One thing I like about Latinicity is the variety, albeit found in only a few vendors. I must admit that I thought there were more restaurants before. Of course, that was over five years ago. I recall there being restaurants to the right of the entrance as well as the current restaurants to the left of the entrance. Nevertheless, next time I am downtown, I will make plans to stop I again to try some other offerings. Continue reading
Happy New Year. Starting 2020 off with realistic resolutions, a new list of international cuisines and restaurants to try, and another list of American restaurants that have a focus on healthy recipes. Now that I am in my 50’s, I have to be mindful of everything since my metabolism doesn’t burn off fat the way that it did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.
A friend had told me about a post on her high school class page on Facebook. There was mention of a restaurant named Bettie Lou’s Restaurant at 5633 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. After a brief review of the menu online, I agreed to meet my friend there so that we could try some of the dishes.
Bang the gavel. Sold!
We started with salmon croquettes, scrambled eggs, and brown rice. Those who are from Down South can speak to having a breakfast consisting of salmon croquettes, rice, and biscuits. You don’t get a Northern brunch. Bettie Lou’s brought a bit of the South to the North Side of Chicago, for sure. The croquettes were not a failed attempt but meaty salmon lightly encrusted with a light batter and fried with onions and bell peppers. The brown rice was the surprise. It occurred to us after we had finished that there was no gravy on the rice. The addition of butter and seasoning actually made me view brown rice in a favorable light.
For a second landing we had turkey chops with cabbage and cheese grits. The turkey chops had been lightly breaded and fried to look like pork chops. It was all turkey and with a well seasoned gravy, it was better than any pork chops I have had. The cabbage reminded me of the same that I have had at countless Jamaican restaurants in Jamaica and off the island. As to the cheese grits, they were a perfect compliment to the course with a proper amount of cheese and creamy consistency.
The third course was of perch served with collard greens and candied yams. The perch was not some thawed fish purchased from the frozen section. We were thankful that it was not encased in a quarter inch of crust. There was a flour batter, which made it very light. As to the greens, this was the first that I have had cooked in a vegan manner that had flavor. Whatever chopped weeds I have had at other vegetarian and vegan restaurants don’t compare to the collard greens at Bettie Lou’s. The yams were not sugary and were just the right balance to the greens. Add to the delight of this landing, the johnny cake that came with the greens made it all feel like New Orleans in Chicago.
My friend had ordered some peach cobbler for takeaway. Before we left, we had a spoonful for a sample. Had it not been for discipline, we would have finished it at the restaurant. The only thing missing was a scoop of ice cream. Once word gets out about how tasty the peach cobbler is, it will be the one thing that will have Bettie Lou’s Restaurant making the news.
For all of the food that we ate, we were sated but not to the point of misery or comatose. That speaks to the ingredients not being so heavy as to leave diners feeling like they’ve eaten past a proper dining threshold. Having gone during the middle of the day on a Saturday, we got the chance to engage the owner in conversation, which made it feel like we had gone to a friend’s or a family member’s house. One thing to note is that dishes are prepared to order. It will take time for food to arrive at the table because nothing is warmed up or microwaved. Although Chicago boasts a long list of soul food, soul food vegetarian, and soul food vegan restaurants, Bettie Lou’s Restaurant has made a flavorful impression on me such that it is now my go-to soul food haunt.
Let me start by saying that I had no idea this cafe existed. I had passed by it countless times and nothing screamed “Open for Business.” A colleague told me about it and we agreed to meet for a Sunday breakfast. This was during the summer. It has become a regular Sunday spot ever since.
First, the homemade bread wins. During the first visit, the cauliflower and broccoli salad in a creamy dressing was addictive. And the pork belly with peppers and cherry tomatoes were worthy of repeat orders. From what I can tell, there is a bit of a farm to table aspect that makes everythig on the menu fresh.
For Logan Square to be a hipster landscape, those working at Cellar Door Provisions don’t have the detached attitude. They’re engaging and attentive without hovering. The cafe is not large and there is a constant ebb and tide of patrons. As I mentioned, I have returned with my colleague quite often since the first visit. I hope that this will be one restaurant that will not succumb to the curse of “closing restaurants” that plagued Chicago in 2019.
Because I had several visits since the first one, there are several compositions that I have captured since. Rather than doing a very long write-up, below is a link to the Flickr page where I posted the photos to ignite your appetite. If you are in or near the Chicago Logan Square area, Cellar Door Provisions is one to add to your list of restaurant spots.
Chicago boasts a number of outstanding museums where one may go for education, enlightenment, and entertainment. One of the many museums in the city is the Museum of Contemporary Art at 205 E. Pearson Street where you can see a collection of paintings, sculptures, and visual art. After a recent visit to MCA, I was pleasantly surprised to find Marisol on the lower level. I sat at the bar and started with a Manhattan that was smooth.
For my first landing, the plate of sweet red shrimp and chopped walnuts was outstanding. As a starter, it was good enough for whetting the palate but not heavy to the point of not leaving room for completing additional dishes. There was a slight kick to the dish, which made the shrimp pop with flavor, but the pepper was not an overpowering ingredient.
The second landing of risotto verde was a dish that I would recommend highly if ever it is still on the menu. The risotto had been prepared in a pesto and served with broccoli in it. Those who are vegetarian and those who lean towards veganism would certainly love this dish.
I finished with a selection of cheeses, graham crackers, apple slices, and honey. There was no way to go wrong with a gorgonzola, a sharp cheddar, and a mild gouda. Having this with a Sidney J cocktail — of which I can’t recall the spirits used in it — this was a better option for a finale than a sweet.
I have a feeling the menu changes seasonally. That’s not a bad thing, as you never have the same thing throughout the year to boredom. This restaurant is a winner.
While dealing with a hankering for something from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and culturally familiar to my palate, I did my usual Google search for some West African restaurants. What should display as a result was The Powerhouse Restaurant at 2113 S. State Street in the Near South Side. I saw a few items on the online menu that were reminiscent of Nigerian dishes that I’ve had, so it was off to the South Side for a taste of Africa.
I started with a ground beef pie and with a fish pie. Served with a spicy tomato sauce, these pies were quite tasty. There was less meat in both than I have had in the ones I devoured shamelessly in Lagos and at several Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side. Still, I must admit that a lot of flavor was packed into the pastries.
The dish that wowed me during my first visit was egusi. This traditional soup which is made with dried ground melon seeds, bitterleaf, pumpkin leaf, and spinach is my favorite Nigerian dish and The Powerhouse Restaurant did not disappoint. I had the egusi with fish. One note to myself is that West African dishes are prepared culturally, which meant that I had to de-bone the fish and be careful of any fine bones that I did not get while doing the de-boning process. The fragrant rice that came with it made the pop in flavor that more pronounced. With a mild amount of heat in the dish, it was heaven.
For the second visit, I returned with some friends. Having talked up The Powerhouse Restaurant, they were intrigued and later happy to have taken me up on the return visit. We started with a round pamplemouse that made us think of summer as opposed to the chilly temperatures Chicago is experiencing. Think lemon and lime with a soda, but more natural than soda pop. Citrusy and refreshing was this beverage. We also had a round of acho soup, one cooked with salmon, the other cooked with chicken. The soup had been prepared with a dried plantain, seasoned well, and served in a bowl that had been prepped with yam pounded until it had the consistency of mashed potatoes. It was so good that I was all done before I realized I had not taken any compositions.
For our first landing, we had salmon and skirt steak with ndole. Very much like egusi, ndole employs bitterleaf in the recipe but there is a peanut butter base that provides enough of a balance to balance out the bitterness. The skirt steak was extremely tender and the salmon was rather flaky.
The second landing also came with ndole, but served with shrimp and lamb chops. Again, here was a dish with full flavor and meat that had been prepared such that it was neither borderline rare nor dried out from too much heat. It made each bite succulent.
The third landing was smoked fish and shrimp served with jollof rice. Aromatic with smoke, the fish was fleshy while the skin had been seared enough to retain a lot of the flavor. The shrimp, like the shrimp that came with the lamb chops, was fat and bursting with each bite. The star in the show was the jollof rice. Being partial to Ghanaian jollof rice, the aromatic spices in this Cameroonian rice really made it quickly become a favorite.
The Powerhouse Restaurant has mastery in two things that I love most about restaurants: outstanding food and grade-A service. During my first visit, I had a brief chat with the owner who was making the rounds through the restaurant, asking the diners how their experiences were. On the second visit, my friends and I arrived early enough to have the restaurant to ourselves and the owner gave us an explanation of the ingredients used in the recipes and the cultural influences. It felt like going home. And one thing I can say about going home is that there is always a welcoming atmosphere and some of the best food to be had.
This has been a slow year for blogging, for me. Two things have been at play — 1) I bought an Instant Pot and have become a pressure cooker fanatic and 2) the heat, severe thunderstorms, and humidity have been prohibitive for doing much of anything that requires going outside. So, with spending hours in the gym after work and cooking at home more with intent to gain weight — yes, I know that losing weight is most people’s goal — I have been rather laxed with my posting. Well, thanks to a recent recommendation, I got the kick I needed to get back on track.
Prairie Grass Cafe at 601 Skokie Boulevard in Northbrook, Illinois, gave me a chance to return to an area that was my receiving post when I moved from New York to the Metropolitan Chicago area. Very spacious in both main dining and bar areas, this restaurant is a nice escape from the rush of Chicago proper for some flavors that top many restaurants that constantly make the “Best Of” lists that circulate annually.
My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a Saturday evening seating and opted for a variety of dishes so that we could get a sampling of different menu offerings. Back to our usual practice of giving dietary specifications, we left the selections up to our server. Clearly loving a challenge, she was up for it and everything that came to the table was an indication that trusting her was an outstanding idea.
We started with a mozzarella salad that came with heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, micro salad, basil remoulade, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Having an addiction for tomatoes, this was already a winner. It was simply nice having a salad that you could taste the tomatoes, as opposed to what often tastes like “essence” of tomatoes.
The next two appetizers were not only bite size, but also very satisfying on the palate without being too much. The corn fritters were touted as one of the most recommended items on the menu. After the first bite, it was apparent why they are a favorite. Imagine a doughnut hole with corn kernels in them. Served with a honey butter, these fritters could be dessert. The shrimp egg rolls were where we have a hint of an Asian influence. The pop in the egg rolls came with the size and freshness of the shrimp. There was no excessive seasoning, which helped the taste of each bite of shrimp come through.
A dish that played well to my British sensibilities was the plate of cod and coleslaw. The cod reminded me of days spent at fish and chips shops throughout Newcastle. Admittedly, I would have preferred chips with the fish rather than the coleslaw, the slaw added a nice accompanying touch to the dish. The addition of the grapes in the dish balanced it out such that it was neither bitter, nor sour, nor sweet. It was just right and even Goldilocks would agree.
Having a bit of turf to the dining experience, we had hangar steak over mushrooms and potatoes. Going with medium, what came to the table was a plate of perfection, meat so succulent and tender that cutting it was as effortless as slicing through air. Well seasoned au jus and complete lip-smacking without much salt, many steakhouses that I have been to over the years could stand to take a course in preparing a steak without flare so that diners could actually enjoy the flavor, just like what we had at Prairie Grass Café.
Back to the sea, the salmon with house barbecue sauce over Mexi-corn with a corn purée was divine. The salmon was flaky and surprisingly had a texture of skate. Those who have had skate know how moist and silky the fish feels on the palate. Well, the same was the case with the salmon. This was a winner.
Having a little time between the main courses and dessert, we allowed a few minutes before indulging sweets. The first was a cream pie topped with raspberries and accented with a sprig of mint. The beauty of this dessert was that the filling was cream cheese and whipped cream, which made it light. Topped with fresh raspberries and a homemade compote that you could smell, thanks to it not being from a can or a jar, this pie could quickly become a favorite.
The double chocolate cake was nothing short of truth serum. Extremely moist and yet not so sugary that it was overpowering, the rich texture certainly induced a bit of comatose. We, of course, balanced that out with coffee. While some may resort to calling this devils food cake, it was heavenly, nonetheless. And the star of the show was the sticky toffee date cake. Again, this was a cake that should be used as an example of what moist means. At most restaurants, date cakes have the course texture of cornbread. That was not the case with this date cake. It is one that would make a great autumn cake and it would pair well with mulled cider or spiced tea. We may even return during the fall months and see if that’s possible.
Prairie Grass Cafe is not what one could call a hidden gem. It is very surprising that it has not made any recommended lists because the restaurant excels in two very important areas: delicious food and top service. Farm-to-table and local source restaurants are becoming more popular, as people are now wanting their food to be fresh and restaurants are also starting to support local farmers, which ensures quality ingredients for menu items. Prairie Grass Cafe is more than worth a try. It should be top on your list.
Rarely do I ever pass through Skokie, Illinois. A few weeks ago, I was in the vicinity returning to a Jamaican restaurant that I love. On the way, I passed by a Mexican restaurant that, from the outside, looked like it was something akin to a Chipotle. I figured I would try it out anyway. Much to my surprise, it only had the look and feel of a run of the mill fast food restaurant. The flavors are what made it stand out as a restaurant I would frequent.
TBK Grill at 7565 Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, is a spot to check out for authentic Mexican food. With booths and tables spaced out nicely, it doesn’t suffer from congestion. The service was fantastic, and I concede that part of that may be because I switched into speaking Spanish. The grill is behind the cashier, so you get to see your food being prepared.
My appetite was ravenous, which is nothing new. I ordered three plates that I considered to be manageable in one seating. The first was chips with guacamole. The guacamole was chunky, exactly the way I like it. I didn’t think to ask if it was possible to get it spicy and with a little bit more cilantro in. It didn’t matter after I realized that the notion of getting it with a kick and more cilantro came after I had gotten down to the bottom of the cup.
The second plate that I ordered was of quesadillas with chicken, served with a small side of guacamole and sour cream. The guacamole was good enough as an accompaniment, but the quesadillas were flavorful enough without anything else for dipping or dousing. It has been over fifteen years since I had quesadillas that I found to be addictive without any extra sides or condiments. It helped that the chicken was succulent and seasoned well.
The taco platter was my final dish. Instead of ordering the tacos with lettuce and tomato like at Americanized taco restaurants, I opted for traditional preparation with cilantro and onions. These tacos reminded me of the ones that my Mexican neighbor prepares, which are the best that I have had ever. The yellow rice was neither sticky nor overcooked, and the refried beans were also tasty. Given all of the food that I had, I still finished every bit of it, something I never would have completed had there not been authenticity in the recipe.
TBK Grill is in a triangle between the tri-section of Howard Street, Lincoln Avenue, and Skokie Blvd. Depending on traffic and the direction from which you’re coming, it could be a task getting into the parking lot. However, once you are there, you’re guaranteed to find satisfaction on the menu. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a hole in the wall, but the food from the kitchen will put you in mind of small Mexican walk-ups. The best.
While doing some freelance photography in the West Suburbs of Chicago, my restaurant adviser had sent a text message to me requesting that I meet her at a Vietnamese restaurant in Berwyn before continuing on home. With non-stop traffic congestion coupled with never-ending construction, a nice stop after being in third gear for a little over an hour was a welcomed recommendation.
Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant at 6723 Cermak Road has been in business since August, 2017, serving authentic Vietnamese flavors. It’s a spacious restaurant with a nice amount of light and without seating that introduces a feeling of being crowded. Add to that service that makes it feel like you are going to someone’s home instead of to an establishment, you have the making of a fantastic restaurant.
Without going overboard with all of the appetizing items on the menu, we started with durian smoothies while waiting for our dishes to come to the table. For those who have had durian, you are already aware of how much of a contradiction that fruit is. For those who have never had it, just get a durian smoothie in the meantime. The actual fruit smells like it would attract all sorts of creatures from the land and sky, but has a sweet taste that makes you wonder how something could smell so horrible yet taste so heavenly. Nevertheless, the smoothies were refreshing and sweet without being saccharine.
Easing into the meal, to whet the palates, we had spring rolls that came with a side of peanut sauce that had crushed peanuts. Even as a common staple, there was a freshness in each bite. They certainly did not have the “day old” texture that has become rather commonplace at a lot of Pan Asian restaurants that sell spring rolls.
The main dishes were where Las Vegas Vietnamese shines. There was a plate of grilled beef, shrimp, and rice, all served with a thin savory sauce that added a note of sweet and savory. This com bò tòm nuòng was seasoned well, and tender to each bite, this version of a surf and turf packed so much flavor that one may want larger portions of the dish. For our second landing, we indulged a large bowl of grilled beef called còm bò nuòng. Served with bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, and a small cup of the thin sweet and savory sauce, this will probably become a go-to dish on future visits. Adding the complimentary mint leaves and jalapeños to the dish made it pop that much more.
Rounding out the dishes, we had phò gà. While ramen may be a rather popular fad nationwide, phò is quite divine when prepared culturally versus appropriated. Brimming with a very faint aroma of autumn — cinnamon or cloves — the noodles were neither al dente nor mushy. The chicken was not simply dumped into the broth, which goes to why individual bites of the chicken burst with a notion of having been seasoned well. And being too filled from having enjoyed so much already, we opted for iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Brand name coffee shops would lose business if citizens at large were to get properly introduced to Vietnamese iced coffee.
Most who are in Chicago will recall that Broadway and Argyle in Uptown is where there is a cluster of authentic Vietnamese restaurants. It is nice finding a Vietnamese restaurant in the suburbs, as it provides an alternative to fast food eateries and family style restaurants that have cookie cutter menu options. Las Vegas Vietnamese was a gamble for this first visit, not really knowing what to expect. It was great discovering something with cultural appeal, top table service, and reasonable prices. If you want to take a chance on appetizing Vietnamese food while in or passing through the Near West Suburbs, make Las Vegas Vietnamese your stop.
We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.
For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.
After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.
Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.
The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.
For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.
I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.
Two years ago when I opted to have my birthday dinner at a seafood boil restaurant on the North Side of Chicago, little did I know then that I would develop an immediate hankering for the seafood goodness of days long gone when I was echoing distance from Louisiana. Since that birthday dinner, there have been several other seafood boil restaurants suggested to me that I’ve tried and given in to my addiction for shrimp, crab legs, and crawfish drowning in some spicy sauce in a plastic bag. And I found myself giving in to my craving while passing by Lowcountry at 3343 N. Clark Street.
Having eaten a lengthy brunch, I had enough room to indulge a few menu items from the Restaurant Week offerings. With a friend in tow, we grabbed a seat at one of the many benches in a dining area that was quite reminiscent of the holes in the wall throughout Louisiana. Given the name, Lowcountry, I imagine this is also the same dining layout one could expect in Lowcountry, South Carolina. But what we got screamed Louisiana, for sure.
We had something from the cocktail menu to whet the palate, neither remembering what exactly because the Super Bowl Game was playing and after pointing at whatever on the menu, we were cheering the Philadelphia Eagles to play like they wanted to win. While imbibing our drinks that we did later find out were made with gin as a base — how we managed to order something without really paying attention to the menu is a puzzle — we had a small order of soft shell crab and another small order of calamari. Topped with jalapenos, these were divine. The soft shell crab had been cooked thoroughly and was extremely meaty. The calamari was tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Thankful that much of the seeds had been removed from the peppers, there was enough kick to the starters that there was flavor but no need to chase each bite with several gulps of water.
The coup de grace were the bags of shrimp, crab legs, sausage, corn, and potatoes in Lowcounty’s spicy garlic, lemon pepper, Cajun sauce. Lowcountry ranks on my list of seafood boil restaurants that clearly knows how to lure people back for more. I usually never get crab legs because I hadn’t mastered the art of plucking the meat, but I did a superb job this time and I am happy to report that the crab meat was fresh, flavorful, and had me hooked. To make it that more appetizing, the jalapeno cornbread that came with it was exactly what we needed for sopping up the sauce.
Rather than gobble the seafood up as if in a rush to leave the restaurant, we paced ourselves and enjoyed watching Philadelphia draining the New England Patriot’s morale. I ordered a Jameson with ginger beer while my friend had coffee. This was in preparation for the beignets that we ordered. They got it right. The beignets had a yeast texture to them, not a cake texture. And they actually tasted way better than some doughnuts at some of the boutique doughnut shops in Chicago.
This visit was the first time even hearing about Lowcountry. There is another location in Chicago’s South Loop at 1132 S. Wabash Avenue. Same “back home” look and feel with wood layout on the inside and the picnic table setup, these locations probably get a lot of patrons. Granted it was Super Bowl Sunday when my friend and I went, there were still lots of individuals coming in to get gravy on their fingers and across their jaws. I can’t say that seafood boils are a fad, considering it’s a normal thing in coastal South Carolina and along the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s certainly a part of my constant slide show.