Ay Ay Picante

While having dinner with friends at a Peruvian restaurant recently, there was mention of other Peruvian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. One that I remember named in the discussion was Ay Ay Picante at 4569 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Albany Park neighbourhood. Tucked among single family homes, mechanic shops, and fix-em-up shops is this gem of an eatery.

Ay Ay Picante

With only a week having passed since I had been devouring Peruvian food, I chose the path of trying something different from what I had eaten previously. One dish I thought was a good option for a starter was the chupe de camarones. It was a bad idea and it was a good idea. The bad idea was that the soup came as a “deep plate” rather than as a cup of soup. I forgot to read the fine print that said Sopas Grandes and that was my fault. It was a good idea because I could have set up a diving board at the edge of the plate and jumped in. Cooked with a bit of a creamy base, thickened with eggs, and loaded with fat shrimp, I simply took my time before letting the server know I was ready for the next dish. This soup was not to be rushed.

Chupe de Camarones

Chupe de Camarones

A few years ago I went to a Peruvian restaurant in Bucktown and had their huancainas. They were good, so I wanted to see if Ay Ay Picante did them deliciously. Instead of ordering them as potatoes, I ordered them as fried yucca with half of a boiled eggs and black olives on the side. Different is better and having the fried yucca served with the huancaina sauce, different was exceptional. These would be perfect as snacks. Since there were more than a conservative three yucca logs, I savoured this dish slowly.

Huancainas

Huancainas

For the finale, I had sudado de mariscos. This was another large plate. There was a mix of calamari and plump shrimp cooked in white wine with a tomato base. Served with white rice and potatoes, this dish from the north coast of Peru was a true highlight. I prefer seafood in creamy sauces and I will admit that I will make exceptions for Ay Ay Picante. One warning I will give is that this is a dish that you may have to enjoy by itself rather than having any appetizers beforehand or you may have to extend your feast for a few hours like I did. Not only is it very satisfying on the palate, but it is extremely filling.

Sudado de Mariscos

Sudado de Mariscos

Ay Ay Picante appears to be a favourite for many, as there was a steady flow of patrons coming and going. Although they have carry-out, those who came while I was there had proper sit-down meals. Peruvian food is best enjoyed family style, as was evident with parties of several individuals ordering and sharing. The far northwest end of Elston Avenue tends to be more industrial in its look and feel, so great finds like Ay Ay Picante don’t get much press. The trip down Elston to this food heaven is worth it. You may find yourself declaring, “¡Ay, ay, dios mios!

Ay Ay Picante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Via Lima, Straight to My Belly

Via Lima

Since I have started taking blogging a little more serious, I got an Instagram account a little over a year ago and devoted all of my photos to food rather than stream of consciousness shots. In doing that, I have been following several restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. One that resulted in an addiction from simply looking at the photos was Via Lima in North Centre at 4024 N. Lincoln Avenue. The photos were of Peruvian food, but fancy. Well, it was necessary to feed the addiction.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving in the early evening after work, I had a pick of seats without feeling crowded. Via Lima is a spacious restaurant, but after you start indulging the food, ambiance will be the absolute last thing on your mind. No extensive menu, I saw quite a bit that I wanted. Instead, I opted for a variety of appetizers, saving the entrées for a return visit. My server offered recommendations and I enjoyed complimentary plantain chips with amarillo sauce while I waited.

Tequeño Pollo y Mariscos

Tequeño Pollo y Mariscos

Pisco Sour Habanero

Pisco Sour Habanero

The first appetizer was a plate of tequeños. Two of the fried wontons were stuffed with chicken and seasonal vegetables. The other two were stuffed with seafood and seasonal vegetables. Served with amarillo sauce and a creamy guacamole, I could have had several orders of these tasties without complaint. These appetizers hint at the Chinese influence in Peruvian cuisine and I admit that it works extremely well in the recipe. With a cocktail of pisco sour habanero, all was quite okay in the land. For those who try this cocktail, it is worthy, but remember that the habanero is not to be taken like it’s candy.

Causitas

Causitas

The second appetizer was a plate of causitas, which were potato cakes doctored with your choice of meat. One I had with chicken, avocado, tomatoes, black olive, and boiled egg. The other was with shrimp and the toppings. The spicy sauces that came with the appetizer, one amarillo and a rocoto sauce, were perfect accompaniments. Per the preparation and presentation of causitas, one will see French influence. I think this was one of the fancy photos I saw on Instagram. It could have come to the table looking a complete mess and the flavour still would have been a winner.

Pisco Sour

Pisco Sour

Ceviches Trio

Ceviches Trio

The third appetizer was a trio of ceviche. Thinking that I had already eaten the best appetizer on the menu, I was totally confused as to which appetizer I enjoyed the most when the ceviche came. More confusing was trying to decide which ceviche in the trio I liked the most. There were a classic ceviche, one with ají amarillo, and one with rocoto — mild to spicy. One thing that I really liked about the ceviche was that they used choclo in the recipe. Anyone who has had this Peruvian corn will attest to authenticity of the dish. Also, one thing to note is the Japanese influence in this dish. And with this appetizer, I had a regular pisco sour. It was as refreshing as the one I had with the habanero.

Lucuma Mousse

Lucuma Mousse

Per my server’s recommendation, I had a lucuma mousse. I have had lucuma ice cream at another restaurant in Chicago and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Having it in a mousse was a highlight. Not only was the dessert light, given all the food and drink I had prior to indulging it, but the natural sweetness of it was all that was needed. Accented with a bit of chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream and a butterscotch cookie, the only thing I needed was a cup of coffee. I’m weaning myself from coffee, so the dulce of lucuma mousse was perfect.

I cannot speak to how service is when the restaurant is filled almost to capacity. What I can say is that I had a server who did a superb job of offering recommendations that hit the spot. When you open a menu and see so many offerings such that you’re indecisive, a server who can nail some menu items that leave you wanting to return in the very near future is a plus. As to the food, if Instagram ever adds a scratch-and-sniff feature, Via Lima will break Instagram with people scratching and sniffing their photos. Via Lima, straight to your belly.

Via Lima Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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!

Rio’s D’Sudamerica in Norteamerica

Rio's D'Sudamerica

Up until the 90’s, Chicago’s go-to neighbourhoods for restaurant life were in the neighbourhoods that bordered Lake Michigan north of downtown. By the mid-90’s there was a new stretch of go-to neighbourhoods along Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue Line elevated train. Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Andersonville, and Edgewater now have competition. West Town, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, and Bucktown started gaining popularity, as swanky boutiques, independent coffeehouses, intimate restaurants, and nice housing filled the landscape. And none of the restaurants and shops were disappointing. For example, there is Rio’s D’Sudamerica at 2010 W. Armitage Avenue in Bucktown neighbourhood, where you can have some of the best, authentic Peruvian cuisine in the city.

A short trip from the now-popular Logan Square, I met a friend so that I could get an entry on Chicago Alphabet Soup for Peru. She started with a lemon drop martini and I started with a mojito. Compliments to the bartender for mixing drinks that weren’t watery or overpowering. To quote Goldilocks, “It was just right.” My friend had been to Rio’s D’Sudamerica before, so I accepted her recommendations. One that sounded rather pedestrian was papa a la huancaina. This is now my favourite potato salad. The creamy sauce made the dish a dream. With us being seafood fanatics, we also ordered a dish of camarones en costra de quinua con pure de yuca-rocoto y salsa de maracuya. Four plump shrimp, encrusted in quinoa, were served over yucca seasoned with rocoto, olive oil, and lemon juice glazed with passion fruit sauce. Who in his or her right mind would want to awake from this dream?

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

As if the appetizers weren’t divine enough, there was a platter of camarones a la plancha for an entrée. It would be hard to tire of eating sautéed shrimp that had been cooked in a red chili sauce and topped with a garlic and butter cream sauce. Served with white rice that actually had flavour, this was an entrée to enjoy slowly. Although I have had camarones al la plancha before, this was the first time I was silent because it was so lip-smacking. The dish that was new to me was the plate of arroz chuafa con camarones. I have had my share of Chinese fried rice and liked it. However, I am now in love with Peruvian fried rice and the shrimp that exploded in this rice dish that was sautéed with green onions, egg, ginger, and soy sauce was absolutely addictive. I am a fan.

Because the appetizers and entrées were hearty, we sat for awhile and let our bellies settle before our final attack on some desserts. Light in texture, full of flavour, and heavy on the arteries, we had flan Peruano. This was not a regular flan, for it was creamy. The texture was not like that of old Jell-O, but like slicing through a cloud. Not drowned in a caramel glaze, it wasn’t sugary, which made it that more enjoyable on the palate. The dessert that could result in a continuous, long line outside of Rio’s D’Sudamerica is the lucuma temptation. This ice cream, which is made from the lucuma fruit, yielded the flavour of dulce con leche. Had we not been sated, I would have ordered another dish of it.

Rio’s D’Sudamerica has a large interior with plenty of seating. Because the food on the incredible scale is perhaps a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10, the restaurant fills up quickly. As always, I am a stickler for quality of food, service, and price. Rio’s D’Sudamerica blew me away on all three. This is one of the reasons why Bucktown is one of the sought-after neighbourhoods in Chicago. It is definitely the main reason I have an entry on my calendar for a return in a few weeks.

Rios D'Sudamerica on Urbanspoon