Bien Me Sabe, Claro Que Si

Restaurants in Chicago come and go. Some have long lives and there are others that stay in business for a short time. One restaurant I recently found out had closed its doors was a Venezuelan restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois. With them being one of my favourite restaurants in Oak Park, I was a bit down to have discovered the news. So, I was rather quick looking for other Venezuelan restaurants in Chicago. As luck would have it, one named Bien Me Sabe recently opened in East Lakeview at 1637 W. Montrose Avenue in place of what was once an Ecuadorian restaurant.

TequeñosWith this first visit, I opted for something that I had not had before at any Venezuelan restaurant. Based on a few street food items that some of my Venezuelan friends have prepared and shared, I ordered tequeños. As I remembered, they were authentic. These came with a side of ketchup and a side of mayonnaise that was doctored up almost with the taste of tartar sauce. I omitted the condiments and devoured the stuffed cheese sticks to completion.

TostonesThe second appetizer was a platter of tostones. Instead of them coming with a dipping sauce prepared of ketchup, mayonnaise, and garlic, the tostones had been topped with shredded cheese and drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise. While this was a tasty combination, I became a bit more ravenous when I removed the ketchup and mayonnaise from atop of the tostones. The cuajada cheese alone on them made them extremely appetizing.

Arepa PabellonNow, you cannot go to a Venezuelan restaurant and not have an arepa sandwich. One I had never eaten before was a pabellon. Outstanding. It reminded me a lot of Cuban ropa vieja sandwiches. The shredded beef seasoned well in a light tomato sauce, the plump plantains, and the cuajada cheese between homemade arepa left a lasting impression on me that I can only overshadow by returning and ordering a different arepa sandwich.

Bien Me Sabe is a spacious restaurant that still has a quaint feel to it. That’s mostly because the service lends an “at home” atmosphere. I admit that I miss the Venezuelan restaurant that was in Oak Park, but I’m glad that Bien Me Sabe opened its doors for business. I certainly hope that they have a long shelf life because authentic Venezuelan food is hard to find in Chicago.

Veneuelan Arepas Cafe & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aripo’s Venezuelan Arepa House

Aripo's Venezuelan RestaurantOften I run into people who offer suggestions about where to go for some great food fare. And I smile because more often than not, their suggestions are for restaurants perhaps a notch above McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the bottom of your garbage can. What else can you do other than display a stupid smile, nod, and say blank statements like, “I will have to try that restaurant”?

AdvertisementWell, in walks a co-worker who writes on my whiteboard: Aripo’s. Then she says that it is a Venezuelan eatery in Oak Park, Illinois. Hmmm. Of all the ethnic restaurants I have frequented, Venezuelan has not been one of them. So my palms sweated. My heart beat faster. My mouth watered. And considering she has given me the names of some restaurants, cafes, diners, and gems that have never disappointed, I immediately entered into my personal calendar a date to venture to Aripo’s.

Located at 118 N. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, Aripo’s is not a huge restaurant that panders to pomp. It has a bit of a fast food feel to it, mostly because it is in an outdoor strip mall that sits in the Oak Park, Illinois, business district. While slightly dim inside, but not to a point where you find yourself saying, “Ah, mood lighting,” it is still spacious enough where you can sit without having other patrons at your table with you. Lucky for me, there were seats outside and the weather was nice, so I opted to enjoy my food outside.

Being primarily vegetarian, I wanted to try something authentic but with some seafood in it. Queue the sound byte to “Jaws.” Pan in to the water with at least a few dozen human morsels for nibbling. Now there is the fin. A scream. Pandemonium. And someone bumps the record player, the needle scratches the record, and there is a scene with me outside Aripo’s stuffing a shark sandwich in my mouth. Dramatic? Perhaps. Tasty? Hell, yes!

Minced Cazon, Plantains, Lemonade

Minced Cazon, Plantains, Lemonade

At the recommendation of the cashier, I had ordered a minced cazon (e.g, Caribbean shark) sandwich that reminded me so much of a spicy tuna sandwich. I had never had shark before and I must apologize to Jaws for licking my lips with no remorse. With this also being the first time having arepa bread, that being the bread for the sandwich, eating it with minced shark between it was yummy in multiple languages, smiles, growls, and expressions. Knowing that the sandwich was going to be filling, I opted for plantains as a side order. Immediately after the first bite I imagined myself in Sheffield, Jamaica, sitting under a june plum tree watching the sun go down and wallowing on a human size plate of sweet plantains. You have to go to the Caribbean to understand, not just to a restaurant that serves delicious plantains. And the Venezuelan lemonade. ¡Ave, Maria! I do not know what it is about these restaurants in the Caribbean and in the tropics that prepare lemonade so good that you stomp your feet, smack the table, and simply start random babbling.

This was only an initial trip to Aripo’s to sample a small taste of what they have on their menu. I had read some reviews by a few individuals who had pissed and moaned about the service and the food. After my visit, clearly those characters are of the ilk that thinks McDonald’s is haute cuisine. I should have them talk to the quasi food sages who keep telling me about various magnificent restaurants in Chicago — that serve up happiness from the microwave and frozen food sections from the local markets. The discriminating palate knows. Just ask Jaws.


Redux — 22 August 2010

I am finding that the immediate neighbouring suburbs to Chicago are full of eateries that are out of this world. I had sampled some bites at Aripo’s a few weeks past and wanted to try at least one more menu item. So, I boarded the circus train that passes through the Wild West Side on my way back to Oak Park so that I could put my feet under a table at Aripo’s.

Arepa

Arepa

The cashier remembered my face. This is a selling point. She also remembered that I had said I was mostly vegetarian. However, I really wanted to be adventurous and put my vegetarianism on hold for a dish. I went way off the path with a pabellon criollo. This was spiced, pulled beef served with rice, fried plantains, and black beans. Wow! Double wow! Now say wow with one hand on top of your head and another hand rubbing your belly. Talk about tender. Talk about succulent. Talk about not feeling like I had done something terribly wrong by eating meat. This was a perfect lunch and having rice cooked just right, plantains fried just right, and black beans not cooked to a paste, my only regret was not having tried a beef or chicken dish when I first went to the restaurant.

The meal came with an arepa. This bread reminded me so much of Johnny cakes that my grandmother used to make for me when I was a little kid. The texture may be a bit off-putting for some people, but it went over very well with the seasoned beef, rice, plantains, and beans. And now that I think of it, I may consider buying a few at some point and having them on hand at home with some maple syrup for breakfast.

Pabellon Criollo

Pabellon Criollo

Aripo’s has indeed proven to be a very good authentic Venezuelan restaurant with a price that does not empty your wallet. You are, however, assured of having your belly filled. Chicago. Oak Park. Heaven. As long as I can find good food that like at Aripo’s, I am there.


Redux — 10 May 2014

I returned. The weather was perfect, it was a Saturday afternoon, and I had nothing but time to spare. I had initially wanted to get some Brazilian food, but I got off the bus at the wrong train line. After realizing my haste, I knew which end of Oak Park I would go to and which restaurant I would fortify myself at. Yes, Aripo’s Venezuelan Arepa House was it and this time I had empanadas dominos with red and green sauces, and I also had cachapas with chicken.

Empanada Domino con Salsa Rojo

Empanada Domino con Salsa Rojo

Cachapas Pollo

Cachapas con Pollo

Cachapas Pollo

Cachapas con Pollo

Empanada Domino con Salsa Verde

Empanada Domino con Salsa Verde

When most people think of empanadas, they have thoughts of the flaky, baked goodies that are stuffed with cheese, chicken, beef, seafood, or some flavourful filling. Empanadas dominos are deep-fried and filled with chihuahua cheese and black beans. Because I had two, I opted to have the red sauce, which was spicy, and the green sauce that was spicy mayonnaise with a hint of cilantro. Happiness ensued with each bite. I was headed straight for the moon when I started working my knife and fork on the cachapas with chicken. Two large corn pancakes sandwiching fried cheese and spicy, pulled chicken are a winning combination that no one should go through life without experiencing. It’s hard to believe — well, not really — that I walked into this restaurant in 2010 and each time I return, it’s as though I am having a brand new discovery. It goes without saying that I will see what else I can find exciting on their menu in the near future.

Aripo's on Urbanspoon

Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

There are a few things that I have come to recognize:

  • Chicago temperatures waffle in extremes — blusteringly cold or blisteringly hot.
  • Men serve women food in large portions.
  • Women serve men food in large portions.
  • Never stand in line behind a group of women who are ordering ice cream.
  • My appetite is out of control — rhetorical.

I had ventured out several weeks ago when the temperatures were not so blooming tropical, and I entertained what I termed Snacking on Saturday. The temperatures were a bit murderous today with the mercury rising into the 90’s and the humidity coating the city like a blanket. There was no need to stay in the condo and brood over the heat — we have had a whole month of uncomfortable temperatures — so I dressed lightly and decided to be about business of finding some food satisfaction.

I met with a friend early in the morning for breakfast at an Austrian cafe — Julius Meinl — that is east of where I live. The decision was an impromptu one so I had rushed out of the condo and left my camera. This marks the second time I have done something foolish like that when I know I will end up chastising myself. I had a great time slicing through crispy waffles and forking up tasty scrambled eggs. My lips curled up. My eyelids grew heavy — and it was 9:30 AM when we were busy indulging ourselves in breakfast.

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

A little later in the morning I wanted something else yet light. By now, I had one of my many cameras. And in my neighbourhood is La Boulangerie at 2569 North Milwaukee Avenue. What a lovely little French bakery this is and satisfying as well, if I may add. The selection is rather small and I was quite okay with that after I had bitten into my croissant. It was apparent the thing had been baked early in the morning. Given it was not hot, as if right from the oven, it was so soft and airy on the inside, flaky and smile-inducing on the outside. I had also ordered a small rum and vanilla bundt cake. Oh happy day! La Boulangerie does not sell coffee, so I had gone next door to New Wave Cafe where all of the local and imported hippies congregate to discuss things that matter to them — and no one else can understand. The cappuccino there really had an effect on me that left me with a lasting impression that will, of course, mean I will return for cappuccino from there several more times.

After relaxing at home for a few hours, I had begun to get cabin fever. It was time to seek something else into which to sink my teeth. I remembered a certain Middle Eastern eatery I had stumbled upon in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood. I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue was it. For me, it was a reality, as I headed for the subway and went into downtown to put my feet under a table at the cafe. And here is where I came to the realization that women give men way more food than men give each other. I had a hankering from some sweet potato falafel and perhaps something else on the menu. I ordered a chicken schwerma — so not vegetarian of me — with peppers, lettuce, onions, and tahini sauce. The thing was so tasty that I was sprung like you will not believe. And because the sweet potato falafels are prepared on-demand, I had to wait. For my wait, the cashier — a very appealing young woman — gave me extra. Recognizing that this has been commonplace, in the future I shall let others go ahead of me whenever men are taking orders.

Chicken Schwerma

Roaming around downtown for a few hours, the humidity had begun to wear me down to almost spiritual defeat. I could have had soda, which would be full of aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, so I took a pass on that. Water would have worked, but I wanted flavour. Aha! I headed for the subway and went out to Oak Park to Taste of Brasil, my favourite Brazilian cafe, for some lemonade. But, Gino, to go all the way to Oak Park for some lemonade is ridiculous. You have to have some of it to understand. Absolutely refreshing and prepared with real lemons — none of that artificial mess laced with aspartame or high fructose corn syrup — and condensed milk. The lemonade was enough to make the heat unnoticeable. Well, not quite, but good enough to cool me off a little.

Towards the end of the day, I figured that I would wrap up my snacking expedition by having a small dinner, something akin to snack food. I was in Oak Park anyway, so I went to the downtown mall area to the best Venezuelan cafe outside of Venezuela and met up with some friends. Aripo’s Arepa House at 118 N. Marion Street was my destination. I ordered what is called a domino — an empanada stuffed with black beans and shredded white cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce that makes all of your worries disappear. It had never dawned on me to inquire what a domino really was. However, I was glad that I took a chance on the order because I will make a few more trips back just to buy some of those tasty wonder treats for snack food at home.

After joshing around with my friends for a while, we retired to a French pastry shop across the street from Apripo’s. Sugar Fixe at 119 N. Marion Street captures the essence of coffee and dessert as the French does. There were two desserts that stood out most: a chocolate mousse and a mango mousse with pineapple and coconut. I had recently baked a devil food cake with a Mexican hot chocolate ganache for the icing, so I opted for the citrus mousse. Satisfaction in a thousand languages or in the stupid smile that I usually wear after eating too much food is all that I say to describe the mousse. The cappuccino I had tasted like the cappuccino I have had abroad, all prepared with meticulous care. Again, Sugar Fixe is one of those pastry shops that prepares its desserts in small batches so that they do not get old or simply become display items because no one wants anything that has been sitting out for days and weeks on end.

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

I did not make the promise to myself that I would not overeat. When it comes to food, the promise of behaving when it comes to the quantity that I indulge is not mandatory. I simply comply with my want. One thing I must say is that I will be glad when the temperatures return to a point where walking one to two blocks do not result in feeling like you have stood under a waterfall. There are some other locations in the city that I shall journal and I will simply have to be ready with camera in hand and appetite on hand.

When In

Another fantastic weekend to grace Chicago and I had nothing really spectacular on my schedule, except to enjoy food. I began Friday night meeting with a friend who is about to leave the country on personal holiday. By the time he returns, I will be gone to Qatar and Riyadh on personal holiday — with hopes that the political unrest abroad with the Arab community does not interfere. But while my friend and I had decided to meet up at a small Korean cafe in Chicago’s Hyde Park, it had dawned on me that I had walked out of my condo and left my camera. There are at least five common expletives in the English language and I discovered at least 157 more, plus the ones I know in the other nine languages I speak. To leave home with plans to go to a restaurant and forget the camera — I have four, by the way — is just wrong. What kind of foodie am I? But I was quite okay after stuffing my jaws with bulgolgi, kimchee, chop chae, and jang jugae. I will simply have to return at a later date so that I can blog the Korean restaurant.

Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies

Later on Friday night, I returned home to work some magic of my own. I am a secret chef and baker, if I may be so bold as to say so. With the weather being aggressively bitter, I have found that a great source of heating my kitchen and my great room is by use of the oven. Who would have thought? I have been baking every weekend for the past month and have been very happy with the results. Even my ego will cosign on that assessment. I baked several batches of cookies, some traditional, some experimentally exotic. For the traditional, I baked several batches of butter cookies and several batches of chocolate chip cookies — using bittersweet chocolate chips instead of milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips. Satisfaction! For the exotic, I had gone by Vosges Haut-Chocolate shop and bought a few bars of sweet coconut curry chocolate and chocolate with ancho and chipotle chillies. I must admit that the mention of coconut and curry in chocolate may cause some people to race for the hills and chillies in chocolate may result in some high-end snooty baker bang his or her on the edge of the kitchen counter for not coming up with that idea. I had a chat with my ego and we agreed that it is rather okay to be selfish and keep the exotic chocolate chunk cookies for ourselves. I shall not blow my own horn, although I can play the trumpet, but those exotic cookies could make me millions. Hmm.

Lentil Soup

For Saturday, I had waken early enough to finish baking the remaining batches of cookies and packing several dozen to send to friends and to my brother. After mailing the treats, I had a taste for something to put me in a frame of mind where I am somewhere warmer than Chicago.  Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo. Fortaleza. Salvador Bahia. And what should come to mind but Taste of Brasil in Oak Park. So it was off the subway to board the Blue Line to Oak Park for something with a tropical taste. Complementary lentil soup. So good, so very good. And bobó de camarão. I always say that if I cannot go back to Brazil, then I shall go where I can escape mentally to that land of beauty. The bobó de camarão — shrimp in yuca cream — was just as I remembered from São Paulo. Coconut milk thickened with mashed cassava and loaded with shrimp and boiled cassava, served up with rice, and tastier than ever, I swear I was daydreaming about doing the samba on the beach. Or rather relaxing on the beach after having eaten such a plate of edible bliss.

Bobó de Camarão

Sunday greeted me with rain. Usually I would grumble and growl about rain, but with the recent blizzard leaving the ground covered with snow, slush, and trash, having rain wash it all away so the streets do not look like eyesores was a welcoming weather treat. And what should be on my mind to do after church? Eat. Then again, you already knew that. I went back to Oak Park for some more tropical eats to please the palate. Having gone to Aripo’s Arepa House for comida de Venezuelan during the summer, that was my destination. And I had decided that with this being my third trip to Aripo’s, I was going to try a third dish representative of Venezuela that I have not had before. Cachapas. Venezuelan corn cakes with De Mano cheese between them, primarily found at street vendors in Venezuela, and served up with well-seasoned shredded chicken and sliced red bell peppers, I was in heaven. Where do I begin to describe how satisfying that dish was? Where do I find it in the frozen section of the local market? Where is the off switch on my food alarm so that I can shut it off? Why am I bothering with taking a personal holiday in the Middle East with turmoil bubbling over when I could go to Venezuela instead? You know it is bad when food is so good that you do not want the eating experience to end. Then again, that could be attributed to my food addiction. Thank you, Aripo’s, for a smile-inducing Sunday afternoon lunch.

Cachapas

This was a weekend spent well doing something that I like — baking and eating. I really should be bursting the seams in my pants and popping the buttons on my shirts from all the eating that I do. Thanks again to Ma and Pop Williams for blessing me with a high metabolism, thanks to Nike for thermal gear, and thanks to Adidas for selling tennis with cleats on the bottoms so that I have traction on the ice while running my two to three miles every morning. I cannot — and will not — sacrifice my love of good food which means I shall have to remain active to retain my fashion model physique. Yes, it is incredibly vain of me to want to look like I am still in my twenties when I am old enough to have a child in his or her twenties. So what shall I do for next weekend? When in Chicago, there is an answer to that question. But the short answer is: I shall eat.