Campbell’s Caribbean Cuisine, South Side Jamaica

Campbell's Caribbean Cuisine

When I first moved to Chicago, I was missing Jamaican food. I was accustomed to the countless Jamaican restaurants, cafes, and walk-ups in Brooklyn’s Flatbush, Carnasie, and Prospect Park neighbourhoods. My sister took me to a restaurant on the South Side named Maxine’s and oh was I in heaven. Well, Maxine’s has since moved to a location on Chicago’s West Side and Campbell’s Caribbean Cuisine has taken up residence in its place at 1225 E. 87th Street.

Beef Pattie

Beef Pattie

Fast forward to the near present. My sister and I were hanging out and after I had spent so much time wondering if Campbell’s was worth a trip, my sister grabbed her purse and keys and directed me to the car. Off we went. And on arrival, we noticed that the interior of the restaurant had changed. There was no spectacular decor about the place. The lounge look and feel was gone. But the smell of the food screamed, “Sit down and get ready for what’s going to happen.”

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

We had a real go of the menu and still decided not to order a ridiculous amount of food because we wanted to see if Campbell’s made the cut worthy enough for return visits. While catching up on happenings since we had last been together, we indulged beef patties and imbibed some ginger beer. The patties hit the spot, for true. And there is no such thing as a bad ginger beer, same being true here.

Brown Stew Chicken

Brown Stew Chicken

We ordered two traditional dishes. One was jerk chicken that was rather reminiscent of jerk chicken you get from the jerk mall in Port Antonio. The chicken fell off the bone with little effort, which was all the indication we needed to know that it was tender and moist. The same was the case with the brown stew chicken that hinted to me to get ingredients so I can make some in my slow cooker. Along with the chicken, we had rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. Believe me when I say that a recalcitrant child who hates vegetables will love the cabbage here. And if you have the rice and beans and plantains served with it, the kid won’t miss meat.

Rice and Beans, Cabbage, Plantain

Rice and Beans, Cabbage, Plantain

After well over an hour of indulgence, my sister started telling me about some areas on the South Side that I had never gone to when I was living in South Shore and in Hyde Park. She took me to Brown Sugar Bakery at 328 E. 75th Street in a neighbourhood called Greater Grand Crossing. Everyone boasts about baking the best cakes and cupcakes ever. Brown Sugar Bakery has every right to boast the loudest. I had a caramel cupcake with caramel frosting clearly made homemade from brown sugar, butter, and milk. And to all bakeries still into red velvet cakes and cupcakes, just STOP NOW. The cake was not baked using cake mix, the same being true for the caramel cupcake. But it was the flavour and the texture that smacked of an original recipe being used to bake the red velvet cupcake. I have no problem going to the South Side for this kind of goodness. Brown Sugar Bakery has a regular customer and my sister has an appreciative little brother.

Brown Sugar Bakery

Red Velvet Cupcake, Caramel Cupcake

Because Chicago’s South Side does not have a large multicultural presence reflective of countries abroad, I had not captured many restaurants outside of Hyde Park for Chicago Alphabet Soup. There seems to be a number of Jamaican restaurants and a few other Caribbean restaurants scattered throughout the South Side. I think that this summer will mean me having a chance to try out several other various restaurants in the South Side vicinity. Maxine’s may have gone away and Campbell’s has moved in. And Brown Sugar Bakery may be the undoing of my flat tummy. Then again, all things in moderation. I’ll go every other week instead, not every week.

Campbell's Caribbean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Little Unicoco, Big Taste in Authenticity

Little Unicoco

A few weeks ago during lunch, I was reminiscing with a good friend about my days when I lived in Rogers Park. The neighbourhood has since changed. Old businesses have closed. New businesses have opened. The changing demographics of the old neighbourhood are bringing a new vibe. And with all of these changes is a wave of restaurants with international flare. My friend had mentioned that a new Nigerian restaurant opened next to my favourite coffeehouse. So, this week I was off to Little Unicoco at 1631 W. Howard Street.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving during the mid afternoon, I had a seat in what is called the market area of the restaurant. The larger lounge area was on the other side of the walled partition. After placing my order, I had fried, sweet plantain chips. Forget about potato chips and fancy chips touting less fat and healthy options. The all-natural sweetness and pop in the fried plantains were a winning combination. I was glad to find that the market portion of the restaurant has these lovelies bagged for take-away.

Goslings Ginger Beer

Goslings Ginger Beer

Much like the most recent Doctor Who, I’m not always a good man. Having inquired about whether there was ginger beer for imbibing, the server informed me that there was. She even poured the beverage with care, as if pouring beer. But this was the good kind of beer. Nothing like the fizzy pop that you buy off the shelves at your local grocer, this reminded me of homemade ginger beer, the variety that people take time to boil with real ginger that they leave in and you get to enjoy somewhat as candy when you’re done downing the ginger beer. Being bad, I sent a photo to my food advisor, knowing how much she loves “real” ginger beer. I imagined her shaking her fist at her cellphone before she sent a text back to me with three words: Don’t tease me!

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

One of my favourite Nigerian snack foods is a meat pie. Bread is a vice and the crust in Nigerian meat pies is well past addictive. Filled with a nice amount of minced, ground beef, this is a food addict’s dream along with a tomato based hot sauce. By the third bite, I had decided that I would order several for take-away so that I could have them for breakfast over the next few days. The caveat is I will devour them all in one day.

Suya

Suya

Next to the table was suya. This is another snack food that screams “have at it and know that I am the best barbecue ever.” Sliced beef with Yaji spices on onions and tomatoes, the ginger from the ginger beer combined with the spices on the suya transported me mentally back to Lagos with my university classmates who knew where to find all the good street food.

Egusi and Pounded Yam

Egusi and Pounded Yam

The final dish was one that I have loved with rice. But on this visit, I had to lose my Westernisms and devour this dish with pounded yam rather than with the assistance of table utensils. Egusi soup. This bowl of spicy, pounded egusi seeds filled with fish and beef is my favourite Nigerian dish, with non-vegetarian pepper soup and isi ewu coming in next. I have enjoyed the spicy kick of egusi soup with rice whenever I had a chance to have a bowl placed in front of me, however, there was something about eating it with the pounded yam that made it taste like I was eating something from home.

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

As a wrap-up, the server asked if I would like to sample a dessert. You have not had a tastier snack until you have had a fried pastry called chin chin. I sampled some that had been flavoured with nutmeg. I remembered being gifted some from a classmate’s mother who prepared some for a care pack when I was leaving Nigeria to return to New York for an intern when I was in university. It was as if I had gone back to Ibadan in 1989 to relive that flight again.

Chin Chin

Chin Chin

Little Unicoco packs a huge punch with authenticity. Granted I went earlier in the day well before the dinner crowd arrived, the service was still top. The atmosphere was welcoming and even the owner walked to every table and inquired as to whether this was everyone’s first time having Nigerian food and if there were any answers he could provide. Now I have another go-to Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Big ups, Little Unicoco.

Little Unicoco 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

Señor Pan Cafe, Cuban Food Bliss

Señor Pan Cafe

The thing about engaging strangers in conversation and they finding out that you are more of a fan of seeking restaurants that deviate from group think, they offer suggestions that put you in the path of authenticity. While recently switching between English and Spanish with a friend talking about wanting to find a restaurant in Chicago’s Humbolt Park area, some Cubans who overheard the conversation quickly recommended Señor Pan Cafe at 2615 W. North Avenue. This was not the first time I had received a recommendation for this cafe from Puerto Ricans or Mexicans, so hearing it from Cubans meant it moved to first place in my “Must Go” list. And upon entering and hearing the rapid fire Spanish at most of the tables spoken by Cubans, I’d hit oro (gold).

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche

The temperatures in Chicago had been doing the warm temperature, chilly temperature waffling and today was a day where it was mild in the sun and chilly in the shade. On the way to Señor Pan Cafe, much of my walking was in the shade, as were the bus stops. By the time I arrived, I needed a little something to defrost. Cafe con leche was my beverage of choice and a very good one. I should have known when I told the server that was what I wanted and the response I got was a smile and, “Muy bueno.”

For a starter, I ordered plantanos fritos y frijoles negros. The thinly sliced, fried plantains looked a tad bit too perfect. The texture and flavour spoke to just how perfect they were. Crispy such that they didn’t get soggy, I used them to dip the black beans that had enough seasoning without crossing the line into ridiculous. I could have had this appetizer in an entrée size.

Plantanos Fritos y Frijoles Negros

Plantanos Fritos y Frijoles Negros

I had already settled on ordering a sandwich. Many of the sandwiches on the menu were pork-centric. The one sandwich that I knew I could fall back on was the ropa vieja, since it had a recipe of shredded beef in a tasty tomato sauce. Dios mios. At most Cuban restaurants where I have gone, the ropa vieja sandwich had plantains in the recipe. That was not the case at Señor Pan Cafe. That was not a problem either, as the sandwich was substantial, and I had ordered the small version of the sandwich. I had finished all of it and all of the plantanos fritos y frijoles negros. There was no room for dessert.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja

Señor Pan Cafe is small, so consider going with a small party if you’re interested. With me being conversational in Spanish, I had a little more conversation with the server and a few others in the restaurant than I probably would have if I had not switched into Spanish. For example, although I did not order a dessert, when I had inquired about a certain dessert on the menu, everyone behind the counter was telling me to get the flan instead when I returned. They also told me to come for breakfast, which goes well beyond, “Thanks for coming and we hope to see you again soon.” I was one satisfied customer. And since I did exchange email addresses with the Cubans who recommended it, I sent them a note to thank them. The quick response I received: When are you going again?

Senor Pan Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine, Azuca, Azuca

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine

While wanting to get closer to Montrose Beach along Lake Michigan on Chicago’s North Side for a friend’s gathering, my appetite would not allow me to linger around with a growling belly before the come-together. I was in the Lakeview area in advance and not trying hard to tolerate my hunger pains. As luck, fate, or serendipity would have it, I was standing in front of Cohiba Cuban Cuisine at 2835 N. Broadway Street. Talk about great timing. Talk about being decisive enough to just go in. Talk about channeling my inner Celia Cruz: ¡Azucar!

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche

Realizing that I had plenty of time before the mid afternoon, I scanned the menu for something to satisfy my craving. There was a moment of indecisiveness before I said that I would start with a tostones rellenos de camarones, followed by a sopa de pollo. Curious as to what my server would recommend for a main dish, I accepted her suggestion for ropa viejo. And during my wait, I had a cup of cafe con leche. There is definitely an assurance that getting a cafe con leche at any Cuban restaurant or cafe may be the best option you exercise for the day, the cafe con leche at Cohiba being the one option of the day that I think made my day bright.

Tostones Rellenos de Camarones

Tostones Rellenos de Camarones

Sopa de Pollo

Sopa de Pollo

Seeing that the tostones rellenos de camarones was on the appetizer list, I thought that it was going to be small. It was rather substantial and an automatic favourite by the first bite. This was a green plantain stuffed with shrimp prepared in a tasty tomato sauce. Not peppery, but spicy nonetheless, I devoured as much as possible, while saving room for the sopa de pollo. This was the first moment that I mumbled ¡Azucar! under my breath. Filled with tender chicken, peppers, and miniature noodles, and with a chewy roll that was also ideal for sopping, I was quite pleased at having ordered this menu item.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja

Requiring some time before indulging the main dish, the server waited accordingly before bringing me a traditional Cuban dish that I usually order as a sandwich. The flavour of the shredded beef in a tomato base was mild, but it still was inviting enough that I refused to leave any. This was served with savoury black beans, sweet plantains, and rice. Thankful that the large party sitting not far from me was fully engaged in animated conversation, I was glad they did not hear me singing “Guantanamera” by Celia Cruz and mouthing ¡Azucar! Needless to say, these old clothes I liked a lot.

Flan de Vanilla

Flan de Vanilla

Now I was proper fed, but I was not yet finished. Per my server’s second recommendation, I had traditional flan de vanilla. Accompanied by another cafe con leche, I don’t know how I managed to walk upright after I was done. This was not some flan from the frozen section at a local market. I appreciated the caramel not being excessively sugary. And the flan had the texture of creamy quesillos. Also, having eaten so much already, the flan was just right for me being able to finish all without struggling.

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine is a medium sized restaurant with an “at home” atmosphere that I love. I went during late morning/early afternoon before the crowd began coming. Lucky for me because I got to not only enjoy the meal, but to at least get recommendations and even chat about Cuban food without there being any rush. There are a few Cuban restaurants I have gone to in Chicago and several that I will have to try in good time. But this was the first time that I couldn’t suppress my inner Celia Cruz. ¡Azucar!.

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Riques Cocina Mexicana

Riques Cocina Mexicana

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

Horchata

Horchata

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

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

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

Plantanos y Frijoles

Plantanos y Frijoles

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

"La Dona" Noir

“La Dona” Noir

Flan de Elote

Flan de Elote

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

Click to add a blog post for Riques Cocina Mexicana on Zomato

Back to Africa Through Bolat

Bolat African Cuisine

The beautiful thing about Skype is that you can talk to friends and family, near and very far, free. Take for instance, I was having a video chat with an old graduate school friend. And what should he be doing while we were in conversation? He was eating. If you have only looked at some authentic Nigerian dishes, you may wince a little. Nothing is actually cute on the plate. But if you have had some Nigerian cuisine dancing around on your tongue, your mouth waters at the mention of it. Well, as much as I wanted to lick the monitor, I settled on going to Bolat African Cuisine at 3346 N. Clark Street later to sort out my craving.

Hibiscus Mojito

Hibiscus Mojito

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

During this visit, I was in my usual mood of not wanting to make any decisions about what to eat. I told the server, who I found out was also the owner, that I wanted two appetizers, two entrées, one dessert, and cocktails for pairing. See what my Skype experience had done to my appetite? For my first cocktail, I had a hibiscus mojito. I made a mental note to return in the future and request a flight of mojitos because the hibiscus mojito transported me mentally to a climate considerably warmer than the 40 degrees we had in Chicago. To add to the mojito, there were plantains with peanut sauce. What a combination. What a perfect start.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

The next appetizer was a meat pie. This reminded me so much of Jamaican beef patties. The pastry casing was not as flaky, but it definitely was tempting enough that I ordered several for take-away. Served with a homemade hot sauce, I’m going to have to admit that I have a love affair with Nigerian meat patties. If you order ten to take home with you, there really is no other indication of an addiction that you need.

Peanut Soup with Fish

Peanut Soup with Fish

The first entrée was truly cultural on two fronts — Nigerian and Ghanaian. I had peanut soup and it was served with snapper. Because I wanted to enjoy the dish in a proper way, I had fufu with it. No fork. No spoon. There were fufu and my fingers. I have said on multiple occasions that I do not like peanuts, Sam I Am, but I can eat peanut soup until it hurts. My palate welcomes spicy food, so I had the peanut soup prepared mildly peppery. The fish was seasoned well with various herbs and prepared such that the outer texture was slightly crunchy while the meat was succulent. Truly my African half showed itself because I completed the dish with the fufu, not once using a utensil.

L'amuse

L’amuse

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti

Surprisingly, I had room for another full entrée. In preparation for the next dish, I had a l’amuse of skirt steak, tomato, and grilled onion, served with peanuts crushed to a powder. Not dainty like the amuse-bouche that you may get a fancy restaurants, but definitely tastier, I could have had this as a full plate. And to make moving into the next entrée that more inviting, I had a cocktail of hibiscus, ginger liqueur, and champagne. I understand why the name of the drink is Queen Nefertiti.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The second main course was another authentic Nigerian dish called egusi. This was also served with snapper. My friend who I was on Skype with, who happens to be Yoruba, had prepared some egusi when he was visiting the latter part of 2014. The egusi at Bolat was reminiscent of the variety that my Igbo friends prepared during our “cultural” dinners. Not one to complain about too much seafood in my diet, the snapper was tender and light enough that the egusi was still the star. And rather than indulging myself with more fufu, I had a scoop of jollof rice that I needed the recipe for.

Salt and Pepper Highball

Salt and Pepper Highball

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

The final course was in keeping with not letting a customer leave without giving a rating of 15 out of 10 on the scale. I had a cocktail called the Salt and Pepper Highball. I initially thought the salt and pepper garnish around the rim of the glass was different, but the gin, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, simply syrup in the glass made it worthwhile. Accompanying this dessert cocktail was a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in coconut,, topped with an apricot slice, and drops of honey raspberry reduction. The marriage of the cocktail and the ice cream was a match made in heaven.

Bolat African Cuisine is more like a lounge. The atmosphere is so laid back that the dining experience is considerably more relaxed than what you would get at a regular restaurant. For those who have been to Iyanzé in Chicago’s Uptown, which I blogged in 2011, you will not be disappointed by the offerings from the kitchen. Part of this is because the owner of Bolat African Cuisine also owns Iyanzé. Good food should never be rushed, and nothing comes from the kitchen in a snap, as it is prepared to order. Go. Sit. Relax. Enjoy. As for me, I need to Skype with my friend again and not to have my food alarm go off but so I can get some ideas of what else I should try — perhaps something cultural that is not on the menu.

Bolat African Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Nigerian Pop-up Dinner, Tunde Wey Style

During this past summer, I got turned on to the concept of pop-up art galleries while at one of the many street festivals that Chicago hosts. Empty stores that had not been repurposed for the Logan Square revitalization effort had been used as temporary showcase areas for artists in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was a rather nice way for local artists to get some initial exposure without having to pay heavy costs to a gallery for display of their works. Shortly after the pop-up art galleries at the festival, I started seeing references to pop-up retail shops. And recently, I got an invitation to a pop-up Nigerian dinner. Not one to turn down Nigerian food, I accepted the invitation without pause.

Isi Ewu Pepper Soup with Goat
Egusi Frejon

Tunde Wey, a restaurateur from Detroit, MI, was in Chicago visiting with some friends who had graciously hosted the Chicago leg of a tour that he was doing across several cities. His tour route also consisted of New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Those who attended any of the dinner gatherings were in for some damn good Nigerian food that they would otherwise have to go to Nigerian to indulge or find some Nigerians in America who would be open to preparing some authentic dishes.

The motley crew in Chicago was treated to isi ewu, pepper soup with goat, egusi, and frejon with plantains. The isi ewu was spiced goat’s head. Those who love spicy food would enjoy this without a second thought. The pepper soup with goat in it was a grand hit. Eyes were watering. Beads of sweat were on foreheads. Everyone was going back to the pot for seconds and thirds. And had I not been so into my fourth bowl, I would have gotten back to the pot in time to get a proper photo. Another favourite was egusi, a dish prepared with ground melon seeds, spinach, and crawfish. A dish that I did not photograph because, again, I was caught up in the rapture of the whole dining scene, was jollof rice. This rice pilaf is common to the West African palate and unlike British chef Jamie Oliver — you must watch the embedded YouTube video to get the joke — this jollof rice would make any West African in the diaspora homesick. With a finale of frejon, this dish of mashed black beans and fried plantains would actually make anyone hanker for Africa.

The next day after the dinner, I looked up pop-up dinners and discovered that I am rather late finding out about them. The Moroccan dinner I had attended about a year ago felt more like a showcase of the chef’s cooking talents among friends he knew, so pop-up never crossed my mind. But this concept is more popular in Chicago than I thought. Honestly, I think that it is a fantastic way for the chef to get exposure to the diners. The experience engaging people while cooking removes the “oh, they’re strangers” atmosphere and creates friendships that otherwise would never come to fruition. Tunde Wey certainly made the dining aspect of the night one worth bottling. And his interpersonal touch also left us with our bellies hurting from so much laughter. For one night, a group of total strangers had humour, some Nigerian food from “home,” and some “real” jollof rice.

Jamie Oliver, what in Dante’s Inferno were you thinking?

Kizin Creole Restaurant, Haitian Style

Kizin Creole Restaurant

A week ago, I went to a Dominican restaurant in my neighbourhood. With such a lasting impression the restaurant had left on me, I wondered if there was any representation from the other side of the island, that being some Haitian restaurant in Chicago. Well, well, well, in my old neighbourhood of Roger Park, there is. That, of course, meant that I had to see what they had on their menu. That also meant having to get up early because I had to drive to the location and I knew that traffic would be unfriendly if I had left home close to noon.

Chicken Patty

Chicken Patty

As luck would have it, traffic was horrendous, period. The weather was nice and everyone was out — in their cars, as opposed to being pedestrian and enjoying the good weather. That was fine. I arrived at Kizin Creole Restaurant at 2311 W. Howard Street before the crowd. And, yes, there was a crowd that came in shortly after I had placed my order. While sinking my teeth into a flaky pastry of a chicken patty, there were two large communion parties that came in and went towards the back where the party rooms were. Families were dressed vaingloriously, including the little Damians and Rhodas that commenced to have a run of the place once the elders of the families had taken their seats.

Plantains

Plantains

My appetite was up to its usual antics. So, in addition to the chicken patty, I ordered plantains. These were not the cutesy thick pieces cut with the roundness of quarters. These had been sliced lengthwise, fried, and highlighted with a hint of salt. Happiness, pure happiness was all that I could think of while I started on the plantains.

Rice and Beans, Plantains

Rice and Beans, Plantains

And then the main entrée arrived — baked chicken with rice and beans. Forget the pescatarian diet, I said to myself. The chicken had been baked to proper tenderness and being able to taste the spicy cloves in the recipe was too much. I had to pause, lest I broke out into an opera aria to declare how much I had fallen in love with those the two drumsticks that came to the table. The rice and beans were equally outstanding. Whether the Haitians in the kitchen cooked the rice in coconut milk, which I am absolutely sure they did, I didn’t leave anything on the plate except for my napkin.

Chicken and Sauce

Chicken and Sauce

Kizin Creole Restaurant is authentic Haitian food. For those who are decor auditors, forget about what’s on the walls, in the ceilings, and the plastic wrapping on the tables. Just sit and listen to the Haitians switch between Creole, French, and English. One thing that I shall warn you about is timing of your food. Kizin Creole Restaurant is not like TGIFriday’s, Chili’s, Applebees, McDonald’s, Burger King, and the like. Your food does not come to the table immediately after  you place your order because everything is prepared to order. And understanding Caribbeans, expect a strong casual atmosphere. Service is not dismissive. We Caribbeans simply let people enjoy their food and their time without the annoying hovering every five minutes asking if everything is okay. Be prepared to be blown away with good food, superb service, and a price that will scream at you to return again. Then you can tell me sak ap fèt.

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Going South, Cafe Trinidad

Cafe  Trinidad

With the constant drop in temperatures and snow piling up outside, I have been good about not rattling off the statement, “I will be glad when summer arrives.” Honestly, summer in Chicago on Lake Michigan is like having a gigantic magnifying glass over the city and all pedestrians are like ants. The temperatures go from one extreme to the next. And people in Chicago are resilient. Unless there is a certain threat of bad weather shutting the city down, life goes on. Well, let’s be real. When was the last time your appetite said, “I think I shall wait until you finish your brooding about cold temperatures and not having anything to eat”? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my appetite has a life of its own and I obey when it starts whining.

Homemade Ginger Beer

Homemade Ginger Beer

To force myself into a mindset of being in a place where there is warmth, I was on the hunt for some Caribbean food. Much to my surprise, I found a Trini restaurant on Chicago’s South Side. After moving from the South Side to flee painful memories, I had not made trips back except for church — and I drive like a bat out of hell to get back to the North Side immediately afterwards — and to Hyde Park. But I gave Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood some precedence. So, I grabbed my camera for some action journaling and still shots, and it was off to the subway to connect to an “L” so that I could continue south of 35th Street.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

With an interior that looks much like a lot of catfish shacks and chicken shanties on the South Side and West Side, you get that look at Cafe Trinidad. There are a few tables and for those who are big on decor, the bright colours adds warmth during days like what we were having — with 3 to 5 inches of snow accumulating outside. What Cafe Trinidad has in spades is GOOD FOOD. I ordered a plate of curry chicken, rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. The chicken was not only spicy but it was also flavourful and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Yes, you heard me correctly. At some Caribbean restaurants that I have not bothered to put on Chicago Alphabet Soup, the plantains were fried to a horrible crisp or boiled to a questionable texture. The plantains I had at Cafe Trinidad were sweet without sweetener enhancers and just right. And to top it all off, I had some homemade ginger beer. The last time I had homemade ginger beer that was worth writing home about was when I had gone to a Ghanaian restaurant in Washington, DC.

Although you can have a seat at Cafe Trinidad, there is no server to come to your table and take your order and run it to the kitchen. You review the menu at the table or at the till where you place your order. Being able to see the kitchen was a plus for me because I knew there was some serious authenticity to the food. Certainly when my food came to the table with some kick to it, I knew that there was someone from Trinidad in the kitchen working magic. Having only tried the curry chicken dish, I noted that there are wraps and other dishes on the menu. I guess I will have to brave the snow a few more times so that I can indulge some more Trini delights. Seriously, my stomach is already telling me to set aside some dates in the upcoming months. There is some roti on the menu that needs to know that I appreciate it.

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