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

Saigon Bistro, The Blog Post from Heaven

One of the great things about social media is that you interact with a lot of people whom you would probably never cross paths with. Since I have been posting photos to Instagram, I have gained quite a few followers and many who I follow in return. Recently I started seeing photos of crawfish piled high with corn on the cob. One of the main Instagram posters is Saigon Bistro and when I say that the photos had this hypnotic effect that kept begging me to go to the restaurant, I caved in. Off to 6242 N. California Avenue in West Ridge I went.

Saigon Bistro

My belly was empty, so I had a ravenous appetite. And because I met with a friend, there were no qualms about ordering plenty of food. We started with an appetizer combo platter. The coconut butterfly shrimp were huge, plump, juicy, and burst with each bite. The coco chicken was the same. There were miniature bacon wrapped scallops and miniature egg rolls. What was the absolute best on the platter were the crab rangoons. There was real crab in the rangoons. It was evident in the flavour. These rangoons were not merely oozing with cream cheese but attacking the taste buds with the outstanding taste of actual crab. This was a first that I’ve had at any restaurant in America.

Appetizer Combo

Appetizer Combo

The first big plate of food was king crab. We called this an item from their underground menu because it was not on the main menu. But because we asked kindly if they had any, the chef accommodated our request. And we showed our appreciation by working the cracker on the shells, plucking out tender morsels of crab, and devouring it. Topped with peppers and seasoned with only salt and pepper, I may be going out on a limb when I say this, but of all the seafood restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago, these were the best crab legs I have had.

King Crab

King Crab

Now, having seen so many photos of crawfish and lobster on Instagram, I showed the server a photo of a dish of crawfish and told her, “That’s what we want.” There was no looking at the menu, trying to decide what else, or indecisiveness. We ordered two pounds of crawfish spicy that came with corn on the cob and andouille sausage. Last time I had crawfish this appetizing was when I was in New Orleans. The chefs and cooks in New Orleans have competition from the Vietnamese chef at Saigon Bistro. Those who love shellfish will immediately become addicts for the crawfish with corn.

Crawfish Boil

Crawfish Boil

Given we had worked ourselves into a snail’s pace, we sat for a while to let our stomachs settle and to fight sleep. After some time had passed, we ordered a platter of tamarind shrimp. The shrimp was incredibly fresh and fleshy like prawns. They popped as we sank our teeth in them. The tamarind sauce was a perfect complement to the shrimp without being overpowering or sweet. After two filling pieces of shrimp apiece, we got the rest for takeaway.

Tamarind Shrimp

Tamarind Shrimp

Saigon Bistro is tucked away on California Avenue between Peterson Avenue and Devon Street. Although it is not in an area with lots of foot traffic, its presence is known by many. Service is superb. One thing that was obvious was that the server was patient with explaining options and offering suggestions. For all of the food that we had, I was surprised that the price was not exorbitant. The freshness of the ingredients and especially the crawfish boil transporting me to New Orleans mentally, I am a fan, for true.

Click to add a blog post for Saigon Bistro on Zomato

Kim Long Chinese Restaurant, Longing for More

Kim Long Chinese Restaurant

I have a ritual of going to Somethin’ Sweet Donuts every weekend for a doughnut fix. On my recent visit, I asked the cashier about Kim Long Restaurant, which is the restaurant next door at 5114 W. Fullerton Avenue. I was wondering if she had gone there. She gave me a modest, “It’s okay” response. I have not been a fan of restaurant Chinese food since I had some truly authentic Chinese food in 1991, so I am always leery of getting China Buffet quality food when I go to any Chinese eateries. Well, let’s just say that it was considerably better than okay. I mentally went back to 1991.

Hong Kong Milk Tea

Hong Kong Milk Tea

Hong Kong milk tea. Hot and sour soup. Salt and pepper shrimp. Shrimp in lobster sauce. I figured that I would at least sample something familiar and two dishes that I had not had before. The goal was the avoid general chicken, kung pao, egg foo young, orange chicken, and the usual Americanized fare.

Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and Sour Soup

First, I am hooked on the Hong Kong milk tea. It reminds me of a cross between bubble tea without the tapioca pearls and Thai iced tea without the smokiness. For the muggy temperatures we had been having in Chicago, it was ideal for cooling off from the humidity. The hot and sour soup had a lot more flavour to it than what I’ve had at Americanized Chinese restaurants. The bowl of soup seemed full of ingredients, not just a few items swimming in a pool of broth. And it was hearty, quite impossible to be flavourless.

Salt and Pepper Shrimp

Salt and Pepper Shrimp

The salt and pepper shrimp was a winner. I wasn’t expecting the head to be attached to the shrimp. I am accustomed to having to pull the shell from the tail, but having it on the head was a surprise. Once I got the shell off, it was all good. And there was a fair amount of meat in the head, packing a succulent wallop. I’m addicted to the shrimp in lobster sauce. This entrée came with snow peas, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms. The shrimp was not of the miniature variety, quite plump and fresh on the palate. Served with rice and spicy as requested, I can say without hesitation that my craving had been satisfied thoroughly.

Shrimp in Lobster Sauce

Shrimp in Lobster Sauce

When I was leaving, I saw an older woman who used to be at Somethin’ Sweet Donuts when I first started going there. She yelled at me jokingly to not leave the restaurant without speaking, just before commenting about me having trimmed my beard since the last time she had seen me. I had a long conversation before leaving. She mentioned that Somethin’ Sweet Donuts and Kim Long Restaurant are family owned. I guess my ritual now will be to go to Kim Long Chinese Restaurant for dinner and then to Somethin’ Sweet Donuts for my usual doughnut dessert fix.

Click to add a blog post for Kim Long Restaurant on Zomato

Siam Thai Cuisine — How I Got Started

Siam Thai Cuisine

During my days of living in Hyde Park, I became rather acquainted with three Thai restaurants on the E. 55th Street stretch between Lake Park and Hyde Park Blvd. There were Thai Snail, Thai 55th, and Siam Thai Cuisine. Thai Snail was where I learned a few phrases in Thai. Thai 55th was where I practiced speaking Thai. Siam Thai Cuisine was where I became more conversational. Having been gone from Hyde Park for seven years, I found myself in the area checking out the new edition to 53rd Street. But for lunch, I went to Siam Thai Cuisine at 1641 E. 55th Street.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

 

The manager still remembered me, not that I changed that much, except for a full, grey beard. After greetings and pleasantries in Thai, the manager said that I should order “my usual.” I was not going to argue with him about that. I had a glass of Thai iced tea, which is my favourite kind of iced tea. There is something about the smokiness in the tea that beats any pitcher of sun tea brewed below the Mason-Dixon Line. And when there is a plate of potstickers served with it, even the chilly temperatures that we have been having were tolerable. Soy sauce accented with sesame seeds came with the potstickers that were lightly fried, so the texture was not al dente like boiled dumplings. These were my favourite appetizer.

Potstickers

Potstickers

 

Having made a conscious and disciplined decision to remove beef and pork from my diet, I was certain that I was going to have panang chicken come to the table. Ah, but I forgot. My favourite entrée was yellow curry shrimp. Hearty like a gravy instead of a thin base, this is still my favourite. Filled with plump shrimp, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, and cubes of potatoes, and served with jasmine rice, I was rather glad that the manager remembered how much I loved the dish years ago.

Yellow Curry Shrimp and Rice

Yellow Curry Shrimp and Rice

 

Siam Thai Cuisine still has a bit of a hole in the wall charm to it. The manager was an absolute great individual, very much the same outstanding person, just with more grey hair now. I went to Siam Thai Cuisine at least once a week during my Hyde Park days, either for dining in or for take-away. After this most recent visit and the temperatures warming up soon, consistently — I hope — I may have to bring myself to be okay taking the bus ride from Logan Square to Hyde Park weekly. When your Thai food is “that” aroy, you’ll understand.

Click to add a blog post for Siam Thai Restaurant on Zomato

Make Maki, Not War — Miku Sushi Lounge

Miku Sushi Restaurant

A few weeks ago I received an email with a recommendation for a sushi lounge in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighbourhood. I must admit that I was rather pleased to have received such a recommendation, given that every time someone suggests a sushi restaurant to me they have been addictive to the point of me constantly returning. With the weather finally being nice in Chicago, I was off to Miku Sushi Restaurant at 4514 N. Lincoln Avenue.

Sunrise Martini

Sunrise Martini

Arriving during noon, I was not subjected to the congestion of the dinner crowd. I had a seat at the sushi bar and briefly scanned the menu. With it being a Saturday and me having the weekend to do as I pleased, I had a sunrise martini during midday. It was rather reminiscent of a Bahama Mama, mostly because there was rum in the mix. One word comes to mind: refreshing.

Kobacha Squash and Crab Soup

Kobacha Squash and Crab Soup

For a starter, I had kobacha squash and crab soup. There is one other sushi lounge, Sen Sushi in Oak Park, that serves kobacha squash and crab soup that I love. And the fact that there is real crab in the recipe, not imitation crab, I was all the more pleased. Now that I know Miku Sushi Lounge has it on their menu, I don’t have to go all the way to Oak Park for this delicious bowl of bliss.

Spicy Shrimp Maki

Spicy Shrimp Maki

My appetite was cranked high enough for me to consider indulging three sushi rolls, and three sushi rolls I indeed indulged. The first was a spicy shrimp maki. There was nothing about this roll that was forgettable, from the fresh ingredients to the burst of flavour with each bite. And, yes, it was spicy, which became more evident when the soy sauce I had infused with wasabi was not required.

Unagi Maki

Unagi Maki

The second maki roll was an unagi roll. Not being one to shy away from eel in my sushi, this was definitely a tasty inclusion in this maki roll. One thing I noticed with the eel was that it had a silky texture. This was in no way a bad thing, but I have never had unagi that was that heavenly on the tongue. Not overdone with sauce, most of this roll was enjoyed without soy sauce for dipping.

Ebi Tempuri Maki

Ebi Tempuri Maki

The ebi tempura maki was simply outstanding. Again, the shrimp was fresh, as were all of the ingredients. I was expecting the ebi tempura maki roll to be slightly pedestrian compared to the spicy shrimp and unagi maki rolls. I was well beyond pleased with the crunch from the tempura and the inviting kick from dipping each piece in the soy sauce with wasabi.

Chocolate Cream Martini

Chocolate Cream Martini

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Egg Rolls

Dessert Egg Rolls

Still having some room for dessert, I had a chocolate cream martini and chocolate chip cookie dough egg rolls. As to the cocktail, it simply is not possible to go wrong with adding chocolate to the mix. The martini was prepared in such a way that the alcohol was not heavy, which was perfect for allowing the chocolate liqueur to taste like chocolate rather than medicinally. The egg rolls were cute and I liked them, although I would have fallen in love with the dessert had the cookie dough been baked before encased in the wonton and fried. I must admit that the accompanying strawberry sauce added a nice touch.

Miku Sushi Lounge is a spacious restaurant with the usual decor found in sushi lounges. Although the restaurant can accommodate a large capacity of diners, the service, price and food no doubt draw a crowd after 7:00 PM. For a neighbourhood that is teeming with Irish pubs, the flavours from the other side of the Pacific Ocean are also welcomed. To the individual who recommended Miku Sushi Lounge, arigatou gozaimasu.

Miku Sushi on Urbanspoon

Antique Taco, New Style Tacos

Antique Taco

Wondering what to have for lunch, I was in Wicker Park on the hunt for a Pakistani restaurant that turned out not to be open for business yet. During the middle of the afternoon, restaurants in Wicker Park have lines out the door. My appetite does not play nicely when it comes to waiting. It is almost like a little brat, constantly making my stomach growl, which makes me grumpy. Well, across the street at 1360 N. Milwaukee Avenue was Antique Taco and it looked like there was plenty of seating. Not that any seat had my name on it, there was some food that needed to be shown that I loved it.

Strawberry Ginger Margarita

Strawberry Ginger Margarita

Guacamole and Chips

Guacamole and Chips

Strawberry ginger margaritas. Guacamole and chips. Garlic shrimp tacos. Keema empanada. Let me first say that the price for the entire meal came out higher than I expected. I should have paid more attention to the prices while I was being excessively hungry. But that was not a problem. When I look back on the experience, the delectable component of the food justified the cost.

Garlic Shrimp

Garlic Shrimp

I had recently been spoiled by having some awesome chunky guacamole at a Mexican restaurant, so the creamy guacamole at Antique Taco was good only to me in comparison. The shrimp tacos were worth writing home about, and ordering again during future visits. When I say that the addition of cauliflower elote and the creamy avocado basil salsa worked divinely in the recipe, I’m actually shouting it. What would have otherwise been two bland tacos were food fantastic. The keema empanada reminded me of keema samosas that you get at Indian restaurants. The meat was in a sauce rather than simply flavoured. Beware that these are not small, cute empanadas, but rather small one-course meals. And the strawberry ginger margaritas were perfect for washing everything down. Not heavy on the alcohol, I didn’t realize how much was in it until I got home and felt a need for a nap.

Keema Empanada

Keema Empanada

Antique Taco seems to be a hot spot, much like most restaurants in Wicker Park. Although I arrived shortly after the doors opened for business, about 30 minutes into my dining experience, the restaurant filled to capacity and there was a long line at the door. I get the allure. If you want to enjoy your meal inside, I suggest and highly recommend that you arrive at the opening of business. Now, one thing to note is that Antique Taco may be couched in Mexican cuisine. However, they add a twist to the menu items that make you want to try something new every time I go there. I have no idea where the name for the restaurant came from. What I will say is I love the “new” take on a Mexican staple.

Antique Taco on Urbanspoon

Tandoor Char House — Indian Goes Barbecue

Tandoor Char House

During one of my days off for my birthday earlier this month, I did a fair share of casual strolling through one of the neighbourhoods to the east of my neighbourhood. Lincoln Park is known for quite a bit of activity and offers a lot of restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and novelty shops for pedestrians. Much like a lot of areas in Chicago, there are some establishments that you may never notice or you may pass and simply never give a second glance. Tandoor Char House at 2652 N. Halsted Street is one of those places that rang true for me, given I spent most of my strolling on Halsted Street in Greektown.

Salad

Salad

For my first visit, I craved Indian-specific dishes. The craving was more of a need for pandering to a food addiction rather than merely wanting some spicy Indian food on my palate. I didn’t waste any time looking at the menu. I rattled off two dishes that are common on all Indian menus — chana masala and chicken tikka masala.

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

Having had Indian food without it being spicy a few times as of late, I requested that my dishes come blooming with pepper. The temperatures outside were moderately chilly, so I could stand the heat. The chana masala left me happy. And I was quite cultural with my use of the poori to devour the tasty chickpeas. I think this may be my all-time favourite Indian dish and seeing that Tandoor Char House had served up perfection, I ordered some for take-away.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken Tikka Masala

The chicken tikka masala was a splendid accompaniment to the chana masala. Usually chicken tikka masala has a thin yet flavourful gravy. This dish at Tandoor Char House reminded me of chicken makhani, rich in gravy and accented with butter. The tamarind rice that came with it worked wonders on the tongue. There was a mild zest to the rice since it was not regular basmati rice and it also worked well with the chana masala.

Mango Cheesecake

Mango Cheesecake

Truly my appetite was out of control for I had eaten everything. I even used the poori to get the last bit of gravy from the serving dishes. I requested twenty minutes of downtime in preparation for dessert. Kulfi? Gulab jamun? Gajar ka halwa? Kheer? No, I had a slice of mango cheesecake. The thing about the restaurant being empty when I went was that I let my facial expression have a complete go of it without me feeling embarrassed about my version of appreciation. Topped with crushed pistachios and drizzled with mango sauce, this slice of heaven could have Cheesecake Factory scrambling for a tastier cheesecake.


Having eaten too much during my first visit to Tandoor Char House, I decided that it would be wise to return another day for a sampling of something different. First for tempting the palate were tamarind chicken wings. I didn’t see a need to be prim, evident from me using my fingers to pick up the wings and delight myself properly. I even licked my fingers when I was done, and I didn’t blush with shame for being so comfortable.

Tamarind Chicken

Tamarind Chicken

Tandoori dishes are usually something that I skip at Indian restaurants, mostly because I love the curry dishes. Today I opted for tandoori shrimp. Brought to the table on a skillet, you could see the steam rising from the plump shrimp, bell peppers, and onions. This dish came with tamarind rice and a makhani sauce. By the time I had finished devouring this addictive dish, I wondered why I had never succumbed to any tandoori dishes other than the usual complimentary tandoori chicken that most Indian restaurants serve during lunch buffets.

Tandoori Shrimp

Tandoori Shrimp

While I let my tummy settle from the tamarind chicken and tandoori shrimp dish, I had a pakola. This Pakistani drink is a cream soda and the one that I had seemed to have a hint of rose-water in it. So, my three favourite carbonated drinks that also happen to be the only carbonated drinks I will have are piña Jarritos, mandarin Jarritos, and pakola.

Pakola

Pakola

For my finale, I ordered a fusion dish — penne tikka masala with shrimp. I had tried to convince myself not to indulge a curry or a dish with a gravy, but I was rather curious as to how the penne with tikka masala would taste. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it left me with a smear of gravy at the corner of my lips. Imagine Italian meets Indian. This was a luscious marriage. And served with garlic naan, if I had a microphone, I would have dropped it on the floor as I slowly got up from the table and dragged myself out into the streets.

Penne Tikka Masala with Shrimp

Penne Tikka Masala with Shrimp

Tandoor Char House has a small seating area in a loft section of the restaurant. For my two visits, this is where I sat. However, there looks to be a downstairs section that may be an extension of the restaurant that fills up during busy hours. The table service has been great during my visits and I am surprised when the tab comes and it’s not as hefty as I think it would be. Far be it from me to complain. It only means that I can be certain to keep going back to Tandoor Char House and stuffing myself senselessly without worrying about a pricey bill. Hmm. I’ll let you know after my next visit.

Tandoor Char House on Urbanspoon

That Little Mexican Cafe, a Bryn Mawr Favourite

The Little Mexican Cafe

For my birthday weekend, I took a few days off following the weekend to have some proper time for myself. That meant staying up late, sleeping later in the morning, and eating, the latter being a given. I had been going to the Bryn Mawr corridor for quite a bit of dining options. I had gone to Little India Restaurant on Friday and to Little Vietnam Restaurant on Saturday. Isn’t it cute how the restaurants have “Little” in the names? Well, only a block away from both is a restaurant named That Little Mexican Cafe at 1055 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue. Having acknowledged that I have become a fan of the other two “Little” restaurants, I had to see if That Little Mexican Cafe would become a big part of my life.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

This is not a hole-in-the-wall. I guess it falls more in line with being a medium-sized restaurant with hole-in-the-wall authenticity. The atmosphere detracts from it falling into the big box category. You do feel like you have gone to a friend’s home, mostly from the setting, and that is a very good thing if you rank customer service over ambience. There were complimentary chips and salsa that I later raved about to friends endlessly later in the afternoon.

Guacamole

Guacamole

With me doing something like an extended birthday celebration from the weekend, I still had a Frankenstein monster appetite. Considering this was a new restaurant to me and my intentions were to try something I haven’t had from any other Mexican restaurants, I was still curious as to the guacamole. I’ve had so much guacamole that I should be tired of it. But the tableside guacamole that I got at That Little Mexican Restaurant is the BEST that I have had outside of Distrito Federal. This was chunky guacamole, not puréed. They recognized that avocado already has a creamy texture, and chose not to mess that up by turning it into a coarse pudding.

Taquitos Pollos

Taquitos Pollos

The next menu items I wanted to try were taquitos pollos. Imagine small corn tortilla chicken tacos fried to a perfect crisp. Served over a bed of lettuce, tomato, and crumbled cheese, these are fantastic snacks. I was expecting only a few, no more than four. There were eight. And by the time I finished gnashing away on those little treats, there were only a few shreds of lettuce on the plate. I have had taquitos at several Mexican corner stores that were tops and some from a few Americanized restaurants that failed. The taquitos at That Little Mexican Cafe rank up there with “worthy of ordering.”

Cazuela Camarones

Cazuela Camarones

Not wanting to order a chicken or beef dish that would have left me stuffed, I ordered a cazuela camarones. Plump shrimp in a spicy red sauce served over Spanish rice never tasted better. The sauce had a smoky flavour that made the dish reminiscent of a barbecue.  I was not expecting such a pop to the dish and it may have been because I had been so accustomed to ordering tacos, enchiladas, tostados, carne asada, and Tex-Mex that I missed trying other fare like the seafood dish that I was completely enthralled with. For full disclosure, I ordered some more for take-away, along with another side of rice and the delicious black beans.

Arroz con Frijoles

Arroz con Frijoles

 

By the time I did my slow walk out of That Little Mexican Cafe, there were two main things that stuck with me. They do the best guacamole in Chicago. I will go even say that it is better than any guacamole I have had in America, so far. Second is that menu items outside of the usual Mexican fare are outstanding, really, really, very outstanding. Another thing I noticed is that the flavours are not watered down. My server did warn me that the cazuela camarones was spicy and I was very happy that the order went through accommodating my request for the dish to be spicy the way it is served in homes in Mexico. With reasonable prices for the meal, especially given how much I had eaten and ordered for take-away, there is nothing little about That Little Mexican Cafe.

That Little Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bella, Latin American Addiction

Cafe Bella

Recently, I decided to donate my car to charity. Now I use public transportation to navigate the city and I also do a lot of walking. Well, after quite a bit of walking through my neighbourhood, I have stumbled upon a few small restaurants that I have since added to my list of eateries to sample for Chicago Alphabet Soup. One of those restaurants became a go-to spot for a Sunday afternoon rather than waiting outside some brunch spot to get inside for the usual chicken and waffles, shrimp and cheese grits, and mimosa. Okay, so that may not be the main items on brunch menus, but Cafe Bella at 3311 W. Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square promised to have something more inviting. They fulfilled that promised.

Cafe Azteca

Cafe Azteca

With the weather being frosty outside, I wanted something to warm me up. Seeing the usual listing of coffees, what stood out most was the cafe Azteca. Had there not been others sitting near me, I would have slurped it. Many restaurants serve up Nestle’s Quik or Hershey’s cocoa in warm milk — or water — mildly highlighted with cayenne pepper. There was no grit from any cocoa powder not having been mixed thoroughly. The marriage of espresso and cocoa was smooth, slightly peppered, and topped with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, cinnamon, and whipped cream. Let’s just say that one mug was not enough.

Pesto Shrimp

Pesto Shrimp

For a starter, I was in a mood for seafood. I ordered pesto shrimp. This came as a dish of five plump, grilled shrimp, well-seasoned and accented with a homemade pesto sauce over a fresh salad. If you go to Cafe Bella and plan to have a good bit to eat, add the pesto shrimp to your list. It’s light in terms of portions, but it is loaded with flavour. There was not one disappointing bite, except for the last one because I did not want it to end.

Quesadillas Pollo

Quesadillas Pollo

Next for sampling were chicken quesadillas served with homemade guacamole. The quesadillas had a twist to them. First, the tortillas were prepared with a tomato base. Quesadillas are customarily made with plain flour tortillas, but I must admit that the tomato base was a nice addition. Second, the chef had run low on chihuahua cheese, so there was an improvisation of adding Swiss cheese. I noticed that there wasn’t the faint taste of chihuahua cheese only and the server had kindly explained that the extra kick in the flavour was from the inclusion of Swiss cheese in the recipe. Surprisingly, it was not a bad modification and with the homemade guacamole dip on the side, there were no complaints from me.

Tour de Bella

Tour de Bella

Realizing that I had room for perhaps an entrée, there was one that I figured would be a good option for trying steak, chicken, and shrimp all in one dish. The Tour de Bella was it — strips of chicken breast, succulent shrimp, and steak served with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. I had looked at some of the photos of the dish online before going to Cafe Bella and thought it looked rather appetizing. When it arrived at the table, it looked too picturesque to devour. If I were indecisive, I would have just stared at it. But I went to work on the dish to completion. The shrimp was fresh. The chicken was juicy. The steak was tender. I was one satisfied customer. And I ordered that second cafe Azteca for my wrap-up.

The menu at Cafe Bella seems to cover Latin American cuisine without being specific to any country. If you have had any Latin American dishes, they are certainly not exactly the same, but they are outstanding with chicken, shrimp, steak, and other meat dishes that have enough flavour verve to keep you returning for more. Cafe Bella has a quaint atmosphere, which is good for solo dining or meeting with a few friends. It is not a big box restaurant and although there is a mild coffeehouse feel to the place, the food is definitely a guarantee for making you become a regular customer. And because there is an open kitchen theme to the restaurant, seeing your food cooked in your presence screams, “Welcome to my home.” I’ll be back for a longer stay next time. I bet you will, too.

Cafe Bella on Urbanspoon

Nia — Mediterranean, Tapas Style

Nia

Two years ago a friend surprised me by taking me to a restaurant that she had not heard me talk about. She had mentioned that it was in the West Loop. Chicago’s West Loop is one area that had a rapid growth spurt, resulting in high-priced condominiums, expensive townhouses, bars that fill up quickly, and some nice restaurants. We went to Nia at 803 W. Randolph Street for some Mediterranean food. Because the dining experience was very satisfying then, I made a note to myself to visit again after work so that I could sample some more offerings from the menu.

Being a short distance from where I work, I decided to brave the Chicago wind for the few blocks it took me to walk to Nia. With my New York City stride, I was there in no time, coat off, gloves put away, menu in hand, and had an appetite that I needed to deal with without delay. One thing I remembered about Nia was that the menu was mostly of small plates. Nevertheless, I figured I would do well to order a few items to put a smile on my face and not so much that I would find myself fighting sleep thereafter.

Nia, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

 

With the evening being what I called a “school night,” I had cranberry juice instead of a spirit or a cocktail. For starters, I ordered a plate of hummus with pita. Given this was a “small plate,” they didn’t skimp on the servings. This came with roasted garlic, a red pepper coulis, and a dollop of horseradish cream. I mixed it all up and worked that pita on the plate until there was a smear of hummus left. I don’t think I need to tell you that I liked it “that” much.

My next course consisted of wild mushrooms with truffle oil. Truffles are all the rage, it seems, and anything accented with its oil is a dish sent from heaven — or hell if you are “that” wicked. I married this dish with a plate of jumbo garlic shrimp in a lemon butter sauce. Although the four shrimp looked manageable, by the time I had finished the mushrooms and the shrimp, I forced myself to slow down so not to deprive myself of dessert. I did, however, request some extra pita so that I could get the last remnants of truffle oil and the lemon butter sauce. It would have been a crime to let any of that go to waste.

My dessert course left me humming, evident from the neighbouring stares I received. The bread pudding came drizzled with a caramel sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that I swear had saffron in it. If that was the case, then it was not ice cream from the frozen section at the local market. I completed my dessert option with a cup of coffee and cream. Now, I am not a coffee snob, but I know when a French press has been used. The coffee is simply perfect and this was the case with the cup of delight I had with the bread pudding.

For the duration that I sat at Nia, there was a constant flow of patrons coming in and I noticed that turnover was low. That was an indication that people come to enjoy themselves. It’s a great spot for a date. There is the mood lighting — or rather dim lighting. Even those who dine solo at the bar find themselves engaged in conversation with others. The volume gets loud as more customers show up, though. With this being my second visit, I was happy as I teetered from the restaurant. The first time was good. This time was better. I wonder if the third time will be a charm. Well, there is only one way to find out.

Nia Mediterranean on Urbanspoon