Thalia Spice, You Again

This is more of an update to a visit to Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue in 2013. It was a pleasant experience with one dish that missed the mark. After catching up with a few friends in West Town, I wandered East and made a pit stop here again to get my fill before going to another gathering of friends later.

Clay Pot Mussels

Clay Pot Mussels

Instead of ordering large plates, I opted for a round of appetizers. The first was clay pot mussels. This came as a soup very reminiscent of Thai tom kha. Instead of chicken being the meat, there were mussels and these were not the nibble size mussels that you find on most menus. These were plump and meaty. So, it was off to a good start.

Mango Seared Scallops

Mango Seared Scallops

The next appetizer I ordered was a platter of mango seared scallops. There was a Caribbean feel to this dish. There were mangos, avocado, and tomatoes atop leaves of lettuce that already made for a tasty salad. The scallops were tender to the point of not requiring any effort to cut. This appetizer was surprisingly hearty. Although there were three scallops, the accompanying fruit salad made the experience a little more substantial than expected. This was not a bad thing, by the way.

Thai Fried Chicken

Thai Fried Chicken

The third course came as a plate of Thai fried chicken wings with a spicy sauce. I am loving the concept of Thai fried chicken, as the chicken is crispy without seemingly being heavy with batter. There was a mild spice to the wings that worked well with the tamarind sauce.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

The fourth appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Although I have had this at the sister restaurant, Thalia Spice, there was more roti for enjoyment with the curry chicken. And in true cultural spirit, I devoured the dish using the roti as my eating utensil. One note to myself is to order the curry chicken with a little more kick to it.

The King & I

The King & I

I finished with a light, yet filling dessert. Called The King & I on the menu, this was fried banana with vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and accompanied with chocolate, strawberry, and kiwi syrups. Given all the food I had indulged, this was actually perfect. And since the temperatures were nice, I decided that I would have something refreshing from the bar before leaving. I couldn’t pass up having a sangria, so sangria it was and satisfying it was also.

Thalia Sangria

Thalia Sangria

I am finding that several restaurants I have gone to in the past that I left still feeling hungry or like I a forgettable dining experience have since made changes that I find very appealing and appetizing — for a lack of a better term. Thalia Spice was not one that I did not enjoy, but there are some dishes that clearly are prepared for local palates. I constantly have to remember to request for my dishes to come prepared with all the cultural goodness from the “old country.” Going with appetizers only was a very good option and it certainly made Thalia Spice move up on my list. Pan-Asian isn’t bad when it’s done good.

When You Crave Lemon Grass, Serai

With the New Year off to a good start and the temperatures not lingering below zero degrees, I have started to explore a bit more of Logan Square. And while looking for some international cuisine that I have not experienced in Chicago yet, I was surprised to see a new restaurant in Logan Square that piqued my interest. Only a month old, Serai at 2169 N. Milwaukee Avenue brings Malaysian cuisine to Chicago proper. I forwarded the online menu to a Malaysian friend for authenticity. He confirmed. I made a date. I went. I ate. I wanted to eat more. I will return and eat more.

Serai

Rather than taking a chance going after work, I went early during the day on a Sunday afternoon. What became quite obvious while scanning the menu was that this restaurant is going to become a neighbourhood favourite quickly. It was during my ordering that I got a hint of why it draws a crowd. The service ranks a 25 on a scale of 1 to 10. The server recommended that I treat my first visit as an introductory visit and come back several more times for a sampling of different dishes.

Teh Tarik

Teh Tarik

The server started me off with roti pratha. Being a fan, lover, addict of curry, the dish was divine on my palate by default. In this dish, there is the influence from Indian immigrants who came to Malaysia. The curry came with potatoes and bits of chicken. And instead of devouring this by using a spoon, I used the roti bread to sop the curry gravy. Thanks to the gravy being hearty, it stuck to the bread nicely and I was surprised that I finished the appetizer without needing use of a spoon.

Roti Pratha

Roti Pratha

For a second appetizer, I had satay chicken over a small salad of cucumbers and onions with peanut sauce. Most Thai restaurants have satay chicken on the menu and the server explained to me that Malaysian cuisine gets a bit of influence from Thailand. When food is so blooming good, I lose my purist notions. I had none while feasting on the chicken that came off of the wooden skewers with little effort.

Satay Chicken

Satay Chicken

My Malaysian friend had mentioned that char koay teow was authentically Malaysian. Surprisingly, the server recommended it as an entrée I should try. This is a popular noodle dish in Malaysian cuisine that reminds me a bit of some Chinese noodle dishes. Again, my server clued me in that there is also a Chinese influence in some dishes. The recipe had blood clams, huge shrimp, fried egg, shrimp paste, Chinese sausage, and bean sprouts prepared in a savoury soy sauce. Absolute heaven on a plate.

Char Koay Teow

Char Koay Teow

For a dessert, I opted for something traditional yet certainly different from what you’d expect. I indulged a cup of pulut hitam. One thing I have learned and love is that many Asian restaurants employ ingredients in dessert recipes that make you forget that you’re not having cake, cookies, or pies. The pulut hitam was prepared as black rice porridge with palm sugar and topped with coconut milk. Primarily an Indonesian dessert, and with a heavy presence in the Peranakan/Baba-Nyonya culture, it still was enough of an influence that I enjoyed it to completion. And with a cup of teh tarik, hot milk tea commonly called “pulled” tea, I was one satisfied customer when I finally extracted myself from my seat to depart.

Pulut Hitam

Pulut Hitam

Serai has a BYOB policy. Given that they do an incredible job of sending the best Malaysian food from the kitchen that you will find in Chicago, drop by a wine shop and inquire as to a good red wine or rose that will go with Malaysian food. I have already made a tickler to remind me to go by a wine shop to get a recommendation for a bottle of wine to go with a rendeng dish. Priorities.

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

Taste of Trinidad, Flavour for the North Side

Those who spend time in Chicago’s North Side and along the expanding Northwest Side corridor can attest to how great it is having stretches of shops and restaurants that pander to pedestrian traffic. Although Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park, and River North may be the areas many will name first, Rogers Park is slowly becoming a haunt. No longer is Sheridan Road the only popular walking stretch, but there is also Howard Street just to the west of the Howard Red Line stop.

Taste of Trinidad

A few weekends ago I went to a Senegalese restaurant on Howard Street and fell in love with the establishment. On my way back to the Howard Red Line stop, I walked past a Trinidadian restaurant. This past weekend I went to that restaurant — Taste of Trinidad at 2045 W. Howard Street. Having had some authentic Trinidadian food, I had to see if this new find would be worthy of any return visits. Well, it is.

Sorrel

Sorrel

Ginger Beer

Ginger Beer

Considering how the temperatures waited until September to become unbearably hot and humid, I started with a sorrel. This hibiscus drink is very popular in Caribbean and West African menus. Per my usual extreme craving, I ordered a curry chicken roti. I had the option of having the roti with or without the bone. Going the cultural route, I ordered the dish with the bone in. Looking more like a stuffed burrito, there was chicken in a hearty curry gravy with chickpeas and potatoes. Delicious. And the roti was substantial, quite filling.

Roti with Curry Chicken

Roti with Curry Chicken

Because food at Taste of Trinidad is prepared to order, I waited a few minutes before ordering a plate of curried shrimp with pelau, plantains, and cabbage. The shrimp were fat. The curry gravy was out of this world. The pelau, which were rice and beans, could be a meal alone and one so tasty that no one would complain about no meat. As usual at Caribbean and African restaurants, the plantains were clearly prepared after they were properly ripe because they were neither al dente nor were they less than sweet. And the cabbage was simply divine. Having downed all of that, slowly and to completion, I had a homemade ginger beer that puts bottled ginger beer products to shame.

Curry Shrimp, Pelau, Plantains

Curry Shrimp, Pelau, Plantains

I some time to talk to the owner. He had mentioned that the restaurant was a franchise, after which I inquired as to whether the other franchise location was Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street. His response was, “Yes!!!” I had already become a fan of Cafe Trinidad and I was rather pleased that Taste of Trinidad is consistent with good food and fantastic service. When the owner said, “I know you’ll be back,” I guess he could see on my face that I was a satisfied customer. Then again, it may have been the smear of gravy that was at the corner of my lips.

Taste of Trinidad Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pan-Asian Sampling Delight

Simply Thalia

When weekends arrive in Chicago, I tend to smile a little wider. I can sleep later in the mornings. I get a reprieve from hand-holding fellow colleagues at work. And I can eat until my heart is content, my belly is filled, and I can take a nap without anyone running into my space and disrupting it. Saturday morning arrives, it is sunny outside, I am on my way to some eatery, and then there is this thing called cloud coverage — always followed by cloud bursts of torrential downpours — that messes up the merry work for any outdoor activity. This has been a weekend phenomenon almost wears me down to spiritual defeat. But my appetite remains in tact, though.

After work a few days ago, I went by a Pan-Asian eatery that is in the concourse between the Red Line at Lake Street and the Blue Line at Washington Street. In the lower level of the new mall at 108 N. State Street is Simply Thalia, which is simply an Asian cafe of all good things. When I had gone the other day, my appetite was way off the scale because I had recently increased my workout routine and I had a hankering that was driving me sideways the wall. Having gone to the restaurant several months past and had a panang dish, I was not necessarily thrilled with the diligence done to their Thai curry dishes — more watery than hearty — but I was hungry and there are other items on their bill of fare. Today I wanted to try a different approach and I had decided that I would keep with my Snacking on Saturday [convenient] tradition. I was only going to have appetizers and, by George, I was going to like it. That was me psyching myself up for the edibles.

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

There was very little convincing that I had to do. Focusing on the appetizers, which were priced very low, I eyed three items that I wanted to delight myself with. I started with Saigon shrimp rolls. Who would have thought that rice paper rolled with shrimp, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and mint could be so blooming satisfying? The Vietnamese apparently figured it out and the shrimp rolls that I feasted myself on with the complementary dipping sauce, consisting of a plum sauce and a hint of teriyaki sauce, really made an impression on me. This was the first time I have had Saigon shrimp rolls and loved them. My hat goes off the chef, cook, or frozen food merchant who dealt me this treat.

The next appetizer I had was Burmese samosa. Flaky to perfection and stuffed with sweet curried potatoes and spiced chicken, my mouth burst with flavours of Burma. One ethnicity lacking in the Chicago multi-cultural restaurant spectrum is Burmese. Albeit a small items on the larger menu, I was reminded of the fine eating experiences in many Burmese restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, and in Washington, DC. Served with a sweet mustard accented with a hint of cilantro, I know now that it is time for me to visit old friends in Toronto and in DC — to catch up with my friends, of course — for some loving from the kitchen courtesy some Burmese.

Burmese Samosas

Burmese Samosas

The final appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Malaysian home-made naan served up with curry chicken dipping sauce was an absolute taste of heaven. It is quite evident that Simply Thalia does not concoct thick curry gravies, a case with the thin base for the curry chicken sauce. However, this curry was only thin, not watery, and it worked very well with the roti. I could eat the Malaysian roti canai everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Hmm. Wait. I have a threshold and everyday would be too much; I would not want to risk tiring myself of such a dish full of love. But I found the roti alone to be a welcome to the palate and the curry sauce made it that more appetizing.

I cannot place Simply Thalia in any one ethnic bucket as there are many Asian cultures represented in the food — Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian just to name a few. What I will add is that for there to be a plethora of Asian cultures present in the food at any one restaurant, there is a splendid job done keeping each ethnic dish specific to the culture which it represents, rather than introducing fusion and competing flavours.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

For the three appetizers and some organic tea, the tab for my moment of food bliss was under $20. Small and rather close, Simply Thalia has a feel of a lounge — minus super tan blond Rachels in high heels and mini skirts and Oompa Loompa orange Barts in clothes way too tight. Granted servers do not perform acrobats to please your sensibilities, I was appreciative of the fact that when I had said I wanted each appetizer one at a time and spaced out between delivery, the individual who took my order honoured my request. So my three factors that keep me returning were there: great service, low price, and outstanding food. What am I going to do when I increase my workout routine again? That was a rhetorical question.

Also, Simply Thalia has a parent restaurant named Thalia Spice, which is at 833 W. Chicago Avenue. I am almost certain that the food is worthy of a visit. And even if you still want a sample of their tasty menu items, you can order online from your desktop or from your smart phone. I think I am outside of the delivery area, but I will go and have a seat at one of the tables and see what delight I can derive from some Pan-Asian sampling.

Simply Thalia on Urbanspoon