high-end restaurant named Moto that I’d gladly go back to if it were not for the fact that the price for the meal would nibble considerably at my play budget. Nevertheless, there are some gems in the area I haven’t visited and one that suited my fancy was La Sirena Clandestina at 954 W. Fulton Market. At the recommendation of a colleague, I got to sample some loving from the kitchen with a heavy Brazilian influence.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

Having arrived early after work, I had a pick of seats near the window. I had to sit where I could take advantage of the late sunset, considering the restaurant looked like it gets rather dark. On entry, the guy who seated me kept asking if we knew each other. This has been an ongoing inquiry for the past few months. And I never manage to run into my doppelganger. After he had detected my accent, he then realized we had never met and he then told me to get a caipirinha for a cocktail, as I would not be sorry. Wow! Wow! Wow! Strong, flavourful, refreshing, and addictive are just a few words that had come to mind after the first few sips. My lookalike had to have been a good friend because he started with an outstanding suggestion.

Empanadas: Ropa Vieja and Squash

Empanadas: Ropa Vieja and Squash

Because I am a lightweight, I had to have something to start balancing out the alcohol in the caipirinha. The server had recommended the empanadas if I were one who enjoyed indulging them. I didn’t think I could go wrong with empanadas, so I ordered two, a ropa vieja — old clothes — and a squash. The Best Actor Award for keeping a straight face and trying not to squeal with food bliss goes to me. The barbecue sauce in the ropa vieja had a faint hint of goat cheese in it, which added an extra flavour that made me love that empanada even more. I have no words to describe how much the squash empanada made me want to smack the table. Those empanadas were nothing short of heaven in baked pastries.

Black Beans and Rice

Black Beans and Rice

As always, my food alarm was ringing and I was buzzing from the caipirinha. So, I ordered a side of black beans and rice to get me worked up to a masterpiece entree item. Accented with pork, but not overloaded with it, this dish reminded me of red beans and rice and how much I loved that dish when I was a kid sitting at my grandmother’s table. I was thankful that, unlike some black beans and rice I’ve had at a restaurant I will not name, the dish was not salty. And then came the moqueca. Different from moqueca that I have had before, it was still good enough for me to have wanted to tip the bowl and slurp afterwards. The stew seemed to lack coconut milk in the base and instead of rice, there were lentils in the dish. The mussels, prawns, and tilapia were fresh and I was happy. I was happier with the second, accompanying caipirinha.

Moqueca

Moqueca

By the time I had finished everything, I should have left well enough alone. I couldn’t. I had to have more. But I had to wait. There was some dessert that needed to be loved and I had to love it unconditionally, which meant without feeling I would be too stuffed to complete a sweet. Thankful that I had my Kindle Fire with me, I read a few chapters of a book and then was ready for action again. I ordered a plate of almond cake with slices of blood orange and some almonds atop a creme anglaise. Looking at the almond cake, I thought it was going to have the consistency of cornbread. It had the texture of a cloud and without being too sweet, it was a rather flavourful cloud. Because the caipirinhas were doing this “Your eyes are getting very, very heavy” thing to me, I needed some coffee to counter my food and drink comatose. When I was done with the cake, I smacked the table.

Almond Cake

Almond Cake

The beauty of La Sirena Clandestina is that while it is small compared to some of the big box restaurants in the West Loop, diners are not rushed. It seems like a rather great place to go for a date — or to meet before a tryst. Okay, so it’s not that kind of place, but there is an atmosphere of ease that makes it a very inviting restaurant. Add to that some delicious food, and you have the makings of a food magnet. I didn’t have the feijoada, which is a traditional Brazilian dish like moqueca, so I can’t say if all of the dishes are variations of what is served in Brazil. What I will say is that La Sirena Clandestina is in my slideshow.

Vai, vai, vai, vai, vai. (What Bossa Nova songs is that from?)

La Sirena Clandestina on Urbanspoon

Sabor Express, Delicia in Chicago

Sabor ExpressWeeks had passed since I had indulged in some Chicago food happiness. I had been preparing for another personal holiday and then I was gone on the actual holiday. So there was a gap in time with me wandering into some eatery, getting my fill of food, and then stumbling into the streets with crossed eyes, a silly smile, and a satisfied appetite. With summer now being here — although the temperatures have indicated otherwise — I wanted to return to my mode of seeking out fantastic ethnic restaurants in Chicago so that I may entice you, my hungry reading audience.

Coxhinas

Coxhinas

Sabor Express at 1230 W. Taylor Street in University Village was my destination for this day. I had walked past the restaurant a few months ago while going to meet some friends at an Italian restaurant some blocks away. This Brazilian restaurant is not of the likes of those meat lovers paradises where Gauchos serve you endlessly more meat than you may have ever had in your entire life. Only one other Brazilian restaurant comes to mind, one that has a feeling that you have entered someone’s home and been made to feel like you truly belong there. Spacious and large like most American fast food outfits, but far from fast food once you start delighting on the food, Sabor Express after only this first time has become what I will consider a regular stopping ground.

Moqueca

Moqueca

I ordered a Coxhina with shrimp for starters. This popular Brazilian snack is made from shredded chicken, spices, and cheese, stuffed in a shell made of wheat and potatoes and then deep-fried. Although I am still on the vegetarian and seafood regimen, I allowed for the chicken. I wanted to see if the tasty teardrop treat was anything reminiscent of the Coxhinas I had during my days in São Paulo. Yes! They were. After finishing the first Coxhina, it occurred to me that there are not enough eateries in Chicago that have street food only. Quite often you want something very quick, something you can walk up to a counter, order, and enjoy while having a casual stroll to your next destination. In the meantime, I will order a batch of street food from places like Sabor Express.

For a main dish, I had one of my favourite Brazilian dishes — moqueca de peixe. This seafood stew made of peppers, white fish, and shrimp has a flavour that puts me in the mind of some Thai dishes that I have had. Had I not changed my diet to vegetarian and seafood, I would have had feijoada — Brazilian red beans and rice with greens — but I knew that I could not go wrong with moqueca. I often think that food establishments that are far removed from the originating countries merely go through the motions of trying to capture and present a bit of home in the cooking. They minimize their spices to accommodate the discriminating — and sometimes limited — American palate. And then there are restaurants that remain true to tradition and it is evident in the food. This was the case with the moqueca. The natives of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Salvador Bahia, Brasilia, Fortaleza, and other locations would be incredibly pleased that they can find a restaurant in Chicago that will make them feel like they have gone around the corner from their homes.

Moqueca

Moqueca

I am sure that there is a larger Brazilian population in Chicago than what I have come across. Taste of Brasil has a restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, that caters to the palate that loves Brazilian food. There is a woman who also opens her home to the public for the flavours of Brazil. I need to find out when she will entertain again. Of course, there are the meat-excessive restaurants like Fogo de Chao, Brazzaz, Sal y Carvao, Texas do Brazil, and Sabor do Brazil where you can become victim of the lazy buffet syndrome thanks to Gauchos bringing you a constant variety of meats on which to feast. But there is Sabor Express for some of the best street food and some outstanding comfort food when you want to sit and have flavours bursting in your cheeks. If you find yourself in Little Italy or in University Village and have a few dollars in your pocketbook or wallet, walk around the 1200 block of Taylor Street and let your appetite pull you into Sabor Express.

25 June 2011

Sabor Express on Urbanspoon