XLB at Din Tai Fung in Sydney

We are always on the hunt for the best Xiao Long Bao (XLB), Shanghainese soup dumplings. Much like pizza, everyone has an opinion on the best XLBoutside of Sydeney. When we were going to Sydney we heard that it had a phenomenal regional Chinese food scene, with many amazing XLB options. One of the names that rose to the top on our searches was Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung is a chain from Taiwan that has dozens of locations globally, including Asia, Europe, the US and Australia. Despite our best efforts, we did not make it to Din Tai Fung when we visited LA so were very excited to try it in Sydney. There are 10 locations across Sydney and Melbourne, and we ended up visiting a location near the popular center city wharfs, in the Gateway Food Court (Shop G20-G21 Gateway, 1 Macquarie Place, Sydney).

Other locations of Din Tai Fung in Sydeny are proper restaurants, but we went for convenience of location. The Gateway food court is huge, and definitely more upscale than the name may imply. We saw lots of tasty-looking restaurant options as we wound our way to the back and found Din Tai Fung, a somewhat understated wooden kiosk. The array of menu options at this location of Din Tai Fung were somewhat overwhelming: appetizers, many dumpling permutations, soups, more substantial mains, fried rice and even desserts. Naturally, we we were there for the XLB. To order at this location (and perhaps others), you mark on a sheet of paper what you would like to order, pay at the counter, get a buzzer, and the order is soon delivered to your table. In a city as expensive as Sydney, the XLB is a relatively good deal:  4 dumplings in a steamer basket for $6 AUD. We placed our order and grabbed the buzzer, and within a few minutes our order was ready.

The moment of truth arrived: and the dumplings were amazing! The key to the best XLB are a thin skin and a savory broth. On both counts, the Din Tai Fung XLB delivered, the dumpling skin was very thin and not doughy or chewy, with a rich, savory pork meatball and a generous amount of soup both filling. We liked them so much that we had to order twice as much as we initially thought. In XLB the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Din Tai Fung excelled. Yes, these were the best XLB we ever had. The excellence of the XLB made us so curious to try versions in China, and may have ruined XLB for us in America altogether. Plus, can you beat this mascot?

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First Trip to Russ and Daughters in NYC

Russ and Daughters (179 E Houston, New York City) has been a lower east side fixture since 1914, and is one of New York City’s (and the country’s) best traditional Jewish delis. It is also one of the few business that has “And Daughters” as opposed to “Sons” in the name. We had been meaning to go to Russ and Daughters for probably a decade, but due to a series of circumstances, never made it there on all of trips to NYC. But finally, in October 2019, we did make it! You can recognize the store from down the block due to its original, vintage neon “appetizers” sign emblazoned with fish. What Russ and Daughters sells used to be called “appetizings,” and were considered places to get accompaniments to bagels. Inside and out, we appreciated that the store was reflective of the company’s long heritage: from the painted signs to the glass cases and the vintage-modern packaging.

The inside of the shop is TINY, as you can see below. You take a number and are served in order. You may have to wait a while, as we did, even at the off time of 3pm on Monday. There are two sides to the store, the sweet/bakery and the savory. On the sweet side you can get bagels, rye bread, challah, black and white cookies, babkas (chocolate or cinnamon), halvah, dried fruit, nuts and chocolate-covered sweets by the pound. In the cooler, there are sodas, pickles, and packages of blini ready to go, among other things.

While waiting, we decided to partake in some of the items from the sweet side, since you don’t need a number to buy items. If you are a previous reader of the blog, you may know that we are big fans of babka, an enriched sweet bread with a swirl of flavor, and are always looking out for a new variety. We opted for a slice of chocolate babka ($3 for a slice/ $14 for a whole) and our dining mates got some chocolate orange peel by the pound. The babka, while good, was no match for our favorite babka in the city. It was still very good, and a much needed snack while we waited our turn.

The savory side is the more impressive of the two, and the line belies this fact. Within the immaculate glass cases is a wonderland of cured and smoked fishes available by the pound. I must confess that my knowledge of smoked/cured fish is somewhat limited, though I do like the smoked offerings from Calumet Fisheries. There are no less than a dozen varieties of salmon alone, differing in origin (Norwegian, Irish and Scottish) and preparation (wet-smoked, cured, pastrami-cured, and dry-smoked, between $34 and 54 a pound). We are clueless about the qualities and characteristics of the different types of salmon, so we relied on the clerks for their expert advice. This Bon Appetit article with input by Josh Russ Tupper of Russ and Daughters, also helps break it down. One important distinction we did know, though, is that gravlax/lox is traditionally cured, NOT smoked, as many people think when they hear “lox.” There were other types of smoked fish on offer including: sable, sturgeon, whitefish and tuna ($15 to 56 a pound).

Though the fish are the stars of the show, you can also get other savories by the pound: pickled herring, egg salad, chopped liver, gefilte fish, latkes, caviar and roe of varying types, whitefish salad and knishes (many among other options, ranging between $9 and 25 a lb). We were already fantasizing about the amazing appetizer spread we could make with the endless options. However, if you are feeling like eating your fish right then instead of bringing it home (as we ultimately were), you can get a bagel sandwich, by selecting your individual fillings, or choosing a pre-picked combination. You first select a bagel (plain, sesame, everything, etc.), choose a cream cheese (goat cheese, plain, tofu, etc.), and finally a filling (many fish varieties or egg salad), plus capers and tomatoes for 50 cents extra each. The classic sandwich fillings are freshly sliced from the fish counter: Gaspe Nova, Norwegian smoked salmon, Salt-Cured belly lox, gravlax and more.

M got the Fancy Delancey ($12) which was a smoked tuna sandwich with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi flying fish roe, and I got a choose-your-own classic dill-brined gravlax with cream cheese ($13), both sandwiches on sesame bagels. Though the prices may seem a little steep, the bagel sandwiches are stuffed to the brim. The man at the counter sliced the fish with surgical expertise. We appreciated the attention to detail: everything was done in an exacting way, and was not rushed. The fish was superlative, of the highest quality, and melt-in-the-mouth tender. Having cured fish this good really makes you know what you are missing every other time. We could eat this stuff every day! We washed everything down with a classic Dr. Brown’s cream soda, the essential deli accompaniment (Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray is good too). We are so glad that we finally got to Russ and Daughters after all these years. It lived up to the hype, AND it is worth the wait (not often that we say both of those things).

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Harlow’s for Neapolitan Pizza

The way we found out about Harlow’s (14319 Madison Ave, Lakewood, OH 44107) was by spotting it’s distinctive, slightly rounded retro building on Madison Ave. in Lakewood. With the distinctive pink neon script sign reading simply “Harlow’s” we had no idea what kind of restaurant lay within. Turns out Harlow’s is a pizza place, but not just any pizza, but specifically Neapolitan pizza cooked in a high-heat wood oven.Harlows.jpg

Harlow’s is a small space, but exceedingly cute and modern. You can eat pizza at one of the long tables in the main space, at the outdoor patio, or bellied up to the bar. All pizzas are 12″ Neapolitan-style and can feed one hungry person.We always have to get the classic Margherita ($13) the classic with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, EVOO, and fresh basil. Other varieties include a Bianca ($13) white pizza, spicy salami ($15) and the Leonardo ($15) a white pizza with pistachios, grape tomatoes and arugula.

HarlowsPizza

At Harlow’s they keep the balls of pizza dough near the pizza oven, and it is fun to watch the pizzas being assembled before your eyes. Since the pizzas are made to order, there may be a slight backup before you get yours. The pizzas are cooked lightning quick in the authentic, custom wood-fired oven for only a couple of minutes.  The Neapolitan-style pizzas come out piping hot with a chewy crust dotted with char marks, and a little sloppy in the middle, like a good Neapolitan pizza should be. We especially love the toppings at Harlow’s and everything is always super-fresh. Though we like all of the pizzas we have tried at Harlow’s, we think the Margherita is our favorite. Sometimes you just can’t improve on a classic.

AruPizzaAlong with pizza, you can get a small selection of wine and beer, and interesting aguas frescas (when we were there, lime or watermelon were the choices). From Tuesday – Thursday you can get the pizza to go, but you can’t call in ahead, so keep that in mind. We celebrated our new house by getting some Harlow’s takeout, as you can see below. We are so glad that a fortuitous neon sign spotting led us to the Neapolitan pizza at Harlow’s! HarlowsClassic

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Soan Papdi for Diwali

India FlagHappy Diwali! Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, started yesterday, October 27, 2019, but it is not too late to get in on some delicious treats to celebrate this holiday. Today, for Diwali, we will be making Soan Papdi (aka patisa, son papri, sohan papdi or shonpapdi), a North Indian confection with an amazing melt-in-the-mouth texture. Really, it is unlike anything I have had before, somewhat like cotton candy, but with flaky layers, often formed into cubes. You definitely have to experience it for yourself! This treat was first introduced to me by my friend from Delhi, who brought the treat back directly from a favorite sweet shop. Soan Papdi is popular throughout India, especially during festivals. With a base of ghee (clarified butter), gram flour and sugar, soan papdi is often flavored with cardamom, but you can now find it flavored any number of ways, including mango, pistachio or chocolate. Check out Steemit, The Times of India and Awesome Cuisine for Soan Papdi recipes.

Soan Papdi in Delhi by Georgia Popplewell

 

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Kosovar Burek at Dukagjini Burek

Kosovo

There is something to be said for places that only do one thing, but do them exceptionally well. One place that has gotten its specialty down to a science is Dukagjini Burek (758 Lydig Ave.) in the Bronx, which only serves bureks (named for the Kosovo-born Albanian owner’s homeland). A burek is a a savory phyllo pie stuffed with meat and/or cheese, and is common throughout the Balkans. We have tasted many bureks throughout the years and we always look forward to the new one.

BurekBronx

We knew we were in the right place when we saw several cars double parked in front of the bakery with people jumping out quickly to grab a piece of Burek while dodging the traffic cops. This shop is open every day from morning until night, and we actually ended up popping in for a slice for breakfast. Dukagjini is a counter-service bakery that sells bureks whole ($20) or by the piece ($5 – basically a quarter of a gigantic burek). The three varieties are feta, feta and spinach and beef and onion. You can mix and match your choices, and we opted for spinach. The ONLY other option is getting a side of yogurt ($2) or a cup of coffee. We went with spinach.

Burek

When we arrived, the shop was manned by two women, cutting pieces of burek to order amidst a sea of pizza boxes. There are a few tables to enjoy your burek, but most, including us, would prefer to take theirs to go. When home, we promptly tucked into our burek. The filling was light and flaky, and the spinach and feta filling was deliciously savory and salty, but not greasy at all. We have had many renditions of burek over the years and this is one of the best we have ever sampled!

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Chicago Gourmet 2019 Recap

It’s October, and another Chicago Gourmet is in the books! This year’s Chicago Gourmet festivities, “Lights, Camera, Napkin,” provided a wonderful mix of food, spirits and fun, as it had in the past. I attended on Saturday this year and the mercurial Chicago weather cooperated, but just barely, and the earlier part of the day was 55 degrees and misting. Though there was a brief period of rain, the clouds lifted in the second half of the day. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I have been going to Chicago Gourmet since 2009, and have experienced almost every type of weather through the years. Stationed in Millennium Park, Chicago Gourmet is a showcase of all things food, and features: diverse bites from top Chicago restaurants, international wine and spirits distributors, cooking demonstrations, book signings, lectures, and big-name brands pulling out all the stops with over-the-top booths. The price for Chicago Gourmet is famously steep (2019 prices: $195 per person per day, or $310 per person for a Weekend Pass), but it earns you unlimited food and drinks, plus whatever additional swag you can get your hands on.

My favorite part of every Chicago Gourmet is checking out the gourmet tasting pavilions, where local Chicago chefs dish out sample-sized portions that represent their restaurants. Sometimes the pavilions are themed (BBQ, Seafood, or a national cuisine), but other times they are drawn together seemingly randomly under the banner of a sponsor (Mariano’s, US Foods, etc.). Halfway through the day, the restaurants change over, giving visitors double the samples to try. My two favorite pavilions, this year, and in years past, are the Dessert Pavilion (with the awkwardly punny name “Keeping Up with the Konfections”) and the Thai Select tent (Thai Select is an imprint of the Thai government).

At the first round of the Thai Pavilion, I sampled dishes from Jimmy Thai Restaurant, JJ Thai Street Food, and Sticky Rice Northern Thai Cuisine. Jimmy Thai served a delicious green curry over homemade somen wheat flour noodles, JJ dished out chicken meatballs with tamarind sauce, and Sticky Rice went regional with Nam Prik Ong, northern Thai dish of ground pork, tomato and chili paste. I appreciated the nod to regional cuisine! Later in the day, the booth switched over to tasters from Star of Siam (our first Chicago Thai restaurant), Herb Restaurant, and Jin Thai Cuisine. The second round’s theme seemed to be Thai comfort food including Basil Chicken from Herb, Chicken Pad Thai from Jin and Mussaman curry from Star of Siam.

The Dessert Pavilion started strong with Recette, Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits and Bittersweet Pastry Shop and Café. My overall favorite bite from Chicago Gourmet this year was the caramel and pumpkin Canelé from Recette. A canelé is a French pastry that resembles a mini bundt cake, with a soft, almost custard-y center and a caramelized exterior (above). We had previously sampled Recette’s pastries at Renegade Craft Fair in Pilsen, and they delivered again at Chicago Gourmet. Bang Bang gave a Fall-appropriate showing with an apple crumble with an unusual-but-delicious miso twist, and Bittersweet introduced me to a whole new chocolate concept: Ruby chocolate mouse. Ruby chocolate, developed by Callebut in 2017, is distinguished by its fruity flavor and pink hue. It may look Day-glo but the color is all-natural!

For the second half of the day, the Dessert Pavilion mixed it up a bit by presenting desserts from restaurants which are not particularly known as dessert places, including a fall panna cotta from Steadfast and a Viennese sachertorte – chocolate cake layered with apricot, topped with a tiny pretzel (above) – from The Berghoff Restaurant. The dessert trio was rounded out by some delicious apple gelato from longtime-favorite Black Dog Gelato.

In my quest to seek out world eats, I found plenty of options. There was a lovely Japan Pavilion, featuring ramen from Strings Ramen Shop and what may have been the most unusual bite of the day: The “Kizuki bun,” a deconstructed Japanese hotdog from Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya.In terms of portions, Piggie Smalls went over the top and made a whole gyro sandwich (who can resist!?).

Other yummy world eats included veggie samosas from Hakka Bakka Indian Kati Rolls (above) and fresh ricotta and mozzarella from the Mozzarella Store, Pizza & Caffé. Tucked away in the Sam Adams Pavilion were samples from Evanston-based Viet Nom Nom and Cynthia’s Gumbo, a Louisiana Cuisine food truck run by Cynthia Boyd-Yette & Terry Yette.

I made a point to attend some of the cooking demos this year, always a fun experience, and especially welcome when the weather outside is a little less than sunny. I am always impressed by the skills of the chefs at these demos, and always learn a thing or two – this time I really learned the unexpected – how to make tofu. There was a great demo by Laura Cheng of Sun Wah and Thai Deng of Haisous on tofu. Laura Cheng owns Sun Xien Soy Products, purveyors of handmade tofu right in Chicago, a spin-off of the popular Sun Wah restaurant on Argyle. After Laura made the fresh tofu, Thai took it and turned it into a Vietnamese-inspired dish, and explaining the fresh herbs one by one as he added them to the dish, including the enigmatic banana blossom and culantro. The session was moderated by Bon Appetit’s Food Director Carla Lalli Music.

Chicago Gourmet also played host to a number of panels and seminars, and I attended a master class on South Asian Cuisine. The session was moderated by Check Please! host and Master Sommelier Alpana Singh and included the following experts: Sujan Sarkar of ROOH; Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada of Superkhana International; Colleen Sen, Author & Culinary Historian; and Rohini Dey of Vermilion. The panel was an eye-opening look into the state of Indian Cuisine in the US, and a fascinating look at those pushing the boundaries. Though many Americans are not familiar with regional Indian foods, the vastness and diversity of Indian cuisine cannot be overstated!

Rounding out the day were the wine and spirits, and I do my best to sample some of the international offerings on this front. There are some yearly classics: the Stella Artois area, where you can pick up a signature glass along with your beer samples, and Peroni’s bright-orange tent slinging the Aperol Spritz (prosecco, Aperol bitters and soda water), which has perhaps become the signature drink of Chicago Gourmet. I did learn about an entirely new-to-me spirit at the Iichiko tent, Shōchū, a Japanese spirit made from rice, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or barley. Though it may be confused with sake, shochu is actually much more popular than sake in Japan! I sampled a shochu and lychee drink, paired here with salted caramel gelato from Vero Gelato (found inside Mariano’s stores).

One of the best aspects of Chicago Gourmet is that it is different every year. Combining old favorites with new additions, Chicago Gourmet was as fun as ever. From sampling rare Whiskey, to watching world class chefs cook onstage, to tasting new treats from around the world, Chicago Gourmet is a foodie’s dream!

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Riziki’s Tanzanian food in Columbus

One of our favorite things about Columbus, OH, is its diverse food scene, which has a particularly strong representation of East African food (which is scarce in Cleveland). I am always on the hunt for the newest African restaurant in Columbus, since it seems there is a new one opening every month. However, when we lived in Chicago for the year I fell behind, and missed the opening of Columbus’ only Tanzanian restaurant, Riziki’s Swahili Grill (1872 Tamarack Cir S. Columbus, OH 43229).

Rizikis

The vibes at Riziki’s are amazing! When you visit, you are greeted by chef/owner Riziki herself, who is from the island archipelago of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. The menu at Riziki’s a relatively small, but hits all of the Tanzanian classics, which combine Indian, East African and Middle Eastern influences, as befitting its Indian Ocean location. During the Friday lunch rush, Riziki’s was doing a brisk takeout service, but we decided to eat in at the casual dining room, painted in bright aqua, with wax-print cloth tablecloths. We quenched our thirsts with some fresh tamarind juice as we perused the menu.

sambusas

We had read that Riziki’s sambusas (triangular filled dough pockets akin to Indian samosas) were amazing, so we decided to go with a mix of chicken, beef and spicy veggie, sold for only $1 a piece. The sambusas were elegantly presented in a hand-carved wooden dish, and boasted a perfectly crispy, thin, oil-free wrapper and flavorful fillings. Riziki should probably start charging triple the price. M also enjoyed the addition of the habanero-laden house-made hot sauce.  The Indian culinary influence was also present in the main dishes, including the beef Biriani ($11.99). Other mains included a whole fried fish ($14.99), which we wish we could have chosen, if we had a little more time. On Sunday, Riziki serves a special Zanzibari dish called “Sunday Funday” – Mbatata za Urojo – also known as “Zanzibar mix” ($11.99) a dish with a mix of mango, bean fritters, potatoes and chutney.

Chapati

For our mains, we decided to split a chapati with goat curry and a side of kale ($11.99). The globally-popular chapati bread heavily displays the Indian influence on Zanzibari food, and is a layered flatbread fried in ghee. A chapati is supposed to be light and flaky, and Riki’s was some of the best we have ever had. The goat curry was heavily spiced, and the chapati worked as the perfect vehicle for the hearty stew. After dinner, we chatted a bit with Riziki herself, who had come to Columbus over a decade ago. She said that business at the restaurant had been picking up, but that the location made it a bit hard to find. The strip mall housing Riziki’s was a veritable United Nations of international shops and restaurants, but its location was in the midst of a residential district far from the city center. Be persistent though, and make an effort to find Riziki’s, it is worth it!

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On the Laksa trail in Sydney

It has been a while since we have returned from Australia, and we now find ourselves new homeowners in Cleveland, delaying our writing just a bit. But don’t let the tardiness trick you into thinking we didn’t eat anything worthwhile in Australia, it was an amazing food adventure, particularly in Sydney! One of the things we were most looking forward to on our Sydney adventure was Malaysian laksa curry (which we have sampled a few times before). Sydney is known for its Malaysian food, and restaurants slinging laksa can be found in every neighborhood. The base of laksa is a smooth and creamy coconut milk curry with rice noodles, livened up with chili oil and sambal, a fusion of Chinese and Southeast Asian flavors. Fried tofu is traditionally included, but the main protein may be shrimp, chicken or beef (or more). From these core ingredients, restaurants put their own spin on their signature laksas, and that is where the real fun begins.

Finding the best laksa place in Sydney is a subjective, daunting enterprise, seemingly as contentious as finding the best pizza slice in New York City. We started sleuthing for the top laksa places before our trip, and were pretty quickly overwhelmed by choice. Fortunately, we found some great resources that helped us narrow down the top picks. We could never hope to replicate the 20-strong laksa list made by I’m Still Hungry, and we are grateful for their on-the-ground comprehensiveness. Using this master list, and triangulating with a few other options, we set off on the Sydney laksa trail.

The first place we tried for laksa was Happy Chef (f3/401 Sussex St, Haymarket NSW 2000, Australia). Happy Chef is located in a nondescript 2nd-floor food court in Sydney’s vibrant Chinatown, and may not look like much, but packs a powerful punch. We did particularly like the logo of the eponymous Happy Chef, which you can see on the counter above. One  feature we liked at Happy Chef was the large amount of different proteins you could add to your laksa including BBQ pork and scallops, we went with the potentially pedestrian chicken default. Not long after ordering, and despite the lunch rush, our order was ready. On the counter there are a wide variety of toppings including chili oil, scallions, soy sauce, hot sauce and more to customize your laksa. The coconut milk broth was rich, and had a little kick to it, which we garnished with a bit of scallions and hot sauce. There was also a choice of noodles, but we opted for the traditional mee noodles. The noodles themselves were particularly good, and had a substantial spring and bite to them. This place is cash only!

The second laksa place we tried was the venerable Malay Chinese Takeaway (1/50-58 Hunter St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia). Malay Chinese is located right in the CBD, which makes a popular place among local workers. Usually there is a line out the door for these laksa, so our odd eating time that day of 3 PM turned out to be pretty lucky. The main choices for laksa here are just chicken and prawn, so we split our orders a little bit to try some more of the offerings: 1 order of king prawn and chicken and 1 order of regular prawn. The broth at Malay Chinese was spicier and more flavorful than that of Happy Chef, though we slightly preferred Happy Chef’s noodles. One particularly salient part of the Malay Chinese Takeaway experience was the cook singing along to Michael Jackson while you order is being prepared. Though there were some slight difference, both were excellent bowls of laksa, and we can see why they are so popular. Our brief foray didn’t even  put a dent in the Sydney Laksa trail, and we hope to get a little further on our next trip.

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Australian Food Adventures

AustraliaThings have been a bit quiet here, because we have recently moved, and we are going to Australia in a few days! We are excited to experience several different cities in Australia, from the cosmopolitan restaurant scene in Sydney to the night markets of Darwin. Leading up to our trip, we have been trying to learn more about Australian food (we do know that they love savory pies)! While in Sydney, we are excited to try Din Tai Fung, and all the laksa (Malaysian noodle curry, pictured below) we can eat. We are also reading up on the latest directions in Australian food, and what makes Australian food Australian. See you in August!

Laksa.jpg

Chicken Laksa at MaMa Laksa House in The Grace Hotel, Sydney by Stilgherrian

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A Taste of Afghanistan at Kabul House in Evanston

We have always had a taste for Afghan food, and when we were back in Evanston for the year, we were excited to be in close proximity to Kabul House (2424 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL ), an Afghani restaurant that had recently moved into fancier digs just over the Evanston / Skokie border. We visited Kabul House on a chilly night to celebrate a family birthday, so it was great to have a crowd to sample more of the menu. When we entered on a Saturday night, the place was abuzz with lots of large groups! Be sure to make a reservation in advance if you are going on a weekend.

Though it is reasonably priced, the restaurant’s decor is opulent, with large windows, French cafe chairs and arched doorways. The menu at Kabul House is extensive, with a large variety of appetizers, kabobs and vegetarian dishes. We were excited to see some Afghan dishes we had not heard of before in the “Authentic Dishes” sections including the Aushak – dumplings filled with scallions and leeks, topped with tomato/meat and yogurt sauces – which you can get in both appetizer and entree sizes. Other interesting dishes included Pomegranate Glazed Salmon ($17.00) and the Chicken Qorma Stew ($13.00) boneless chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, green pepper, ginger, garlic, cilantro and herbs.

Among our party we sampled a variety of appetizers and entrees:

  • Bulanee Appetizer ($9.00) Thin pastry flatbread filled with leek, scallion and spiced potato. This almost reminded us of a flat version of a burek – delicious!
  • Mantoo Appetizer ($9.00) Steamed dumplings filled with spiced ground beef, shredded carrots and onions, and topped with tomato/meat and yogurt sauces.
  • Chicken Kabob ($16.00) Pictured below – we loved the deep, almost tandoori-like spices on the chicken. Beef Kabob ($19.00) and Soltani Kabob Combo ($19.00) One skewer of Barg (Filet Mignon) & one skewer of Koobideh (Seasoned Ground Sirloin). All of the kebabs were delicious, and the best versions of kebabs we had seen a while, perfectly spiced.
  • Kabuli Palau ($16.00) Boneless lamb served with seasoned rice and caramelized carrot strips and raisins. The sweet and savory combo worked really well, and we later learned that this is Afghanistan’s national dish.
  • Vegetarian Platter ($13.00) Eggplant, spinach, baby pumpkin and cauliflower all cooked separately in spices, served with Afghan rice (basmati rice with carrots and raisins). We really liked this platter because it allowed us to try a little bit of everything, many of which were available as individual veggie appetizers. The pumpkin cooked with honey and onions, was actually our favorite of the bunch.

For dessert there was baklava, but we went for the more interesting Firnee ($5 – below), milk custard made with a hint of rosewater, topped with pistachios and fresh berries. It was deliciously creamy and reminded us of Egyptian Mohallabiah. Everything at Kabul House was delicious, and the portions were insanely generous. The traditional Afghan dishes were delightful, and we look forward for a return visit, hopefully with another big group.

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Pan Artesenal: Croissants and More in Humboldt Park

We absolutely love Pan Artesenal (3724 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL), a new bakery in Humboldt Park fusing Mexican and French baking traditions. They offer a wide variety of breakfast sandwiches, lunch bites and pastries, in a warm, welcoming space. The bakery is run by sisters Lizette and Marisol Espinoza (a French Pastry School graduate) featuring influences from both France and Mexico. The menu is full of riffs on traditional pan dulce including conchas, wheat rolls and cuernitos, European standards like baguettes, and truly unique creations like the nopal scone and the maguey worm baguette.

We have tried a variety of different pastries, but the real stars of the show are the croissants. Turns out we are not the only fans. These croissants have even been featured as one of the Chicago Tribune’s favorite croissants in the city. The croissants come in a myriad of rotating flavors including a classic butter, pistachio, nutella, cajeta and my personal favorite, the almond ($3.50). The croissants are light, buttery and flaky, and don’t skimp on the fillings. We also appreciate the full drink menu including espresso, iced coffee and hot chocolate, which along with the free WiFi, makes it a great place to work for a few hours. Pan Artesenal has quickly become one of our favorite cafes in our city.

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Turkish Suhoor dishes for Ramadan

During Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), observant Muslims are encouraged not to eat between sunup and sundown. The big feast meal breaking the fast after sundown is Iftar, and this is traditionally a pretty lavish spread. However, less attention is sometimes given to Suhoor/Suhur, the pre-sunrise meal. In order to get through the day fasting, a hearty Suhoor is common. One of our favorite breakfasts is Turkish, so we were curious to learn about Turkish dishes for Suhoor. Turns out that for Turkish suhoor, hearty, filling dishes are the norm, including creamy kaymak cheese, the egg dish menemen and the baked macaroni dish makarna. Of course, these filling dishes may be accompanied by cheese, bread, honey, fruit, tea, coffee and anything else you may enjoy at a classic Turkish breakfast!

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Unexpected Chicago CTA Finds: Sala Pao Shop

What is one thing you expect to see in a subway station? We bet you didn’t say Thai steamed buns. However, at the Western Blue Line station in Chicago, that is just what you get. There you will find the Sala Pao Shop (1909 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60647) tucked into an unassuming counter space. We didn’t really know that Thailand had bao-like steamed buns, but it turns out that they are indeed popular as a street food snack and in Chinese restaurants throughout the country, where they are known as salapao.

At Sala Pao shop the focus is obviously paos, which are $2.50 each and come in a variety of flavors: Basil Chicken, Pork Shumai (with pork and a hard-boiled egg), BBQ Pork, Veggie (mushroom, carrot, peas and broccoli), Penang Beef, and even a sweet custard option. The most traditional flavor is perhaps the sweet roast pork, but our favorite was the basil chicken. There was also a deal to get a free drink with the purchase of 4 paos, and we highly enjoyed our Thai iced tea. There are also some more substantial options like chicken or veggie dumplings (6 for $4.50), wonton soup ($4.50), Penang curry chicken rice bowls ($6.99) and vegan rice bowls with veggies and glass noodles ($6.50).

With L riders in mind, the Sala Pao shop has a variety of drinks including lychee thai tea, thai iced coffee, green tea, and basic coffee for a commuter pick-me-up. There is even something intriguingly called “Tropical Cream Soda” in lychee, guava and mango flavors ($3.25). We are looking forward to trying more pao and drink varieties (especially the sweet custard pao). You can even get a punchcard that earns you one free pao for every 9 purchased.  Next time you are riding the El, don’t despair, stop at Sala Pao shop instead and treat yourself!

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Treats from Okinawa

Our friend Jose from NYC has a second home in Okinawa, where his wife’s family is from, and the last time we saw him he was generous enough to shower us with Okinawan treats! We have long been fascinated by the unique culture of Okinawa, the largest of a chain of islands located south of the rest of Japan. Due to its relatively remote location Okinawan culture is completely different than in a place like Tokyo, which means Okinawa has its own unique, amazing food.

Local brown sugar, kokutu, is a prized commodity in Okinawa, made by slowly cooking down sugarcane juice (instead of adding molasses back in), imparting it with a unique flavor. Jose brought us two kinds of brittle made with Okinawa brown sugar: Black sesame & crushed peanut and coconut chunk. Plus we got Japan-exclusive Kit-Kats – almond and cranberry and dark chocolate.

There were also beautifully wrapped little cakes, which turned out to be – Sata Andagi – Okinawan fried doughnuts. Our variety had peanuts, white sesame and orange peel, though they can come in a variety of flavors, including the emblematic Okinawan sweet potato (also very popular in Hawaii). Thank you Jose for bringing us these wonderful Okinawan treats that we could have never gotten anywhere else!

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Moroccan Jewish Tanzeya for Passover

The Jewish holiday of Passover has begun and lasts until next weekend. A major caveat to Passover cuisine is that is must be free of chametz, all leavened bread products. This has led to a proliferation of special kosher for Passover foods, and many creative uses for matzoh, which is unleavened. One of the most emblematic Passover dishes is charoset, a sweet mixture of fruit, honey and nuts, which makes a symbolic appearance on the Seder plate. There are literally thousands of recipes for charoset (some we have covered before), but there is a particular version from Morocco, called Tanzeya. Here is a recipe from Joan Nathan made with figs and spices like cinnamon and cardamon. New York Shuk sells pre-made tanzeya and has a recipe for charoset truffles (pictured below). Or if you want to go the simpler route, two matzoh sandwiched with charoset sounds pretty good to me!

Tanzeya from New York Shuk

 

 

 

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Mont Lone Yay Paw for Thingyan – Burmese New Year

Tomorrow, April 13, 2019, is the start of Burmese New Year celebrations – Thingyan – a Buddhist multi-day festival which culminates in huge celebrations for the New Year itself. Thingyan is also known as the “water festival” because during its celebrations, it is not uncommon to get completely drenched in crowds throwing and spraying water. This is said to be a representation of washing off the old year, and the cleansing aspects of the new year. But of course, one of the most important things is the food! A traditional treat for Thingyan is Mont Lone Yay Paw, glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with jaggery (cane sugar), boiled, and topped with coconut. You can find this treat at stalls called Sa Tu Di Thar all around public Thingyan festivities. Making Mont Lone Yay Paw is a group activity during Thingyan, and it has also turned into a haven for practical jokers: sometimes the sweet treat has a mystery, super-hot bird’s-eye chili hidden inside! Mee Malee has a recipe for Mont Lone Yay Paw, and you can learn how to make this dessert below in a video by Kothargi.

 

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The Mysterious Origins of the Po’Boy Sandwich

When we are in New Orleans one of our favorite meals is the Po’Boy or “Poor Boy” sandwich, a crusty 6 or 12 inch French bread roll traditionally stuffed with fried seafood, or as we learned, roast beef. You can find these classic po’boys all across the New Orleans area, but the sky is now the limit, and more avant-garde restaurants like Killer Poboys (811 Conti St, Erin Rose Bar, New Orleans) are doing vegan and internationally-influenced Po’boys. Our favorite Po’Boys are probably the classic fried shrimp ones from Parkway Bakery (538 Hagan Ave., New Orleans), however we also love trying new places, and on our latest trip, we deeply enjoyed the garlic fried oyster po’boy from stalwart restaurant Liuzza’s On the Track (1518 N Lopez St, New Orleans – half po’boy pictured below with their signature gumbo). The exact origin of Po’boys is shrouded in mystery, as most good food origin stories are, but the New Orleans weekly Where Y’At has a deep dive into its murky origins.

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Moldovan Cuisine at Moldova Restaurant in NYC

Moldovan food has been on our radar for a little while, since there are actually several Moldovan restaurants in NYC that we have tried to visit for the past few years, but our schedule didn’t allow it. Last time we were in NYC, however, we finally had the fortune to visit one: the straightforwardly-named Moldova Restaurant (1827 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11230). Halfway to Brighton Beach, in a quiet area of Midwood, there is not really any chance that you would just stumble into Moldova. However, despite the quiet appearance from outside, we found that the inside was absolutely full of feasting families.

The walls were covered in murals and Moldovan crafts, and the atmosphere was convivial. We really had no idea what to order, but went all-in on the carb, meat and cheese-heavy menu. The menu was actually quite extensive, offering cold and hot appetizers, soups, meat entrees and special dishes for pre-order including the extravagant Miel Copt cu Ciuperci si Taitei de Casa (Baked whole baby lamb with mushrooms and homemade pasta) for a staggering $350.

We decided to share all of the dishes among the three of us, and made selections from the appetizer and mains portions of the menu. Fortunately, our dining companion, A, was just as adventurous as we were. As we perused the menu, we shared a pitcher of the house Compot de Casa (fruit punch – $9 for a pitcher, $3 for a glass). Some appetizing menu options included Mititei, grilled sausages served with peas and onions ($9), Perjoale Ca La Tiraspol ($13), stuffed, fried chicken breast with cheese and sour pickles, and classic Beef Stroganoff ($16).

With some help from our waitress, we finally agreed on an order (though I think she thought our appetites would be a bit heartier). One of our favorite dishes was our first pick, the Placinte “Ileana Cosinzeana,” baked pastry stuffed with farmer’s cheese and herbs, potatoes, onions, and cabbage ($5), pictured above. The bread was light and flaky, and we loved the strong flavor of dill with the creamy farmers cheese filling. It reminded us a bit of burek, but in a single layer.

Continuing on the dill theme, we next had what can only be described as dill cheese balls, which had been billed as a “salad” on the menu, tasty, but super filling. We also had a simple bowl of zeama, chicken noodle soup ($7), which was nice and hearty, and we appreciated the homemade noodles. Next was Sarmale Ca La Mama, cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and beef ($8), which was fresh and hearty. Our waitress and many reviewers suggested we order the signature dish of Mamaliga Trapeza ($13) corn meal dumplings with pork, cheese, sour cream, and scrambled eggs. The mamiglia reminded us a bit of polenta, and was a good accompaniment for the pork.

We ate like kings at Moldova Restaurant for a relatively low price (and had a ton of food left over). Due to our huge amount of leftovers, we regretfully had to skip dessert. However, we were particularly intrigued by all the dessert varieties with sour cherries including dumpling and crepes (each $7). Even if you are not familiar with Moldovan food, definitely give Moldova Restaurant a try, if you are seeking something different. It was one of the best Eastern European restaurants we have been to in a while, and we highly recommend it!

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Sfinge for St. Joseph’s Day

We have already sung the praises of the zeppole for St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), but it almost always overshadows the similar fried confection, the sfinge (or sfingi). The sfinge, like the zeppole, is stuffed, fried dough with Southern Italian origins. However, while the zeppole is filled with custard, the sfinge is filled with ricotta cream, much like a cannoli. Both are topped with candied fruit. We also think the sfinge has more of a cream puff texture versus the doughnut texture of the zeppole (don’t tell, but we might like sfinge better!). You can find sfinge around March 19 at any good Southern Italian style bakery. This is one treat we wont be attempting to make at home, but here is a recipe from Cooking with Nonna, of you are feeling advanced. We especially like the sfinge from Angelo Brocato (214 N Carrollton Ave.) in New Orleans and Palermo Bakery (7312 E Irving Park Rd) in Norridge, right outside Chicago. Astoria, Queens is also a hotbed for Sfinge.

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Masa Madre: the best babka in Chicago

It is no secret that we love babka, the twisted brioche bread with ribbons of tasty fillings ranging from cinnamon to chocolate and beyond. We have sampled many babkas in the past few years, especially in New York, but were a little disheartened by the lack of exemplary options in Chicago. However, now Chicago has an AMAZING babka purveyor: Masa Madre. Masa Madre is a two-woman babka-making operation in Pilsen that bakes babkas ready-to-order and pick up right from their apartment. Masa Madre is run by Mexico City-born Tamar Fasja Unikel and Elena Vázquez Felgueres, and the babka is inspired by Unikel’s Mexican-Jewish heritage. Some of their special-edition babkas, like the churro or dulce de leche are a fun spin on combining these two cultures. Masa Madre offers chocolate, cinnamon and matcha green tea every week. On holidays, there are even seasonal baked goods like pan de muerto and sufganiyot for Hanukkah. You place an order through their Facebook page a few days in advance and pick up your loaves in Pilsen, which is a small price to pay for the freshest of babka. One loaf is $20, and you can get mini babka muffins for $3.50. Our favorite is definitely the ooey-gooey chocolate – check out those delicious swirls!

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