Exhaling Curry, Mughal India

Mughal India Restaurant

Shortly after I joined a company in the West Loop, my colleagues wanted to go to a nearby Indian restaurant. Let me just say that I love Indian food. So, I put my antisocial disposition aside — actually, I’m only antisocial until I’m not longer working with someone — and I joined the troop for lunch. Buffet and mild for the American palates that flooded the restaurant. Slow clap, twice. Well, one thing I have noticed about many of the Indian restaurants very close to the Chicago Loop is that the buffets are indeed for quick bites and incredibly mild. No Indian restaurant should serve its food mild. It MUST come to the table spicy. And I learned later that going back to any of those restaurants for dinner is when you get to see that they can shine with food so full of flavour that you continue to return.

Papadum

Papadum

Well, I returned to Mughal India Restaurant at 560 W. Van Buren Street for some non-work day delight. I had gone back recently for take-away. When I got home and started gobbling my purchases, I knew I had to return for a proper blog. I also made a note to myself that I was not going to indulge any more Indian buffets in the downtown area. It is necessary to go away from The Loop to get authenticity in my Indian buffets. Now, I’m not a stickler for decor since I’m more concerned about flavour than I am about whether the cushions are plush as opposed to crushed velvet. A few whiffs of the air and I was ready to work my fork on some curry dish.

Jeera Aloo

Jeera Aloo

Because Indian food can be heavy, I skipped having an appetizer and decided that I would have two entrée selections. I ordered jeera aloo and fish tikka masala with basmati rice and poori. Ordering the entrées spicy made the dishes that more appetizing. The jeera aloo was bursting with whole cumin seeds and other various spices — no bland potatoes for me.  This was what I considered my “dry” dish since it was not in a gravy. The spices compensated for the absence of sauce. The fish tikka masala was incredible. Boneless fish marinated in yogurt and spices, and then served in a spicy masala gravy. If I was not a seafood lover already, I would have been after indulging this entrée. The rice was good for taming the flame of the spices and the poori, which is my favourite Indian bread along with bhatura, was my eating utensil. Yes, I eat Indian food using bread for my utensils, which may explain why my hands have an everlasting curry smell to them.

Fish Tikka Masala

Fish Tikka Masala

After I had finished the meal, the server did not rush me. So, I took a little time to let the food digest before requesting a masala chai. The beauty of having a masala chai at an Indian restaurant is that you are guaranteed not to have them serve you that concoction from a carton that is all the rage at coffee houses. What murder. What horror. What crime. Oh, and if the masala chai is really good, you won’t require any sweeteners. Such was the case with the masala chai at Mughal India. For all those international coffee commercials that used to come on with the women taking a sip and whimsically imagining all being good and well in the land, imagine someone smacking their cups from their hands and offering them some masala chai. Those women would skyrocket straight to the stars.

Poori

Poori

Now, I can’t say that I will ever return to Mughal India Restaurant for their lunch buffet. They raised the bar with their dinner and Saturday lunches. Oh, let me not forget this. My in-house dining bonanza was on a Saturday afternoon and they served from the menu only. Let’s just say that they curried favour with me in a way that has moved them high up on my list of recommended Indian restaurants. Considering I get to see the Indians in the open kitchen preparing love for the plates, it is authentic in a major way. Mughal India Restaurant will be one of the main reasons why my pores, according to my highschool sweetheart, seems to exhale curry. And I smile.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

Mughal India on Urbanspoon

So Good, Complete Naansense

Naansense

What do you get when you work at a company that acknowledges President’s Day and gives you the day off for a holiday? Well, you get a diet version of a blizzard that threatens to mess up your appetite and your want for going outside to venture to any restaurant for culinary options. To those of you who dare come to Chicago during the winter, welcome to Chiberia. I had the day off and wanted to stuff my jaws, which is not unusual. The really tragic thing is I have a stove at home and the most I do as it involves the stove is glance at it briefly when I enter my condo. Thank God for a disposable income and living in a city like Chicago where you deserve to have a Looney Tunes anvil fall from the sky and conk you on the head if you complain about not having anywhere to go for dining excursions.

Rice Plate with Vindaloo Chicken and Cucumbers

Rice Plate with Vindaloo Chicken and Cucumbers

I had heard about a new restaurant in Near North Loop named Naansense — talk about a swell play on words — at 171 N. Wells Street that has an Indian influence. Once I had arrived, I had recalled its predecessor, Curried, a restaurant that I had blogged a year or so ago. Seeing that it is very much like a small cafe, I wouldn’t be surprised that it packs out quickly during lunch hours. Fortunately, most people were off for President’s Day and the snow was probably an inhibitor that left me with a pick of seats and an appetite that needed to be sated.

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

There was that Chipotle method for ordering that has become a staple in most restaurants that are opening their doors for business. Pick your platter, get your toppings, add your sides, pay, and eat. I had decided that I would have a rice bowl for this visit. It all looked worthy of my immediate visit and a possible return visit or two in the future. I had the chicken with vindaloo sauce. Now, my lips curled up in a smile when I heard vindaloo because I love spicy food like Sherlock Holmes loves to solve mysteries. There was a balance to the spiciness of the vindaloo sauce by way of the yogurt sauce I had added to the rice. Where things got to be closer to wholesome as opposed to Indian was with the cucumbers and chickpea noodles I got as sides. With a cup of mango lassi in hand, I grabbed a table and handled the lunch to completion.

Rice Plate with Naan and Mango Lassi

Rice Plate with Naan and Mango Lassi

I am usually accustomed to gobbling some chana bhatura, bhindi masala with poori, baigan bharta with naan, or daal palak with rice. There is an Indian influence to the offerings at Naansense that I think would be an excellent way for those with milder palates to ease into Indian spices before going all out with a plate of shrimp vindaloo. Not only is the food tasty, and I say this after only having a rice bowl, but the service from behind the counter is top. For a small restaurant that has recently opened, they weren’t fumbling around and when you have staff make recommendations, restaurants like that are well worth return visits. Sitting at home wondering what to eat will be a naan-issue because I’ll probably show up at Naansense to satisfy my craving — unless we are in the midst of a Chiberian blizzaster. I see some naanwiches, roti rolls, and salad bowls in my crystal ball. Hint, hint.

Naansense on Urbanspoon

Starting 2014 Spicy, The Indian Garden

Daal Soup

Daal Soup

Calendar year 2013 went out on a good note for me. I brought my weight back down to a manageable 205 pounds. My physician was rather happy about that. Considering all of the food I ate last year, I am surprised that I got down to 205 only. However, it seems that I may have to keep my weight in the range of 200 to 205 pounds. My weight gain ironed out all potential wrinkles that were starting at the corner of my eyes, under my eyes, and across my forehead. Now all I have to do is maintain a low stress level to ensure those wrinkles don’t creep up on my face. My glucose level is still a concern and that feeds into my New Years Absolution: no desserts. Ugh! Where my health is concerned, I won’t run around whining, “It’s so hard eliminating sweets from my diet.”

Naan

Naan

This year started out with Chicago being subjected to sub-zero temperatures. We had a week and a few days of feeling like the city should have been renamed Chiberia. I dressed in my construction man outfit for warmth. Let me be the first to say that construction coveralls are a winter blessing. In addition to the arctic freeze in Chicago, I had to travel some for work. Nothing beats traveling to another city with warmer temperatures and then wind up bitter when having to return to bitter Chicago. The good news is the assurance that some restaurant’s doors would be opened for business and I would enjoy some culinary satisfaction inside where the heat is no doubt turned up to at least 75 degrees. Such was the case when I trudged through snow, across ice, and through downtown wind tunnels — between our numerous skyscrapers — to The Indian Garden at 518 W. Harrison Street in Chicago’s Near South Loop.

Baigan Bharta

Baigan Bharta

I had been to The Indian Garden for lunch with some colleagues during autumn of 2013 and was slightly nonplussed. I love Indian food in all of its spicy glory. The lunch buffet was for the milder palate. Sigh. I smiled as I spooned a bit of this and a bit of that on my plate. A few month later, I returned to get take-away after work. When I got home and devoured a plate of bhindi masala, choley, and shrimp achari, I swore off going to The Indian Garden for their lunch buffet. My personal pact was to go for the after-five fare. And because the take-away was so blooming tasty, I returned for an in-house dining experience.

Daal soup. Baigan bharta. Curry shrimp. Naan. Masala Chai. WOW!!!

Curry Shrimp

Curry Shrimp

The daal soup was a perfect winter soup. There was, of course, the spicy factor that draws me to Indian restaurants. The beauty of this soup was that I didn’t get just a cup of it. No, I had a bowl of the hearty dish and a faint hint of heat rising from my scalp. Put a footnote there. I love spicy food. For my entrées, I really showed how much of an appetite I have. I ordered baigan bharta and curry shrimp. To date, I have not been to any Indian restaurant that had baigan bharta that made me want to run out into the street to meet my match with a renegade Chicago taxi drive. The creamed eggplant at The Indian Garden ranks high on my list of dishes that everyone should try. The curry shrimp left me speechless. As I am getting back to having a serious pescatarian diet, the shrimp curry was a cacophony of flavour, but I felt as though I had not ordered enough. So, I ordered extra to take home. With the basmati rice and tandoori naan, I was Gino in the Sky with Curry. And for my wrap-up, I ordered a masala chai that I drank without any sugar. Yes, it was that good.

Baigan Bharta, Basmati Rice, Curry Shrimp, Naan

Baigan Bharta, Basmati Rice, Curry Shrimp, Naan

The Indian Garden has one other location: 2546 W. Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park. In the same manner as the Near South Loop location, the food is outstanding and the service is remarkable. The location at 518 W. Harrison Street is more intimate than the West Rogers Park spot. From my experiences visiting each, and discounting the first visit for the lunch buffet, I cannot come up with a reason to miss out on all the delectable menu items that your taste buds can endure. Bernadine at 2546 W. Devon Avenue, Stephen at 518 W. Harrison Street, the staff at both sites, and the flavourful dishes that come forth from their kitchens make The Indian Garden a constant destination — or rather a constant destination for me and my constant hunger.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

Indian Garden on Urbanspoon

Bismillah, Let Him Go

Bismillah

Every time I go back to London, I return to America with my pores exhaling curry, cumin, and other spices found in Indian food. London has a large Indian population and with that comes the best Indian food outside of India. Chicago doesn’t fall too far behind in having a plethora of restaurants representative of the flavours of India. I exude curry since I am constantly in any one of the Indian cafes on Devon Street. If you are a diligent foodist like me, you will manage to discover some fooderies that are not on any main stretch or within sniffing distance. For example, with traffic being incredibly congested in a section of the North Side — in Edgewater to be exact — I had to snake my way down a side street to avoid sitting still. And what to my surprise should I spy at 6301 N. Ridge Avenue but a hole-in-the-wall by the name of Bismillah. It had to have been serendipity because I was listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen at the very same time I spotted the restaurant. Imagine that.

Vegetable Samosas

Vegetable Samosas

In true hole-in-the-wall fashion, Bismillah will not win any awards for interior decoration. And if you go to the restaurant for aesthetics, you may be too caught up in cosmetics to enjoy the good food that Bismillah serves. While at the counter, I scanned the one menu that was available and placed my order. I was not going to waste my time playing like a curious eater while fighting the temptation to jump behind the counter and start attacking the tasty food that I could see being cooked in the open kitchen. I ordered two vegetable samosas and chicken boti. The two fist-size samosas came with a mint sauce. I mashed up the samosa, poured a nice amount of the mint sauce on them, and handled my business. I smiled. When the skewered, boneless pieces of chicken that looked and tasted like tandoori chicken arrived at the table with basmati rice and a small salad, I was then ready for devouring my main dish. The chicken popped with each bite, an explosion of flavour, a revelation of having something several notches past delectable. It was so good that I exclaimed, “In the name of God,” or bismillah for those in the know. If I continue to eat at all these ethnic eateries, I will become fluent in more than the short list of languages that I speak. When I was done, I had a chai in the traditional manner of an after-supper drink.

Chicken Boti

Chicken Boti

Bismillah is a cash-only restaurant. Yes, many restaurants accept MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express. The prices are incredibly reasonable for the quality and the quantity that you receive. I should warn you that the portions are substantial. And if you are accustomed to going to restaurants that deliver your order in the speed that you get your food when you go to fast food restaurants, every order is prepared on-demand. Nothing is sitting in pots and pans or under heat lamps, so you get everything fresh. Devon Street where? This off-the-path find was worthy of the discovery. There is something to be said for traffic congestion in Chicago and things that you stumble upon when you are trying to circumvent sitting behind the wheel without moving. Bismillah is one of those discoveries that pleases the appetite. And in “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Queen asks the question, “Bismillah, will you let him go,” picture me smashing the record and declaring, “Bismillah, never let me go! Bring me some more chai.”

Bismillah Restaurant on Urbanspoon Bismillah Restaurant on Foodio54

WOW — Eat Like an Egyptian

WOW Egyptian Fast Food

The thing about being a xenophile is that you tend to become a curiosity seeker when it comes to food. A few years ago when I worked in the suburbs, there was a stretch through Addison, Glen Ellyn, Bloomingdale, and Carol Stream where you could find a plethora of fast food eateries (i.e., McDonald’s, Burger King, Five Guys, KFC, etc.) and stock big box restaurants (i.e., Red Lobster, Olive Garden, TGIFridays, and the like). All of the Indian restaurants on and off the main stretch of Army Trail Road have since closed and any other ethnic restaurants, outside of the Chop Suey style Chinese restaurant, were usually found by happenstance. There was, however, one restaurant that had a very slow opening — WOW Egyptian Fast Food at 105 Stark Drive in Carol Stream. Tucked off the western end of Gary Road once you turn from Army Trail Road to go south, you may miss it. What you will definitely miss is some very good Egyptian food, albeit fast food.

Ice Karkade

Ice Karkade

On entry, the jovial Egyptian behind the counter was, in a word, cool. Go to any American fast food restaurant and you get an obligatory, “Hello, welcome to [fill in the blank]. How may I help you?” It’s almost like asking someone if they want to walk across a pit of burning coals. What I got was, “Is this your first time?” to which I responded, “No.” With bright eyes, he gave me a hearty welcome. After I thanked him in Arabic, that was it. It was as though I was a long, lost friend who had returned from abroad. Perhaps he thought there was a bit of Sudanese in me and with Arabic being the mother tongue in Sudan, it was fair game to assume that I spoke the language fluently. My cultural makeup was even more interest for conversation. So the customer service went full tilt past 10 on a rating board and stayed up there even after I had mentioned that my Arabic was slightly conversational only.

Kufta Chicken

Kufta Chicken

It was not necessarily a hot day, but it was moderately humid. That meant that a refreshing drink was in order. So, I ordered an iced karkade. I had to try this traditional tea so that I could see if it reminded me of the hibiscus tea I had thanks to a cab drive in Alexandria, Egypt, many years ago. Hibiscus tea in the bag that you get from your local market and even the loose leaf version that you buy in some tea shops don’t compare to what you get in Egypt. And having drank the iced karkade sans sugar, these Egyptians were true to tradition. For the meal, I had a plate of kufta chicken with Jerusalem salad and turmeric rice. Think of chicken sausage, although there is no sausage involved, only that the chicken is prepared in such a manner that it looks like a sausage concoction. With yogurt and hot sauce, and I don’t mean the kind of hot sauce that you buy at your local market, the flavours explode. The rice is not a bland accompaniment to the dish thanks to the turmeric accent. And the Jerusalem salad contained two of my favourite ingredients — tomatoes and cilantro. With complimentary pita bread, I ate everything to a satisfying ending.

Kufta Chicken

Kufta Chicken

When the cashier had said to me that I would tell all of my friends that this was the best Egyptian food in the whole of Illinois, I thought that was a bit presumptuous of him. He apparently had sipped some truth serum before coming to work and it had not worn off. Sure, WOW Egyptian Fast Food is the only Egyptian restaurant in the Chicago metropolitan area, but the food is worth the trek out to the suburbs. Well, it is for me, as getting to good food is not an inconvenience at all. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African cuisine have forced Italian and Mexican food into second and third place here in the Chicago area. The good thing about WOW Egyptian Fast Food is that unlike the long list of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fast food restaurants that have been indoctrinated with the Chipotle assembly line method of food preparation, you don’t get that at WOW. You get hot food from the kitchen, unless you order salad, hummus, and babaganoush. And what of price you may ask? Ah, I got what I paid for and it may be fair to say that the quality bested the cost. Nevertheless, I will walk like an Egyptian, drive like an Egyptian, and eat like an Egyptian whenever the desire to return to WOW Egyptian Fast Food comes again.

Wow Egyptian Fast Food on Urbanspoon

Return to Persia — Masouleh

Masouleh Restaurant

Several week ago a former colleague — who I catch up with weekly — had sent a text message to me about a cluster of restaurants in the 6600 block of N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighbourhood. I was shocked to find out that Rogers Park was blossoming into such a hub of great culinary delights. As I had mentioned in a previous post, it was mostly Mexican restaurants in the eastern part of Rogers Park, which is where I had lived for a few years. As the city is starting to fill in more with other ethnicities, the restaurants are starting to become more reflective of the new faces. And the very good thing about it is that the restaurants are more culturally grounded than what you get the closer you get to downtown. The restaurants put forth authenticity, not tourist trappings, and that means you are getting something very reminiscent of the “old country.”

Having gone to one of the restaurants the evening of the day that I had received the text, I did not have a camera to photograph the food properly. That meant I had to return. So, I had a break in my schedule — from cleaning my condo — and I dashed to Masouleh Persian Restaurant at 6653 N. Clark Street to recapture the taste and to capture the impressions of the good things that came from their Persian kitchen. I will first start by saying that it is apparent — to me — that the service is consistently top. Although the server was rather soft-spoken, and that may be due to conversational comfort with English, there was the welcoming atmosphere my colleague, two other friends, and I received on our first visit. It may have also helped that my conversational Arabic and attempt at Kurdish eased things a little more. But I had my camera, appetite, and a window seat. I was ready.

Herbs, Cheese, Radish

Herbs, Cheese, Radish

Borani Badamjan

Borani Badamjan

I had complimentary herbs, radish, and cheese along with pita bread. I cannot stress it enough, but you can never go wrong with cilantro. As for anyone who thinks otherwise, the sun may rise from the west in their world. I love radish, so that was a plus. And the “stinky” cheese, although it really does not stink, went well for a palate preparatory and cleanser. The pita bread was not reheated and quite evident to the consistent soft touch right down to the very last piece.

For starters, I had borani badamjan, which was a cup of smoked eggplant in yogurt. It has become increasingly clear to me that eggplant prepared at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants warrants a shout of bravo. I had gone to an Afghani restaurant several months past and fell in love with the eggplant dish served there. Granted the borani badamjan is chilled, the warmth of the pita balanced out things just nicely. However, the smoked flavouring in the borani badamjan screamed wow. Next was olivieh. This salad of eggs and chicken with a few English peas added was one of the highlights that I was actually hankering for. Hence, part of my reason for returning. I am not one for eating just anyone’s dish prepared in the manner of egg salad. Trust me when I say that Masouleh is the exception to the rule.

Olivieh

Olivieh

Lentil Soup

Lentil Soup

With the main dish that I had ordered, there came lentil soup. Again, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants shine when putting cups and bowls of lentil soup in front of you. This soup came with a dollop of yogurt and accented further with olive oil and herbs. I honestly believe that the farther away you go from downtown, the more genuine recipes are. Because any lentil soup I have had closer to downtown, the more I am inclined to believe they use some variety of Campbell’s soup because the “common palates” that indulges those eateries don’t know any better. They need to go to Masouleh and quickly.

Just to have two choices of meats, I ordered chenjeh, joujeh, and rice. The chenjeh — spiced beef — looked as though it could have been dry. The looks were deceiving because the beef was so tender and juicy that it burst with each bit. There was the same with the joujeh, which was spiced chicken. Each bite was love and with me sitting at the window, it was a presentation in appreciation. As if the beef and the chicken were the only highlights, the rice reminded me of Indian basmati rice. No sticky mess, and no over-cooked fluff, this rice was an idyllic complement to the chenjeh and joujeh, apparent from me polishing off all of it and taking some of the pita bread and going around the plate to get the last of it all.

Chenjeh, Joujeh, and Rice

Chenjeh, Joujeh, and Rice

Persian Ice Cream

Persian Ice Cream

I sat for a while to let things settle and to fend off food comatose. After a few minutes, I inquired about the dessert fare. There were baklava and Persian ice cream. You can get baklava from anywhere. I wouldn’t be surprise if Dunkin Donuts doesn’t have a baklava doughnut. But you can’t get Persian ice cream from just anywhere. Guess what I had. Yes, I had the Persian ice cream, flavoured with rose-water and saffron, and topped with crushed pistachios. You have not had ice cream until you have had Persian ice cream. Think Haagen Daas is all that? Baskin Robbins gets you doing a skippy-do-da when ice cream comes to mind? Oberweis screams, “Come and get some”? You can’t get enough of Breyers? Is your relationship or marriage about to come undone? Make an appointment to go to Masouleh and have some of that Persian ice cream. It will make everything alright.

After spooning as much of the ice cream out of the glass as I could, I had Persian tea. No, we’re not talking Lipton or Nestea. We’re not even talking tea brewed from a tea bag. This was authentic Persian tea and a mark of really Persian tea prepared well is that you can drink it without any sugar. I simply sat at the window, sipping tea and smiling. Well, that was after I clicked some photos to post on the blog. But, nevertheless, I had enjoyed my Saturday lunch and thought briefly of those who sit at home — in Chicago, of all places — wondering what to do and where to go. (Pause) No, I won’t tell that lie. I was too well fed to think of any other self-martyrs.

Persian  Tea

Persian Tea

Masouleh is not a big box restaurant. While there are more than four tables, the restaurant has an ambience of closeness. It’s the kind of restaurant where you go with family and friends so that you dine communally. I remember the first night going, seeing several tables with Iranians. If there was no other indication of authenticity to the food, seeing other Iranians in the establishment was all that I needed. And at the rate Rogers Park is filling in with a lot of cultural variety, Masouleh will quickly become one of many options that I highly recommend. In the meantime, Masouleh is destined to be on my Top 10 list for 2013.

Masouleh on Urbanspoon Masouleh on Foodio54

Tasty Comedy — Thalia Spice

Thalia Spice

As an amateur photographer, it would be nice to have someone who I could consider my muse. Alas, there is no one. But there is this whole thing with food that seems to drive me. I grab the camera and head out the door, along with my insatiable appetite. I don’t know if that is a case of a muse driving me or food being a rather strong incentive. With weather being nice outside for a weekend, I had decided that I would take my bicycle for a spin. I rode through Logan Square, down through Bucktown and Wicker Park, and even did a pass through West Town. Yes, I made the rounds through the hip sections of the city — sorry Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, and Lakeview, but your popular days have passed. As I biked east away from West Town, I noticed the name of a muse on a restaurant. Lo and behold, there was Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue.

Lychee Juice

Lychee Juice

I had been to Simply Thalia in the pedestrian walkway between the Blue Line and the Red Line at Washington Street. I remembered having to go twice, the second time to give the restaurant another chance to wow me — which it eventually did. I recognized that Thalia Spice was the parent restaurant, so I wanted to see if the dishes were somewhat the same or better. Taking a seat outside and getting the white balance set for my photography, I was all ready. And then these two bronze dolls pulled up in their car, hopped out with their angry dogs, and eyed a table next to mine. It had to have been the expression on my face that made them settle on sitting on the far end of the outdoor seating area. I mean, I had come to eat food, not to watch them pet their dogs.

Ginger Chicken Soup

Ginger Chicken Soup

For a refreshment, I started with lychee juice. If you want to slowly break yourself from downing soda pop, I highly recommend lychee juice if you can get your hands on some. Whether the juice at Thalia Spice was concentrate or not, it was well worth it. After scanning the menu briefly, I recognized the whole Pan-Asian pizazz that the restaurant puts forth. They cover as many Asian ethnicities as possible: Indonesian, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese, just to name a few. I keep thinking Jack of All Trades, Master of None, because something gets compromised. One dish that showed mastery was the ginger chicken soup, which was very reminiscent of tom yum soup. The ginger added the right amount of kick to the soup without the need for pepper, and I found it to be worthy of a very nice winter soup. Where there was a lacking in mastery was with the Indian makhani chicken. Visually appetizing, but absent in flavour. It may have been that the dish was not spicy, as Indian food is divine when served with a highlight of some spicy curry. Unfortunately, the chicken makhani fell prey to the Pan-Asian effect, resulting in a dish that was probably tempered based on one of the other Asian influences. Not all Asian cuisines are fitting for a mix-and-match menu. A milder palate would enjoy the offerings, as the flavours may be not be overwhelming the way the food may taste natively.

Indian Chicken Makhani

Indian Chicken Makhani

For the look and feel of a high-end restaurant, Thalia Spice does not have the price that makes you wonder if you need to take out a miniature loan. The service is absolutely wonderful, as the server was not only helpful, but she was also cognizant of me taking photos of my food and did not rush me. I imagine the restaurant fills up on weekends, more on Friday and Saturday nights. Going during the day on a Sunday allowed for a great seat outside — granted I got there in time to secure a great table before the two showed up with their dogs that growled. It may have been a comedy of error that things worked out the way they did. Then again, Thalia was the muse of comedy.

Thalia Spice on Urbanspoon

Pecking Order, Filipino Goodness

Pecking Order

One of my biggest peeves about Chicago is the cellular phone reception that I receive — or rather not receive. Add to that the whole clown fiasco involving battery life on cell phones these days. A friend was trying to reach me several weeks to ago to let me know that he and another former co-worker were meeting at a Filipino restaurant to grin over a few plates of food. Thanks to a cell phone from a wireless provider whose coverage in Chicago is worse than what I have ever had in rural Mississippi, the calls to me kept dropping. By the time we resorted to texting, the battery had died a quick death shortly thereafter. When I got home, charged the battery fully, and saw that some photos had come through of some appetizing food, I was ready to call AT&t and give a customer service representative my permission to end my relationship with them.

But that was okay. I made sure to keep my cell phone on a charger constantly because missing out on food is a bit of a problem that I refuse to entertain on an ongoing basis. The next time my friends were planning to go to the Filipino restaurant, I was going to be ready for action along with them. Pecking Order at 4416 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood was the spot my friends had been taunting me about. I had been searching for some Filipino restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area, only to find one or two, and was pleasantly surprised to note that Pecking Order is not far from home. So, having arrived — after creeping in rush hour traffic — we sat, scanned the menus, and my friends commenced to order since they were already regulars there.

Corn

Corn

Sweet Plantains with Jackfruit Chutney

Sweet Plantains with Jackfruit Chutney

There was special corn, not literally, though. This was sweet corn from the cob that had been accented with spicy mayonnaise and cheese. For some bizarre reason, mayonnaise seems to be popping up a lot in menu items I have been ordering. Not that it’s a bad thing, but mayonnaise is slowly working itself off of my Top 3 things I fear — small planes and small boats occupying the top two positions.

Being of West Indian stock, I am never one to turn down a plate of plantains. And if they are as deliciously prepared as the ones at Pecking Order are, then you will understand me without incident. They weren’t dry. They weren’t fried to a horrible crisp. They burst with each bite and the jackfruit chutney that came with them were a beautiful accompaniment. I am going out on a limb with this observation, but no one can deny that these plantains are the best that you will find in Chicago — no one.

Then came the potatoes and Lola’s Gravy with cheese. Whoever Lola is, someone needs to do an excerpt on her and really advertise her loving from the kitchen. One may think that it was just a bowl of potatoes. No, it was a bowl of potatoes that popped with flavour. Thankful that the cheese was not Velveeta lava, but rather shredded cheese, you indeed get to taste the ingredients rather than simply acknowledging that you had some potatoes that looked doctored up.

Potatoes & Lola's Gravy with Cheese

Potatoes & Lola’s Gravy with Cheese

Greens in Coconut Milk

Greens in Coconut Milk

If you have friends like some of mine, then you often hear them making statements like, “No one prepares greens like I do.” Right, and the greatest riddle of all times is the one about the twelve rabbits and the cheesecake. My friend who had organized the evening excursion to Pecking Order had kept talking about the greens.  Oh how he wore it out.  And after the first forkfuls of the greens, I understood fully why he raved about them. Apologies to those of staunch religious leanings, but when Jesus Christ returns, it will be for the greens at Pecking Order, not to save souls. We’re talking collard greens and mustard greens cooked in coconut milk with ginger, apple wood smoked bacon, and accented with crispy onions. I smile just thinking about them.

Whenever you think of fried rice, it is usually of the Chinese variety — shrimp fried rice, chicken fried rice, vegetable fried rice and beef fried rice. Thanks to sauces and ingredients, the dish comes out brown. Well, skip Chinese fried rice from now on and go get yourself some Filipino garlic fried rice. Oh what a beautiful day.  Still fluffy, but riding the event horizon to sticky rice, this dish is a must for anyone who has an appreciation for rice with their meals. I swear I could have garlic fried rice as a side to every meal and never tire of it. And if you have to ask, yes, it was just that good.

Garlic Fried Rice

Garlic Fried Rice

Chicken Wings

Chicken Wings

The chicken comes prepared three different ways: grilled, fried, or roasted. Because we opted for wings, the fried method was what we had. Now, I had heard that Filipino chicken is delicately fried such that the crust is very crispy. I was thinking it would be like Moroccan chicken. Much to my surprise, it was like Southern fried chicken without having been fried in an egg batter. That was fine. Although I devoured the pound of wings without complaint, there was a hint of some herbs and spices that I could not place. They worked well, but I could not pick up on the kick that danced about on my palate.

Pecking Order may present the look of a small cafe when looking at it from the outside. Once you get inside, it comes off like entering Dr. Who’s tardis. It is large and extends quite a bit. The service is outstanding and helpful. No way for anyone to go there and find fault in their lively dispositions and fantastic assistance. When it comes to price, be prepared to be floored. For all of the food that we had ordered, it was super being able to drop cash on the table and not worry about whether the wallets were empty after paying. Great service, outstanding food, and reasonable prices: the makings of a necessary calendar reminder to return in the near future to try a few more things from the menu.
Pecking Order on Urbanspoon

The Reinvention Episode

Kabul House

For my 40th birthday, my friends at the time had made reservations for a return visit to Kabul House, which was in the Eastern part of Skokie at the time.  Kabul House was the first restaurant that I had blogged when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup. After going down the list of alphabets, I had never returned to the top of the alphabet for a visit back to Kabul House or to any other Afghani restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. I had gone to an Italian restaurant and the web owner sent a beautiful response to my blog write-up of the restaurant and followed up with a recommendation for going to Kabul House. My response was that I had gone to Kabul House, only to discover that the original location I gone to had closed. I was rather disappointed because there were no other Afghani restaurants in the city and the experience was incredible the two times that I had gone. There was a bittersweet moment while having to update Chicago Alphabet Soup accordingly. Fast forward to  2013 and I finally made it a point to go to the new location.

Cardamom Tea

Cardamom Tea

Aush-Rishta

Aush-Rishta

At 4949 Oakton Street in Skokie, Illinois, is the new location for Kabul House. The section of town where it resides has a bit of a residential feel to it with a small booming business location.  Only a few weeks ago I was in the area at a neighbouring Jamaican restaurant. But I had to revisit the place where it all began, albeit at a new locale, so that I could update Chicago Alphabet Soup with current foodtography. Spacious and light on the inside, I sat near a window so that I could have natural light for my compositions. These shots had to be special, although no more special than any other photos I have taken of food. Once the server came to table and warned me that there were some items not available because a private party the night before had wiped them out of some staple dishes that they serve, I relied on recommendations for what I should order. Knowing I was going to capture the impressions of the dishes, I wanted everything linearly so not all dishes came at once and the order was placed accordingly.

Mantoo

Mantoo

I started with an aush-rishta. This soup consisted of chickpeas, lentil, red kidney beans, and noodles with fenugreek, parsley, cilantro, and garlic. Immediately after the first slurp, I was reminded of harrira that I have had at Algerian cafes and at some other North African restaurants.  There was absolutely nothing disappointing about the soup. And with the soft, homemade bread that came complimentary, I had no shame at all when I took pieces of the bread and sopped of the last of the gravy that was left when I had finished handling the soup. Instead of ordering a cold drink, I had cardamom tea that was bottomless. Being a tea snob, and by that I mean someone who drinks tea that is brewed from loose leaves as opposed to from tea bags, I can vouch that this tea is not from tea bags. You could taste the cardamom, not just a hint of it. And it went very, very well with  the soup.

Boranee Baunjan

Boranee Baunjan

Where things kicked up a notch, not as though the soup had gotten me off to a bad start, I had mantoo. There are actually two versions of the mantoo — appetizer and entrée. I settled for the appetizer size. My diet is still that of a pescatarian primarily, but I did recall the dish the first time I had gone to Kabul House, which was before I had modified my diet. The mantoo was a plate of steamed dumplings that were filled with spiced ground beef, shredded carrots, and onions then topped with a tomato meat sauce and yogurt mint sauce. These were four dumplings that painted my face with a permanent smile. For my second appetizer, I had boranee baunjan, which was baby eggplant baked with fresh tomatoes and garlic and then topped with a yogurt-mint sauce. I kept thinking of the Indian dish baigan bharta, but the boranee baunjan has so much more bloom to the taste. Where most restaurants would be a bit heavy on salt, this was not the case with Kabul House. Now, one thing to note is that the two appetizers seemed to be a bit oily, not greasy, though. Although I have a high degree of food snobbery, I have no chef talents to be able to see if the oil was indeed grease. It was light, almost like olive oil. But some people run rampant in frenzies whenever their dishes seem to “run.” I got no indigestion, so I am going to say that the appetizers were heavy with olive oil. Then again, the hot tea works wonders with digestion.

Complimentary Sauce

Complimentary Sauce

Murgh Chalau

Murgh Chalau

There was one entrée that I wanted to attempt, given the soup and two filling appetizers that I had already tackled. I had a murgh chalau that came with complimentary rice, a spicy lentil sauce, and more bread. Again, there was what appeared to be a slight heavy hand with olive oil as part of the base, but not to point of making the dish unappetizing. Of all chicken dishes I love, Indian murgh makhani is my favourite. Well, it was my favourite until I had a murgh chalau at Kabul House. Sautéed chicken cooked with garlic and onions in a tomato base left me decisive about how much it is now my all-time favourite chicken dish. And American diners who think that Indian restaurants should have fried chicken tenders on their menu are saying that  they know the best fried chicken shacks and barbecue chicken shanties that would make me change my mind — or make me become a staunch vegan. Nevertheless, I ate as much of the murgh chalau as I could and requested a to-go box because although I did not want the moment to end, I wanted to relish the flavours of the dish later. Getting the remainder of it for take-away meant I got to enjoy a mocha chocolate flourless cake. Sure there was baklava on the dessert menu. There was even honey cake, but my gums would still be throbbing from the sweetness. So I accepted the recommendation for the flourless cake and gobbled it up with the appreciation of a rabid prude. I can’t tell you how much I love chocolate and the mocha chocolate flourless cake will be one secret I keep from my high school sweetheart so that she does not use it against me.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Kabul House retained the authenticity in its food. Having recently gone to an Indian restaurant that had morphed into what looks like a Miami lounge and seemingly tempered its food for the American palates that frequent the area where the restaurant resides, I found a great deal of happiness in the spices, bursts of flavours, and genuine kick to the food at Kabul House. The location may have changed, but thank God the food did not. When I had mentioned that I had a few visits to the first location, the server seemed glad to know that Kabul House remained on my list of favourites such that I came back. He was outstanding with his recommendations and that was one of the things I remembered fondly at the old location. The prices are splendid even for a budget conscious person and unlike the ubiquitous bill of fare consisting of humus, couscous, and other Middle Eastern fare, there is the influence of flavours coming in from Pakistan, Turkey, and quite possibly from India that will have me rushing up to Skokie now and then for some of the best Afghani cuisine outside of the country. I shall be satisfied. You will too when you get your feet under a table at Kabul House.

Kabul House on Urbanspoon Kabul House on Foodio54

Mio Tio Julio

One thing I have noticed as a food journalist is that everyone has a recommendation for you. Quite often, their suggestions fall flat. And many times they hit the mark. I have never been one for following the crowd, as I feel weird and a bit too much like I am a part of group think. Loss of individuality frightens the hell out of me. That also carries over into how I approach my dining experiences. Going to certain eateries because everyone else has been there brings to mind my parents asking me the question, “If your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to jump, also?” Where recommendations come through that make the visit worthy, I accept the fact that everything is okay in the land with the hint. Such was the case when going to Uncle Julio’s at 855 W. North Avenue in Chicago’s Old Towne. Big box. Packed with hungry faces. Full of action. Mexican flavours all in the air. Ready for action.

Chips y Salsa

The friend who suggested the restaurant and I got a table and ordered drinks, she ordering a strawberry daiquiri, and me ordering a margarita on the rocks. If I have not said it enough, Latin American bartenders do not hold back when making drinks. The first sip popped and I swooned. Since I was not one of those kids who was glad to get out of his parents’ home so that he could start drinking and, thus, got a big kick out of liquid satisfaction during my college days, I am a bit of a lightweight. Had I been one of those overzealous alcoholics in training, I would have turned up the margarita like I was downing a glass of lemonade. Instead, there was a basket of warm, crunchy chips and home-made salsa at the fingertips. Crunch, crunch, chomp, chomp, chomp, sigh. Warm chips mean they were not from the chips aisle at the local grocery. Well, that was good. And the salsa was not from a jar. If I had not sworn off partaking of salsa from a jar, I did after indulging the chips and salsa at Uncle Julio’s. After that, I could resume drinking my margarita without feeling as though I was floating a foot above the floor.

Guacamole

We had guacamole. Well, it would be a crime to go to any restaurant and not have guacamole. It would be like going to an Argentinean steak house and not having any meat. It’s just wrong. With more warm, crunchy chips, the guacamole was delectable. My friend likes it mild, so there was a bit of the kick missing that I love most about guacamole. Then again, mild food leaves me slightly unsatisfied — a detriment of having grown up in a home with parents who had no fear of spices and growing up going to ethnic restaurants where spices were the main ingredients in recipes. Fresh and home-made, indeed, we polished off the guacamole and noticed another version on the menu. We ordered it, too.

Guacamole con Maize

Version two of the guacamole at Uncle Julio’s is prepared with corn and topped with crab meat. Two things worked well with the guacamole. One, adding corn mixed it up a bit, rounding out the guacamole not only with a different texture but also with a hint of another flavour — that being corn. Two, the “real” crab meat was an added touch, as guacamole is always vegetarian style wherever you get it. Because this version of the guacamole came with Habanero peppers, we requested to have the peppers on the side. They are not like jalapeno peppers that you can eat solo. Habanero peppers are dangerous little goodies and I am baffled when I see YouTube videos of village idiots eating them and then being surprised at what happens thereafter. In moderation and certainly with the guacamole con maiz y crab, the mild burn of a few Habanero peppers was tolerable and a bit flavourful as a complete package. Yes, I drank a lot of water to put out the fire.

Sopa Tortilla

My friend ordered a chicken tortilla soup. It was not bad, albeit more lukewarm than I would have wanted it. It also came to the table a bit faster than I would have wanted my soup to arrive. Quick arrival of cooked dishes to the table makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. As I intimated, the soup was quite tasty. I have had vegetarian style tortilla soup at a restaurant in Chicago named ¡Que Rico! and can’t say enough about how much I loved it. That bowl of love has since become my benchmark for damn good tortilla soup and the cup of it at Uncle Julio’s was a hint that there is still some more work to be done. And part of the work may be to exclude the crumbled feta cheese. You find that there is a bit of a Mexican and Greek competition in the cup.

Enchiladas, Arroz, EnsaladaFor an entrée, I had enchiladas pollo verdes con arroz y ensalada. Now, that was done to satisfaction, almost to the point of rivaling any of the small taquerias dotted throughout the Mexican neighbourhoods. The green salsa had a spicy bite to it that I was glad to have working in my jaws. While I have had some rushed Mexican platters, the rice is one menu item that has not been messed over and the same was applicable with the rice I had with my entrée. I could have eaten it as a complete meal. Now, usually there would be a side of frijoles. Not the case here and I made a mental note that this is a point that taquerias always get correct. You would not expect to have a staple missing like that, but each restaurant has its own feel. The entrée was completed with only the remnants of gravy smearing left on the plate. And I also washed it down with a strong mojito.

Uncle Julio’s is a chain with locations in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida. The Chicago location certainly embraces Mexican authenticity in the ingredients and preparation. No doubt the kitchen staff comprises Mexicans only anyway. Be forewarned that you will enter a crowded restaurant that is practically bursting at the seams. There are two rooms — the main dining area and the seat-yourself bar area. Having opted to sit in the open bar area, I can only speak to how much high energy there was in that section. As to the main dining area, the queue looked long and an extended wait coupled with a growling belly may not be an appealing thought. For all that came to the table, the price tab was far less than I had anticipated. Once you have been to Uncle Julio’s, it is easy to understand how it is a favourite to many dining patrons. If ever I am in the Old Towne area and have a hankering for something with a Mexican flair, and I am not famished to the point of chewing on curtains, a dash to Uncle Julio’s will do just the trick.

Uncle Julio's Hacienda on Urbanspoon