Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Sunday Brunch and Missing Lisbon

Sola Restaurant

Years ago New York City introduced the concept of the brunch. These Sunday affairs combined breakfast and lunch with a dash of some alcoholic concoction for an accessory. The brunch inception has grown so much that it is a Sunday staple in all metropolitan cities. In New York City, the upper middle class dandies sit and complain about all sorts of extemporaneous topics. In Los Angeles, those of the pretentious cabal flash plastic smiles in front of everyone in hopes that a producer or agent may catch their eye. In Miami, everyone stands around with their painted-on tan, their clothes disturbingly way too tight and bright. In Washington, DC, all the lawyers and politicians mess up their dining experiences by discussing work, as though not discussing work will result in a social-climbing apocalypse. In Chicago, everyone is natural and free-flowing at their brunch sets, although some may be seated outside in close proximity to a trash dumpster. As much as I love Chicago, I cannot get my thoughts around situating outdoor seating near an alley. At least Sola Restaurant at 3868 N. Lincoln Avenue got it correct.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn

Since I go to early church service, I have most of my day available for doing things other than dreading going to work the next day. The thing is I can’t begin my activities on an empty stomach or only with a cup of coffee to carry me through. It is mandatory that I abide by the mantra that the most important meal of the day is indeed breakfast and proper fuelling before the day gets into full swing is a priority. I had found a restaurant on the Internet that had a Hawaiian theme to its menu. Unlike some people who think that Hawaii is a foreign country, not one of the 50 states — hence, their ongoing disappointment with Obama’s birth certificate — I could not flag it as an ethnicity from abroad for Chicago Alphabet Soup. There is a South Pacific influence to Hawaii, for sure, and one day I shall find a restaurant with authentic Hawaiian flair or return to Sola Restaurant for dinner to sample their Hawaiian menu.

In the meantime, I had what I could consider a traditional brunch. I started with red dawn to whet, or rather wet, my appetite. This was champagne and blood orange. Well, this libation picked me up, not that I was down or anything like that. With the muggy feeling from the Chicago humidity, it was refreshing. Then there were malasadas. These Portuguese style sugar-coated doughnuts came with a drizzle of hot fudge and raspberry coulis. I was in heaven. The last time I had doughnuts like this was when I lived in Washington, DC, feasting on some bofroat at an authentic Ghanaian restaurant. No, I take that back. I had gone to Lisbon with my high school crush last year and had some then, served with coffee sweetened with condensed milk. And I am so missing being there at this moment. Everyone may think that beignets are the best thing since colour television. Pschee! In the “Best Doughnuts in the World” pecking order, you have Ghanaian bofroat, Portuguese malasadas, Old Fashion Doughnuts on Chicago’s South Side, beignets, and then everything else shakes out where it may. For those of you in the Chicago metropolitan area or who will be visiting soon, leaving before having some malasadas would be the equivalent of clapping you mum across the cheek. It would be just that wrong.

Malasadas

Malasadas

Now I must admit defeat. (Collective gasp.) I ordered an upside down banana pancake. Usually, specialty dishes come in small to moderate size portions. I tend to underestimate the power of some restaurants’ capacity to exceed one’s expectations. The upside down banana pancake was not only wide enough to cover most of the plate, but it was also thick. Topped with a dollop of butter, that was all I needed — no syrup required. The consistency reminded me of a warm yellow cake filled with bananas. It was so delicious, so ridiculously delicious, so warm and tasty, melting on my tongue, leaving me speechless. I was floating on a cloud that hovered over a babbling brook. I tried to finish all of it, going slowly, pausing in between bites, and not drinking anything with the pancake, the works. When it got to be too much, I accepted the fact that next time I will not order anything else in conjunction with the pancake. I would have it and eat it to completion. But I had some extra to take home with me and I smiled while I left the restaurant with my take-away.

Upside Down Banana Pancake

Upside Down Banana Pancake

Sola Restaurant has a big-box look to it, yet without the big-box feel. The atmosphere is trendy, the service ranks high — from my first experience there, and the price is comparable to what you will find at a lot of breakfast spots where people wait what seems like forever to feast off of a limited menu. For the Sunday brunch, the doors open at 10:00 AM. By the time I had arrived at 10:15 AM, the restaurant was filling up inside and the patio was already full. I cannot speak to the Hawaiian menu. That will require a return visit for a regular lunch or dinner. I will admit that the brunch was worth it. Let’s face it. New York City may pioneer a lot of concepts and the rest of the States catch on late. Chicago is the first to make the experience worthy of blogging. So, until next time I see you, Sola Restaurant, Aloha!

Sola on Urbanspoon Sola Restaurant on Foodio54

Ride of the Foodies, Scandinavian Style

Svea Restaurant

With the weather warming up a bit, albeit a tease, getting out of bed earlier on the weekends has become easier. That means I have been able to start indulging the most important meal of the day — breakfast. It often starts off with a slice of cake and a tall glass of milk. If not cake, then there is some kind of croissant filled with apples, cream cheese, or chocolate, and milk to wash it all down. I guess I should provide a little more context and state that I have those lovely treats for my weekday breakfast delights while packed on the subway heading into downtown for work. But Saturdays come and I get to enjoy breakfast the right way — at some restaurant with my feet planted under a table, a plate of happiness in front of me, and a book in the hand that is not wielding a fork or spoon.

Coffee

Coffee

For a few weeks, I had been to Pannenkoeken Cafe for some of the best German breakfasts I have had on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Today I wanted to expand my European repertoire. While browsing the web, I had found a Scandinavian restaurant in the Andersonville neighbourhood of Chicago. I was aware of a small Swedish concentration in the area and a little west of Andersonville, but to find something Scandinavian-specific was a bonus. Queue soundbite of “Ride of the Valkyries,” and me driving down Clark Street in my Volkswagen Jetta, windows down, sun roof back, slow motion, wind blowing through my hair. Now queue sound of needle being taken off the record a bit too hastily. It’s too cold to have windows down in the car and I have not even a bit of fuzz on my head, as I shaved it all off. However, I did drive to 5236 N. Clark Street to Svea Restaurant for some proper food action.

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Because really good ethnic restaurants and cafes fill with patrons quickly, I was at the restaurant as soon as the doors opened at 7:00 AM. With a warm welcome from the waitress/cashier and from the cook, I got a seat at the window and checked the options. A cup of hot coffee warmed up the body a little, not that I was completely frozen, since I had parked across the street. After some discussion about the way the weather and temperatures had been waffling, I ordered a Viking breakfast. On one plate came scrambled eggs that I got with cream cheese, Swedish hashbrowns, rye toast, and sausage. At the table was a happy me. I could have had a plate of the scrambled eggs with cream cheese alone. There may have been some salt in it, but not of the dosage my tongue detects at places like International House of Pancakes, Golden Nugget, or Original Pancake House. The hashbrowns were not the crunchy, shredded horror bites that many breakfast shops serve. These seasoned potato cubes screamed, “Keep eating me.” I keep forgetting that Europeans are not big on frying everything imaginable, so I snapped back to reality when I noticed the sausages were boiled. They reminded me of large Vienna sausages — without salt and the aftertaste. Then there were thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam. These were not the substantial American style pancakes that put you to sleep after devouring half of the stack. Think of crepes that had been cooked on a griddle. I worked my knife and fork on the two pancakes to completion and did not experience food comatose immediately afterwards. And truth be told, the lingonberry jam was perfect to the point where there really was no need for syrup. After I was done, I commented to the waitress that all I needed was a red beard, for I had gobbled all of that food like a true Viking warrior. She responded that I had indeed enjoyed my little feast like a Viking that was celebrating from having performed well in battle.

Swedish Pancakes

Swedish Pancakes

Truly Svea Restaurant is an outstanding cafe for some authentic Scandinavian and Swedish food. I noted that there were lunch items and dinner items. Being only able to speak to the breakfast options, I would recommend it highly, especially for those who like hearty breakfasts during Chicago’s cold months. Svea Restaurant has a cash-only policy, so go to the ATM in advance, get some cash, and drive over to 5236 N. Clark Street for a brekkie fit for a Viking. If you have a CD player or even an MP3 player, be sure to queue “Ride of the Valkyries” while on your way to the restaurant. Trust me, you will understand.

Svea on Urbanspoon

Most Important Meal of the Day

Blue Max

From most of my posts, you already know that I have a love affair with the fooderies — there’s my made-up word — in Oak Park, Illinois. As of late, when I have had coffee after dinner at Oak Park restaurants, it occurred to me that it was not Folgers, Maxwell House, imported Starbucks, or some variation of an attempt on coffee. My coffee snobbery is rather limited, but I know that when I can drink a cup of coffee with cream and not add any sugar, something is quite right with how the coffee is brewed. Or, like Ethiopian coffee, the beans are of a greater quality. It was after one of my dining excursions that I inquired what brand of coffee they were serving. Blue Max was the response. And having had a friend tell me about Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park, Illinois, at 26 Lathrop Avenue, it was time for me to go to the source.

LatteA beautiful Saturday morning with a clear sky, a mild breeze, and trees so vibrant with colours that they looked like they were on fire, I found a parking space in front of Blue Max Coffee and was ready to enjoy some of the best coffee that I have had in the Chicago metropolitan area. And I was going to have some breakfast while I was at it. But let me set the stage. Blue Max Coffee is inside of a house. You do not enter a restaurant. No, you enter a house that has been converted into what some would liken to a bed and breakfast. I sat in the family room across from Paul Bunyan and Professor Pete on one end and Mr. and Mrs. Loving on the other end. Much like pubs and small cafes in Europe, there is a bit of a familiarity among the customers and a lot of comfort, as the patrons who were at Blue Max when I went engaged me in conversation once my camera came out the bag. You would have thought we all lived on the same street, seeing that conversation flowed with such ease.

BreakfastFor my breakfast option, I ordered a Belgian waffle with a side of summer fruit — orange slice, honey-dew melon, and cantaloupe — and eggs scrambled with cream cheese. I was a bit surprised to see the scramble egg sitting atop the waffle, thinking perhaps I was supposed to cut into both at the same time and commence my devouring act. I gobbled the summer fruit and then placed the scrambled eggs on the side so that I could mix in the cream cheese and add pepper. Happiness. Rapture. Bliss. Love. Fresh eggs with my chosen cheese and a waffle that didn’t have that “box” taste to it, I was a rather pleased man. But the winner was the cup of latte. Hello, lover! Where have you been all my life? Several months ago I had a latte from one of those “big box,” staple coffee houses that may be found on every corner in downtown Chicago — hint, hint — and it was both burnt and bitter. How do you mess up a latte like that? There was not enough sugar that I could add to murder the burnt and acrid taste. In the same vein of my last experience with McDonald’s, Burger King, and the plethora of fast food thingies, it may be that my body craves for finer things and it was time for me to upgrade my taste in coffee to something that is neither quick nor excessively surplus. The latte at Blue Max Coffee was the complete antithesis of that cup of horror I had several months pass. The mark of a good cup of coffee is when you can drink it without any sweetener. I was beside myself with satisfaction. And it was then that I understood why so many of the local restaurants and cafes in Oak Park support Blue Max Coffee. It is a guarantee to keep customers returning, such was the case watching the constant line of customers who were coming for dining in and for take-away.

MochaGranted my first visit was a rather surreal experience with the comfort of the staff and other patrons being so welcoming and conversational, I made plans to return for another visit. The saying goes, “It’s never as good as the first time,” but that does not mean you should not try to see if any subsequent time is indeed better. So that was exactly what I decided to do. The next Saturday, I had my alarm clock set so that I could awake early enough to get dressed and out of the condo in time to return to Blue Max for a second round of breakfast. Remembering how the restaurant filled up quickly and had a continuous tide of patrons, I recognized that if I wanted to get a seat, it would be in my best interest to arrive shortly after the doors open. Again, there were Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete sitting in what I assume to be their usual area engaged in animated, sitcom-style discussions about politics and economics.

Switching things up a bit, but not that much, I had a cafe mocha. Much like the latte that I had ordered the previous weekend, there was no need for any sweetener. Not that I will ever order a regular coffee to see if it will bite me at the jaw line, I must admit that specialty coffees at Blue Max seem to be dandy sans sugar. Thanks to Blue Max Coffee, I can get my hands around several cups of coffee that satisfy my palate the way the latte and the cafe mocha did.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

My breakfast option on my second visit was also not that much different, as I ordered pancakes. They were chocolate chip pancakes and while I think the chocolate chips would be better on or in a crispy Belgian waffle, I did not have to put any syrup on the pancakes, as I smeared the melted chocolate chips across the three pancakes in the stack that I had. Not appetizer size and not substantial, three pancakes in the morning along with a cup of coffee can be more filling than one may want to admit. It may also have been the scrambled eggs with cream cheese that had me stuffed a little more quickly than I had anticipated. The waitress had a quizzical look on her face when I had said I wanted the cream cheese mixed with the scrambled eggs. Many are so accustomed to cheddar cheese or American cheese that something different sounds a bit “out in space.” In addition to the plate of scrambled eggs with cream cheese, she brought a smile because my unique order had given her a cheese option for her scrambled eggs.

Pancakes and FruitWith a few words of banter with Paul and Pete, a satisfying cup of mocha, and a filling breakfast, the second Saturday was off to a good start. I cannot say that I will photograph coffee and food every Saturday at Blue Max Coffee, but I will become a regular, if only for the coffee. There are pastry options that I eyed briefly, but had not thought to entertain because I wanted to sample their breakfast fare. One thing I can admit with certainty is that the only coffee I can say I enjoy aside from Ethiopian coffee at one of my favourite, local haunts and what I also brew at my condo, you are guaranteed to smile with each sip of liquid love from Blue Max Coffee. Inexpensive. Fabulous service. Good food. Yes, I have already made a date for a third visit. I wonder if Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete will be there when I return for my next round.

Blue Max Coffee Incorporated on Urbanspoon