Bia’s Café Marinao, Cuban Style

Bia's Cafe Marinao

Every once in a while I like to deviate from the usual proper sit-down restaurant and delve into something that requires me to pick up food with my hands. Having had a craving for a really good sandwich, I knew that I could not go wrong with a Cuban sandwich. And rather than going to the usual Cuban sandwich shops that I have logged in my smart phone, I looked for a place where I had not been. Bia’s Café Marinao at the new location of 4323 W. Addison Street in Chicago’s Old Irving neighborhood seemed like it was a good spot on reading the menu. It was an outstanding café on going for the first visit.

Chicken Empanadas

Chicken Empanadas

Not large and rather popular, given the constant flow of patrons coming for pick-up and dining in, I had a seat at the counter against the wall and indulged a chicken empanada that came with a guava barbecue sauce and a cubano. The empanada was fresh, quite evident from the flaky crust. And I liked that the chicken was seasoned nicely, which really lent itself to going well with the guava barbecue sauce. Ropa viejas have always been my go-to Cuban sandwich and switching it up a bit this time was an excellent idea. Thinly sliced ham, roasted pork, topped with a mustard jam and pickles, I quickly decided that I will retire my love affair with ropa viejas.

Cubano

Cubano

During my second visit, I wanted to sample another sandwich. This time I ordered a medianoche. This sandwich is very much like a cubano, except the bread has a bit of a sweetness to it and without the mustard jam. Hearty, flavorful, and with a bloom of flavor from each bite, I was conflicted because I had sworn the cubano to be my now-favorite Cuban sandwich during my first visit. While finishing the medianoche and downing a cup of café con leche, I knew that this meant I had to return at a later date to see if I could conflict my interest more.

Medianoche

Medianoche

During the third time, I had one beef and one chicken empanada, this time with a spicy sauce for dipping. Again, trying a different sandwich, I ordered a steak and cheese that came with thinly sliced tomatoes and Swiss cheese, drizzled with a mild citrus oil. While not overloaded, there was enough flavor packed into the sandwich to make me punt a Philly cheesesteak if it were put in front of me. Not only that, I simply had to accept the fact that there isn’t one sandwich at Bia’s Café Marinao that I can’t honestly call my favorite because all of them are.

Steak and Cheese

Steak and Cheese

As mentioned earlier, there is a steady stream of customers that come in to order for take-away and for dining in. Noticing the service the three different times that I have gone, they are consistently friendly and attentive. The café is not in an area with lots of foot traffic, so the fact that they get a lot of constant business speaks to how fantastic the sandwiches are and how welcoming the service is. I have never been one to say that I am a fan of sandwiches, but Bia’s Café Marinao changed that for me. This is my favorite sandwich shop in Chicago.

Cafeteria Marianao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Farm to Table, Donkey and Stick

Table, Donkey & Stick

After some time off, I have returned with my usual appetite. With the combination of the day job, personal travels, and getting control of weight gain that has resulted in me having to spend a good bit of money buying clothes that I can fit into now, yes, I had been absent. And when you live in a city like Chicago where you can’t walk too far without facing some inviting restaurant, you cave in a little, or a lot as I had been doing.

Dirty Chi

Dirty Chi

The term “farm to table” has been used for many restaurants that have had debuts on Chicago’s landscape.  Being mostly enticed by cuisines from North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, Asia, South America, and Central America, the farm to table theme seemed more like a phase, like the red velvet cake frenzy and the current doughnut bliss movement. So, while having a casual walk through the eastern end of Logan Square, I passed by Table, Donkey and Stick at 2728 W. Armitage Avenue and decided that it was time to see what made this particular farm to table restaurant so appealing.

Arriving a little after 6:00 PM, I figured there would be the after-work crowd in the main dining area, so I opted to sit out front to enjoy the nice weather and to take advantage of the last remaining natural light of the sunset for photos. With menu in one hand, a Dirty Chi cocktail in the other hand, I found a few items that piqued my appetite and sat back in anticipation for an enjoyable evening.

Gorgonzola Dolce, Candied Walnuts, Jam, and Baguette

Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts, Honey, Baguette and Butter

Starting with a cheese platter was a fantastic option. As a huge lover of creamy cheese, I was pleased with creamy gorgonzola dolce, honey, candied walnuts, butter, and a baguette. Put a footnote here. I hate nuts. Hate them. Absolutely, totally, completely hate them. And then I had a bit of the candied walnuts. Oh how I have been missing out. I love candied walnuts, or at least the ones at Table, Donkey and Stick. But spreading a bit of the cheese on the homemade baguette and dabbing it with the raw honey really made this small platter a winner.

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

The second small plate I ordered was one of potato latkes with garlic aioli. These latkes were not of the large variety that one finds at Polish, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European restaurants. Noting the legend next to the menu item, this dish is vegetarian and free of gluten. Given dietary restrictions and discipline, those who are vegetarian will love the kick in this small plate and those who are sensitive to gluten or who simply want to remove gluten from their diets will also enjoy each bite without worry, except that you may not feel you have had enough when you find yourself contemplating the last piece. And the house cultured butter made each bite that more tasty.

Runner Up

Runner Up

Because I have been a bit restrictive with my diet while trying to get my waist size down to at least a size 34 — you  never notice weight gain by looking at yourself daily, only that you can’t fit pants from the back of your closet with a size 30 waist, period — I have not partaken of my usual dosage of refreshing cocktails. And the Runner Up at Table, Donkey and Stick almost made me yell, “Compliments to the bartender,” from my outdoor seat. I saw that it had mezcal in it and that was all I needed to know that I would love it, but all the other ingredients in it made me all the more happier.

Sticking with small plates, I had new smashed potatoes with farm beans and snails in a pesto. Wow! Wow! Wow! This should be the signature dish, and I’m saying that having been to the restaurant only once. No competing flavors on the palate, no complex flavors overpowering any of the ingredients in the recipe, no rubbery or mushy snails, and not a single crumb or smear of gravy left in the bowl after I had gone over every inch of it with the last bit of baguette. If you go for a proper sit-down, order the “signature dish” and let the server figure out what it is. This dish should never be removed from the menu.

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

The finale was a case study in sweet and savory and how a check can present both in a dish that works well together. There was a scoop of blood orange sorbet that was my intended “light item” after having eaten so much food prior to dessert. And there were fried chicharronés. Often when restaurants try to marry sweet and savory, they do so in a single item that becomes a bit too busy on the palate. The beauty of the sorbet and chicharronés here is that you could enjoy them solo or together without disappointment. Like all of the prior small courses, this one ended on a good note.

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Since I moved to Logan Square in 2007, it has become a landing spot for some of the most popular and most recommended restaurants in Chicago. For a neighborhood that had been plagued with a bad reputation, the presence of restaurants that receive high recommendations and notoriety is something that residents of Logan Square can brag about. Table, Donkey and Stick is a very unassuming restaurant from the street, no flash, no flare, no “look at me,” but when you do notice it and put your feet under one of the tables for enjoyment, you really do come to realize that restaurants with no fancy airs are the best. Three things I discovered: I can indulge farm to table, I love candied walnuts, and Logan Square does indeed have the best unpretentious restaurants in the city.

Table, Donkey And Stick Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bisi African Restaurant — Nigerian Flavour

Bisi African Restaurant

One thing I like about Instagram is that I get a lot of recommendations and prompts for different restaurants throughout the metropolitan Chicago area. I am aware that Chicago proper is considerably more culturally diverse than presented via media, but a lot of cultural representation extends to the far suburbs as well. One Nigerian restaurant I have seen posting on Instagram is Bisi African Restaurant. With a location in Schaumburg at 853 S. Roselle Road, I felt I needed to sample from them considering two of my favourite Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side recently closed their doors.

Suya

Suya

The inside has an open floor plan that eliminates any feeling of being cramped. There are several tables to accommodate parties of four or more and booths that will accommodate up to four in a party. But it’s the food that draws your attention. Since I was going to try two entrées, I started with a suya to whet the palate. This was a platter of skewered steak served with onions, a favourite street food item, all authentic. In addition to the suya, I had moi moi, a rather tasty bean pudding prepared with black-eyed peas, onions, and fresh ground peppers, again all authentic. I have a tickler to myself to have meat pies the next time I return.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The server had told me that preparation for the entrées was going to take half an hour and I was okay with that, knowing that nothing was going to be microwaved or warmed up and then sent from the kitchen. True enough, everything was cooked to order. The egusi with fish screamed “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” The melon seeds had been ground up nicely and spiced nicely. The whiting was quite fleshy, yet still had bones in. With fufu in hand, I ate all of it without use of table utensils, and I do mean all of it. The second entrée was a plate of ayamase, my favourite and most addictive Nigerian dish ever. Also referred to as ofada stew, Bisi African Restaurant cooked it spicy, which means they serve it “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” In keeping with being true to the recipe, there were beef, tripe, dry fish, and stock fish in the dish. I recommend this highly.

Ayamase

Ayamase

Bisi African Restaurant is a bit of a drive from Chicago. It is worth the trip out to the Northwest Suburbs, though. I can vouch for the food being absolutely lip-smacking, although there are several more menu items that I would love to try. One thing I also like is that the service is outstanding. Granted there was one server working the floor, every table in the restaurant received attention. Good service seems to be a dying trait in the restaurant industry and when you receive top service and see it delivered wholesale to all customers, that makes the dining experience that more enjoyable. I may not make the hour-long drive outside of Chicago, but when I do, it will be back to Bisi African Restaurant.

Bisi African Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Super Jalapeño Grill Super Yum

Jalapeno Grill

After a few months of slacking off from my gym regiments because it has been so nice after work that I’ve been busy lifting knives, forks, and spoons instead of weights, my clothes are fitting me a bit tighter than I would like. That means buying new clothes that have breathing room or getting back to my workout routine. So, while biking twenty miles recently, on my return home I passed by a restaurant that I order from online — Super Jalapeño Grill at 2910 W. Armitage Avenue. And what should I do but stop in any undo my long distance ride.

Jarrito Piña

Jarrito Piña

Chips y Salsas

Chips y Salsas

Certainly not a medium or big box restaurant, it’s one of countless taquerias in Chicago where you get real Mexican food, not an attempt at Mexican. There is nothing fancy about the restaurant and once the food arrives at the table, you really don’t care. Since I had already endured one hour of CrossFit, 45 minutes of kickboxing, and a little under an hour of biking, I was ready to sink my fangs into something to tide me over until I got home.

Tres Tacos

Tres Tacos

I had chips and the flight of salsas. There were tomatillo, a mild tomato salsa that reminded me of having a tamarind accent in it, a spicy tomato based salsa, and some pickled vegetables. Loved every crispy bite. Starting with a flight of tacos, I had one camarone, one pescada, and one carne asada. Not stacked with a heaping of lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, avocado, salsa from the jar made in New York City, sour cream, and whatever else was in the refrigerator, these tacos were of the variety that my Mexican neighbours prepare. No meat was dry, no flavours were lacking, and I had room for shrimp a la plancha that came in a buttery sauce along with frijoles and rice. With the accompanying corn tortilla, I placed the plump shrimp, rice, and frilojes in them and devoured all of it in total silence. Oh, I also had two quesadillas with this delectable platter.

Camarones a la Plancha

Camarones a la Plancha

Needless to say, my final two miles home felt like I had five more to go. But I was well fed. Chicago has more Mexican restaurants than anyone can keep track of and the beauty of them is that they are all authentic, not placebos to satisfy a common palate. Super Jalapeño Grill is family-owned and operated, so you’re indeed getting genuine Mexican sabor. I have ordered from this restaurant for delivery and always felt they sent the best from their kitchen. The sit-down experience proved that they have pride in what they cook. I’m going back, but not after an intense workout routine and long distance biking.

Super Jalapeno Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Balena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chinese Friendship Restaurant

Friendship Chinese Restaurant

After a recent follow from a Chinese restaurant that is walking distance from my home, I decided to play nice and give it a fair try. I had feasted on Chinese food in mainland China, which resulted in me swearing off anything outside of China and Chinatowns. But let me just say that having discovered that Friendship Chinese Restaurant at 2830 N. Milwaukee Avenue has been in the Avondale area for several years, I am kicking rocks for just now find out about this bliss suite. I had missed out on some really, really, outstandingly delicious food because of my palate bias towards tasteless and nasty Americanized Chinese food. But no more.

Appetizer Sampler

Appetizer Sampler

During my first visit, I was in curiosity seeker mode only. One thing I noted was the menu was one page, one-sided, with a nice listing of options. It was the fact that the menu was not a booklet, as found at countless Chinese restaurants. Playing safe, I ordered the appetizer sampler for a variety of small starters. What arrived at the table were a large platter of a selection of appetizers, two apiece. The Friendship egg rolls had seasoned, roasted chicken in them. The creamy crab rangoons burst with each bite. There were pot stickers, fish tofu kababs, and Peking duck rolls. And to make the appetizer sampler even more of a winner, the China wings in a faintly sweet and spicy sauce were well worth licking fingers afterwards. These wings must be a signature menu item.

China Wings

China Wings

Because the appetizer sampler was filling and I was dining solo, I opted for only one other dish. The clay pot offerings looked interesting, so I ordered the Szechwan seafood mix. Arriving at the table in a small clay pot along with a side of rice, this was a deal maker for me. Filled with shrimp, squid, and abalone, also with a medley of mushrooms, broccoli, and snap beans, I wondered why this restaurant had not been touted as one of Chicago’s best Chinese restaurants. Perfect seasoning, right amount of spiciness, and no MSG, it was easy for each bite to pop on the palate with the same satisfaction I remembered experiencing per my visits to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Szechwan Seafood Mix

Szechwan Seafood Mix

Not having ordered a lot on the first visit, I made a calendar entry for a return so that I could sample a few more items. There was the same welcoming service that I received on the first jaunt, so I was certain of the consistency with their staff. And since I had planned to try two main dishes, I started with the crispy Peking duck. I didn’t really pay close attention to this appetizer when I had it as a part of the sampler. Indulging it by itself really had me in love well before I had swallowed my first bite on the second visit. Tender duck that was not oily in a sauce that tasted like a marriage between soy sauce and barbecue sauce made for a plus as a starter.

Crispy Peking Duck

Crispy Peking Duck

The first entrée I had afterwards was a plate of spicy peanut chicken. Just to give a little context, I hate peanuts. I have never been a fan of the texture, but I love peanut sauce and ordered the dish thinking I would get chicken in the sauce only. Well, I did get the chicken in the sauce, but also got peanuts in the dish. What popped into my head while I was going around the plate with the rice sopping up the last bit of the gravy was that I had devoured the peanuts without complaint. Maybe it was the enjoyment of the dish full of succulent chicken with fresh vegetable and a savoury sauce that made me forget about the peanuts. I intend to do it all over again.

Spicy Peanut Chicken

Spicy Peanut Chicken

The second entrée was not on the menu. It was a new item that had not been added to the menu yet, a clay pot of short ribs with vegetables, a cauldron of absolute happiness. The short ribs were tender and seasoned like the kind of meat cooked for hours in a slow cooker. And the garden fresh taste of the broccoli, snap beans, mushrooms, and water chestnuts added that much more flavour to an already top dish. This will no doubt become a favourite to those who order it in the future.

Clay Pot Short Ribs

Clay Pot Short Ribs

Friendship Chinese Restaurant is in a section of Milwaukee Avenue just north of the burst of growth that Logan Square is experiencing. There is a fair amount of foot traffic in the area so as revitalization moves along Milwaukee Avenue, there very well may be mention of Friendship Chinese Restaurant as a recommended spot. I must say that being someone who has had an aversion to bad Americanized Chinese food, I got a renewal of faith that there are some fantastic Chinese restaurants off mainland China. If I don’t find any others, I can vouch for Friendship’s authenticity being the draw that keeps me returning. Oh, I typed this review after blocking a few hours on an upcoming Saturday for a threepeat.

Friendship Chinese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum Bar

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum BarA few years ago while enjoying the great outdoors and having some Mexican food at a neighbourhood restaurant, the owner had mentioned a nearby Cuban restaurant that he thought I would enjoy. The name he gave was Paladar, at 2252 N. Western Avenue. Like a lot of recommendations, I filed the name and then forgot about it until recently when I was walking along Western Avenue. Let me just start by saying that I should start taking recommendations seriously.

Guava Mojito

Guava Mojito

Mango Mojito

Mango Mojito

Arriving early before the lunch crowd on a Saturday afternoon, I perused the menu, deciding on a common appetizer and leaving the main dish up to my server’s recommendation. To wet my palate, the first cocktail I had was a guava mojito. Reminding myself not to down it like I was thirsting for water, it was hard to fight the temptation to turn it up and finish it in a few gulps because it was mixed just that well. Not heavy-handed with alcohol, it was apparent that the recipe had a good bit of it by the time I got halfway through the drink.

Flight of Empanadas

Flight of Empanadas

Along with the guava mojito, I had a flight of empanadas. There was a guava with cheese that was the best of that kind that I’ve had at any other Cuban restaurants in Chicago. The shredded chicken was flavourful enough that I made it a point to order several for take-away. The same applied to the beef empanada that I ordered in equal quantity to enjoy later. All served with three sauces — house barbecue, spicy avocado, and habanero — these baked treats were worth indulging what most would consider usual fare at Latin American restaurants.

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Usually when I go to Cuban restaurants I order what I consider safe dishes (e.g., ropa vieja sandwich or ropa vieja plate, arroz con pollo, or chuletas). This time I deviated by accepting my server’s recommendation for chivo. Having eaten more than my share of curried goat, the slow cooked goat stew served with congri and sweet plantains at Paladar was all the reminder I needed to develop a new love for this stew. From the meat falling off the bone without any help to the nice kick from the habanero to the sweet plantains that were caramelized rather than dry to yucca that fell apart on the fork, it should not have taken this long for me to indulge a plate of such an outstanding dish. And the mango mojito that I had with the main dish was a case of a bartender’s concoction done correctly.

Chivo

Chivo

For the finale, I opted for bomba. More like Italian tartufo, this came to the table as an ice cream ball of chocolate and vanilla ice cream encasing a maraschino cherry and slivered almonds, covered in a dark chocolate shell. I countered the cold with a café con leche, a perfect ending to a perfect meal. Perhaps I shall have traditional flan, bread pudding, or guava with cheese on my next visits, but the ice cream was a plus for my first pass.

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

During the first few times I had walked past Paladar, the restaurant seemed empty. On entry during my proper sit-down visit, the restaurant still seemed vacant, but then I realized there are two rooms in the restaurant. I sat in the front room, which filled in quickly after I had arrived and ordered. Noting the various cadences of Spanish spoken in the front room, I detected sing-sing Cuban Spanish, rapid fire Puerto Rican Spanish, easy-come-easy-go Mexican Spanish, and the ting-ting-ting of silverware on my plate. Given Chicago’s many Cuban restaurants on its landscape, it’s fantastic having one in Logan Square landscape that’s within short distance to home. I will need to get some more empanadas when I run out of the ones that I ordered to take home with me. Hint, hint.

Paladar Restaurant & Rum Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rapidito Colombian Gourmet Bites

Rapidito

After a recent excursion to a rather fantastic Spanish restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview, my restaurant advisor and I noted a Colombian restaurant on the landscape east of where we had experienced a wow factor in coastal Spain dining. What was once a dessert cafe is now Rapidito, at 1855 W. Diversey Parkway, dishing up  authenticity and not as an attempt.

Arepa Blanca

Arepa Blanca

Taking advantage of an early lunch during the weekend, I opted for my first trip to be for a sampling of a few items. Not like many of the Colombian steakhouses dotted throughout the Chicago landscape, Rapidito places emphasis on street food. There were traditional items like pinchos and arepa, the latter being an influence from Venezuala, along with empanadas, and surprisingly Colombian style hot dogs on the menu.

To kick my appetite into gear, I started with an arepa blanca. Topped with cheese, this Venezuelan influence hit the spot. Slightly buttery, it was nice to be able to taste the cheese on the arepa, which reminded me of chihuahua cheese.

Arepa de Choclo

Arepa de Choclo

Having enjoyed the arepa blanca, I also tried the arepa de choclo, which was also topped with cheese. This was an item that I will return and buy in bulk. The sweet corn in the arepa recipe provided a natural sweetness that would make this a favourite for morning breakfast, an afternoon snack, and a side with dinner.

The two final street food items I had were choripapas and a plate of steak and chicken pinchos. The chorizo bites, chopped eggs, and creole potatoes with housemade creamy sauce were first-rate. And the steak and chicken pinchos served with a tomatillo sauce and small Andean baked potatoes on the ends of the skewers also get high marks for the meat being juicy and flavourful without being overly seasoned.

Pinchos: Steak and Chicken

Pinchos: Steak and Chicken

Although not in an area with a lot of foot traffic, there were numerous patrons coming and going. When there is authenticity in food, there usually is a constant lure to an establishment and Rapidito certainly draws an ongoing flow of individuals whose palates enjoy good Colombian eats. As this was my first visit, I can say definitively that I will return for a tasting  of several other menu items and certainly for a batch of arepas de choclo.

Rapidito Colombian Gourmet Bites Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Proper Spain Comes to Chicago

mfk.In September, 2016, I went to Spain and instead of doing the touristy trek, I opted to do a run of wineries throughout the country and to feast on tapas to counter the alcohol. It was one of my best international escapes, one that made me long for returning to Spain. And recently my restaurant advisor sent a text message with the initials mfk.

In Chicago’s Lakeview, at 432 W. Diversey Parkway, is quaint boutique restaurant mfk that focuses heavily on seafood, borrowing mostly from the cafes in coastal Spain. Unlike many restaurants that attempt to “get it right,” mfk seems to have someone from Northern Spain in the kitchen, which may explain the authenticity in the dishes that come without pretense.

To whet our palates, we started with cocktails. My restaurant advisor had a hotel nacional, a rather refreshing mix if Clement VSOP rhum agricole, pineapple, lime, and apricot liqueur. I was more Portuguese in my selection, opting for a caipirinha, very much reminiscent of the Brazilian favourite doctored up with cachaça, demerara syrup, and lime.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

Hotel Nacional

Hotel Nacional

Having asked for five menu items as server’s choice without much review of the menu, the first landing came as ceviche. Not the usual preparation in a dainty glass with chips on the side, this ceviche came as filets of suzuki, thinly sliced, and tossed in a combination of lemon, lime, and orange juice that sat atop homemade guacamole accented with a little bit of citrus and a touch garlic, all affixed on tostados with squid ink. For each to be bite size, there was an incredible amount of piquancy and without the citrus biting at the back of the jaw.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second landing was a plate of anchovies. I fell in love with anchovies when I was in Spain and they are nothing like the horrible anchovies that people order for a pizza topping. After having these on toast accented with farm set butter and lemon zest, I guarantee you that you’ll fall in love with these tasties as quickly as I did in Spain, and with my renewed love of them at mfk.

Anchovies on Toast

Anchovies on Toast

The third landing was an exotic one, a plate of crunchy prawn heads. The heads had been lightly breaded and fried. These then sat nestled atop a pepito mojo, which was a mix of different herbs, parsley, chives, and pumpkin seeds, worked up with a touch of olive oil. Not only were the shells easy to devour without them being noticeable between the teeth, but the seasoning and the mojo made for a divine dish.

Prawns Heads

Prawns Heads

The fourth landing was a take on a favourite dish that I order at most restaurants that serve seafood fare. This was a huge bowl of Price Edward Island mussels that had been simmered in a broth of cider with a little bit of butter and vegetable stock. The plating consisted of mussels with bread crumbs, crème fraiche, dill, parsley, and tarragon, along with toasted bread on the side. I have loved mussels with saffron in the recipe, but mfk served up my absolute new mussel crush. No grit in mussels and no mushiness with each bite, they were divine with a hint of the tarragon and dill in the background.

Mussels and Toast

Mussels and Toast

Having completed our first cocktails, we had a second round. Requesting surprises, my restaurant advisor had ranch water, which was a refreshing drink mixed with mezcal, lime, orange bitters, and topo chico. I had a marriage of Spain and Italy, a negroni prepared with mezcal insteal of with gin. People think everything tastes better with bacon in or on it. If only they knew about mezcal.

Ranch Water

Ranch Water

Mezcal Negroni

Mezcal Negroni

The fifth landing was a take on paella. Prepared with tomato and shellfish stock, the addition of herbs brought it up in flavor. For service, prawns, mussels, and clams were simmered and then finished with fresh herbs chopped on top and a couple slices of toast. In true paella preparation, there was saffron rice for utter enjoyment. There was so much flavor building in the recipe that while my restaurant advisor and I were practically stuffed, we did not let any of the paella go to waste. You could hear the Mortal Kombat sound byte saying, “Finish it!”

Seafood Paella

Seafood Paella

The sixth landing was a slice of the most heavenly cake you will ever have. The basque cake is simply the best way to save a failing marriage. Prepared with a generous portion of eggs, four, sugar, and vanilla, it’s extremely moist. To make the cake even more devilish, the almond pastry cream in the recipe has rum in it. Topped with almonds, there is also has a hint of salt from the salted almonds. Finished with a very nice glass of brandy, I’ll leave you with these famous words: It will save your marriage.

Basque Cake

Basque Cake

Brandy

Brandy

The dining area in mfk is very intimate. It is highly recommended that the later you go, it is better to make a reservation. Everything we had on the menu was worth a repeat visit. And a repeat visit we will entertain for a sampling of other dishes we did not have on the first visit. There is authenticity in the preparation and in the taste of the dishes. Since I have plans to go to other countries for vacation during the upcoming years, if I don’t get back to Spain any time soon, I will go back to mfk sooner than later.

mfk. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato